White Noise and Africa’s Saviors

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Franklyn Odhiambo/2015

I write this a few hours after reading from an ignorant white woman who happened to be on a mission to save poor, illiterate war-torn Zambia from itself by teaching the villagers a few words of English. I started off writing this in anger, then incredulity set in, and then that knowing smile of sarcasm saved my laptop from the wall in front of me. Our well-raised blonde with angelic hair had left the tranquility of Edinburgh with its castles and world-class universities to go to Africa. Well, she was in Zambia, but she was in all of Africa as well, you know how that works. Louise Linton’s article reads like a bad parody of Binyavanga Wainaina’s treatise on writing about Africa; and for a while it does sound like it is a piece intended to be ironic and stereotypical, until you realize it’s neither. It is serious. As serious as the ancestors the author follows in their footsteps and their riots on the continent she’s out to save. What Chimamanda calls the danger of a single story, I call the seductive nature of white noise.

Let me explain.

I am an African who happens to have been born in Kenya and is curious enough to know a little about Zambia. Like most people from this side of the world, we do not have a shortage of safari-dressed white people in towering buses plowing through our little unfortunate corners of the world headed to the wilderness, bored with their own mundane repetitive busynesses. We are used to them and their pruriently peering eyes and the nauseating smell of sunscreen mixing with the excitement their whiteness brings to our otherwise forgotten jungles of misery. However, I also happen to be among those who can jot down a few English words and dissect the literature and reasoning of the colonist, or what is left of their thought. Having sat through endless lectures on the narratives of dispossession, explanations on the concept of grievable bodies and Foucault’s tirade on discourses of power and the elite structures of institutional racism and having made acquaintance with the Fanons and the Malcolms of the world, I think I have enough vocabulary to respond to the great white one. If I shall err in grammar and tense, I beg your indulgence.

The truth is, with every passing day, it is harder to listen to the heroic acts of white people saving Africa from itself. The other truth is that rarely are they invited to do so. Another truth is that most of humanity does live in poverty and on the throes of violence and extremism. The only difference is that sections of the world population sound and look better to the white people around you when you say you saved them on a gap year. You’re that flawless. You can live a life, be awesome, go to a prestigious school, take a gap year and save Africans while you’re at it. I can’t beat that. I mean it won’t be fun to tell your hooked audience that in most of the western world, the population of homeless people eclipses those of entire African cities, or the number of minorities incarcerated in western prisons seems to be competing the number of Syrian refugees fleeing imperial violence instigated and sustained by the same education and knowledges that inundated your mind with African-saving superpowers. Where’s the fun in belaboring the point on the wars in the DRC that are fuelled by the technologies of the western world and that instability in that part of the world sustains the mineral economies of the educated west? That’s just dull and beaten to death with yawns of boredom. Not adventurous at all. Saving Africa is more exciting; with all its flies and elephants and lions that roam the streets like the gangs of black people in the Southside of Chicago. In Africa, there’s no political sensitivity or critique; they will invite you with their open arms and marvel at the whiteness of your skin that only parallels their dusty and ashy dry legs. Your own world and its failings is too politically sensitive and too convoluted to write about, too long a history and too intricate a struggle. Africa is simpler; poverty and illiteracy meets savior and a story to tell some wide-eyed fortunate grandchild too bored with the tranquility of suburbia or country life is born. In Africa, you can be a central character in the whole continent’s miseries and wars by simply hiding in the right bush. In all honesty, I get it. But, even then this single story is not the problem.

Even if citizens of the western world simply stopped being overzealous, racist nitwits (those of them that are), and focused on their own problems, their savior complex won’t die of boredom. It will simply morph into another butterfly and land on another romanticized misfortune of a far away local. Thus, the well-raised benevolent English teacher wannabe from Scotland will replace the blatantly racist missionary with their purges against barbarism in King Leopold’s Congo. The white man’s burden weighs the same, and however you listen to such narratives you still hear Kipling’s voice chiding these unfortunate savages “half devil and half child.” Those advertisements and newsletters on the plight of this poor country will replace the dispatches by explorers on the richness of the dark hinterland.

So instead of anger, I will have a knowing smile. I smile because I understand the weight of being ill informed and the courage and confidence it inspires. But that smile will be tempered with a sober awareness; the awareness that changing narratives of dispossession and savagery into those of power and agency is not merely about rebuffing the innocent few who have done little other than propagate the only knowledge they have been fed without question. The real struggle is with the machine that manufactures and feeds this kind of rubbish; the real transformation will occur when little Zimba will read her colonial history and employ that knowledge to write a better rebuff to Linton’s ignorance than I have. Meanwhile, we who live today will hound that ignorance wherever it goes, the clap back will be swift and sure at every turn. The new African will not be a passive consumer of whitewashed images of themselves, they will be manufacturers of their own stories, and they will tell them with pride and in completeness.

We will tune off the white noise, we’re creating new channels.