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Afro-Pessimism Versus Afro-Optimism

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This one aims to provide an overlook on these two abovementioned discourses on Africa broadly speaking. The two point of views each represent an archetype, but remember, reality is often much more nuanced.


It is the most common story about Africa. In short, everything sucks. Africa is a continent of hunger, war, poverty, despair, and hopelessness; all covered in darkness. This story we often find narrated endlessly by especially white Westerners. Joseph Conrad’s book “Heart of Darkness” from 1899 encapsulates this narrative perfectly well:

“I looked around, and I don’t know why, but I assure you that never, never before, did this land, this river, this jungle, the very arch of this blazing sky, appear to me so hopeless and so dark, so impenetrable to human thought, so pitiless to human weakness.” (p. 60)

African scholars have challenged this negative narrative on numerous occasions. Mbembe perhaps most famously in his book “On the Post-Colony”, where he described how the West tended to see Africa as:

 “a headless figure threatened with madness and quite innocent of any notion of center, hierarchy, or stability … a vast dark cave where every benchmark and distinction come together in total confusion, and the rifts of a tragic and unhappy human history stand revealed: a mixture of the half-created and the incomplete…in short, a bottomless abyss where everything is noise, yawning gap, and primordial chaos.”

Recently, the Kenyan writer Wainaina made a similar critique in how Africa is portrayed in the West in “How to write about Africa” on  Talk to Al Jazeera, 2013:

“Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.”

In modern books, the pessimism about Africa past and/or present is ubiquitous. Patrick Chabal’s book “The Politics of Suffering and Smiling”(1) from 2009 demonstrates this too well. The book aims to display how Africa is a continent of both joy and sorrow, but the scholar fails by focusing almost entirely on the “suffering”, hence forgetting the “smiling” part. Instead of confronting or challenging the negative stereotype of “Africa”, he ends confirming it.

The negative image of Africa has been around for such a long time, I doubt a single person alive has heard a different tale. The Danish author Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) explains to the reader in her perhaps most famous book “Out of Africa” from 1937, how Africans (they are all alike) are uncivilised and frown upon technology. As an example, Blixen explains this assumed fact by mentioning how Europeans embraced iron, while Africans refrained from any technological progress to be in harmony with nature (2). This is, of course, racism and ignorance. Racism and ignorance tend to go hand-in-hand.

The famous American journalist John Gunther published his book “Inside Africa” in 1955 on the brink of the first wave of independence hit the African continent. In chapter one titled “Dark Continent Becoming Light”, he enlists virtually all possible negative stereotypes on Africa and Africans as almost humanly possible. Africans are described as primitive, backward, and historyless. History started when the white man came. And the continent of Africa was dark, then the white man came and light descended upon the continent.

To move to the present, in 2007, the British economist Paul Collier published his book “Bottom Billion”. He predicted appx. 1 billion people were trapped in four poverty traps, and the vast majority of the bottom billion lived in Africa. A bleak past and an evenly bleak future. However, Collier has since been criticised by several other economists calling Collier’s conclusions incorrect and based on flawed data (3).

In 2015, the French African historian Girard Prunier gave an interview to the Danish newspaper Dagbladet Information titled “Afrika  har brug for et borgerskab” (Africa is in need of a citizenry). He criticises the average African political elite for being utterly useless. They are enriching themselves at the expense of the people. Furthermore, as the number of people is growing dramatically, the access to farmland decreases rapidly. At the same hand, the lack of industrialisation means that jobs are not created causing the youth to be stuck in poverty and unemployment is skyrocketing depriving the youth of a better future. The ones in power continue the practice of the Europeans, turning the people into subjects, and the rule of law is based on the exploitation of the land rather than development.

He argues the process of decolonialisation paved the way for an elite of tropical gangsters (4). Due to this, he believes Africa and the African population future look gloomy. He is not a pessimist but a realist, he says.

It comes in two flavours. One of these flavours is the rather paternalistic one. It is ordinary the view presented by foreign NGOs and donor countries reporting their aid contribution has transformed Africa. Africa looked bleak, but now it is much better all because of us.

Figures and reports on the benefit of aid are inconclusive by the way.

I won’t waste more time on this. Open any pamphlet, booklet or brochure by an aid agency or NGO and start reading.

I do believe some NGOs do a good and praiseworthy job, just to be clear. Likewise, some countries providing aid. But it is not self-evident.

The second flavour is more nuanced and is gaining ground. Africans and non-Africans argue, that Africa has had a much better past than told and/or the future is rather bright. The old elite is dead and gone, where the youth knows what they want, and they are not afraid to let their voices be heard. The youth is the hope. These voices find the optimism from within.

In 1968 the Ghanaian author Ayi Kwei Armah published the book titled “The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born”. The title is depressing yet humorous. It deals with the aftermath of the coup d’etat that deposed Ghana’s first President Kwame Nkrumah in 1966. The author criticises the elite, the people, the system, and the party previously in power. However, the title includes a positive outlook. Yes, the situation is discomforting right now, but the beautyful (sic) ones have not been born yet, but they will. We can even add an additional layer. Nkrumah represented the hope, that he was the man to bring Ghana forward (5). It did not happen for various reasons. Nkrumah was born in what became Ghana, hence the beautyful ones refer to the belief that positive change will come from within, not from an outsider. A firm belief that Ghanaians themselves harbour the willingness and the ability to fulfill the potential of Ghana. The people willing to do so will be born. Even in one of the darkest chapters in modern Ghanaian history, a Ghanaian author kept the trust and hope in Ghana and in Ghanaians.

To remain in Ghana, in 2010, the former Ghanaian diplomat Kabral Blay-Amihere published the book “Between the Lion and the Elephant – memoirs of an African diplomat” (6).

As Patrick Chabal, he also makes a reference to Fula Kuti’s song in the chapter also named “Suffering and Smiling”. Unlike Chabal, Blay-Amihere decides to focus on the smiling part rather than the suffering part. He acknowledges it was tough to be a diplomat in these two countries in the midst of civil war. Several victims of the war were children, not to forget the blatant corruption, and witnessing people living in extreme poverty which are a rare sight in his homeland Ghana. However, he narrates how people managed to keep their hopes up in Sierra Leone as in Côte d’Ivoire. People told jokes, danced (7), played football, and if possible tried to eat well, and musicians outdid themselves on a daily basis. In the chapter, the author provides this advice for the reader:

 “Life is all about people and finding the right company under any situation is the key to happiness.” (pp. 260-1)

From Ghana, we move to the Nigerian-American author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and her most recent book “Americanah” from 2012. In this book, the female main character Ifemelu describes the future for Third Worlders and Westerners:

 “[W]e [Third Worlders] like things to be new, because our best is still ahead, while in the West their best is already past and so they have to make a fetish of the past.” (p. 436)

It bears similarity to Armah. There is a firm belief the future belongs to Africans and the hope is for the generations to come. The youth. As Armah, a disbelieve in the current generation of leaders. But Adichie is more global oriented. She includes the West in her analyse of the future. She predicts the West is the one in decline but refuses to accept its prime lays behind, whereas the future belongs to her, Africa and Third Worlders in general. It is also a cry for Africans to find themselves and not jump on the bandwagon of the West’s need to live in the past, where the West was somebody. To copy the West is to keep the past alive.

Lastly, I will turn to the financial sector. The common story is, Africans rely on help and aid from NGOs and donor countries. However, David Van Reybrouck explains in his book “Congo” from 2010, how the Congolese in DR. Congo (formerly Zaire) create and seek their own luck and fortune. They are not passive pawns waiting for help. Van Reybrouck narrates how locals turn their back on the UN and the international community while looking toward China. They travel to China, buy items and import said items back to DRC where they earn an income. They have fully embraced the http://www.com era. Van Reybrouck’s book illustrates how absurd the idea Africans wait for others to improve their livelihood. This is not only done by Congolese but several other African nationalities. E.g. you can by a sexy g-string with the motive of the Angolese flag in China meant for Angolan business(wo)men. The Africans work for a better tomorrow, and they believe they can.

As Adichie, he notes the future belongs to Africans and not the West. Previously, the most powerful intercontinental relationship in the 20th century was the European-American relationship. For the 21st century, it will be the Chinese-African one, he argues.

To move further back in time, the renown Norwegian economist Morten Jerven demonstrates in his latest book “Africa – why economists get it wrong” from 2015, why most forecasts on African countries are flawed at best and useless at its worst. He argues that Western economists have had a tendency to look at Africa as a chronic failure, and then explain why Africa was a chronic failure, such as why Africa has been trapped. The observant reader might begin to notice a critique of Collier by now. Jerven criticises the historical data on Africa. He mentions the Maddison figure from 2009. It tries to measure the world GDP per capita from year 1-1950.

As noticable on table 2.1 (p. 47), he does not understand how the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the cash crops revolution, the rise and fall of some of the mightiest African kingdoms in modern history, the establishment of railways and mining companies, do hardly make a blimp on the Maddison dataset. Either history is wrong or the dataset used by Maddison is wrong. Jerven believes the latter is wrong. The overall critique by Jerven is that economists have been so determined to understand why Africa was the dark continent, that economists failed in investigation if that story was actually true, which it is not.

Africa shall not be treated as a negative “other”. That Africa deviates from all other parts of the world. It does not. Since Africa does not have a bleak past, it is neither destined to have a bleak future. To underscore this fact, Jerven illustrates how several African countries performed rather well during the 1960s when the first liberation wave hit Sub-Saharan Africa. When the oil crises began during the 1970s, African countries were hit especially hard. Western donor countries then began to provide Africa with what they believed was the right medication to cure the believed illness imagined to be the cause of Africa’s chronic failure. But if the illness was wrong, the medicine perhaps made it worse. If you suffer from an illness, but you receive the wrong medication, you will likely become sicker, or worse you will die. Jerven argues, Europeans’ and Americans’ knowledge about Africa has been so terrible, that they made everything worse.

Jerven’s solution is simple:

The growth literature first told African leaders that they are pursuing the wrong type of policies and then that they had the wrong type of geography or the wrong set of institutions (…) African countries should follow their own path. (p. 132)

Jerven indirectly says, that part of the reason for some African countries’ current undesirable state is the constant intervention by Western powers that made the belief Africa was a chronic failure a self-fulfilling prophecy. Jerven has faith that African leaders are not worse or better than leaders elsewhere, and African countries and people have the opportunity to have the future they want. They are not trapped in history!

What Do I Think (8)
I find it important, that the reader understands that African countries are complex. You won’t get far by only seeing Africa through one lens, whether it is the positive or pessimistic lens.

Girard and Chabal have excellent points too, and so do Wainaina, Adichie, Jerven and many other people! Girard even demonstrated, he also did not doom the continent. When I went to a lecture where he was the main speaker, then he had faith in the youth as well, since they held their leaders accountable for their actions. As Jerven, he also believed, some of the problems found in Africa were due to Europeans and Americans not having a single clue what they were doing. He compared Europeans and Americans to a layman trying to perform an open-heart surgery, and the patient was Africa. No one should be surprised if the surgery did not go as planned.

However, the most important advice is to remember that Africa is not a country, but a continent consisting of at least 54 different countries (9), with an enormous cultural and ethnic pluralism. And to remember the size of several African countries is hard to comprehend. Not only do African countries differ hugely from one another, they also differ hugely within.

To understand such a pluralistic and big continent, we shall never accept the single story (10), regardless how negative or positive it may be. The negative stereotypes of Africa have fallen apart, too many people just don’t read or hear about it. On the other hand, the positive story of the Lion economies has also begun to fall apart. No one knows how big the African middle class is. One study says 300 million, another one says below 19 million (11). The population of Africa is above 1 billion.

Africa cannot and should not be reduced to a single story, it is simply too big, too complex, too diverse, and too many stories just waiting to be told. One thing is sure though, the future for African countries is not written. The future can be whatever the people want it to be if the right steps are taking.

1) Suffering and Smiling is also the title of the famous Nigerian artist and activist Fela Kuti’s song from 1977 https://youtu.be/qhExm8sBGo4

2) As any well-educated person knows, Blixen was Danish, and her example bites itself. Several African societies had turned to iron from the year 1200 BCE. By the year 100 CE, basically the entire African continent had embraced this new technology. Whereas in Denmark, the Iron Age began appx. year 1 CE or more than 1000 years later than several African societies had incorporated this new technology into society. When some Africans began to refine their iron tools, people living in today’s Denmark had hardly left the Stone Age

3) Bottom Billion ,TED

4) A reference to the book by Klitgaard from 1990 titled “Tropical Gangsters”. It is about how Klitgaard is sent to Equatorial Guinea for the World Bank to improve the economy of this impoverished country ruled by tropical gangsters according to Klitgaard. The president is the same today as back in 1990

5) Nkrumah’s party “Convention People’s Party” (CPP) slogan was “Forward Ever, Backward Never”. A slogan that carried Nkrumah to the office and made Ghana the first Sub-Saharan African country to gain independence on March 6, 1957

6) The Lion refers to Sierre Leone, that means the Lion Mountains. The Elephant refers to Côte d’Ivoire and their football team called “Les Éléphants” or the Elephants in English. The two animals in the title tells the reader where he served as a diplomat

7)  Video where people living in Abijan danced to Pharrell’s megahit “Happy” from 2014 –

8) In 2013, I did a minor piece on this issue as well in Danish – Afrika – landet med en historie

9) According to the UN, Africa consists of 54 countries. The AU, however, acknowledges Western Sahara as a sovereign state bringing the number up to 55 countries

10)  Adichie’s speech on the danger of the single story

11) For a better understanding why the numbers vary so greatly, I recommend you read Jerven’s article from 2013, “Poor Numbers – How We are Misled by African Development Statistics and What to Do About It”


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