Things I wish I didn’t see

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of stories about how Doris Lessig, the Nobel prize winner for Literature, apparently made some disparaging remarks about the internet and TV. Now, Doris Lessig happens to be older than my grandmother, I can understand how the changes in society that have come about as a result of mass media and the internet might not sit well with her so I never even bothered to read the speech. I figured this was just a bunch of people from my generation getting annoyed over the words of a woman who would have a hard time understanding the world we live in. After all, when she was my age personal computers didn’t really exist yet.

Then I saw a link to her speech thanks to Pam(sort of) and that got me curious because those links tend to be interesting.

The highlights for those of you who do not feel like reading the entire thing:

“It is said that a people gets the government it deserves, but I do not think it is true of Zimbabwe. And we must remember that this respect and hunger for books comes, not from Mugabe’s regime, but from the one before it, the whites. It is an astonishing phenomenon, this hunger for books, and it can be seen everywhere from Kenya down to the Cape of Good Hope.”

“I have a friend from Zimbabwe, a black writer. He taught himself to read from the labels on jam jars, the labels on preserved fruit cans. He was brought up in an area I have driven through, an area for rural blacks. The earth is grit and gravel, there are low sparse bushes. The huts are poor, nothing like the well-cared-for huts of the better off. There was a school, but like the one I have described. He found a discarded children’s encyclopaedia on a rubbish heap and taught himself from that.

On Independence in 1980 there was a group of good writers in Zimbabwe, truly a nest of singing birds. They were bred in old Southern Rhodesia, under the whites – the mission schools, the better schools. Writers are not made in Zimbabwe, not easily, not under Mugabe.”

“Yet despite these difficulties, writers came into being. And we should also remember that this was Zimbabwe, conquered less than 100 years before. The grandparents of these people might have been storytellers working in the oral tradition. In one or two generations, the transition was made from these stories remembered and passed on, to print, to books.

Books were literally wrested from rubbish heaps and the detritus of the white man’s world.”

There are actually other interestingly wrong ideas in that speech, and a few right ones as well, but I kind of felt the need to talk about this bit because while I have seen commentaries about her speech on the web, no one seems to have mentioned this bit. And as an African with a penchant for reading and occasional writing I was instantly rubbed the wrong way by the idea that I’m supposed to thank colonization and the white man for my ability to read and write English.

Never mind the damage colonization has done and still does to Africa, never mind the fact that the mission schools she so easily praises were built to teach a small minority of Africans to be government clerks and clergymen and were never meant to either educate the masses or produce the thinkers they did, thinkers who primarily came into existence because they understood how to subvert the education they were being given and take more out of it than was intended for them. Instead let’s take swipes at African governments and praise colonizers who were happy enough to enslave people, turn those they didn’t enslave into second class citizens on their own land and then annex the aforementioned land and strip it of resources for their advantage.

Of course, as I have been reminded, when Doris Lessig was my age, pretty much all of Africa was still made up of European colonies. As with her comments about the web, they should be seen in the context of the times she has lived in. Ghana’s Colonization ended in my parents’ youth. My grandmother was already middle aged then. Zimbabwe didn’t get freedom until around about the time I was born and I was in secondary school when Apartheid ended. I still remember that day. My perspective on her statements is significantly different from hers, and I reserve the right to be more than a little annoyed by the whole ‘white people civilized Africa and brought culture to you poor, backwards savages’ meme that runs through sections of her speech. Its not new, or even that unexpected, I’m just tired of hearing it right now.

And while we’reon the topic, I’m also interested to note how all the (minimal) uproar over her words centered around her dismissing the Internet and television and yet no one noticed or felt the need to comment on the way she chose to refer to me and mine. I wonder if that is because they genuinely couldn’t see it or that they agreed with the sentiments expressed.


10 Comments on “Things I wish I didn’t see”

  1. Sad to say but neither this woman nor her statements are familiar to me. That being said, I concur that it is strange that her outdated ideas about technology got under people’s skin and not her ignorant statements about race and racism. But then again, I am not surprised. Her age, notwithstanding, some people actually do think colonialism was a good thing. Some even think it was so good that Africans need to return to that system. What can we do? Talk about it and broadcast it for the world to see – IGNORANT COMMENTS ABOUT BLACKS NEED TO STOP. And, I wouldn’t be sincere without saying, black people need to get their act together. We need to transform the African continent and relevant parts of the Diaspora into countries that take care of their citizens and provide opportunities for everyone to advance. As long as we continue to operate from a disadvantage, it will be impossible for us to portray the positive face we want to show the world, rather than have the western media portray us solely through the lens of poverty, corruption and ignorance.

    Nice post.

  2. Bitchy says:

    Hey, great post! But I really feel like I have to say something because oddly enough, I do not agree with you 🙂

    Now before I start, I must mention that I have never heard of this woman, neither have I the time to read the full article with her comments for myself. But on the basis of the excerpts you posted, I really find it difficult to believe that her intention was what you have perceived it to be. Now, you’re very free to disagree with me, but as you rightly said, she is from a different time and era. And whilst I am not saying that this makes it okay for her to express the sentiments you believe her to be expressing, I do however believe that her words must be read a little more carefully and perhaps with greater patience?

    I’m saying this because whilst reading the extracts you posted, I did not assume as you did, that Lessig meant to ask you to thank colonization and the white man for your ability to read and write English. What I think she might have meant, was that, black people are resourceful and that even though we do not get the governments we deserve (the latter she said outright), we still continue to advance.

    She uses the example of her friend’s phenomenal resourcefulness (come on! How many white people have taught themselves to read English from jam jars?) to praise the black man’s hunger for learning and his desire to engage with it and all that it brings. I really do see her comments as an attempt to PRAISE the black man’s ability to THRIVE even in conditions that would ordinarily make many men falter. She says, “despite these difficulties, writers came into being” and “Books were literally wrested from rubbish heaps and the detritus of the white man’s world.” Who wrested these books even at times when their society and government was crumbling? It was black men!

    Now I have a feeling that I may have been able to come to such a positive conclusion unlike yourself and Solomon Sydelle (Hi Sol! ;)) above, simply because I have been unable to read the excerpts within their original context. But I do not think she is praising colonialism. She is praising the black man for his resourcefulness by using the example (rightly or wrongly, I say rightly, you may say wrongly) of his thirst for learning and the example of his thirst for books and the sheer (and undeniable) POWER that literacy brings.

  3. Bitchy says:

    Had to come back to say that if I manage to read Lessig’s full article later today, and if on seeing her comments within their original context, I so much as smell the superiority complex you describe, then I will be back here in a flash to tell you that I agree with you.

  4. Jeremy Weate says:

    What’s wrong with all you people? Its Doris Lessing, NOT Lessig.

    You’ve also completely missed the point of most of her speech. She is advocating reading/libraries as a vital aspect of social and personal freedom. She is decrying the lack of books in Africa as part of the ongoing unfreedom of African experience. And she is lambasting people in the information-saturated, bookful West for obsessing about the 99% of pure inanity that is the internet.

    Trying to turn the whole thing on its head and call her a coloniser is an all too typical knee-jerk response. The point is: Africa by and large has no books, no reading culture, no critical culture. What are we all going to do about it – just let it be?

  5. umbrarchist says:

    And as an African with a penchant for reading and occasional writing I was instantly rubbed the wrong way by the idea that I’m supposed to thank colonization and the white man for my ability to read and write English.

    It sounded to me like she was just saying that Mugabe was worse than the White man.


  6. odzangba says:

    “And we must remember that this respect and hunger for books comes, not from Mugabe’s regime, but from the one before it, the whites.”

    I share your sentiments on the Doris’s implicit white supremacist views. What makes it even more unfortunate is the fact that many of my (Ghanaian) friends I are quite comfortable with it. I think we tend to forget too quickly… while Ghana became independent only 50 years ago, very few people who lived through it are still alive. My generation knows more about Britney Spears than J. B. Danquah. 🙂

    Yet Doris comes from another generation and I don’t think her statements are entirely racist. She talks about the deplorable reading facilities in Africa and I think she’s genuinely concerned about the how our governments are slow in reacting to the problem.

    Okay, I’m done being reasonable… time for some Doris bashing. 🙂 I have a n exam in 25 minutes but I’ll nip back here as soon as I’m done and give her some serious tongue-lashing. 😀

  7. Bitchy says:

    At Odzangba, I can’t help but ask this, I know I probably shouldn’t because everyone’s entitled to their opinions. BUT when she says “And we must remember that this respect and hunger for books comes, not from Mugabe’s regime, but from the one before it, the whites.” Can I just ask you this please – What would you RATHER she said??

    This is one mistake I think a lot of us Africans we make. We internalise everything, we focus on our emotions and our anger and our (rightly felt) pain and therefore even when someone states something which is merely a FACT, we get angry and we react.

    Put your personal emotions aside, your anger (probably equal to mine) at the injustice of colonialisation, the attitude of many pro-colonialists even in this day and age, their barely-concealed racism yaddiyaddiya. Put ALL that aside and answer this. IS what Lessing says NOT A FACT? Is she telling a lie??

    Before you try to answer, forget about yourself and your intellect and your personal history, and look at her statement (and a lot of her other “offensive” statements) from a purely statistical and factual angle and answer this –> DID the respect for books in Zimbabwe come during the white regime or did it NOT?

    Forget that you want to believe that Lessing is a “white supremacist” (because you have encountered so many who have gotten away with murder). Forget that she is white, and forget that she has somehow managed to insult you by daring to compare a (FAILING) black regime to its white predecessor that you (rightly) despise. Forget that and ask yourself in plain English – HOW were Zimbabweans first introduced to books? WHO did the introduction? Was it Mugabe? Or was it the British?

    Now at this point, just before you answer, PLEASE try and forget that which you probably belief (as I very much do) that Zimbabweans and all other colonised people in Africa and beyond should have had EVERY right to persist in their own equally admirable methods of learning and enlightenment. That the British (and other colonial powers) had absolutely NO right to IMPOSE upon us their own allegedly “superior” culture. That they had NO right to insist that THEIR books were better than OUR oral tradition. Forget too that like me you feel it a shame and a travesty that we were NOT given the chance to continue to develop in our OWN way which was working so well for us and about which we had absolutely no complaints. And also, if you can, forget that you hate how we have become so dependent on the Western system of learning, and can therefore never be as truly independent/authentic as other civilisations like the Chinese, who have absolutely NO need for Western literacy and are perfectly fine without it because they have their own.

    Forget (as I am having to struggle to whilst writing this) how MAD, ANGRY and LIVID as hell all this makes you. Forget how by reminding you of all this, I have really made your blood BOIL. Forget it all and look at Lessing’s statements for what they really are – very PAINFUL statements of fact.

    Sorry for invading your blog Ghana Geek. I just feel that your post has raised the really interesting issue that I always discuss – the fact that we (black people) because of all our pain, always have our backs up. And that whilst we can get away with this a lot of the time (because there are many white supremacists etc out there) sometimes we are just a little extreme (and ridiculous) in our ability to see absolutely everything (even praise or hard fact as in Lessing’s case) as an insult.

    Take Care Xxxx

  8. Juan says:

    Wow, just wow.

    *shakes head*

    Seems like you’re very much trying to force your opinion and turn it into a fact rather than have an actual debate.

  9. kwasi says:

    It took me so long to get back to this, I’ll probably just make one post replying to all of these. Sorry I’ve been off for so long people. And thanks for the comments, even those I will be disagreeing with

  10. Nadine says:

    “I wonder if that is because they genuinely couldn’t see it or that they agreed with the sentiments expressed.”

    Honeychile, its one and the same.

    What many posters seem to forget is that in Western parlance “books” is shorthand for “knowledge and enlightenment”. Education and knowledge come from reading, writing, literature and the other conventional repositories of Western knowledge.

    The rest is either cute, quaint, useless or a downright hindrance – I’m talking here about other modes of knowing and imparting that knowledge, orality, music, dance, spirituality / religion / ritual, etc.

    So yeah, those snippets amount to saying that : “before whites, y’all were ignant, and the few of y’all bushbabies who have a clue (thanks to nice whitie benevolence) are being dragged down by the corrupt ignant thugs (that for the most part, we either put in power straight up or least gave ’em the guns).”

    She just said it proper-like. Its racist, but polite.

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