We are not supposed to be here

So… today is the 57th anniversary of Ghana’s independence, and as a Ghanaian citizen, it is a day I always approach with very mixed feelings. I’ve been thinking about how to write some version of this piece for a while. I’ve always found some excuse not to write it though, so while it is late this year, here it is.

I’m going to start with the video of Kwame Nkrumah’s speech at midnight on independence day in 1957. Growing up, I saw this on TV and heard it on the radio so many times I can probably quote it by heart. Today is a good day to discuss the wider context of what Nkrumah meant when he spoke about the new African who would show the world that the black man could manage his own affairs. Quite simply, we were not supposed to make it.

The argument against giving African countries their freedom, outside of the blatantly economic ones, started and ended with the idea that we couldn’t run our own countries. We weren’t smart enough. We lacked the strength of character. We would steal from each other. We would descend into some kind of tribal free-for all and massacre each other over the the littlest things. We obviously couldn’t do things like vote peacefully, organize governments, open and run universities, live peacefully with each other and show kindness to our neighbours. We were capable of little more than the worst excesses you would expect from a people who were not quite human. Basically, the entire continent is supposed to be Mad Max meets the worst excesses of all the civil wars on it combined. That’s not quite how things have happened.

I’m not saying that things are perfect. Ghana has gone through waves of spectacular mismanagement and outright thievery, but we’ve also gone from being scared to speak out against our leaders to doing so openly. We still don’t treat each other with the dignity we should more often than not, but there are lots of people who show extraordinary grace and selflessness to each other on a daily basis. Children die who should be alive, but a lot fewer than used to. Adults die who should be alive, but again, a lot fewer than used to. We don’t educate enough of our kids, and too many are stuck in substandard schools, but we do have more schools and we have our own universities. We train our own doctors, even if we then underfund them. We train our own scientists, our own writers, our own lawyers, our own engineers, our own artists. Not enough of them, but more than we would have had otherwise. We are far below our potential, but it is a much greater potential than anyone expected of us. If we judged ourselves by the standards of what was expected of us, we’d already be a success. We don’t though, because under all the self-deprecation and self-loathing, we know we are capable of more.

We aren’t supposed to be here, I’m not supposed to be here. And sometimes it helps to take a step away from all that feels wrong and terrible to appreciate all that is right. The mess will still be there tomorrow.

Happy Birthday Ghana.

On: Madiba

I’ve been having a really hard time writing about this. Because, well, what could I possibly say that would to the man justice?

What do you say when a giant of that stature dies? How can you possibly describe the man he was in a way that doesn’t fall short of who he really was and what he really did? Not saying there aren’t people who can do it, but I know better than to imagine I am one of them.

I will say this. While being a man, and therefore flawed, he was a better person under more trying circumstances than we has the right to demand of any human being. And I’d like to think that in being so he made the rest of us slightly better people too.

For that I thank him. And I hope we will someday be worthy of his example.

Aah, beaten to it(another Wire post)

There was meant to be a follow up to my post on The Wire where I would discuss what a version of that show looking at Africa would look like. However I’ve been slow about writing these things and so fellow African geek aflakete pointed me to this post on Brown Man’s Burden that beat me to the punch. Hence I’ll just quote him

I think an interesting show, similar to the Wire, could be made about economic development and foreign aid. It would document NGOs, the World Bank, bureaucrats, politicians, big foundations and academics in their efforts to distribute aid and stimulate economic growth.

The key would be to show how the self-interest of each of these groups both helps and hinders the process of growth, and to convey how complicated stimulating growth and poverty alleviation is.

Obviously the man is a genius since we both had the exact same idea. Except he’s faster at writing these things out than I have been recently. Its still a great idea though, and it’ll provide a convenient launching pad for my next post on this topic. Sooner rather than later people, don’t worry.

Why I will miss The Wire

Some of you have heard of The Wire, a crime show that ran for 5 seasons on HBO and recently came to a close. Actually if you are a regular reader you probably have heard of it. I tend to run in those kinds of circles.

For those of you who haven’t heard of it, the link above will cover all the details if you are interested. In short though, it is a show that primarily operates from the point of view of the police and criminals in the city of Baltimore, Maryland and then uses that point of view to examine the cracks in the American dream in its inner cities and former industrial towns in a manner that is nothing short of remarkable. Personally I believe it is one of the best written television shows I have ever seen.

What makes this show great in my eyes, and most likely one of the same things that prevented it from achieving the kind of mass acclaim it deserves, is the way it has continually avoided overly simple and neat explanations of problems in favour of the kind of nuanced view that is rarely see in either real life or fiction.

In their world, there are multiple instances when the question of who is good, who is evil and what actions are appropriate is left to the audience instead of being explicitly spelled out for them to an accompanying soundtrack. Even more impressive though, social problems aren’t solved by 30 second simple fixes that involve one person’s removal or miraculous change of character. Instead we are shown the overlapping circles of dysfunction in the police, the media, the political system, local businesses, the school system and the streets themselves and how each enables and reenforces the other. Most of the people we spend time around are hemmed in my these systems and forced to choose between a series of very limited options, each with its own set of consequences. Some choose well, most choose badly, although again the question of which is the right choice is left to the judgement of the viewer a majority of the time.

For the most part, people who talk about this stuff tend to assume that their audience lacks the attention span necessary to digest a multifaceted view of life and therefore are only capable of dealing in terms of overly simplistic narratives with all the lines clearly sketched in for them and there is no hint of complexity, underlying issues, overlapping causes or anything else that might actually require them to assume the people they are being told about live lives every bit as complicated as theirs, if not more so.

In a lot of ways, The Wire’s insistance on a nuanced look at a world usually dominated by simplistic narratives and a complete lack of empathy reminded me a lot of the larger conversation about Africa. A lot of the time instead of a proper look at the mix of factors that cause things to be the way they are in my part of the world, a simple narrative of ‘vampire states’ or something equally inane to cover a much wider range of issues.

Anyway, that minor rant aside, I’m going to miss this show. It was 5 seasons of memorable characters and the kind of writing that draws you in regardless of whether or not you want to be drawn in.

How did it take me so long to notice this?

Proof that I’ve been neglecting my blogroll to a degree, I missed this TED talk.

Its by Dr. Neil Turok, a Physicist at Cambridge and founder of AIMS(African institute of Mathematical Sciences) which is a school in South Africa that brings together students from all over the continent for a 9 month postgraduate course to learn advanced mathematical and computer skills.

The talk is very, very much worth listening to. And I’m wondering if they’ll have use for a certain Ghanaian physicist in a few years time. This is one of those jobs I’d be more than happy to settle into.

This is not right

I’ve been sort of idly paying attention to the Kenyan elections over the past week. Not really intensely, but just enough so I knew who was running and what was happening. In the last few days, its been hugely depressing to watch. Basically, the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, looked to be losing handily to Raila Odinga, his main opposition, and then all of a sudden the reporting of election results slowed down and Kibaki started to make up ground under what are at best highly dubious circumstances. Basically it looks very much like Kibaki’s people rigged the election. They then went on to hurriedly confirm him as president for a second term. As a result, there has been rioting by citizens mad at the loss of their vote and a lot of people have died. Apparently there is also a blackout in the locak news of the unrest. The BBC is mentioning it though, granted in passing.

You can find a far more detailed account of what is going on the BBC, kenyapundit, the thinker’s room and allafrica.com.

I’m disgusted. And angry. And a bit depressed.Kibaki basically screwed up one of the most promising countries in Africa and set it back by at least a few years for no better reason than to remain in power for another 4. I’m just hoping that the unrest that his actions have created serve as a lesson to leaders in other African countries about the rising costs of tampering with the electoral system(yes Ghana, this includes you)

I’m off to look for more news people. Happy new year

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.