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.

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