There is more to Africa than poverty, pestilence

By  Peter Ikechukwu Chidolue, S.J., Catholic Register Special
  • March 6, 2007
faceofafricaFr. Stan Chu Ilo is a Catholic priest from Nigeria, now based in the diocese of Peterborough. He is an Igbo, a tribe from the Eastern part of Nigeria. The aim of his book is to present a true story of Africa, with a message that “Beyond the shadows of the present gloom lies the true face of Africa.”
My mother once told me a story that she had read. This story was about a young girl, who after watching so many western movies about the cowboys and Indians, came running to the mother with this distressing question: “Mama, mama, why is it that whenever the cowboys and the Indians fight, no matter how strong and courageous the Indians are, the cowboys always win?” The mother looked at her child and said, “Nneka, the cowboys will continue to win the fight until the Indians learn to tell their own story.” This story came back to me when I picked up The Face of Africa: Looking Beyond the Shadows.

{sa 1420897055}So much has been said and written by so many about the African story, and the face that is painted has determined the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world. Africa has become synonymous with a malarious deathbed, an AIDS-infected populace, malnourished orphans, corrupt leadership, senseless wars, drought-inflicted lands, begging economies and a place for daring tourists. All this thanks to the world media, which consider only miseries newsworthy.

But is this the Africa I know? Is Africa a problem to be solved or a sickness to be cured? If this is how the world sees Africa, there will always be an unequal and unhealthy relationship between Africa and the rest of the world. No sustainable help can emerge from such an image.

In the Face of Africa, Ilo gives the world an opportunity to listen to an African tell his story. In 316 pages, he invites us to journey with him into this interesting adventure via four stops: the shadows of Africa, the two faces of Africa, the challenges and the African hopes and dreams.

In the first chapter, “The Shadows of Africa,” Ilo presents Africa’s dreadful past — slavery, colonialism, apartheid and racism, and emigration as possible answers to the reasons behind Africa’s distorted image. He claims the problems Africans go through stem from these destructive experiences. It is, I dare say, less disturbing to oppress or exploit bloodthirsty savages. The crimes of oppressors become horrendous — a stab to the sanity of humanity — if these so-called savages are loving, innocent, hospitable and hard-working people. Consequently, it is beneficial for the oppressor to constantly maintain and propagate the image of Africans as savages or ungovernable people that needed the salvific presence of their oppressor.

Ilo presents litanies of problems, oppressions and challenges Africans go through, and one might rightfully exclaim, “Aha, so Africa is a vale of tears coloured by pain and oppression as presented on cable news. There is no beyond the shadows, for all we see are shadows.” But this author won’t let you be satisfied with a simplistic picture. In chapter 2, “The True Face of Africa,” and Chapter 4, “The Gift of Africa to the World,” Ilo intelligently introduces the reader to an African village — to the daily ordinary life of an African and to the gifts that Africa has to offer the world. This is the true face of Africa — a quiet night, social interactions, the village that never sleeps, naming ceremonies, Chinonso (an African name which means “God is near”), family, festivals, etc. Can this be Africa? Yes!

This is the Africa that never makes the news. This is the Africa that is never seen. But this Africa is real. This Africa is constantly stabbed by local and international kleptomaniac policies and structures. This is the Africa that the dehumanizing dagger of slavery, colonialism and apartheid could not kill. This is the Africa that cries out from to the rest of humanity.

According to Ilo, all non-Africans should be worried about the kind of images they receive of Africa from the media, because no meaningful engagement with Africa can take place if non-Africans use these one-sided images or their own categories to interpret the life and society of Africans. If only non-Africans are able to look beyond the shadows that colour the African stories they receive, they will be able to see a face of Africa worth falling in love with, a face worthy of fighting and dying for, a face worth having, a gift the global world lacks — a human face in the global economy. If this was seen there would have been no Rwandan genocide, there would be no wartorn Darfur, and I dare say, there would be less terrorism. This true face of Africa can be seen by listening to Africans tell their own stories, by visiting African villages and by reading well-researched literature on Africa by Africans. Ilo’s book is a good example of such literature.

This well-researched and honest account of Africa is definitely a good read for anyone with an ardent love or a nagging desire for Africa as it truly is, not only because it is an excellent sociological analysis of many African societies, but because it presents the face of Africa that is hardly mentioned — the African village: the home of the Africans.

(Ikechukwu Chidolue, S.J. is a Nigerian Jesuit studying theology at Hekima College Jesuit School of Theology, Nairobi, Kenya.)

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