The Dignity of Merchants

Posted on July 10, 2015 in Essays

Review of Manthia Diawara, In Search of Africa
(Harvard University Press, 1998)

Towards the end of Eddy Harris’s Native Stranger: a Blackamerican’s Journey into the Heart of Africa, he spends two despairing weeks waiting at Lisala on the bank of the Zaire River for a steamer to take him to Kisangani. Behind him are North Africa, Franco-phone and English-speaking Africa, and a disastrous foray into the former black American colony of Liberia; behind him, too, 300-pages of mounting exasperation with the poverty, filth, incompetence and sadistic bullying he has encountered on all sides. Finally the steamer arrives and he falls with relief into conversation with Justin, an English passenger. The captain remarks on this: ‘his ancestors stole your ancestors from this place and took them to America as slaves. How can you live with them?’ Thinking back on all he has seen and experienced, Eddy Harris ‘turned to Justin and thanked him’.

It is a climax of appalling irony, to some readers an obscenity, like joking about the holocaust. How could, a black American, even temporarily deranged, how could he celebrate the slave trade as a good thing, releasing him from a ‘heart of darkness’ homeland? Yet Harris’s ‘thank you’ is not just a perversity. It finds an echo in Richard Wright’s question: ‘What does an African facing an African American see?’ It finds an echo in Manthia Diawara’s answer: ‘I see Toni Cade Bambara, I see Kamau Brathwaite, I see James Baldwin, I see Bob Marley, I see James Brown, I see C.L.R. James, I see Muhammad Ali, I see Paule Marshall, I see Malcolm X, I see Edwidge Danticat, I see Walter Mosley, I see Maryse Condé, I see myself. I am free to see a human being, a person, an individual’.

Manthia Diawara is not a black American. He was born in Guinea, just old enough to remember the euphoria of the independence ceremonies and to grow up hero-worshipping Sekou Touré. But his parents were from neighbouring Mali and in January 1964, when Sekou Touré expelled all non-citizens of Guinea as enemies of the revolution, he experienced his first exile. Living today in New York he often suffers from what he calls ‘identity fatigue’, partly because of ‘the conundrum of identity politics’ at New York university, but more profoundly because ‘I am a man whose past no one knows’. He belongs ‘to the independence generation in Africa, which has been forgotten or neglected in the debris of modern history’ because its leaders were assassinated or deposed in coups or became paranoiac dictators. The significance of independence and self-determination, ‘the two pillars that make possible our modernisation’, have been lost. What remains is the ‘narrative of failed nation-states, the threaters of Afro-pessimism’.

It is true there are times when Africa seems a cruel and unforgiving place. Where else in the world do heroes have a shorter shelf-life? ‘Scape-goating’, as some call it, seems to be the continental vice, and those architects of independence – men who campaigned and fought and served long jail sentences in the pursuit of freedom – are today almost universally reviled. Some like Mobutu Sese Seko and Kamuzu Banda amply deserve their reputations for ruthlessless in personal accumulation. But few young Africans currently make any basic distinctions between intellectual idealists like Nkrumah and Nyerere, who failed to resolve the contradictions of their inheritance, and unreconstructed brutes like Bokassa and Idi Amin who cashed in on it to their personal benefit. Those ‘new men’ of the sixties are dismissed by their heirs as a failed generation, architects of a ‘flag-only’ independence, lumped together as conspirators with neo-colonialism. Which world politician carries greater moral authority than Nelson Mandela? Less than a year after his inauguration as state president, I attended a seminar of southern African intellectuals at which his achievements were already being written off. The only figures whose reputations survive intact are those like Patrice Lumumba and Samora Machel who were killed in office.

The case of Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda is instructive. A mild-mannered man of no serious intellectual pretensions, who led Northern Rhodesia to independence in the wake of Nyasaland’s more aggressive campaigning, he presided over the looting of Zambia’s mining economy by a predatory petit-bourgeoisie operating under his direct patronage. Yet he kept his fragile, barely coherent nation together through thirty years of war and subversion and economic collapse, maintaining its precarious ethnic balance, regularly visiting opponents in the jails to which he had despatched them in the pursuit of reconciliation. He resigned office gracefully (‘You win some, you lose some’) after a free and open election won by one of those opponents. His reward has been to be jailed, shot at, stripped his of citizenship, and – as if these internal revenges were insufficient – to be paraded by human rights organisations as yet another dictator overthrown by the popular will enfranchised by the World Bank and the IMF. Rural Zambians are not so easily deceived. When Kaunda visits village markets, he is greeted as something of a saint.

One of Diawara’s projects in The Search for Africa is to script a film about Guinea’s Sekou Touré whom, despite everything, he still admires. Sekou Touré was not afraid of white men. He championed education and self-help, giving Diawara his first vision of a future for himself. He stood up to de Gaulle, refusing to remain like other Francophone countries within the French neo-colonial orbit. He lived austerely, without a Swiss bank account or mansions abroad, and died without bequeathing so much as a farm to his family or clan. Even today, Guinean women, Diawara notes, have a dignity and individuality not found among women in Senegal or the Ivory Coast. Sekou Touré’s prophecy that after his death Guineans would miss him and that the French would return has been fulfilled.

Yet this is only one side of a story Diawara is determined to confront whole. On his first afternoon in Conakry, he leaves his hotel and wanders through the streets towards the sound of drums, enjoying the beauty of the women and the smell of cooking fires. He buys 20c worth of fried plantain and eats it off a banana leaf with pepper sauce. The drums turn out to be an initiation ceremony, and he watches the dance of the blacksmith’s clan involving dangerous acrobatics with a razor-sharp axe. He hears distant shouting from a football match and, following a path through a breach in a glass-topped wall, loses his way. He asks where he is, and is told ‘Camp Boiro’.

So I was in Sekou Touré’s infamous prison, from which no one had ever come out alive. Kaman Diaby, Kéita Fodéba, Barry Alpha Oumar, Ansoumane Traoré, Diallo Telli, and countless others had been killed here … It was said that the guards had been demonic and perverted, happy to torture men whose wealth and position they envied. The guards of Camp Boiro had hated to see beauty and intelligence flourish; they had been trained to keep a man on his knees, to debase every human dignity in him.

He slinks away, sweating and humiliated, angry with the cowardice that prevents him so much as looking around, and angry too for feeling himself complicit in evil and misery.

For the first time in 32 years Diawara is back in Guinea, and in search of, well, what? His title is eerily reminiscent of much European nineteenth-century travel writing. As with Wole Soyinke’s recent The Open Sore of a Continent, echoing David Livingstone’s despairing metaphor about the slave trade, it is Africans who are now trying to make sense of a continent which has once again become ‘dark’. The questions crowd upon him. What happened to the modernising hopes of his generation? How did the continent degenerate into its present cycle of poverty, corruption and internecine warfare? How did the heroes of Africa’s liberation become bloody dictators, destroying a whole generation of intellectuals? How was Pan-Africanism diminished into nationalism, and how did nationalism break down into tribalism? What are the roles of ‘tradition’, ‘ritual’, ‘authenticity’ and ‘narratives of return’ in this? Why is the modernising project back in the hands of whites, while the only Africans who flourish do so in exile? And how did the latest myth gain ground, that the only solution for Africa lies in further violence? I know of no other work of non-fiction that asks with such raw pain all the questions that torment those who care about Africa, and on this account alone it demands to be read.

The quest is pursued at two levels. The first is in search of a childhood friend he last saw (and who treated him with a puzzling coolness) the day he was deported. Sidimé Laye was his role model, the smartest and noblest of his schoolmates, and the very epitome of the ‘young African that Sekou Touré had wanted the Guinean revolution to fashion.’ In the intervening years, during faculty meetings and boring conferences, ‘I thought of him whenever I wanted to verify for myself an identity that could not be touched by anyone else’. Obviously, what is being set up here is a search for Diawara’s former self, a return to the ‘other’ he might have become had exile not intervened.

Counterpointing the narrative of this quest are four essays or ‘situations’ as he calls them, borrowing the term from Sartre, reviewing the historical debate about African development. Diawara suggests readers should feel free to skip these reflections, but to do so would be to forfeit depth and shade. The ‘situations’ are linked by his passionate commitment to mobility and modernisation.

In the first, he commends Sartre’s essay ‘Black Orpheus’ (his introduction to Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française), which praised the negritude movement for its revolutionary potential. Unlike the traditionalists, who internalised their blackness, wishing to celebrate a unique history and shield themselves from racial contamination, Sartre claimed negritude as a grand narrative, a movement of the oppressed. ‘The black contribution to the evolution of Humanity is no longer a flavour, a taste, a rhythm, an authenticity, a cluster of primitive instincts; it is a dated enterprise, a patient construction, a future.’ The fact that the black man is the most oppressed of all means ‘it is the liberation of all that he necessarily pursues when he labours for his own deliverance’.

Next, Diawara revisits the 1956 Paris Congress of African, Afro-American and West Indian writers and artists, at which the most searching confrontation was between the traditionalist Leopold Senghor of Senegal and the black American neo-Marxist Richard Wright. Senghor’s vision was of an Africa returned to its roots after the economic exploitation and cultural contamination of colonialism. African modes of thought were intuitive, driven by a vital force derived from communication with the ancestors, whose authority gave shape to the religious and political hierarchies of tribal societies, and whose living presence gave meaning to all sculpture, dance and verbal art. Against this, Wright’s opinion that Africans were victims of tribalism, disorganisation and superstition seemed like heresy. His argument was a polemic against religions, whether of the Christian or traditional varieties, which were competing for the loyalty of Africans and blocking their entry into the secular and industrialised world. Wright’s Black Power is praised as one of the most penetrating books ever written about Africa.

Next, Diawara re-assesses Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, arguing that the first part of the book with its portrait of an unregenerate Detroit Red pimping and hustling in the Harlem of the 1940s, is far more interesting and authentic than the subsequent account of his conversion to Islam. Diawara makes this fascinating claim in the context of a distinction between culturalists who are concerned with what’s out there and conversionists who are concerned with transformation. The whole movement of the Autobiography is towards the moment when the realities of black urban culture in the United States are rejected as pathological, and ‘Malcolm X’, the utopian visionary, steps on to the page. Against this, argues Diawara, is the attempt to produce ‘the black good life … black culture is the last frontier of American modernism’. Detroit Red was closer to the project than the converted revolutionary.

The logical conclusion of this argument is that the fourth of these ‘situations’ should be a celebration of America’s black Hip-Hop culture and the films of Spike Lee.

If all this sounds like a thinly disguised celebration of his own successful career in France and the United States, the long, disturbing quest for Sidimé Laye tells a different story. Sidimé was actually present in the shop where Diawara sought information about him the morning after his arrival, and present, too, on a follow-up visit. But he refused to reveal himself until he had finished a mask he was carving, and his companions refused to give him away until they had established Diawara’s motives. As he comments, he had forgotten the importance of mistrust in Africa. But the turn of events leaves him free for a series of other, bruising encounters.

The novelist William Sassine, who died shortly after the conversation reported here, shoots down one by one every argument of the ‘situations’, in favour of mobility and modernisation. Diawara meets him when still suffering from the Camp Boiro episode, and finds in Sassine the laureate of ‘Afro-pessimism’. In his most recent novel, Le Zéhéros n’ést pas importe qui, he had satirised those (designated zéhéros, combining ‘zero’ and ‘hero’) who rushed back home after Sekou Touré’s death in the hope of grabbing appointments as ministers or ambassadors or managers of state enterprises. Some of them claimed to have led heroic resistance movements, only to find that the soldiers who have seized power have no intention of sharing the rewards with anyone. Meanwhile, Guineans who stayed on through the dictatorship, view the returnees as no different from the new army of foreign Aid officials who have become the country’s true government. The zero-heroes have sold their souls to white people.

To Diawara’s claim that what is needed is more democracy, more rights, more freedom, more individuality, Sassine’s response is ‘such slogans only create more sadness in Africa’. As head of his household, he expects to dictate how its members will vote. The roots of under-development are cultural, not economic, and Africa has sold its soul to too many foreign gods. As for Sekou Touré, he ‘always lived in ideological confusion’, a confusion resolved only by his obsession with power.

His next encounter is with the wife of the historian Djibril Tansir Niane, author of the classic Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. Niane is absent on business and the meeting with Mrs Niane is brief, but it leads him to reflect on the role of such handsome, confident women who still value clans, tribes and family names, as “the Achilles heel” of Sékou Touré’s modernisation project. They ‘refused to participate in the catch-up race that modernisation had condemned Africans to, and they persistently regarded the past, particularly the Sundiata empire, as their glorious future’. More profoundly, Diawara realises he is himself participating in a narrative of return. The hero is ill-treated or disinherited; he endures long years of exile; he returns home in triumph to a position of power and respect. The Sundiata epic is the archetype of such narratives – the tale of the Mande king, born a cripple, and exiled to Ouagadugu, capital of the ancient Ghana empire, where he learns about cities and trade and weaponry. Returning, prepared by exile for kingship, he defeats the Sosso at the Battle of Krina in 1235 to establish the successor empire of Mali. So much is history, but as Diawara notes about the power of the myth as kept alive by successive generations of griots, ‘We are kings in Mande, even if we wash dishes or clean toilets in other lands … We have to return to claim our inheritance’.

Back at his hotel, relaxing by the swimming pool among white people in their bathing suits, he sees something that makes him ‘shiver to the bone’. A man with red, angry eyes wearing a mud-cloth shirt and baggy pants, stares at him from the rocks of the nearby beach, and mumbles some words before pointing to the sky. Then he casually lowers his pants and shits in full view of the hotel. Diawara notices others are doing the same, as indeed he did himself in his childhood. It is, in fact, only the presence of the hotel and the white guests which make the scene unusual. The Africans are refusing to concede what has always been their space.

By the time, therefore, Sidimé Laye turns up at his hotel, Diawara is a thoroughly disturbed traveller, and the encounter shocks him further. For the man he meets is someone he would never have recognised, the very antithesis of the person he had cherished as the epitome of his modernising generation. He’s not a well-dressed politician or doctor or lawyer but a dusty figure in jeans and tee shirt who announces ‘You have become a white man, and I became a carver like all my family’.

Laye makes his living by carving ancestral masks for tribal and religious ceremonies, and the remainder of the book is concerned with African art and the African artist, bringing all the arguments to a focus through the single re-iterated questions ‘Should the African artist sign his work?’ It is a tribute to the quality of Diawara’s analysis that this question does not appear an over-simplification but a summation of all his book’s concerns.
One of the book’s most original sections is Diawara’s paean to African markets, those noisy, haphazard agglomerations at the heart of every West African capital where literally anything can be bought, from tomatoes and yams to brand name shoes and gold jewellery, fax machines and computers, herbal remedies and VW spare parts, 3-piece suites and CDs, cures for unemployment and broken hearts, cameras and millet beer, books and spices, traditional masks and … etcetera is the only possible word. Marketeers accept any currency, carrying large bundles of Japanese yen, German marks, British pounds, French francs and US dollars ‘in the deep pockets of the billowing trousers they wear under their long, loose gowns’. Many of these markets have a long history – the most prominent medieval West Africa cities, such as Timbuctu, Bornou and Niani, were market towns – and they have always been international and have always looked beyond the tribe. Today, with the rise of the nation state, part of their raison d’etre is the gap between official and unofficial exchange rates. The government-licensed market in Luanda with its official prices is named February 4th (official date of the start of the ‘national revolution’). Down the road is the ‘black’ market, popularly known as February 5th, we the real business of Angola’s capital city is conducted.

Such markets, Diawara reports gleefully, are the despair of the World Bank and IMF who consider nation-states the only legitimate structures with which they can do business under their various adjustment programmes. Among the so-called ‘terms of conditionality’ imposed on Mali and Senegal were demands that the markets at Bamako and Dakar be regulated (both were mysteriously burned down). They are the clearest manifestation of the gap between the state-managed (or international-managed) economies and the real world (what economists farcically call the ‘informal sector’) where a majority of Africans get on with the business of basic survival. At the same time, politicians and state officials regularly have recourse to them for emergency cash or bribes or to cope with financial crises.

To this familiar material Diawara adds two fascinating twists. The first is that following the Arab and European conquests of West Africa, many displaced aristocrats transformed themselves into merchants. The effect was to dignify commerce, elevating it to the highest social levels and creating a cultural capital far superior to that of colonial officers and state functionaries. Helping the needy, living the life of a good Muslim, maintaining personal cleanliness, refusing to be blinded by money, and preserving family and kinship structures, became central values of the market place. In contrast, politicians, students and school dropouts are held in contempt as people simply on the make. The second is that these markets are both thoroughly traditional, protected for example by a variety of taboos, and simultaneously the means by which Africa has always dealt on equal terms with the outside world. West African merchants were familiar with metropolises like Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Johannesburg long before the new elite set foot in those places. In short, markets ‘revitalise traditional cultures, resist multinational corporations that try to take over businesses, and compete with the agents of the state for the role of cultural moderniser of the masses’. They return to people ‘what the state and the multinational corporations take away from them – that is, the right to consume.’

The attractions of this formula are obvious. West African markets are located deep within the history and culture, yet have always been the arenas for international contact. In the market, tribal divisions have been dissolved, women emancipated (market mammies being formidable operators), and the new and the modern brought to the doorstep. With such a model, the gaps between the traditional and the progressive, the authentic and the imported, and the economic and the cultural, are all dissolved. It gives Diawara pleasure to record that the people of his own tribe were merchants. Whenever he loafed at home, his father would say to him, ‘Get up and go to the market. Nothing will get to you lying around the house like this’.

Sidimé Laye’s story develops the point further. None of Diawara’s former classmates became schoolteachers, lawyers or doctors. One became a French citizen, another a corrupt custom’s official, a third died in Camp Boiro, while the rest live abroad for ‘there was nothing to do under Sekou Touré’. On the day of Diawara’s departure, Sidimé had been afraid to show his feelings in case someone denounced him to the secret police. His uncle was already in detention charged in connection with one of his masked figures. Diawara’s long cherished memory of his clever, smartly-dressed friend as the epitome of modernisation was anachronistic even before his deportation. Sidimé had already been studying his uncle’s techniques as a carver, waiting for the moment when ancestral spirits took over the mask or sculpture he was carving and completed the work through his hands.

In this, Sidimé was following the instincts of his countrymen, for whom masks, statues, oral traditions, secret societies and masquerades, the whole paraphernalia of ‘tribal’ authenticity, became a form of resistance to Sekou Touré’s attempts to homogenise society. History is being re-lived, but this time as tragedy. For the enormous resurgence of masked rituals in African villages, with their nostalgia for a past when such rituals are assumed to have been pure, complete and manly, has direct antecedents in the colonial period when notions of authentic African tribal traditions were mobilised to oppose cultural contamination. A central feature of Diawara’s argument is that the elevation of the traditional, the tribal and the authentic, in such doctrines as Senghor’s philosophy of negritude, belonged to the distorting circumstances of the colonial interlude, and should have been thrust into museums at independence.

Which is why Sidimé Laye and other African artists should sign their work. Signing insists that rituals have their own history, redefining the relation between tradition and the individual talent. Signing is a defiance of the European ruling that only pre-1950 African art can be ‘authentic’. Signing takes the work into the market places, not just of Conakry and Dakar but of Paris, London and New York, linking what is what is originally (in every sense of the word) ‘African’ to the new and the progressive. Signing becomes, for African artists, the equivalent of the freedoms black musicians and writers have secured in the United States. Eventually, and perhaps a little reluctantly, Sidimé signs two small sculptures for Diawara.

Reading In Search of Africa I was occasionally troubled by his relentlessly unforgiving attitude towards Europeans. Is it really the case that dealers, collectors, merchants and museums ‘have nothing but contempt for African artists’? Did French scholars really conspire to prevent Djibril Tamsir Niane obtaining a university post? Is it part of the West’s continued conspiracy against Africa that the usefulness of nation states has been questioned by European scholars? I wanted to say no to each of these. Yet Diawara’s vision is coherent and unified. The damage done by the colonialism went far beyond conventional arguments about economic exploitation or cultural oppression. Colonialism, that apparently modernising project, became the proximate cause of Africa’s retreat from the main currents of twentieth century history. Rulers like Sekou Touré continued the process, not through neo-colonialism but through their fatally flawed assault on African talent. The Africa Diawara ‘found’ was one in which all the disturbing, contradictory pieces were reconciled by his rhetoric of the African market. And when one studies the evolution of the debt crisis, it can indeed appear that, contrary to humanity and all economic sense, the West really does wish to keep Africa poor and backward.

First Published London Review of Books, August 10, 2000