Jul 16, 2009

african on thursday

Excerpt from 'Elizabeth Costello' by J.M Coetzee (courtesy of Yiwonda Banda) and discussion...

"When we Africans visit great European cities like Paris and London, we notice how people on trains take books out of their bags or their pockets and retreat into solitary worlds. Each time the book comes out it is like a sign held up. Leave me alone, I am reading says the sign. What I am reading is more interesting than you could possibly be.

Well, we are not like that in Africa. We do not like to cut ourselves off from other people and retreat into private worlds. Nor are we used to our neighbours retreating into private worlds. Africa is a continent where people share. Reading a book by yourself is not sharing. It is like eating alone or talking alone. It is not our way. We find it a bit crazy."

We we we, she thinks. We Africans. It is not our way. She has never like we in its exclusive form. Emmanuel may have grown older, he may have acquired the blessing of American Papers, but he has not changed. Africaness: a special identity, a special fate.

She has visited Africa: the highlands of Kenya, Zimbabwe, the Okavango Swamps. She has seen Africans reading novels, admittedly, they were reading newspapers. But is a newspaper not as much as avenue to a private world as a novel?

"In the third place," continues Egudu "in the great, beneficent global system under which we live today, it has been allotted to Africa to be the home of poverty. Africans have no money for luxuries. In Africa, a book must offer you a return for the money you spend on it. What do I stand to learn from reading this story the African will ask... We may deplore the attitude of the African ladies and gentlemen but we cannot dismiss it. We must take it seriously and try to understand it.

"I spoke about my essence and being true to my essence... you must be asking yourselves, how in these anti-essential days, these days of fleeting identities that we pick up and wear and discard like clothing, can I justify speaking of my essence as an African writer?

Around essence and essentialism, I should remind you there is a long history of turmoil in African thought. You may have heard of the negritude movement of the 1940s and 1950s. Negritude according to the originators of the movement is the essential substratum that binds all Africans together and makes them uniquely African - not only the Africans of Africa but the Africans of the great African diaspora in the New World and now in Europe.... Cheikh Hamidou was being questioned by an interviewer, a European. I am puzzled, said the interviewer, by your praise for certain writers for being truly African. In view of the fact that the writers in question write in a foreign language (French) and are published and are read in a foreign country, can they truly be called African writers. Is language not a more important matrix than birth?

The following is Hamidou’s reply; 'The writers I Speak of are truly African because they are born in Africa, they live in Africa their sensibility is African ... what distinguishes them lies in life experience, in sensitivities, in rhythm, in style. A French or English writer has thousands of years of written tradition behind him... We on the other hand are heirs to an oral tradition.'

There is nothing racist in Hamidou’s response he merely gives proper weight to those intangibles of culture which because they cannot be easily put down in words are often passed over. The way people move their bodies. The way they move their hands. The way they walk. The way they smile or frown. The lilt of their speech. The way they sing. The timbre of their voices. The way they dance. The way they touch each other; how the hand lingers; the feel of the fingers. The way they make love. The way they lie after they make love. The way they think. The way they sleep.'

from J.M Coetzee, 'Elizabeth Costello'
Facebook: Yiwonda Banda's Notes, Tues 14 July at 10:21

Z. Allan Ntata at 20:23 on 15 July
In an increasingly global world, doesn't clinging to these continental identities and sensibilities simply perpetuate our differences rather than embrace our similarities as people and human beings? Shouldn't we rather be talking about things that make us the same rather than things that make us different? Is there really more to be benefited by the human race by underlining differences between peoples, rather than celebrating the race's oneness?

Jessica Acacia at 08:27 on 16 July
hmm they say the difference between nationalism and patriotism is that....
the former is a definition of self through opposition to others
and the latter a celebration of strengths.
or something like that.
with ref to allan's valid point, does Emmanuel's perspective lend itself to the former or the latter?

Yiwonda Banda at 08:53 on 16 July
Allan - are you disputing that we are different or are you saying that we should not emphasize/highlight the differences in the hope that they will allow us to be partners in the modern era? the 'oneness' of the human race will only matter during WW3, in the meantime there is nothing wrong with being 'different' and embracing that difference as ... a backdrop to social interactions; surely as opposed to creating rifts that would strengthen bonds and create mutual respect...
Jess - I think Emmanuels position is necessarily transcends that distinction between nationalismm and patriotism to create the 'essence' of which he speaks - 'Africaness' - there is a sense of Magic realism about it; a vibe, a feeling, a special identity, a special fate....

Jessica Acacia at 09:37 on 16 July
wow yiwonda are you are claiming an essential difference... apparently proven by the intangibles of culture??
I don't think thats what Emmanuel or Hamidou are saying.
are the aryans superior?
cultural differences do not prove an essential difference.
very dangerous ground.
i'm interested and open minded to hear how the negritude movement and its 'essential substratum' has affected you.

Yiwonda Banda at 10:11 on 16 July
Essence difference in this context =community based ties, hierarchies, kneeling,
Essential difference does not presuppose superiority, though it is often interpreted as such; its merely a statement of claim; i do not like beetroot, therefore i am different to you who does like it - that doesn't make me superior- it makes me different. It is the Subtle yet seemingly obvious substrata that i think causes to miss the mark; discourse has been cushioned and sheltered for dare we not be politically correct! therefore we fear calling a black person 'black' and a white person 'white'.

I am black and i am African and i feel a sense of Africaness that is reflected and felt when i meet other Africans and this passage has come closest to depicting that feeling in words. This is not to say the extent of my reaction when i meet/interact with non Africans differs in terms of degree, it just means it is different and when one is comfortable in their own skin there is nothing wrong with that.
Do you wear chitenje's at funerals?

Does it make me superior that i do and i WANT to? No ... does it make me different even though we live similar lifestyles? i leave that to u to answer...

Jessica Acacia at 10:27 on 16 July
obviously there is no hierarchy. the aryan comment was an example of a physical / cultural difference being misinterpreted to mean something more.

labels and their implications stop us seeing what is true. instead they lead to emotional interpretations and illogical illusions.

it is one thing to appreciate and enjoy different ways of doing things... beetroot, funerals. it is a whole other thing to identify with them. which approach are you advocating?

how do you feel when you see african buildings? african grass? african sunset? there is no such thing. there are just buildings, grass and sun. now take that to people...

Yiwonda Banda at 10:51 on 16 July
these 'illogical illusions' you speak of are the very intangibles that Emmanuel is referring to..
What is true is individual, we are talking about an entire continent here; i inherited chitenje's...
There is a common thread which binds Africans - THAT is what i am saying.
I personally don't feel superior because of it - similarly I don't apply any emotional interpretation to the non African - only to myself because i feel it - I cannot explain why the aryan feels superior- i can only make personal judgements on that position, Hence, are you disputing my Africaness, or are you judging it?

Tanya Leslie at 10:52 on 16 July
define 'african'?

Yiwonda Banda at 11:28 on 16 July
'That of the African continent'

Jessica Acacia at 12:41 on 16 July
so you are saying we should take behaviour and identify with it. i do this therefore i am 'african'.
or maybe you saying that these 'cultural intangibles' make you FEEL 'african'. i feel this therefore i am 'african'.
so you are african. i get it, its an intangible indescribable feeling... which obviously you are fully entitled to.

do you feel a similar solidarity with people who eat beetroot? do you identify with women who drive rav-4s? people who dance to reggae? do those count as common threads? where does it stop - what label are you going to give that feeling?

I think you enjoy sharing opinions with people who think the same, sharing behaviour with people who do the same. It gives you a feeling of solidarity...
But you think that you ARE the same as that other person in the chitenje (common thread etc.).
Either you enjoy your culture, or you ARE your culture. If you think you ARE your African culture, then it follows that you ARE different to people of other cultures.

I'm questioning the premise of your feeling of africanness, which - you agree - is an emotional interpretation of a feeling or behaviour. any judgment of self, is synonymous with a judgment on other. you have divided your world into people who meet your criteria - us and people who don’t - them.
How can you not apply an emotional interpretation to a 'non-african' ?? you already have!
Whether 'them' is considered inferior, superior, or equal, they are always considered different. This is my problem.
In objective reality, 'they' are not actually different.
Which is why i prefer not to define myself through labels, differences or similarities.

Yiwonda Banda at 14:58 on 16 July
My premise is subjective, i'm sure there are many people who walk the way I walk or talk the way I talk, or chew their food the way i chew my food who are not African. But where does it come from? that is what I am saying; its intangible, I don't know... in this passage its explained as an 'essence'.. others may not think it significant at all...

Interesting that this book is written by a white South African -perhaps through this point (without realizing it) i have just supported your argument..

Jessica Acacia at 15:19 on 16 July
damnit was hoping you'd show me the meaning in your african identity, and thereby prove me wrong.

Yiwonda Banda at 15:26 on 16 July
you'd need to be African to understand it ;)

'Whether 'them' is considered inferior, superior, or equal, they are always considered different. This is my problem.' I concede that this is a problem...

Tanya Leslie at 16:18 on 16 July
damn... too late! will respond to all this in due course...! i foresee a new blogspot...... watch this space.......

Jessica Acacia at 17:15 on 16 July
hehe so do you feel a binding common thread with a white south african?
it appears that you have categorised me as non-african. interesting.

if you are suggesting that by my very definition as 'non-african', it follows i have no capacity to understand the criteria used to qualify for this label... that is also interesting... you don't get it because you're not one of us? the premise on which colonialism and other repressive ideologies were built.

do you feel a binding common thread with obama?
Obama, Ghana, 11 July: Now, we all have many identities -- of tribe and ethnicity; of religion and nationality. But defining oneself in opposition to someone who belongs to a different tribe, or who worships a different prophet, has no place in the 21st century. (Applause.) We are all God's children. We all share common aspirations -- to live in peace and security; to access education and opportunity; to love our families and our communities and our faith. That is our common humanity.

so, after all this, tell me, has your appreciation of our
essential-yet-intangible difference strengthened bonds and created mutual respect? as you claimed it would?

back to the text... 'There is nothing racist in Hamidou's response he merely gives proper weight to those intangibles of culture.' Yes give it proper weight, appreciate and enjoy differences. But it would be inaccurate to identify with them.

Rafiq Hajat at 23:40 on 16 July
Let me try to jump into the deep end here...is Hamidou alluding to ethnicity, tribe, or race? After all cultures, mannerisms etc vary widely across our continent and it appears to me, mildly patronising (to say the least) to bundle that rich diversity into one homogenous, generic template. Vive la difference!!


  1. So Jess... do you 'feel' african? Yet having been given the gift of living in a country thats 'not ones own' do you 'feel' that others judge you at not belonging. Are your protestations / arguments not influenced by the fact that you identify more with global oneness because this fits comfortably with your own experience and conceptual framework?

    And Yiwonda... I think you rather emphasise Jess's point when arguing against it... in that if you can speak of an African 'oneness and unity of spirit' then surely one can also talk of a crossracial / crosscultural / beetroot-liking oneness and unity of spirit?

    In other words you two lovely people... cannot both co exist? (My sit on the fence middle of the road cop-out!!!) lol!

    p.s. thanks for sharing :-)

  2. I like Hamidou's definition of an African writer. Here you are quoting Coetzee again. Is this an author I should seriously contemplate reading?

  3. Interesting but difficult debate.I feel the quote by Obama comes close to the best answer. today you might find that though you were raised in Africa you have more in common with a european, asian etc. even within Africa you find that your passport says yo malawian but you have more in common with a south african. one true but boring phrase which us lawyers like 2 use is the definition of an african is neither here nor there. I think the lines are being blurred by tech and globalization. In the end i think it will not matter where yo from or your skin colour. it will just be about yo common interest. some american said "today is our independence day,we are celebrating being american. but if you go to a restaurant on the 4th of July, yo typical customer will be wearing italian, eating french and driving german and the only thing american will be the accent. is this really celebrating americanism?" we are losing our identities or perhaps redefining them. but this is not necessarily bad.

  4. I think I identify with Yiwonda's take. Being identified with an emotion, an essence, a cultural definition as subjective as it is is not wrong per se. This subjectivity is part of our humanness. This presence of emotions, of eccentricities that end up defining a culture or race or a people. It is how we seek to find our place in the vast continuum of the cosmos, it is how we attempt to understand the eternal nothing that is everything. it is how we seek to find our 6 degrees of separation that in the end we find that we are related, we are all one.

    From a metaphysical point of view the diversity is by design, it creates the aloneness that is enabled by togetherness and the togetherness that thrives in aloneness. it creates the co-interdependence that ensures that the full spectra of human potential and being is realised.

    In hindsight we may find that how we perceive and treasure the "labels" was wrong but in itself does not invalidate the necessity of our pursuit. We are not an indiscriminate mass of random atomic beings bumping into each other, we are a complex community of nascent creatures both divine and base.

    We are african, we are american, we are european. These are boundaries that enrich, that protect and yes that confuse and hate and kill.

    We are the community of humans, who are different indeed not because of superiority or inferiority but beauty and purpose and mystery and many other things too high for me.