Africa, since the colonial period, has always been turned towards the West, with the Western countries assuming the role of savior, an attitude, an approach and a mentality which refused to be undone. Unsurprisingly, traditional postcolonial reports or narratives of Africa-West relations from the Western perspective confirm that the West has always imagined itself as superior to Africa. When African countries began to claim and gain independence in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the Union Jack and other colonial flags were lowered, neocolonization was sealed by the various flags that were hoisted and the national anthems sang. What did it mean for various people and ethnic groups in these individual African countries to be subjected to these alien concepts of church, flag, nation-state, government, parliament and army? Since independence, the systems we have adopted and no doubt inherited have looked to the West and worshiped all that is Western. So, through the Western prism, we have judged everything we have done, our own cultures, languages, identities, traditional customs, religion, history, art, heroes and heroines. It is fitting to invoke the proverb of Chinua Achebe in Things Fall Apart: “Those who do not know where the rain started to hit them cannot say where they dried their body. We must recognize where the rains have started to beat us if we are to face a myriad of prejudices on our continent and our people. Part of the problem that many Western prejudices and negative attitudes towards Africa continue to find a place in mainstream media and public discourse is that they continue to look to the West for themselves. to affirm. We did not create and revive our own African institutions and recognize those our ancestors created. On the contrary, we have continued to look to Western institutions for validation in many aspects of society, including the arts, politics, science, literature, music and even film.
There are some interesting and important questions that can be raised in the conversation about the relationship between Africa and the West. Why are Africans always judged on the basis of Western standards, rules and norms and why do Africans themselves continue to judge themselves using Western standards? Musical awards like the Grammy in America, while prestigious in their own way, have a different category for African musicians. For African artists, receiving such validation and recognition carries in itself a lot of prestige, a feeling that I have arrived at.
Several questions arise; Are Africans unable to build their own institutions that they can develop to match global standards? Why should Africans seek validation from the West and why is such validation important? Why do we wait year after year for iconic Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature? Does it speak to our collective colonial mentality or does it speak of something much deeper, not being able to create strong institutions that can last for decades without failing? Ngũgĩ has been slated to win the prestigious prize since 2010. Over the years, many Africans have called for recognizing Thiongo’s major contribution to literature by awarding him the Nobel Prize in Literature, but others argue that this is not essential. In an interview with the Financial Times in 2016, Ngũgĩ himself said: “a Nobel would be validation but not essential”. The question to ask is why do Africans continue to seek such validation and are our achievements incomplete without Western affirmation?
No, Trump didn’t behave like an African leader, he behaved like an American
In recent times, American democracy has been in distress and the system has undergone rigorous testing, exposing some failures. Some of the failures, although in the personification of Donald Trump, are an accumulation of what American democracy really is. Imperfect democracy and the failure of democracy is not something Americans never anticipated. Americans have often associated faulty democracy with foreign countries, and Africa as a continent has been primarily associated with dysfunctional democracy. President Trump’s refusal to admit electoral defeat in the 2020 election and his behavior during his tenure have been compared to that of an African leader. While many African countries have indeed struggled with problematic rulers, America has been accused of interfering in the internal affairs of several countries, and thus its moral authority is greatly compromised. American leaders have in the past helped topple legitimate governments, just as their French and British counterparts have done in the past. Morality, we learn, is exercised by one who controls power. As America sells the notion of human rights to the world and the French sell their civilization to the world as a means to conquer and control African countries, these are not seen through the prism of being undemocratic. Why do elections mean so much to the West to test true democracy? The rejection by many Africans on social media of the narrative that President Trump behaved like an African leader when he refused to admit defeat highlights that over the years America’s problem has always been his hypocrisy and his imaginary superiority. Western countries have their own problems and African problems should never be the benchmark for comparing social and political problems elsewhere in the world. The frequent murder of young African American men and women has never been limited to Trump, it has always been part of America’s greatest social crisis.
If President Trump has done good for the world, and Africans in particular, it is by removing the mask from America’s face, revealing various systemic flaws. For once, many are questioning American institutions and its democracy. Are there things we can learn from the West? Of course, there are things we should emulate, but there is much more that Africans can learn from each other.
To read: The white gaze: why is Western documentation the measure of African reality?
The need for an intra-African conversation should be emphasized. The African dream can only be validated by Africans. The dependence on the West to help us also in our struggles is more naive than we want to accept. It is more indicative of our lack of contextual understanding of our history, that our lives must first matter to us before they matter to the West.
Why do we have to look to the West to validate and define our icons, heroes and heroines? It is not surprising that the concept of the Founding Fathers, despite the evil that many of them committed on this continent, continues to be celebrated on every Independence Day. Many of our national heroes and heroines are not really our own, but they have been given to us by the West and judged through the prism of Western standards.
The ultimate question we must ask ourselves is existential: who are we? And in asking this question, we have to ask ourselves, who are we in relation to ourselves and to the world? It is by knowing ourselves that we can create our own standards and create our own cultural icons, heroes and heroines while celebrating our own people without waiting or longing for Western validation.
This article is written as part of a collection commissioned in partnership with African Crossroads under the theme “Reimagining the Pan-African Dream – Reflecting on the Past, Experiencing the Present and Imagining the Future”. The content of the series is the sole responsibility of This Is Africa Trust and can not be taken to reflect the official position of the Hivos Foundation.