Africa as a Phantom
Then he asked me if I was a student too. I said, no, I was a teacher. What did I teach? African literature. Now that was funny, he said, because he knew a fellow who taught the same thing, or perhaps it was African history, in a certain community college not far from here. It always surprised him, he went on to say, because he never had thought of Africa as having that kind of stuff, you know.
“An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness,”Chinua Achebe
I was taught many things at secondary school.
Well… To be honest, I’ll have to say that I was taught at least some things…
Definitely much fewer than the time spent in class would have permitted. Too much repetition of the same topics year after year and too much memorisation. Even in maths. And from my long experience in memory exercising, today I’d like to remember details of my brilliantly carried out duties with physical and political maps and universal history.
Such a boring task to form all those perishable pathways in my brain... Me and my mates, though, were lucky enough to be spared part of the work. But I felt a bit puzzled. Mainly relieved, but puzzled anyway, when the teacher announced that we didn’t have to memorise the maps of one specific continent. Guess which one?
Funnily enough, in this absolution resided the only durable lesson I learnt during the aforementioned efforts.
Afterwards, many years later, and just some years ago, I realised that in my Universal History books sub-Saharan Africa never appeared. It was as if it hadn’t been there or as if it hadn’t been a part of history or as if it hadn’t had its own history. Boom!
In my previous post for this blog, I wrote about different narratives used in public statements and debates regarding the migratory crisis in the Mediterranean Sea, a crisis that caused 2242 deaths of sub-Saharan migrants due to shipwrecks in 2018 only. In that post, I demanded a human rights narrative that goes beyond immediacy. A historically and infrastructurally informed narrative that stresses the use of Africa as a fountain of resources of all kinds by Western countries. But due to my Wittgensteinian conviction with regards to the conditions of human understanding, I have been feeling that my text was incomplete.
In our understanding something that’s being the focus of our attention in a particular moment, there’s always a weaving of associations between that somethingand an unnoticed background or framework. And in my article you can find an attempt to delineate discourses that I consider wrong, self-serving or incomplete, but you won’t find an outline of the background against which the most misleading narratives have been so effective (have made so much sense) when used. This time I am trying to complete the job, and that will need the exposition of two paradoxes.
A couple weeks ago, I remarked that Africa has played and plays a fundamental material role for the so-called West. In fact, I would dare say that, given the consideration of its inhabitants as one more resource and/or practically non-humans (lesser humans to say the least), Africa has in practice been generally reduced to mere materiality by its colonial invaders. This brings us to the first paradox: Despite its infrastructural fundamentality, I would consider accurate a description of Africa’s presence in European culture as unsubstantial. It is there, yet not too much. We know it exists, but we don’t know its map or its diversity, nor its conflicts and political circumstances, nor its literature and music. In fact, the Africa of our default worldviews doesn’t usually include Northern Africa, classified inside the Muslim world, but only sub-Saharan Africa, “Black” Africa. And this “Africa” rarely gives content to our thoughts. We don’t look at it, we forget it, but sometimes we’re reminded of it by brief appearances. Sub-Saharan Africa is fundamentally material at a practical, infrastructural level, but unsubstantial in our worldviews.
“Africa” and “Africans” have a degree of reality similar to that of the races and kingdoms of fantastic literature. It’s another world. A world of tribes and rituals, of superstition, chaos, irrationality and primitiveness. An alien world entirely. A phantasy one, with its impressive, magic landscapes and outlandish slender people.
And, yes, we do find in the media images of diseased and malnourished children that affect us. Especially in the default advertising style of NGOs. But in these cases, pity and unease make Africa itself disappear behind the particular child we’re seeing, whom will be forgotten in a matter of seconds in our return to our “real” world and problems of everyday life.
That child for which we felt pity isn’t part of our lives. She or he belongs to another world. We can momentarily feel sorry for her or him, and sorrow might encourage a monthly flow of money to this or that organisation. But sorrow doesn’t need to entail a conscious consideration of every sub-Saharan as a complete human being, as a realhuman being entitled to the same rights and welfare that we have. Sorrow can bring charity without a political desire for justice, charity with nebulous, unfathomable communities: That one malnourished child can very well obscure sub-Saharan politics, sub-Saharan activists, sub-Saharan cities, sub-Saharan social organisation, sub-Saharan internal inequalities… and Western involvement in all that. “Africa” as a fantastic location, devoid of the basic features of modern human societies.
Oh! And let’s not forget the way many influencers and Tinder users treat “Africa”. Pictures are really about the adventurous white saviour, the woke empathetic white or the white “it girl” who gives away fashion items. All about white momentary charity. And, in the photos, the white individual eclipses the children. Or worse, the location and children themselves become the set for the dramatization of pity/solidarity/wokeness. A set. Once more, something outside the realm of truth, a fiction.
Summarising, in European culture Africa is an alien reality of which we know very little and on which we’re not very interested. A far, far away kingdommore fictitious than real with which, as a consequence, we don’t have much to do. Unsubstantial as a phantom.
Time now for the second paradox. Despite its scarce and indeterminate presence in European culture, “Africa” is a preeminent element in Europe’s self-definition. Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe put it this way: “[…] the West seems to suffer deep anxieties about the precariousness of its civilization and to have a need for constant reassurance by comparison with Africa. If Europe, advancing in civilization, could cast a backward glance periodically at Africa trapped in primordial barbarity it could say with faith and feeling: There go I but for the grace of God.”
“Europe” is, therefore, “Africa’”s opposite. The site of order, rationality and civilisation (as if there weren’t tribalism, rituals, chaos, barbarity, etc. in our past and present).
But “Europe” has become “Africa”’s opposite through history. So “Africa” represents what Europe is proud of having left behind. That is why words such as tribe, aboriginalor indigenous, closely related with notions of origin, are compulsively associated with Africa, and progresswith the West. It would feel really weird to describe a group in European countries with the former set of words, despite the fact that these don’t imply backwardness by definition, nor barbarity, nor ritualism.
There it is. The second aspect of our cultural background. But let’s remember that we’re talking about a system of distinctions and associations that usually remains unnoticed. We don’t formulate in our thoughts the idea that Europe and Africa are opposites. We don’t draw the conceptual map of the paragraphs above in our daily lives. Instead, it is already drawn and incorporated. We just use the words and symbols in certain ways and not others, unaware of the displacements in their meanings.
“Africa” is thus the phantom that Europe runs away from to be “Europe”. Indeterminate, immaterial, unusually noticed but relevantly present, “Africa” is used to give form to a self-definition that will do no mention to it but doesn’t make sense without it. Because progress and civilisationare understood as a process of separation frombarbaric origins.
There’s no trace, then, of Europe’s role in Africa in this cultural background. There is almost no trace of Africa itself as something real—great way of covering European real deeds there. And in the nebulous representations we have, “Africa” has nothing to do with us. That is why it is so easy to see African migrants as alien dehumanised burdens for poor, innocent us—the narrative repeated and repeated by politicians with regards to the Mediterranean crisis.
But as they approach our coasts, what used to be far, far away, exotic, unreal, starts condensing before the eyes of many into compact, tangible, human reality which turns out to be very near both geographically and morally, threatening to break the veil that conceals European guilts. Tell-tale hearts beating louder and louder, calling for an adequate narrative.