"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

‘A Dump With Oil’–Annals Of Underdevelopment And Its Legacy

Peter Bentley was an international development consultant.  In his retirement years he always put quotation marks around ‘development’, for in his many decades banging the bush he never saw any such thing.  There could never be such a thing in countries rich in resources but government by tribal golden boys who had made good and who had to repay those who sacrificed to move them up the ladder of post-colonial chiefdom. 

“Mr. Rosenthal”, the elegant, tall, imposing Wolof Secretary of Finance, said to the representative of the United Nations Mission for Reconstruction and Development who had challenged his commitment to social reform, “you have misunderstood”. 

Rosenthal, an international bureaucrat nearing retirement who had never gotten beyond his agency’s platitudes about rectification and helping ‘the poorest of the poor’, struggled to understand the Secretary’s elegant French, his allusions to colonial history, pre-colonial African empires, and the mechanisms of foreign policy, and bumbled and muddled his way through his reply – a nonsensical apologia for a program he never understood, cared less about understanding, and had continued to draw a paycheck because the end of the line was in sight.

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Rosenthal didn’t even know he was being humiliated by this Sorbonne-educated, tribal prince, whose roots went back to the great Gao Empire of Mali, transplanted in Senegal, acquired great wealth through the Saharan slave trade, and became a rich man thanks to his Wolof business canniness.  “I repay my debts and carry out my responsibilities in order of priority”, the Secretary went on. “First to my family, then to my tribe, then to my region, and finally, Mr. Rosenthal, to my country”. 

It was a lesson that was to be repeated in every country of Africa, a hard lesson to learn by Americans who still, despite millennia of history, let alone the recent chaotic years of Big Men, civil wars, and tribal conflict, believed in rational progress and responsibility.  Rosenthal, by no means the most ignorant and foolish American development worker to be sent to Africa, was certainly emblematic of that ignorance. 

No one but the African autocrats seemed to get it.  We are dumps with oil, shitholes of corruption, violence, pathetic ignorance, and venality, said the Secretary in so many words, but as long as there are cobalt, rare earths, diamonds, emeralds, gas and oil in the ground,  we will continue to be.
Secretary Diouf was proud of his twenty-five room mansion overlooking the Atlantic, his Bentley, Maserati, two classic Mercedes, and his TR-4 reconstructed runabout that he ran to Thies on weekends.

He was proud of his son who was following in his footsteps at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, his son at Yale whose admission had been secured by a multi-million dollar grant for a new department of  West African Tribal Studies, and one at Oxford who might even have gotten in on his own steam even without the support of the Dean of Balliol who, an Islamic scholar and affirmative action front-liner who was reputed to take any black face if the body had a pedigree; or in more crass terms, an endowed chair.

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The Secretary spoke perfect English, and spoke French to Rosenthal and the UN mission for fun.  If his Saturday evening was to be spoiled and his assignation with his youngest and most beautiful wife delayed why not perform?  His linguistic virtuosity, seamlessly woven historical and cultural references, his allusions to Greece and Ghana were all part of his vaudeville act.  The dinner, too, was part of the side show – elegant china, Baccarat crystal, foie gras, filet de sole, fines de claires, and New Zealand lamb all served impeccably by white-liveried, practiced servants. 

If Rosenthal and his crew were expecting thieboudienne or poulet yassa, they were sorely disappointed. Their hopes for ‘diversity’, a celebration of African cuisine were spoiled as they fumbled with the silver, poked at the fish, scraped at the foie gras, and hacked at the lamb chops.
The Secretary was a man among men who had used his intelligence, tribal heritage, and will to rise to power, wealth, and influence.  Because in such a corrupt administration in such a corrupt country no high official was occupied with anything official, and that leadership was more a matter of show than substance, the Secretary had time on his hands; so other than a few hours delay before bedtime with his Fulani green-eyed mistress, the evening was enjoyable. 

There are a number of black Americans who have wanted to return to their roots – to discover the glory and wonder of their native Africa – but who wanted their money back.  They thought that their blackness would inoculate them against the touts on the Place de l’Independence, the overcharging at the Fleur de Lys, the runaround at the airport, and the indifference of the tour bus driver.  Worse, they were upset by the poverty, the lack of infrastructure and public services, and the total and complete dismissiveness of everyone.  Black? Who cares?

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Those black Americans who dug a bit deeper, probed into local politics and political history were appalled at the venality, autocracy, manipulation, and exploitation of the people by their rulers.  Untold wealth from countries’ natural resources was shipped to offshore accounts or to Switzerland by politicians who knew that their next stop was either a garbage dump in Treichville or a villa on the Riviera.  How could a continent so limned and lionized, so proudly displayed in national and regional museums of art and history, be so badly off? And how could they have believed such distorted information ?

The Clintons were famous for their idealistic ignorance of Africa.  Hillary as Secretary of State overlooked the corruption of the current Malian regime, its rigged elections, and its venal autocracy, and supported its leaders who in short order were ousted by the military which unlike Hillary, had understood and had gotten fed up with the corruption of the regime.  Americans have always wanted Africa to be a success.  It had to be a success to validate the experience of the former slaves who were shipped her by African traders, Arab middlemen, and European retailers.  Diplomats were encouraged to look the other way, to ignore the burnt side of the toast, and to butter the fair.

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There is, unfortunately,  corruption and autocratic rule up and down the length of Africa.  North Africa has had its share of fundamentalist- inspired civil wars and dictatorships.  West African countries have grown in population but succeeded in impoverishing new citizens.  Nigeria, a country with a huge population is beset by crime, murderous violence in the oil rich delta, and endemic corruption.  Mali, Chad, and the other countries of the Sahel are now in a struggle against Islamic fundamentalist militias and are losing it.  East African presidents and presidential pretenders have been called before international tribunals for crimes against humanity. New countries like South Sudan, entities that never should have been created but for the racial idealism of America, are failed states.  South Africa since the end of apartheid and the transitional rule of Nelson Mandela, has become a crime-ridden, politically unstable, corrupt place.

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Africa of course has had its empires – Ghana and Gao among others – and although they left no architecture, no art, no written literature, or no monuments, they are considered to have been significant cultural influences in West Africa.  Africanists have decried this Euro-centric analysis of African Empire.  Why, they say, should the temples of Ancient Greece, the stadia and coliseums of Rome, the medieval cathedrals of France and Germany, and more than two millennia of philosophy, literature, science and art be given preference over African empires simply because they left something behind?  Gao and Ghana left something behind, but one has to look to oral traditions, parse the songs of griots, and have the patience to explore.

From a Western perspective, it is hard to consider sub-Saharan Africa within the same cultural context as Europe – or Asia for that matter.  According to progressive cultural critics, all cultures are equal, all heritages equally influential, all traditions equally valid. To conservatives, this inclusivity corrupts the historical, analytical process.  Of course Greece, Rome, Persia, Mandarin China, Imperial Japan, and the court of Louis XIV of France have been more influential, more culturally productive, more dominant in world history than Africa.

At the same time, Africa, with its own, particular, village- and tribal-based culture has been the source of music, dance, and powerful religious expression. It has produced different cultural modes which are unique but cannot be compared to those of Europe or Asia.

Why does this matter? It matters because according to the progressive canon, white, European culture is being dismissed.  Not only are its churches, religions, cities, language, science and arts dismissed either as irrelevant or insignificant, but European civilization has been seen as a negative force in history – an oppressive, corrosive, damaging, and destructive one.  Not only are Chartres, Descartes, Newton, Kant, and Kierkegaard worth little on the cultural scoreboard; their influence has forced the ruled into obligatory obeisance to false gods.

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From a classic perspective of world culture, if there are any ethnic minorities in America today that deserve note, they are Italians, Greeks, and Chinese.  They are inheritors of imperial traditions which shaped the modern world.  Ancient Greek philosophers  created the foundations of Western thought.  Where would Christianity be without Plato and Aristotle?  They are the legatees of Imperial Rome, whose leaders showed uncanny management and administrative savvy.  Where would modern governments be without the foundations of Roman practical insights which lead to a 500-year empire and a long period of peace? Chinese Americans are descendants of a long mandarin history, empire, Buddhism, and the application of Confucian values to all human enterprise.

In short, a grab-bag version of ‘inclusivity’ – where any and all comers are embraced, welcomed, and cheered without critical appraisal and only on the basis of simple identify – a birth certificate, a passport, skin color – derogates cultural history, demeans cultural achievement, and dismisses storied pasts.  If progressives are serious about ‘inclusivity’, then they should be welcoming Americans of white European origin, Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese – not because they correspond to boxes checked but because they are the descendants of an important history. African Americans as well should be regarded not in comparison to Europeans or Asians, but with an important, although perhaps less influential cultural history. 

Does a second generation Southern Italian with tenuous roots to ancient Rome, Renaissance Florence, or Garibaldi deserve any notice?  Or a Greek with an island fisherman’s background? or a Chinese America descended from railroad workers in California?

Unequivocally yes; for even though they may have no links to an important cultural past – a duke of France with a direct lineage to the court of Louise XIV – they represent it.  A recognition of their cultural roots gives them legitimacy and a place in the multi-cultural tent.  So does an acknowledgement of African cultural roots within the perspective of world history. 

Telling the truth – praising Western and Asian civilizations for their remarkable contributions to world civilization and recognizing the less visible but still important contributions of African culture– is essential.  People cannot be fooled or sold a bill of goods. There is no harm in recognizing the greatness of European and Asian civilizations; and no shame in acknowledging Africa’s lesser contributions – if all cultures are well-defined and their role in world history told honestly.

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