Sunday April 17 2016

Inquiry into the African mind

By Timothy Kalyegira

A few things can be said about the African and this week I plan to say them because they can be frustrating when one really takes the time to think about them.

One is in how little important matters truly bother us. Most complain about the state of affairs around them but very little of that is deeply felt and if or when it is, rarely eats into our minds. We quickly move on to other things.

An idea of this is best seen in the fact that 90 to 95 per cent of all political and civil causes in Uganda – the human rights groups, media advocacy groups, street children and slum projects – are funded by governments or private organisations in the West.
A whole advocacy industry has grown since the early 1990s in which every injustice, crisis, inequality and setback in Africa has a godparent in the West who funds it on behalf of Africans.

Given how much pain, distress, poverty, shoddy public social services and injustice we face on a daily basis, one would have expected that something would stir up in the African to make him or her want to do something about it and contribute money to solving it.

Instead, the people most concerned about the plight of the African, at least going by their donations in support of advocacy groups, is the European and North American.

And so we have the embarrassing situation in which the European is passionately trying to alleviate the suffering of the downtrodden African while the downtrodden African is busy for much of his life trying to live like the European.
The middle class professional African drives more expensive cars than his European counterpart in Europe.

The European government officials who work on the documentation and financial transfers for the aid and advocacy programmes in Africa comes to work in a bicycle, by train or on foot in Brussels, London, Geneva and Stockholm while the African officials who manage these European- and American-funded programmes in Africa drives to work in a $40,000 (about Shs130 million) SUV.

The slave wears gold and diamonds while the master wears simple sandals and the slave cannot see why he remains a slave to the master all his life and for succeeding generations.
Why are we like this? Why are we a foolish people, most of us, educated and semi-literate, urban and rural?

At first, many put this down to the colonial experience. Marxist thinkers and their disciples such as Franz Fanon claimed that this was all the result of colonial brainwashing.

Following independence in the 1960s in novel after novel, play after play by such African writers as Wole Soyinka, Ngugi wa Thiongo, Okot p’Bitek, Chinua Achebe, Ousmane Sembène, Peter Abrahams and others, the tension between traditional African society and the disruptive effect of the Western colonial experience is examined.

The African is portrayed as caught between two worlds, the African traditional, feudal and agrarian on one hand and the technological, scientific, bureaucratic world of the European.
Dazzled and blinded by the sight and experience of Western modernity, the African inevitably is swayed by Europe and this leaves a deep imprint on his psyche. His every dream, activity, business and thought is, on the unconscious, to be like the European.

Some of that is the truth and there is no denying it. However, what has to be asked is why our imitation is mostly in the form and not the substance.

If it is indeed true that we are brainwashed into imitating the Europeans, how come we seem unable to imitate, for instance, their prodigious reading habits, their tidiness in office, home and city?
Many of us travel through, study and work in their countries, see the sense of order and purpose, but return home having not been impacted by that. They only effect that North America and Europe have on is in the way we develop consumer habits from dressing to cars and electronic gadgets.

Why are we unable to imitate their tendency to pursue a matter from start to finish without wavering, regardless of how long it takes such as in research, product development and inquiry?
It seems to me that the answer lies elsewhere, not in brainwashing or globalisation. It must lie on the inside, in the intrinsic us.

At present I am reading the 1994 book “The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life” by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. It caused a major storm when first published in late 1994 and remains a highly controversial book to this day.

It has been criticised by Western liberals and militant African-Americans as racist and yet it is not about race but about the impact, if any, on inherent intelligence and cognitive ability on one’s chances in life and career, regardless of race.

Most of those who attack it have never read it for themselves or if they have, have opened the chapter on intelligence and race, shut the book, and then went on to rant about its supposed racism.

“The Bell Curve” is actually a very well written and exhaustively researched book and for those who actually bother it, the book’s conclusions raise a number of disturbing questions.

For some like me who have spent most of our adult life in frustration at the incompetence, short-sightedness, blindness, mental slowness and cluelessness of our African societies, this book provides the explanation that nothing else I have ever read or know about has explained to my satisfaction.

Sometimes as I blame our governments for the foolish things they do, I only have to stand back and look at the wider society, doing similar things by omission and commission and I’m left wondering if this lack of understanding, this blindness, is political or mental.

I watch several American and British television channels and regularly go through their websites – cookery, music, science, photography, design, history, technology, film, business news and much more.

There are things I see on those channels and websites, especially the history and documentary channels, that make me wonder if we can ever rise to that level of professional depth and skill, no matter how democratic and prosperous our countries get.
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