Are we Africans so easy to please?

THE passage below, from Barack Obama’s book, Dreams From My Father, reminded me of a month-long visit to the US by a group of 30 of us editors from Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe — after the end of Communism in 1993:
“I think the worst thing colonialism did was cloud our view of the past. Without the white man we might be able to make better use of our history. We might look at some of our former practices and decide that they are worth preserving. Others we might grow out of. Unfortunately, the white man has made us very defensive. We end up clinging to all sorts of things that have outlived their usefulness . . .”
The speaker is a Kenyan teacher named Rukia. Obama’s father was Kenyan. He met Rukia during a visit to his father’s country of birth. The book was first published in the United States in 2004.
During our tour, we were taken to what used to be called “an Indian reservation”.
It was inhabited entirely by the native Americans, the original inhabitants of this continent named after Amerigo Vespucci.
We were told there was, among them, widespread incidence of alcoholism and diabetes. The natives of New Zealand and Australia have had similar problems.
Those of us who believed, at our independence, that we ought to “return to our roots”, may have been whistling in the wind.
They seemed totally unaware that our old world had died — as long as we aspired to be part of a new world, which had been created from a blueprint entirely alien from our ancestors.
The advocates of a return to the old ways were ignoring how colonialism had transformed us.
Although we waged wars of liberation against the “white devils”, not many of our leaders envisioned our objective as a return to the “good old days” of chiefs, headmen, polygamy and wealth exemplified by many wives, children and cattle.
An African leader is said to have declared to a group of whites nervous about giving his people adult suffrage and hence the power to decide their destiny, that his people were easy to please.
Give them enough money to buy their basic needs — traditional dish for their family. Apart from that, they didn’t crave anything else.
Give them their dish every day and you have them eating out of the palm of your hand.
His miscalculation had tragic consequences. The people fought the whites to a standstill, until they gained their independence.
What transpired later is controversial: the new leaders believed all they needed to satisfy their people was…enough money to feed their families on their traditional dish.
The consequences were not unexpected: there was civil war — for the people wanted much more than that to feed their families — they too wanted to be able to decide their destiny.
They called it democracy, the reason for their fight against the colonialists.
In the early years of independence, the leaders seemed to have been intoxicated by the ease with which the colonialists had kept the Africans “in their place” — abject poverty.
Brutal force was used against them when they raised their voices in protest.
Moreover, you could make it more damning if you accused them of being coerced into their actions by the former colonialists. You could mention treason.
If that didn’t work, you shot a few of them — the way the colonialists did. That would teach them that protests could result in death.
This scenario may sound simplistic as an example of what is happening on our continent today.
But what do ordinary Africans want from independence apart from a good life, total freedom to pursue their dreams — excluding abusing their fellow citizens for any reason whatsoever?
All this is probably not what their ancestors saw as the ultimate objective of their existence — unfettered freedom to achieve their potential.
The colonialists were determined to deny them the right to achieve their potential — because they were not “responsible enough”.
That was what led them to fight the colonialists.
The real African past is dead. We are now part of a new world.  We too can reach the moon . . . if we try hard enough.
Bill Saidi is a veteran journalist based in Harare.

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