Smothered by Narrative

Over the last few months, I have been struck that repeatedly, despite good intentions and the belief of doing better than those before, foreigners/expatriates continue to commit objective harm (alongside benefits) in Africa. Moreover, we seem oblivious to this and then happily condemn others.

This observation arose from conversations with Kenyan friends, living here and notably, four (highly recommended) books:

  1. Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas, a critique on the private pursuit of billionaire philanthropy to solve public problems;
  2. State of Africa by Martin Meredith, an academic’s historical account of the continent since independence amidst foreign interference;
  3. Africa: Dispatches from a Fragile Continent by Blaine Harden, a journalist’s reporting in the 1980s observing the repeated failings of governments fuelled by many things including botched aid projects; and
  4. Wizard of the Crow by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, a novel which in the author’s words tries ‘to sum up Africa of the 20th century in the context of 2,000 years of world history’.

These motivated and informed my last two pieces, ‘Uninvited’ and ‘It is not me, it is you, written in a more creative and cryptic style than usual. Unable to put together the arguments, I veered towards poetry to better convey the complexity of the subject (or, perhaps, protect myself in ambiguity). I would recommend reading those brief pieces before this for today, I return to prose to expand on these ideas.

History does rhyme: Uninvited

We talk as if human history follows a linear course of progress: we are more humane, more civilised, more progressive than those before. We look back to historic mistakes (slavery, wars, oppression, genocide – take your pick) and their protagonists with contempt. We wonder, how could they have been so oblivious to their own mistakes? How was such ignorance possible? Why were they so evil?

Whilst real progress has undoubtedly been achieved and the trend is broadly positive, we fluctuate widely and cyclically. We seem to forget this as each subsequent group looks at such mistakes, smirks with hubris and then self-righteously commits their own.

The Allies saved the world when they vanquished in the fight against the Nazis and their war in the name of the superiority of one race. However, at the same time, the French, British, Italians, Spanish, Portugese and Dutch ruled a stolen continent with varying degrees of brutality in the name of ‘civilising’ people. In Kenya, during the 1940s and 50s Britain was running concentration camps for the Mau-Mau fighters, as detailed by Caroline Elkin in ‘Britain’s Gulag’. A quarter century later, as described by Martin Meredith, the continent was unceremoniously dumped to a few kleptocratic leaders. In the 1980s, as Blaine Harden recounts, the US knowingly propped up the brutal reign of Samuel Doe in Liberia to maintain their anti-communist stance and in Kenya, Norway poured millions into an aid fishing project in a desert that destabilised the local economy and then failed to become operational. In the 1990s, in Rwanda, the French and Belgians were heavily implicated in financing and enabling the Rwandan Genocide and in Kenya, a private french company built the Turkwel Dam at a price three times higher than international prices with heavy kick-backs to the government.

We may have moved beyond land invasions but interference and meddling remains prevalent. In my blog piece ‘Uninvited’, I wanted to address this as I wrote:

“Guns captured bodies in the name of racial hierarchies, God captured minds in the name of civilising, and Greed captured wealth in the name of capitalism.”

The last line of the piece read “if they are not us, how are we not them?”, alluding to our assumed difference between expats, like me, and our predecessors, the colonisers. I wanted to question our smug assumption that the colonisers were bad, and since we are trying to do good, we cannot be bad. Yet history tells us that missionaries and capitalists were also convinced of their good intentions. The similarities are striking: we all came to foreign lands, uninvited, with the belief that what was currently happening was wrong and that we, with our better ideology, could make things better.

“The names, the eras and the perpetrators may have changed but the underlying belief remained the same: inferiority. An inferiority which imposed a foreign system for value and justified its subsequent robbery.”

Accordingly, I was raising the question: Why are we so sure we are different? Why will time not taint us in the same way it has for others?

‘History doesn’t repeat itself. But it does rhyme’ – Mark Twain

The power of narrative: It is not me, it is you

For history to rhyme, for us to repeat similar mistakes of ignorance, suggests a curious feature of humans: we don’t learn much from history. We exploit and yet feel superior to those that exploited before. But when the shadow of history stares at us in the face, how is it possible that we are blind to it?

The answer, to me, lies in the lens through which we make sense of the world: our narrative. A narrative explains the immense complexity of our past, present, and future by tying a neat thread through its scattered points (of course, the narrative also chooses such points) such that our past errors are forgotten or re-cast into a palatable story. Yuval Harari in Sapiens sums it up as ‘imagined realities’ which ‘unlike lying, is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world’.

In the blog piece ‘It is not me, it is you’, I wanted to illustrate with a story of two characters who are much the same person, just born to different lives:

“[They] lived starkly different realities of wealth, opportunity and fortune. Only familiar with each other’s lives as distant images, they knew not the same shade of sun, taste of water or length of days… One fought against boredom, the other against poverty. ”

Despite these differences they shared a picture of the world, i.e., a meritocratic liberal society. I was trying to understand how we remain deluded with this idea of merit in our society when never before have children entered the world on such unequal platforms? How is it possible that we paint ourselves as thoughtful creatures yet allow people to starve for being born on the wrong side of a wall? How do we reconcile such hypocrisies?

Last year 26 people owned the same as the poorest 3.8 billion – Oxfam

Such an ‘imagined reality’ of meritocracy is held together by a convincing narrative that both characters subscribe to. Of course, such a narrative is not perfect and when questions arise, it quickly responds ‘it is not me, it is you’. For one character, the narrative justifies their complacency and entitlement on inherited privilege. For the other, their situation is painted as a result of their own failings. They accept this rather than rail against the inequality of life opportunities for if they had merit, surely, they too would find success?

“Why do our races, in the same place, live so differently?

It is not because centuries of my systemic and institutionalised discrimination continues to impact life today, we have all signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; it is your inability to move on.

Why are my leaders so inept?

It is not my proxy wars which supported their rise to tyranny, my military that armed them, my foreign companies that bought the stolen public gems they sold, my banks that hide their money or my aid that now papers over these cracks; it is you who keeps voting for them.

Why do I languish in such poverty?

It is not my history of theft, my unequal terms of trade or my system which enables a handful of people to be worth more than half of the world; it is your unwillingness to work hard and toil.”

This is the narrative we passively accept and tacitly support for it absolves us of our hypocrisy: in a meritocracy of ‘equals’ there should be no significant differences.

A Tentative Conclusion

We live in a world far too complex for human comprehension. Narratives serve an important purpose as they provide us with the simplicity that saves us from paralysis. However, in doing so, they can also be self-serving: blinding us to our own flaws, that of the system we inhabit and the solutions to solve it. In this way, history can rhyme to the benefit of some and at the cost of others.

Our role in this is to be aware and skeptical of our own narrative: where did it come from, who designed it, who does it serve and why do we feel morally righteous. Narratives govern our world and are subject to change under pressure; thought leaders like Gandhi, Mandela and Wangari Maathai challenged the stories which justified their oppression to create new ones. Today, with a great list of problems, we need to do the same.

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A hypocrite who enjoys engaging with ideas, challenging my own and exploring new ones.

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