It all begins with a story.
A story that Mother Culture hums in our ears from birth.
The story a people tell themselves is the manual for how they live their lives in this world and direct their destinies. This story is whispered in your ear from birth to death, and your every action in life is geared towards fitting the story, playing your role in the story.
As Daniel Quinn says, writer of the philosophical novel Ishmael, “There is no something else. To step out of this story is to fall off the edge of the world.”
Thus, the story is the all important narrative here, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves holds our past, present, and our destiny.
Africa’s story was of a great diversity of brilliant minds, a powerful people who had learnt to understand their world, the earth, the universe so remarkably that leaders of the subsequent Greek and Roman empires came to learn at our feet. The first doctor was an African called Imhotep. He is considered by some to be the earliest known architect, engineer and physician in early history. Greek philosophers came across the deserts and the seas to come and study in Africa. In tracing the course of Greek philosophy, historians have found that many obtained their education from Egyptian priests. Ancient Egypt is prior to Greece as Greece is prior to Rome, and Greece is credited with spreading civilisation in Europe. You can draw the linkage to Africa here.
Anthropological studies show that the people of Egypt at the time were not who inhabit the country now but people who looked like West Africans today, before the end of empires and migration thus movement. But no one tells this story of Africans as the first scientists, first discoverers, first thinkers, depicting complex thoughts and belief and knowledge systems in the sciences and philosophy and much else.
Instead, the pied piper played us a stealthy tune and that story was erased. A new story emerged, and according to that story, Africa was born with colonialism. And we know where the story goes from there: a ‘primitive’ people who were shown the light, and ever since have had to hold on to their colonial masters shirt-ends to survive; because without our colonial masters, we are nothing but a jumble of fumbling economies, resident presidents, poverty, war and disease.
This is the pervasive narrative that a very malevolent storyteller pumps into our brains from birth to death. Everywhere we look, it is the subtle story being infused into our brains, our very beings, deceiving us into enacting a story that ultimately benefits the malevolent storyteller. This storyteller, malicious or good, is the artist.
Thus the ultimate power lies not with the story but the storyteller, the artist. A malicious storyteller can lead to destruction. A good storyteller can uplift with the truth and inspire a people to move mountains.
In the past, amongst many ethnic groups in Africa, when there was war, the warriors never left without their drummer. It wasn’t for entertainment. The drums, brought to roaring life by the skill of the drummer filled them with power, the music of the drums told them they were invincible and they became invincible on the war field. This is the power of the artist; the power to inspire, to paint a dream and make you turn that dream into reality, and even the power to break spirits to desolation.
It is for no flimsy reason every time you watch a Hollywood movie about the end of the world, or impending destruction of the earth, it is not an African you see in saving the world from destruction. This includes science fiction, a medium by which the world dreams of its future. Most times, their depiction of the world in the future has no Africans in it at all. That is the power of art, it can erase a whole continent. The more movies you watch of a white savior (Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Star wars, etc.), the more your subconscious registers that as fact. The more movies you watch, more news headlines, more skewed photography you see of how poor, corrupt, and war ridden your people are, the more you subconsciously come to believe that this is your truth. Art is the most subtle yet incredibly powerful medium by which a people’s story can be told, it could be a false story, it could be a true story, but art makes sure it hits home, consciously or subconsciously.
When there is a single-sided reportage of Africa’s calamities, that is a false story of Africa being hummed into our ears. When Ebola hit only three West African countries and there were calls for ALL Africans travelling to the west to be curtailed, 9 west African medical students were barred from starting medical school in the Caribbean and sent back after a 22hour flight; two African boys were beaten up in a high school in NYC and subsequently hospitalized, all the while their attackers called them ‘Ebola’ - That is the kind of destruction a single warped story of a people can cause.
When we still buy white Barbie dolls with blue eyes and blonde hair for our very black, dark-eyed daughters, it is a subtle, very subtle way of teaching our daughters to aspire to another kind of beauty, humming a false story into their young impressionable ears, when our music artistes who win BET awards are given their awards long before the main show starts with no crowd, and no celebration, it is yet another pervasive story of Africa, telling Africans we are not the mainstream. [It started with being backstage, so we’ve made some progress.] Even in colour; when black is associated with evil, white with good, yet people’s phenotypes are also labeled as black and white, that is another pervasive story being quietly hummed.
When African literature is not considered ‘African enough’ by international judging bodies because they do not tell a tale of war, poverty or disease, that is the pervasive story being hummed.
It is time for a new storyteller, our own storytellers who will tell our stories and sing the songs of our greatness and sorrows, successes and failures. And these storytellers are our artists.
POINT IS, if you want to change the self, you have got to change the story. And how do you change the story? Change the storyteller. And that is what makes the African artist of today important; that they battle the hegemonic, degrading narrative of Africa, and they are re-telling our stories with our various truths.
And in this lies our hope for the future. If we want to dream a splendid Africa in 2050, look to the African artist.
Somewhere in August,