Thursday, August 15, 2013

New Friends of Africa – Almost Here?

New Friends of Africa – Almost Here?

Chambi Chachage

They come and go. With friends like these, as Oyekan Owomoyela once called them, Africa never lacks new stories about it. After all, old friends and foes of the continent affirmed, sarcastically, that there is always something new coming out of Africa.

This time around a not-so-new friend has blogged a provocative post: New Africa – almost there? The Puzzled Boss Lady, for that is the name of her blog, is described as “Nordic attempts to understand a changing Africa.” Its blogger, Iina Soiri, is the new director of the respected Nordic Africa Institute (NAI).

The blog post opens with exciting news about Soiri’s return to “Arusha after moving out of Tanzania three years ago.” The self-described “modern nomad and Africa expert who during two decades trekked from one coast to the other on the African continent” goes on to tell us, satirically I presume, that after “all, since then there has only been good news from the continent: Africa Rising, African Miracle, New Economic Boom in Africa, Now it is Africa’s Turn, New Africa! And Tanzania has been one of the best performing countries, I hear – it’s all so new, and you will not recognize it anymore!”

Then the satirical plot is lost along the way. For some of us who - three years ago - had been to what Soiri describes as “Kilimandjaro [sic] airport” that “shines clean and calm” with “no chaos, no queues, no hassle” when she arrive, there is nothing new about all this – it is a common experience especially when you arrive with KLM at night. One can even bet that observing that immigration “officers have computers, finger print machines and foreign currency to give” a foreigner “change while paying visa” hardly warrants this surprise: “Great! That’s New Africa for sure, I observe happily.” Here one is also assuming that when our friend arrived in Tanzania a couple of years back to work for the Finnish Embassy in Dar es Salaam, she got her visa at the Kilimanjaro International Airport in Hai and not at the Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam.

There follows a barrage of what hardly, or did not, work at all – a hotel “room that does not open with the modern key card”, a wireless connection, a safety deposit. “Better get some service even in this New Africa”, so our friend “think and go downstairs” for at “least the elevator works.” Down there at the counter she encounters “many smart looking ladies” and hence recalls: “Oh, yes, I have heard this; plenty of young educated people in the New Africa. This must be ‘the demographic dividend’, ready for opportunities to change the continent.” Yet nothing really works out in Soiri’s favor, well, except for the “smiling’” ladies charming her “with a patient smile.”

Thereafter comes the story of the worrying fire alarm, unpicked phone calls, locked elevator doors and, once again, “smiling ladies.” We are then told of a “new modern toaster” that burns her bread, of an omelet that never came and about getting “some Kilimandjaro [sic] chai with a shy smile that compensates.” What is more puzzling, particularly for some of us who finds it very easy to access mobile services in Tanzania, is her following account: “We go outside to look for pre-paid sim-card. Those must be plenty available, as mobile technology is ‘connecting people’ in this New Africa. Out of the many colorful shacks we enter the third one before getting lucky – but you normally need to register and wait for three days to make it operational. We do not have three days – but perhaps the ever patient Africans have?” ‘There is no hurry in Africa’ discourse disguised in a question?

Thus comes Soiri’s conclusion after yet another round of old wine in a new bottle: “Finally we get to the Arusha International Conference Centre, where the meeting is just about to begin, but the hall is empty. ‘What else is new in Africa’, I think and turn to the smiling young men, who serve me a cup of nice hot chai. And keep on waiting, we are almost there. This is what I call Good Old Africa, and I like it.” Of course she does.

These sentiments are not so new. They stem from a discourse that is as old as the adage on ‘Out of Africa.’ No wonder some of her readers share them also. “After just returning to TZ – have felt pretty much the same – not that Mozambique was really ahead in all this”, one of them affirms. Probably one of the most articulate supports of this position comes from a member of Wanazuoni: Tanzania’s Intellectuals. He writes:

Possibly I was not wearing my black hat when I read the piece, but I actually wonder whether we all read the same article or not. From the description given, I think I recognise the hotel and can agree with the author's experience. It is a 3 possibly 4 stars hotel and it is to be expected that everything should be working as expected. In my few days stay there Wi-Fi didn't work for a number of days, the technical staffs were not that technical at all, and the technicians who fixed the problem came after three days. All in all, it is not like I need this blogger's experience to be true to substantiate my life's experience in Tanzania. I know that many of us have been desensitized to these issues that we take them for granted (I found my peers in school and university amazingly adjusted to unnecessary difficulties), but for some of us they really get inside our skins: some issues we tolerate, some issues make us smile (no place like home), some issues (say experiences with daladalas) make us enraged with murderous intent, many issues make us want to simply leave the country. But things that we do for love! The rebuttal is needed- probably it is needed to inform me how rosy my life is compared to how I perceive it to be, probably it is needed to make me see that the money I regularly spend to compensate for services whose availability should be taken for granted is money well spent, probably it is needed to make me forget how ruthlessly efficient I find other peoples' 'systems' to be when I meet the other world. I might need a very strong injection of that anesthesia though... (Charles Makakala Jr)

That defense resonates with another recent provocative, albeit convincing, article on A Culture of Low Expectations, By Okey Ndibe. Yet it hardly let Soiri off the hook of Afropessimism. It is not surprising then that she has provoked what Abiola Irele has thus referred as the primary dimension of what is now regarded as Afropessimism:In its polemical stance, then, African discourse presents itself as a thorough-going deconstruction of the Western image of the Native, the Black, the African.” In Tanzania NAI had been supportive in such deconstruction through the annual Mwalimu Nyerere Intellectual Festival Week during Carin Norberg’s directorship (2006-2012). However, with blog posts like these, this task remains daunting. But maybe it is about time that we abandon this seemingly Sysyphean task of responding to them and just expend our time and energy reconstructing Africa. In any case, as someone who has once failed miserably in an attempt at satire, I can only hope Soiri's attempt was, deep down, simply an irony gone wrong as one of her readers seem to suggest below:

This post is a little bit confusing to me. I can’t quite figure out whether you are using irony to drive the point that all this talk about the rise of Africa is meaningless. But then the “I like it” part betrays it all (Elias Munshya wa Munshya)


Johan at NAI September 4, 2013 at 11:03 AM  

Interesting. Here is another blogpost by NAI director Iina Soiri that perhaps explains her first provocative text. Or is it just more fuel to your arguments?

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