The South African High Commission in Canada sponsors an Africa Dialogue Series lecture in collaboration with Carleton University’s Institute of African Studies. It is one of those talkshops in Western capitals that brings together and eclectic mix of actors connected by the continent: African diplomats, academic experts of Africa in every imaginable field, NGOs active in Africa, International Development Agencies, charity organizations and curious members of the public who only just returned from a safari in the Serengeti and have therefore become the latest members of the Friends of Africa Club. You know our new friends by the single cowrie shell attached to their hair or the patch of kente that is grafted onto any conspicuous part of whatever it is they are wearing. The more prominent the display of Africana exotica, the newer the membership of the friendship club.
This year, I had the unenviable task of delivering that lecture. Unenviable because I’ve had enough shelf life in the lecture circuits to know what happens whenever Africanist academics and African diplomats gather in the same room in the West: two different groups with two radically opposed views of the same continent. One view comes from a scholarly mandate to problematize, a mandate underwritten by academic freedom and the borderlessness of knowledge production. The other view stems from the officialese of the African postcolonial state: the diplomat has a mandate to look at Darfur and see Dubai. The stage was thus set for an interesting evening to say the least. Officials from four diplomatic missions in Ottawa were present: South Africa, Nigeria, Gambia, and Togo. My topic was potentially combustible: I was asked to assess fifty years of African independence.
The continent’s independence report card may be obvious – a hundred steps backward for every ten steps forward – but it gets complicated when people mandated by African states to claim that the sun rises in the west and sets in the east are also in the room. I had more problems, a dilemma: the sponsor of the event, the South African High Commission in Ottawa, has become my friend since I returned from the Penguin Prize award ceremony in Johannesburg. Was I going to ruin things for them by presenting the report card of Africa I had in mind thus setting the stage for a confrontation?
That is exactly what I did! Yikes! After my hour-long lecture during which I thought I had even cut Africa a lot of slack because of the diplomats, the Acting High Commissioner of South Africa rose to offer his response. Needless to say, he presented the exact opposite of my own lecture. We thus had two Africas in one room! He was supported by the diplomats from the Gambia and Togo. The Nigerian High Commissioner broke rank with the diplomatic community and stood solidly behind me. Apart from his being my very good friend, it just wasn’t going to cut it for Nigeria to stand behind South Africa because of the dynamics of continental rivalry! The lively back and forth continued until other members of the audience screamed to remind us that the comments and questions part of the programme was not the exclusive preserve of the diplomats!
Last week, the Acting High Commissioner of South Africa invites me to an end-of-year party at his home. Having run out of my supply of kolanuts, I went there with two bottles of palm wine because I figured I had some fence mending to do. A fellow from the Russian embassy came with the real thing: vodka. There was plenty of biltong. Our host also has the most amazing collection of original Cuban cigars I have ever seen. I assessed the situation and thought: this is fence mending made easy. I shouldn’t have worried.
Between palm wine, vodka, and biltong, the High Commissioner looks at me and says to everyone’s hearing: you know, I should apologise to Pius for contradicting him at the lecture. Just when you want to kick the butt of bloody academics like Pius and present a different picture of Africa, you get Gbagbo and Cote-d’Ivoire!
Hugh Masekela was crooning “Ibala Lam” in the background…