Our nations were shaped by outside forces and faced instability from their creation. But from art to business I can see the resilience and creativity that will help us overcome the challenges
For most of the 20th century Africa made an epic journey: from its original way, through the trauma of colonialism and into the flawed daylight of independence. It made a journey in 50 years that it took other continents centuries – and, in some nations, thousands of years – to accomplish.
We all know that the terms of African independence were flawed at birth; Africa stepped on to the world stage with its hands tied, the contract of nations negotiated against its favour. It was joining a game in which all the contestants had been in training for centuries, had set the rules of the game, and had all the best facilities and the bias of the ages; and it was joining this game with broken arms and legs, confidence shattered, spirit scattered.
It is our challenge to change the world by the force and wisdom of our curious situation and angle
How do you change a game whose rules have been fixed long before you entered the field? This is a question every nation has to ask itself; but African nations have to ask that question of themselves in extremis. We have been tearing ourselves apart while the world gathered the treasures of the Earth.
The first step in our renaissance has to be putting our house in order. Maybe the first task is to eradicate corruption from our social and political practice. The roots of corruption are deep, but not so deep that one generation of stern prohibition of all corrupt practices can’t stamp them out. Trust, probity, the rule of law, freedom, justice and the eradication of poverty: these are basic things. Equality of men and women in society and before the law; religious freedom and tolerance; racial and tribal equality; free education, if possible, up to the highest levels. For without education the possibilities of a people are forever obscured.
When I speak of education, I do not mean only that which goes on in schools and universities. Education ought to permeate society. Education is also what is passed on between parents and children. It is the stories we tell the children; it is the stories we tell ourselves. A society can be transformed by stories it tells itself. But it has to be the stories we tell ourselves in our everyday acts.
When we allow shacks and shanty towns to abound, we are perpetuating stories about our inability to deal with poverty; we are advertising our failure to ourselves; we are, in fact, educating our children to fail. Every act of government is an education; every act of policy is a revelation; every failure to rise to justice, to lift the people from misery, is an education in destroying the confidence of a people.
We cannot tell our students stories of heroism and at the same time have them live in a world in which corruption and poverty abound, and expect them to believe in the nation.
A casual glance at the history of triumphant nations shows how the stories they told themselves and their actions were in tandem. Throughout the later part of the 19th century England made concerted efforts at creating a viable police force and clearing out the slums of London; it was a task that took nearly 100 years. In roughly that time the slums you could read about in Hugo and Zola were being torn down in Paris. They conceived the city how they wanted it, and they built it. They had a vision, and through time, with law after law, with deed after deed, they created those glories of modern cities. These things are not acts of God. They are acts of men and women who realise the world is here for us to make and remake in the image of our best dreams.
It is our challenge to change the world by the force and wisdom of our curious situation and angle. It is already happening, even among the troubles and violence of our times. In east Africa the creation of a new people’s mobile phone banking system was a trend the big banks did not spot. They did not even glimpse its possibilities. This form of micro-banking, creating financial freedom among small traders, market women and participators in the micro-economy is the kind of creativity in a world where the game is skewed that I am talking about.
The African spirit is fundamentally a creative one. It is an aspect of ourselves I don’t think we have fully grasped. We tend to use it negatively: in crises, in difficulties, on the very edges of necessity. But this creativity of the African spirit, used proactively, in sport, in culture, in business, in education, will be the beginning of the African transformation.
I take my sense of African creativity from the matrix of our complex and varied world views, our distinctive mythologies, the fecund world of spirits and gods, and above all from our art. From the southern tip of the continent to the northern edge, from Nigeria to Egypt, from the Kushites to the Ethiopians, African art has been rich, wild, ordered, magnificent, tranquil and irrepressible.
Lift your eyes from the art of the continent to the teeming life of the people. About Africa, one thing is certain: its extraordinary gift of vitality, its magnificent gift of life.
This rich feeling for life infects even its tragedies. Is there a continent more divided, more at war, more unsettled? Not one of the African nations chose its own boundaries. African nations were externally shaped: this brought to them a fundamental structural instability that in time has yielded the wars, the chaos, the violence, the infamous corruption.
Extreme Islamic cults, capitalism, liberal democracy, globalisation, China are battling for the soul of Africa. The first scramble for Africa resulted in the tragic fragmentation and colonisation of the continent, the bending of our destiny. But destiny is large and can absorb colonialists and all the forces of history, and yet still fulfil its deepest purpose, which is beyond the comprehension of us mortals, but is within the prophetic understanding of the soul of Africa.
The first scramble was a catastrophe; this second phase is not a scramble. It is an act of violence, an act of seduction. But this time Africa is wiser. Will Africa, in the full light of day, allow itself to be broken against its will, to be seduced against its best interest, to be deceived against its truth, or bullied by violence against its desires? We have to say NO to what we don’t want; NO to any form of secular or religious tyranny; NO to injustice and to poverty; NO to the selling of our future to any foreign power, no matter how friendly and helpful.
The 21st century will reveal the true resilience of the African spirit. The African renaissance will be like no other. It will not be a western or an eastern or a northern one. It will be a rebirth, a regeneration into itself. What will it look like? I see flashes of it in the Benin bronzes, fragments of it in Nyerere’s Ujamaa, in ubuntu. Sometimes I see a building shaped with the magic of the circle that takes the idea of the ancestral hut to a cosmic plane; sometimes a line in Okigbo, a proverb in Achebe, an ideal in Ngugi, the inflection of a Zulu song, a Xhosa dance, the yearning in a Malian melody, a sunset over Kilimanjaro, the slow reinvention of democracy here and there, the glimpse of a road, the mischievous confidence of intellectuals just after independence, Desmond Tutu’s spontaneous dance, the sight of girls chatting on their way to school, that moment in 1986 when Wole Soyinka won the Nobel prize for literature, the silence that will come over the world when that which could not be imagined becomes real – African contentment, the beauty of its villages, the casual intelligence of its children, the strangeness of African space travel, the richly functioning nature of its politics, the resolution of its conflicts, the paradoxical magic of its art and its literature, written with the transforming ink of the gods, in which what you read starts a fire in your soul, a light with a going and coming that goes on forever.
This is a moment in which Africa’s road is famished and perfectly poised for a new destination.
• This article is based on a speech Ben Okri gave to the Centre for African renaissance studies, Pretoria