The Dignity of Merchants

Landeg White

  • In Search of Africa by Manthia Diawara
    Harvard, 288 pp, £17.50, December 1998, ISBN 0 674 44611 9

Towards the end of his Native Stranger: A Black American’s Journey into the Heart of Africa (1991), Eddy Harris spends two despairing weeks waiting at Lisala on the banks of the Zaire river for a steamer to take him to Kisangani. Behind him are North Africa, Francophone and English-speaking Africa, and a disastrous foray into the former black American colony of Liberia; behind him, too, three hundred pages of mounting exasperation with the poverty, filth, incompetence and bullying he has encountered on all sides. Finally the steamer arrives and he falls with relief into conversation with Justin, an English passenger. The boat’s captain remarks on this encounter: ‘his ancestors stole your ancestors from this place and took them to America as slaves. How can you live with them?’ Thinking back on all he has seen and experienced, Harris ‘turned to Justin and thanked him’.

How could a black American, even temporarily deranged, celebrate the slave trade as a good thing, releasing him from a ‘heart of darkness’ homeland? Yet Harris’s ‘thank you’ is not just a perversity. It finds an echo in Richard Wright’s question: ‘What does an African facing an African American see?’ It also finds an echo in Manthia Diawara’s answer:

I see Toni Cade Bambara, I see Kamau Brathwaite, I see James Baldwin, I see Bob Marley, I see James Brown, I see C.L.R. James, I see Muhammad Ali, I see Paule Marshall, I see Malcolm X, I see Edwidge Danticat, I see Walter Mosley, I see Maryse Condé, I see myself. I am free to see a human being, a person, an individual.

Diawara is not a black American. He was born in Guinea, just old enough to remember the euphoria of the independence ceremonies and to grow up hero-worshipping Sekou Touré. But his parents were from neighbouring Mali and in January 1964, when Sekou Touré expelled all non-citizens of Guinea as enemies of the Revolution, he experienced his first exile. Living today in New York he often suffers from what he calls ‘identity fatigue’, partly because of ‘the conundrum of identity politics’ at New York University, but more profoundly because ‘I am a man whose past no one knows’. He belongs ‘to the independence generation in Africa, which has been forgotten or neglected in the debris of modern history’ because its leaders were assassinated or deposed in coups or became paranoiac dictators. The significance of independence and self-determination, ‘the two pillars that make possible our modernisation’, have been lost. What remains is the ‘narrative of failed nation-states, the theatres of Afro-pessimism’.

One of Diawara’s projects in The Search for Africa is to script a film about Sekou Touré whom, despite everything, he still admires. Sekou Touré was not afraid of white men. He championed education and self-help, giving Diawara his first vision of a future for himself. He stood up to De Gaulle, refusing to remain, like other Francophone countries, within the French neocolonial orbit. He lived austerely, without a Swiss bank account or mansions abroad, and died without bequeathing so much as a farm to his family or clan. Sekou Touré’s prophecy that after his death Guineans would miss him and that the French would return has been fulfilled.

Yet this is only one side of a story Diawara is determined to confront in its entirety. On his first afternoon in Conakry, he leaves his hotel and wanders through the streets towards the sound of drums, enjoying the beauty of the women and the smell of cooking fires. He buys 20 cents’ worth of fried plantain and eats it off a banana leaf with pepper sauce. The drums turn out to be an initiation ceremony, and he watches the dance of the blacksmith’s clan, involving dangerous acrobatics with an axe. He hears distant shouting from a football match and, following a path through a breach in a broken-glass-topped wall, loses his way. He asks where he is, and is told ‘Camp Boiro’.

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