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’.

So I was in Sekou Touré’s infamous prison, from which no one had ever come out alive. Kaman Diaby, Kéita Fodéba, Barry Alpha Oumar, Ansoumane Traoré, Diallo Telli, and countless others had been killed here ... It was said that the guards had been demonic and perverted, happy to torture men whose wealth and position they envied. The guards of Camp Boiro had hated to see beauty and intelligence flourish; they had been trained to keep a man on his knees, to debase every human dignity in him.

He slinks away, sweating and humiliated, angry with the cowardice that prevents him from so much as looking around, and angry, too, for feeling himself complicit in evil and misery.

Diawara is back in Guinea for the first time in 32 years and in search of, well, what? His title is eerily reminiscent of much European 19th-century travel writing, but this is an African trying to make sense of a continent which has once again become ‘dark’. What happened to the modernising hopes of his generation? How did the continent degenerate into its present cycle of poverty, corruption and internecine warfare? How did the heroes of Africa’s liberation become murderous dictators, destroying a whole generation of intellectuals? How was Pan-Africanism reduced to nationalism, and how did nationalism break down into tribalism? What are the roles of ‘tradition’, ‘ritual’, ‘authenticity’ and ‘narratives of return’ in all this? Why is the modernising project back in the hands of whites, while the only Africans who flourish do so in exile? And how did the latest myth gain ground – that the only solution for Africa lies in further violence?

The core of the quest has to do with a childhood friend Diawara last saw (and who treated him with a puzzling coolness) the day he was deported. Sidimé Laye was Diawara’s role model, the smartest and noblest of his schoolmates, and the epitome of the ‘young African that Sekou Touré had wanted the Guinean revolution to fashion’. In the intervening years, during faculty meetings and boring conferences, ‘I thought of him whenever I wanted to verify for myself an identity that could not be touched by anyone else.’ It is clear that what he is looking for in Sidimé is a former self, the ‘other’ he might have become, had exile not intervened.

Counterpointing this narrative are four essays or ‘situations’, as Diawara calls them, borrowing the term from Sartre, which review the historical debate about African development. In the first, Diawara commends Sartre’s essay ‘Black Orpheus’ (his introduction to Senghor’s Anthologie de la nouvelle poésie nègre et malgache de langue française), which praised the negritude movement for its revolutionary potential. Unlike some of the African proponents of negritude – traditionalists who internalised their blackness, wishing to celebrate a unique history and shield themselves from racial contamination – Sartre discerned a grand narrative, a movement of the oppressed.

Next, Diawara revisits the 1956 Paris Congress of African, Afro-American and West Indian writers and artists, at which a searching confrontation took place between the traditionalist Léopold Senghor of Senegal and the black American neo-Marxist Richard Wright. Senghor’s vision was of an Africa returned to its roots after the economic exploitation and cultural contamination of colonialism. African modes of thought, he believed, are intuitive, driven by a vital force derived from communication with the ancestors, whose authority shapes the religious and political hierarchies of tribal societies, and whose living presence gives meaning to the continent’s sculpture, dance and verbal art. Against this, Wright’s opinion that Africans are victims of tribalism, disorganisation and superstition seemed like heresy. His argument was directed against all the religions, Christian or traditional, which were competing for the loyalty of Africans and blocking their entry into the secular and industrialised world. Diawara regards Wright’s Black Power as one of the most penetrating books ever written about Africa.

He goes on to discuss Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, arguing that the first part of the book, with its portrait of an unregenerate Detroit Red pimping and hustling in the Harlem of the 1940s, is far more interesting and authentic than the subsequent account of his conversion to Islam. Diawara makes this fascinating claim in the context of a distinction between culturalists, who are concerned with what’s out there, and conversionists, who are concerned with transformation. The whole movement of the Autobiography is towards the moment when the realities of black urban culture in the United States are rejected as pathological, and ‘Malcolm X’, the utopian visionary, steps onto the page. Against this, Diawara argues, there is the attempt to produce ‘the black good life ... black culture is the last frontier of American Modernism’. Detroit Red was closer to such a project than the converted revolutionary. The fourth ‘situation’ is a celebration of America’s black Hip-Hop culture and the films of Spike Lee.

All this may seem like a thinly disguised celebration of Diawara’s own successful career in France and the United States, but the long, disturbing quest for Sidimé Laye tells a different story. One of the book’s most original sections is Diawara’s paean to African markets, those noisy, haphazard agglomerations at the heart of every West African capital where anything can be bought, from tomatoes and yams to brand name shoes and gold jewellery, fax machines and computers, herbal remedies and VW spare parts, three-piece suites and CDs, cures for unemployment and for broken hearts, cameras and millet beer, books and spices. Marketeers accept any currency, carrying large bundles of Japanese yen, German marks, British pounds, French francs and US dollars ‘in the deep pockets of the billowing trousers they wear under their long, loose gowns’. Many of these markets have a long history – the most prominent medieval West African cities, such as Timbuctu, Bornou and Niani, were market towns – and they have always been international and have always looked beyond the tribe. Today, with the ascendancy of the nation-state, the gap between official and unofficial exchange rates is part of their raison d’être. The government-licensed market in Luanda with its official prices is called 4 February (the official date of the start of the ‘national revolution’). Down the road is the ‘black’ market, popularly known as 5 February, where the real business of Angola’s capital city is conducted.

Such markets, Diawara reports gleefully, are the despair of the World Bank and IMF, who consider nation-states the only legitimate entities with which they can do business under their various structural adjustment programmes. Among the ‘terms of conditionality’ imposed on Mali and Senegal were demands that the markets at Bamako and Dakar be regulated – both were mysteriously burned down instead. These markets are the clearest manifestation of the distance between the state-managed (or internationally managed) economies and the real world (what economists farcically call the ‘informal sector’), where a majority of Africans get on with the business of survival. At the same time, politicians and state officials regularly have recourse to them for emergency cash or bribes or to cope with financial crises.

To this familiar material Diawara adds two twists. The first is that following the Arab and European conquests of West Africa, many displaced aristocrats transformed themselves into merchants. The effect was to dignify commerce, elevating it to the highest social levels and creating a cultural capital far superior to that of colonial officers and state functionaries. Helping the needy, living the life of a good Muslim, maintaining personal cleanliness, refusing to be blinded by money and preserving family and kinship structures became central values of the marketplace. In contrast, politicians, students and school drop outs are held in contempt as people on the make. The second is that these markets are both thoroughly traditional, protected for example by a variety of taboos, and thoroughly cosmopolitan: West African merchants were familiar with Paris, New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Johannesburg long before the new élite set foot in those places. In short, markets ‘revitalise traditional cultures, resist multinational corporations that try to take over businesses, and compete with the agents of the state for the role of cultural moderniser of the masses’. In the market, tribal divisions are dissolved, women emancipated (market mammies being formidable operators), and the new and the modern brought to the doorstep. With such a model, the gaps between the traditional and the progressive, the authentic and the imported, and the economic and the cultural, are all closed. It gives Diawara pleasure to record that the people of his own tribe were merchants.

Nonetheless, by the time Sidimé Laye turns up at his hotel, Diawara is a thoroughly disturbed traveller, with a series of bruising encounters behind him. This one is no less shocking, for the man he meets is someone he would never have recognised, the antithesis of the person he had cherished as the star of his modernising generation. He’s not a well-dressed politician or doctor or lawyer but a dusty figure in jeans and T-shirt who announces: ‘You have become a white man, and I became a carver like all my family.’

Laye makes his living by carving ancestral masks for tribal and religious ceremonies, and the remainder of the book is concerned with African art and the African artist, bringing all the arguments to a focus through one question, should the African artist sign his work? It is a tribute to the quality of Diawara’s analysis that this question does not appear an oversimplification but a summation of his concerns.

In a sense, Sidimé Laye’s story develops Diawara’s point about the markets. None of his former classmates became schoolteachers, lawyers or doctors. One became a French citizen, another a corrupt customs official, a third died in Camp Boiro, while the rest live abroad for ‘there was nothing to do under Sekou Touré’. On the day of Diawara’s departure into exile, Laye had been afraid to show his feelings in case someone denounced him to the secret police. His uncle was already in detention: one of his masked figures – a gift to a friend – had been seized by the authorities as an ‘antique mask’ whose export was forbidden. Diawara’s long cherished memory of his clever, smartly-dressed schoolmate as the epitome of modernisation was anachronistic even before his deportation. Laye had already been studying his uncle’s techniques as a carver, waiting for the moment when ancestral spirits took over the mask or sculpture he was carving and completed the work through his hands.

In this, Laye was following the instincts of his countrymen, for whom masks, statues, oral traditions, secret societies and masquerades, the whole paraphernalia of ‘tribal’ authenticity, became a form of resistance to Sekou Touré’s attempts to homogenise society. The resurgence of masked rituals in African villages, with their nostalgia for a past when such rituals are assumed to have been pure, complete and manly, has direct antecedents in the colonial period, when notions of authentic African tribal traditions were mobilised to oppose cultural contamination. A central feature of Diawara’s argument is that the elevation of the traditional, the tribal and the authentic, in such doctrines as Senghor’s philosophy of negritude, belonged to the distorting circumstances of the colonial interlude, and should have been thrust into museums at independence.

Which is why, in his view, Sidimé Laye and other African artists should sign their work. Signing insists that rituals have their own history, redefining the relation between tradition and individual talent. Signing takes the work into the market places, not just of Conakry and Dakar but of Paris, London and New York, linking what is originally (in every sense of the word) ‘African’ to the new and the progressive. Signing becomes, for African artists, the equivalent of the freedoms black musicians and writers have secured in the United States. Eventually, and perhaps a little reluctantly, Sidimé signs two small sculptures for Diawara.

Reading In Search of Africa I was occasionally troubled by his relentlessly unforgiving attitude towards Europeans. Is it really the case that dealers, collectors, merchants and museums ‘have nothing but contempt for African artists’? Did French scholars really conspire to prevent Djibril Tamsir Niane getting a university post? Is it part of the West’s continued conspiracy against Africa that the usefulness of the nation state has been questioned by European scholars? I disagree with Diawara on each of these issues. Yet his vision is coherent and unified. The damage done by colonialism went far beyond conventional arguments about economic exploitation or cultural oppression. Colonialism, an apparently modernising project, became the proximate cause of Africa’s retreat from the main currents of 20th-century history. Rulers like Sekou Touré continued the process, not through neocolonialism but through their fatally flawed assault on African talent. The Africa Diawara ‘found’ was one in which all the disturbing, contradictory pieces were reconciled by his rhetoric of the African market. And when one studies the evolution of the debt crisis, it can indeed seem that the West really does wish to keep Africa poor and backward, however little economic sense it makes.