How To Write (Uncertainly) About Africa

One of the stories I recall most vividly from my literary theory class is the one about the turtles. If I remember correctly, it was related to Derrida’s famous quote “there’s nothing outside the text”, a saying so potent that I won’t even attempt to explain its influence on literary theory (and postmodernism at large). However the story about the turtles is rather simple and can be read in any number of ways, where the basic metaphor is the same: the world is carried by one turtle, who is carried by a slightly larger turtle, who is carried by an even larger turtle, etc. In our version, one person is trying to explain to her friend how meaning is constructed: one term rests upon another; one story refers to endless others; language itself – from an impossibly early age – can only convey concepts that are structured and framed and limited by the very use of language. “So what’s the core?” the other person asks, “what’s the rock bottom of meaning?”. “Oh, it’s turtles all the way down,” her friend replies.

When trying to think about what uncertainty means in my work, this story came to mind because it conveys the basic paradox of literary scholarship: talking about the meaning of the text while both recognizing how subjective and constructed it is, yet at the same time recognizing its very real impact. Within the study of African literature – specifically contemporary African realism – this paradox carries specific stakes because of the place Africa plays in the global imaginaire. As Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie said in her wonderful TED talk “The danger of the single story”:

“This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. […] Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize.”

Adichie’s talk details the extent of stereotypes that still surround the African continent, and the importance of stories in debunking these stereotypes. However even the idea that literature has a role in changing people’s perception easily spirals into endless questions regarding the relationship between literature and ‘real’ life:

  • Do African authors have moral and political obligations in their writing?
  • Can we even speak of ‘African authors’ without getting into debates about essentialism and authenticity (e.g. are authors living in the global North still authentically African)?
  • And what about language – can English or French, the languages of colonialism, really carry the weight of the African experience?
  • What’s the relationship between the African diaspora and the African continent within the study of literature (or between the Black Atlantic and North Africa within diaspora studies)?
  • Furthermore, how do we theorize the oscillation between the ‘real’ (or less confusingly, ‘referential’) historical background of novels and their fictional events and characters?
  • Finally, is African literature not overdetermined by its political, historical, and ethical impulses – to the extent of glossing over its aesthetics elements?

Truth be told, these are questions that literary critics can’t seem to agree upon. But that doesn’t mean we have turtles-of-uncertainty all the way down. And this is why I love the academic study of literature: it provides avenues for thinking about uncertainty by knowing that we will never be able to pin down intentions, interpretations, or the complex cultural and historical matrixes that texts stand in for; yet this uncertainty is a constitutive element that is crucial not only to the understanding of literature, but to the understanding of life. One of my favorite quotes in this regard is by the influential Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe from his book On the Postcolony:

On the pretext of avoiding single-factor explanations of domination, these disciplines have reduced the complex phenomena of the state and power to "discourses" and "representations", forgetting that discourses and representations have materiality. (5)

What I like about this quote is that is gives words to the nebulous feelings of academic research and writing: yes, there are no simple and straight-forward explanations, there is no certainty; but there is still materiality – things still have a rock bottom and concrete impact.

This may seem to lead us nowhere – or even worse, to clichés such as ‘making the world a better place’ – but to the rescue comes the theory of complex adaptive systems, which has its origin in an essay on urban planning that has since spread across disciplines. As Dave Snowden explains in an informative and concise TED talk, it is “a system defined not by its structure but by its connectivity”. In a nutshell, he says that all human systems are complex adaptive systems, which means we cannot measure the impact of single actions, yet constantly try to do so (e.g. standardized tests in school).  Instead, what we can do is look for patterns and ‘codes’ within a community, and then attempt to nudge the system in a certain direction.

To me this means that we do not need to know the exact rock bottom of meaning to know that it is there; instead, we need to consider stories – and the inherent uncertainty that goes with them – as part of this complex system. In other words, we cannot look at human phenomena without stopping to ask: what kind of stories does this create? Take for instance this promotional video for the Israeli NGO “Innovation: Africa”, which reads like a sad personification of Binyavanga Wainaina’s sardonic essay “How to Write About Africa” in its perpetuation of the ‘white savior syndrome’: a white woman who has established an NGO to give Ugandan villagers clean water and electricity. And indeed, individual lives are saved and made easier by the electricity and clean water that the NGO brings.

But it is also more complicated than that: by foregrounding the Israeli technologies, embodied in the very emblematic image of a white person dancing with Africans in traditional attire, the NGO not only creates concrete material impact, but also many, many indirect ‘nudges’ – or stories – around it: the story of Africans who are always lagging behind; of the superiority of technology over all other measures of quality of life; or of the need for NGOs (rather than local communities or governments) to swoop in and save the day. In other words, this is a complex adaptive system, which the video shows as a linear system where the provision of electricity and water has no ramifications except their physical benefits.

This might be why William Easterly, in his book “The White Man’s Burden” shows how aid is much less successful when coming from outside. This is also why Africanists in Israel keep struggling against the single story of Africa in Israeli public discourse. As Adichie says in her talk, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” We might, for instance, be surprised to read that Uganda has one of the world’s most progressive policies towards refugees. When we, several colleagues from the Hebrew University, asked Ugandans about this during a trip in March 2018, the typical answer was: “today they are refugees, tomorrow it might be us”. Another impressive feat we encountered during this trip was sustainability: visiting villages who lack electricity and tap water, we couldn’t help but marvel at how these people lead largely self-sufficient, resilient, ecologically sounds and sustainable lives – albeit hard ones, with a lot of deep and material uncertainty.

Who am I to say that this kind of uncertainty is good? Certainly not the right person. However, from my subjective point of view – in which I expect life to be fair and fairly predictable (and my children throw this in my face every day) – this serves as a powerful reminder that uncertainty allows us ‘white people’ to reconsider the asymmetrical power relations that are always embedded in our encounter with Africa. Moreover – as we discussed during the workshop – uncertainty is imperative to us as researchers, for it is the foundation for looking at things in new ways, being open to being proved wrong, and, as Jean Howard put it, tracing our inability to recognize otherness in its pure form. And in all these cases, stories – rather than quantitative measurements – might give a more accurate and complete picture of how any specific complex adaptive system operates.

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