“I’m all dressed up and nowhere to go” It was night. A black M-class Mercedes. Hot Tanzanian air comes in through the open windows. We are drunk. Drunk of the Friday night excitement and sing along to Jay-Z’s Watch the throne album. Murder to Excellence. A night with everywhere to go. “Success never smelled so sweet, I stink of success, The new black elite, they say my black card bear the mark of the beast…”
Admittedly Jay-Z mostly sings about Chicago, but my Tanzanian friends could identify with the songs and apparently so can the rest of the world. Not troubled by the paradox of a multimillionaire singing about war in the streets – en contraire money and war always intrigue. And the former, Africa’s black credit cards and its business, seem to dominate the current “Africa-Debate” more than the latter.
Vogue is trying to “Rebrand Africa”, so does Bloomberg and The Economist and even Oxfam needs to point out in a commissioned study that there is another story apart from drought, disease and civil war. All those are full of hopeful praise for investment and entertain with success stories about opportunities on a continent in motion. The lion. The rise.
Of course, there are also critics such as LSE’s Waiswa Nkwanga who rightly argues that economic growth is no indication that poverty, corruption and suffering are on the decline in Africa. She futher inferred that this new kind of Afri-optimism would result in either inaction or misled activism. Fated to repeat past mistakes without learning from lessons.
It seems we are all still struggling with the same contradictions.
Tanzania – Experience of a janus-faced continent
I experienced rural Tanzania. Indigenous pastoralists that strive to continue their traditions amidst a globalizing world with barriers and borders that leave no room for the roaming cattle herders and their warrior customs. I have had my meetings cancelled because people got “eaten by a crocodile” and I have seen mud-huts, fistula suffering widows and children dying from Malaria. Unemployment is still rife, crime and corruption as well and in real-terms Tanzania has slipped various places on the IFC Doing Business Index in 2012.
Then I got propelled into another cliche: Dar es Salaam. Recently deemed as the next African Megalopolis. Dar, as it is called by its residents, tries hard to let you know, that Africa is not dying children, but can compete with the glitzy urban stars of Africa. Nairobi, Lagos, Cape Town – all characterized by its young dynamic business elite. Like its role models, Dar es Salaam struggles to gloss over its harsh realities. Chaotic traffic situation, lack of infrastructure, basic electricity and water supply and oftentimes a political deadlock when it comes to implementation of urgently needed reforms.
For the few who can afford it though Dar is fun. This is mostly due to the slim but growing class of the young black elite.
The Afropolitans are eager to distinguish themselves from images they are associated by default of skin colour. “I only spot a few blacks the higher I go. Yea it’s all messed up when it’s nowhere to go” The glass ceiling still exists. So, they return from their educational diaspora, from international schools in South Africa, Swaziland, UK. They come back as NYU Graduates, as Wall Street analysts or pott smoking Canadian philosophers turned into African business lawyers. They join the family business, they want to fight corruption, move their country forward, get rich or die trying. Their language is directed into the future. But they are all united in the pride of where they come from and strive for recognition, demanding and evermore delivering true representation from within not outside.
A continent – its people – struggling for definitions where definitions have always been (mis)placed upon.
There are plenty of examples of honest attempts at representation. Peter DiCampo‘s photos – byproducts of his day job shot with his iphone – capture the unique atmosphere that lances through this continent. The Guardian launched an entire network trying to report the conflicting views from the inside and outside. The blogosphere is a wealth of successful sites (Another Africa, Warscapes, Africaisacountry) that aims to showcast the creative tour de force of its peoples and supporters in art, style and culture.
This continent as well as its myriad of fates, stories or lives need people and public that are able to handle today’s contradictions and inherent paradoxes, that strive for change for the better without attaching labels. Let Africa be. Be decadent, excellent, opulent and trust Ryszard Kapuscinski when he says: “Only with the greatest of simplifications, for the sake of convenience, can we say Africa. In reality, except as a geographical term, Africa doesn’t exist.”