Dear Upright African… (No Apology Here! )

An Essay by Donald Molosi, author of We Are All Blue.

***

Dear Upright African,

Private school failed me. That type of European-School-In-Africa that insists on a chronically colonized curriculum. That brand of Eurocentric “international” school in Africa that equips the African child to be more functional in the West than in his or her own corner of Africa. That Botswana “English Medium” school where I was forced to memorize the metro map of Paris throughout high school and I was tested on it for a life-shaping grade, while never being taught anything about Botswana. Except to casually gloss over that super-genocide delicately named the Scramble for Africa, told as an organization of African land by the Almighty Europeans. Upright African, if history itself is a performance of memory I would like you and I to consider what exactly we gain or lose by dropping the African out of that performance.

I am reminded of six years ago. I had just flown into Johannesburg from Kampala. I was in Johannesburg to do a screen test for a TV series about Botswana. Before the screen test was over I had already landed one of the lead roles. Of course I was thrilled, mostly because even though I was enjoying an award-winning career on-Broadway and off-Broadway in New York City, I still had the firm desire to do something at home. A week later I was in Gaborone, script in hand, and ready to film. Then an email from the series producers popped up on my phone saying that after “much careful thought and consideration” I had been dropped from the production for “not looking African enough.” The news was more infuriating than disappointing. I found myself wishing they had told me that I had been dropped because I had not been a good enough actor during the screen tests, or that I was asking for too much money… just, anything else. But to say that I did not fulfill some British self-styled Africanist director’s zoological notion of what an African looks like was to abuse even my ancestors. I tell you, Upright African, you and I must write and perform many many stories about the Africa we know where my perfect teeth are not remarkable.

When I predictably lived in Paris years after high school I almost instinctively knew how to catch the metro from Villejuif to Centre Pompidou to Porte de Montreuil. I therefore found myself questioning my education almost obsessive-compulsively: what study of French history and culture (in a Botswana school) had  this been that it almost-by-definition had to displace people who look like me and you out of story whilst the bloody Eiffel tower itself was built by enslaved Africans who died in the process and whose bones remain under the magnificent monument? What if in that high school class you and I had learned not just about the great French singers Patricia Kaas and Edith Piaf but also about their equally great contemporary Josephine Baker and how she wrote a competing narrative with her body, claiming the agency of the black female body on stage, in Paris no less? How different might our consciousness have been at that age as products of “international” schools? Would we have spent so many disorienting years after high school apologizing for (not) being African? What if we had simply learnt about African empires instead of French history? You see, we also belong in history as protagonists and not just as supporting characters. Upright African, we must also make dolls that look like little African girls. Perhaps I digress but you get me.

When the grand story of David Livingstone’s peripatetic exploits across Africa is told in Big-British-Books-On-African-History, it introduces us to his African aides, Susi and Chuma. We are told that Susi and Chuma were loyal servants to David Livingstone. We are also told that Susi and Chuma were so loyal to David Livingstone that when he died at a location described as “the centre of Africa,” Susi and Chuma risked their own lives by carrying Livingstone’s embalmed body for months from modern day Zambia all the way to the coast of modern-day Tanzania so that the body could be shipped off to London for burial. Now, what if we dared to tell the stories of Susi and Chuma not just as servants but also as – to use that fancy term reserved for Europeans – ‘explorers?’ What if in our version of missionary history we also saw Africa through Susi and Chuma’s eyes? Would we not see that Ilala, the Zambian village where Livingstone died, is in fact not the center of Africa but simply a case in colonial cartography full of self-serving symbolism?

Beneath grand narratives of history lie African stories waiting for you, an Upright African in the world, to tell them truthfully. With no apology. For our own humanity’s sake!

Love,

DM.

Image Source: bellanaija.com

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