Book of the Month – January

MAPPING THE MIND OF THE NEW AFRICA

A Review by Lindsay Barrett

Title: THE BRIGHT CONTINENT: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa

Author: Dayo Olopade

Publisher: Bookcraft, Ibadan

             The Rainbow Book Club’s choice for book of the month for January 2016 is an innovative and original study of the key dilemmas of development that have confronted post-independence Africa for the last five and a half decades. The author Dayo Olopade is an American born scholar and public analyst whose Nigerian parents, both physicians, moved to live in the USA several years ago. It is easy to discern from the narrative of this complex but accessible work that she has harboured a deep and abiding concern for the realities of African communal life throughout her career. This is not a sterile political thesis but a dynamic and adventurous volume of direct reportage that is enhanced by the impressive style and articulate honesty of her writing. The concept that she has formulated, while being revelatory about the subject of her discourse, is critical of the traditional Western perspective of African history. She points out that this perspective has its roots in the period in ancient history when the early explorers drew a map of the world in which only a small part of the continent that is the cradle of humanity was visualised. From this period too she dates the fundamental blunders that have most often influenced the intercourse between African communities and the rest of the world since then as the continent has been invaded, divided, and colonised.

In the opening chapter entitled “Orientation” Ms. Olopade argues convincingly that the reluctance (not to say inability) of the early explorers to seek advice and information from the inhabitants in order to understand the true nature of the continent’s needs sowed the seeds of major misconceptions in the developmental profile of the modern African nation states. Using the unique, although somewhat fanciful, example of the search by European explorers for the source of the Nile, a futile and unnecessary waste of time that lasted for centuries, when the location had been known to millions of indigenous Africans for several centuries, Ms. Olopade sets out to persuade us that she is at least on the right track in her own search for what will provide a new lease of life and hope for the teeming masses in Africa’s new nations in the future. It is from this premise that she constructs the concept of mapping the continent’s true nature through an inquiry into the hopes and desires of the average (and sometimes not-so-average) people of the continent. In initiating this approach she locates the core values and contours of the African objective of improved living standards in what she defines as a spirit of informal innovativeness that she calls kanju. Throughout the rest of this work she constantly refers back to this spirit as the repository of the will to transform and improve the day-to-day existence of African communities as she maps strategies of development for a new social order.

The second chapter of the book is actually entitled “Kanju”, and provides a detailed report of examples of the spirit of informal and even irregular responses to circumstances arising from the dysfunctional relationship between official objectives and daily existence for the average citizen. Her argument in this essay is difficult to fault as she concludes that without a healthy sense of irreverence and even disrespect for officialdom it would be virtually impossible for highly intelligent young people to survive in the stifling atmosphere of the average African post-colonial state. Arising from this premise Ms. Olopade concludes that for forward movement in Africa in the new century the new generation must embrace kanju as a strategic tool in all its dealings with officialdom as well as in its intercourse with the new explorers from the traditional donor establishments. In order to achieve this she identifies the need to avoid corruption and criminal conduct as being an important element of the psychological awareness that must become second nature for a new generation of active homegrown developers. She emphasises this for the simple reason that the impulsive need to step outside of the box can also generate a compulsive temptation to step outside of the law. While Olopade admires the adventurous spirit of those who have broken the mold she also advocates the building of new and more orderly conventions that will accommodate the new visions that are being developed in Africa every day.

In order to illustrate how much of an imperative the accommodation of the new order is for the stability of Africa’s future Ms. Olopade embarks on a profoundly descriptive history of the failure of African statehood in her third chapter entitled “Fail States”. She reinforces this assumption of failed objectives in her fourth chapter entitled “Stuff We Don’t Want”, which is an incisive rebuttal of many of the presumptive miscalculations of aid donors in Africa. Together these comprehensive analyses paint a picture of missed opportunities and imprecise visions suggesting that Ms. Olopade came to the subject of African development from a perspective of disenchantment. However in what might well be described as the second phase of her examination of the issues she reviews efforts being made to find solutions to endemic problems. She proceeds to produce detailed chapters on specific sectors of endeavour written as directives for the mapping of the mental geography of the continent. The titles deal with the family, as a structure of support, in the “The Family Map”, technology as an opportunity for independent growth in “The Technology Map”, commerce as a vehicle for empowerment in “The Commercial Map” nature as the resource bank of the continent in “The Nature Map” and the youth as the foundation for a new order in “The Youth Map”. In this section Olopade’s enormous breadth of passion and definitive reporting skills come into play. She ranges back and forth across the continent from slums in Kenya through rural farming villages in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, to upscale academic institutions in South Africa and Ghana, and beyond. In these guides to the new map of the African mind she carefully and painstakingly builds a case for the formalisation of the kanju agenda as the foundation on which to build a new concept of supra-national independence rather than preserving old and failed examples of sovereign privilege parading as the ideological imperative of viable nations.

The conclusions at which she arrives are neither controversial nor conventional. Although in her final chapter entitled “Two Publics” she makes a bold attempt to close her arguments with commendable grace and finality the subject matter is too complex and the historic reality violated by too much abdication from good order to submit to a tidy denouement. Olopade reaches back into a well stocked body of academic and political research to find a reference point on which to stage a hopeful conclusion. In pursuing this resolution she unearths a broad canvas of experiences and a willingness to accept fundamental tactical experimentation as witnessed in crisis-ridden fail states, such as Sudan, and Somalia, as key elements of her strategic concept. In her comments on experiencing these particularly brutal examples of governmental collapse Olopade shows courage as well as frustration in equal measure. In her attempt to assess and interpret the emergence of imprecise but nonetheless innovative responses to the total failure of governance in these two states she considers the deconstruction of the state represented by the emergence of Somaliland and Southern Sudan as indicators of forward movement and possibilities for resistance. Against these unfortunate examples she deploys the strict and almost clinical discipline of post-genocide Rwanda as an example once again of Africa’s capacity to surprise. Rainbow’s choice of this work to open its 2016 readers’ repertoire is symptomatic of its own ability to provide its audience with new and surprising material that challenges presumptions and expands human consciousness and conscience.

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