*This article is one shout, one remembrance, and one showcase of African beauty out of many more. The songs mentioned are in dialogue with the text. The author requests from his readers to listen to the songs while reading the article.
For a few months now, I have been listening repeatedly to the song نادي عالحيفا (Nadi Al Haifa) by Badiaa Bouhrizi, a Tunisian composer and singer. Something about one of the lyrical phrases in her song kept strongly and strangely resonating with me. In the Tunisian Arabic dialect, this lyrical phrase is as follows:
"يا ومانيش ضعيفة ... غير غدروا بيا"
Its English translation is: “I am not weak (speaking in feminine form) ... they just betrayed me.”
In my subconscious pursuit of trying to associate concepts with the “she” and the “they” to which the song alludes, but does not define, I found a response to a statement with which I have been grappling for months. This statement was directed to me by Dr. Jenik Radon (a renown adjunct professor at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs) in an audience full of students and professors from across the African continent, as well as, Dr. Ameena Gurib-Fakim, the former president of Mauritius.
Dr. Radon and Dr. Gurib-Fakim gave a talk on the topic of “Leadership, Science, and Sustainability in Africa” where they both marketed for the replication of western models of success for the development of the African continent. Dr. Gurib-Fakim mentioned on multiple occasions the necessity of “creating the Princeton and Harvard of Africa” and “learning from what countries like the U.S. and the U.K. are doing.” She also highlighted her accomplishments of receiving aid and funding from British organizations to do projects in Mauritius and wrapped up her speech sharing with us her vision for an Africa led by "enlightened" Africans, notably scientists and engineers.
Recognizing the themes of coloniality in Dr. Gurib-Fakim’s speech, I challenged her perception of change in Africa by pointing out how the solutions she suggested are all grounded outside of the political, social, and cultural contexts of the continent.
Drawing from decoloniality works of many scholars like Frantz Fanon and Achille Mbembe, one of the big challenges of Africa lies within the imposed, exterior, and colonial systems with which the majority of the continent’s countries function. As an example, the education system, economic structure, and political history of Tunisia have all been inherited from French colonial times and have been continuously maladapted to the country’s national context. This, along with western intervention and western support of our former dictator regime, has limited the space for local change and development in Tunisia. It produced disempowered and, most importantly, corrupt political, social, economic, and cultural structures.
Dr. Gurib-Fakim dismissed my comment about corruption, which has marked the last part of her presidency. She, instead, argued that the impact of colonialism in Africa is long gone. To paraphrase her thoughts, colonialism has been over for decades and as Africans we need to get over it as it no longer interferes with our process of development. Dr. Radon applauded Dr. Gurib-Fakim’s position on colonialism and took over the rebuttal process of my arguments.
Before stating his ideas, Dr. Radon established his ethos by sharing his vast experience in international development with the crowd, the most prominent of which he expressed as “I helped Estonia develop its economic system” (by privatizing it after the country’s independence from the Soviet Union). He, then, moved to explaining the often harmful interventions of the west on the development of Africa. According to him, experts hired by the IMF and World Bank do not get paid well and have long working hours. That is why, they often come up with poorly-studied economic reform measures for African countries to implement. This ends up hurting African countries instead of helping them develop. To interpret Dr. Radon’s thoughts, those experts and international organizations are not to blame and the negative consequences of their interventions on the continent are just unfortunate. In fact, as Dr. Radon told me and those present at the talk while summing up his arguments: “The problem of Africa is in your mindset”.
If we are to unpack his statement in the context of development in which it emerged, Dr. Radon thinks that the belief systems, values, opinions—and multiple other factors that constitute the concept of mindset—of Africans are problematic. They are different from those of the mindset of developed countries (thus the use of “your” in his statement). As a result, this distinctive deficiency in the African mindset is allegedly the obstacle that has been holding Africans back from adopting, implementing, and embodying the western and un-African model of development that Dr. Gurib-Fakim and Dr. Radon promoted and endorsed throughout their talk.
Many scholars (Africans and non-Africans alike) share this orientalist lens (in its conceptual form) through which they view and think about Africa in relation to the neoliberal and western understanding of the idea of development. They feed into this dominant narrative on development by choosing to solely focus on the problems that face the continent without attempting to examine them as they are intertwined within global power dynamics of inequality, hegemony, and control. Stephan Andreason addressed this topic in one of his works in 2005, calling for an alternative to this idea of deficiency in the African mindset as it relates to development. In his words, instead of making “increasingly complex adjustments to a dominant paradigm in crisis”, we need to instead engage in an “epistemological decentralisation” about how we think "about Africa, about modernity, about development.”
For such an epistemological transformation to happen, we are in need to hold “idols”, “leaders”, “producers of knowledge” or simply people in positions of “power” accountable, not only for their decisions and actions, but also for the narratives they perpetuate. The world of knowledge production, role modeling, and decision making should be built upon an audience armed with critical thinking, skepticism, and nuance, as well as, speakers fenced by humility, honesty, and the recognition of our limited knowledge about ourselves and the world around us.
My encounter with Dr. Radon’s statement was the first time I was explicitly and directly confronted with the narrative of the deficiency of the African mindset, to which I have been implicitly exposed multiple times beforehand. This narrative still lives in some of my acquired biases and mostly in what remains of my people’s collective memory of the colonial degradation of their colonized identities. The process of directly confronting Dr. Radon’s statement was draining. It pushed me into a territory of doubt where I pondered, for months, the following questions: What is an African mindset? What is development? Is Africa’s problems really in our mindset?
I knew that my instinct as an African would absolutely answer no to this last question. My Tunisian frustrated self who has lived in and observed the corruption of my country’s peoples and systems was slowly pulling me in the opposite direction. My current self that is much more aware of the historical and current contexts within which African countries exist kept on pushing back. This coming and going continued for weeks.
One night, while making dinner at home, I started playing different North African songs to share with my roommate who was interested in exploring different kinds of music. We played وهران (Wahran), an Algerian song by Cheb Khaled that talks about self, identity, and migration. Then, we moved to the song سماك (Smek) by the Tunisian group Ÿuma, which speaks about nostalgia and love for one’s country. The melodies and lyrics of these two songs and many other ones somehow calmed my Tunisian frustrated self. They reminded me of African people, values, and experiences that shaped the person I am and I felt, again, grounded.
Africa’s mindset is not problematic. It is innovative, passionate, hopeful, constructive. For decades, African singers, artists, thinkers, scientists, educators have been fighting to endogenously move forward with the continent across all fields. African excellence is real. I have not seen a drive and passion for change as strong as that of African youth. The potential that the continent has is enormous and fascinating. Claiming otherwise showcases either an unfamiliarity and detachment with the reality of the continent or simply an embodied colonial perception of the self as unworthy and inferior that we as Africans need to free ourselves from. The problem of Africa is in big part the consequence of the failed international system of domination, corruption, and inequality in which we exist and operate. Moving with Africa beyond this reality is in the hands of Africans themselves. The tools in which such transition can happen stem, in my opinion, from a decolonial lens and could be further discussed in another article. For now, holding western powers accountable for how they represent, influence, and interact with the African context is needed to create an international space for the internal, autonomous, unique, and perhaps collaborative “development” of the African continent.
Badiaa Bouhrizi’s song “Nadi Al Haifa” helped remind me that in her words: “I am not weak … they just betrayed me”, Africa is not weak; It was just betrayed by the powers that dominate the international system.
The way we, as Africans, can move forward from this is beautifully embodied once more by Bouhrizi, but in another song called صيح (Shout), where she calls for the following:
Shout, be the wind صيح كون الريح
Remind them of who stood up and said no ذكرهم بشكون وقف وقال لا
Who chose not to be indifferent in fear of trouble مقالشي أخطانا مل بلا
Keep, keep زيد زيد
Remember your love for beauty and for the sky تذكر حبك للجمال والسماء
And your grief while seeing people وغصتك كي تشوف انسان
Humiliated day and night يذلوا فيه صباح ومساء
Keep, keep shouting, and remember زيد زيد صيح وتذكر
Oh you with a beautiful soul يا مزيانة الروح
Badiaa’s shouting, remembering, and beauty constitute key parts of our journey as Africans toward moving forward with ourselves, each other, and our continent through histories and realities of oppression, fear, and betrayal.