From Sunday 14th to Saturday 20th June 2009, Nuremberg, the city of Human Rights, staged an impressive African Week. The opening events were splashed at the Erfahrungsfeld zur Entfaltung der Sinne, set in the sprawling meadows of the Wöhrder Wiese, amid sculptures and playgrounds for children, with the River Pegnitz snaking lazily across. There was everything for everybody, young, elder and old. Parents and grandparents flocked in with their children to participate in various workshops. Griots recited West African fairy tales to the enthralled children and their parents. Young and old could grind millet with their on hands on grinding stones then make dough with it and bake that over wood-fed open fires. Or the children learnt the art of pounding groundnuts with pestle and mortar to make peanut butter. There were workshops on braiding hair, stalls where one could learn the complicated art of tying on the African headdress using African material – from the Tuareg turban to the intricate but elaborate headgear favoured by the Herero ladies in Namibia. Here, fashion shows with vibrant African costumes, for men and women in African print was not to be left out, with the youngest fashion model hardly six years old but as graceful as they come.
Other workshops invited visitors to learn how to beat African drums and play other instruments from various regions of Africa. The air was riotous with the tantalizing scent of African cooking from Cameroon to Tanzania, Algeria to Mozambique. Even the traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony was presented at two-hourly intervals. Whoever was that way inclined could join a blitz course in washing, cutting, frying, cooking, serving and eating West African dishes. In cinemas throughout the city, films by, with and about African cultures such as the prize winning Yaaba from director Drissa Quedraogo and Ouaga Saga from director Dani Kouyaté (both Burkina Faso) were included. Books by Africans or about Africa and Africans were read (and bought) throughout the week in various venues in the city.
The crowning event was on Saturday and took up the entire day. It was a plenum with two topics. The first topic was darkly titled: China In Africa – Threat or Chance? Unfortunately the Chinese Embassy failed to even respond to the invitation from the organizers of the Akwaba African Week. But there were speakers and presenters who included State Secretary in the Federal Economics Ministry for Cooperation and Development, Mr Erich Stather, a professor from the University of Leipzig’s Insitut für Afrikanistik, representatives from NGOs, religious groups and German SME firms – all currently involved with various projects in different regions of Africa. Local African journalists and economists like me were not to be left out either. It was a very informative and educational presentation, with films of completed and/or ongoing projects mostly in central and southern Africa. I was most impressed by the hydroelectric project from a Franconian SME in a Zambian region, where the local men and women worked together, hacking, pushing, pulling and carrying in chorus with the foreigners, whatever was necessary from stone quarries to the dam area, and then continuing from there onwards.
The speech deliveries and discussions that followed were passionate and electrifying. As was to be expected the opinions were disparate. The representatives from governments such as Mr Stather or the First Secretary of the Rwandan Embassy, Mr Felix Sangano, could not be expected to air views that divulged from their governments’ policies on the topic. That is not to say that such policies were similar even among the government representatives. These official spokespersons however firmly chorused the mantras of democracy, good governance, human rights, the environment, sustainability and corporate social responsibility in bilateral trade, lending or investment. These are good strategies in an argument for the cause, but facts have been telling different tales to the whole world long enough – when it comes to that amorphous entity called interests, all noble intentions are scattered to the four winds. The Chinese have not only had the perfect role models here, they are also less morally and intellectually dishonest because they are void of any colonial baggage on their conscious. As the discussants pointed out, during the Cold War, leaders of African nations who strove for good governance and human rights were simply “got rid of” by assassination, well-orchestrated military putsches or even plain old road accidents or aeroplane crashes. “As for the environment, corporate social responsibility and sustainability all round,” said a discussant, “all one needs to do is look at the Niger Delta, the fish-free West African and Somali coasts and whatever is still left of the Liberian tropical forests this very minute.” Another contributor, the publicist of the Bonn magazine Afrika Süd, Hein Möllers, who is involved in a variety of projects in southern Africa and the Indian Ocean, stated his aversion to the “good guys” image the West cloaks itself in. “It is all too often,” said Mr Möllers, “a case of the thief screaming: Stop the thief!”
Some arguments are simple but unshakable.
On the question of German SMEs investing in or cooperating with African businesspeople, there is a lack of trust, faith or belief in African nations that is far higher than that of other European nations with a stronger history in colonialism. German investors are averse to risk-taking. They may reluctantly consider one or two countries in the Maghreb or South Africa, but shun most of the African countries. Nations like the United Kingdom or France have a better understanding of how Africa functions. The Chinese on the other hand have a gambling mentality and are happy to throw the dice and see what turns up.
Another general bone of contention was the tendency of China to be all Chinese in their African projects. Whether in extraction of resources or construction, the project is Chinese from the engineers, machinery, equipment, any other materials and the shovel wielders themselves. They even bring their own provisions with them (here a spontaneous remark from the audience about the well-being of African snakes and stray dogs caused a burst of laughter in the otherwise electric discussions). All of the above are valid aspects in themselves and there is much going for them. But here again there is that whiff of the double standards. Western projects too are not governed with selflessness. Huge projects are always assigned to “donor” country firms, not the African nation’s ones, and the Western concerns also bring in their own qualified personnel regardless, their machinery and equipment down to sand and cement – also regardless. But yes, they do employ local manual labourers and junior personnel. As for provisions, the African market is already inundated with luxury Western goods no ordinary African can afford. And to add insult to injury, cheap subsidized tinned tomatoes from Italy, onions from Holland or throw-away chicken legs from Germany and all other Western surplus foodstuffs have ruined the market for the local African trader’s goods.
Still in this vein, another argument was floored with regards to corruption and nepotism. When the Chinese projects are all Chinese, there is no haggling and bribing the local authorities for how many employees, from which ethnic groups for how long and at what salary scales. The majority of the African employees – depending on which African nation the project is carried out in – are on the other hand saved their own end of the haggling and bribery which they would be exposed to, paying part of their hard-earned salaries to some official or other month after month as a “thank you” for having the pleasure of being employed through the official’s “intervention”. Besides, the pro-China argumentation maintained, the Africans for once have a healthy self-esteem when they see that foreigners can also wield spades and push wheelbarrows themselves, doing the dirty work normally relegated to them on their own soil. It demonstrates to them that what has to be done must be done regardless of your social status or pigmentation. Thus they are more ready to roll up their sleeves and dirty their fingers, something many Africans have subconsciously internalized as being “African” – meaning for the subhuman – not for the “New African” who should be a dark-skinned Euroancestral slave driver.
On the question of democracy, the overall consensus was that this ideology was on its death throes even in the West where it had taken centuries for it to evolve. Using the recent European elections as an example, the contributor Dr Boniface Mabanza of the Kirchliche Arbeitsstelle in Heidelberg held the mirror before the discussants by pointing out the dwindling number of the electorate who actually cast their votes in proportion to the number of the whole population qualified to vote. If less than half the electorate vote, then the election results cannot be viewed as democratic nor the elections winners as the true winners chosen by the people. In addition, there is an increasing tendency of Western politicians dabbling in politics while actively lobbying for the multinational concerns. Western politicians dare not tread where capital does not want them to, nor do they have the will or gumption to bravely change the course set to them by capital. The Western political landscape has turned into a field of manipulation, threats and blackmail. And yes, even corruption.
This landscape is not one suitable for African nations.
Africans should instead find a healthy modern mixture of their old democracies where the entire population were “parliamentarians and the legislature” and the leaders acted as “the executive and judiciary” linesmen, referees and conciliators. When it comes to customs and traditions, to the rites and rituals of each ethnic group, African people reject “cloning”. They would prefer to debate in order to concede or make compromises, not involuntarily follow a path that negates their beliefs. But this can only function if the African countries are not put under pressure to follow governing models that have failed to work for the continent.
The second topic of the day after the lunch break was titled: East Congo: The Curse of Raw Materials – Perspectives of a Rich Region. But this demands another essay of its own. Suffice to say that Nuremberg, the city of Human Rights, outdid itself. The Africa Week was a huge success.
– Akinyi Princess of K’Orinda-Yimbo’s book “Darkest Europe and Africa’s Nightmare. A Critical Observation of Neighboring Continents” was published in 2008 by Algora Publishing, New York.