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The Popular Saying

Everywhere I go to; there is a mentality that prevails. I have already stated some of it in previous writings, but in my recent encounters, I have gotten a better grip of its cankerworm effects. When a black man is wealthy (or show signs of some certain affluence) he is either championed or envied by friends, families or peers, but when a white man is wealthy, it is “normal”. This is in nowhere more present than in Maputo. Though, it will be an error to limit such a situation to just Maputo for we can say the same of all Africa. It will not be wrong to even call it a Black Man’s mentality. But in Maputo, it is of a ridiculous alacrity, to the extent that people do not even judge things according to beauty, but by colour and there is no room for a second-guessing in between what one sees and what one knows.

Personally, I experienced a lot of this while I was working at the ferry boat that travels between Maputo and Catembe. My project was to document the activities within the harbour, with my camera which had an imposing physical presence; I attracted a lot of curious eyes, but what was abnormal were the comments that follow: “look! He is making those pictures to go and sell them abroad!” But then, in that boat I am not the only one who make photos, there are tourists, but of course for the tourists, it is “their culture”.

When I discussed this phenomenon with my friend Mario, he said: “you know, we have a popular saying that when a black man eats meat it is either he is sick or the meat is sick”. It was the funniest thing I have ever heard in my life. Immediately, I had a flash back to those days I was growing up with my parents where we eat chicken only on Sundays. I can now see why Sunday was special: it was healthier than other days! Ok, that was a joke, but on a more serious note, such an adage was extracted from the reality of the average modest man who does not go about squandering his resources, but when looked at from a different context, it justifies the limitations in one’s mental abilities to rise up to the point where meat will not become so important as to be eaten only during festive moods or when there is a sign that the meat will go to waste – Mental poverty!

Even the so-called affluent Africans such as our leaders are abject victims of poverty, otherwise how does one explain the continuous siphoning of the nations resource into personal accounts? The mental derangement caused by the long years of poverty has taken a form of a hyper insecurity when this leader is suddenly rolling in bags of money – he dare not imagine for one day not having money. The fear is like that of death.

In today’s Africa we ought to re-invent our reality with our dreams of hope and a better continent to come. Though most people today in the west and those of western standards can afford the luxury of self-contentment and even of pessimism, one could find a justification in their situation – they have enjoyed a very long period of “good life”- Most people in the west cannot, in their widest wildest imaginations conceive the concept of being hungry for just half a day! And, I am not talking of the rich, but just the average middle-class individual.

But we Africans cannot dabble in such for it will be utter illusion. It will be like the proverbial fool chasing after rats while his house is on fire. We have lived in poverty and deprivation for too long, we were born into the worst, we have lived all our lives in it, now it is time to hope and work for the best. In Africa, with the culture of brotherhood and responsibility towards family, our demise extends even beyond us, for it is not enough to be “doing well” until everyone in your family –both nuclear and extend – can attest to that.

Also it is time we re-defined poverty or affluence for that matter. In my country Nigeria, it is the norm to equate wealth to how much money resides in one’s bank account. Money is only one of the means to wealth, but it is funny how it is given so much priority. That is the biggest problem in Africa – a lot is concentrated on the accumulation of money. The leaders only engage in what will amount to physical cash, so that is why they do not understand the concept of building a healthy nation – development is usually one-sided and often towards the direction of their pockets. But in this century, we ought to be looking at strengthen other values induces a better quality of life, notably relationship between people, self-esteem, human capital, dignity, respect, love and knowledge all these are different yardsticks for the measurement of wealth.

Therefore to the well known three elements of the basic human need, i.e. food, shelter and clothing, I will add a fourth: education. Knowledge is the most vital constituents of wealth if we have to build a stable society today; in fact it has been the missing component since the independence of Africa. Knowledge is wealth, I will not go further than saying that even wisdom is not enough, for wisdom is the ability to maximise knowledge, but without knowledge one’s wisdom is a vacuum.

To digress a little…Just the other day, I had a conversation with a friend who is French. We got to the point where we began to express our aspirations, and she said “I am really fine with who I am, I am not looking at being something better or worse. I am just ok being me”. But then I said to her “we can trace the root of your declaration back to your country and the standard of life there: you have always lived in a situation of average satisfaction, and coming out to Africa, you have just realised that you’ve got nothing much to complain about”. An argument ensued: she tried to convince me that she’s got problems like anybody; that she works hard to earn a living. Of course I do agree, but then I insist that she has never known the torture of toiling day-in-day-out without reaping the adequate fruit of her labour. That is what Africa is, and that is why “I am not happy the way I am”.

There have been millions of rallies an protest, even bloodshed, over two centuries before my friend was born, which has led to her favourable condition today, but I guess she actually never bothers herself with such profound thoughts. She wallows in the luxury of being French in Africa (meanwhile sometimes, it is not very easy to be a French in France, all these people looking like they fell right from heaven when they come to Africa are in reality looking for where they could feel like a “big fish in a small pond”, where they could be noticed, where they could be shown some attention, some kindness; where they could be seen as exceptional for being whatever, and where else other than Africa? In their country no one sees them, even with their wealth, everyone is self-occupied. If you know what that is, you will understand the great privilege these people enjoy in Africa: It really kills to be all that you are and no one really cares.)

Anyway, back to my point…In Africa, we are saddled with so many responsibilities. There can never be limits to our dreams – not at this point in history. Our history is filled with documentations of oppressions, first from the West, and then from the black dictators who took over from them. We have never had a chance to be anything else. Even today, we continue to deal with pressures from all angles: struggles of day to day survival, shackles of a hereditary colonial mentality, and the gradual re-invasion of the continent by the West (and if you ask me, I will say this time it is much worse, for at first it was driven by the pleasure of power and discovery, but now it is out of necessity: the West is congested by its excessiveness, its abuse of everything good and the valorisation and everything bad. They have reversed and re-shuffled all standards of the human nature; they have shaken the puzzle pieces into a point of no logical coherence. Confusion everywhere! Out there it is quite claustrophobic. Then it is only natural that Africa and places like it provide a fresh basis for hope in a world where people are at the mercy of their own vomit!)

Therefore, the average African should fasten his seat-belt, the tide is fast approaching. It is time to make the bed, for we have never had one to lie on. But in doing this, we will have to realise that before we can make a fruitful journey we must decide on a direction, but also with a map of what it entails. Live your dreams! Otherwise you will watch others live it for you, and then you will again whine about how your “possessions” were taken away from you when, in fact, you sold it for a penny when you never had the foresight nor the imagination to make anything out of it! Instead of complain, comment! The more complains you make the more excuses you fabricate to procrastinate self-determination!

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I am an Igbo-Nigerian visual artist and writer who lives and works between Lagos and Berlin, moving from one to the other on a frequent basis. Check bio here: http://emekaokereke.com/biography

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