John Holbo was kind enough to pick up on my posting about tropes for my Image of Africa course this semester and add a new item, a really interesting one: the extent to which imaginative fictions feel comfortable inventing countries, cities, places in Africa (in fact, are actively uncomfortable using real countries and places). What’s really interesting about this is that many of the source fictions that we looked at this semester, like King Solomon’s Mines and Sanders of the River, blend real African geographies with fake ones. There are latter-day examples of that, Michael Crichton’s Congo, for example. But more often in recent popular culture, fictions and entertainments offer African places (Wakanda, for example) unmoored from any link to real geographies and places.
The Crooked Timber commenters point out that there are a host of European examples of this as well, and even fictional American cities (Metropolis and Gotham City, for starters). So it’s not just Africa, but there’s a particular vagueness and plasticity of the African examples, a blurriness. Metropolis and Gotham City invoke known versions of New York City, light and dark. The kinds of Boogaboogalands we see set in fictional Africas invoke nowhere in particular. They have a dictator here, a refugee camp there, insurgents, witch doctors, pleasant villagers under the sway of custom, perhaps some savage warriors with long Zulu-style shields, an avuncular chief (often, as a Crooked Timber contributor observed, sporting a monocle and claiming to have been educated at Eton).
I was really satisfied with the Image of Africa course this past semester. The students were great, we had good discussions, the mix of texts seemed to me to work. I felt less obligated to “coverage” than I had in the past, and stuck with what generated reactions. One of the most satisfying things to me, though, is that I thought we began to zero in on a more sophisticated way to think about what kinds of consequences representation has in the world, of the relationship between representation and action. The combination of identity politics and historicist cultural criticism, whether you dismissively call it “political correctness” or acknowledge its more sophisticated underpinnings, nevertheless left us with a generic, one-size-fits-all response to “bad” culture, certain in advance that we know why such culture is wrong or what work it does in the world.
However, though I was pushing the course away from that shoot-from-the-hip reaction, you don’t want to end up at the opposite pole, where representation is just a mirror of society, where it has no relationship to action or behavior. In the case of representations of Africa, particularly the representation John Holbo describes, you don’t have to look any further than a December 19th story in The Wall Street Journal (sorry, no online version of the article) about Bruce Wilkinson, an American preacher determined to create a huge village of orphans in Swaziland, through his “Dream for Africa” project, extending existing endeavors like the “Never-Ending Garden”.
I suppose generously you could say the impulse behind the project was at least genuinely humanitarian. At least some of the people who’ve given to the project or who believe in it are utterly sincere in their desire to help. The problem of AIDS-orphaned children is also very real in southern Africa, and heart-breaking. But the fantasies that got mustered in this particular humanitarian dream were roughly as grotesque and unreal as those of any 20th Century autocrat you care to name. Leaving aside any of the thinking behind the project, the mere design and scale of it was bad enough: a huge residential and commercial complex intended to house up to 10,000 orphans plus preachers and support personnel, funded through work by the orphans, a 99-year lease over two major game parks adjacent to the complex, and expected tourist revenues from Americans and others flying in to see the salvation of orphans one day and wild animals the next. The whiff of Ceausescu in that design (and Dickens, for that matter) is pretty unmistakeable to me. At the least it’s a high-modernist fantasy of centralization and control. Not to mention that any of us who study the history of development projects in Africa know exactly where this project was headed if it was given any further room to become reality, towards a kind of half-assed initial implementation that would round up the most vulnerable, marginal “orphans”, put them in some poorly thought out starter complex and probably end up abandoning them after five or ten years. That history goes way back, all the way to the 19th Century expedition of British missionaries who went up the Niger to demonstrate to the locals the virtues of free labor over slavery and ended up buying slaves in order to “free” them for work on a plantation. It comes way forward, with the ill-conceived Somalian intervention of the 1990s.
Always inappropriate to the circumstance, and always utterly unconcerned with the actual people involved. Here’s a case where I think precisely the imaginary geographies that John Holbo writes about are involved: Africa is the place where it’s ok to capaciously envision grand projects of various kinds with little concern for the specific humanity of specific African individuals or communities, where you treat them as generic, faceless objects to be saved, remade, to be waved about as totemic proof of your own goodness, not as people who may have histories, psychologies, aspirations, cultures, individual and collective complexities. And when such projects die their inevitable deaths, rather than looking hard at themselves, the grand dreamers always blame African intransigence and malfeasance. It’s not as if Swaziland’s government is normally a model of probity and responsible governance, but here’s one case where they did exactly the right thing by stringing along the donors for whatever they could get from them and cutting them off at the point where their project threatened to become just real enough to do actual harm.
It’s only Africa where it’s ok to envision doing something like creating a gigantic tourist complex for foreigners to come and being photographed with orphans one day and wild animals the next, leaving the orphans to be preached at and prodded in the days in between: nobody, except maybe a Hollywood celebrity or two, would dream of buying up existing communities or facilities in the United States for anything of this kind. This is one of those junctures where what is otherwise safely imaginary has a kind of surplus to it, spilling over the chalice of dreams into real lives and real places. I don’t think you deal with that spillage by attacking imagination, but maybe you could help prevent it with an increased supply of knowledge about the real-world.