Africa. The lens through which we see and are taught about our continent shapes our understanding of, our treatment of and our relationship to it. Of course, it does. That is why history is taught through the lens of white supremacy. That teaching shapes how we think, and that we think of one nation as superior and another as inferior, on its knees, broken and in constant dire need.
This is an old, well used lens to explore the continent. Much has been done to challenge that lens and the damage it does to how we, and the rest of the world, think about Africa. A conversation with a dear friend and brilliant educator led me down a road exploring lens, perspective, narrative and reimagining curricula in this 21st century.
Walter Rodney was a historian and activist who wrote a seminal book ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’ in 1972 that breaks down how Africa was exploited and underdeveloped by European colonial regimes. Like thousands who read it, it taught me just how much Europe and Europeans had plundered and pillaged nations across the Continent to enrich themselves.
What if we thought about this another way, and named it accordingly? What if we thought ‘HOW AFRICA OVERDEVELOPED EUROPE’.
There are 14 African nations whose wealth and mineral resources shaped, created and now uphold France’s economy. They are its over-developers. Because of those 14 nation, France doesn’t just stand, it flourishes. Let’s think of this another way. France is a child, crawling on all fours, economic arms outstretched to 14 African nations, without whom it would economically collapse. Imagine how a perspective on a people shifts when those millions of French and Africa children are taught they are only able to reap economic benefits because of those 14 African nations.
Take its currency, for example. The CFF franc was the monetary currency of these nations. It has been replaced – with much fanfare – by the ECO currency. That replacement comes with the illusion of a more Africa-controlled economy. That is simply illusion. France’s grip on those 14 economic coffers continues to be tight.
The eco is still linked to France, all trade must still go through the French Central Bank. Right now, those 14 African nations still deposit their financial reserves in France. Those deposits are the root of France’s flourishing economy. Who do they become without them? This is one way Africa has over-developed Europe.
What if we more fully understood – and taught – that France without those 14 African nations is actually the 3rd world nation, it is in fact under-developed without them? So, instead of conniving and constructing narratives of its greatness, the story should be one of its dependence, indeed its over dependence on those nations.
Dr. Arikana Chihombori, the former AU representative to the US has powerfully publicly spoken about just how Africa has over-developed European nations.
The lens through which she paints African nations is moving a generation of young Africans to look at their continent with fresh eyes. But equally importantly, to look at Europe – and nations like France – through fresh eyes too.
Moving forward another step – what if those 14 nations did an ‘Afrixit’ – the African equivalent of Brexit – and collectively decided to leave France, and choose to engage and exchange within and throughout the Continent alone? Well, Brexit is teaching us how problematic that can be for Britain – and especially its black and brown citizens. That’s because Brexit is rooted in the delusional idea that Empire is still alive, that white identity politics can serve a Britain whose relationship with the European Union was rooted in reimagining an economy, not imposing an identity. Alas, the Brexit campaign was the Trump equivalent of ‘Make Britain White Again’, and there they are now navigating the consequences of that. But that is not what I mean.
So, it is not about that kind of physical leaving – but a reimagining of this relationship – Africa and France. It would be about exploring the lens of a flourishing economy through Africa’s 14 nations and the wealth they have, as opposed to France’s booming economy due to its particular economic power. That teaching changes a narrative for both continents. It changes one in classrooms all over the world. That is partially what The African Continental Free Trade Act seeks to begin to achieve. COVID has interrupted its journey, but journey on it must.
We know narrative matters. The story of who you are connects to strategies for structural change. France’s narrative has been of economic boom leading the poorly equipped 14 African nations.
Shapeshift that narrative to the wealth of 14 nations over-developing one, and posing different questions: why does France need Africa so badly? Why can’t France stand alone? What is wrong with France economically that this economic relationship continues?
This is why Emotional Justice matters. It is about the interiority and emotionality of global black people. How we think about and see ourselves as a Continent and as a people is shaped by a legacy of untreated trauma from colonialism. That legacy shapes today’s reality – not simply for Africa, but for Europe too.
That is why stories matter. The world of communications – I include film, media, advertising, education – is about stories; of collectives, individuals, of peoples, of power. It is about how you want to see yourself – not simply who you are – but how you aspire to be, to see yourself, and how that seeing shapes relationships – political, economic, emotional and geographical.
Those narratives make this world of communications a multi-billion-dollar industry. People learn to craft narratives in order to shape, influence, and impact sectors, industries; to reimagine and restore, or to denigrate and destroy.
From France to the UK. October is Black History Month in the UK. It is often a time when political platitudes are uttered by leaders – political, academic, organizational – about the contributions of Black Britons to what the UK is today. The UK’s current prime-minister did that very thing in a speech at the beginning of the month.
He said: “All too often we forget that Black history and British history are one and the same. And if we forget that then we are left to a partial understanding not only of our past but also of our present. It makes it harder for all of us to understand where our country came from, the challenges it faces today, and what we can do to overcome them.”
Powerful words, indeed. Clearly, Britain’s failure to teach history that reveals just how its power was developed due to Africa, shapes a delusion of a still great Empire.
What Britain has done is retreat, and become further entrenched in a narrative of British Empire’s dominance along with a careful, calculated erasure of the global black folk – from Africa and across the West Indies – whose wealth built theirs.
That contributes to linear narratives that dominate classrooms, textbooks and deepen Britain’s understanding of and relationship to herself and the world.
This is a wound with catastrophic consequences. It needs tending. That wound informs our current identity politics, our economic reality and our emotionality as people in ways that bruise and batter, that delude and deflect. They serve delusions of supremacy identities. Shifting the lens does not mean shifting the truth – it means centering a narrative of this Continent’s power via mineral wealth, and what was absent and lacking in Europe. To get to a place of mutual respect requires a new process on multiple fronts, and an end to the permission seeking so often seen among some African leaders. Certainly, that is happening, the worlds of art – film and music, the rallying of some of Africa’s leaders to extract themselves – at least with rhetoric – from this ideology, show this. Much, much more is necessary.
Europe did not under-develop Africa. Africa over-developed Europe. Start from there. Where might that take us? Who does that make us? Who does that make them? What change might that ignite?
Esther Armah is Executive Director, The Armah Institute of Emotional Justice (AEIJ); a global institute providing equity education in the context of Race, Gender, Culture using the visionary ‘Emotional Justice’ framework. AIEJ does this via Projects, Training and Thought Leadership. Website: www.theaiej.com Email: [email protected] Twitter: @estherarmah.