My racist experiences in Nigeria

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AS a patriotic Zimbabwean, I thought I could share with you my face-to-face contact with subtle racism at a recent International Conference on Africa and the Modern World held at the historic Ibadan University, Nigeria, a week ago. The reason behind my sharing with you this experience at this important conference is clear — to conscientise fellow Zimbabweans and other Africans to be wary of subtle racism in their interaction with members of the white intelligentsia who purport to be liberal and accommodating when they are outand- out racists. The experience taught me and fellow participants that it is rather early to bask with some of the European professors in the same sunshine under the banner of scholarly brotherhood. While we may be sincere, the story below teaches that our counterparts may not always be. Here is the gist of the incident that sparked the racial row. Ibadan University was hosting their first Biennial Conference of the Faculty of Arts from the 6th to the 9th of June 2011. It was attended by many people from Africa, USA and Europe. I happened to be the only one from Zimbabwe participating on behalf of myself, my university and our Great Nation. There were two keynote papers for the plenary address, one by Professor Mary Kolawole and the other by Professor William Beinart. The two were expected to set the tone for the conference whose theme was “African Culture in the Making of the Modern World”. The first paper was presented by Prof Mary Kolawole. It was entitled “Invention, Reinvention and African Transnational Interconnectivity”. The paper presented a general intellectual terrain for the other papers by setting the tone and atmosphere for the rest of the participants to interrogate and dialogue about what African culture’s contribution to the making of the modern world. Then came Professor Beinart, ironically a Professor of Race Relations at Oxford University. He began with a mild apology before a rendition of Africa’s prominence as a creative perennial borrower of foods from Mexico. The paper’s main focus was on the prickly pear (dhorofiya), a very common plant that grows wild in Zimbabwe and South Africa. According to the professor, this plant came from Mexico. It found its way to Africa through the Portuguese — the Vasco da Gamas — on their way to India. Africans must therefore be thankful to Mexico for such a plant which is now a common source of food especially during droughts. The learned professor proceeded to lecture that besides the prickly pear, Africans need to be thankful to Mexico for more, in fact for most of their staple foods. These included maize, cassava, rapoko and yam. At the end of his paper, there was literally nothing said about African culture nor its contribution to modernity except the pervading impression that it was a consumer of borrowed foods. After the presentation there was a round of applause. I was not part of it though, I was angry. I hoped that fellow professors from Africa had sensed the racist undertones which pervaded the paper, let alone the paper’s thematic diversionary trajectory. Although it was clear that the chairperson was a little unsure about what to make of the paper, judging from the expression on her face, she still handled the occasion with unbefitting civility. However, when no other participant seemed too keen to comment on the paper, I decided to take the bull by the horns. I raised my hand until I was given an opportunity to contribute. I grabbed the occasion, not to be brief, but to vent my anger, whatever it would take. I went straight to the point. I took great exception to the entire paper by Prof Beinart, I began, not wanting to mince my words. First, for its affront to the theme of the conference and to Africa as a whole by ‘lying’ blatantly that Africans ‘borrowed’ the prickly pear, maize, yam and rapoko from Mexico. I pointed out that it was in fact Mexico and other Latin American destinations for slaves that had benefited from the translocation of some of these foods from Africa during slavery. Secondly, I reminded him that his paper oozed of subtle racism. Was it not strange that honoured to present a keynote address the professor should find himself presenting a paper that says nothing about Africa’s contribution to world civilisation, choosing to delight himself with depicting the continent as a survivor on alms as it were? Was this not a modern version of presenting Africa as a ‘heart of darkness’ that could only be saved by the alien, a dark continent with no history to talk about? I reminded him how his paper sounded very much like the open racist nonsense of Trevor-Proper and others of his ilk. I then reminded the participants that Africa is not only the cradle of civilisation, but that the civilisations of Europe and America were, in fact, built and continue to be propped by the sweat and resources of Africa. This then took me to the conclusion that the theme of the conference was, in fact, misleading because it subordinated African culture to modernity as if to say everything modern was necessarily desirable. Rather, I reinvented the theme by stressing that, in fact, it is the modern world that should learn from Africa, not vice-versa. Indeed my paper was later to deal with the need to apply our own theories in the interpretation of our own and other people’s literatures rather than depend on Western lenses (theories) to interrogate especially our own literature. A deafening roar greeted how I had rescued and re-aligned the conference that had just been hijacked. The time has come for Africa to assert and re-assert itself without apology. Beware of the unrepentant racism of white liberals, soul brothers and sisters. Much later, on a guided tour of the Olumo Rock Tourist Site in the Ogun State capital, Abeokuta, Professor Beirnat casually remarked how the rock reminded him of the Matopos in Zimbabwe and my heart sank deeper. That is where they buried Cecil Rhodes.

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