What is an authentic African?

My sloppy argument has been called out by a commenter and Bill Easterly himself. Last week I asked why:

all the Africans getting press on the aid debate are conservatives and libertarians? Moyo, Mwenda, Hirsi Ali. The list is getting longer. All make good points (well, at least Mwenda does) but these hardly strike me as indigenous voices. Most seem to be channeling Milton Friedman. There’s nothing wrong with a little Friedman in your thinking, but is this “authentic Africa” or the product of elite education in the West?I see two hypotheses: (1) Africans hate aid; and (2) it is easier to get on camera if you are African and hate aid.

To get at my meaning, a better word than “authentic” is probably “original”. Surely a lifetime working, living and politicking in Africa affords African intellectuals a perspective different than that of their Western counterparts? It would be nice to hear more of those voices and views.

Examples? Andrew Mwenda is at his best not when repeating the lessons of Chuck Tilly and European history, but when excoriating the aid community for their naivete in two decades of support for an increasingly thuggish Ugandan President.

There are others. Binyavanga Wainaina’s lament on Western NGOs in Kenya is thoughtful, heartfelt, and original. Mahmood Mamdani thinks and writes about the Darfur conflict from a perspective few Westerners could offer. And George Ayittey pushes indigenous African institutions over imported ones. I’m not convinced, but he’s offering something new.

Sadly, everyone else seems to sound exactly like a London investment banker, the books they read at Harvard or LSE, or (in Easterly’s words) aid agency officials repeating their boring platitudes. And sometimes they just rehash Easterly. More people should rehash Easterly (and Friedman, and Tilly…), but I will always value the fresh voices most–African, Turkish, American, Peruvian or otherwise.

8 thoughts on “What is an authentic African?

  1. You’re dead-on, even if your sentiment wasn’t expressed perfectly clearly. There’s a similar problem on the advocacy side. When faced with a dire situation in Africa or elsewhere, they tend to find “local spokespersons” who left the country at an early age and grew up in Europe. Being born in Kinshasa and raised in Brussels or London does not make one a local voice speaking to the crisis in the eastern D.R.C. But most advocacy groups miss this. Probably because they’re glad to have found an English-speaker to promote their message.

  2. As someone who is going to LSE next year for grad school, I’d like to point out a grammatical error: “everyone else seems to soundS”…

    Interesting debates — especially on indigenous vs. imported institutions, which is a crucial question. When one looks at 20th-century development success stories (Japan, China, Vietnam) and relative failures (Argentina, many African countries), it certainly seems preferable for countries to experiment and gradually come up with their –own– “institutions-for-development,” in my opinion.

  3. As a brazilian, I would like to make a few points about autehntic or orignal thinking.

    Fist and Foremost, Although I am not an african, I am from a developing country and have the same problem of decide if we should import insitutions and thinking from abroad or if we should develop our owns institutions and thinkig about our problems.

    And even though the jury is still out there about what to do, we had, in fact, a lot of good reflexions abut this subject, specially in arts and social science as well.

    So, to summarise a too long commentary, I would say: This search for an authentic voice is somewhat akward, since there is no asking of a Authentic american thinking about, for example, the financial crisis.
    And, at the same time, it is nice to ask for original thinking, rooted in local history and context.

    And what do with this contradicion? Well, Maybe we (brazilians and africans as well) should do what an local writrer (Machado de Assis) did when faced with the same problem:
    To use the local color to contruct some kind of universal thinking, which by its own strength overcome the local specificity and at the same time reshape the universal literary canon.

    Below, some references about this interesting subject and our (brazilian) reflextion about it:
    1. Antroprofagismo (a link of one of the moviment leaders, Oswald de Andrade:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oswald_de_Andrade and here, tha Cannibal Manifesto: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannibal_Manifesto)
    2. Tropicalismo (link here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tropicalismo)


  4. Authentic African? Now that’s a sociological oxymoron, if I have ever seen one.

    How can you even begin to describe Africa, let alone Africans? How can you begin to do so in a continent so diverse, consisting of philosophy, music, culture, skin tones that are influenced – and in turn influenced the rest of the world?

    Africa is defined by the outside-in. Africans are not bothered about definitions of themselves because they know who they are: products of a world they never asked to be a part of. Products of a world they have no choice, but to participate in.

    Nobody asks about the authentic American voice or authentic Bolivian economic values. If nobody dares to define authentic Danish or Mongolian philosophy, why expect to find it in Africa?

    Good luck finding anything more than an authentic authentician.

    -Authentic Ugandan Insomniac

  5. @Tumwijuke: That is the point of the post, no? To argue for original voices, and discard the misleading idea of authenticity.

  6. This whole discussion is disconcerting.

    Who cares about authenticity? Originality?

    We aren’t talking about music or art here. We are talking about ideas which could change people’s lives. These should be evaluated solely on their merit.

    Every decade development consultants and academics develop some new fad to sell. Are they original? yes. Are they helpful? Maybe.

    Regarding your point of hearing more voices. Sure, that sounds great. More voices, especially from those on ground is always helpful.

    On another note, what’s funny is I didn’t hear you complaining about pre-African voices when it was white liberals talking about aid. Where was the questioning?

    Lastly, would you have written the same post if this were the case:

    “all the Africans getting press on the aid debate are LIBERALS and SOCIALISTS? Moyo, Mwenda, Hirsi Ali. The list is getting longer.”

    I doubt it.

  7. I agree that it would be good to have more voices from the ‘developing world’.

    Nevertheless, you can’t run away from Western terminology and concepts, which is basically THE debate in the first place. Any wholesomely ‘African’ concept would be so alien to you, or to any American, that understanding it becomes an issue in the first place. I wouldn’t immediately blame those educated at the Ivy Leagues…

    What we want are voices which reflect reality. Not empty theory based on self-validating axioms. What we need are more of such voices actually assuming positions of power within their own nations and in the international organisations. That would be a step ahead, if not the end all.

  8. I agree with your posts. There are Africans with novel ideas on what will actually help us develop. The big problem is that they are too busy doing it to prance around on neo-con money showing how well they have learnt the white man’s tricks. Maybe if these selfproclaimed “AFrican voices” spent more time advocating better funding for Education in Africa we will have voices that will challenge them. I am not holding my breath!