Recycling Africa

by zunguzungu

Pliny the Elder is endlessly quoted for the saying “Ex Africa semper aliquid novi,” a phrase most easily translated as “Out of Africa, always something new.” I’m not sure what he meant when he said it. I’m not sure what a first century Roman thought “Africa” meant; the Romans gave the continent its name, but Africa to them was neither a “Heart of Darkness” nor a symbol of primeval nature. I’m also not sure why he thought there was always something new coming out of it.

But the phrase must do something useful, because it keeps getting recycled. The most famous is Izak Dineson’s Out of Africa, the memoir of a Danish countess’ spiritual rebirth from having a farm in colonial Kenya. Her book begins with the phrase “I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong hills,” and like Elspeth Huxley and Kuki Gallman (with whom she has much in common) the book uses tenses to indicate trauma: she had a farm in Africa. This line has been quoted and revered numerous times; Dineson is held to be a master stylist and this line is seen as having style. Many people like the idea of having a farm in Africa.

I think it has the cadence and depth of a Toto lyric. Alexander McCall Smith liked it, and he began his massively popular The #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency with the words “Mma Ramotswe had a detective agency in Africa, at the foot of the Kgale Hill.” Smith and Dineson both use the “having” of a thing in Africa to represent a certain kind of female empowerment, but the comedic Mma Ramotswe plays for laughs what Dineson plays in a tragically minor key: Dineson’s farm is in the past tense because her husband gave her syphilis and her lover died in a plane crash, the Mau Mau revolt burned up her pastoral paradise, and Kenya became independent. Colonial Africa could mean something to her because a strong woman could have a place there that she couldn’t in Europe, exactly because she was a white woman. Her ignorance could shield her from the kinds of knowledge that would make her beautiful dreams impossible, so she elegizes the life that was possible no where else; where else but Africa could a woman be a cowboy? In the 1940′s, where else but the colonies could a woman be a pioneer and farmer and doctor and business owner all in one?

African fashion

Thanks to Sepoy, I was recently viewing these pictures in the “femail” section of the UK Daily Mail, one of the many frighteningly popular quasi-tabloid British broadsheets. “Femail,” in case you were wondering, is a section devoted to “lifestyle” issues for women. What kind of lifestyle do women enjoy? Well, five of the six top stories for that day were: the tragic saga of a soccer star’s cheated upon wife, the fact that “the wait is over” for actor Sean Bean’s lucky newlywed wife (his fourth), the revelation that the wife of the new boss of the Chelsea soccer club is weird, a story about what kind of what woman will abase herself sufficiently to marry a millionaire, and the story of a wife whose husband was brain damaged in a crime of some sort and she has, in this sense, received a “life sentence.” You go, girl! You’ve come a long way!

The sixth story, however, was this: “Out of Africa: The incredible tribal fashion show inspired by Mother Nature”

African fashion

Indeed. To quote the writer, the good Marcus Dunk: “Here, a leaf or root is transformed into an accessory. Instead of a scarf, a necklace of banana leaves is draped around a neck. In place of a hat, a tuft of grass is jauntily positioned. A garland of flowers, a veil of seed-pods, buffalo horn, a crown of melons, feathers, stems and storks – Mother Nature has provided a fully stocked wardrobe.”

Why is this so wrong? First a bit more. The article notes that “the origins of this astonishing tradition have been lost over the years – the Surma and Mursi spend much of their time involved in tribal and guerilla warfare – their homeland is a hotbed of the arms and ivory trades,” a sentence that is even less grammatical in the original. And they go on to assert that “Fifteen tribes have lived in this region since time immemorial, and many use zebra skins for leggings, snail shells for necklaces and clay to stick their wonderful designs to their heads. As they paint each other’s bodies and make bold decisions about their outfits (all without the aid of mirrors), it seems that the only thing that motivates them is the sheer fun of creating their looks, and showing them off to other members of the tribe.”

African fashion

The article is struck by the strange paradox of Africans having fashion. And, indeed, one of the things colonialists had to work the hardest to impress Africans with was clothing. Not that Africans didn‘t wear clothes, of course, but they wore clothing that was appropriate to the environment they lived in, and they didn‘t understand things about cleanliness’ proximity to godliness. They took a lot of teaching in some cases.

And in some cases not. After all, it’s not that some Africans didn’t think of clothing as a commodity in ways that parallel the European practice of “fashion.” Many did. In fact, one of the ways that economic historians gauge the relative economic strength of the pre-17th century West African states vis-à-vis Europe is by noting patterns of trade in cloth. for example, John Thornton reasons that since West Africans could actually make better quality cloth than the early and pre-industrial European textile industry (and wool was next to useless in the tropics) the only reason they would ever trade for European cloth in those days was because it was a kind of luxury item, a valued (fashionable?) possession precisely because it was unique and different from normal styles and makes. An older historiographic tradition held that Africans weren’t buying much cloth from Europe because they didn’t have the economic surplus to be able to afford that trade; Thornton‘s intervention, after going over the evidence that they did, in fact, produce substantial surpluses, was to argue the existence of any trade at all (given how poorly European cloth compared with African cloth) pointed to a market in luxury goods that only bolstered his original point: Africans had a lot more control of their fate than European historiography tended to imagine. But at a much later period, when Europe’s military and economic strength had gone through the roof and a lot of work went into convincing Africans to grow cotton to send to Europe, where value would be added, and to then buy the cloth back.

African fashion

But that, of course, is not why it’s being called a fashion show. These fashionable items are not created by labor surplus, but by manna from Mother Nature. That’s what’s charming about it, right? And why is it that they “make bold decisions about their outfits” and why is “the only thing that motivates them…the sheer fun of creating their looks, and showing them off?” What makes these kinds of dress-ups into something on par with “the runways of Paris and London”? Why is it called “Out of Africa”? To a practiced grader, this article shows all the marks of a hastily written and poorly thought through student paper; if not actually plagiarized, there’s certainly not an original thought in it. So where is this narrative coming from?

You can’t tease some warped version of gender out of this racism, the way masquerading as feminism covers over something much less appealing. But when the same thing keeps coming back, again and again, its got to mean something. And we keep getting the same goddamned story told again and again, not just in Dineson, Gallman, and Huxley, but in the execrable movies made from them, I Dreamed of Africa and Out of Africa. Why does exploiting gender make racism palatable? Why is it that Elspeth Huxley has to challenge her parents’ old world patriarchy by dressing-up as African with the servants? Why is it that Dineson becomes free of her horrible husband by playing veterinarian with the local African children? Why is it that Kuki Gallman becomes a complete woman by giving birth to a “child of Africa” who is fascinated by the wilderness? Why films need to retell those stories, complete with vivid scenery? Why does Mma Ramotswe have to invoke “Out of Africa”? Why does this article? Why does it keep getting recycled?