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Imagine Africa

[Cover of [Cover of "Imagine Africa." Image by Amadou Kan Sy.]

Imagine Africa. Published by the Pirogue Collective. Brooklyn, NY and Dakar, Senegal: Island Position, 2011.

If you do a Google search for the phrase “Imagine Africa,” the results are not encouraging. Among the most popular results, you will find a company operating under that name offering “luxury safaris and beach holidays” in Africa. You will also encounter a project originating out of the University of Michigan under the name “IMAGINE Africa,” which in this case stands for “IMplementing A Global Internet Network in Africa,” a project intended “to bring Internet access to the rural population of Africa.” Another popular result is for an exhibition called “Imagine Africa” at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, whose intent is to “form a picture of what most visitors want to know about the vast continent of Africa” by asking museum-goers about their impressions of Africa: “Do you see it as the home of powerful nations? Do you think of intricately carved masks or fine art? Maybe you’re interested in the peoples living in Africa today.”

Well, maybe you are. But you won’t find anything from these sources reflective of what we might think of as acts of imagination from the point of view of “the peoples living in Africa today.” The depressing fact is that for most of the rest of the world, Africa today continues to function not so differently than it did for Marlowe in Heart of Darkness: as an imaginary place, a dark spot on a map, that can be invested and filled up with one’s own imaginings, plans, and desires. Africa, when it comes into view (if and when it does), functions all too often as object, not subject; it is spoken about, it does not speak. This has had such a lasting and profound effect that the poet Yusef Komunyakaa has speculated that even writers such as Aimé Césaire, Léon-Gontran Damas, and Léopold Senghor, some of the most important founders of the négritude movement, were as deeply affected by the imaginings of Africa found in the work of the German ethnographer Leo Frobenius as they were by any African reality.

Komunyakaa’s essay provides the conclusion to Imagine Africa, a beautiful publication produced by the Pirogue Collective. The Collective is an artistic branch of the Gorée Institute, based in Dakar, Senegal; Imagine Africa, conceived as a yearbook, is published under the Island Position imprint in Brooklyn, New York. The complexity of these groupings and locations constitutes a central part of the project, which presents itself as ambitiously transnational (the Pirogue website notes the Collective’s locations as “Amsterdam. Cape Town. Gorée. Paris. New York.”) and at the same time focused on placing artistic and literary work from Africa into a transnational conversation.

The intent of the Imagine Africa project, as set out in this first issue, is fourfold: “1) To celebrate the vitality and diverse voices from the dynamic continent of Africa; 2) To support and improve conditions for artists living and working in Africa; 3) To encourage creative and sustained dialogue between African artists and writers and the rest of the world; 4) To share the opportunities of engaging with language and art as a possible approach in dealing with socio-economic issues of poverty, repression, and violence.” To these ends, the first volume of Imagine Africa includes poetry, short fiction, essays, political analyses, and visual art from contributors hailing from Algeria, Cape Verde, England, Ghana, Italy, Kenya, Mali, Martinique, the Netherlands, Senegal, South Africa, the United States, and Zimbabwe; the languages represented (translated into English, in several cases with a dual translation) include Afrikaans, French, Kikuyu, and Portuguese.

I note all this because one of the most striking things about the Imagine Africa project is that it strives to be simultaneously a Pan-Africanist project and also a comparativist one. That is, the self-consciously continental vision found here is one imagined not simply as a form of unity (although it is certainly that), but specifically as an assembling of differences, and a translating (quite literally) across fragmented spaces, as a way of calling together Africa as a fragile whole in all its complexity. “Africa is a large lizard, cut into many pieces,” writes the South African poet Charl-Pierre Naudé, a member of the Pirogue Collective, who contributes an essay and several poems to Imagine Africa, “and every piece has to think on its feet.”

The volume begins with a text taken from the Algerian poet Tahar Djaout, L’invention du desert [The Invention of the Desert]. Presented in both French and English, Djaout’s text gives us the image of a people marching, or possibly fleeing, through the desert, led by a young man whose vision is both a burden and also a form of potential salvation: “it is for him to find the water, the reinvigorating word, for him to reveal the territory—to invent it, if need be.” This drawing together of revealing and imagining, and the placing of an equal sign between them, sounds the call for the collection as a whole, a mission found clearly in the introduction provided by the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach: “You see, to start with we believe it is possible and very necessary to see the continent as clearly and therefore as imaginatively as we can.” Clarity here has little to do with the positivist search for “facts”; it depends much more resolutely on the work of the imagination.

Breytenbach is, like Naudé, a member of the Pirogue Collective (the other members are Jill Schoolman, founder of the invaluable Archipelago Books, and the poet Adam Wiedewitsch), as well as the executive director of the Gorée Institute, and Imagine Africa seems strongly stamped by his aesthetic. This is not at all a bad thing, not only because Breytenbach has produced a body of highly original and fascinating work, but also because his aesthetic is marked by a deep and joyful eclecticism. His introduction, “Africa Lives!” sounds all the notes, beginning with the declaration that “there’s a terrible void in Africa”; moving through a series of questions (“How to write about Africa? Can it be done?”); and ending with a reiteration of the power of imagining, in both the aesthetic and political senses. He draws on Nietzsche’s insistence that the only way to face the truth is to occasionally escape into untruth, declaring that “while we imagine the very vessel of our travels and exploration”—a “pirogue,” it should be noted, is a traditional fishing boat used in West Africa—the voices behind Imagining Africa are also aware that “the dream coast we try to delineate may be untruth.” But this very insistence on the need to move between truth and untruth “reflects the need to see Africa as it is—in all its brutality, excesses, riches, horror, humiliation, poverty, despair, squalor, posturing and display, beauty and creativity.”

The eclectic vision laid out here is carried through by the contributors to the volume—“this motley but brave band of writers,” Breytenbach calls them—from a variety of angles, in a variety of voices and languages and styles. Several of the poets make a deep impression, with their work presented in dual translation, including several short verses by Djaout and two poems by Naudé translated from Afrikaans. Particular striking are two poems by the Cape Verdean poet Corsino Fortes, translated from the Portuguese by Sean O’Brien and Daniel Hahn, including the long poem “Emigrante,” from which I quote a short passage:

Vai E planta                                                                 Go and plant
     na boca d’Amilcar morto                                             in dead Amilcar’s mouth
Este punhado de agrião                                              This fistful of watercress
E solver golo a golo                                                     And spread from goal to goal
    uma fonética de frescura                                             a fresh phonetics
E com as vírgulas da rua                                            And with the commas of the street
    com as sílabas de porta em porta                               and syllables from door to door
Varrerás antes da noite                                              You will sweep away before the night
Os caminhos que vão                                                 The roads that go
    até às escolas nocturnas                                             as far as the night schools
Que toda a partida é alfabeto que nasce                   For all departure means a growing alphabet
    todo o regress é nação que soletra                             for all return is a nation’s language

Also very striking is a short story by the gifted Ghanaian writer Ayesha Harruna Attah, “New Shoes,” a beautifully written and sensitive account of life in and around Accra.

Disappointing, by comparison, are the essays that aim specifically at political analysis. Given the ambitiously imaginative agenda of the volume, essays by the economist Hervé Ludovic de Lys and by Zimbabwean parliamentarian Trudy Stevenson offer little by way of originality or inspiration. Somewhat more interesting is an essay by Stephen Ellis that suggests a move away from a division of African history into pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial periods and towards a different sort of periodization altogether, a very welcome suggestion, as well as a taut piece by Alex de Waal charting the fortunes of the African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa as it developed alongside the notorious prison of Alem Bekagn (whose name translates as “farewell to the world”).

The best of the political essays in the volume are two hybrid pieces. The poet Shailja Patel, in “Jacaranda Time,” moves between poetry and prose to narrate her experiences of the events around the 2007 national elections in Kenya. Her account, read today, resonates strongly with many of the narratives that have emerged from the recent uprisings against authoritarian regimes, from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Syria: “Rarely did we allow ourselves pauses, to absorb the enormity of our country shattered, in seven days. We cried, I think, in private. In public, we mourned through irony, persistent humor, and action. Through the exercise of patience, stamina, fortitude, generosity, that humbled me to witness. Through the fierce relentless focus of our best energies toward challenges of stomach-churning magnitude.” In a different vein, the Martinican writers Patrick Chamoiseau and the late Édouard Glissant provide a poetic meditation on the political moment encapsulated in the election of Barack Obama. While the notion of a potential for transformation to be found in Obama himself, or his administration, has long since been obliterated, Glissant and Chamoiseau’s piece nevertheless remains an eloquent example of how one can bring imaginative work to bear on a particular historical moment in order to open up opportunities that might ultimately exceed those presented by the historical situation itself: “What is a Poetics of Relation,” they ask, “when carried out primarily in the political field?” Their answer remains instructive, even as the potential marked by the election of Obama itself fades:

it is the will never to go back due to laziness or fear of the unforeseen. It is the determination to find other solutions, unbound if necessary, often unexpected, in the event that the frameworks or constraints of old models continue to impose themselves in a fixed and sterile manner. It is the determination never to impose anything by force, whether spiritual, intellectual, or material, especially not those ideas believed to be most beautiful.

Two overarching visions resonate clearly throughout Imagine Africa. The first, as already suggested, is that of a comparativist vision of African unity. As Breytenbach notes, in response to the question of commonality—“What, if anything, are the characteristics we share and collectively call ‘African’ from Cairo to the Cape, from Dakar to Mogadishu?”—this volume provides a double-voiced answer: “We assume the dichotomy: that by our very engagement we project a plausible whole of creativity and dignity and accountability, but that this whole consists of a contradiction of parts.”

This vision is best embodied by Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s contribution, a long allegorical story presented in both Kikuyu and English and entitled “A Pan-African Flight.” A young African technocrat, the day before he is scheduled to depart for a conference in New York, switches bodies with a bird and flies over the continent, searching for the answer to the question of what ails Africa. The allegorical format is a familiar one for the great Kenyan writer; it allows him to carry his protagonist over the space “from Cairo to the Cape, from Dakar to Mogadishu,” and also, more slyly, to remind the reader of the role that fiction has so often played in providing allegories of the nation—or, in this case, of the continent. In making his flight over Africa, Ngugi’s protagonist travels not as a disembodied observer but as one deeply implicated in and tied to the fate of the places he visits, which compels him to keep landing, sometimes endangering himself in the process. His quest to find what ails the continent eventually takes him beyond the continent, into the diaspora, first to Brazil and then up through Central America to Haiti and Cuba, where he begins to suspect that what ails Africa may not be human after all. “It is more as if the dead have replaced the living as the organizer of life in Africa and the world,” he tells a Santerían priest in Santiago de Cuba, “and how can that be?” The dead power that organizes life turns out to be none other than capital itself, and following this insight eventually leads our protagonist to New York, where, high above Wall Street, he watches through a window as one African leader after the next comes to sell his country—including one who, about to burst into tears when he reveals he has no precious resources to sell, is told not to worry: “you can turn your country into a vast burial ground for chemical and nuclear shit, your otherwise barren country becomes as precious as those with other types of treasures.” The answer to one of the protagonist’s key questions—Is the cause of Africa’s ailments to be found inside Africa or outside it?—is, it turns out, yes and yes.

Here, and throughout Imagine Africa, what we find is a vision of comparativism that functions within Africa and also operates between Africa and its “outside.” It represents a process by which a form of pan-Africanism is imagined into existence, one that functions as a careful gathering of contradictory fragments to form an ever-changing unity. “We are who and what we are only in becoming,” as Breytenbach writes. This is a vision not unlike Achille Mbembe’s notion of African modes of self-writing, and like Mbembe’s, it is a vision worldly enough to resist the simple celebration of self-fashioning, since the fragments to be assembled are those salvaged from the history of slavery and colonialism, as well as the more recent neo-colonial history of comprador leadership and structural adjustment. It is a vision embodied, throughout Imagine Africa, by the hauntingly beautiful drawings and collages of the Senegalese artist Amadou Kan Sy, which gently but firmly hold the volume together. It is a knowing and self-consciously imagined pan-Africanism, one that acknowledges global realities while still insisting, as Komunyakaa puts it, that “it is paramount for Africa to dream itself whole.”

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