AFRICANS WEAR WATCHES, TOO(29/06/2007)
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On how a trip to Tanzania put paid to several pernicious European clichés about the African continent.
About a fortnight ago me and a Tanzanian nurse called Margareth Mwakeye were waiting for the manager of the Vyana Dance Troupe in Mkurunga, a village near Dar-es-Salaam. He was late. People often are, Margareth said, what with the poor roads and the dala-dala bus system: privately-run Toyota Hi Aces whose drivers, in order to break even, refuse to set off until their passengers are packed tighter than battery hens before setting off. Margareth added, with a smile, that whenever she arrived late for work at her NGO, her European colleagues would tell her not to worry, assuring her that Africans 'had a different sense of time'. She was still chuckling at this groundless cliché - which I had taken for granted until a second ago - when the manager turned up, tutting at his watch and apologising profusely for the delay.
He took us to see his troupe: nineteen young people who combine traditional ritual dances with contemporary lyrics about the dangers of AIDS, because, here as in all poor countries, hordes of non-professional, poorly-informed local girls sleep with men for money – infected truck-drivers mostly – including housewives who, in their desperate attempts to provide food at home, inadvertently end up passing on the virus to their husbands and future children.
As soon as I started watching the troupe at work, another of my preconceptions about the continent went up in smoke: traditional African dancing, when seen up close, was not, as I had previously supposed, a lot of stomping made attractive by the performers' ingenuous energy, but a highly complicated series of choreographical relays, executed with a disarming ease that belied years of rehearsal.
Over the next few days, yet another, more general, African myth of mine was blown out of the water. Ever since the first images of the Biafran war appeared on a TV set that my parents hastened to switch off (concerned at the effect of a live genocide on a nine year-old mind), I had been conditioned by European news bulletins to see Africa as little more than a breeding-ground for insoluble catastrophes. So it had come as a shock to discover that large swathes of the African continent – Tanzania included - live in a perfectly ordinary state of peace.
Best of all, on the final day, my very last cliché about Africa, as stubborn as it was irrational, was also proven resoundingly false. I had had the luck to meet Erick Shigongo, Tanzania's best-known writer, who has created his huge readership from scratch by serialising his novels à la Dickens in various Swahili tabloids, then publishing them, when completed, in book form. Bookshops being few and far between, he sells his books through street vendors, with publicity being provided by the tabloids' district reps around the country. So it is, that in a country where just over 30% of the population is still illiterate, Shigongo manages to sell an average of 75,000 copies per title.
He now has his eyes on the international market, but has discovered a major obstacle: in Europe a lot of people seriously don't think that Africans are capable of writing books; in fact, he added, a lot of people out there don't think Africans can think at all. By now he was laughing out loud, and I was, too, louder than him, even, because, hard as I find to admit it, I had on occasion entertained thoughts such as the ones he was laughing so loudly about – breathed them in for nearly fifty years together with the vapid European air, in fact – and now, at last, I had been released from such absurd and potentially evil notions, released for good in Erick Shigongo's pleasant patio as we threw our heads back and roared with laughter at all those dumb white fools who were unable to credit Africans with the ability to write fiction, unable to credit Africans even with a single original thought.
Thanks be to Tanzania, I had just found out in person that such fools can be cured for good.