The Importance of Being Black
Political Parties in French Speaking West Africa
How seriously should we take Africa’s loudly-voiced claims to African-ness? Is there an “African personality” which is sufficiently identifiable to be studied? And, if so, is it of such all-embracing importance as to have colored every set of ideas that has been brought into Africa during the past hundred years, so that one can now more meaningfully speak, for example, of African Christianity than of Christianity in Africa, or of African Socialism than of Socialism in Africa?
To Mr. Frank Moraes, a distinguished Indian journalist who has recently made the grand tour of Africa, such claims are merely contemptible. “African personality, African individuality and African democracy are some of the more prestigious terms in Africa’s advanced vocabulary. Reduced to simple equations, they emerge as the one-party state, economic authoritarianism, mass and individual indiscipline, and a general descent into tyranny.” In Ghana, Moraes saw, and was not amused by, the celebrated set of colored postcards depicting ancestral Africans of genius teaching the secrets of writing, mathematics, medicine, chemistry, and agriculture to the barbarians of Greece and Rome. “The socialism of Nkrumah and Nasser,” he comments, “is in essence the National Socialism of Hitler…Like Hitler, who propagated the supremacy of the Nordic race and culture, Nkrumah preaches a contrary chauvinism based on the importance of being black.”
Hence the title of Moraes’s book, which in construction resembles a volume in John Gunther’s Inside series. It starts in Ethiopia, proceeds to English-speaking and French-speaking West Africa, returns through the Congo to East Africa, and ends with a southward lunge through the Rhodesias to South Africa. Moraes is a master of the interview, tartly reported, with just the tell-tale phrase or two of direct quotation—though one wonders how many of his victims would receive him a second time. Awolowo, for example, who is described as “smug, self-centered and vain, with a fondness for high-sounding words and phrases”? Or the Sardauna of Sokoto, who “attributed all diseases to the Almighty, though he did not specify whether, in the case of the poor, he regarded such diseases as afflictions or blessings”? When the top man refused to see him, Moraes carried on cheerfully with number two, using him as a mirror through which to see his chief. There is a brilliant use of Botsio to rumble Nkrumah, and of Kawawa to rumble Nyerere. His biggest catch was Lumumba. This has resulted, however, in two chapters on recent Congo politics which are as onesided as the rest of the book is shrewd.
Interviews apart, the substance of the book consists of political and economic background covering the last four or five years, well chosen and, on the whole, accurate, though much of it, inevitably, of very ephemeral interest. It is a pity that Moraes did not exercise his undoubted talents as an observer to stray further from the narrowly political scene and give us, as Gunther used to do so well, some vignettes of life outside the capital cities. Moraes did call on Schweitzer at Lambarene, and…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.