Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Dear Africa

I love you. Not the kind of love that Cardies sells on Valentine’s Day, but in that fraught and knotted way that grips my gut and won’t let go, that tangled mess of love and fear, guilt and longing that characterises all those relationships that mark us most deeply, the ones that truly shape who we are.

africa love

Like a lot of relationships, this one is totally fucked up. (I know that will have caused some of you to wilt in horror – to quote Jack Parow at Melrose Arch last night: “Ek vloek baie. Sorry.”)

But it’s true. There is no other way to say it and be honest, because this love will never be comfortable. It will always be contested. There will always be this angst over the unfixable wrongs of the past and the frustration and anger of the present. Even talking about “Africa” as though you’re a single definable concept is meaningless, when you’re a collection of a bewildering array of societies and cultures ordered by indifferent bureaucrats into camps on either side of lines drawn on a map in Berlin in 1884.

But I wanted to say something anyway, especially because today, Africa Day, also happens to be one where you go up against an old adversary to win the right to host the SKA – which in its commitment to science and knowledge stands as a refutation of all the stereotypes of a dark and savage land. (Australia was always that annoyingly perfect prefect, the one going up to win the trophies while South Africa, the tik addict, lurked behind the bicycle sheds. It would be nice to win.)

We could add the SKA to other markers of improvement – who would have thought a couple of years back that McKinsey would be so into you? The mess in the rest of the world has put you into perspective, and we’re seeing leaders like Joyce Banda making changes for the better. There are pockets of real innovation, especially in mobile technology. The ideas that will change the world will come from you, if we create conditions that allow them to flourish. Above all, you can lay claim to the most achingly beautiful places in the world, places which inspire the kind of love that passes all understanding.

But let’s be honest. You still tolerate a hell of a lot of unbelievably awful leaders. You’re still host to far too many wars of terrible cruelty. You treat many of your women and children badly and instead of focusing on alleviating poverty, you devote your energies to worrying about who consenting adults choose to love and desire. (A lot like America, in fact, which is pretty sad – embarrassingly, a lot of your politicians have more in common with the Republicans than we’d like to admit). You’re infested with corruption and you’re still being colonised, by stealth this time.

This letter is strange, I know. Why do I feel the need to talk about love in the same breath as Africa? It’s not as if continental affiliations make sense anywhere else. We have the EU but nobody talks about loving Europe. People love America, but not North America.

You are indifferent to my love, and to the love expressed by so many on this day. You don’t need us, don’t need this endless compulsion – the neediness is so obvious – to declare some kind of emotional connection to a continent with a history of rejecting its transplanted inhabitants. In talking about love for Africa, I probably only add to that profitable and growing collection of what I like to call Zim porn (angst-ridden elegies to childhoods on impossibly beautiful farms, lost forever to a looming tide of chaos).

It is not possible to be a descendent of visitors who came unbidden and unwanted, and stayed, and not worry about these things. If I were African in the sense that they mean on the census forms, I would not be cogitating on this divide between me and the place I love, because I would simply be.

I know I can expect to get shot down in flames by pretty much everyone who comments here, but I’ll say this: I’d love to see you show the world what you’re made of. That you’re not a continent that needs rescuing or supervision, but one that leads the way, and on your own terms. A place on a map, an idea in our minds, a space in our hearts that maybe, just maybe, will become (dare I say it?) a little easier to love.

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