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Stories, Words

Dear Upright African : January 1, 2017

January 1, 2017.
Dear Upright African,

I wrote We Are All Blue partly because private school had failed my Consciousness. That type of European-School-In-Africa that insists on a chronically colonized curriculum. That brand of Eurocentric “international” school in Africa that equips the African child to be more functional in the West than in his or her own corner of Africa. That Botswana “English Medium” school where I was forced to memorize the metro map of Paris throughout high school and I was tested on it for a life-shaping grade, while never being taught anything appreciable about Botswana. Except to casually gloss over that super-genocide delicately named the Scramble for Africa, told as a necessary organization of African land by Almighty Europeans. Upright African, if history itself is a collective performance of memory I would like you and I to consider what exactly we gain or lose by dropping the African out of that performance.

I am reminded of six years ago. I had just flown into Johannesburg from Kampala. I was in Johannesburg to do a screen test for a TV series about Botswana. Before the screen test was over I had already landed one of the lead roles. Of course I was elated, mostly because even though I was enjoying an award-winning acting career on-Broadway and off-Broadway in New York City, I still had the firm desire to do something at home. A week later I was in Gaborone, script in hand, and ready to film. Then an email from the series producers appeared on my phone saying that after “much careful thought and consideration” I had been dropped from the production for “not looking African enough.” The news was more insulting than disappointing. I found myself wishing that they had told me that I was dropped because I had not been a good enough actor during the screen tests, or that I was asking for too much money. But to say that I did not fulfil some British self-styled Africanist director’s zoological notion of what an African looks like was to abuse even my ancestors. I tell you, Upright African, you and I must write and perform many-many stories about the Africa we know where my perfect teeth are not remarkable, for example. Like Nollywood successfully does, we Africans must write our own African TV series even if they make sense only to Africans because to allow a people cultural opacity is to acknowledge them as complex human equals.

Apart from the necessity to educate Africa on its own story’s diversity, there is also something urgent to be said about the need for African governments to make it illegal for these private schools NOT to teach the languages, cultures and history of the host nation. Any “education” that is predicated on the denigration of your people’s story to yourself is an illusion of progress, or in the words of Botswana’s Founding President Sir Seretse Khama, “a nation without a past is a lost nation, and a people without a past is a people without a soul.”

“Last year my Day 2 on the set of ‘A United Kingdom.’ Pictured here with Kgomotso Tshwenyego.. She plays Ruth Khama’s midwife in the film.”

I may never know what about me does not look African enough for that British TV series supposedly created for an African audience. Because I do not care. But I do know that there is a quietly ashamed and pseudo-Europoid Africanness, a real-time self-erasure of sorts, that we were trained to take on in private schools in Botswana and all over Africa to the appreciation of our White (mostly) British teachers. Internalized Oppression, of course, seeped into our young African minds every time our teachers, Black and White, congratulated us for speaking well, “like a proper Brit” and in the same breath ridiculed us for having Afro-textured hair. This is in the past decade; this is not a thing of the past as some Africans and Africanists would shamelessly argue to maintain their privilege. In fact, the 2016 high-profile case of Pretoria Girls High students with Afro-textured having to protest just to be allowed to wear their hair in school the way it naturally grows on their heads is just one out of countless such cases on the continent! Of course, most cases are kept secret by these private schools and therefore never reach the courts.

British merchant John Locke, in 1561 wrote that Africans were “people without heads.” Locke also describes Africans as people with “their mouths and eyes in their breasts.” Now, that would be gut-busting comedy if that sort of language and imagery had not animalized and thingified the African so profoundly in the West’s imaginary that it is partly how Europe justified (to herself and the rest of us) her brutal colonisation of a third of the world. Perhaps Locke’s animalization of the African would be hilarious if in 1829, European taxidermists had not exhumed the body of a Tswana King to exhibit it in the same way as a trophy animal in Spain to posthumously perform a thingified Africanness for the amusement of Europeans who had not seen a Black man before. Perhaps asking me to perform a bestial Africanness on African satellite television would not be insolent if in 1810 Saartjie Baartman had not been trafficked from the Cape to perform a sexual and unhuman “Africanness” for Parisians at Palais Royal and Londoners at Piccadilly Circus simply because of so-called steatopygia, the “condition” of having a big butt, which apparently rendered her more like an animal and therefore inferior to the European. With a history thus charged with violent objectification of even the corpses of our forebearers for racist performance, the request for me to literally perform a certain notion of Africanness on screen or stage can only fill me with the same resistance I have to someone asking me to perform in blackface. I wish my private school had not excluded all these stories from the curriculum just to make colonialism seem like an act of British charity.

When I predictably lived in Paris years after high school rendered it a familiar place to my imagination, I almost instinctively knew how to catch the metro from Villejuif to Centre Pompidou to Porte de Montreuil – ah oui! I therefore found myself questioning my private education almost obsessive-compulsively: what study of French history and culture (in a Botswana school) had this been that it almost-by-definition had to displace people who look like me and you out of story whilst the bloody Eiffel tower itself was built by enslaved Africans who died in the process and whose bones remain under the magnificent monument? What if in that high school class you and I had learnt not just about the great French singers Patricia Kaas and Edith Piaf but also about their equally great contemporary Josephine Baker and how she wrote a competing narrative with her body, claiming the agency of the black female body on stage, in Paris no less? How different might our consciousness have been at that age as products of “international” schools? Would we have spent so many disorienting years after high school apologizing for (not) being African? What if we had simply learnt about African empires instead of French history? You see, we also belong in history as protagonists and not just as supporting characters. Upright African, we must also make dolls that look like little African girls. Perhaps I digress but you get me. I hope you see why I take seriously private schools’ displacement of us from history, and why I am now putting We Are All Blue in libraries of Botswana private schools. I would do the same with government schools but after years of constant attempt the clearance to do that is proving near-impossible, Upright African.

That we have bought into the most inferior foreign stories about ourselves is the tragedy of our times, Africa. I am confident that had I fulfilled in book form Europe’s fantasy of my people as simpletons who solve existential worriments with a cup of bush tea, We Are All Blue would already be in the libraries of our Botswana government schools. That is our chosen blindness (as a country and continent) to insults as long as they come as imports from the coveted West. But We Are All Blue is instead about the bravery of our people in accepting the high-profile marriage of Seretse Khama and Ruth Williams, an inter-racial romance that shook the British Empire in the 1940’s and set the tone for a peaceful multi-racial nation we now know as Botswana.

When the grand story of David Livingstone’s peripatetic exploits across Africa is told in Big-British-Books-On-African-History used in African schools, private or public, it introduces us to his African aides, Susi and Chuma. We are told that Susi and Chuma were loyal servants to David Livingstone. We are also told that Susi and Chuma were so loyal to David Livingstone that when he died at a location described as “the centre of Africa,” Susi and Chuma risked their own lives by carrying Livingstone’s embalmed body for months from modern day Zambia all the way to the coast of modern day Tanzania so that the body could be shipped off to London for burial. Now, what if we dared to tell the stories of Susi and Chuma not just as servants but also as – to use that fancy term reserved for Europeans – ‘explorers?’ What if in our version of missionary history we also saw Africa through Susi and Chuma’s eyes? Would we not see that Ilala, the Zambian village where Livingstone died, is in fact not the center of Africa but simply a case in colonial cartography full of self-serving symbolism?

I wrote We Are All Blue because beneath the Grand Narratives of global history lie fun, inspirational, erotic and humanist African stories waiting for you and me, Upright Africans in the world, to truthfully resurrect back into our Consciousness and to that of the world. With no apology. For our own humanity’s sake! Unless you think that Mahatma Gandhi was right in 1896 when he wrote that the African is a “raw Kaffir…whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and, then, pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”

Happy 2017,

An Essay by Donald Molosi, author of We Are All Blue.
Donald Molosi is a classically-trained actor and award-winning playwright. He is featured in A United Kingdom, opposite Golden Globe and Emmy award nominee David Oyelowo and Oscar nominee Rosamund Pike. Molosi divides his time between Botswana and the United States. We Are All Blue has been named one of 2016’s most prominent African Books by several literary journals including Writivism. He holds an MA in Performance Studies from UCSB, a Graduate Diploma in Classical Acting from LAMDA, and a BA in Political Science and Theatre from Williams College in the USA.