08/16/2011 09:05 EDT | Updated 10/16/2011 05:12 EDT

African Voices Speak Loud and Clear, but Who's Listening?


I just finished reading To See The Mountain and other stories, the anthology for the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, and it struck me with a feeling that took me back to my university days some 25 years ago.

I was studying French at McMaster University, and taking a course in "la littérature française de la francophonie," that is, work written in the French language outside of France, with a professor from Senegal, the learned Dr. Gary Warner. I'd grown up on mid-20th century Bugs Bunny cartoons that made a joke of the "dark continent" -- literally painted black, impenetrable, unknowable, its inhabitants half naked and exotically primitive. Along with National Geographic specials that focused on wildlife, it was all I'd ever heard of Africa or Africans, but after a steady diet of Ferdinand Oyono's Une Vie de Boy (The Life of a Boy) and various works by Ousmane Sembène, among others, I had to wonder with some incredulity -- why is this the first time in my (then) 22 years that I've actually heard African voices talking about Africa?

Not much has changed in the ensuing quarter century. From last year's World Cup to the North African Arab spring, from the Ivory Coast's political troubles to South Sudanese statehood and most recently East African famine, we often hear about about -- but seldom from -- the African continent.


I stopped tuning into the news about the same time that I started writing an arts blog a couple of years ago, and it was in delving into arts and culture that I came to learn far more about the world. Where we have trivialized culture in what we call "Western" society (west of what?) the arts and artists from the many and varied cultures of Africa in particular retain a vital connection to social and by extension political realities, even in the larger diaspora.

It's the time honoured role of musicians on the continent to be a living repository of history, to speak out and inform. Writers like NoViolet Bulawayo of Zimbabwe, this year's Caine Prize winner, and her contemporaries are the modern exponents of a longstanding tradition of storytelling.

Even without counting career politicians and journalists, there is no shortage of eloquent African voices out there -- but who is listening? If we'd been paying attention to artists, musicians and filmmakers, we'd be far less tempted to believe our fond delusions of "good dictators" or "strong leaders" who keep the peace (for us) in Africa. We'd understand the level of political instability and where it comes from.

Art transcends difference to communicate essential realities. Try reading NoViolet's short story, "Hitting Budapest" if you want to understand what it is to go hungry in a place where hunger shouldn't exist. Listen to the lyrics of Nigerian musician Seun Kuti if you want to grasp the growing frustration of a people who are watching as their own government and foreign corporations sell out their future; his latest release is called From Africa With Fury: Rise.

Whether it's corporate journalists or celebrity spokespeople who, however well meaning their personal motives may be, take over the spotlight and the microphone, we in this Western world need to understand that the kind of conventional wisdom that rationalizes celebrity involvement itself only serves to perpetuate a status quo that resolutely ignores the voices of those actually involved. Supporting a cause or a people gives us a supporting -- not a starring -- role. We need to stop talking about Africa, and start talking to Africans.

I recently interviewed another Zimbabwean, musician Thomas Mapfumo, who's now based stateside but grew up in Africa in colonial times and came to be a lightning rod for the resistance movement in his native country. In fact, the style of music he created, Chimurenga, means struggle or revolution and in the ultimate irony, he was able for some time to pen lyrics as brazen as "mothers, send your sons to war" with impunity because the British colonial powers that were couldn't be bothered to learn Shona, the language of his people. Globalization has replaced colonialism, but our practices haven't altered in any significant way. Then, as now, African voices are out there singing and speaking loud and clear, if we'd only stop talking long enough to hear them.