AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

Afrique 3.0, Version 2.0
Gregory Mann | April 1st, 2013

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Flying back from Dakar and Bamako to my home near “Little Senegal,” I snatched up Courrier International’s special issue “Afrique 3.0″ while passing through Paris. Tom made a quick survey of it just as it hit the newstands. Now that we’ve had a little more time to spend with it, what to make of it? A bit of the old, a bit of the new, some sharp thinking and some shop-worn thoughts. A mixed bag, but all in all, it’s a treat. 

For those who don’t know it, Courrier International is a French magazine made up of clippings from the press around the world, most of it in translation. It’s intended to introduce its readers to work they wouldn’t otherwise access, so the art is in the editing. Often they have quite good stuff from the continent, although almost always less of it than you might hope for. Afrique 3.0 is a special issue, devoted–its editors Isabelle Lauze and Ousmane Ndiaye tell us–entirely to the continent south of the Sahara, featuring solely African authors. Sounds like a good idea, although if you’re going to insist on authors who are “born in Africa or the diaspora, whether white, black or métis,” why not go continental and bring in North Africa? As it is, only about half the pieces were first published on the continent, and the other half almost entirely in Europe or the United States.

Even with the broad net they’ve thrown, it’s hard for the editors to avoid the usual suspects, but the mix of fresh and familiar is a good one. Some of those writers are well-known (Breyten Breytenbach, Achille Mbembe, Boubacar Boris Diop, Ngugi wa Thiongo), and some of the voices from a younger generation are familiar, at least in English (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dinaw Mengestu). That can hardly be a criticism, since the journal’s purpose is to cross-pollinate, and it does: I didn’t know either Jose Eduardo Agualusa or Mia Couto, who write from Angola and Mozambique, at all. Even some of the English voices are still fresh. I’m always pleased to hear from Afua Hirsch, for one. But what’s “A Kalashnikov and Bare Breasts” you ask? Why, that’s the translated title of Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write about Africa” from 2005. Apparently they managed to translate it without reading it: a few pages later, there is a picture of a Kenyan guy with cattle, bright blanket and a cellphone, as if we were meant to be struck by a juxtaposition that instead seems both entirely natural and visually trite.

Still, there are gems. New to me–and worth the price of admission–were Diébédo Francis Kéré’s architectural work in Burkina Faso and Kiripi Katembo’s fabulous photographs of Kinshasa and Kinois, reflected through standing water (see top image for example). And check out the faux identity cards from Angola marked “citizen in ongoing resistance.” At its best, you might think it was “AIAC” without the Friday music breaks. But let’s not get too excited.

The editors, they tell us, swiped the title from a forthcoming book by South African journalists Richard Poplak and Kevin Bloom. Two problems with that: Is it worse that they’re stealing someone’s thunder (before the other book comes out) or that–not having read the book–the whole idea of Afrique 3.0 seems sketchy in the first place? Afrique 2.0, we’re told, is the Africa of independence. And that was a reboot from Afrique 1.0, which is… the Africa of European colonialism. As Saadiyah said in a comment, “Uhm, seriously?” Fancy meeting you here, Herr Hegel.

The only piece with the same (unintentional) ideological shade is the set-piece debate between the obligatory Dambisa Moyo and Axelle Kabou, who is herself rather a downer. If the question rings false–Afro-optimism or Afro-pessisim? Is Africa rising or falling?–Kabou’s dour realism is a partial antidote to the free market cheerleading and BRIC romances that make up Africa’s latest clichés. In the margins, the editors engage in a running skirmish with The Economist and like-minded business magazines, sending up the Africa rising / Africa falling dichotomy dear to journalists everywhere, but especially snarky British ones. Wainaina says that Africa’s the only continent you get to love. It’s also the only continent you can write about as if it’s an elevator.

“Afrique 3.0″ does manage to get beyond that, after a long tour through the usual places and some of the usual suspects, even drawing AIAC into the line-up (as an internet source). 30,000 feet between Dakar and Little Senegal was just the right place to take this particular trip.

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