When shithole-gate landed (or opened), the intial furore was about whether the words had been said or not. The debate that followed swiftly after that was an argument about whether or not African countries were in fact, actually shitholes. This argument was made by people from within and outside the continent. (I was particularly amused by one friend who pointed out that an African who thinks of their own country as a shithole is inadvertenly definining themselves as the thing which gets emitted from a shit hole.)
However, those who pointed out that calling African states shitholes is not something that happens in a vacuum… those are the ones I agreed with the most. We seem to be more outraged by someone using the word shithole than by those who treat African states and Africans like shitholes but with a smile, with politeness, with no malice aforethought. This happens in so many insidious ways that we are inured to them:
Treating Africa as a place to ‘find yourself’ and Africans as props in that process?
Asking questions such as, ‘Do you have bookstores in Africa? Then feigning ignorance?’ or thinking that this is a sensible question to pose about access to books?
Actually coming up with this phrase ‘Do they know it’s Christmas time?’
Reducing Africa to poverty porn?
Discounting African knowledge and African history or any African contribution to humanity?
Omitting Africa from your curriculum? Then claiming international focus?
Studying Africa only as a cautionary tale?
World traveller who has never been to Africa?
Have you answered any of these questions in the affirmative? Yes? Then you too have be-shitholed Africa, and be-shitted Africans. Just not in vulgar language. And you have completely lost, relinquished, given up the moral high ground.
So, obviously, I do not think African countries are shitholes. And I love Africans. Duh. Read everything I have ever written. But let us for the sake of argument consider that African states are as shitholey as some have suggested… Then the question you should ask yourself about your view of a large part of the world should be…why? Do not ask, was this said? How was it said? How was it meant? What are African states really like? But ask, ‘why’? Why are African states in the state that they are now? Why do we consider that state to be the norm?
It is our failure to ask the ‘why’ questions that keeps us repeating the evils of the past, but this time with a smile, in more PC language, with a massive dose of self-righteousness…but still we repeat them. In days gone by, eugenicists like Galton and philosophers like Hegel had simple answers to the ‘why’ question. They believed inferiority was encoded and embedded and evidenced in things like the colour of a person’s skin. And the world moved to make it so. We are now supposedly more aware of the deep injustices in those historical arguments. Yet this awareness has no impact on how we view the resulting global landscape. And this is why post-colonial theory matters. Especially to Africa.
‘Postcolonial theory analyses the consequences of colonialism on the colonised. Theorists consider the ideas of hierarchical difference in how the image of Africa is reproduced or represented in literature as well as new and old media. The idea or invention of Africa cannot be divorced from the ideology that drove colonisation – the distinction between the civilised and the uncivilised. That ideology pervades Africa’s current relation with the rest of the world – power structures, politics, language and knowledge. Postcolonial theory recognises that the incompetence and dependence of Africa’s contemporary political and intellectual elite on external approval and assistance results from hybridity of supposed African authenticity and the attempted replication of colonial character, all carried out within an inherited colonial structure.’ [Adebisi: 435-436]
Postcolonial theory is concerned with seeking the truth about the past, but is also concerned with re-centering and reclaiming the previously othered.
According to Mbembé ‘‘each death or defeat leads to a new appearance, is perceived as confirmation, gage, and relaunch of an ongoing promise, a “not yet,” a “what is coming,” which – always – separates hope from utopia’.’ [Mbembé: 206]
So this is why we absolutely need postcolonial theory, so we can know how ‘shitholes’ are made. And realise that we are the ones who make them. With human lives. And also to realise that we can unmake them. So we can turn what some wrongly consider to be shitholes into green Edens. So that we Africans can realise new possibilities.
Adebisi, Foluke Ifejola, Decolonising Education in Africa: Implementing the Right to Education by Re-Appropriating Culture and Indigeneity (November 10, 2016). Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly, Vol. 67(4), p. 433–51, 2016. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2883552
Mbembé, Achille. On the Postcolony. Vol. 41. Univ of California Press, 2001.