Today we started with a photograph (Eugene Hoshiko/ AP) from the UK Guardian which I thought could tell us something about the condition of the contemporary era:
What we see above is the overlap of two Chinas. In the background, the high rises of Shanghai proclaim its status as a “special economic zone.” In the foreground, older and more traditional architecture speaks to a prior age, perhaps even before Deng Xiaoping “liberalized” the Chinese economy with the famous observation, “Whether a cat is black or white makes no difference. As long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.” What he seems to have meant is that it didn’t really matter how the problem of poverty was to be approached in China, so long as it was solved. I can’t stress how jaw-dropping this statement must have been for many Chinese communists. It was, in a meaningful sense, the end of communism as an economic system in China, though there were no accompanying moves toward political democratization.
The question of economy and its role in contemporary culture is one that has relevance for conflict in Western Africa, I suggested, particularly in light of new forms of political hegemony which came after classical (19th century, British-style) colonialism. Settler colonialism— where a power rolls in and essentially gains physical control of another country– is nowhere near as pervasive as it was prior to the first World War. There are exceptions here, of course, though they need not detain us. In terms of Sierra Leone and other African nations, the question of economy is particularly pressing given that SL is one of the world’s poorest countries. Underdeveloped nations are vulnerable not only to the pressure tactics of multi-nationals, but to the organs of international capitalism such as the IMF and the World Bank, which are there ostensibly to encourage development but often do so according to a set of neoliberal policies which in the long run may (and have) harmed “emerging” economies. As an example we can look to the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) demanded of South Africa, whose citizens, newly liberated from the racist apartheid regime, found themselves paying untenable proportions of their salaries for basic services such as water and energy. An effort like this was undertaken only recently in Bolivia– in exchange for a loan the IMF demanded the Bolivian government privatize its water– but beaten back by furious Bolivians, most of whom are deeply impoverished.
In other words, the political hegemony of the most developed countries is usually exerted and consolidated these days by the institutions of global capitalism (and of course private multi-nationals, who can often reap vast profits from privatization schemes). Back in the day, that process was called “neocolonialism”– an effort to re-establish a control of former colonies with no (or fewer) messy military entanglements. One reason so many erstwhile allies of the US refused to approve of or contribute to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was because they saw that attack as a bizarre, unnecessary return to something very much like colonial conquest. What’s more, war is tremendously expensive. Why drop bombs when you can dictate the terms of aid?
[The whole Iraq fiasco is beyond our portfolio for this course. It’s very complicated (as are the ideas sketched out above) and some of the questions people have at present will be answered only when (or, given current secrecy policy, IF) the US government releases now classified information. One recent revelation, however, confirms what millions upon millions of people already “knew”: the WMD claims were simple fictions.]
Okay, let’s not get off track, because we’re headed somewhere with this.
One of the basic questions we might put to Kourouma’s novel, is why choose a ten year old child soldier as the protagonist? Why not an old woman, a middle-aged unemployed barber, a stranded Italian tourist? I think the key here is this very issue of economic development. Birahima symbolizes (stands in for) West Africa itself: a region “young” in the sense of not being fully developed, one that is vulnerable, manipulable, unstable, etc. Our young hero could also be said to represent postcoloniality, a condition fraught with promise and peril.
Perhaps the years of battling to decolonize are in a way “easier” than the postcolonial present in that their moral stakes seem so clear cut: who doesn’t love a freedom fighter? When the Mau-Mau fought the British in Kenya, when Amilcar Cabral and PAIGC fought the Portuguese, when Robert Mugabe’s ZANU forces fought the Rhodesian army and Afrikaaner mercenaries, their struggles were heroic.
Recall that the next book we read, Minaret, is also from the pen of a postcolonial author, Leila Aboulela of Sudan. I’m really looking forward to contrasting her novel with Kourouma’s.