When ‘Africa’ at the Theatre Goes Wrong

Imagine you are a person in the Netherlands interested in African events or at least cultural events where Africa is (supposedly to be) prominently featured and you pick up a flyer of an event saying in Dutch: ‘Afrika! Het Oude en Nieuwe Afrika’ (Africa! The Old and New Africa). Your curiosity has been triggered and you glance over the names of those who will be attending and performing. A closer look reveals that of those forty odd names, about four are African. Still ten percent an optimist would say.

Well imagine you’re that optimist and you think this might be some artistic thing you don’t understand. There must be an explanation as to why a respected institute such as the Stadsschouwburg of Amsterdam (Municipal Theatre of Amsterdam) would organize this event. As you open the flyer to know more about the event you read the following:

Africa fascinates, calls and scares. The Western man can barely get hold of this continent. Its history is murky, the gap between rich and poor big, the natural resources immense. The developments are rapid. It seems that the role of the European has played out, while the Chinese have arrived. Time to put the spotlight on Africa.

Your optimism is fading — you are stunned. It is, as the title of an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw, by journalist Seada Nourhussen says “Africa through the eyes of the Westerner”. Nourhussen perfectly pinpoints the amazed reaction to the event.

She questions whether the promotional text was meant to be ironic. But no, according to the lead programmer of the Stadsschouwburg this week is about ‘Dark Africa’, by which he apparently means the Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding countries.

Five days of different art forms dedicated not to the African continent or dark Africa as the Stadsschouwburg wants the public to believe, but to celebrate the slightly (you’re still an optimist) wrongful promotion of a continent at an event. Three plays on the relationship between Belgium and its former colony Congo, all played, written and directed by white men. A theatrical adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. All interesting plays. But African?

The focal point (and opening night) of the festival was the book launch of Goodbye Africa by Marcia Luyten, a journalist who lived in Africa for over a decade and like any respected former correspondent she looks back at her period abroad by publishing a book. In it she concludes: “If we still want to be of any meaning on the youngest continent then we should accept Africa the way it is. We should stand on its red earth and try to understand Africa’s nature.”

And as the optimist stands with the flyer in his hands, he concludes that events like these are evidence of the misunderstanding of ‘Africa’s nature’.

* Image: “Africa”, a play by NTGent.

11 thoughts on “When ‘Africa’ at the Theatre Goes Wrong

  1. @yesthatsjames – SERIOUSLY! it goes both ways though. arriving in Kenya with my complicated post-colonial-deconstructivist-i-have-no-idea-what-im-talking-about-critical puzzle of thoughts I have struggled a lot with the same issues here: “this is Africa” – “we African’s….” – a very sharp young man who is a great rapper: “while you are here – think of something how you can help, how you can teach something” . LIKE FOR REAL? yes why not, i could teach you … juggling for example. I can teach that to US Americans as well as Icelanders, as well. Will it “help” the poor African children? …. The inferiority complex is staggering and I hate I ever went to gender classes (I mean, hey, maybe gays ARE evil and… you know, the Western critical thought can suck our collective dick and stop ruining our societies….) because now I can’t even listen to generalizing conversations about “guys” and “ladies”…. what to do.

  2. What to do? I dip into this blog because I really want to know about Africa now- not nineteenth century novels, Tarzan films or Operation Raleigh. Why? Because I’ve met Somalis, Kenyans, Senegalese, South Africans, Namibians and Tanzanians in the UK and I don’t want to be an ignorant jerk. Dieza, a friend from Congo, used to go out in Edinburgh and tell people that his family lived in tree houses because it was too dangerous at ground level what with all the crocodiles and hyenas. He was having a good laugh. An elegant stylist with a wicked sense of humour he could pull people’s legs till the bells rang. Diplomats and other functionaries are generally arses at home as well as abroad so I would not expect to get much enlightenment from that quarter. That is why blogging is so useful and so real and why I follow Africa is a Country.

  3. Africa, the youngest continent? No! My continent is where the Cradle of Mankind lies. It’s the oldest of them all! Just leave us in peace and keep your Western opinions of Africa being a dark and backward place to yourself. There’s more mobile phones here than in Europe, man.

  4. I think events like these (AfrikaDag was another example) say more about a Dutch crisis of confidence about their place in the world than about anything else. For a couple of decades the Dutch were confident of themselves as a ‘guiding country’, progressive and generous, and they had a fairly uncomplicated, patronising view of the developing world. But the world has changed and their comfortable patronage relationship with Africa has changed too.

    The discourse here is struggling to adjust to these new terms – who are we if not good people who send money to the poor people in dark Africa? What is our place in the changing world order? So there are clumsy attempts to address this, generating a mix of amazingly retrogressive sentiments like those expressed in the flyer (also, on the webpage: “will New Africa manage without (development) aid?” Hell, will the Netherlands get through the crisis without aid?), and promising reactions to these which show more awareness.

    Another good example of these two reactions can be found in a recent pair of newspaper articles. The first one, appearing in the Volkskrant, was about the sad state of emancipation among female academics in the Netherlands. This was expressed in a heading along the lines of “NL just above Botswana in emancipation rankings” – shock, horror, how bad must things be if we can be compared to an African country! A column by Rozanne Hertzberger (http://www.rosannehertzberger.nl) remarking on this fact appeared in the NRC Handelsblad the following weekend – she observes that the comparison rests on the very deeply held assumption among the Dutch that things are standardly going badly in (all) Africa. She rightly pokes fun of this outdated view of the world, where all children in Africa are starving and all children in Romania are orphans. I remain optimistic (even if it’s against the odds : )) that this second type of reaction will continue to win ground here in the Netherlands.

  5. Very interesting & thought provoking piece. It is entirely true that most of us Europeans are quite breathtakingly ignorant and ill-informed about contemporary Africa, (well about Africa at any era of history in fact) and therefore frequently prone to producing stupid, crass and insensitive comments. Some of us are doing our best to educate ourselves, but it is not always easy, in the cultural, educational nor media environment. The event in the Netherlands however looks embarrassingly bad, totally appalling. (your reaction sounds appalled in fact, and I really don’t blame you) Unacceptable really, for a publicly funded event, in a modern democracy, supposedly curated by educated people. Having travelled a few times in Africa, I’m afraid I have to agree with your commenter above (Mudath?) that some of the cultural insensitivity can be a two-way street! But that in no way excuses the idiocy of these Dutch jokers. Btw: is it my imagination, or is the image you posted from the cultural event? and is it in fact of a white man painted black?! In the context of the rest of their stupidity, that also looks pretty crass. Anyway, great piece.

  6. I’m struggling to make the connection about “the youngest continent”… How can the site of the origin of the human species be “the youngest continent”? I really don’t understand….

    By the way, arranqhendersen, yes youre right, that image does look a bit suss… Maybe it is in fact a white man, perhaps an NGO volunteer that accidentally got too close to a European mining company’s operations and ended covered up in the slick they’re polluting the rest of the waterways and communities with…

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