Friday, September 30, 2011

Wild West Africa

The mere mention of West Africa conjures images of military coups, slavery, Pidgin English, voodoo, long flowing dresses and football madness all framed in a stereotyped perception that individuals from the region are dishonest, calculating, patronizing and cunningly enterprising.

This generalization is enhanced by the fact that West Africans have a closely knit culture and history as symbolized by shared traits like the popular Boubou, the trademark flowing dress that has its origins in the clothing of nobility around the region’s empires from the 12th century. The female version of this attire is even more glamorous with comically huge head gear which, complimented with heavily jeweled fingers, wrists, neck and other detailed feminine touches, makes the usually voluptuous West African woman an arresting sight. The dress code is rapidly becoming fashionable and popular in other parts of Africa.

With more than1000 ethnic communities this is one of the most culturally diverse places in the world. Some of the major communities are Fula, Faso and Hausa whose populations are present in more than five nations in the region thanks to pre-colonial trade routes and the political influence of ancient civilizations.

Like in many other places across Africa, several of these ancient kingdoms and chieftains have survived the ages to thrive in modern times and though politically powerless, the monarchs still remain important status symbols especially during traditional functions in which they preside over. Civilizations that thrived here long before the arrival of western powers and eventually birthed the modern nation states include Songhai, Empires of Ghana and Mali, Dahomey, Sosso and Ashanti.

Besides having many wives and displaying bare beer bellies in social gatherings these traditional kings and chiefs, some reinvented and propped by British colonialists, still sways a lot of influence among their subjects hence many political leaders seek their endorsements during elections. It’s not strange to see state presidents and other senior government officials attending the gluttonous royal gatherings.

Although there is a general assumption that the rotund and muscular nature of many West Africans is genetically imbedded a glance at their cuisine tells a totally different story. While the rest of the sub-Saharan Africa has posho meal-called Ugali, nshima or mealie meal depending on the country- as the pillar of their diets here fufu, pounded yams, potatoes or plantains is the main source of starch with the stew being generous on meats and fats, which perhaps explains the smooth, round and oily faces common in Nigerian movies and the robust statures of footballers like Didier Drogba and Michael Essien.

“When we Nigerians heard stories about people in Europe who restricted their daily meals to vegetables, we did not believe them. We wondered how a man could survive without meat or animal fat. But now we have no choice but to exist on edible leaves and other non-body-building ingredients to survive these hard times.” A Lagos resident laments the economically induced vegetarian diet.

Food is so important in this society that in Ghana ‘Kafo didi’ is a popular phrase which loosely translates as ‘even debtors must eat”. This means you never crucify those who owe you just because wafts of mouth watering aromas are drifting from their kitchens.

The Nigeria movie industry is the biggest in the world after Bollywood in terms of number of films produced per year, beating Hollywood with all its pomp and hype to number three. Churning out around 2,000 home videos per year and employing thousands of people in cast and crew, Nollywood was worth over $2.3 billion by 2008 according to talk show host Oprah Winfrey. But this movie making machine is not celebrated by everyone.

“Our movies are so hopelessly out of step with reality that instead of imitating life, or life imitating them, they are rather imitating dreams. I vowed never to subject myself to the torments of watching Nigerian movies after previous frustrations with their cheap, predictable storylines, slapdash plots, annoyingly inept acting skills and poor technical quality.” Criticizes Farooq Kperogi, a renowned Nigerian journalist, lecturer and social commentator.

Apart from dominating the continent’s home video entertainment West Africa is also the home of some of the greatest names in classical African music like Angelique Kidjo, Fela Kuti, Salif Keita, Baaba Maal, Manu Dibango, Youssou N’Dor, San Fan Thomas, and Mory Kante.

Through migrations dating back to slavery, the region’s dynamic cultural trademarks like voodoo, ritual killings, athleticism and music has been exported far beyond the African coastline to distant lands like the Caribbean, Americas and Europe. Akon, Djimon Hounsou, Sade Adu are some showbiz greats with West African descent. European football is also a major beneficiary from the region’s exquisite talent, with West Africans filling the ranks of major European clubs and national teams. Marseille Desailly, Patrick Vieira and Djibril Cisse are examples of famous French footballers with West African roots.

Barrack Obama was the only publicity icon in the Diaspora that seemed to have evaded West Africans. But it dint take long for the resourceful Nigerians, who were grumbling loudly on learning the US President traces his ancestry to Kenya, to concoct a theory in their favor. In an apparent bid to convince, or confuse, the world that American leader's forefathers chanted oga not omera, a certain community has been striving to justify their case since 2004.

“No one is saying by any stretch of imagination that if you go to Kenya, you will not see Obama’s father’s house; we are looking at his ancestry, at his roots. It is like Alex Haley, an American who traced his ancestor, Kunta Kinte, to Gambia,” says one historian from a tiny monarchy near Port Harcourt, peculiarly called Obama Kingdom.

Elders from this tiny kingdom in River State claim the American President’s ancestors migrated from there in the late 1700s hence he should “link up with his own people and contribute his quota to the development of where he is from.”

Apparently, the West African claim to Obama being “one of their own” was partially granted when the American President chose Ghana as his platform to address Africa when he visited the continent in July last year.

And although several heads of states, including President Kibaki, symbolically lifted the Jules Rimet trophy in highly publicized tour of the continent, the hopes of legally detaining the coveted football prize in Africa during the last World Cup in South Africa was squarely on the shoulders of West Africans. With an exception of Algeria all the other African flag bearers in the soccer carnivore were from the region.

However West Africans drink from cups of shame and fame in equal measures, or so it seems. Stolen oil, human trafficking, firearms, counterfeits and drugs are some of the contrabands that transit through the region besides internet scams, corruption scandals and other illicit enterprises. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that 27 percent of cocaine consumed in Europe annually worth $1.8 billion passes through West Africa. This explains why so many people from the region, especially Nigerians, are languishing in foreign jails or have been executed on charges of drug trafficking.

“Taking advantage of porous borders and weak state and security institutions, criminal networks are increasingly using West Africa as a transit route for narcotics bound for Europe from Latin America. Unlike groups operating with low-level authorities in the past, today they are infiltrating state institutions, fueling corruption and destabilizing the political and social fabric of nations.” Says Said Djinnit, head of United Nations Office for West Africa.

Though peaceful elections have been held in, Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone in the last few years coups in Mauritania, Guinea and the civil war in Ivory Coast after disputed elections is a stark reminder that the barrel, rather than the ballot, is still the most preferred route to power in the region. Due to along history of dictatorships, tyranny and bloody regime changes, a recent UN report noted, the region's “democratization process, if not properly managed, could trigger political violence, economic disruption and social strife in fragile societies in the region.”

The presence of the Nigeria dominated Ecomog troops, the only regional peacekeeping force in Africa, has not been enough to prevent six bloody conflicts from taking place here. The worst was in Sierra Leone where the late Foday Sankoh’s RUF gained worldwide notoriety for chopping off their victims’ limbs in what they called the “short and long sleeve” policy, and Liberia where a Charles Taylor instigated civil war claimed more than 500,000 lives. The two conflicts inspired the 2006 award winning movie Blood Diamond featuring Beninese star Djimon Hounsou.

Frequent political instability and cronyism have created room for graft and other economic crimes to thrive in most West African nations. As a confirmation of corruption prevalence in the region, Transparency International has for many years been ranking Nigeria as the most corrupt nation in the world alongside other West African countries like Ivory Coast and Guinea.

“In as much as corruption destroys the legitimacy of government in the eyes of those who can do something about the situation, it contributes to instability in the region. In Ghana and other West African states, corruption and embezzlement of public funds have often been cited among the reasons for military takeovers.” Observes Mondays Atuobi, a research fellow at Koffi Annan Foundation.

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