By Anote Ajeluorou
The London Olympics, which will probably be the biggest in Olympics history, may well have started with the launch of various cultural activities in commemoration of its host city, London, as one great cultural centre of the world. This is hardly surprising because London has long been a cultural city from earliest of times. Ranging from film and digital, literature and libraries, museums and galleries, music, theatre, dance and comedy, and art, organisers have projected the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad to be the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements.
However for Africa, it is not all cheering news. Unveiled last week is what has been described as the magic of the unexpected, the Roi des Belges (or King of Belgium) in tribute to the riverboat Joseph Conrad captained up the River Congo in 1890, and the inspiration for Marlow's journey to find the mysterious Kurtz in Conrad’s infamous novella, Heart of Darkness, in continuing European demonisation of Africa as a place of darkness. No doubt, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one of the evil geniuses of European creations that helped to deepen the stereotypes and myths towards Africa as a continent of irredeemable darkness and savagery, which has again been re-enacted as cultural showpiece for writers and artists as the world converges this summer to celebrate sporting prowess amongst nations of the world.
‘A Room for London’ is a boat-like object perched high on the roof of the Queen Elizabeth hall at the Southbank Centre, and overlooking the River Thames in London. It is perched precariously as if stranded there by a receding tide, and waiting for the water to rise to float up the river and set sail again. It is a temporary structure, a cross between building and sculpture, by arts pioneers Artangel, together with Living Architecture, and conceptualised by the architect David Kohn and the artist Fiona Banner. It contains a single hotel room which anyone can rent for as much as £120 a night. While Conrad’s boat sailed, ostensibly to discover Africa, the dark continent, ‘A Room for London’ will welcome writers and musicians alike to the London Olympics.
Many described the tiny, paddle steamer, with its prow jutting out over the Thames, and ready to voyage up river as beautiful, and conjuring up calmness itself, and ‘a place to stay, to look, to think’. While Conrad’s Roi des Belges sailed out to discover a world that was alien to Europe, ‘A Room for London’ will bring part of the cultural world to London to see the 2012 Olympics and to celebrate London as a city renowned for culture.
Nevertheless, the artistic and architectural recreation of Conrad’s boat is hardly a flattering picture for Africa for whom Conrad’s work presented the most bizarre narrative invocation ever conceived of a people. Conrad’s ominous narrative failed to accord the Congolese any vestige of humanity. His work fed the popular imagination back in Europe and it reinforced an aggressive evangelisation of European gospel of civilization to the continent, with the use of every underhand means to achieve that evangelism for economic gains eagerly employed by European powers.
Of course, Heart of Darkness has since received scathing criticisms from renowned African scholars and thinkers, particularly the continent’s foremost novelist, Chinua Achebe. Conrad’sHeart of Darkness reputedly provoked Achebe to respond in kind with his iconic novel, Things Fall Apart that is widely regarded as setting the pace for the continent’s literary aesthetics and enterprise.
Achebe had argued that Africa was not steeped in one long night of darkness from which Europe woke it on arrival. In one of his essays, ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's Heart of Darkness’, he says of the novella, “I am talking about a book which parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and many places today. I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question”.
Achebe further has this to state of Conrad in his book of essays, The Education of a British-Protected Child, “But of all the hundreds and thousands of Europeans visitors to the Congo region in the last five hundred years, there were few who had the deftness and sleight of hand of Joseph Conrad, or who left as deep a signature on that roadside tree. In his Congo novella,Heart of Darkness, Conrad managed to transform elements from centuries of transparently crude and fanciful writing about Africans into one piece of ‘serious’ and permanent literature.
“…Conrad describes a journey up the River Congo in the 1890s as though it were the very first encounter between conscious humanity, coming from Europe, and an unconscious, primeval hegemony that had apparently gone nowhere and seen nobody since the world was created”.
While it may seem harmless to recreate the boat that Conrad sailed forth from the same River Thames in London to River Congo to denigrate Africans, the import of that recreation at such an auspicious time as the Olympics when the world converges in London may not be lost on discerning minds.
Prof. Tony Afejuku argues that considering what is happening in Africa today in terms of perennial leadership failures, Conrad might not have been far from the truth in portraying what Africa really is as a land of savages. He points at what is happening in Nigeria regarding fuel subsidy removal with government’s insistence in pauperising the populace to fuel corruption is a case in point. He also points out that the recreation may just a harmless artistic expression for which the promoters (Artangel and Living Architect) have the freedom to pursue without necessarily waking up the ghost Conrad roused several years ago.
“Incidentally, what Conrad said is true,” Afejuku argues, “what is happening in Nigeria today is a true reflection of leadership savagery in the amount of sorrow leadership has brought to Africa. Leadership and followership give insight into a people. If leaders don’t behave like savages, the followers will not behave like savages.”