Université Gaston Berger / University of Ibadan
...I didn't want to unleash these kids to the
internet public. So not this time. But what a great idea to connect Africa with Europe?"
(Mark Davies, "Forest Swimming",
Europeans who have visited or travelled through Africa have always tried to do one admirable thing: recording the experiences of their travel in ways that benefit literary, historical, anthropological, and even scientific studies on Africa. In spite of the weaknesses and indeed the prejudices that are contained in many of such records, they have served both Europeans and Africans who wish to have a better understanding of the African environment. Even when travelogues by Europeans have appeared misleading to those interested in African affairs, such travelogues have at least shown the ways not to approach Africa. In other words, they stimulate greater interest in Africa, even inadvertently.
As the years go by, European perceptions of Africa and the media of communicating their experiences in/of Africa systematically change. The perceptions may be slower in changing, but the media and the audience of these accounts have had to change much. With the technological shift from the culture of the "Book" to that of the "Screen", European narratives of travel through Africa have engaged a new fantasy, locating Africa where it is more difficult to suspend disbelief, and where European knowledge of Africa appears more legitimized. Indeed, this new screening of Africa by the European traveller deserves a lot of critical attention, especially because of the way it appears to perform paradoxical functions with reference to its intervention in African life.
One such new medium of European Africa-travel narratives is the Internet, which, as we know, is a major instrument of ( the communication aspect of ) globalization. In the present paper, I will attempt a critical analysis of the narrative by Mark Davies on his tour of parts of Africa, a narrative initially published at http://www.markspark.com/africa99/. This website created by him on his tour, which he calls African Odyssey99, was later serialized by Life In Africa (LIA) and published at http://www.lifeinafrica.com/. Mark Davies, as evident in the epigraph to this paper, expresses an objective "to connect Africa with Europe". This brings to our minds the idea of the conversation between contexts of cultures, or rather a form of interaction. The semiotician, Yury Lotman, would refer to this as a situation of "culture within the culture". Connecting a "world" with a "world", or a space with another space, is a project that has multiple implications and, of course, complications; This in spite of the fact that the Lotmanian framework would simplify it analogically as being like the interaction between the two brain hemispheres.
How does the European traveller, through the website, connect Africa with Europe? What are the presuppositions that underlie this connection of Africa with Europe? Whose medium is the Internet? Or, who is culturally and economically capable of visiting this connective, this new site of global interaction? Who spins the Web? How would this cyber-narrative benefit Africa? How would it benefit the relationship between Africa and Europe? These are just some of the questions stimulated by Mark Davies' cyber-narrative of his Africa tour and which I find necessary to address in this paper. Before tackling these questions, I will first discuss the context and the nature of the narrative.
|Our Data dot Com|
Mark Davies, born of a South African mother and a Welsh father ( a parentage that interestingly symbolizes the Europe-Africa interchange) toured parts of Africa ( Sénégal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Cote d'Ivoire, and Ghana) in 1999. An Internet enthusiast and trained anthropologist, Davies recorded his experiences on the tour on the website http://www.markspark.com/africa99/ which he created specifically for for this purpose, introducing a new dimension to the narration of European travel through Africa. Indeed Davies seems to have a greater vision on how the cyber-culture could become a means of bringing Europe and Africa into a closer relationship, instead of the seeming isolation of one from the other, or the location of Africa in the "old" world and Europe in the "new". This grand vision is reflected in his recent establishment of BusyInternet, an Internet website in Ghana
Mark Davies' narratives of his tour exist in two complementary modes - the linguistic textual and the visual. The visual mode comprises still-life photographs of places, individuals, objects and situations, as well as a map of the travel routes through the five West African countries. The linguistic textual mode is a mixture of commentaries on African life and environment and the story of the tour ( which has a simple plot). The linguistic textual mode, which will be discussed shortly, has a lot of interesting literary and pragmatic features, along with the photographs, reveal the creativity of the tourist. It is probably because of these interesting features that the publishers of Life In Africa decided to re-serialize the stories with a sponsorship from Kathleen Laya. It was as a subscriber to Life In Africa publications that the present critic first came to know about Mark Davies and his tour of Africa. The photographs and the stories, which are available free-of-charge, were then downloaded directly from Mark Davies' website, http://www.markspark.com/africa99/.
African Odyssey99, the name that Davies gave the travelogue, is clearly a kind of electronic book which is more ambitious because of the way it represents the fantasy of the tour: anyone reading this "book" would, in fact, be involved in an imaginary tour ( within the cyber tour) with Mark Davies as the travel guide and commentator and not just a narrator of his own experiences. This is where there is a temptation: having a cyber tour with Mark Davies at http://www.markspark.com/africa99/ is not the same thing as having a close contact with the African environment, the imagination of an encounter notwithstanding. It may, and actually does, seduce and distance us from that environment. I will reflect on this issue much later in the paper.
Undoubtedly, African Odyssey99 is a very courageous and interesting cyber act which appropriates techniques from journalism, anthropology, and literature. Davies wrote and posted the stories as he went along on his tour, much like an investigative journalist. He tells us that "all of these pages were composed and sent online as I travelled - using a small Sony laptop and Canon digital camera that I carried with me in my backpack. To my surprise, getting internet connection even in the remotest villages was not a problem" ( Homepage, Markspark.com). In fact, sometimes he shifts the narration to the present tense, just as a reporter ( who wants to present an immediate situation) would.
But he is also more than just a journalist in his African Odyssey99: Consider the interesting symbolic representation of self as a victim ( begging culture) in (i) below, the creative description and connection of processes and state in (ii) as John Steinbeck would, and his critical statements in (iii) particularly.
Dakar is a choking hot sprawl of concrete without
much of the fantasy bright colonial-era architecture
I had hoped for. You can discover some embassy
neighbourhoods that are serene, but for the most part,
this is an unrelenting cacophony of tooting horns,
incessant begging, aggressive selling, and dust.
Dakar is full of the classic urban migration, swept off
the land and onto the streets seeking cash. I hated it.
Thus the data we are dealing with already negotiate relationships across disciplinary boundaries and require reference to these disciplines in the analysis. Also, the photographs tell stories, and so we would have to go beyond the ordinary idea of "story" and treat the photographs as "stories" within the story of the tour . As the Chinese rightly say, "a picture is worth a thousand words". Mark Davies appears to be aware of this idea, not only in his illustrative and complementary uses of the photographs, but also in his listing of photographs under "stories" on the Homepage; for instance "Dakar Sights" and "More Mask Pics" are actually photo albums listed as stories. Indeed, his photographs speak or narrate more about what he has seen and experienced than the linguistic texts. But as we have said, instead of being in rivalry, the two modes complement and translate each other effectively.
|Sighting the Stories|
Mark Davies, like many Europeans and Americans who have visited or toured Africa, appears to have one major commitment in African Odyssey99: to tell about Africa to the (Western) world, especially to those who have not been to Africa before, or may not have visited ( in recent times) the places visited by him. This telling about Africa may also not exclude entirely the idea of telling Africa, by which we mean informing Africa, teaching Africans, exposing Africa to Africans. In this case, his discourse may be considered hegemonic, both as the imposition of knowledge from the so-called Centre, or the ex-Empire and, as the appropriation of a medium that authorizes Western domination of the communication of ideas. Indeed, many Africans do not know Africa; some that defend Africa when it is represented in undesirable ways may even be among those who give the continent a bad name. Or they may not even have sufficient knowledge of Africa and the condition of many ordinary Africans, such that sometimes their so-called defence amounts to an act of covering up, itself a way of undermining Africa's interests. In this respect, many African intellectuals are also involved in the art and politics of inventing Africa. The stories that Western explorers of Africa tell about Africa and to Africa may constitute important data for development and social engineering in many African countries. The stories, as I would see in the case of Mark Davies', could assist governments of African countries in knowing the actual challenges for their leadership, instead of their adopting attitudes of indifference. Indeed, in many cases the stories amount to a critique of governments in Africa and are therefore useful to the reformation of African politics and governance.
Some instances of this (indirect) critique on the governments and governance in Africa could be seen in the stories of the tour of Sénégal. Apart from narrating the embarrassing culture of street life, generated partly by incompetent leadership, Davies reveals in "Shipwrecked Sailors" the weakness and inexperience of the defence system in this African country. The naval officers and trainees are unable to manage a gunboat properly while on exercise at Goree Island and so, the boat gets stuck. To get the vessel out takes three hours or more and, of course, requires the intervention of non-naval persons. Such a story immediately reveals what the fate of the navy and of the country would have been in an actual war situation. Would the navy have been able to defend their country? Obviously, Davies sends out a clear message and is not necessarily making fun of the weakness of African countries. Perhaps too, the "shipwreck" would only be a drama and a learning session for the trainees and their trainers in the Senegalese navy.
Also, the narrator subtly makes a visual story of the presidential palace in Dakar. Included in "Dakar Sights", the glamorous image of the palace contrasts sharply with the darker Dakar - the "hot sprawl", the "incessant begging", "aggressive selling" and "dust" identified in other areas of Dakar by the visitor. And beneath the photograph Davies writes: "The Presidential Palace. He must like it - he's been there about twenty years...." ( emphases added ). The tour was made in 1999 when President Abdou Diouf was still ruling Sénégal; so the pronoun "He" must be referring to the ex-president. The exophoric strategy is tactful and, as many linguists have observed, it enables a text producer to create deliberate obscurity and indirectness. In this case it becomes protective: Davies has not directly mentioned Diouf, after all, the "He" could refer to a male cook who has worked at the palace for a long time! In this case, Davies is saying many things without saying certain things and also doing certain things by appearing to say many things. If we, as readers, choose to substitute "He" with "Diouf", that is our business. Furthermore, other deictic elements Davies uses, such as "it" and "there", appear to have multiple meanings. "It" could refer not just to the palace ( which is possible in the context of the co-text), but also to the experience of occupying the palace, or to the "sit-tight" government in Senegal then. "It" could also refer to the paradox of a ruined country ruled from a beautiful mansion, much like an undertaker presiding over a graveyard ( something that is common in many African countries). These meanings are possible because blurred lines of vision have already been the tactful angle chosen by the text producer. And to suggest that the story is incomplete, that it is open-ended, he ends the clause that asserts the idea of sitting tight in government with an ellipsis (...).
"The story is a sight; the sight is a story". This interconnection in the discourse characterizes Mark Davies' records of his experiences in Saint-Louis and other places visited in Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso and Ghana. Perhaps one other interesting practice of the sighting of the story which deserves attention is seen in Davies' narrative of his tour of Sangoulema village. Here the intersections of poverty, poor sanitation and disease within an African rural setting are revealed. This village has no electricity, no proper water-supply and no school, while the villagers toil endlessly to obtain the poor carbohydrate foods they consume. Indeed Mark Davies' stories of the situation of food supply and consumption in this village confirm my claim ("Eating Raw Nothing, Committing Suicide", Mots Pluriels, September 2000) that many (poor) Africans "literally eat disease".
In yet another tactful stratagem, Davies juxtaposes the story of the poor living conditions of the villagers with the pictorial narrative on the living style of the animals (swine). He presents a photograph of dirty pigs swimming in mud and writes: "Despite the monotonous burden of work, it was a happy thriving place. But no one seemed happier than these pigs! I love pigs!" ("Weekend au Village"). One would immediately be tempted to believe that he is referring to the pigs in the picture. But are there no other "pigs" behind the picture, or outside the picture, being referred to indirectly? A deeper reflection takes us back to the "human" pigs we have just sighted and read about . The analogy is cynical. The picture of the actual pigs appears to be a symbolic statement about the deplorable human condition in the village; this is the worrying aspect. Otherwise, how would Davies "love" pigs? A pig is perceived particularly as a signifier of the unclean, at least in many conservative religious cultures. In the actual context of the picture, the pigs are foraging in a very dirty environment and are stained all over. It is quite unimaginable how Davies would "love" such images of undesirable animal life! The cynical humor in the narrative is therefore merely misleading at the surface level. It would be properly seen as tact, which is quite similar to other expressions of humor one sometimes gets from European tourists in Africa who do not want to be seen as directly insulting the context. Yet the idea of insult here is not as important as the statement about the deplorable conditions in which some poor unfortunate Africans sometimes find themselves in their Government-Rejected Areas.
Davies' stories from the various countries visited have some recurrent features in spite of the differences in the way he, as the protagonist, is treated by his hosts. The stories are all woven around poverty, embarrassing street life, hustling for money, the distance maintained by the government from the poor people and in fact, the risk of living in Africa today. Perhaps this risk is particularly applicable to children who, in many cases, do not go to school ( in spite of all the global campaigns on "Education for All"), who are abused and made to work hard or to live the street-life, who do not seem to have any future. In his "Final Thoughts", after his visit to Abidjan, he observes that " the most heart-wrenching sight" that confronted him was that of "young teenagers out in-between cars hawking tissues, toilet paper, fluorescent tubes, lamps, earbuds - some of the most bizarre and worthless items. All day, all year, under the sun, between the cars - pushing, pushing, selling." This, of course, is a situation that is common to many West African countries, including Nigeria. Many children literally live and grow up in the streets. The street remains their only school, their only future. Yet in these countries there are "governments"; there are "leaders" who, through their monopoly of, and access to the media, give the impression that they are in "control" of the situation and are committed to "development" . In fact, most of the government-controlled media deliberately shut out these sights and images of human decay observed and presented by Mark Davies. Shutting out the ugly aspects of the nation's existence may be done as a face-saving act, or as a practice of the Pollyanna Principle in which it is assumed, as Geoffrey Leech (1984:147) says, "participants in a conversation will prefer pleasant topics of conversation to unpleasant ones". That is, "people will prefer to look" on the bright side rather than on the gloomy side of life", just like the "the optimistic heroine of Eleanor H. Porter's novel, Pollyanna (1913)". But such predispositions indeed serve as a means of misinformation and disinformation. The difference between what the government-owned media, in many African countries, stage for us as the social situation and what in reality actually exists suggests the falsehood of modern African gate-keeping. Indeed, it suggests the governance of these countries as a form of mask-dancing in which the entertainment is derived from falsehood: both the performers and the audience know that the mask-dancer is a human being, but must claim that s/he is a spirit (of the ancestors). Falsehood, as John Steinbeck humorously tells us in Cannery Row, comes to be more appealing and assumed to be safer. Travellers like Mark Davies, when they want to reveal what they are and what they have seen, must be made to "pass on", just as the character, Doc experiences in the novel. The spirit of the ancestor in modern African leadership mask-dancing is a power construct which keeps people in check and which privileges some others. Finally, as in the mask-dancing observed in reality by Davies in Mali, the euphoria and contentment in the mask-dancing obscures the pain of only living to work for survival and the fact that the governments have been changing but the (peasant) economy has not changed for "hundreds of years" in these countries.
Indeed, Mark Davies' narrative is presented as an account of an heroic adventure, hence the title, African Odyssey99. Derived from the classical tradition, the "odyssey" is an heroic quest which entails an attempt at securing something crucial for survival. As in the case of Jason and the Argonauts who went obtain the Golden Fleece, or of Igodo and his colleagues in the Igbo video film Igodo who went to obtain Amadioha's machete so as to save their community, Mark Davies presupposes that his mission is an heroic one meant to create some salvation. But who benefits from this "heroic" journey? And how does the object of this journey reinforce the intellectual and cultural exchange between Africa and Europe?
|Answering the Questions, Questioning the Answers|
Many Europeans, especially the anthropologists who had carried out exploratory missions to Africa, usually believed that they were on a risky and heroic mission, in which case what they would discover would create the bases for future "missions". It is probably the same ideology and rhetoric of colonization. And probably the ideology and the rhetoric apply to a new form of imperialism, especially in the context of the Internet culture in which Africa is generally depictedlike a fly caught in the "web" of the global/izing spy-der. In this regard, it is difficult to deny that Mark Davies' presumed heroism is primarily the heroism of Europe.
But obviously, his trip is much like a fact-finding one, a familiarization tour taken on behalf of those who are genuinely interested in the problems of Africa, a journey which Africa's presumed leaders ought to have taken in all humility. Many rulers and leaders of African countries, as we have stated earlier, do not know the societies they rule or lead; or sometimes they know and pretend not to. The object of the Davies' trip is an essential supply of anthropological knowledge and services free-of-charge for both the governance and study of Africa. The travelogue could be downloaded free-of-charge by any African government or agency genuinely interested in improving the lot of ordinary Africans. Generally, studies done by African scholars on Africa ( in Africa) appear only to be for earning degrees, for promotion or for cash. Seldom do these studies leave the libraries to enter social life and governance ( except maybe when they are recycled by other "researchers" to be stored in other libraries), unlike in Europe and America where academic studies are used by governments to create better futures for their peoples. Davies travelogue indeed further confirms the importance of anthropology and social studies to modern life and governance in Africa and elsewhere.
Furthermore, Davies' narrative opens up areas to which donor agencies in Europe and America ought to pay attention before entrusting grant monies to African governments, NGOs and the so-called researchers who have been securing grant monies to buy personal cars, build houses and take chieftaincy titles. Davies' effort, in fact, tells us that valuable knowledge is free, socially committed and ought to be pursued and dispensed courageously in order for it to create freedom.
Towards the end of his tour, Davies finds himself "house-hunting" in Ghana, having discovered that Africa, in spite of all odds, could be home to a European. This is clearly a message for European interest and investment in Africa. For him:
From his trip and encounter with Africa, Davies has had to make an important investment in Ghana, the BusyInternet outfit. This is clearly because of the security and friendliness he found in Ghana. His travelogue and investment thus indirectly teach Africans that the way out of poverty and backwardness is not that of begging and hustling for European money. European visitors have eyes and ears and minds with which they study their hosts in Africa. So, Africans would be undermining their own interests from the way they treat the traveller/outsider (hospitality still matters) and with their show of desperation in their circumstances. Instead of attracting sympathy and investment they scare off the prospective investor and sympathizer. Davies' description of Dakar as "truly the most dangerous and unappetizing of all the cities" is just one example of how the impression given to the visitor affects his or her future dis/interest in the host society. These obviously are not new ideas: Africans can find them couched in different ways in their folk narratives and proverbs which, we suppose, are the rich and traditional sources of African philosophy.
Certainly, travelling and browsing the Internet could be both a means of traversing and transgressing cultural spaces. In a very special sense, browsing the Internet ( a metaphorical expression borrowed from the culture of book reading, which also involves travelling through and exploring the world of ideas) is a kind of travel across and to fantastic spaces that imitate and try to replace physical contexts of being and acting. Such travel mimes the spider's exploration of its web ( for the victim fly!). Surely, Davies knows this and so is reluctant, as he says, "to unleash" the children he encounters on the trip "to the ravenous internet public". This also applies to the poor peasantry and disadvantaged Africans who, paradoxically, are now our specimens in these intellectual and cyber linkages of Africa with Europe. Would the poor Africans cease to be the victims and subjects of our gaze? Would hegemonic discourse cease to create hegemony? Indeed, travelling is a form of education. But how much of this education has been made available to those poor inhabitants of Sangoulema who are caught in the web/net of our sight? European cyber education appears not to be for them: not now. They remain subjects to be studied, not subjects that study.
European ideas, and indeed European presence are still important to Africa. But the worry in this paper remains the fact that the benefits of such interaction with Africa will always end up in the hands and pockets of the privileged few. And the flies remain the flies, the Web remains the Web, the spider remains the spider.
 The tour was made from March to June in 1999. Starting with Dakar, Sénégal (March 23), Davies traveled through Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, and concluded with Abidjan, the capital of Côte d'Ivoire, on June 22.
 The problem, however, appears to be that of the subjection of the subject captured in photography. Commenting on Roland Barthes' idea in this direction, Michael Payne (1997) observes that "The problem with being a subject observed by the lens of the camera is that, in posing for the camera, one takes on another body and transforms oneself into an image. It is not just that the photograph creates a new body in the picture; it also 'mortifies...the body of the observed object'. Photography is thus an art of absence and death for Barthes. This is, of course, not what one wants from photographs, only what one gets from them. What one wants but does not get ( cannot get ) is a mobile image of one's profound self, but there is never a coincidence of oneself with the image of oneself". (pp.83-84)
 This situation is a disappointment to the global pursuit of "Education for All" expressed in the Jomtien World Declaration on Education for All & Framework for Action to Meet Basic Learning Needs (1990) and in The Amman Affirmation (1990).
 Development, says Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful, "does not start with goods" ( as those hawked by the children), rather "it starts with people and their education, organization, and discipline" (1975:168).
Davies, Mark. African Odyssey99 : [http://www.markspark.com/africa99/].
Davies, Mark. Episodes in Letters from West Africa . The Life in Africa Foundation; [http://www.lifeinafrica.com].
Leech, Geoffrey N. Principles of Pragmatics (2nd Imp.). London & New York: Longman.
Life in Africa Foundation. LIA Publications. [http://www.lifeinafrica.com/].
Oha, Obododimma. "Eating Raw Nothing, Committing Suicide: The Politics and Semiotics of Food Culture". Mots Pluriels, No 15, September 2000. [http://www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP1500oo.html].
Payne, Michael. Reading Knowledge: An Introduction to Barthes, Foucault and Althusser . Oxford: Blackwell, 1997.
Schumacher, E.F. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (rpt). New York: Harper & Row, Perennial Library, 1975.
Steinbeck, John. Cannery Row (rpt). New York: Penguin, 1992.
Unesco. The Amman Affirmation. Paris: EFA,Unesco, 1990.
Unesco. World Declaration on Education for All & Framework to Meet Basic Learning Needs. Paris: EFA, Unesco, 1990.
Dr Obododimma Oha is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, but currently on leave-of-absence at the Université Gaston Berger de Saint-Louis, Sénégal. He has published papers in several international journals including Mosaic, Africa, Mattoid, American Drama, African Anthropology, Journal of Communication and Language Arts, Context, African Study Monographs, and Philosophy and Social Action. He has also contributed chapters to critical anthologies. A poet and playwright, he teaches Stylistics and Discourse Analysis. His article Eating raw nothing, committing suicide: The politics and semiotics of food culture was published in a previous issue of Mots Pluriels (No15, 2000).
Address: Dr Obododimma Oha. Université Gaston Berger de Saint-Louis. UFR de Lettres et Sciences Humaines. Section d'Anglais. BP 234. Saint-Louis. Sénégal.