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Tolu Ogunlesi: Beasts of African nations

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Tolu Ogunlesi: Beasts of African nations

By Tolu Ogunlesi

The recent gruesome murder – as Nigerian newspapers would describe it – of the Zimbabwean lion, Cecil, by an American dentist and hobbyist hunter has triggered much anger from white people in Britain and America, manifesting in screaming newspaper headlines, stern editorials, and social media mobs drooling after the bloodthirsty culprit.

It’s amusing and puzzling and exasperating all at once. I’m reminded that there’s a lot I don’t understand about the ways of white people. I consider myself pretty open-minded, but it’s tough to convince someone like me who grew up in Nigeria that an animal can deserve a newspaper editorial. Or that sometimes the enthusiasms of “oyibo” animal rights campaigners do not border on moral and psychological and legal terrorism.

I can easily imagine the blend of amusement and bemusement not a few Zimbabweans must be feeling at this time. The ironies readily assemble themselves. One is the name – what indeed is in a name? Zimbabwean filmmaker, Farai Sevenzo, says that “for most Zimbabweans, the name is more associated with the British imperialist diamond digger, Cecil John Rhodes, serving as a reminder that the country once bore the name, Rhodesia.” (The human Cecil has himself been in the news in recent months in South Africa; that particular controversy arising over a statue of him).

One tweet I saw playfully wondered why the Cecil the lion didn’t bear a local name. Thinking about it, perhaps there’s now an opportunity for a posthumous renaming of Cecil, just as Rhodesia was renamed Zambia/Zimbabwe. But then, if we insisted on that, think of how many things we’d have to rename. Nigeria for one – recall it was the creation of British journalist, Flora Shaw, who went on to become Lady Flora Lugard).

Even Nollywood, Nigeria’s fourth biggest export – after oil, Nigerians, and 419 letters – will need to be renamed someday; the current name believed to be the creation of an American journalist writing in the New York Times in the late 1990s. And while we’re at it, we should pay attention to attempts, originating mainly from the African Diaspora in London, it seems, to rename what we know as African Hip-Hop, or Afro-pop, as “Afrobeats” – in apparent ignorance, or perhaps wilful defiance – of the fact that Afrobeat already exists as the name for Fela Anikulapo-Kuti’s brand of music, and that adding an “s” to create something new is as absurd as adding a mane to a dog to try to turn it into a lion.

If my view about names and naming is mostly banter, the one on the larger meaning(s) of the brouhaha about a dead lion isn’t. Let’s face it: all of the noise is really about a privileged class of white people and “their” Zimbabwe or Africa, the “Africa” that exists in their heads and eyes: an oasis of wild beasts and hunting trips and exotic holidays that somehow help redeem a backdrop otherwise clouded by human sorrow and disease and dying. It’s not really about the Africa in which Africans live – with its political and geographical and economic nuances. Writing in the Zimbabwean Chronicle, Kennedy Mavhumashava suggests that “almost 99.99 per cent of Zimbabweans didn’t know about (Cecil)” until the killing happened. All the Africans – the Zimbabweans in this case – are “wakapass” actors; props; adjuncts to the fascinating drama playing out around them.

This is the latest instalment of all those movies in which white people descend into Africa to rescue something important, like diamonds. In this case, it’s a lion. The star actors are an unlikable American dentist, and the multitudes of white people appalled and disgusted by the dentist’s sadism. Nothing else really matters. Not, as Sevenzo says, Zimbabwe’s “high unemployment figures, the food shortages, the state persecution of vendors, the lack of medicines, the lack of cash…”

Nothing else matters as much as a lion, and the terrible fear that privileged white people have that there will soon be no lions left to bring them to Africa. How can it not feel surreal, that there’s this foreign hullaballoo over a lion, on a continent where human life is as cheap as it is; where the death of an estimated five million people in the long-running strife in the Congo has attracted much less global attention than that of Cecil the lion?

Africa is, as I see it, the perfect laboratory for western causes – the cause itself mattering less than the enthusiasm supplied to it. It is a continent designed for Western intervention. Of course, it helps when the protagonist is a murderous element – a murderous warlord (Joseph Kony) or a murderous terrorist sect (Boko Haram), or a murderous American dentist. Everything is treated with equal enthusiasm. And if you haven’t got a military to deploy, or a cheque book that can be useful, then your hashtag is much welcome.

This is where I have to be careful to not come across as completely dismissing western intervention in the problems of Africa. There’s a great deal of commendable philanthropic work by western protagonists, in everything from wildlife conservation to the eradication of disease. One recent example is the amazing work the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has done to rid Nigeria of polio – the product of a selflessness that stands out even more when you consider the size of looted Nigerian government funds sitting in bank accounts and real estate in and out of Nigeria, permanently robbed of the chance to be useful to the lives of the citizens to whom they once belonged.

And maybe, this lion business really had little to do with Africa; maybe, the outcry would probably have been just as much had the killing happened in China or India or Argentina.

But we all have to agree that much of prevailing western perception of Africa is bound up in the beasts that roam across it. It’s why having an image of lions or giraffes or zebras seems fitting for a book about Africa. It’s why Prince William’s “Africa-themed” 21st birthday party was attended by guests dressed as lions, Tarzans, and bananas. This “animal” view of Africa as presented by Joseph Conrad in his important novel, Heart of Darkness – and attacked by Chinua Achebe in his equally important 1975 essay: ‘An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness’ – appears to have diminished little over the centuries and decades.

Finally, in all of this, there’s an opportunity to wonder aloud about why, when foreigners think of Africa and its awesome safaris, West Africa doesn’t show up on the radar. Why do Westerners flock to southern and eastern Africa for their safari holidays, but appear to show up in the west only as journalists, aid workers, consultants or businesspersons? Who’s going to convince them that Nigeria has game reserves and national parks? Who’s going to tell them that Sambisa Forest used to be a much loved game reserve, full of elephants and perhaps even lions?

I think I know where part of the blame belongs. Apart from the state of the country – poor infrastructure, poor security – we probably have to blame one animal – nowhere near as intimidating as an African lion – for the hostility of our land to holiday-makers. The Mosquito. The tiny beast which once blessed West Africa with a reputation as the “White Man’s Grave.”

Once upon a time, its antics were worth boasting about, for how they helped us fend off the colonial masters. Did you know that the Action Group’s original logo was a mosquito, or that one Nigerian is actually quoted in a 1955 book as saying: “Let us give thanks therefore to that little insect, the mosquito, which has saved the land of our fathers for us. We cannot sing its praises too often. The least we can do now is to engrave its picture on our national flag.”

But not anymore. We need to welcome white people to our parks and game reserves; we need their dollars for our tourism. We need the publicity that the lions and giraffes bring. We need the world to realise that “Africa” is not only Zimbabwe and Botswana; it is Nigeria as well!

  • This Best Outside Opinion was written by Tolu Ogunlesi/Punch. Follow this writer on Twitter: @toluogunlesi

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