By Donu Kogbara
SOMEONE just sent me a fascinating article. Written by a US-based Zambian called Field Ruwe in January 2012, it is based on a conversation he had with a White man he met on a plane on New Year’s Eve, 2011.
I have taken the liberty of summarising and slightly paraphrasing parts of Ruwe’s account because the original version is too long to fit onto this page.
I regard it as poignantly instructive and relevant to Nigeria. I would love to know what Vanguard readers think of it.
He extended his hand as soon as I settled in my seat.
“My name is Walter…Where are you from?” he asked.
“Zambia!” he exclaimed. “…I spent three years in Zambia in the 1980s…and wined and dined with many highly intelligent Zambians.”
At midnight we were airborne. The captain wished us a happy 2012 and urged us to watch the fireworks across Los Angeles.
“Isn’t that beautiful,” Walter said looking down.
I took a glance and nodded admiringly.
“That’s White man’s country,” he said. “We came here, turned Indian [native American] land into a paradise and are now the most powerful nation on earth. We built this aircraft you are travelling in…and we come to your country and take your resources and leave you with morsels. We get what we want and you get what you deserve. Crumbs is what lazy Zambians and Africans get…
“I’m sure you regard me as a racist. But let us put our skin pigmentations aside. Tell me, my friend, what is the difference between you and me?”
“There’s no difference,” I replied.
“Absolutely none…Scientists in the Human Genome Project have proved that…And yet I feel superior,” he smiled.
“Every White person on this plane feels superior to a Black person. The White guy who picks up garbage, the homeless White trash on drugs, feels superior to you, no matter his status or education…
“…I can pick up a White nincompoop from the New York streets…and take him to Lusaka and you’ll all be crowding around him, yet he’s a riff-raff. Tell me why!”
For a moment I was wordless.
“Please don’t blame it on slavery like the African Americans do, or on colonialism, or some psychological impact or on some kind of stigmatization. And don’t give me the brainwash poppycock. Give me a better answer.”
I was thinking.
He continued: “Excuse what I am about to say….but you and all your kind – are lazy…When you rest your head on your pillow, you don’t dream big. You and other so-called African intellectuals are damn lazy…It is you, and not those poor starving people, who are the reason Africa is in such a deplorable state.”
“That’s not a nice thing to say,” I protested.
He was implacable. “I will say it again, you are lazy. Poor and uneducated Africans are the most hardworking people on earth. I saw them in the Lusaka markets and on the streets, selling merchandise. I saw them in villages toiling away. I saw women crushing stones to sell and I wept…
“…I asked myself: ‘Are Zambian engineers so imperceptive that they cannot invent a simple stone crusher or a simple water filter to purify well water for those poor villagers? Are you telling me that after 37 years of independence, your university has not produced a scientist or engineer who can make simple small machines for mass use? What is the university there for?’”
I held my breath
“Zambian intellectuals work from 8 till 5 and spend the evening drinking. We Whites reserve the evening for brainstorming.
“And you Zambians in the Diaspora are just as lazy and apathetic…You don’t care about your country and yet your parents, brothers and sisters are in villages, living in squalor. Many have died or are dying of neglect. They are dying of AIDS because you cannot come up with your own cure. You are here calling yourselves graduates, researchers and scientists and are fast at articulating your credentials once asked—oh, I have a PhD in this and that—PhD my foot!”
I was deflated
“Wake up!…You should be lifting ideas, formulae, recipes and diagrams from American factories and sending them to your own factories. All those research findings and dissertation papers you compile should be your country’s treasure. Why do you think the Asians are a force to reckon with? They stole our ideas and turned them into their own ideas. Look at Japan, China and India…
“…And for as long as you are dependent on my plane, I shall feel superior and you shall remain inferior…Africans are at the bottom of the totem pole…Get over this white skin syndrome and begin to feel confident. Become innovative and make your own stuff for God’s sake.”
When the plane touched down, Walter reached for my hand. “I was too strong [harsh], but I have been to Zambia and seen too much poverty.”
I watched him walk to a waiting car. And he left a huge dust devil twirling in my mind, stirring up sad memories of home. I could see Zambia’s literati—the cognoscenti, intelligentsia, academics, highbrows, and scholars, guzzling drinks and talking irrelevancies. I remembered how some of them got the highest possible grades at top foreign institutions like Harvard, Oxford and Yale; and yet none has provided us with a single invention or discovery.
Walter is right. It is true that since independence we have failed to nurture creativity…We as a nation lack a workhorse mentality and behave like 13 million civil servants dependent on a government pay cheque.
We believe that development is generated 8-to-5 behind a desk, wearing a tie with our degree certificates hanging on the wall. Such working environments do not offer the opportunity for fellowship, the excitement of competition or the spectacle of innovative rituals.
But the intelligentsia is not solely, or even mainly, to blame. The larger failure is due to political circumstances over which we have had little control. Past governments embraced orthodox ideas and failed to offer opportunities for drawing outside the line…and failed to create an environment of possibility that fosters camaraderie, rewards innovative ideas and encourages resilience.
Let’s begin to look for a technologically active-positive leader…so we can make our own stone crushers, water filters, water pumps, razor blades and harvesters. Let’s dream big and also make tractors, cars, and planes, or, as Walter said, forever remain inferior.
A fundamental transformation of our country requires a bold, risk-taking, educated leader with a triumphalist attitude. Don’t be highly strung and feel insulted by Walter. Take a moment and think about our country.
Our journey from 1964 has been marked by tears. It has been an emotionally overwhelming experience. Each one of us has lost a loved one to poverty, hunger or disease. It is time to change our political culture.
It’s time for Zambian intellectuals to cultivate a progressive movement that will change our lives forever. Don’t be afraid or dispirited. Rise to the challenge.