Bonnie Greer: What do you think of when you think of Africa?

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The Independent Online

We have been told that this is the year of Africa. Throughout 2005, most of the nations of the African continent that have anything to do with us in Britain will be celebrated, investigated, showcased and explored. From art galleries to museums, schools, libraries, churches and pop concerts, Africa will become part of our consciousness. For example, BBC Radio 4 this week will have an African theme.

We have been told that this is the year of Africa. Throughout 2005, most of the nations of the African continent that have anything to do with us in Britain will be celebrated, investigated, showcased and explored. From art galleries to museums, schools, libraries, churches and pop concerts, Africa will become part of our consciousness. For example, BBC Radio 4 this week will have an African theme.

While these activities are clearly informative, well-meaning, educational and, in many cases, absolutely necessary, the question has to be asked: what exactly is Africa '05 all about?

Africa, especially south of the Sahara, has always been both the call to adventure and danger, and also the mirror of the West's inner self. Every age has had its image of Africa. Our own is largely one of war, of disease, of tragedy, of sorrow, and, in the words of a trail on Radio 4, "vibrancy". We see this diverse, rich, complex map of humanity too often as we need to see it. Whether it is thought of as "the South", "the developing world" or "the Third World", Africa is also psychic space, reduced in our minds to the size of the world's biggest "country". As such, it can be a cauldron in which guilt is confronted and exonerated, lives made or resurrected, myths created.

Is it possible that we need Africa more than it needs us, who are addicted to the bad news, the exoticism? Perhaps every once in a while, we just need our Africa fix. Then, like junkies, we move on until it's time to shoot up again.

There could be another way. Maybe if we had more Africans driving the style and direction of things, running the show. Then we might see, for example, that Zina Saro-Wiwa's documentary on the middle class in Nigeria reflects the continent just as much as Uganda's child-abducting rebel force the Lord's Resistance Army does; that illiteracy, Aids, early death, never-ending war and grinding poverty co-exist alongside a film industry that, in the cases of Burkina Faso and Senegal, is more respected on the world stage than our own. I don't have the answers, just a feeling that it's time to stretch our western imaginations to breaking point when it comes to Africa.

While teaching in Ghana a decade ago, I was flattered at how on the first day, my students had made their way, very early, to my class. I soon found out that they did this not because of me, but to check out on the school's big screen the latest showbiz gossip on CNN. As my preconceptions crumbled, I asked whatSharon Stone's comings and goings had to do with their lives? Did I think, they asked, that all they did all day was worry about Africa?

After the event that is Africa '05, there will be the reality of Africa '06 , Africa '07 and beyond. The next years of this already murderous young century must be a time when the West shares power with Africa, and allows those of us in the African diaspora a seat at the table. The solutions will take time and patience. They will need reconciliation and they will be painful. But only then can the last vestiges of the white man's burden, no matter in how altruistic, hip and Post-Modern a guise it appears, be eradicated.

It is through our imaginations that we will begin to forge new answers and new perspectives to the questions and challenges that Africa poses.

Marlow, in Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, is more relevant than ever. He is searching for his soul while deluding himself that he has gone into the jungle to find Kurtz, the missing white man. There are signs all around that there is more than he is willing to perceive, but he cannot accept it.

If we do not learn the lesson of Marlow, then we will hitch a ride on that same old journey, the one upriver through the darkness and terror, ignoring the African's admonition: "... Kurtz, he dead."

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