Moderating a discussion session two Sundays ago, on the sidelines of the 18th Lagos Book and Art Festival, it was easier to understand how a simple proposition could be infused with more meaning than it could ordinarily support. The question, really, was simple for me. What does Olúfémi Táíwò mean when he insists that “Africa must be modern”? (Olúfémi Táíwò, Professor of Philosophy and Global African Studies at Seattle University, is author of “Africa must be modern”).
What is it to be modern? Is it enough to simply buy 1 million youtube views on your videos? Or maybe have a latest smartphone to browse those videos with? Clearly it is not enough to be able to place a call on the latest smartphone. It is necessary also to understand that the subsequent conversations must be conducted at decibel levels consistent with the comfort of other parties. On this view, the besuited gentleman in the tortoise shell-rimmed glasses and fancy footwear, shouting down the phone as he joins the lift, is far from modern. The driver, who concerned about time spent in traffic, decides to drive against traffic may, indeed, get home ahead of her peers, but may not have acted in a manner consistent with this expectation of what it means to be “modern”.
Is to be “modern” same as being “western”? Olúfémi Táíwò, whose interventions as the discussion proceeded were as enlightening as they were provocative, insists the answer to this question is a resounding “yes”. Reminding the small assembly, in passing, that South Korea’s path to “first world” status came about on the back of an unequivocal commitment to be “western”; and that Deng Xiao Ping kicked off China’s now phenomenal contribution to mankind’s evolution with the “4 Modernisations”.
Fair enough. But if mankind is this great concourse of tendencies and practices, mutually influencing each other, isn’t an appeal to “modernism” a poorly-conceived proposition if part of what it achieves is to deny that which makes us unique as Africans? How can the transactions by which we mean to advance the net welfare of our people demand that we remain poor copies of everything European and North American? For instance, are we not allowed to hold up against the atomism of the “west” the communal support infrastructure that underpin our societies? And then, again, are not the concepts “western” and “modern” but subtleties with which the Caucasian world masks its insatiable capacity for purloining the best that mankind has put together?
You could respond to all of these questions in several ways. But no one is allowed to gloss over the fact that to our communal strength, there is the one drawback: that it often does not allow us see the trees for the woods. This gives rise to a most instructive irony. That amongst peoples famed for their concern for the community, shared spaces — our “commons” — are the most neglected/over-used resources, while amongst the individuals in the “west”, these spaces — gardens, parks, etc. — enjoy more attention.
To folks in want of just about every basic necessity, as most Africans are, even the question of the use of parks and gardens somehow manages to intrude on this conversation on modernity. For the most perfunctory analysis of the “west” simply reveals that it has partaken more than most societies from humanity’s collective fount. And in deploying the large body of spiritual and material values that it has amassed, it has built up a body of practice consistent with the optimal, maybe most synergistic, use of these values.
When we therefore argue that Africa’s growth and development need not be “modern” to make use of the tools that the “west” has deployed in its spiritual and material advance, all we are saying is that there may be other ways in which these spiritual and material values may be organised in support of society. I was pleasantly surprised to learn, as the discussions went on that Marxian “class analysis” might still be one such route!
In the absence of useful counterfactuals, this proposition remains to be proved. Evidently, though, the path by which Africa may diverge from “modernity” cannot be down that which concepts like “African time” will lead us. Sadly, and this was the one downside of the conversation that I sat at the head of that Sunday, the ease with which clichés may be deployed on both sides of the conversation makes mutual intelligibility difficult.
Still, one cliché that we ought to pay heed to in the elaboration of the conversation is the one that enjoins us not to re-invent the wheel. It often is — like the audience’s applause in such forum after some sententious contribution — a needless waste of everybody’s time. On the long journey back home from the Freedom Park, Lagos, venue of the conversation, I found myself reflecting on two responses to technology in the country.
Two service providers buy the same suite of customer service software. One re-arranges its people, processes and procedures to fully leverage the promises of the new technology. The other re-arranges the new technology to reflect the very same processes that it originally acquired the technology to improve.
Both these firms are in their separate ways, “modern”.