Letters from TZ

Of lives well lived and others smothered by hatred

Legacy: That’s a pretty heavy word. One that people bandy about carelessly, especially in reference to African presidents who through no desire of their own, have come to the end of a third, fourth or fifth term. Suddenly, the need to leave a legacy becomes pressing. So they scratch their greying heads and try to make a list of all the good things they will leave behind. That becomes their legacy – a till receipt listing all the bona fide purchases they put on the taxpayer tab.

When legacy is being discussed, there is little mention of the books that were being cooked behind the scenes. There is little mention of all the things that would have stayed in the taxpayer’s shopping cart had the geriatric at the helm kept his fingers out of the pot.

When legacy is being discussed, we apologise for all the bad things, trying desperately to minimise their impact. Suddenly, we remember the greater good and the bigger picture, forgetting that it was painted in blood, sweat and tears. You don’t have to look beyond the commentary that ensued after the death of Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi for a recent example.

Some have called him a “ruthless visionary” while others have exalted him as the “strongman who will be missed.” American academic Robert Rotberg writing for ‘ThinkAfricaPress’, describes the dead president as “repressive and undemocratic, brilliant and determined”, adding that he was “much more forthcoming than other African autocrats”. Without Meles, Rotberg argues, many Ethiopian development projects would have failed for lack of funding and political will. He writes all this to say – well, more or less – that the former Ethiopian president was a bad man, but he did good things. “Meles believed strongly that he had to be relentlessly centralising in his authoritarianism and forceful in his repression of dissidents while boosting educational opportunity and seeking the kinds of economic growth that would uplift the entire enterprise,” Rotberg surmises.

It’s hard to imagine that darkness and light can exist side by side in the human embodiment. But they do indeed. As long as we continue to laud the bad men (or women) who do a few good things, the sorry state of affairs that we find ourselves in will remain unchallenged. We will be remembered as collateral damage in the epic battle between good and evil that our ‘leaders’ fought within themselves, often with failed results and unpleasant by-products. And they will be remembered for having left a flawed legacy, but a favourable one all the same.

So perhaps the only legacy we should be concerned with is our own. What will we leave behind when we are gone? How will we be remembered? What mark will we leave on the world? These are hard questions, the kind that can only be answered at the individual level. You must work out your own salvation with the kind of fear and trembling that should be upon any person whose life is significant enough to impact others.

The legacy of slavery

A few months ago, Rihanna became the focus of a controversy that wasn’t planned by her own PR people, when Dutch magazine run a fashion story about her with the headline, “De Nigga Bitch”. She responded with a series of tweets that accused the editor of “deliberately humiliating the black race”.

Fact: Rihanna is a Negro. She is a woman. And she may be a bitch, or a ‘ho’ or whatever she’s been calling herself lately. But when those three elements come together in the way they did for that headline, she becomes some dark and twisted creation of the ‘white man’s’ psyche. Like Rihanna said at the time, the Dutch magazine put those words together with the intent to abase. For once, I agree with her. It’s offensive. It’s racist. It’s wrong.

Shortly, thereafter Sweden’s minister of culture was photographed cutting into the genital area of a life-sized cake that was baked in the shape of a naked black woman, apparently to draw attention to the evils of female genital mutilation (FGM). I wonder how she figured that?

And now a Spanish magazine – ‘Magazine Fuera de Serie’, which runs inside the ‘Expansión’ newspaper – has photoshopped Michelle Obama’s head onto the partially nude body of a slave and published the image on their cover. The first lady’s face is superimposed over the “Portrait d’une négresse,” (portrait of a negro woman) painted by French artist Marie-Guillemine Benoist in 1800. The painting depicts a female French slave in a headdress and white gown, one breast exposed.

The headline, “Michelle Granddaughter of a Slave, Lady of America”, may as well be, “With Respect, All Black Women are Slaves, Even the One’s in the White House, No Offense Intended”. The black man in the White House hasn’t been spared either, as he battles through one of the most racially charged campaigns the world has ever witnessed in America. There’s been a whole lot of silliness that has accompanied the more serious charges of racism but perhaps the silliest so far happened at the Republican Convention in Florida, US on Tuesday last week, when two delegates were thrown out of the venue for throwing nuts at a black CNN camerawoman and telling her “this is how we feed animals”. What’s next? Go back to Africa?