When you mix black and white, you get green

Africa's view on Europe
Viewed from Nigeria, Europe presents a conflicting picture. If nothing else, its complicated relations with Africa show for a Nigerian writer: Thinking in terms of good and evil, black and white, is inappropriate.

I was born and raised in Nigeria and have never spent six straight months outside its borders. For this writer, my tormented country is the only place that feels like home in both my fiction and my nightmares. Each time I land back in Lagos from a writing residency or festival I’ve attended in Europe, I feel the tropical heat melting my heart and also cooking my anger at the systemic lapses of my homeland. And just like the son who complains that his friend’s mother is the better parent, I start, right from the airport, comparing Africa’s failings to Europe’s successes. How can you not spot the difference—as we Nigerians like to groan to each other in the standstill queue at the decrepit Lagos airport—when the ground you flew off from was Frankfurt Airport, the polar opposite of this shambles?

From afar, my best friend’s mother is easy to admire. She does everything right that my African home seems to get wrong. Europe has her prejudices, we all know, as well as her domestic plights like nationalistic populism and materialistic overconsumption. But point out the country that doesn’t have its peculiar problems, from Brazil to India to the USA, and I’ll prove your blindness. For those fatigued Nigerian travellers sweating in the Lagos airport, the working air conditioners and gleaming escalators of foreign airports are the only truths that matter in that moment. And yet, despite the praises we sing to Europe, our criticisms about our motherland sound more like scattered prayers than the drumbeats of revolution.

Best-paid Nigerians have always served foreign interests

For many Nigerians, the black-and-white comparisons between Africa and Europe started in our childhood. We grew up looking to Europe for our pop music and art house movies, our schoolbooks  and trusted news channels, our luxury vehicles, airplanes, skilled pilots, aviation fuel. The largest exporters of Nigerian oil and gas are Shell, Agip and Total, among other foreign-led companies—as such, the best-paid Nigerians have always served foreign interests without even needing to travel outside the country. This anomaly in the nation’s social contract is still accepted by citizen and government alike, because it reflects the current reality that big business controls weak nations.

Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has been described by media commentators in colourful terms. A black day for Europe; black stain on humanity; black eye for Putin. And now, we are told by European leaders, the black clouds are gathering over their economies and perhaps hampering their efforts to isolate Russia, whose war chest is partially funded by millions of euros it receives from European business. Consider the prosperity and democratic traditions of Germany, the EU’s largest economy, and then wonder afresh about the energy minister’s admission that a boycott of Russian gas and oil could cause mass unemployment and poverty in his country. How did Germany—and other so-called conscientious, forward-planning European nations—find themselves in such a weak, indefensible position?

Europe: the land of centuries-old cathedrals and universities

We see Europe as strong, industrialised, affluent, a big brother to its former African colonies. It is, after all, the land of centuries-old cathedrals and universities, those founding institutions of the modern globalised economy. Once the rapacious warmonger, fanatical crusader, and mass enslaver, as well as a revolution-ravaged continent in bygone times, Europe has at last learnt from its history and remade itself into a democratic, law-abiding, borderless union of sister countries whose state religion is social welfare. And now the EU, rather than cheap trinkets and zealous missionaries, is exporting multinational conglomerates and hordes of welfare workers to those unstable countries it had created by force—the little brothers like Nigeria who cannot extract their own crude oil or even properly run an airport.

For the black nations there is only one destiny

Frantz Fanon foretold our furious grumbling in that rundown Lagos airport. In his 1961 book, The Wretched of the Earth, he declares: “For centuries Europe has brought the progress of other peoples to a halt and enslaved them for its own purposes and glory; for centuries it has stifled virtually the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called ‘spiritual adventure’. Look at it now teetering between atomic destruction and spiritual disintegration.” Severe words, but somewhat moderated by his next sentence: “And yet nobody can deny its achievements at home have not been crowned with success.”


A. Igoni Barrett

ist Schriftsteller und lebt in Lagos, Nigeria. Sein Roman „Blackass“ erscheint im August im Verlag InterKontinental auf Deutsch.
This is, in its essence, the postcolonial dilemma. The descendants of the colonised reject the coloniser’s past failings but seek its present successes. To be or not to be, that is the question for the Nigerian. To be like Europe, or America, or China? Or to be something new and yet equal to their successes? If only we—global citizens of former colonies—would cease the lazy comparisons between Africa and Europe and instead turn our efforts to dismantling our monochrome ways of seeing, we shall soon enough realise that: For the black nations there is only one destiny. And it  is the same success, the same achievements at home, that every colour of human aspires to.

Do not repeat each others mistakes

This brings us, at last, to the question: What is black and what is white? In Europe’s latest war, which to some extent mimics African experiences with European invaders, would we consider the aggressor, Russia, as white and the defender, Ukraine, as black? Or do we flip the colours, like figures on a chessboard, and say that black is bad and white, the underdog, is good? Most Russians and Ukrainians are pale-skinned, of course, but black and white in these times are more metaphysical terms than valid representations of our heterogeneous lifestyles.

To press this point: The way the average Nigerian will eat German sausages with bread for breakfast, and Norwegian dried cod in egusi soup for lunch, but during his dinner conversation he may denounce white peoples’ food as unpalatable, without a trace of irony. Or the way a distinguished Kenyan writer visiting Berlin’s Charlottenburg is regarded by neighbours as an undocumented migrant, while the German sailor partying in Mombasa is welcomed by locals as a well-off expatriate. Black can be poor or rich, cultured or ignorant, enslaver or freedom fighter, same as white. And so, it follows, the comparison of Lagos’ bad to Frankfurt’s good is a simplification that must be discarded by African as well as European.

In truth, for humankind there is only one destiny. And—for a planet beset by global warming—it is green. Only together—black, white and every shade in between—can we repair the wounds of history. And do so without repeating each other’s mistakes. This holds true for dismantling Germany’s reliance on Russian gas as much as it does for fixing Lagos’s disgraceful airport.

A. Igoni Barrett is a writer living in Lagos, Nigeria. His novel "Blackass" will be published in German by InterKontinental in August.

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