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Balancing The Single African Story: Dr Apaak’s Chapter

Mon, 23 Nov 2009 Source: Tawiah, Benjamin

“The problem with stereotyping is not that it is untrue; it is that it is often incomplete.” This is the truism that underlies what Chimamanda Adichie, a Nigerian writer, calls the danger of relying on the single story. The African story is not a single narrative laced with depressing vignettes of hunger-stricken children with shrivelled buttocks, wars, corruption and failure; there are triumphant versions that have often been overlooked or simply subsumed in the failing single story. Celebrated novelist, Chinua Achebe calls it a balance of stories. There are good stories of individuals who are telling their own African story to balance the single story of Africa usually told by the West. One of such individuals is Dr Clement Apaak, a Ghanaian academic in British Columbia who is fast becoming an important public intellectual. The academic calls himself a global citizen who is committed to improving lives through education and advocacy. This global worldview has seen him champion many humanitarian initiatives as a radio presenter, lecturer, human rights activist and popular speaker at various social and educational forums. Presently as Founder and Chair of the Association of Canadian Students for Darfur and founding member of United African Communities, Dr Apaak has raised funds and drawn attention to human rights abuses in Darfur and other conflict areas in Africa.

Dr Apaak began his story ten years ago when he left Ghana for the University of Bergen, where he was president of the International students Union. Soon, the single African story syndrome would hit him: “There is still some level of doubt and disbelief about what an African is capable of doing and can achieve,” he says. The university student population wondered what he could do “being an African.” But he wrote a good story to balance the popular single African story of non-achievement and failure, becoming a chairperson of the African students association of the university. He was to deal with even bigger manifestations of the single story when he migrated to North America. He is quick to add: “Even here in Canada, I have had instances where at initial contact, people ask: what can he do?” These instances are his carpe diem moments, because he sees them as an opportunity to prove himself and educate people on the dangers of telling a single story about a people and holding on to it until it becomes true. “When I am undervalued, underrated or written off, I see it as a chance to prove myself substantially in terms of what I can do”, he adds.

Dr Apaak’s role as an activist is to prove wrong the single African story. And he knows that it will take the efforts of ordinary Africans to change the old narrative. He is emphatic: “The UN is not going to be the organisation that will solve the problem in Darfur.” He advocates a more proactive style of governance by African leaders, particularly the African Union and the Arab league, to end the crises. He has made Darfur a project because of the apparent evidence that this is a conflict that is driven by racial motivation. The approach of the international community to the crises has been haphazard, according to the Ghanaian academic. He would want to see members of the G8 and other world powers deliver on promises they have made to Africa. He regrets that the world’s attention has been diverted to other pressing problems in the wake of the global recession. “But we haven’t given up; not when 6 year old girls are victims of multiple rapes.” And it is not all words; the activist is collaborating with some Canadian academics to issue a paper on the position of Canada on the conflict. He opines that the Darfur conflict is a unique one that demands the attention of everyone because of the strategic location of Sudan, which shares borders with the rest of the continent. His understanding of the conflict is insightful: “It is all about the distribution and sharing of resources.” But in very precise diction, he points out the disturbing details that make the conflict a serious one. According to him, the Darfurians are asking for three things: “A reasonable level of autonomy in the governance of Sudan, a share in the oil revenue and a return of their people to their homeland.” These are negotiable, he surmises.

Darfur is a regrettable chapter in the African story, but the Sandema born scholar sees promise in the potential on the African continent. “We have good things in Africa. We have very good resources in Africa. This is the reason why Europeans came to Africa several years ago. And these resources still exist. The key is for us to identify the good things and implement policy that will expand the growth of institutions.” He adds that the only way we could become self-sufficient is when we grow our own institutions, building on our strength and learning from the successes of China, the United States and Canada, to develop our continent. Next, he asks himself a searching question: “Have we suffered damagingly from colonialism? He tags along his own answer: Yes. Then, almost impatiently, he follows it up with a biting query that appears to answer itself: “Can we today blame colonialism for all the problems on our continent?” No, he hastens to add.

So, why is Africa still being told, and continually retold as a single story of failure? “The problem that Africa faces is real leadership”, he wades into the popular narrative on the continent’s management crisis. Africa needs visionaries who would recognise that leadership is not about being served; it is about service. In Dr Apaak’s thinking, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, Mozambique’s Joaquim Chisano and ex-president Jerry Rawlings are some of the visionaries that left good examples for their countries. But he believes the continent needs a lot more visionaries in the 21st Century. “That is the only way Africa can harness the potential on the continent”, he submits. He admits that Africa is being left behind: “For a continent that has given the greatest gift to the world-humanity-we are not progressing as we should. There is no reason why we should not be trading effectively with each other”, he adds, rather poignantly.

Yet, bad leadership is not the only deviation in the plot of the single African story; “a lot has been taken from Africa by the rest of the world,” says Dr. Apaak. He dismisses Dambisa Moyo’s position on aid as a simplification of the problem. “There is no reason to be shamed of getting assistance from the rest of the world. What we have to do is to ensure that the aid that is being provided get to those who need it. They have an obligation to do that.” However, that there is a dependency syndrome which must be stopped. So, the aid taps should not be closed. Instead, African leaders should use it to “set the foundation towards self-sufficiency”, he opines. The academic acknowledges Africa’s vulnerable position in global governance. Dr Apaak completes the thoughts of economists who see globalisation as a phenomenon outside the control of a single entity and for that matter any one nation state. “Not even the USA or China has total control of a form that is today defined as globalisation.” “Africa has to find ways to live within it in a way that will be beneficial to us,” he adds.

So, as he goes back to his home country of Ghana after years of studying and advocating, he is proud to find a country that has left important footprints on the global democratic landscape. But he also has mixed emotions, because he is eager to see how he can reengage and reconnect to his local networks within the context of the way business is conducted in the country. He is pleased with the political management of Ghana but he believes that the country can do more. He identifies the main challenge as ensuring district level participation in national politics, training and equipping local folks with essential tools to participate in the affairs of the state. And he does not see this as a task for only the political managers of the country; he believes every individual has a role to play. So unlike other academics who only talk and write about the problems, Dr Apaak is going home with funds he has raised to help girl child education at Sandema Secondary School, his Alma Mater. He believes that “the key to productive Africa is its women, and to help Africa, we must focus on educating the girls.”

Now as an oil-producing country, Ghana risks writing the sad single story of mismanagement and violence that has been associated with other oil rich countries like Nigeria and Angola. But Dr Apaak thinks Ghana will have a different script: “The Ghanaian spirit has always been one of sharing, which we can thank our great leader Osagyefo Dr Kwame Nkrumah for leaving us that legacy. The average Ghanaian is a peaceful, law-abiding citizen.” The challenge, the academic believes, is for Ghanaians “to set the bar even higher to show the rest of the continent that Africans have what it takes to build and develop the democratic system of governance that allows every citizen to enjoy all the freedoms enshrined in the UN Charter of Rights.” The activist also believes Ghana would avoid the problems other oil-producing countries are encountering because of the social democratic system presently practised under President Mills. As a strong social democrat, he is confident President Mills would put in place policies that would ensure the smooth management of the oil industry, to benefit the whole of Ghana.

However, Dr Apaak identifies the difficulty with the time in history that Atta-Mills became president: “Ghanaians have become too accustomed to former President Jerry Rawlings and after that to Kufour. Professor Mills is sort of in between. So, there is the tendency for Ghanaians to judge him against Rawlings or Kufour.” “The President needs to be judged on his own merit, and so far he is doing well”, he adds. The academic believes that Ghanaians are so caught up in the mundane and the obvious that we are not paying attention to the policies being put in place in terms of the oil concession, education and other important areas. The President, according to him, is moving at a very steady, methodical pace, doing the right things. And at the end of his tenure, people would be shocked at his achievements.

A very well-intentioned scholar, Dr Apaak believes Africa is in the process of writing a very different script, as he continues to teach and advocate for a rejection of the single African story. The new script, he believes, would balance our old chequered tale of mismanagement and poverty. “The next big place is going to be Africa,” the Vancouver -based academic says - with a great deal of conviction.

Benjamin Tawiah, Ottawa, Canada

Columnist: Tawiah, Benjamin