Africa’s supposed red earth

The Stadsschouwburg of Amsterdam, an iconic theater in the city, organizes a festival on the continent that consists mostly of the work of white artists.

Inside the Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam, the theater that hosted ‘Afrika! Het Oude en Nieuwe Afrika’ (Wiki Commons).

Imagine you are a person in the Netherlands interested in African events or at least cultural events where Africa is (supposedly to be) prominently featured and you pick up a flyer of an event saying in Dutch: ‘Afrika! Het Oude en Nieuwe Afrika’ (Africa! The Old and New Africa). Your curiosity has been triggered and you glance over the names of those who will be attending and performing. A closer look reveals that of those forty odd names, of which about four are African. Still ten percent an optimist would say.

Well imagine you’re that optimist and you think this might be some artistic thing you don’t understand. There must be an explanation as to why a respected institute such as the Stadsschouwburg van Amsterdam (Municipal Theatre of Amsterdam) would organize this event. As you open the flyer to know more about the event you read the following:

Africa fascinates, calls and scares. The Western man can barely get hold of this continent. Its history is murky, the gap between rich and poor big, the natural resources immense. The developments are rapid. It seems that the role of the European has played out, while the Chinese have arrived. Time to put the spotlight on Africa.

Your optimism is fading. You are stunned. It is, as the title of an article in Dutch newspaper Trouw, by journalist Seada Nourhussen says “Africa through the eyes of the Westerner”. Nourhussen perfectly captures the shocked reaction some of us had had to the event.

“I thought I was reading a pamphlet from the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Cringe-inducing and laughable.” The Ghanaian-Dutch communication expert, Ama Koranteng-Kumi, is quite annoyed by the way in which the Stadsschouwburg promotes its week full of ‘Africa old and new’. “Maybe I should get my banana skirt out of the closet again,” someone responded on Facebook.

She wonders whether the promotional text about a “dark Africa” was meant to be ironic. She quotes the  lead programmer of the Stadsschouwburg who responded that when they wrote “Dark Africa,” they meant the Democratic Republic of Congo and surrounding countries.

Five days of different art forms dedicated not to the African continent as the Stadsschouwburg wants the public to believe, but three plays on the relationship between Belgium and its former colony Congo, all played, written and directed by white men. A theatrical adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’.  Nourhussen summarizes what’s on display:

The rest of the week looks very pale. Peter van Kraaij discusses his novel about the love between a Rwandan refugee and a Belgian with two other white men. ‘Duister Hart’ by the Flemish director Guy Cassiers is based on a white and, above all, ancient view of Congo; the 1902 novel ‘Heart of Darkness’ by Joseph Conrad. Two monologues by the Belgian writer David van Reybrouck, ‘Die siel van die ant’ and ‘Missie’, deal with the relationship of a scholar and a missionary with the Congo from their past.

All interesting plays. But African?

The focal point (and opening night) of the festival was the book launch of the book “Goodbye Africa” by Marcia Luyten, a Dutch journalist who lived in Africa for over a decade and like any respected former correspondent looks back at her period abroad by publishing a book. In it she concludes: “If we still want to be of any meaning on the youngest continent then we should accept Africa the way it is. We should stand on its red earth and try to understand Africa’s nature.”

And as the optimist stands with the flyer in his hands, he concludes that events like these are evidence of the misunderstanding of ‘Africa’s nature’.

Further Reading