ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Joining us now with four African perspectives are: C.K. Ladzekpo, who is from Ghana, he chairs the African Music and Dance program at the University of California, Berkeley. He also performs in a traveling group, the African Music and Dance Ensemble; and Chinua Achebe, who's from Nigeria. He's a novelist, poet, and playwright who teaches literature at Bard College. His first book, Things Fall Apart, published in 1958, has been translated into more than 50 languages and sold more than 8 million copies; Ngugi Wa Thiong'o, who is Kenyan. He's an author and playwright who teaches comparative literature at New York University--his books, including Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, have been translated into more than 20 languages. He's been in exile since 1982; and Monde Muyangwa, a native of Zambia, is Research Director for the National Summit on Africa, a private organization that promotes U.S.-African relations.
Thank you all for being with us. And Mr. Achebe, starting with you, as a novelist whose stock and trade is symbols, what do you think of the symbolic visits to Goree Island and other sites of the slave trade that the president has made?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Well, I think it is an appropriate thing to do because you cannot think of the relationship between Africa and the West or Africa and America, in particular, without thinking of the slave trade; therefore, I think it was an appropriate thing to do.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And Mr. Ngugi, do you think that slavery looms as large in the African imagination as it does in the American imagination?
NGUGI WA THIONG'O: I think it is important, and although people may not be talking about it in the streets every other day, but it is a very important element of the African, you know, conceptualization of life and our relationship to the West; it is important.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you think what the president said, Mr. Ngugi, was appropriate about slavery while he was in Africa?
NGUGI WA THIONG'O: I think it is a move in the right direction to recognize the American or a matter of responsibility in this area. But, I was frankly very surprised there is some hesitation in offering a formal apology. And it's not really enough to say this was wrong. It's more important to come out with policies that ensure that the wrongs that arise from that history are righted, both for African-American peoples here and also for African peoples.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Muyangwa, how do you see that--the comments the president made about slavery in the past and other wrongs committed in Africa in the past?
MONDE MUYANGWA: I would agree with Mr. Ngugi Wa Thiong'O on this. I think it's an important first step, particularly as we have reached a time in our relations where the U.S. would like stronger and closer relationships with Africans and vice versa. I think it's an important step that must be taken. We have to understand how we got where we are today in order for us to be able to move forward.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Ladzekpo, how do you see his comments about the past and especially about slavery?
C. K. LADZEKPO: For the history lesson I think it was very important, but when we think about the present, I don't think the Africans have on their mind slavery. The president's remarks were for American consumption, and--but from the African perspective, it doesn't mean so much.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Not so important to Africans?
C. K. LADZEKPO: Not so much important. Most of us are not so much aware of slavery as it is in the new world. Now, there is an African proverb that will say the person who is hurt will always remember much more so the hurt. But it looks like in this area of slavery the traditional African consciousness has the knowledge, so there's not so much knowledge about it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Achebe, your novels are all about telling Africa's story and differently than people from the outside were telling Africa's story. Has this trip, in your view, played--has it been able to change the perception in Americans' minds about Africa? Do you think it will be able to do that at all?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Well, I hope it will be a beginning. The attitude, the impression that people have towards Africa is generally very deep-seated, a lot of it grounded perhaps in guilt, and, therefore, I do not expect anything, not even this visit, good as it is, I don't expect it to bring about a radical change overnight.
But it is necessary that we begin, it is absolutely essential that we begin to make the right moves. And I would like to just say something else about the apology. It is far more important to do the right thing now than the apology, itself. The apology is something which, you know, must come from the person who has done the wrong. If he feels that way, it's really not for me to say it is necessary.
But I would prefer to see an amendment of life, a new attitude to Africa, a perception of Africa as a place of humanity, not a place for safaris, not a place where you run when you are in trouble, not where you make--you create fanciful symbols. Africa is a home of people and a home of humans. It is their humanity that was challenged by the slave trade, and it is their humanity that they managed to hang on to through the centuries of slavery. That is the heroic part of this story.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Ngugi, do you think the trip plays any role in getting that view across to Americans?
NGUGI WA THIONG'O: Only time obviously will tell. But I think and I agree with that position, I think it is important that this visit was actually made, and it helps people in changing their conceptions of Africa. That is very important because it is true that Africa must not be seen only in terms of say wild life and safari. At the same time, in terms of how the trip was represented on American television, there were some disturbing comments which though not necessarily or not consciously meant to be harmful, but you can see how they are rooted in--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Like what?
NGUGI WA THIONG'O: Well, for instance, you know, the ABC presentation of the president's visit and reception in Ghana were very wonderful shots, you know, visual impression of Ghanaians coming full force to dance and so on, and then comes the editorial comment by Sam Donaldson about the dances, and the comment is, "Here was tribal Africa in display."
Why tribal? Why not Ghanaian dancers? Why not Ghanaian dancers in display? Why not African dancers in display, or whatever other, you know, terms that do not carry the--some of these very negative images, or the stock images through which Africa tends to be seen, you know, like tribe, safari, and all that?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ms. Muyangwa, do you agree with that, and what do you think are the main perceptions--misperceptions have of Africa?
MONDE MUYANGWA: Well, I just want to go back a little bit to what the president's visit to Africa has done for us in terms of putting the spotlight on Africa. I think he has given us some wonderful momentum to some degree, and that it's up to us, whether it's Africans living on the continent or Africans living here in the U.S., the various Africa-interested organizations, Africa focused organizations, to pick up on that momentum, and capitalize on it to keep Africa firmly in the spotlight. So we have to pick up from where he's left off; that's our responsibility. In terms of the images--I was a little disturbed too by some of the images.
There is this exotic Africa. People kept going back to that, the dancers, the tribal dancers, the tribalism in Africa, especially. This is a very big problem in terms of how people perceive Africa; therefore, which warps their analysis of what's going on in Africa and ends up sometimes coming up with the wrong policies toward Africa.
For example, we look at Rwanda; we look at any of the conflicts going on in Africa. We call them tribal conflicts. And yet, a similar kind of conflict has been going on in Bosnia, but that's not tribal; that's ethnic, and for some reason that's different. I think conflict everywhere, whether it's in Africa, it's in Europe, dehumanizes all of us. And it's our responsibility to understand how these things happen and to take corrective action.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Ladzekpo, in your own words, speaking of what people, what you, all of you I'm talking to here can do, how do you see perceptions of Africa change as people come into contact with your music? You're a musician. You teach music. You play many African instruments.
C. K. LADZEKPO: There is a change going on. When I came here in 1973, some of the only places available for me to perform or let me say people point outdoors for me, go outdoors and play down there; that is where the music and dancers play in Africa. But then in the ballet, the modern dance are in concert halls. I don't see why I cannot be in the concert hall.
And right now we're in the concert halls, and we are sharing the--study--forcefully, with pride and with dignity. We will keep doing that. There is always going to be ignorance, insensitivity, and so forth, but we must be able to try to overcome that and say here I am, I'm just like you, I'm a human being.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Achebe, in--many people, many teachers use your novel to give people a view of African from an African. How do you see people's views change in your class as they read novels?
CHINUA ACHEBE: Well, literature is a very powerful means of bringing about the kind of change that we are talking about. As a matter of fact, the bad image of Africa was likely created by literature--the writing of Europeans over three or four hundred years depicting the Africans and their way to suggest it is enslavement and later his colonization was inevitable.
And, therefore, the correction which literature can bring into this debate is of great importance. And I find that reading stories, stories of human beings from other parts of the world is the quickest way of getting into those societies and those minds and seeing them as people.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Ngugi, what about in your experience?
NGUGI WA THIONG'O: Yes. Let me go back to your question of conception and a misconception about Africa. I think one of the biggest misconceptions people have about Africa is in terms of its economic relationship to the West.
And there's a tendency of seeing Africa as a beggar--you know, when in reality, in the economic relationship between the West and Africa, Africa has always been the giver--you know, and the West actually, you know, taking from Africa, whether you look at say the mineral resources in Africa--you know, even if you don't mention the question of slavery, simply the question of mineral resources in Africa--or on the question of debt harvesting--sort of for like say every 20 units of wealth that is born into Africa about 3/4 of that comes back to the West in terms of debt--for instance. So even the president mentioned the fact that, you know, the return on investment in Africa is much higher than other places, and this is true.
A little profit in Africa is much higher. In other words, they invest, they get much bigger returns. But actually what remains in Africa or goes to develop Africa itself, you know, is fairly minimal.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I don't want to interrupt you, but I'm afraid we're out of time, Mr. Ngugi, and I want to thank you all very much for being with us.