As an African anthropologist observing Europe and North America, I have been itching to write a series of essays on the shocking civilisational backwardness of Europe and North America. I know, our colonial history, especially the colonial school, cinema, mainstream media and academia have sold Africans the deceptive impression that anything western is modern and sophisticated. And on the other hand, whatever is African needs much precaution before being embraced. Europe’s advances in science and technology—sadly, on the continued ruin of Africans—has only served to concretise African inferiority complex. It is at pandemic levels. Truth is though, all this European cinematic bloom masks a cultural backwardness of unimaginable proportions. Under this cultural barbarism—marketed as modernity—wars have been fought and several ills continue to decimate European and American society. At the same time, the urge for continued resource exploitation and perpetual growth continues to ruin the subaltern world.
I am not interested in writing about politics or continued exploitation of the African continent, but culture and traditions in comparative perspective. What does it mean for an African to observe Europe from African vantage points – especially at a traditions level? How does it work turning the colonial gaze onto the coloniser in modern times – especially that colonialism only changed name? Using our value standards, the African quickly discovers an appalling backwardness and barbarism in the flame trees of Berlin, London and Washington. The people in Europe and North America have learned to humour African travellers that what might strike them as civilisational backwardness should be simply appreciated as “cultural shock.” Note that this term would never have been deployed in their scribbles about Africa [not even much later after its invention, not even in the present] as racism about us, Orientals, both on the continent and in Europe only festers, presently in a more fetishized and structured form. [Michelle Alexander’s radical book, The New Jim Crow makes this point of fetishized and institutionalised racism more powerfully]. Even when they invented the seemingly more liberated term, “cultural relativism,” it remains selectively applied on traditions and modernities in formerly colonised places underscoring a tolerance of what remains backward in the eyes and minds of many westerners – as the reporting the Russian-Ukraine conflict, and the black refugee question have showed us.
Good morning, my neighbour
Indeed, it is the Ukraine-Russian conflict that has made writing these series more urgent. [Being myself Libyan, Somali, Haitian, Palestinian, Iraqi, Muslim and Black, I will insist on calling it a conflict. I am also right to call it, “a special operation” as the Russians have called it themselves as it is only scholarlily fair to name and describe people on their own terms.] The first point of cultural backwardness for me—which is captured by the Ukraine-Russian conflict is western Europe’s failure to grasp the simple concept of neighbourliness. It is only backward peoples that struggle to understand the intellectual and practical power of having a good neighbour. The Africans have observed that “a fire at the neighbourhood burns both houses. That is yours and the neighbour’s house.” And in the Islamic tradition, Muslims are reminded that “they will not be Muslims if they went to bed without ascertaining that their neighbour had a meal,” loosely paraphrased. These seem like pretty obvious and logical traditions for all humanity. Traditional communities common in Africa continue to live by the simple principle of loving your neighbour the way you love thyself. In its simplicity is enormous liberational potential.
But as the entire world knows, a capitalistic ethic has turned Europe and North America into the most zombified non-neighbourly peoples in world history—at both personal and institutional levels. Edie Murphy popularised this sensibility in the comic movie, Coming to America. The prince from Zamunda opens his window on a cold morning and shouts, “good morning, my neighbour,” only to receive back, “f*ck you.” This sensibility is so true in especially the urbanised west. Strangely, Europeans and Americans are lyrical about the beauty of human connections, love and kindness—but only to dogs and those they “already love” [whom also they are also quick to kick out of their lives at the earliest point of dislike, including, simply “falling out of love.” Only in Europe are ten-year-old marriages with children ended by a stupid excuse that they fell out of love]. Why are Europeans this backward in simple matters?
Only in Europe and North America does one find stories of a person dying in their apartments and authorities —not the neighbours—finding out three years later. And the discovery only happens because of “an investigation of apartment units whose tenants had not been using water in the DeSoto area complex.” And recall, even in death, the deceased continued paying his rent and other bills since transactions in Europe are non-personal contracts covering years, with potential for seamless auto-renewal as long as the client has cash on their accounts. Although it would be strange to stretch and generalise these cases, but it is telling enough. What could be more backward than a society normalising relations where someone dies and the neighbours, colleagues, friends and family are so busy minding their businesses or only casually interested in finding out. At its basic level, regional integrations such as the EU notwithstanding, this is the spirit in which Europe executes its politics.
Russia is Not Europe
How are western Europeans content with seeking to isolate, fight, craft and prepare to live in permanent hostility with their absolutely rich and powerful neighbour in Russia? Or do they see it as distant and non-European? How are they content in finding security in a distant friend – the United States – however powerful and benevolent? I am not being naïve of any geopolitical contestations or histories. I’m interested in the simple principle of neighbours and neighbourliness. It still baffles me that our professedly Christian and civilised friends in these lands do not understand the fact that sharing a piece of land with someone else—however bad that person maybe—crafts and imposes upon these neighbours not just similar tastes, and possibilities, but also compounded dangers and disasters. Simply from the point of proximity. As Irish representatives to the EU, Clare Daly and Mick Wallace have endlessly argued, the rest of Europe shares a continent with Russia, and Russia is not going to go away tomorrow. Strangely, this has earned them the wrath of their clearly backward co-Europeans.
At the risk of being called a Russian stooge, let me consider the possibility that Russia is successfully obliterated—either nuked or simply dealt with by some really dangerous weapons—by the United States and allies. Do my friends in western Europe think the effects of a destroyed Russia would not reach their lands? Besides the simple issue of refugees having to naturally escape to western Europe—and not North America as they are already doing—will the process of obliterating Russia leave western Europe unscathed? Or it is a price they are willing to pay “to the last Ukrainian” (which is clearly, not to the last American)? Doesn’t this appear so obvious to catapult any other considerations out through the window, and invest in pursuing good neighbourliness? Is it not obvious that with Russia holding western Europe ensnared in own sanctions because of its enormous gas reserves (a) an indication is buildable relations, and (b) ground enough to be trusted and befriended? How about its well-known military prowess, which includes holding the biggest nuclear arsenal in the world? Why and how would one not seek to build stronger and friendlier relations with this neighbour!
I know, there are moments when one has a clearly difficult or non-understanding neighbour. These also happened in Africa – even among traditional societies. [Before one does it, I should quickly add that the wars in Africa are not our wars, they are war of barbarians from Europe imposed onto this peaceful and extremely rich continent – and we can discuss this another day]. The point I want to make here is that having a complicated neighbour is no excuse to stop one from working on good relations with that neighbour. Yes, because they are neighbours. That Russia has been trading with western Europe so enormously in gas, oil and wheat is reason enough to think about Russia in friendlier terms.
So, while Africans are castigated for being indifferent towards the Russian invasion, one ought to appreciate the intellectual-cultural pedestal onto which Africans stand. From their Africa’s authentic traditions [under endless threat from thieves marauding the continent hunting gold, oil, coffee, cobalt etc.), Russia-Ukraine is the simplest diplomatic affair to an African mind. It would never have started. And can be stopped on the same terms – of seeking to build relations with a neighbour. I can hear someone ask: Did African never fight wars before colonialism? Yes, they did. But were African wars as bloody as World War I and II? Were these wars as bloody as the colonial wars and genocides committed by marauders from Europe? Of course not. These were low-key wars over shared resources and Africans often exploited simple but intellectual superior traditions such as good neighbourliness to settle them. How about the current wars on the continent, Somalia, South Sudan, Central African Republic? Only a European or their compradors can ask about the Africanness of those wars.