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Uzodinma (Uzo) Iweala is the author of Beasts of No Nation. The novel, his debut, came out of his undergraduate thesis work at Harvard and was conducted under the supervision[…]

Iweala talks about how Africans are portrayed in media and the lack of acknowledgement that nations are responsible for many of the problems in Africa.

Question: What is the legacy of colonialism in Africa?

Uzodinma Iweala: I think you see it now. I mean you open a newspaper and there you have it. But it’s not just sort of what you see. It’s the way that what you see is written about, right? Because you read any newspaper in western society, right, and you have this phenomenon where Africans are labeled as backwards, incompetent, corrupt, and just generally violent. And this is entirely . . . I mean if you read certain newspapers . . . You read newspapers now, and you go back and you read newspapers from like the 1800s, or you read accounts from the 1800s, not too much variation, you know? You’d wonder whether or not things have change at all in the way that people perceive Africa and Africans. And that’s all in the legacy of colonialism in the way that this continent, and these countries, and these people are spoken about. I think it’s terrible. Second, I think what you have is a lack of acknowledgement that certain countries were responsible for the state of this place, you know? And that you have . . . you . . . I think one has to be very careful when talking about . . . Because there . . . The images first . . . The images that we see of Africa are so . . . that are so engrained in our minds are of this place that is terrible – like hell on earth. And that doesn’t acknowledge the positive things – the many, many, many positive things – that people are doing. Which if you spend time in any one of these places, you’ll see how people are really innovating; how people are putting things together. I mean there’s a story of this . . . this . . . I think he’s an 18 or 19 year old guy in Malawi who, you know . . . He didn’t have electricity in his village, right? And he decided that well, shoot. You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna find out how to . . . how to bring electricity here. So he went, studied some books about how to make a wind turbine, and from scrap metal and bicycle parts came home and made a wind turbine. Now is that somebody who is incompetent, uneducated? No. That’s someone who has a desire to live and a desire to improve, and people don’t focus on that. I think that’s a problem. I think people also don’t realize – you know to go back to the other point that I was making – just how much of an impact that the interaction with Europe, the interaction with other . . . has had on Africa and the different populations and different peoples. I mean you know you look at . . . you look at coming to society extracting all you can, destroying the fabrics that existed before . . . the social fabrics that existed before. And just basically taking what you can take, getting what you can get. People don’t talk about the amount of destruction in terms of human lives that happen, whether it’s through slavery, or through for example what Belgium was doing in the Congo – the fragmentation of society that happened after that destruction of human life. You know and then all we get now when you read the newspaper is, “Oh well, you know, these people, they’ve been killing each other from time immemorial. They like . . . that’s what they do. That’s how they behave. That’s how they are. They’re just savages and there’s nothing we can do to help them.” Not acknowledging like look, if you hadn’t come in here and set this person against that person; if you hadn’t . . . for example what happened in Nigeria in the _________ culture. If you hadn’t elevated certain members of society, or created a . . . fragmented the traditional system of government, then you might not have the situation that you have right now. You know I think that we . . . we forget that when people talk about Africa, and colonialism and its impact on Africa. That’s past. I mean the argument that people make now is that . . . well you know like independence. A lot of these countries have been independent since the 1960s. They haven’t put things together. And it’s like, “Well hold on. Let’s talk about what independence means,” right? What’s independence in an era where you’re beholden to one of two super powers, right? What’s . . . What is independence when these super powers are supporting people against the will of the people, right? And then now they turn around and blame you for not being democratic. “Oh, you guys don’t understand democracy. You’ll never understand democracy.” It’s not that people don’t understand democracy. It’s that look, we’ve been trying. Like we want the system . . . We want to have a say. We want to have a voice, but some outside influences support people who will not allow us to have that voice. You know I don’t . . . I don’t see how you could be anything but super frustrated and angry if that’s the situation. You’re working towards something, and somebody is undermining that something you’re working towards at the same time will tell you you’re not working hard enough. And you’re like, “I don’t know what to do. I really don’t know what to do.” You know so I think there’s a lot . . . I mean I think the fact that we don’t really . . . that the world really doesn’t acknowledge how bad and how detrimental colonialism was; that people don’t really try to explore it, you know, in popular media and news articles; that . . . that it’s just kind of glossed over as this thing. You know, that it’s really . . . It means that we’ll never really come to an understanding of what that does and how not to have that happen again. You know it will mean that people will just . . . that people will accept that that’s the way it goes when it really doesn’t have to be that way, you know?

Recorded on: 10/7/07


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