The story of Rip Van Winkle, the 1819 Washington Irving character, who slept for twenty years, was retold in a little village in the UK, when a mentally unstable person demanded to see the manager of a nursing home. The manager, the only black person in an all white neighbourhood, turned up to attend to the needs of the patient, an English man in his early fifties. On seeing the black man, the patient went ballistic and perhaps lost another department in his mental faculty. When he calmed down, he asked if the black manager has a mind of his own to solve any problem, when all his white assistants had failed to address his needs. He questioned why the whites had allowed a black, an intellectually bankrupt organism, to lead them. Then, gradually, the black manager narrated to him how things had changed over the years, politely explaining that the era of slavery, which saw people of African descent cross continents to serve in plantations in the west, had given way to a new dawn of consciousness, where everybody is treated equally and respected, the colour of the skin notwithstanding. After the narrative, the patient asked: “when did all this happen? I must have been sleeping for too long.”
Let's assume that we have a workable premise here: all those who still think that blacks are intellectually inferior are modern day Rip Van Winkles, who are yet to wake up from their race-induced slumber. We are not, however, assuming that those people are also mental health cases; some of them are very sane, and very well read. One of them is Professor James Watson, the winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize for medicine, who is credited with discovering the structure of the DNA. The scientist was reported to have said in an interview that he was 'inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa,' because 'all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours-whereas all the testing says not really' He also said that he wished that blacks were as intelligent as whites, but 'people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.' His explanation was that genes responsible for creating differences in human intelligence could be found within a decade.
This is not the first time we are hearing this. For me, it is the umpteenth time, and I am getting scared. Well, I am not worried that these unguarded unscientific proclamations would gain some currency and draw back attempts at projecting multiculturalism as the key to a safer world; I am scared that such careless statements would provoke a violent response someday. The other day, a professor at Leeds University, UK, attracted public fury when he said that he had observed his black students in a twenty-four year teaching career, and his observations were that they do not match the intelligence of their peers from other races. He was dismissed from the university, just as Professor Watson has been suspended by the board of trustees of New York's Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. He has also apologized unreservedly. I don't know if the racist Leeds professor also did.
Less than 48 hours after the gaffe, Prof Watson explained: “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. That is not what I meant.” He has submitted that he doesn't think there is any scientific basis to his claim. What do you make of this dramatic turnabout? Is it controversy or radicalism? Watson is known for his controversial views, most of which have no scientific basis, the intelligent scientist that he is. He is homophobic, and he is not afraid to flaunt his disgust. He is noted as having said that if it was possible to identify gay genes, would-be-mothers should be given the option of abortion, if they knew their babies were likely to be gay. Watson is reputed to have said that there is a link between skin colour and sexual prowess, and actually suggested that blacks have a higher libido. We have also learnt from the scientist that a person's weight determines his ambition. According to Watson, stupidity is a genetic disease that should be treated.
Thus far, that is the profile of the character we are dealing with. And he is 79 years old. Watson is one of many white people who have problems with the Blackman. In fact, he is in the thinking of most of his fellow whites-those who have condemned his recent remarks-and he would complete their thoughts everyday. And the evidence is everywhere, only if you would bother to look. London prides itself on being the most welcoming multicultural city in Europe, but there is still a subtle 'apartheidisation' of the public transport system. On trains and buses, some whites prefer to stand and hold their luggage if they would have to sit next to a black person. Whites are eager to vacate a flat or a house if a black person comes to live nearby. Blacks can never aspire to higher positions in many jobs. In most white neighbourhoods, the abbreviation BMW does not stand for a brand name in automobiles; it stands for a black man's wife. Blacks are viewed with suspicion in most white settlements, and it is almost becoming an accepted practice in some parts of England to check to see if an alleyway is free of black pedestrians before white children are advised to use it.
The starting point I have always advocated in dealing with issues of race, is to see blacks and whites, and indeed the peoples of other races, as distinctly different groups of people. We only carry Christian charity too far if we assume that we are the same people. We are not. And if Watson had left his statement at that, perhaps, he would have escaped with his evil intentions. Our senses of humour are radically different. We have different foods and completely different ways of life. Most of these things may be cultural. As different as we are, we are all credited with native intelligence, wherever we are, to pursue the things we do. When I watch comedies produced by white entertainers, I laugh because I know that comedy is supposed to evoke laughter. I sometimes do not find them funny. My definition of comedy is to a large extent buried in my understanding of my cultural beliefs and certain idiosyncrasies. Those same beliefs underpin the expression of my intelligence. That is why I hate the expression 'Ghanaian /African mentality.' We don't have a mentality; we have a way of life, like everybody else. When was the last time we heard of the American mentality? We associate them with progress and wisdom.
While it is important to appreciate the beauty in our differences, it is worthwhile to ask whether we should stress on our differences or work on the assumption that we are the same people. I recently read a newspaper ad, in which the copywriter had profoundly stated: 'we are the same because we are different.' That sounds like a paradox, but look at it again, and it is an obvious truism. If we are the same, why are we different in appearance, it would make sense to ask? If we agree that certain aspects of the same thing could be different, then it would be wise to ask what they are, and to what extent. I visited an Asian family in the UK, where I met a very engaging seven year old lad. He had become used to me, because I was a regular visitor to their home. The boy came very close to me, like he usually does, and asked if he could ask me a question. When I asked to hear his question, he looked in the direction of his parents and told me that he didn't want them to hear him. When the parents moved to the other side of the living room, he dropped a bombshell: 'Uncle Ben, why are you black?' I answered that my parents were black, so I had to be black, and that there was nothing wrong with being black. He also wanted to know if it was true that Michael Jackson was once black and caused himself to transmogrify into a white man. “He must have felt terrible being black,” the lad submitted, looking intently into my eyes. I couldn't immediately answer for Michael.
Where society has failed is that we have not been able to wean our children off the jaundiced thinking that some people are better than others because of their appearance. In Ghana today, half-caste never-do-wells are followed by village children singing 'Buroni kokoo, arishrish kontomire.' And, even among some adult blacks, the thinking is still full of kontomire. In the western world, white children grow up thinking down on ethnic minorities. So, the Pakistani boy, who wondered why I was black, has only a little time ahead of him to start wondering why he is Pakistani, because he would soon come to learn that his English classmates see him as a fucking Paki. This is where the agitation begins. To measure up, he would also begin to see himself as better than another group of people. In the end, what should have been a fine society of decent people turns out to be a little less than a jungle, where people flex the racial muscle to prove their worth.
Still, Prof Watson's thoughts need some thinking about. He is 'inherently' gloomy about progress in Africa, because of our low brains. Africa has for the past fourty years been going back in development. We are always described in very pejorative terms by the people of the west. We are described as the third world, and there don't seem to be a fourth world. We are the scar on the conscience of the world. We are variously referred to as those people, these people, poor people, a poverty ravished continent etc. Some white people still think Africans live on trees and the rich ones are housed in VIP mud houses. Some Europeans wonder if there are cars in Africa. A lot more think that every woman in Africa is circumcised and their men are hunters and food gatherers. Generally, we are 'misunderestimated' as the intelligent American President, George Bush, would say.
And what have we done to prove them wrong? To begin with, we don't need to prove anybody wrong or right; we need to prove ourselves right in what we do. The speaker of Nigeria's parliament, a very beautiful woman, was recently reported to have spent $5Million on renovations on one house. After that she bought twelve cars for her official use. President Robert Mugabe, a Legon alumnus, has a very shocking way of punishing Zimbabweans who do not vote for him in elections. He orders bulldozers to destroy their houses and turn them into foreigners in the land of their birth. Those who complain are lost forever. Today, that country has the highest inflation ever to be recorded in history, and their finance minister contends himself with the fact that some parts of Europe had terrible inflation figures after the Second World War. Monarch King Nswati II of Swaziland celebrates his birthday in style: he takes couple of wives and splashes nearly £1Million of his poor country's money on festivities. Next, he orders the BMW automobile manufacturers in Germany to produce 10 custom-made 7 Series versions of the ultimate driving machine for his ten wives. Yet, his country is one of the poorest in Africa, and AIDS is gradually wiping their population from the surface of the earth.
Somewhere in Equatorial Guinea, the son of a president, who is also a minister of state, has a very fine shopping habit: he buys couple of fast running sports cars on a shopping spree, and he has to be reminded later to pick them up, because he didn't need them in the first place. Our politics is still seen as an avenue for personal enrichment, so it full of tricks. That is why we cannot rely on polls in Africa; the number of stolen votes hidden in coffins would change any polls. Politicians pack foreign currency in bags to stash away in banks abroad. We are still not sure how much money former president Sani Abacha shipped abroad from poor Nigeria. In our own backyard, it is reported that an otherwise respectable government functionary, diverted billions of state money into the accounts of his daughter's non existing company. So, folks are wondering how the £20billion donated by a foreign government to help the poor in that country would be disbursed.
How does the West react to these developments? Most English people I have spoken to, except those who have traveled to parts of Africa, especially South Africa on holiday, believe that Africa is one big settlement where there are no demarcations as in west, east and central. They know a bit about North Africa, where their colour blinds them of anything quintessentially African. The first English man I worked for in London, asked me whether my mother is a sister to Tony Yeboah, the Ghanaian international who played for Leeds United years ago. He had seen me write my mother's maiden name as Yeboah. I asked him if everybody who had Blair as his surname in England was the relative of the then British Prime Minister-Tony Blair. I am very proud to be African, but I would rather somebody called me a Ghanaian than African. I belong somewhere, an exact location in Africa, just as my English friends usually get out of the European label to specify Birmingham, Portsmouth, Basildon as where they come from.
Of course, the western media has not helped very much in portraying the good sides of the things we have used our intelligence for. While the British Monarchy recongised the celebration of [email protected], the media here were keen on portraying the input of poor Ghanaians living in decrepit chalets in Agbogboloshie in the anniversary. Couldn't we have been 50 if we were too poor and weak to count up to 50? Why should a white researcher, who was kind enough to buy school uniforms for a Kaya yee boy in Ghana, showcase the gesture on primetime TV, as if to suggest that his single act of charity is a national strategy for solving the education crisis in Africa? There are a few Ghanaians doing the same, but the research will generally not seek to identify that angle of our intelligence. That is not news, because it will not fit into a recognisable template.
What have we done to correct some of these impressions? The producers of Osofia in London, a Nigerian masterpiece, and its Ghanaian version, Koo Fori in London, sought to correct a few things, but they, especially in the case of Osofia, ended up subsuming that important correction in the buffoon-laden comic expression of the mindset of the protagonist. You still feel the white woman's mockery of black intelligence even after
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