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 I am not sure if I can describe where I am living in London as an African ghetto, for

there are as many Africans as non Africans in the area. You have however more

concentration of Africans in some other parts of London (e.g. Brixton, Camberwell, Tottenham



Interview with Issaka K. Souare

Author of Samassi and Africa in the United Nations System, 1945-2005


By Rudolph Lewis


Rudy: Your short novel Samassi (128 pages), published 2004, was a quick read. I found it very informative. It touches on numerous topics of African life in Europe. Your main character decides to return to Africa. Are more Africans than ever deciding to remain in the West. If so, why?

Issaka: In the absence of statistics, it is quite difficult to say yes or no this question. One may only be aware of such movements amongst those that you know and/or that are close to you, which does not mean that people from other African communities are not returning home. But one thing is clear: whenever there is a positive change in an African country, and there are more and more African countries embracing change, many nationals of such countries living abroad tend to decide to go home, at least to move the bulk of their activities there and spend more time there. They know that they are the ones that can help their countries develop, as the main character of the novel thought.

Rudy: You are from Guinea-Conakry, West Africa. Why did you choose the UK rather than France.

Issaka:  First, because my studies are in International Relations and everyone knows the importance of English in that field in today’s world. The other reason is that, frankly, Britain is a better place for an African than France is, not least the too bureaucratic system of France and France’s poor record of treatment of Africans living in France.

One simple example on the first count is that in order to apply for a university place in France, in addition to what universities in all countries request, you also need to supply even the envelop in which the university will reply to you; this is not to mention the stamp or its cost. And in terms of your choice, of course, it is easy in the Anglo-Saxon world to switch from one option to another in the same field (e.g. BA journalism, MA politics) should you change your mind; yet this is almost impossible in France.

To do a Ph.D. course in a field, you must have chosen this course from secondary school! Regarding the issue of the treatment of Africans, you have racism everywhere in Europe, but France is one of the worst countries as far as Africans are concerned. And this deplorable attitude has gone as far as to the French parliament passing a law to celebrate what they called “positive aspects of colonialism”. How absurd!

Rudy: How long have you been in the UK? Do you live there in an African ghetto (community or neighborhood)? Do you get together often with fellow Africans?

Issaka: I came to the UK mid-2000 but I am leaving it this year for Canada where I am doing my Ph.D. program. I am not sure if I can describe where I am living in London as an African ghetto, for there are as many Africans as non Africans in the area. You have however more concentration of Africans in some other parts of London (e.g. Brixton, Camberwell, Tottenham, etc.) than where I am in Croydon in south-east London. I do get together with colleagues on occasions, especially at week-ends to play soccer. I am also the Secretary of a community organization.

Rudy: Are you married? Do you have children? If not, will you choose a Guinea girl or whomever you first fall in love?

Issaka: Yes, I am married since August 2003 and have a daughter born in June 2005. My baby is from Guinea, but I would not have minded having my girl from any African (in the broader sense) community.

Rudy: Samassi begins and ends on a note of African government corruption—of bribes and abuse of government funds and power. There has been much talk for decades about good governance in African states. Is this much more a problem in Africa than in Europe? If so why?

Issaka: Corruption is found everywhere in the world, and anyone who reads the reports of Transparency International will know this for sure. The negative effects of corruption are however felt more acutely in poor countries than in rich and more advanced ones.

This is what makes it such a serious problem in Africa. This is what results in what one may call “relative poverty”, when the resources of a country are monopolized by a small few at the expense of the majority. It then becomes a source of armed conflicts. I amply deal with this in one of my two recently released books, Civil Wars and Coups d`État in West Africa: An Attempt to Understand the Roots and Prescribe Possible Solutions (April 2006).

Rudy: Does religion and tradition play an important role in political and social reform in black Africa today? Or is it a reactionary force?

Issaka: I think they do, both positively and negatively. The positive dimension of tradition and religion in Africa is their reconciliatory role, especially in post-conflict nations. One can see this in the quick return of normalcy, reconciliation and community solidarity in, say, Nigeria after the painful experience of the civil/Biafra war (1967-1970), and in many Southern African countries after the appalling and traumatizing experience of the Apartheid and white minority regimes.

This is what baffles some Europeans (including their cousins in North America). But what eludes them is that while their cultures emphasize revenge (e.g. Nuremberg after World War II, ICTY now in ex Yugoslavia after the civil war there), African culture and tradition preach reconciliation and forgiveness, and this is not to be construed as condoning “impunity,” though you do not hear such descriptions in the Western press if the beneficiaries of “impunity” are whites (Southern Africa).

I am also certain that whenever Africans return to the tradition and its principles of transparency and accountability, the Transparency Internationals will be based in Africa to teach the West how to avoid corruption.

The negative dimension of tradition and religion is seen when unscrupulous politicians use them for their petty political gains and manage to manipulate the innocent people for their cause.  

Rudy: There is some discussion of women in Samassi. But you seem to skirt many of the issues you raise, like the sexual freedom of women. Do you feel threatened by the growing power of modern African women?

Issaka: Not at all. I am in fact in favour of this, for without empowering women, no society can prosper. I wanted to show something in the novel, in the story of Mrs Richardson, that I probably did not succeed.

That was the difference between the Western tradition of asking women, de jure or de facto, to change their birth names and adopt those of their husbands when they get married, and the African tradition that is against this. This is rightly considered in many African societies, including that of mine, as an insult for the woman.

Why give up her birth name for the man and men are never asked to do likewise? How many times should she keep on changing her name, given that she has the right to divorce and remarry as many times as she likes? And when she decides not to change her name after a couple of marriages or having been married to a famous person (e.g. Winnie Mandela) whose name she would prefer to keep for various reasons, what would be the feeling of the new husband since the tradition, de jure or de facto, asks for this and what will be the effect of this on their marriage if it ever goes ahead?

Unfortunately, this sexist Western tradition is threatening the African tradition that respects women in this regard as in many others.  In the novel, I wanted to show this rift between African and Western cultures and my opposition to this contradictory practice of claiming to respect women’s freedom and equality with men yet insulting them, but perhaps I did not succeed.

Rudy: You are studying for a doctorate in International Relations. Are you planning to be a diplomat, of working for the United Nations? 

Issaka: As you know, one does not always work in what may appear the natural and perfect field that matches his studies. I would want to do anything to contribute to Africa’s development and assertion of its rightful place in the world community, whatever that takes and in whichever field I may work. I am currently working for Amnesty International and writing.

Rudy: Tell us about your new book on the United Nations. What are some of its basic conclusions with respect to Africa?

Issaka: The full title of the book is Africa in the United Nations System, 1945-2005. In this book, I look at the origin of the UN, even going back to the League of Nations (1920-1939/1945), the predecessor of the UN, and Africa’s place in it. I deal with the current structure of the UN (e.g. five permanent members of the Security Council with no African country amongst them) and why this is the case.

The book shows that there have been some real successes in Africa’s relationship with the world body (e.g. the joint efforts of Africa and the UN against the Apartheid and white minority regimes in Southern Africa), as well as real failures (e.g. the genocide in Rwanda). Based on this, it concludes that Africa’s relationship with the United Nations works for the most part when Africa sees its partnership with the UN as complementary to its own efforts, projects and initiatives rather than something to depend on.

Whenever Africa depends on the UN and withdraws from its own responsibilities, as I think happened in Somalia and Rwanda and may happen now in Sudan, it has always been disappointed.

The UN is an inter-governmental organization whose actions, their quality and rapidity, depend almost entirely on the will of its member states, the powerful ones in particular. Yet, the powerful members of the UN, which are mainly former colonial powers plus the United States (which is not innocent in this case either —remember the invasion and occupation of Haiti by American forces from 1915 to 1934) and these nations will never commit their men and monies to anything or any place where they do not see their strategic or PR interests there.

The book puts forward some practical suggestions as to what position Africa should take in the current debate about UN reform. It has a good foreword by Mrs Julia Dolly Joiner, the Political Affairs Commissioner of the African Union. 

Rudy: Have you been to the Americas—Canada, U.S., the Caribbean, etc.? What were your impressions?

Issaka: Of all those places, I have only been to Canada, but would like to visit all of them, especially the Caribbean, which I consider as part of Africa and I call these states Sovereign Disaporian African States (SDAS). Well, my impression of Canada, and I think it resembles the US in many ways in this regard, is that they tend to have more opportunities than one may find in, say, Europe, but also more openness. But I should add that they are the real Capitalists.

Rudy: Are you familiar with racial relations in the USA? Do you have in African American friends? What are your impressions?

Issaka: I have read about racial relations in the US and I have several African-American brothers and sisters. In fact, Joe Washington who wrote a foreword to my book on Civil Wars and Coups d`État in West Africa is an African-American professor. I also have many Guinean and African friends living or studying in the US.

My impression is that most African-Americans are as concerned about Africa’s future as any patriot African. Thus, looking at the gradual rise of a number of them in the US, despite the undeniable racism against them, and the progress being made in many parts of Africa, though slowly, I believe that this will one day soon result in both parties (mother Africa and its children in the US) contributing to each other’s progress and, may I say, emancipation.

Rudy: What about travel in Europe? I suppose you have friends from many European countries. You know English, French. Arabic? I have always been impressed by the linguistic skills of black Africans. What other languages do you speak?

Issaka: I speak Mandinka/Mandingo, which is my mother tongue. Yes, Africans speak many languages. But this, though it may seem impressive in a way, is quite unfortunate looking at its origin of colonial powers imposing their languages on Africans and the failure of post-independence African governments to correct this grotesque legacy of colonialism. I believe this has a role in Africa’s underdevelopment.

Oh yes, and it eludes many of those that write about development issues in Africa. How do I explain this? Well, everyone knows that in order for a country to develop and prosper in this capitalist-driven globalized world, you need to have a well-qualified and competent work force. To have this, you surely need more educated people which can only be achieved through popularising education.

Yet, this popularisation is almost impossible to attain relying on a foreign language as the sole language of learning. This is why there is not a single developed nation in the world that relied on a foreign language to achieve its development, and this includes the emerging Asian nations.

An enlightened citizenry is also necessary in order for the government of any nation to better communicate with its people, enhancing in the process the political stability and even survival of the country. Democracy and democratic process is such a complex issue that it requires an educated people.

It is only in Africa that the grandmother or grandfather can hardly assist her or his grandchild with his/her coursework even in history of his/her own country, which they may have lived and may thus know better than perhaps the author of the textbook the child is reading at school—the only reason being because the textbook is in another language whose owners and the ignorant African leaders and trainers that kept it consider it superior to African languages. These people nourish the illusory idea that African  languages are not suitable for science and intellectual expression.

Yet the benefits of learning in one’s mother tongue or one like it are manifold as are the negative effects of the contrary. Take the example of a simple computer software like the word processor or even the use of Internet. One doesn’t really need a tutor to learn the word processor so long as you understand the language in which the computer converses with its users. It suffices to put the cursor on an icon for it to tell you what it will do.

This gives a natural advantage to the European child or any child learning in his/her own language over the African child who must depend on a foreign language. This allows this child to start using computer from a very young age and starts enjoying the great benefits of electronic communications thus early. The African child has to wait longer to have a good knowledge of the language before doing likewise.

Surely, the different African countries should find ways to deal with this issue. There are some people, including in Africa, that are opposed to this idea. By and large, they have two main arguments. On the one hand, they argue that countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are well developed yet English and partially French (in Canada) that the people of these countries use are not their mother tongues as these are European languages.

On the other hand, they argue that given the fact that each African country has a multitude of languages, it will be impossible to achieve this without alienating others and thus leading to conflicts.

Perhaps a third argument of these people is that African states need to open up to the outside world and that they cannot do this with their own languages. How naive!

I must confess that most of these people are innocent because they do not know the facts or have been led to hold such manipulative views. First, it was the European colonialists that brought their languages to all the aforementioned countries and stayed there to rule these conquered territories at the expense of the natives.

They imposed their languages on the natives (Indians in North America and the Aboriginals in Australia and New Zealand) and isolated them in the forests. Many of these people are still to this day deprived of some of their civic rights and suffer widespread discrimination.

Otherwise, how can one explain the existence of both French and English in Canada, and Spanish in some southern states of the US if not to do with European colonialism? Surely, Algeria would have constituted this example in Africa had the French imperial forces triumphed over the liberation movements in Algeria in the late 1950s. Perhaps South Africa constitutes a clear example of this in Africa as a result of Apartheid.

Secondly, contrary to what we have in Western encyclopedias, the sometime unbelievable number of languages or ethnic groups that many African countries are said to have, most African countries can find it very easy to adopt one to three languages and serve the whole country with that. Take the example of Nigeria.

In Western encyclopedias, Nigeria is home to more than 200 ethnic groups and languages. As a matter of fact, you can reduce this to only three mega ethnic groups and thus Nigeria can adopt just three national languages (Haussa, Yoruba and Ibo), as every Nigerian will identify himself or herself with one of these three languages.

And there are many Western countries that have more than one official languages (e.g. Switzerland, Belgium, Canada, etc.). So why can’t African states do this? Besides, there are many African countries, even regions that can well adopt a single language. The case of Swahili in many Eastern and Central African states is a case in point.

Regarding opening up to the outside world, perhaps Norway and other Scandinavian countries can solve this puzzle. Norway is a small Scandinavian country whose language is not spoken anywhere in the world outside its boundaries. However, the Norwegians learn in their language (learn history, geography and mathematics, etc. in Norwegian) but learn English (as a language).

Those of them whose field of work (e.g. diplomats and medical doctors) necessitate working with international partners further their learning of English. Whey can’t Africans do this? Only with this, I may consider the linguistic skills of many Africans, including myself, as an added advantage. But as it is, we Africans are forced to learn most of these languages because without that we cannot work even in our own governments. How sad!

Rudy: When you not hitting the books, studying, publishing, how do you use your time? Museum, theaters, films; soccer, tennis, cricket; chess, cards?

Issaka: I like playing football and watching African films and listening to music. With my daughter now and the lovely plays I have with her, I am really short of time. But I must force myself also to attend community meetings.

Rudy: What of development in Guinea? I suppose socialism is a thing of the past. That it died with Sekou Toure? Do you have hope for African progress in dealing with questions of poverty, health care, education, technology?

Issaka: Absolutely yes, but this progress will come, and I am sure it will and soon, when Africans realise that only they, and not others, can and will develop Africa. Exit the Western PR propaganda about caring to help Africa.

Rudy: When were you last in Africa? How is home, family, friends?

Issaka: I was last in Africa in December 2005 when I visited the Commission of the African Union in Addis Ababa, the capital of Africa.

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Peace Rahim,

I just read your interview with Issaka—very nice. I would, of course, like to know more about the conditions of Africans in England. In a few days, the World Cup will begin amid a new wave of racism through out Europe. African students have been killed in Russia and on the pitch African football players are constantly being harassed. In Spain, for example, a Black soccer player was met with "monkey calls." This hearkens back to the time when white American soldiers during WWI and II told European women that Black soldiers had tails. The Spanish are in complete denial about their own racism stating only that their soccer fans see black soccer players as the opposition—as if that were any kind of justification for their racist remarks.

The World Cup, like the Olympics, may well become a new staging ground for racial tensions. We know that Jessie Owens upset Hitler's notion of a Super Race. And Joe Louis literally knocked it out of the ring. Still there always seems to be a resurgence of racist ideology—whether it’s the Bell Curve or some other contention.

Since the World Cup will be held in Germany, there undoubtedly will be at least a few major racist confrontations. Nazi slogans and racist chants regularly accompany soccer matches. It will be interesting to see how the German authorities handle such acts as the flying of the swastika and Nazi salute which are common occurrences at the matches. Will we see racist fans dragged from the stadium? —amin sharif

posted 23 May 2006

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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update 15 December 2011




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