The Incredible Fate of Small People

by Akin Adesokan

This piece began as a letter to the editors of TIME and The Economist. Reading the stories of the trafficking in children in West Africa in last week’s issues of the two periodicals, I was inconvenienced by the suggestion that slavery was still prevalent in West Africa. Since the MV Etireno, the boat carrying 200-odd children from Benin through Nigeria to Gabon had not been convincingly proven to be engaged in slave trading, since reports remained unconfirmed, it was troubling that these publications still went ahead to make ample imputations. The stories reeked of bad faith.

The letter was incoherent at first, then it became effusive, embarrassingly apologetic and longer than these brevity-conscious newspapers would even care to look at. I had dashed off similar letters before, to The New York Times, the Washington Post, The New Yorker…I had made them short, witty, and rhetorical in a manner displaying familiarity with the issues, and with the format of letter-to-the-editor. But this one wasn’t sounding elegant at all; in effect, as we say, I was speaking with both sides of my mouth. I realized that I ought to be writing home. After all, the gods and goddesses of poetic justice have caused African leaders and other parasites to be meeting in Abuja the same week for the ritual of OAU summit.

What a mess. That same weekend, I had watched, rather belatedly, Wonders of the African World, the six-part documentary film produced by the Harvard professor, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The issue of who deserved the blame for the trans-Atlantic slave trade stuck out of the entire series. It was a troubling question, one with a great resonance among people of African descent in the Western Hemisphere, whose old bond of pan-African fellow-feeling was being tested by the increasingly number of African immigrants in the West. There was no way round it; it had to be met on its own turf. Anger would be useless.

Reading the stories, and recalling those emotive moments in the film when Gates doggedly led his interviewees to suggest that without Africans, the slave trade would not have taken place (a big lie!), it was easy to conclude that in Africa, or especially on the Western coast, history was a long journey from the inland to the ships sailing north and south from Porto-Novo, carrying human cargo. It made complete sense to think that the destiny of the person on the coast was to get sold off for fifty dollars, or if she was less lucky, to have her hands chopped by bush warriors. Or to prepare to die from AIDS. It all chimed with the image of Africa from the European Renaissance: the so-called Darkest Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the region, as The Economist omnisciently puts it, “lying between the Sahara desert and north of Limpopo river”.

But it’s all so confusing because it’s just not true; a similar confusion framed the stories. The whole episode lasted between March 30 when the Nigerian-registered ship set sail from Cotonou and April 17 when it returned to harbor with some children and 139 adults. It was not clear whether the children were being offered for sale, or whether the adults were their parents or men and women who, having escaped slavery, still had to look for job. While The Economist hinted at this lack of clarity, TIME was less ambivalent. With photographs of tearful kids, with statistics and maps, it gave details of the ship’s career, and also of the traffic of children along the coast. It quoted officials of UNICEF and anti-slavery groups, nailing the copy with an assertive title: “An Awful Human Trade”.

Of course, the story was run in the same edition that covered the plausibility of Superkids in the US. The paradox is perplexing. Late last year, a British newspaper (I can’t recall which now) published a special photography issue on the AIDS crisis, focusing on Malawi and some southern African countries. Black-and white photos of wasted bodies on hospital beds were scattered on several pages, then followed by colored photos of elegant men and women, this time as models for trendy perfumes. At the end of every news story relating to Africa in The New York Times, a small note is added: Remember the Neediest. It’s an act motivated by charitableness. But it is also a deepening of inequality; Africa seems unable to achieve parity with the rest of the world.

Yet there must be something about shit that attracts flies. The region south of Sahara is not just a victim of the myopia of the Western media, persuasive and somewhat comforting as such an excuse might be. The economies of West and Central Africa are among the most hopeless in the world. Since the late 1980s, there have been wars in the sub-region, wars so fearsome that people are not even expected to recover from them. Sierra Leone was the take-off point for Robert Kaplan’s 1994 article in the Atlantic Monthly, “A Coming Anarchy”. At the time, it was being ruled by the youngest head of state in the world, Valentine Strasser. Liberia had been at war for so long that when it eventually produced a putatively democratic president in Charles Taylor, the man had become so defined by war that he hardly eschews belligerence even when dealing with fellow presidents. Then, after over 30 years of Boigny’s benign reign, Ivory Coast started to unravel. At the moment, let’s ju st say it’s on a cliffhanger. Who knows what’s going on in Guinea-Conakry, or in once-proud Guinea-Bissau, country of our beloved Cabral?

Even if we might cite instability as a major factor for lack of lasting policies, it is a fact that ECOWAS has been in existence for over 25 years. It boasts of sixteen countries, has a formidable bureaucracy and was able to muster a peace-keeping force that, whatever its shortcomings, is central to the maintenance of peace in the war-ravaged region from Guinea to Liberia. Just how these countries would watch their children regularly turned into chattels and exposed to so much indignity is unfathomable. Just what is impolitic about the UN convention on child labor that only 20 out of 53 African countries are prepared to append their signatures is difficult to understand.

A lot has been said about the impractical borders in Africa. Those in West Africa are among the most traveled and so the most violated. Just why ECOWAS has not been able to face up to the situation is mind-boggling. Only government officials and Cold War-era policymakers still call the transactions that go on in cities from Abidjan to Libreville informal economy. It is a fact of life that this trade is crucial to the continued existence of the region as a plausible human community. Inability to address this reality with a straight face is ultimately related to the incidence of trafficking in children. Taking place on the high seas, the traffic is more difficult to police, leaving the levers of control in the hands of pirates and buccaneers.

It is difficult to convince people that the governments of ECOWAS lack the power to harness the resources that these transactions liberate. Big ideas like the common West African currency are good for the psyche of patriots and policymakers; the persistence of the ghettoes that feed the child labor markets merely deepens the crisis of confidence that holds African societies in thrall. For the inequality isn’t just between Africa and the world, but also within Africa itself. As you read of the slave ships waiting to berth in Cotonou, you’ll also do well to remember that there is an international school on the other side of the city, or in nearby Lome, where rich black kids learn to become ambassadors and international politicians and financiers.

It is dishonest to address fuming letters to TIME and The Economist on matters like this. It is more useful to address them to the bureaucrats at the ECOWAS headquarters, to the OAU bigwigs who have gathered in the capital of Nigeria: the biggest collection of big people on the continent. Small people, poor kids who have it in them to become useful leaders, are under pressure in this land. This is a big matter; the coincidence of the summit and the false alarm of a slave ship is one of the delicious jokes the gods foist on the world. It calls for laughter, the sort that brings tears to the eye.

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