IT WAS last Friday that I attended an unpretentious African party in America as the only Zambian, and guess what? Not only was I treated like a minority, but my African friends vied with each other to make sure that I felt it. As you might be able to realise, I noticed it not only because I’m the type that doesn’t take contemptuous treatment lightly, but also because all my life I’ve lived in rebellion against men who despise others, and because I’ve long believed that true unity is only possible if we overlook individual differences in the interest of the common good. The said party turned out as a two-country affair for Nigerians and myself, and it went on without incident until my West African friends asked me to regale them with some Zambian music. Now, such a request was a no-brainer. I acted probably like any man or woman who has lived in Zambia for the last five years would; that is, to play the songs of what has arguably been the country’s biggest music act in recent times, the crooner Yo Maps! Halfway through the first song, Blessings Follow Me – which has gobbled over a million views on YouTube – the guy holding the Bluetooth speaker started poking fun at the Zambian artist. “Hey, Victor,” he said, “look around the room. Have you noticed that people are no longer nodding their heads?” “Nah,” I said. “They’re because they can’t relate!”
Reluctant to get feisty, I concluded that it’s either my antagonistic Nigerian friend had decided out of envy not to be impressed by my music selection that night, or he had found Yo Maps’ talent too good to be true and thus took offence early. You might want to call this closure or perhaps more fittingly cognitive dissonance, which typically occurs when a person refuses to acknowledge the greatness of others because it threatens their own small world. It was clear at this party, therefore, that the goal would be to talk down anything Zambian that presents itself in the form of food or entertainment, and in turn give the whole gamut of Nigerian culture the place in the sun. I should say that since 2019 I have met a lot of Nigerian friends who are rather sober and hardly think that they are inherently special or better than others. In fact, personally I have trained several Nigerian writers in the past through a movement called Upskill Writing, and until last year I served as the first non-Nigerian director of the Smart Leadership School, which facilitates personal development among young people in Nigeria through activities like essay competitions and public lectures. But there is the notorious lot like the one I encountered, which will try to shove down your throat the idea that you’re not good enough. For me, I’ve no problem with people who choose to believe a lie if they keep it to themselves; but I have a problem with people who believe a lie and begin to peddle the idea of national exceptionalism because it’s this kind of thought pattern that underlies bigotry such as racism. And while you might think this tension is merely a squabble about music, you’ll be shocked to discover that it’s the main reason why African unity has dragged on for decades. This is because false national exceptionalism does not end at entertainment contests between Zambia and Nigeria. It has also permeated the world of politics to frustrate progressive ideas such as the unification of Africa economically and politically. If you’re a keen follower of history, you will remember that when Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah pleaded with other African leaders to unite under one formidable government after he led his own country to independence, his contemporaries looked at him with suspicion. According to Nkrumah’s biography (Vision and Tragedy) by David Rooney, it was the Nigerian representative, Y M Sule, who openly condemned the Ghanaian president’s proposal and said, “If anyone thinks he is a messiah who has got a mission to lead Africa, then the whole purpose of pan-Africanism will be defeated.” As you can tell, other African leaders like those in Nigeria opposed the idea of African unity not because of any spectacular reason but essentially because they felt they were too special in their own way to be governed by others, or to surrender their authority for the larger benefit of Africa. As such, not only do I believe that Nigerian food or music is not better than that of Zambia, but I also believe that if Africa is going to move forward, individual countries should start thinking less of themselves than they think of others.
We need to commit ourselves to a culture of co-existence and Ubuntu, and start believing that every country, race, and tribe matters. Let’s therefore condemn the notion of national exceptionalism because not only is it unsupported by science, but it creates a toxic environment that frustrates African development. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org