There are two sides to Trump’s shit hole:
The buccal and the anal.
And, folks, you do not get it whole,
If your sense of smell is banal.
– Ikeogu Oke, “Trump’s Shit Hole”
“Whether we like to face up to it or not Africa has been the most insulted continent in the world. Africans’ very claim to humanity has been questioned at various times, their persons abused, their intelligence insulted. These things have happened in the past and have gone on happening today. We have a duty to bring them to an end for our own sakes, for the sake of our children and indeed for the safety and happiness of the world.”
– Chinua Achebe, “The Duty and Involvement of the African Writer”
President Trump’s recent description of African countries as “shit holes” should elicit an ambivalent response. First, outrage, for its insensitivity, and not seeming to take into account some historical, even contemporary, events that make it unfair. Then, sober reflections, as a thought-provoking epithet.
One such event is the recent destabilization of Libya by forces led by the United States under President Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, turning an otherwise stable and prosperous African nation into a “shit hole” of dysfunction and anarchy while the exploitation of its resources by those who created the chaos and their collaborators allegedly takes place unrestrained. The others include slavery, colonialism and imperialism, whose exploitative and repressive components have contributed to keeping African countries underdeveloped.
Now, to be the leader of a country or a member of a race that contributed and still contributes to the continent’s plight through exploitation and yet describe the continent as a “shit hole” is comparable to a vampire bat mocking its victim as anaemic. Or the husband of a Vesicovaginal fistula (VVF) patient despising her for being smelly because she passes urine uncontrollably, unmindful of his role in bringing about her condition.
One would think that the vampire bat would know what to do if it really cares for an improvement in the health of its victim. And whether Trump’s description can pass the litmus test of good intent depends on whether he can lead in showing that he wishes to revert Africa’s “shit hole” status by ending such practices that benefit countries like his to the detriment of Africa, like fuelling crisis in the continent to keep it unstable and make its resources easily exploitable as is apparent in the Congo – perhaps Africa’s smelliest “shit hole” since the murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 by forces backed by the CIA and the Belgian government and his replacement with the imperial depredator and America’s ally Mobutu Sese Seko.
Such impositions of regime change in Africa as we later witnessed in Libya, with their replacement of patriotic and performing African leaders with unpatriotic ones, is partly to blame for the degeneration of the continent into what President Trump rightly but insensitively and rather unconscionably described as a “shit hole”. And it may not cease to be a “shit hole” until there is an end to such negative interventions in its destiny.
So when a certain Dede Konkwo, my Facebook friend, writes in response to my verse epigraph above, “The only ones holding Africans down are Africans. Look at the type of people they allow to emerge as leaders”, it is apparent that, though a university professor, he, like Trump, may not have fully understood the complex nature of the reasons why Africa is a “shit hole”. His nose seems to lack the sensitivity to perceive fully the complex nature of Africa’s leadership and other challenges and why those who can fully perceive that must regard Trump’s description of the continent as a “shit hole” as unfair.
One would also think that the husband of the VVF patient would rather be interested in supporting his wife and victim in finding a solution to her disease, given that he is partly to blame for it, if he has a conscience and truly cares about her health and general wellbeing which is also health-dependent.
That the description is racist, though somewhat true, should be seen by Africans as a superficial indictment, since its racism is essentially verbal.
Those white people focussing on its racism, apparently for political reasons, may not be less beneficiaries of structural and institutional racism than Trump. They may also be afraid of the spark of awareness the description may ignite in Africans, prompting them to seek ways of improving their lot that may disserve the interests of Western countries like Trump’s.
In having his “shit hole” comment criticized as racist, Trump is somewhat in a similar situation with James Watson, the 1962 Nobel Laureate in Medicine, who said of black people in relation to the West: “All our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really” – thereby making a “scientific” ascription of a lower intelligence to black people compared to whites on the basis of race. As explained by the Independent, a British paper, in a story entitled “Fury at DNA pioneer’s theory: Africans are less intelligent than Westerners”, published on October 16, 2007, “…he claimed that black people were less intelligent than white people and the idea that ‘equal powers of reason’ were shared across racial groups was a delusion.”
But the ultimate validation of Watson’s claim that would justify racism, assuming racism can be justified, would be proof that if you set any test for all the white and black people on earth that requires the use of the “powers of reason,” every white person will perform better than every black person or African, regardless of the discipline. I am sure that even common sense tells us that this is not possible. In effect, Watson tried to create a facile “scientific” justification for one of the prejudices behind some white people questioning Africans’ claim to humanity as Chinua Achebe mentioned in the second epigraph above, prejudices that partly form the foundation of racism.
But I believe some of the white people who criticised Watson for “racism”, like those criticising Trump for his “shit hole” comment, did so because of the fear that his remark might trigger a mental revolution among black people and Africans, which they need to improve their lot in the world in ways that might unsettle the existing world order from which white people are the greatest beneficiaries.
And for this reason the outrage due to its racism and insensitivity should be muted to make room for sober reflections about its possible unintended involvement of a clarion call for Africa to rise and fight for its own redemption, regardless of whose ox is wounded, which makes the comment beneficial. Winning this fight will entail Africans taking charge of their destiny, developing their continent, making it prosperous, and running it efficiently in ways that compel respect from the rest of the word. This is the best way to win the fight. Not by railing against Trump.
• Oke, a poet, is the winner of the 2017 Nigeria Prize for Literature