Since its launch in 2011, every edition of the Chronic has engaged, forcefully, with the question: When will the new emerge – and if it is already here, how do we decipher it? But no edition has addressed this query with as much urgency as our current project on cartographies.
Broadly, the project contests the notion of the ‘failed state’, used by publications such as Foreign Policy, as well as various think-thanks mainstreamed at the peak of the structural adjustments of the late 1980s, to justify Western interventionism in the so-called developing world. This notion does not exist in isolation; it is inextricably tied to the idea of development and the resulting instrumentalist logic in which our imagination seems imprisoned. These are conceptual frameworks that we, Western-educated Africans who came of age during the 90s, have absorbed. It is the thinking that largely shapes our ideas on policy and our imagination of “the good life”. But there’s something else that lies beyond.
Our reality refuses to be mapped only by GDP, scales, set squares and compasses; it also requires hands, feet and hearts. And memory. Memory is central. Here’s Wendell Hassan Marsh: “Because memory is so often developed from non-written texts, these narratives are more difficult to trace because of the scarcity of traces, but deep in the ideologies, practices, and politics of those denied history is an ethereal yet very real memory that is un-stated but nonetheless dis-static. In other words, History is the science of the state, while memory is the art of the stateless.” In more words, anyone who’s thought of African conceptions of the future for a moment would know that where the past isn’t written, memory is also a projection into the future.
How then does one represent Somalia? Through the Berlin borders or through the political imaginary of Greater Somalia, which includes parts of Ethiopia and Kenya? This contested territory is at the heart of conflicts in the region, from the Shifta and Oganden wars fought in second half of the 20th century to Al-Shabaab’s insurgency today. What of the Swahili Coast which extends from Kenya through Tanzania and northern Mozambique, and whose reluctance to be integrated into any outside nation-state project goes back to the 14th Century? What of the transnational identity of the Tuareg across the Sahel belt – who are at the core of several conflicts in that region, from Libya to Mali and Chad?
These questions make visible the existence of “secret countries”, but there are other queries: what are the new capitals – for the narcotics trade in West Africa? Or for the trade in African footballers? Who fights Africa’s wars? If water has replaced oil as one of the most sought after resources, are we witnessing the dawn of a new age of hydro-imperialism? What was the real extent of Gaddafi’s financial empire across the continent?
What these queries reveal is that we live through realities that are not speakable – the role of Boko Haram in the Lake Chad region is a good example of this. To speak of this group in the context of contemporary Nigerian politics is to overlook ethno-religious ties that have connected people in that region longer than the existence of Cameroon, Nigeria or Chad. Similarly, to analyse it through the rhetoric of the “War on Terror” is to overlook long-standing local struggles among various groups in the region.
We understand the role of cartography as a tool of imperialism. However, we ask: what if maps were made by Africans for their own use, to understand and make visible their own realities or imaginaries? How does it shift the perception we have of ourselves and how we make life on this continent? We don’t have an easy answer, nor will we find one alone. We are collaborating with Kwani?. Together we’ve invited writers and artists to produce this language, in words and images.
Our aim with this edition is to shift the knowledge about and from Africa from ideology (“what it should be”) to what we experience and imagine it to be – how to make visible networks of trade, power structures, movement of people and ideas as we experience them; how to represent and therefore disseminate this knowledge. So our focus is not directly to shift policy, even though this is equally important – for us, life and imagination (agency) across this continent currently is made in spite of policy rather than through it.
We are very aware of the specificity of each country – we live in them. But we’re not producing maps of any individual country precisely because we’re contesting the country-focus approach. We’re mapping political, economic and cultural realities that show how dated that approach is, that it has more to do with political correctness and some idea of “post-colonial Africa” than the reality we experience and imagine. Each of the maps represents several places and relations between and beyond countries, essentially, highlighting narratives as opposed to supposedly fixed nodes.
The eight maps we’ve commissioned thus far are the following: “secret countries” (Greater Somalia, Royal Bafokeng Nation etc.); Gaddafi’s financial and military network; soft power (foreign cultural agencies; the entertainment complex and its relationship with the trendy notion of “Africa Rising”); new trade routes; water conflicts (tied to land and water grabs); neopats and repats (new and returning migrants from the West and Asia); who fights Africa’s wars (the fiction of national armies and various players in armed conflicts). Read together with the texts which accompany them (memoir, essays, reportage, fiction) they invite readers to look at our world differently and to consider what is emerging or re-emerging across the continent (geo-politically and otherwise).
This is by no means the final word. The commissioning and research process is always ongoing and we welcome contributions, thoughts, provocations and reflections. The aim, as always, remains, to write our world differently.