Tucked away in the maze of Kresge Centennial Hall, the Alliance of African Scholars runs a roundtable discussion called “Made in Africa.” Founded in 2015 by Ima Samba, the motivation behind the group was to provide students with a space for critical discourse on African and African diasporic representations, social movements and contemporary happenings.
Arriving early, I am greeted warmly by one of the leaders, Alain Kangabire, who brilliantly multitasks between setting up the projector and conversing with me about life, studies and the cold winter days. A McCormick sophomore, Alain hails from Burundi, where he grew up and attended school before coming to Northwestern in 2018. Passionate about mathematics, he is also deeply engaged with African politics and dedicated to bringing to the fore African stories, innovations, and historical and contemporary thought, which are often shrouded by the poverty and war narrative or are simply never highlighted.
The projector turns on and radiating off of the screen are the three emboldened words: “Made in Africa.” The novelty of the phrase is not lost on me or any of the other guests who have started entering the room; I recall having come across innumerable “Made in China” tags in my lifetime as well as some “Made in the U.S.A.” tags, but very rarely have I come across a “Made in Africa” tag internationally.
Plastic bags filled with crisps and soda hanging loosely from his hands, Inno coolly enters the room smiling and noticeably relieved to be inside somewhere warm. Inno Ruhamya, a McCormick senior, was propelled to join the group in his junior year after noticing insufficient engagement with the African continent within and outside of academia, such that even when there was engagement the subjectivity of African people, cultures, and beliefs was never accounted for. “I brought snacks,” he announces as he begins to lay them on the table. Cups are filled, crisps passed around, introductions given, and Inno begins by showing a video on Mara Phones. Started in 1996 by Ashish J. Thakkar, Mara Corporation is a multi-sector company that launched Mara Phones, the first high-tech smartphone produced within Africa. Last year, Mara launched its first manufacturing plant in Kigali, Rwanda and inaugurated the second in Durban, South Africa. According to its website, “Mara Phones is committed to enhancing and enriching the lives of the people of Africa. Manufacturing in Africa enables job creation, also making the smartphone more affordable to all, contributing to business and development on the continent. Manufactured in Africa, ready for the global market!”
Manufactured in Africa, ready for the global market. The line stays with me even as I write this essay; both powerful and suggestive of an African economic renaissance, it bursts at the seams of its own idealism. My mind wanders and I have to ask myself how many people know of Mara Phones, of Kenyan Peris Bosire and his company FarmDrive, or Zambian Muzalema Mwanza, founder of Safe Motherhood Alliance, or Burkinabé Safiatou Nana, the mastermind behind SolarKoodo. So many people with so many innovations overlooked as our gaze turns toward the West, a constructed gaze that is a remnant of colonialism and sustained in contemporary society.
Someone raises their hand to answer a question that Inno has just posed, and they explain that the current Western hegemonic framework was never designed to include the “African product.” Therefore, a significant first step is to appeal to our own people before we can look overseas. They add that this will not only allow us to see the value of our products and appreciate them for what they are, but this will also ensure that our products flourish in their own right and without a Western stamp of approval.
Someone else raises their hand to point out that “Made in Africa” speaks to the generalization of Africa as a country and not a continent with 54 countries, diverse people, landscapes, cultural beliefs and practices that will appear in the products created. They add that we don’t see “Made in Asia” or “Made in South America” products, because each country within those continents has its own identity, just like Ghanaian kente cloth or Malian mud cloth is distinct from any other clothing produced across the continent. I raise my hand to respond that although I acknowledge the generalization, I see “Made in Africa” as a powerful economic symbol that simultaneously speaks to the strength of the continent and the cultural specificity of all the countries. If national attribution is necessary, I add, then we could have a “Made in Africa – (insert African country)”.
Sporting a kitenge backpack that effortlessly falls in line with our conversation, artist Sandra Kibet, the third leader of the formidable Alliance of African Scholars, walks into the room, quickly taking a seat and apologizing for being late. Born in Kenya, Kibet is a senior majoring in art theory and practice in Weinberg. Her art is inspired by her experience immigrating from Kenya to the U.S. and seeks to rationalize the disruption of memory and history that came with that move. One of the guests brings up the subject of African art and where it fits in the “Made in Africa” discourse. The international art scene has long been skewed such that art must pass through European domains in order to gain recognition. Which begs the question: how does African art exist of its own accord? The colonial museums in Europe—for example the Africa Museum in Belgium—which house thousands of artefacts taken from various countries and stripped of their cultural subjectivity, further complicate the necessity of rightful authorship and ownership. The need for the repatriation of African cultural artefacts was something enforced by Kibet and unanimously agreed upon by those in attendance. Art is the means through which nations represent themselves, their values and belief structures; therefore, it is absolutely paramount that this art be returned.
Finally, in talking about an African economic revolution, Inno guided the discussion toward an analysis of contemporary African economies. Destabilized by structural lending policies that seek to revitalize the economic sector through loans under the guise of “development,” someone highlights that in actuality, these policies have only limited the agency of national infrastructures, and have crippled African countries by keeping them in a perpetual state of dependency on foreign aid. These investments, most of which come from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank (currently headed by a Bulgarian and American), are implemented with a Western framework and do not speak to the national needs of countries. In countries colonized by the French, colonial tax is also a disturbing reality. Thomas Sankara, the president of Burkina Faso from 1983 until 1987 and Pan-Africanist, said: “Debt is a cleverly managed reconquest of Africa,” and he was right. Part of what the economic revolution will entail is publicizing these contemporary continuities of colonialism, so that they may be seen for what they are and, hopefully, be contested in the global world.
When the revolution comes,
Who will stand up?
Who will lead?
Who will represent?
We have to understand that the field on which the African revolution will be launched will be an economic one, disrupting the entire modern capitalist system, which has exploited the natural resources of African countries, established markets with our goods, and yielded the profits to the West.When the revolution comes, we will no longer solely be consumers of Western products but producers of our own. When the revolution comes, we will participate in international trade as key actors and not passive receivers. When the revolution comes, our markets will soar and our people will rejoice. When the revolution comes…