For those who might not have heard the story of the Hummingbird as created and popularised by the late Prof Wangari Mathai, here is one version of it as expertly told at the just concluded ‘The Fight Against Inequality’ Gathering in Arusha, Tanzania from April 14 – 17th, 2018 in relation to what matters in responding to the African crisis. The story of the heroism of the Hummingbird during the fierce forest fire that engulfed a hypothetical animal kingdom goes like this. All the animals – from the lions to the ostriches, the elephants, the monkeys and even the crafty tortoise – were overwhelmed by the fire except the Hummingbird. The little bird was not going to accept to watch the fire destroy the entire kingdom. So, it set forth in search of water. The other animals were wondering whether the fire had burnt Hummingbird because it had not shown up where others were waiting in celebration of their assumed powerlessness against the looming doom. It, however, turned out that Hummingbird was up to an effort: running up to a water point, picking as much as it could and dropping that much on the fire. As Wangari would say, Hummingbird was running up and down, up and down, up and down. Then the other animals asked Hummingbird what the heck it thought it was doing. This fire is too big and you are damned too small, they said to the little bird. You can only bring a small drop of water at a time. But Hummingbird had a reply to fellow animals: I am doing the best I can.
For Wangari, the logic is self-evident: doing something at all in the face of even the most bewildering challenge is important, no matter how small the effort. In Arusha, the question was: how much purchase might that logic have in dealing with the crises of Inequality in the African context. For anyone who can recall what Tony Blair told the British Labour Party in October 2001, this question is an inevitable one. That year, Blair said, among others, that “the state of Africa is a scar on the conscience of the world”. He went beyond this to say that the world community could heal the scar if it focused on it, warning how the scar could “become deeper and angrier” if that was not done.
It is now a rhetorical question whether the world community focused on healing its African scar. What is not rhetorical is how the scar is much deeper and angrier. “In 1975, the regional GNP per capita of Sub-Saharan Africa stood at 17. 6 percent of ‘world’ GNP, by 1999, it had dropped to 10.5 percent… Life expectancy at birth now stands at 49 years and 34 % of the region are classified as undernourished. African infant mortality rates were 107 per 1000 live births in 1999, compared to 69 for South Asia and 32 for Latin America. Nearly 9 % of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 15 to49 years old are living with HIV/Aids – a figure that soars above other regions”.
If the above assessment which came before the age of ‘Africa Rising’has become outdated or been overtaken by now, what of this 2016 scorecard? The Atlantic Council says in the report that while Sub-Saharan Africa had six of the ten fastest-growing economies in the world in the decade ending in 2013, it faces several enormous challenges, “including managing the world’s highest population growth rates”. Describing the consequences of such forecast as extreme, it raises alarm about how the populations will overwhelm the continent’s natural resources and governing capacities unless African demographic growth translates to economic bounty as to become ‘twentieth century in Europe, the United States, and Asia’. The alarm is in its conclusion that the task of translating the demographic advantage to productive outcome “will be difficult for many African countries”. This sort of analysis cannot escape elements of writing Africa just that even then, it would be writing Africa by interests that can make what they write to happen within the current global power configuration. In other words, Africa remains a scar on the conscience of the world and the world is in search of the Hummingbird, whether the individualistic or neo-charismatic variant.
It is in this context that both Africa and the world needs to take a more than passing interest in the gathering in Arusha last week. It could be a case study in lighting a little light somewhere, with potentials of growing into a big tent, becoming a generation discovering its mission out of relative obscurity. Given the numerous efforts aimed at healing Africa as a scar on the conscience of the world, one more such effort might attract scepticism but even then, there can be no knowing which effort may fly at last.
In this regard, its revisiting of the Hummingbird’s heroism is fascinating. There were those who saw initiative, proactive move, leadership by example, resilience and selflessness in what the little bird was doing at a time the big guys in the animal kingdom were no more than onlookers. That is, Hummingbird demonstrated consciousness by seeing a need and intervening. It acted as a whistle blower and a catalyst. But there were then those who saw individualism and non-mobilisational leadership in what the bird did. This group charged Hummingbird with disregard for alternatives. In other words, the bird could have thought of other plausible ways of putting out the fire such as using palm fronds, sands or fire extinguisher. And there were those who saw group inability to problematise the communal situation in a holistic manner such that whether it is forest fire, flood or deforestation, it would not have come as such an overwhelming challenge.
What this mixed grill suggests is that coming to grips with inequality in the African context endorses both the Wangari Mathai sense of Hummingbird’s heroism as well as the perspective of the critics. The African crisis is worrisome to too many forces and interests that there can be no such China Walls between good guys and bad guys even as there will be moral and practical red lines for deciding who matters. The interpenetration that defines the world today is such that there are damned too many non-Africans across the world, for example, who are theorising, campaigning and actively delivering blows against the context of inequality on several sites.
Nobody can predict the dynamism of this sort of effort and the shape it will take eventually. There are too many sites reflecting on the same question one way or the other, some critical, others conservative; some radical, others liberals. All these are, however, products of their time and space, not natural attributes. It is, therefore, the dialectic of such multiple reflections that will be decisive, not individual fears or reservations about how the little candle would shine. Is it not intriguing and interesting how the possibility of overcoming inequality without attacking it at its roots became a major part of the discussions now? That is, inequality is rising but where is inequality coming from?
It is probably too early but certain individuals certainly deserve rounds of applause for replicating Hummingbird’s heroism in relation to the deep, angry scar on global conscience called Africa.