The AfriCAN Dream
A dream, but not mine;
Of borrowed consumerist ethos
And unsustainable extractivist methods
Traded in, my womb of possibilities
For the seeds of a surrogate I did not plant, nor carry
Now my baobab is cleared for elite boonies
And my acacia is robbed of its flowers
I weep as a continent
Searching for the AfriCAN dream
As they wipe my tears with their left,
While with their right, empty my quarry.
Billene.S (August 2018)
I often wonder what an African or Ethiopian dream looks like. These musings are sourced in interrogating the contents of the ‘American Dream’ that many throughout the world have come to learn of through pop culture, movies, books and the avenues through which many of us have continuously been exposed to and made to believe that perhaps that is our dream too. Quite present in the ‘American Dream’ that is portrayed in media is the notion of striving for material success, working hard for it and breaking through to achieve that material dream. Although some brief readings indicate that the for the founding fathers, the ‘American Dream’ had more to do with liberty and equal opportunities for all, yet the period following the 1920s, many Presidents are said to have been proponents of material acquisition as the basis of this dream.
We also take note that pop culture as one of the US’s main exports carries with it the belief that the pursuit and acquisition of material goods through various means is the epitome of achievement and success. In addition to the ‘hard power’ the US exerts in matters of global politics, perhaps the strongest hold is also the ‘soft power’ exerted through American pop culture which is increasingly shaping the desires of many societies. These desires to acquire more, bigger, faster and similar are essentially, in my view, driving us to imagine development in only one manner spearheaded by consumerism and overconsumption. No doubt that our increasing consumerist tendencies, even in our slowly growing African urban centres, will have not only environmental consequences but also social ones.
In a recent episode on the SELOME show where she interviews high school kids in Addis on some of the pressures they are increasingly facing, some shared the pressures of conformity to wearing brands is becoming common. One of my staff members shares with me that her sister in engaged in the trade of second hand brand clothing in a low-cost housing neighbourhood (condominium) and her sales are high given these are designer labels. Upon learning of the opening of a Pizza Hut in Addis Ababa, I began to ponder upon the rationale for an American Pizza chain in a city that makes some of the best pizza in mom and pop shops. And I couldn’t hide my dismay upon learning that the fried chicken house KFC will soon be opening doors in Addis. These things have a way of finding me and so I laughed when I read an article on the Economist several months ago titled, “Camel trains are holding up Ethiopia’s new railway line.” The title made me laugh in how it problematized the camels and their herders for doing what they have been doing for many years.
However, I also appreciate when I travel into rural areas how everything has purpose and how less is actually more. Seeing used water bottles gingerly decorate someone’s fence instead of being cast away in a sewer. The many local and customized innovations that rural communities use within their means to make their lives much easier. A critical lesson in how we view and treat communities with think “less developed” than us came in a discussion of a book at the 2018 Tana Forum, titled “New Fringe Pastoralism: Conflict, Security and Development in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel” where one of the authors emphasized the need to view pastoralist communities as sources of innovation in how they cope to harsh conditions instead of treating them as targets for modernity. One of the commentators on the discussion of this book also noted, “one of the ways to serve people is first to understand the ways in which they are coping with the challenges, then strengthen them, rather than introducing solutions external to them.”
What is our AfriCAN dream?
You could ask me the same question and I would not be able to answer it either, as I like many others have been shaped by a foreign dream of development that seems to be at odds with the environment. Many aspects of my own life have been pulled into the global order of consumerism which I like many others also play a part in. But it doesn’t stop me from questioning how and why we got here and how can we design and reclaim our own dreams.
What is our AfriCAN dream?
What could it be? What would it look like? And how can we collectively nurture its fruition?