global: You have written an article published in a new Italian-language volume that recounts the history of Africa beyond the stereotypes. In your contribution you reflect on the connection between language and literature and focus on the central topic in relations between Europe and the African continent: colonisation. Can you tell us something about that?
Sami Tchak: My research is premised on the notion that literature emanates from the heart of a people and is created in the dominant language or one of the languages they speak. However, African literature as we know it today arose mainly from European languages, the languages of the colonisers. Admittedly there are writings in African languages but they are barely known internationally or even nationally. The problem that I see is that our literature is too strongly foreign-oriented and is not locally rooted enough.
Could it be said that the colonial past is the unifying feature of the African continent with all its diversity?
The colonial past is not the binding element for African traditions, as these civilisations, societies and languages maintained links amongst themselves long before the colonisers arrived. What binds these diverse identities is what I would call their spirituality. The content of their beliefs, the connection between the living and the dead – that is all similar. One could speak of the spiritual cultural unity of an extremely diverse continent. In my novels I describe my human impressions, which I have garnered, among other places, in Latin America. In the novel “Al Capone le Malien”, for example, I talk about the ancient Malian kingdom, of which the inherent logic was similar to that of all ancient kingdoms of the African continent, in other words before colonialism became a “new” common feature. Or rather, the commonality of these so-called colonial or postcolonial States is the western way of thinking that was imposed on them.
You have also visited Latin America: are there commonalities there with Africa’s colonial past?
Yes. The first commonality is to be found in the African population groups which also found their way into this region through slavery. They have preserved elements of their African culture of origin. They no longer speak the original languages, of course, but have preserved traditions and religions like voodoo or Candomblé. These Latin American countries often confront problems similar to those facing African States, for example dictators.
In your view, which are the problems that should be high on the agenda of lobbying and advocacy NGOs like Alliance Sud, which for the past 50 years has been championing the cause of the poorest in the South?
That is a delicate subject. When we talk about the poorest people in the South, we often overlook the systemic components. Poverty is an outcome of today’s world order and it will continue – no matter how hard we try – for as long as society does not change. And this is not predictable, because the capitalist system as it currently operates is reinforcing these inequalities and hence perpetuating poverty. This does not mean, however that we should be mere passive observers. In one of my books, I liken the fight against poverty to the attempt to overcome a hurricane with a hand-held fan. To an outside observer, this may seem laughable, but precisely because there are people who believe that they can vanquish a hurricane with a hand-held fan, the world can change.
And this only through structural change?
Direct aid to poor people does not necessarily bring changes with it. Yet we must help these people as a matter of urgency! But the real struggle is managing to convince Western countries to rethink their relations, for example, with African countries. These relations must be made equitable.
Can associations, non-governmental organisations and foundations therefore exert pressure on States (both Western and African) to usher in a global transformation?
I don’t know. As long as the system remains the same, it will produce poverty. The system needs poverty. Today’s system works because there are poor people. All around the world we are witnessing the emergence of a phenomenon which I call “disposable labour”. The expression is used in Colombia, for example – I write about it in my novel titled “Filles de Mexico”. It refers to poor enslaved people who are fungible. This means they may come from anywhere in the world, to be exploited anywhere. The new poor are even willing to pay to be exploited. When people pay to cross the oceans, then they are paying to be enslaved! For as long as there is no change in the relations between States, the well-known problems will not be solved. It is in national and international politics, in worldwide geopolitics that the changes must take place.