As part of the Negritude movement, this formula was meant to assert Africans’ mark on the world, a mark that colonial historiography had tried to obliterate by calling Africans uncivilized or absent from history. But as we now know from the many responses to Senghor’s theory, this formula was very problematic. It basically accepted the argument about Africans being irrational, but explained our apparent irrationality and lack of civilization as innate because we were emotional. We Africans feel, the explanation went; we don’t think.
To this day, every academic who studies history, philosophy and literature of the continent must go through a course on Negritude, which includes a ceremonial tongue –lashing at Senghor for being too French (he spoke French better than many of the French), for setting up African women on an impossible pedestal, and for accepting myths about Africans. Fair enough.
But looking at reactions to the World Cup win by Germany on Sunday, it is evident that the world still divides the human race into the rational and irrational, reserving the former for Europeans (specifically Germans), and the latter for South Americans. This time Africans are not included because the conduct of the African teams, specifically Cameroon and Ghana that were burdened with in-fighting and indiscipline, seems to put us outside the realm of discussion. We were worse than irrational; we were incoherent.
And we African fans perpetuate these myths at every World Cup. We cheer our continent’s teams with no conviction that we actually stand a chance of reaching the semi-finals, let alone of lifting the trophy, as we wait for African teams to be eliminated so that we shift to cheering the South Americans, whom we think stand a chance. We also look for hot button names like Neymar and Messi that we can keep mentioning. It’s easier to remember larger-than-life individuals than pay attention to details about team-work and unity. Rooting for the Germans, the French, or the Dutch is not an option, I guess because of our historical baggage with Europe, which is understandable. Never mind that these teams often have people of African descent, or even born in Africa, like the 1998 French World Cup Champions.
So when the Germans thrashed Brazil 7-1, the narrative of the rational and irrational was shaken, but not uprooted. Journalists in our dailies called the German team a “machine,” and used words and metaphors to depict a cold, unemotional and mathematically calculated win over a team known to play with “flair.” Come the finals, most of the world knew that Germany was the better team, but many Kenyans still rationalized their support of Argentina as the fact that the country is excluded from the “first world” like us, that Argentina has Messi, and that it plays with flair and emotion, and football is supposed to be an emotional sport.
The problem with this narrative is that it misses the essence of humanity, that we are simultaneously rational and emotional, spiritual and rhythmic, and every beautiful aspect that makes us human.
But it is simply not true that the Germans are boring and unemotional and that they play without flair. How do will still say that, when the 7-1 semi-final match was one of the most entertaining and emotionally moving matches in recent times? The match was as cathartic as the Greeks expected from tragedy – it brought out powerful contrasting emotions of empathy with the Brazilians who were evidently caught off-guard (by the way, so were the German players themselves), and of celebration of these Germans who had sprung a surprise on the world. We mourned and rejoiced at the same time. A match doesn't get more emotional, or more human, than that.
And the pictures of German fans rejoicing, of the German players hysterical with joy, and the man-of-the-match Jerome Boateng celebrating his victory with his daughters are anything but unemotional.
The most crucial lesson for Africa in the German story is that African teams must DECIDE that they are perfectly capable of winning the World Cup. The two teams that gave Germany a run for its money were African - Algeria and Ghana. And Ghana came close to beating Germany. The Africans withstood the Germans probably because the African teams were not in the tactical radar of Germany that was focused on beating South Americans on their home soil. Unfortunately, the Cameroonian and Ghanaian off-pitch drama proved that the Germans had nothing to worry about. But the fact that a serious challenge is not expected from Africa could be a good thing, because if we decided to win, no one would see it coming except the team itself. And every victory always comes with an element of surprise. But on the other hand, that can only happen if the African country has political leaders and football officials who are not mesmerized by FIFA, dollars and trappings of international glory, and who focus on a long-term plan of winning the World Cup.
If it took Germany 10 years to field this spectacular team, Africans must get a long-term vision, a clear-cut philosophy and focus, focus, focus. These jokes we make of juju being put on Ronaldo’s legs are not funny – they are a sign that we are not planning and preparing, and so we’re desperate for anything that works. And let’s forget the flair business – the Germans have proved that even flair has a logic that can be learned and defeated. And let’s not be mesmerized by the stars who play in Chelsea, Liverpool, Barca and Real like Ronaldo, Drogba, Messi and Eto’o; none of them have led their teams to clinch the World Cup. Most of all, we need to get back to our history books and learn that it is simply not true that Africans are not rational. We have the pyramids and Alexandria library in Egypt, and the libraries and manuscripts of Mali to prove it. We’ve won battles in Kenya, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Angola and South Africa, proving that we can think and strategize. We have proverbs from our folklore, and writings from African scholars over the centuries, to prove that we’re academic.
There is a place for both the irrational and the rational in all aspects of life. For instance, the players of 1998 World Cup champions France had a ritual that they performed at the beginning of every match, which was to kiss goalkeeper Fabien Barthez’s bald forehead. But that did not exempt them from training, strategizing and winning. So we Africans must stop excusing or laughing away our lack of planning, thinking, studying and strategizing by casually referring to consultation with our spiritualists. If we do not agree with Senghor’s dichotomy of humanity into the rational and emotional, we must stop rationalizing that thinking is a preserve of the West. We must start investing time, energy and resources in reflection, study and strategy in order to achieve our visions and dreams, be it in the World Cup as in other aspects of life. If we do that, our traditional spirituality and our rhythmic dances will make our victories truly African.