Fiction | Nigeria

Africa as a construct and as a continent

In his coming-of-age novel “The Five Sorrowful Mysteries of Andy Africa”, Stephen Buoro shows how pop culture imported from the West reinforces post-colonial trauma. A conversation
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Interview by Miriam Emefa Dzah

Mr Buoro, your protagonist, 15-year-old Andrew, lives in Kontagora, in the north of Nigeria, with his devout mother. He fancies blondes and Kafka, writes poetry and fantasises about Black Power. At a school assembly, he asks provocatively: “Africa has failed us as a construct and as a continent (...) So why should we believe in it?” How would you answer him?

I don’t agree with everything Andy says. But he’s not entirely wrong. A long time ago, a white man came by on a ship and announced: “I will call this place ‘Africa’ – and you are Africans.” This Africa has incredible potential. But time and again we are also bitterly disappointed by it. Time and again, our continent sinks into chaos and violence.

Your book begins with the salutation: “Dear White People”. Does that say anything about who Andy is addressing?

This form of speech shows Andy’s Eurocentric perspective. He also comes from a Catholic background, like myself. One of the central aspects of catholicism are confession and the sacrament of reconciliation. Through confession, you can come closer to the truth and show yourself to be vulnerable. These opening words signal the beginning of Andy's journey which culminates in a kind of Afrocentrism.

Africa has failed us as a construct and as a continent

Where does his original eurocentrism come from?

This is one sad aspect of our postcolonial experience: We started to idolise the colonial masters. This is a reality of life that is reinforced by the increasing flood of Western culture into Africa.Andy has erotic dreams of a “Princess Diana who has never woken up at midnight from hunger. A Taylor Swift who has never experienced a power cut”.

This fixation symbolises the fact that our freedom is an illusion in many respects. We experience on a daily basis the dictatorships, plutocracy and kleptocracy that have emerged from colonialism. This has sown the seeds of Eurocentrism in many Africans.

Does Andy’s relationship with his tradition-conscious mother also suffer from this?

In many ways, this is the most tragic dynamic in the novel. On the one hand, Andy loves his mother, but on the other he feels great shame towards her. He is ashamed of her smell, her blackness, her English. For me, Andy ultimately has a split self: an African self and this Western self that he clings to.

“We experience on a daily basis the dictatorships, plutocracy and kleptocracy that have emerged from colonialism”

Is this division of the self an experience that characterises the African experience for many?

Certainly. As a child, we had an African self when we spoke to our parents in our mother tongue. Among friends, we lived out our obsession with Western culture. This fixation was further instilled in us in church, for example, where we were told to reject the local tradition and accept the white Jesus. Colonialism and Eurocentrism have shaped how we perceive the world. One of the most important points in my novel is the question of how these two selves relate to each other.

Andy and his friends listen to Afrobeats. Does this help them to reconcile the different worlds?

It’s interesting that millions of people around the world know the musician Burna Boy and that African music has become really popular. Afrobeats is syncretic, fusing African rhythms and artistic expressions with those of the West. These new syntheses offer the possibility of coping with the turbulence of the post-colonial age. Ironically, it is thanks to globalisation that this music has spread worldwide.

You live in England, a place of longing for many Africans. Do you sense a tension between these hopes and dreams and your own experiences?

I understand the longings and also feel guilty to a certain extent. Shouldn't we all stay at home and build our country? But Nigeria is also dysfunctional. My distance allowed me to see, feel and think much more clearly. That helped me a lot when writing the novel.