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Afropolitanism as a dead-end road: Brian Chikwava

This essay is the third in a four-part series on Afropolitanism and literature. The term Afropolitanism is a combination of Africa and cosmopolitanism. People of African origin, who live here today and there tomorrow, coined this term to describe their mobile lifestyle and the resulting creativity and political attitudes. In their striving towards radical openness, Afropolitans produce diverse, creative visions in which people of African origin belong everywhere equally.

The Zimbabwean author Brian Chikwava lives in London. The story of his novel Harare North, published in 2009, also takes place in the capital of Great Britain. Unlike Taiye Selasi and Achille Mbembe, whom you met in the first two essays in this series, Brian Chikwava has not written a theoretical treatise on Afropolitanism. But Chikwava’s novel Harare North has been much discussed by academics in the context of Afropolitanism. They disagree: Can any of the characters in the novel be understood as Afropolitan? In my view, the cautiously emerging Afropolitan practices of the narrator in the novel are nipped in the bud. The cause of this can mainly be attributed to structural barriers, which make the lack of privileges and resulting disadvantages increasingly significant.

Harare North is narrated by a nameless young man who flees Zimbabwe for London. He comes from a poor background and, before the novel begins, belonged to the militant youth organisation Green Bombers, which supported the regime of President Mugabe. After the narrator is suspected – it is not quite clear – of having been involved in a murder, he can only escape from the police by giving a large bribe. He borrows this money. By fleeing to London, he plans to be able to pay off his debts more quickly – he will surely earn more money there – and then go back to live his life in Zimbabwe as before. But things turn out quite differently.

The narrator does not find his way around London well. He is not granted asylum and is officially not allowed to work at all. He first seeks support from his relatives, who have been living in the city for some time. But he feels uncomfortable with them. The narrator describes his relatives as too English. He calls them “lapsed Africans”, because in his eyes they have forgotten their African roots. He also doesn’t like the fact that they constantly criticize him for his behavior and his political views. So he decides to move to a Zimbabwean friend in Brixton. He seems to be more like him – in the narrator’s words he is still an “original Native”, i.e. still African, although the friend, like his relatives, has lived in London for some time.

In the academic world, there are more and more voices that understand these “lapsed Africans” as Afropolitans. They belong to the middle class and move with relative ease in their new contexts. Chikwava himself agrees with this notion in a conversation with two white Danish scholars. “Lapsed Africans” can live a more relaxed life in London, because they have work permits and therefore a stable income to finance their lives. But at the same time, they are under constant pressure to assimilate and not to attract negative attention. Thus, they are caught in an either/or way of thinking, much like the narrator. In the novel, it seems at first that the options are only either assimilation and success or non-adaptation and failure. As such, in my reading, these “lapsed Africans” do not create an Afropolitan position that allows the negotiation of different contexts, influences and ways of life.

In discussions about Harare North, the narrator’s position is often immediately declared to be obviously not-Afropolitan. He thinks nationally, actually has no desire to live somewhere else, and regards the journey he undertakes only as a means to an end. But on closer reading, there are some moments when he begins to question the rigid positions of “original native” and “lapsed African”. In the idiom of his own logic, he states: “It is important to use your eyes, your ears and mouth if you is wanting to catch culture.” (147) Although it is important for the narrator to remain African, this attitude expresses an interest in developing understanding for the new context. I read this moment of openness and the realization that learning and reflection will take it further as a burgeoning African cosmopolitanism.

Over the course of the narrator’s development, he wonders what it means to be an African in London. At a cultural festival in London’s Southbank Centre, his category of “lapsed African” blurs with class affiliation. He observes African musicians who wear many different, colourful African dresses and even change their clothes several times during performances. He describes them as rich people who only superficially show off their African origins. He associates himself with a musician from Kinshasa who wears shapeless second-hand clothes. In effect, what the narrator is criticizing is the difference that money makes, also when it comes to belonging and finding your feet in a new place.

I understand the Afropolitan position as one that lies between the extremes, between “lapsed Africans” and “original Natives”. The narrator begins for a brief moment to develop in this direction by questioning and observing, but is finally overcome by external circumstances. His cautiously growing, near-Afropolitan openness does not help him in the end. As an undocumented migrant, he encounters so many restrictions in London that there is no room for him to manoeuvre in this context at all. Removed from his familiar surroundings, the narrator finds himself without chances and possibilities in a world that rejects him, and that he does not understand despite his attempts.

The narrator lives in a house in Brixton with other Zimbabwean migrants and pays rent to one of the flatmates on a weekly basis, until he learns that they’re actually occupying the house illegally. He can only earn money illegally. He can be exploited in construction work for an hourly wage of £2.50. The other option that is presented as a common entry point for Zimbabwean migrants is care work, traditionally feminine in ascription. But the narrator definitely does not want to become a so-called British Buttocks Cleaner, a job that he finds demeaning. In the end, he has no energy for anything and ends up homeless. It becomes clear that money – and the class affiliation often associated with it – gives people wiggle-room. Its absence makes the development of an Afropolitan way of life almost impossible.

Chikwava’s novel shows that there are places that are particularly constricting, such as the London that he represents. Places, but also (in)voluntary travel, culture and class background influence the modalities of Afropolitanism. Harare North contributes an important aspect to the debates around Afropolitanism by pointing out possible reasons for the failure or non-emergence of Afropolitanism. On the one hand, his nationally-confined thinking and legal exclusion in Europe make it extremely difficult for the narrator to develop Afropolitanism from below. On the other hand, his relatives seem also to be denied the opportunity of developing a dynamic, Afropolitan alternative, as they are too eager to give up their own culture and allow themselves to be forced into assimilation. A change of location allows for a kind of worldly sophistication in all the characters, but Chikwava’s novel shows impressively what challenges a new context brings with it.

For further insights into Afropolitan perspectives, we’ll publish a fourth and final essay on this topic in August 2020.