Modernization in Africa: A tale of Two men

“If we want to transform the world and society, and this country, we must invest in souls….Around 14, kids start asking the right questions. We need fathers around, and we need to ask ourselves if we are able to answer their questions.” – Victor Diatta, Pastor Emeritus, speaking at Eglise Keur Jamm of Dakar on May 12, 2013 (paraphrased translation by blogger)

Bruce Whitehouse, the keynote speaker at Indiana University’s Graduate Students in African Studies Symposium this past spring, discussed at length the problematic nature of the word “Globalization.” Not only does it elide nuance, the very terms used to explain it, such as “migration flows” are fraught with illusion. Migrants, he explained, do not “flow” across land and sea borders, they rather hop, skip, and jump back and forth through time and place. I’d like to think on the latter of those metaphors to discuss the prospects of modernization.

Phone credit (Orange), solar power, and money transfer (MoneyGram) next to a bathtub in Kankan

While I’m no anthropologist, it may appear that I am taking on that craft in the paragraphs below. Although it was invented as the West began to colonize Africa in the late 19th century, I’ve found in the last few weeks, that humans study humans no matter how much education they have. What is more, Africans study non-Africans just as much as non-Africans study Africans – and they don’t mind using that same generalizing term, “Africa,” to describe cultural differences.

When one thinks of modernizing Africa, pictures of its big cities – Lagos, Johannesburg, Nairobi – might come to mind. Skyscrapers, businessmen in suits, and all the trappings one might find in the more developed areas of the world. I have to come find out that “the bush” and lesser-known regional cities like Kankan are modernizing just as fast, if not more rapidly, than their big city counterparts. What is more, it is often invisible at the surface. Sure, there are plenty visible signs. In my village in Niger, for instance, I knew a handful of young men who would play music from their cell phones out loud while walking around town. They received these songs, and sometimes even grainy music videos, via mobile phones with data cards, from friends abroad in Lagos, Cotonou, or Lomé. In Kankan, there are people with email accounts and USB thumb drives who have never had a computer, floppy disk, bank account, or post office box, and who have never had such symbols of yesteryear as landlines, mailing addresses, or reliable electricity in the home. That last part is a jab at Guinean state electricity, which has been out for the five weeks I’ve been here, as well as the three weeks before I came. And I’m told it wasn’t that reliable before then either.

Somewhere among all these data points and symbols of economic prowess are men and women trying to get by, just like you and me. In order to bring the question of the transformative power of modernization to life, let me tell you a tale of two men. These two men were very helpful and welcoming to me in Dakar, but I will leave their real names off the internet to protect their privacy. Neither is native to Dakar, but both have lived in the city for enough years to call it home. They are both are on the younger side of middle age, with steady salaried jobs. Both are owners of one house and one car. Despite sharing similar life details, even to the point of being raised in cultures that mixed either Christianity or Islam with Animism, they are by no means adapting the trappings of modernity in the same way.

Symbols of Paris and Dakar in Goree


TVs and Computers are arguably some of the most powerful tools and symbols of modernity to have hit the world market in the past century. In the house of Nouhou (Frenchified Arabic for Noah), I was surrounded by both. The TV was constantly on, its large screen dominating the living room morning and evening. The satellite channels were tuned either to French cartoons, action movies (dubbed into French), or the occasional soccer – if Nouhou was around. Nouhou was often gone at work and his two wives and their two maids were often out as well (one of the wives has a salaried job). This meant that the youngest kids were supervised by a rotating series of maids or no one at all. The two youngest boys, both less than 10, ran around beating each other up until crying or sat and watched TV. Two of the girls, both older than 10, spoke almost always in French – one staying mostly in her room and the other playing games on her touch screen tablet PC. A desktop computer and another laptop were also around the house. After once came in from a day on the town, talking about different quartiers of Dakar, the latter girl exclaimed, “You know Dakar better than I do!” She’d only moved in with her mom (wife #1) a couple of years prior to my arrival, she spends most of her time in town at the private school she attends.

I spent less time with Harouna (Aaron), but I noted that although he had his TV on much of the time I was at his house, he turned the volume down when we conversed. At first, the TV was turned to a satellite channel showing hip-hop music videos, but when Harouna came back in he turned it to a local private channel (also satellite-only) showing a tamer drama. While Harouna did have a laptop, it was pulled out only when I asked for some specific document he had on his computer. The kids mainly played in another room, though they did spend some time in front of the TV early on. Without house help, the oldest daughter helped her mother with cooking. The baby girl – somewhere north of two – spent much of her time with her dad. When one of her brother’s toys made her tumble, Harouna scolded the brother and rocked the girl and cared for her booboo. While I was at Harouna’ house on the weekend, I noted that when he left the house, he took the whole family in his car, not just his wife (singular) – even if it meant me having the baby on my lap.

Indoor plumbing arrived in the West many decades before home television, yet having a working toilet is no guarantee in Dakar. While I was used to bucket baths in Niger, it almost seems easier to have a hole in the ground than to have a bucket-using toilet. Yet despite multiple computers and a big-screen TV, I did not witness efforts to fix the toilet at the Nouhou residence, so we went with the bucket option. At the Harouna residence, however, an interior toilet and bath both appeared functioning and in use, despite the medium-screen TV and less noticeable presence.

Community Sanitation in Dakar


“A husband of many wives may pretend to be above the fray, but in truth the male ego is no match for the jealousy of women unsheathed for battle…. The co-wives are the prime movers in the domestic sphere, with the man bobbing in and out of his wives’ lives on a rotation dictated by the women’s natural cycles.” – Lamin Sanneh (Summoned from the Margin 28)

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, I often felt that women volunteers had an advantage in understanding the relationships of co-wives among one another and towards their husbands. Whenever I heard gossip from another village, I always wondered how many divorces had taken place in my village, or if my village was somehow immune to such friction. At any rate, in Sanneh’s pithy synthesis of polygamy in Islamic West Africa, I came to understand better what I witnessed in Dakar and in Niger. Nouhou’s second wife, though not Wolof, grew up in Dakar and was educated enough to get a salaried day-job. Nouhou brought his first wife into town only after he’d been there for some years and married his second wife. Though the first one had a job in their hometown, she now alternately takes care of the house or shops in the city (at least to my limited knowledge). While I did not look for or witness jealousy, I was not surprised to see that Nouhou was often off in his room watching soccer when at home. If in the living room, I rarely saw significant interaction between him and his wives there.

It may now be clear which of the two couples above is Christian and which is Muslim, though polygamy is still practiced in “Christian” parts of Africa. The word “Muslim,” I am told, means “submission” in Arabic, Christianity is often criticized in the West for the way it asks wives to submit to their husbands. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we often sidestepped this same issue when it came to Islam. Of course, we weren’t the only ones. Both French and British colonial authorities incoherently addressed Islamic-led polygamy, slavery, and clerical leadership in many of their predominantly Muslim African colonies, such that Islam came out of colonialism in these countries stronger than it had before (Sanneh 167-169). While this is not a commonly examined topic, such secular academics as Sean Hanretta, Bruce Hall, and David Robinson have come to similar conclusions in research examining French Colonialists in West Africa and their African mediators. When it comes to proper husband-wife relationships, though, there is another view of submission that might surprise some. We need not look to human nature’s natural mood cycles, but rather to principles such as leadership, followership, and mutual sacrifice: “For the wife does not have authority over own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does” (1 Corinthians 7:4).

A Third Example

Kids in Movement

Here in Kankan I have also been remarking similarities and differences between Christians and Muslims, which are often blurred along ethnic lines. My host family, however, is a rare exception in that it is both Malinké and Christian. The youngest of the four kids in the family are often playing with neighbor kids, all of whom are from either Fula or Malinké Muslim families. While the games of hide-and-seek or push-each other-around-in-the-wagon are often full of laughter and good times, there are inevitable fisticuffs among the youngest boys. Just as in Dakar, the neighbor boys beat each other up until crying without anyone around either to punish the guilty or nurse wounds. Both of my host parents do their fair share of both scolding and nursing with their youngest son and daughter, and although we have watched a decent amount of national television, we have also seen a handful of Nollywood (Nigerian Hollywood) films. Some of these juxtapose Islam and Christianity in more explicit fashion than I’ve ever seen before. Just last night, they put in a Beninois film that placed Christianity and Voodoo in unmistakable conflict with one another. Though these film’s subject matters were not merely religious, religion seemed to be an unavoidable fact of life for both cultures.


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