Africa?

I sometimes look up demographic and geographic information for fun, and one day it just so happened that I looked up this kind of information for Africa. Africa – the unknown continent. It is surprising how little we know about the supposed original homeland. When people go abroad, Africa isn’t high on their lists. First is instead the continent of their former colonizers and oppressors, Europe. (not that I have anything against things European) Why go to the continent of Africa when you can go to Italy, the birthplace of the Renaissance, France to visit Paris, the city of romance, and Spain, home of the passionate Spanish? Why pass up the opportunity to drink beer in Germany, go hiking in the Alps in Switzerland, and go shopping in London? I suppose there is little reason, especially when all there appears on the media about Africa is disease, poverty and wars, pretty much all the unpleasant things in life put into a package of indeterminable size.

When I think of Africa, beyond what the media says, there are two polarizing perspectives that dominate the discussion of this most interesting topic in my head. The first is the image of Africa left by Joseph Conrad, in the novella, “Heart of Darkness.” Africa in this story is portrayed as the Dark Continent, a land full of uncultured, languageless savages who are primitive in all aspects of their existence. There is a huge image distinction between these “howling and leaping” natives of the Dark Continent and the white man, like Marlow, the storyteller who articulately narrates his experiences in an intelligible language.

Meanwhile, on the opposite end is Chinua Achebe’s “Things Fall Apart.” It almost serves as a response to depiction of crudity in the “Heart of Darkness” by meticulously painting a colourful picture of the customs of the Igbo tribe. Grunts and unintelligible speech are translated into a form palatable for Western audiences. The continent is Dark no more, as this representation of just one of the many tribes in Africa plants the seeds of doubt which may germinate into the acceptance of the possibility of a multitude of respectable cultures on the continent.

Misrepresentation happens in the most discreet of manners as well. The cartographical representation of Africa is not proportionate. The map most often used can be thought of as being Eurocentric, with land area in the North seeming proportionately larger than land area in the South. The two images below show this contrast.

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When you look at the actual land mass of the Misrepresented Continent, you find out that it is very, very big. It is humungous. Here are some things to consider. At 30,370,000 square kilometers, it is roughly three times bigger than Canada, America or China (all at roughly 9,500,000 square kilometers each, Wikipedia) and almost two times bigger than Russia. (17,098,242 square kilometers, Wikipedia) In this large piece of land there are also 54 countries, which I suppose differs from each other with great diversity. It is also the second most populated continent as well. With around 1.1 billion people, 50% of them 19 years old or younger, it has more people within than Europe (738,199,000) plus Australia (29,127,000), Canada (35,770,000) and America (319,448,000) combined.

Given Africa’s great share on the planet Earth, it makes me wonder; what is Africa really? What things reside in man’s ancestral homeland, this great land mass so alienated from our attention and knowledge? Is the media right in its simple portrayal as a land of disease, war and poverty? What gamut of cultures exist, unknown and unexplored, waiting to be known, each holding a piece completing the puzzle of human nature?

Stars in Beijing

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During one of my last nights in Beijing, I saw a familiar sight, one not oft seen when moving through the concrete jungles of Asia. All around me were the walls of the dusty hutongs, and as the group walked through a narrow alleyway, I just happened to look up. It was a rare night when the original lights in the dark sky made their appearance and shone their way into the vision of man past its successors which man built before it. It was a sight familiar but foreign, as I had grown accustomed to a life without them. Far above and beyond the touch of my outstretched hands, Orion and his belt reminded me of his flickering existence and told me not to forget his story, as it would not be visible to me for another many days to come. Three weeks have passed without me seeing this constellation.

I remember seeing the full splendour of a star-filled night during a middle school field trip to a distant camp site hours away from the promising lights of the city of Toronto. A group of classmates and I followed a camp counsellor outside, where there was organic life around and the clear night sky above. It was magical, observing the eternity of stars which blew up the heavens, and the vertical white streak of the Milky Way brushed right in the center.

Can you picture the skies as such? A cool midsummer midnight, in an open clearing, with grand trees surrounding cozily, being the edge of a forest whose depth is estimated with the profundity of darkness suggested between its members. All above, a boundlessness of stellar forms, created with chance and divine process, each patiently gliding through a blank black canvass as they head towards individual destiny. All below, man, small against the multitude, the grandeur, the truth. Time stops and so does thought, with only the infinity of the present. Man’s physical form is surpassed and the consciousness spreads whole.

Like many in the world, I am a city dweller who knows little about the awestriking entities sharing their natural illuminations with the world. Instead, I grew up with the lights of man, which are the lights of progress and promise; the lights that we incessantly follow as they blink close to us tantalizingly, blinding us and teasing us towards wishful manifestations of our desires. These reachable lights hang in the controlled environment of the city; the city whose physical representation is that of efficiency and logical conception. It is an environment safe and suffocating, precise and predictable, unnatural.

There was a 高考 (Chinese high school entrance exams) essay question that I read on the Internet one day. It was the following:

A grandfather and a grandson look out of a window in the evening. Lights twinkle here and there, and look like a rainbow. The little boy says, “How beautiful it is; without electricity, modern technology or high buildings, there would not be such beautiful sights.” The grandfather waved the head, fell into reflection, and said, “It’s a pity the sky with studded stars cannot be seen anymore. The ancient people who had bonfires beside the mountain cave, watched the moon and the stars, and could enjoy a more beautiful sight.”

There cannot be a co-existence between the lights of man and the lights of the stars. Although stellar illumination may dance in the background, quietly and steadily, with the same unchanging form of wisdom that intrigued our ancestors through the millennia, the obtrusive lights of man drown out the truth that they have continued to share, in loud, attractive bursts of excitement, competing with each other to call us in with their unique assortment of poisons. They get louder and louder as time goes by, trying to overcome one another, as the greatest and fanciest of lights seduce the greatest number of heedless fruit flies. The stars in the background continue to fade as the lights that are artificial and temporal outshine the lights that are eternal and true.

 

 

 

 

 

Picture is of the Hong Kong “the Symphony of Lights.” No stars were visible

Sunday Night Protests (November 30)

On Sunday we went to see the protests. At around 10pm we came lumbering out of the hotel with an innocent curiosity at the vague news of some movements, mistakenly thinking that we would return to the hotel in time to wash up for a night out. But a single hour grew to be many, and we stayed until the next morning.

We walked towards the protest camp site under a night as silent and empty as any night could be in Hong Kong. The silence and the faint yellow emitted by the streetlights with the sole sound of our faint footsteps seemed to portend an indistinct omen. The first sight of scattered tents led to the presence of scattered groups of people who cheered on the protesters from a distance. The uncertain shapes of a multitude of faint black shapes moving back and forth while shouting rallying cries were all we could see of the action around 200 metres away. Curiosity led us onwards, first towards the heart of the bustling life of the community of hundreds of tents, the humble community that was a natural manifestation of the peoples’ hopes for democracy.

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The community was in front of the major subway (MTR) station, Admiralty. The community blocked a major road and was surrounded by tall, blocky and lifeless buildings on all sides, a contrast to the frail and spontaneous nature of the tents. In the core the community of protesters were roused. It felt as if a beast had awoken and was preparing for a fight. Purposeful brisk movement was all around us, and the sense of urgency washed upon us. We were soon outfitted with a cold mask and safety goggles and were joined in appearance with the idealists. Students laboured back and forth around us. The mood was infectious; a youthful excitement tinged with the protesters’ childish innocence about the belief of their own invulnerability. It was heart breaking to see a young female student, small in size and stature, grabbing a yellow safety helmet in a frenzy of excitement with an air of self-importance.

We moved closer and closer, first drawn off by uncertainty but led by a familiarity mixed with curiosity. There were two major sites of conflict on both ends of Lung Wo Road, a street in front of the Central Government Offices, as the protesters aimed to paralyze the government on Monday morning. We headed to the closer one on the eastern side. There were countless yellow helmeted heads in front of us, staring forward towards a common vision. There was a tension in the air, as if everyone was waiting for a promised affair.

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Barricades and the media separated the police and the protesters from each other. Meanwhile, a system of distribution brought umbrellas to the protesters in the front; the unified umbrellas which served as a simple shield against oppressive forces; the umbrellas which were the symbol of the movement, and protected the protesters’ dreams under the subjection of man and nature. With umbrellas and strong hearts leading, the protesters won the first battle and pushed the small number of police away.

With the first side won, we followed the protesters to the other side of the street, near Tim Wa Avenue. Students with barricades ran by at our sides, feet in unison. A large crowd quickly gathered. A flurry of yellow helmets and yellow (but not only yellow) umbrellas were moved to the front. Tension began to build. There was cheering from all around from the protesters crowding around the railings of the street, giving the front line recruits energy and encouragement.

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Then began the chant for democracy. “我要真普选!” (“I want real suffrage!”) recited the protesters, and the chant quickly mounted momentum, from a few scattered protesters to the whole horde, becoming a hypnotic incantation which started a typhoon of violence.

The next moments were chaos. Under the expansive night sky and the grand towers of commerce there were only the shouts of “走!” (Go!) as the protesters were overwhelmed by this batch of policemen, who were more numerous. All we could do was run back around the distance of 100 metres to jump over the final barricades leading to the safety of the main camp. In the next minutes there we were joined by countless others, running from the terror of possibility. Many were hurt. There was pepper spray and the use of batons as we saw the pitiful sights of the injured. Some children were being dragged to safety by fellow friends, innocent faces without the scars of time and hardship marked with the first carvings of experience. I remember one injured teenager in particular. He looked as if he was pepper sprayed badly. I don’t know how he made it past the final barricades into the safety zone, when he seemed so hurt. There was a group of eight attendants looking out for him, holding salt water and other first aid materials in their hands. Some formed a protective circle around him, giving him a metre radius for personal space. What I can remember are his loud screams, distinguishing him from the other injured. They seemed to express a feeling more than pain, perhaps a feeling of surprise, at the realization of his vulnerability. Nonetheless, in less than 30 minutes, the status quo was returned. The protesters were off Lung Wo Road, defeated. The police removed the barricades on the street and came dangerously close to the final barricades to the main camp – where a minor scuffle broke out, with the masses of protesters swearing at the defenders of justice – but this was only to reopen the road. An occasional red taxi passed by in front of our eyes, on the street that the protesters worked so hard to block. It was a little past 3 am, and this was the result of hours of cooperative work; nothing.

But youth would triumph again. The police left a short while after their work was finished, perhaps to get out of this nightmare into the cozy compartments of their dreams. There was still time before the rays of the sun would impart its wisdom, and the protesters worked like thieves in the night to bring new barricades that replaced those taken away by the instruments of the state. Excitement was in the air again, as a sense of purpose spread and agitated the emotions of the crowd. In 30 minutes the barricades were installed anew, and the road was blocked off again.

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Then came a period of waiting. We were back at the protest site near Tim Wa Avenue where the violence occurred. Until the morning sun arrived, there was an unexpected laziness on both sides. In comparison to the violence of the hour prior, there was only resting. It was the calm before the storm. In front of the barricades protesters were sitting cross-legged and casually chatting. Sleep overtook everyone. Protesters rested heads filled with ideas on each other’s shoulders, envisioning everything that should be good with their world from the shelter of this sanctuary. While these dreamers dreamed, the media excitedly captured all these moments on their cameras.

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The sun rose from behind a cluster of tall buildings on the East to rise and shine its light again, as it had done time and time again. It would only be an hour or two before the protesters reached their goal, the paralysis of the Central Government Offices. All that was required was that they hold this last fortress with their determination. Tall buildings reflected lights onto the antlike figures on the road.

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The early morning siesta and the calm ended at around 6:30am. There was a breeze of cool morning wind, a chilly wind which brought somnambulant bodies up to the morning cold and present realities. The beast started to awake and every part of it followed. Front line protesters in front of the barricades were crossed-legged before, but started to stand up. On the other side of the barricade, lines of police in black uniforms and helmets arrived, armed with short batons and shields. They were indistinguishable from each other and stood straight in a perfect line. The protesters formed little groups of support, innocent faces filled with the promise of the sun. I remember seeing a young couple hugging each other to keep warm; it was a moment of tenderness in the face of a coming conflict. The media with cameras soon flocked around them hoping for the perfect picture.

The chanting began soon after. It started like a mere suggestion, whispered into the ears by an enchantress. The mob soon took up this magical spell, one with the power to escape the limitations of the self and bring it together with a greater whole.

“我要真普选!”

“我要真普选!”

Then the police put on their helmets in assembly.

In less than 30 seconds, the protesters dispersed from a great river to individual droplets of water. Their umbrellas were no match for the storm that confronted them. Some were beaten, others arrested and a great number pepper sprayed. Then came the flood of running; running from the law, from justice, from the system. Reality being taught firsthand with the force of the baton on the limbs, the burn of the pepper spray in the eyes, the serving of a sentence for the pursuit of what is thought to be right, all captured with the snap of the media cameras.

It was now Monday morning. Hong Kongers woke up to the sound of their alarms, busying themselves with their morning routine. A simple breakfast followed by dressing up in business attire, riding the MTR to work, reading a newspaper about the night before, with the article leaving a casual impression before moving to the section about stock movements. Having a coffee, double cream and double sugar, sitting in the office in front of the work computer in an elevated modern building, perhaps with a view of the noisy community of tents down below. It was all business as usual.