What the novel ‘How Beautiful We Were’ can teach the West about neocolonialism in Africa

·5 min read

In a recent interview with Imbolo Mbue about her new book, “How Beautiful We Were,” I was reminded once again of the value of reading fiction.

Having never traveled to Africa, I have always been fascinated by how one of the planet’s wealthiest continents in natural resources has been bled out by corporate exploiters extracting valuable minerals and leaving too little in compensation for millions of people living in abject poverty.

Bob Kustra
Bob Kustra

Worse yet, the process of extraction often destroys the land and kills those attempting to eke out a living when it is rendered useless and menacing to public health by the damage done below the surface. Children seem to suffer and die the most.

Mbue’s novel opens with a line that serves as a literary harbinger for villagers seeking justice and recompense for the damages and deaths an American oil company has inflicted on the fictional African village of Kosawa.

“We should have known the end was near. How could we not have known?”

Unfortunately, corporate greed and local warlords paid off to ignore the plights of their own people win the day, and her narrative deftly explores how and why all things seem to fail when seeking assistance from other countries, America in particular.

This newer version of multinational corporations robbing countries of their natural resources, call it neocolonialism, has companies moving into Africa, greasing the palms of local officials more interested in their own financial welfare than the health and safety of their people. The home countries of these multi-national corporations too often stand idly by with either no interest in curbing corporate abuses or no statutory authority to reach companies beyond their borders.

Imbolo Mbue, who now lives in America, grew up in Limbe, Cameroon, where at the time there was no TV, but radio reported on revolutionaries across Africa who were challenging entrenched and corrupt regimes.

One of those was Nigerian activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who led protests against the Nigerian military dictatorship in the ’90s for allowing Royal Dutch Shell to move into his town, spoil the land and kill off children and adults alike with the toxic chemicals it used to drill for oil. Saro-Wiwa of the Ogoni people, a minority ethnic group in southern Nigeria, created an Ogoni Bill of Rights documenting the ecological disaster caused by Shell Oil and substandard inspection protocols that purposely ignored the plight of the Ogonis.

For that and leading peaceful protests, he was hanged along with his colleagues by the Nigerian military dictatorship.

A similar pattern of deceit and destruction by the government and the corporation awaits the reader of “How Beautiful We Were.”

It doesn’t take long to understand the power behind Mbue’s novel. Her vivid descriptions of communal life in a dangerously polluted village in Africa should remain with readers for some time and remind us that the West is not only home to democracies envied in other parts of the world, but it has also given birth to and enabled corporations that lay waste to communities far from American shores.

“How Beautiful We Were” follows the life of Thula, a young girl from the fictional village of Kosawa, who decides to act against the corrupt government and the American oil company that has wreaked so much death and destruction on the village. Villagers try to find ways to get the attention of the corporation and they plead with the government to come to the rescue of the villagers. The pleas fall on deaf ears, with the country’s president firmly in the clutches of the company and willing to kill to prevent any opposition from challenging the status quo.

Mbue’s book puts flesh and bones and heart and soul on the human rights abuses reported from African governments. Too often, these transgressions perpetrated on their own people come with the apparent acquiescence of multinational corporations.

The French philosopher Albert Camus said, “fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” Mbue has created characters who tell the truth about Africa yesterday and today.

In his recent book, “The Looting Machine”, Tom Burgis calls it “financialized colonialism.” Traders, bankers and corporate raiders pay off local elites who then stand idly by as corporate invaders ransack the countryside and destroy the lives of those who live there.

I’m reminded of Suhta Mehta’s treatment of the massive movement of peoples across the globe and the resistance migrants face in their new homes. In his book, “This Land is Our Land,” he tells us of immigrants who are often asked “why are you here?” Mehta says, “they can justly respond ‘because you were there.’” Because you invaded us first, stripped us of our natural resources and left us with little or nothing to lead productive lives. We now come to you.

Today in America, we have new neighbors who come from villages in Africa not far removed from those Mbue describes in her novel.

If we would just listen to their stories, I’m sure they too have tales of repression and poverty brought on by neocolonialism and too often ignored by the West.

Thanks to Imbolo Mbue, readers can appreciate how the social and political fabric of so many homelands has been ripped apart and how brave it was for human rights and environmental activists like Ken Saro-Wiwa to rise up and simply say they will not take it any longer.

Let’s think about that the next time we see a new American and let us all remember that many of them have traveled far to escape the tyranny of their governments and the complicity of multinational corporations in propping up state leaders who fail to protect their homelands and their people.

Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Reader’s Corner on Boise State Public Radio and he writes a biweekly column for the Idaho Statesman. He served two terms as Illinois lieutenant governor and 10 years as a state legislator.

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