“Once upon a time, a long time ago, a Zulu man stepped up to a microphone and improvised a melody that earned in the region of $15 million. That Solomon Linda got almost none of it was probably inevitable. He was a black man in white-ruled South Africa.”
That’s how South African journalist Rian Malan, writing in Rolling Stone magazine a decade ago, concluded his 10,000 word expose, "Where Does The Lion Sleep Tonight." The piece was about Solomon Linda’s song “Mbube" that became Pete Seeger’s “Wimoweh,” and the Token’s “The Lion Sleeps Tonght,” Malan brought to light the fact the Zulu artist had not received any fair recompense for his popular ditty, which had earned millions of dollars in royalties for others, even before Disney decided to include it in The Lion King.
I read the article but was not convinced by its bleeding-heart premise. With Solomon Linda we have a Zulu migrant worker from very humble beginnings, who laid down a track, got paid for it, and once it was released, became a legend among his people. In Malan's own words, “Strangers hailed him on the streets, bought him drinks in shebeens. He was in constant demand for personal appearances and earned enough to afford some sharp suits, a second bride and a wind-up gramophone for the kinfolk in mud huts back in Msinga.” That’s an African success story if I ever heard one.
For me the real crime is in the song’s lyrics, which were added by New York pop group the Tokens a year before Linda’s death in 1962: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…” A lion, in the jungle? That’s about as likely as finding a tiger in Africa. You couldn’t find a lion in the jungle, sleeping or otherwise, if your life depended on it - not tonight, nor any other night. If you’re lucky, you might find some other big cats, leopard, golden cat, and some not so big, serval, wild cat, caracal, as well as a host of noisy primates, but no lions. Why? BECAUSE LIONS SLEEP ON THE SAVANNAH!
In the original song Solomon Linda and the Evening Birds sang only, "Lion! Ha! You're a lion!" and the rest was improvised yodeling. Miriam Makeba in her liner notes described “Mbube” as "a familiar Zulu song about a lion hunt," which anybody who’s been to SA will know goes on entirely on the savannah. The Tokens’s lyrics may have been prophetic, as these days the song sleeps in a legal jungle, even though a settlement was reached a few years back between the publishers and Linda’s surviving family. But, in my mind, the only victim here is African authenticity.
In his wry essay, “How to Write About Africa,” published in Granta magazine, Kenyan Binyavanga Wainaina warns, “Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.” In it he expresses solidarity with a growing resentment among Africans of these persistent biases in the West.
Western media has always had its farcical way with Africa, engendering ridiculous clichés about the continent. It’s a disturbing trend which can be traced back to 1941 when Hollywood released, The Road to Zanzibar. Bing Crosby’s and Bob Hope’s fluffy safari jaunt takes ludicrous liberties with African geography and culture. The New York Times said at the time, the movie “thoroughly ruined the Dark Continent for any future cinematic pursuits.” Back then the clichés were cannibals, slaves and precious jewels. Today its warlords, disease and precious jewels.
At an ethical diamond conference in Manhattan a few years ago, I had the opportunity to put a question directly to Blood Diamond director Ed Zwick. After half a dozen gem merchants had queued up to praise his movie (only one asked why Zwick couldn’t have waited until after Christmas to release it), I had my chance at the microphone.
“It occurs to me, Mr Zwick, that your industry has a lot to answer for, considering the last 4 Hollywood movies about Africa - Lord of War, Blood Diamond, Hotel Rwanda, and The Last King of Scotland - focus solely on its worst nightmares.” (Quite rich, I know, coming from an author who’s just about to publish a novel about the Congo Civil War, but I tried to keep Gorillaland satirical) “Why not,” I continued, “for a change, set a love story there, among ordinary Africans, dealing with ordinary problems?” He dodged the question, claiming his movie was not made in Hollywood.
Apart from its enduring quote, “This Is Africa” (I mean, the bloody nerve of using a vague pronoun to define a continent of 55 sovereign states, 5,000 languages and a billion people), what I found particularly distasteful about Blood Diamond was its central message: that every African pines to escape Africa. Who, in a million years, would want to escape Madagascar, the Seychelles, Zanzibar, the Mountains of the Moon, or the Great Rift Valley? I did, and it took me a lifetime to get back.
Many in the African diaspora are also returning. Presently, this is the only region with any real economic growth: 5% across the board, which is its best performance since the early 1970s. Africa has held three times more democratic elections in the past decade than the decade before (a better record than the Arab countries), and most of its enduring conflicts - Sudan, Congo, Angola - are more or less over. The occurrence of HIV is decreasing. Everywhere examples of the old Africa are becoming rare. Yet, Europeans and Americans still think of it as one, sorry place.
Take China, India and Turkey - Africa’s newest big investors. They don’t harp on about Africa’s problems. They finance, trade, and develop infrastructure like nobody has ever done before. But the West would rather aid than trade, fundraise than invest. How about if we give the problem to a celebrity to solve?
“Africa is a continent in flames. And deep down, if we really accepted that Africans were equal to us, we would all do more to put the fire out. We're standing around with watering cans, when what we really need is the fire brigade.” Bono’s the one who should be in flames for talking such condescending blarney about this continent.
“Mr Bono wants us to crown him savior of Africa,” said Kigongo, a Ugandan, “Yet, what the hell does he do?” It's a view shared by many; the mere mention of his name inspires unbridled fury among my African friends. Imagine their reaction to seeing his face on the cover of TIME magazine in 2005, after he was named “Persons of the Year,” along with Bill and Melinda Gates, in honour of their tireless efforts on behalf this basket-case continent. It’s this kind of tripe gives rise to the likes of al-Shabaab.
Africa is a many splendoured thing, that must be carefully learned over time. I have spent my whole life here, yet everyday I discover something entirely new about the Bright Continent. Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri sums it up beautifully: "The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering."
To be greater than their suffering is what makes Africans authentic. Understanding African authenticity requires transcending the clichéd images of lions, famine, big men in power, and "a continent in flames." Forget accepting that Africans are equal to us (for that sort of talk wakes the sleeping lion), we're all African under the skin.
OK, so why is this simba sleeping in the jungle anyway? Obviously, because he’s under heavy sedation. No doubt, someone knocked him out with a dart gun, and dragged him there, as part of his doctoral thesis, perhaps, or a bet. The point is, this is NOT his natural habitat, and that lion will be fit to be tied when he finally wakes up and realizes his whereabouts. Tangled up in vines and roots, covered in insects, while a troop of colobus monkeys laugh their beards off in the treetops, there’ll be no singing.
The West needs to wake up and smell the coffee (and all the other commodities that give Africa an economic future), and untangle itself from all its flaming clichés. It's time to start dealing with the world’s fastest emerging market with parity. Stop patronizing and start patronizing.
“A wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh, a wimoweh ”