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The African Dream, What Is It?

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Oneirology is the study of dreams where dreams are those mental movies in which we all become involuntary celebrity actors or involved spectators while snoozing or slumbering. It is a science and field of research dedicated to the understanding of the how and the why of dreams.

Once people comprehend how they dream they will be better positioned to discern what they dream and why. And as a function of brain waves and activity, dreams are of neurological interest too. Could there be a reason why we have horrid nightmares in one instance and sweet dreams in the other? While this question may be of supreme interest to the oneirologist or neurologist the subject of this article is about another type of dream, the aspirational kind.

Ask children anywhere what they will like to be when they grow up and you will often hear the usual coy response of a driver, doctor, teacher, lawyer, priest, journalist, pilot, footballer, etc. These are classical childhood dreams constructed from knowing adults in similar roles that make impressions on their young minds. They later become aspirational dreams when in adult years we consciously align our talents to achieving vocations and professions that would give us inner satisfaction and a source of sustainable livelihood through hard work. This is where a broader dream framework becomes imperative within which individuals can apply pursuits to their own personal dreams.

Talk of the American dream, for instance, and you do not have to go to school to know it defines the American ethos of equal opportunity for success irrespective of one's circumstance. Although unclear who first coined the phrase, we do know James Truslow Adams popularised it in 1931 when he wrote of 'dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to his ability or achievement ... It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position' (in Bulkeley 2008 pg 13).

Of course, at the time that Adams was busy professing the American dream; African Americans were denied those very opportunities that defined the dream. It would take Martin Luther King to point that out in 1963 when he claimed equal rights for African Americans to same pursuit of happiness as their white compatriots. The American dream then was very wicked having short changed a significant proportion of the population for whom the dream was an 'appalling condition' of 'poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity'.

In fact King's dream was 'deeply rooted in the American dream.' How else could the American dream ever be sweet when those who hewed the wood to leapfrog the country into greatness remained 'badly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination'?

Never mind that America has been stirring the waves lately with a consecutive election of its first black President. Although creditable, it remains naive to conclude that the American dream is now veritably one of unbiased access to opportunity fifty years on after King's speech. Perhaps, it is fair to speculate that not everyone may be able to achieve their dreams after all, or that America might not necessarily be the land of opportunity it is so famous for. In fact, studies suggest some Scandinavian countries are leagues ahead of America in the equal opportunity table.

But palpably tenable also is that America remains acclaimed as one place where everyone can dare to dream and have the audacity to hope and pursue success and happiness. It is not only because the opportunities exist, they might well not, but because it is possible to identify what the American dream is, that space for upward social mobility made possible by the acknowledgement of talent and reward for hard work.

What about an African dream then? Sometime this year I was filtering through the online media when I came across a Ghanaian story captioned 'There is something Wrong With Us... Anthropologist, Archaeologist And Theologians Must Examine Us' (peacefmonline.com 14-Jun-2013). Just as my mind quipped who are 'us' my hand found the mouse and clicked. It was one Nana Obiri Boahen, a former Minister of State, vouching that 'even though most African countries claim to be independent, people living here would not hesitate to join a slave ship if one docked at our sea port.' My jaw dropped at the poor and impertinent analogy knowing as I do that the scars of slavery still remind us of the most disgraceful entreprise to have ever taken place in humanity.

Those comments have never really left my mind entirely. If former Ministers can descend into such lowly cynics one naturally begins to question whether an African dream exists at all. Having posed the question it dawned on me that if there was any; Thabo Mbeki probably comes closest to defining it in recent times after Kwame Nkrumah and Steve Biko. In his 1998 African Renaissance statement Mbeki made clear that 'Africa cannot renew herself where its upper echelons are a mere parasite on the rest of society, enjoying as self-endowed mandate to use their political power and define the uses of such power such that its exercise ensures that our Continent reproduces itself as the periphery of the world economy, poor, underdeveloped and incapable of development. The African Renaissance demands that we purge ourselves of the parasites and maintain a permanent vigilance against the danger of the entrenchment in African society of this rapacious stratum with its social morality according to which everything in society must be organised materially to benefit the few.'

Before this statement the soft spoken intellectual of an activist politician had previously eulogised the resilience of the African experience in his 1996 'I am an African' landmark speech about which some analysts have drawn comparisons with King's dream speech. And why not, both men have been incensed by the 'experience of the situation in which race and colour is used to enrich some and impoverish the rest' as Mbeki put it. He spoke of himself as an African 'born of a people who would not tolerate oppression', or 'the perpetuation of injustice.' Exactly the point King was making! He had refused to 'believe that the bank of justice' in America was bankrupt and demanded it was high time 'to make real the promises of democracy.'

It is almost as if these two greats were speaking to the same constituents albeit in different epochs across continents. While Mbeki had the privilege of launching the South African Constitution when he spoke of being an African, King was drawing from the American Constitution that probably did not have him in mind at its launch one century and two score before his birth. I can imagine Mbeki being reminded of King's dream and thinking we do not want to let loose our guard as happened across the Atlantic where sections of society were short thrift despite the wordy niceties of the supreme law of the land. For him, the Constitution had 'to open the doors so that those who were disadvantaged can assume their place in society as equals with their fellow human beings.'

The congruence of these two men found expression in the universality of their speeches. Neither the diaspora King nor homeland Mbeki was addressing the narrow confines of America and Africa of their times. But in the context of lamentations from the likes of Boahen, Africa needs to underwrite a 'social order' of equal opportunity to success and prosperity for all its peoples.

Until then, Boahen's comments will have a way of playing up every time African migrants die in capsized dinghies en route to Europe, especially when commentaries suggest the migrants sell everything of value or borrow to pay middlemen for the passage on the belief that anything in Europe is better than everything in Africa.

It does not really matter if this is true or false, the willingness with which migrants continuously take this leap of faith in these perilous journeys is frighteningly indicative of an allure of greener pastures in dreams of Europe, or the lack of any in continental Africa.

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Samwin John Banienuba and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."

Articles by Samwin John Banienuba