Notes on Michela Wrong’s “I didn’t do it For You”
Written in the spirit (– if not style) of an old Anthropological monograph, “I didn’t do it for you” by Michela Wrong is a book full of contradictions; if not just for its content, then certainly for the approach to the subject – namely, Eritrea.
Perhaps in this regard, it was ironic that Wrong’s talk about her book was held at the School of Oriental and African Studies. SOAS of course is the bastion of Anthropology’s old guard – of men and women academics who, after spending a mere six months in some village in Africa or Asia, author a ‘definitive’ monograph they proclaim to be a solid representation of the ‘native’s way of life’.
The book is about the journey of Eritrea through history – from colonial time to present day. It sets out to examine the ‘scars’ that foreign occupation left on Eritreans – the experience of a people whose nation was betrayed by the world, most notably, by the UN.
Wrong puts in a great deal of research into exploring the Eritrean colonial experience and its legacy; a goodish effort indeed. She has evidently expended a lot of time and energy into the construction of her Eritrea under the Italians, the British and the Ethiopians.
However, her enterprise hits a snug right from the beginning. Of course the research is there, albeit highly selective. Furthermore, even the seemingly thorough research cannot hide the various inaccuracies that are part and parcel of the book; no doubt, a result of lazy journalistic approach.
In Wrong’s view, the role of the Eritrean in the making of his own history is limited to that of a passive spectator. For her, the account of the Eritrean subaltern – the ordinary Eritrean – vis-à-vis his own history is irrelevant and does not merit any inquiry at all. It is for this very reason that she ends up constructing a skewed picture of Eritrea.
While investigating Eritrean history under Italian colonialism, she braves the heat of Massawa in search of “the last Italian” whom she describes as a man who “personified a closing chapter of colonial history.” For her, it seems that the colonial history of Eritrea is to be told from the point of view of anyone except an Eritrean! In this regard, she makes her position quite clear early on in the book and follows it up all the way to the end.
In Massawa, she meets and interviews an embittered and self-loathing man of 77 by the name of Cicoria. There, during their conversation, he intimates in her of his hatred for almost everything. While reading Wrong’s description of the meeting, one cannot help but wonder what the point of Cicoria’s account is. Apart from expressing his abhorrence for his son and daughter, his brother, his ducks as well as his depiction of Eritreans as imbeciles, there is not much else to his wisdom, let alone knowledge of Eritrean history. But he nevertheless makes a good anti-hero for a semi-fictional setting that characterises the book – as you would expect.
As far as Wrong is concerned, Eritrean history under Italian colonialism is about the bitter rumblings of Cicoria or the diary entries of Martini – the one-time governor of Eritrea; under the British, about Sylivia Pankhurst’s short biography; under the Ethiopians, about the baseness of American GI’s of Kagnew Station, and so on – the ordinary Eritrean is nowhere to be seen.
Because Wrong overlooks the ordinary Eritrean, she fails rather miserably in her attempt to piece together a picture of how the colonial experience shaped Eritrea and how Eritreans see themselves now. Most importantly, she robs herself of the chance to know and understand Eritreans. Her book (– and her reputation) could have benefited a great deal if she had tried to see Eritrea through the eyes of the average Eritrean – but alas, she is, like many self-styled Western liberals writing about Africa before her, a product of a racially prejudiced intellectual setting and driven by a sense of paternalism towards the little people of Africa.
Yet still, the book contains some interesting bits and pieces of historical relevance mainly extracted from archives – such as the systematic dismantling of Eritrea’s industrial infrastructure by the British Military Administration and how the United Nations Commission for Eritrea betrayed the people of Eritrea.
The most enduring feature of the book is the lack of genuine inquiry on the part of Michela Wrong. Her approach comes across as quite superficial from the point of view of an Eritrean because Eritrean colonial history is reduced to a mere description of Cicoria’s excesses, John Spencer’s recollection of Haile Selasse etc. Likewise, her approach to contemporary Eritrean history is again typified by consistent reductionism.
The book's most fatal shortcoming comes to the fore when it comes to present-day Eritrea. Her treatment of the current Eritrean state of affairs, for the most part, is entirely based on anecdotes and lacks in in-depth analysis. Wrong does not even bother about putting up a smokescreen to hide the lack of honest research unlike the previous chapters dealing with Italian or British colonial period.
Had she applied a more decent approach for instance, she would have been able to construct a well-rounded picture of the struggles of a young 14 year-old nation; that way also, she would have understood why the incumbent government of Eritrea orders certain priorities in the way it does or why it opts for some policies than others. And may be also, we would have been talking about a decent work of inquiry.
On the contrary however, Wrong seems to gloss over the most important period of Eritrean history and thereby paints a sketchy picture of present day Eritrea. The most detailed account of post-independence Eritrea is in fact a chapter that is almost entirely dedicated to President Issaias Afwerki – and at that, the core of it is a narration of anecdote-cum-fantasy unworthy of a writer who aspires to be a respectable one.
In many respects, Wrong seems to be more concerned with the sensibilities of the ‘True Believers’, amongst which she considers herself to be one, than conducting a frank analysis of the facts that shape present day Eritrea. The true believers, she says, are those Westerners who believed in Eritreans irrespective of how ‘unrealistic’ their aspirations appeared to be. But their dream – that of the ‘True Believers’ – was to be shattered as Eritrea, according to her, became just another African cliché.
There is a scary level of dramatization as she recounts how Eritrea’s ‘fall from grace’ caused her and her fellow true believers a lasting trauma. Gifted with a peerless power of invention and a talent for stringing fluid prose, she manages to put together an Eritrea complete with people who bear no resemblance to real Eritreans.
But if truth be told, unlike Michela Wrong, Eritreans are not ‘True Believers’; they are just believers who believed in their inner strength. In fact, the story of Eritrea is a story of a resolute people who, irrespective of all obstacles, abandoned and disparaged, succeeded to realise their destiny; the problem is, Eritrea’s story cannot be narrated properly through the tinted eyes of a self-styled ‘True Believer’ Westerner intent on penning paragraphs full of self-evident ‘facts’ to pass them as the fruits of authentic observation or research.
In her talk at SOAS on January 24, organised to promote her book, Wrong explained that she had a Western audience in mind when she wrote it. Her admission was revealing in a sense and may explain her inability to go beyond what she set out to find out in Eritrea at the beginning of her project. In other words, Wrong’s book was a result of an effort to confirm her preconceived notion of Eritrea. Consider this for instance: what could go wrong with regurgitating the idea of the ‘African cliché’ to unsuspecting, and at times passive, audience?
The formula is quite simple really: Eritrea is in Africa; Africa is nothing but a stereotype; therefore, Eritrea explained within the confines of the African stereotype will just be accepted unquestioningly. For someone who has only been to a handful of African countries, and at that for a few months at a time, Wrong speaks of the ‘African cliché’ with arrogant authority. So much so that she makes a false distinction between the aspirations of Eritreans and Africans.
Her logic is that many so-called True Believers were impressed by Eritrea because it exhibited a unique push in terms of wanting to be self-reliant, driven and completely free. According to her, while the rest of Africa wallowed rather passively in its hopeless predicament typified by poverty and dependence, Eritrea wanted to break free.
While it is true that Eritrea’s drive to be self-reliant has been unwavering, this attitude is by no means unique. All Africans want to be free and self-reliant. The stereotype that portrays Africans as passive victims of global injustices and inequalities is just a sketch that sits conveniently in the minds of those who know very little about Africa – Unlike Wrong’s view of Africa, Africans are actively fighting to emancipate themselves.
But then, thank God for Franz Fanon! In the final line of his book ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, he once wrote, “Oh my body, make me always a man who questions.” Many Africans will question people like Wrong and their skewed reading of Africa and Africans; challenging them always will help rid Africa of such patronising racial supremacists in liberal-skins who perpetuate the distorted image of our continent.
So finally, an anecdote of my own; well, not really – not an anecdote – I was there myself.
On January 24, I attended Michela Wrong’s talk held at Khalili lecture theatre in SOAS. The diminutive Ms Wrong sounded quite nervous with her voice breaking up as she read from her notes. Present were the usual suspects; black beret-clad egotists, undergraduates studying African Studies or some similar discipline at SOAS and surrounding colleges, members of the Royal(!) African Society and fellow Eritreans. The talk was chaired by none other than Martin Plaut from the BBC.
Eritrea, Wrong contended, was suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder. Of course, not so many of us knew quite what she meant by that. Then she went on to say much more; and the overall theme of the talk, as it was an extension of what she had already said in her book, was that Eritreans were made to be what they had become by their colonial masters. Put simply, sitting helpless and rather passively, they were moulded into a colonial construct.
This claim of course dismisses everything else that Eritrea was before colonialism: the culture and the very Eritrean humanity itself that makes the Eritrean an Eritrean is completely written off; but most of all, Eritrean history, from the point of view of Wrong, starts with its colonial experience.
Naturally, many people would not agree with this view. And many of us expressed our objection to some aspects of her book and some of the things she said in the lecture – if you can call it that.
Twenty days later on February 14, an article by her appeared in the New Statesman magazine. Just like her book, the article, written with such arrogant presumptuousness, was revealing of Wrongs’s mentality. Sounding bitter and feverish, she exposes herself as an intolerant brat who cannot stand for anyone questioning her.
In it, she dismisses those who disagreed with her conclusions as hirelings sent by the government of Eritrea! Talk about ego-trips. I for one asked a question during the lecture regarding some glaring inconsistencies in the book. I did so not because I am a government employee, which I am not, but an Eritrean who felt uneasy about the wrong portrayal of Eritrea.
Wrong’s daft assertion, indicative of an armchair journalist, was that many of those who raised objections could not have read the book since most bookshops had not got round to stocking it. Of course a simple phone call could have revealed to her that Foyles, situated not very far from SOAS, had had a stock of 30 hardback copies since January 12 – almost two weeks before the talk.
Lastly, probably the most inane and revealing thing that Wrong says is the following: “But when they [Eritrean Diaspora] do meet, they can exchange only the most anodyne of banalities. This is where a book written by a western outsider can, I hope, play a small but helpful role as pressure valve and catalyst. In effect, it becomes possible to stage a political conversation by proxy, without self-exposure or embarrassment.”
There, in those few sentences, is summed up Wrong’s mindset. Her firm belief that Africans are incapable of shaping their own history as well as conducting constructive political conversations – unaided – comes across strongly in her book and is then reiterated in her article. According to her, the role of the Westerner is to guide the little children of Africa and teach them the ways of the good – the missionary’s burden, as it were.
“I Didn’t Do it for You” is a book that every Eritrean and indeed African must read. It helps you understand the cast-iron preconceptions, often the basis of ignorance, which many Westerners have about Africa. It also highlights the discrepancy between the stereotypical representation of Africa and the real Africa. The root cause of the problem is that writers such as Michela Wrong are either too afraid or lazy to do away with their prejudices and see Africa for what it really is.
In the contemporary world nowadays, it seems that the hardest thing is to do the bravest thing where writing about Africa is concerned – and that is, to break with stereotype and really discover Africa. In order to do that, first and foremost, a writer needs to be genuinely interested in an honest and comprehensive inquiry.