Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Quantum Africa (Guest Post by Chanda Chisala)

This guest post is an essay by my friend Chanda Chisala, Founder and President of Zambia Online. It was written for and first published as the preface to G. Pascal Zachary's latest book "Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape". It deserves the widest possible circulation.

QUANTUM AFRICA By Chanda Chisala

Sometimes when I feel like I need to stimulate my brain a little bit, I read some of the latest confusions in the field of quantum mechanics. Or, if there's nothing twisted enough there, I pick up a long article on Africa by Gregg Pascal Zachary or some other Africa expert, such as James Ferguson, the Stanford University anthropologist.

The reason is simple: I believe "African Studies" is the most complex (if not most daring) subject of study ever invented by the social sciences, and I know that anyone who is crazy enough to choose this as his subject of major interest for the rest of his life has to be somewhere on the border of genius and insanity. Their intellectual writings thus carry a feel of genuine art at times, as they focus their minds with passionate intensity on a subject that refuses to yield to easy generalizations, and hence their explosive, energizing value!

Before Zachary diversified into the intractable Africa question, he had reached the top of the journalism world in the United States, having been a senior writer for The Wall Street Journal and a columnist for The New York Times, in large part covering that most complex of subjects: technology, innovation and the interplay between these and political economy. His talent was to simplify such complex forces and interactions for the general public. He even wrote a book about the life and times of the most significant electrical engineer in American history, Vannevar Bush, and another book describing in human language the development of the Windows Operating System by Microsoft engineers. It seems that when Zachary had no greater challenges in the world of journalism, when there was no harder story for his razor-sharp mind to understand and simplify for the general public, it was natural for his insatiable mind to drive him to attempt demystifying the one world that has shattered the most analytical egos: Africa.

What afflicted Zachary, it seems to me, was similar to what befell Microsoft's Bill Gates when he finally left the world of solving hard technology problems, after reaching the peak of that world, and then decided to dedicate the rest of his life to the depressing world of (trying to solve) African health problems. The paths of these two adventurers – refugees from the cosmos of Silicon Valley – even crossed once when Zachary was consulted by the Gates Foundation on various research projects on Africa to help with the communication aspect of their foundation among the people of this continent. That's how I met him in Zambia (as one of the small players on the local media scene).

Although Gates and Zachary are connected to generations of Westerners – in Africa we just call them "whites" – who have always felt some moral compunction about living in a world of material abundance amidst the indigence of other people on the same planet, they have differentiated themselves by taking a radically new approach: they actually want to understand Africa first. That apparently obvious idea is in fact an unprecedented innovation. Other whites thought (and most still do) that it was enough to simply throw money at Africa, because there is really nothing complex about that poor "country"!

This old approach assumes that "Africa" is just one monolithic culture, and if there are any cultural differences among the Africans at all, they are too few and too insignificant to make any difference on how to deal with them. This is probably true about most places of the world (it is even quite true about African American communities), but it is definitely not true about this particular continent. The depth of cultural complexity can be seen from the sheer number of unique ethnic groups (72 in Zambia alone) and the shocking differences among the languages (even among ethnic groups that originally migrated from the same places). Google Translator has not made any steps in codifying these languages to help foreigners understand African tongues (or Africans to understand other Africans), because it is a task that would be too expensive for the multibillion dollar company. This is why a person who seriously throws himself into studying African societies has to be – how should we put it – interesting.

The only equivalent in complexity I can think of in the natural sciences is an area of physics called quantum mechanics. What kind of person dedicates his life to such a convoluted subject that it confused Professor Albert Einstein? It has to be a very "interesting" person indeed.

And this reference to quantum mechanics is not a random analogy. Whereas classical physics looks at normal objects and can establish their specific measurements and motions with simple formulas when certain forces are applied on them, quantum physics decides to look at these objects at a greater level of detail – the level of sub-atomic particles – and finds that all that formulaic certainty suddenly disappears. A crisis of confidence among scientists ensued from the discovery that the best they can say about where such an object will be is just a probability – which is a respectable way of saying that physics had pretty much become (at best) intelligent guesswork. Albert Einstein, the godfather of the classical physics world, was concerned that his field could lose the objectivity of mathematical predictability it had held since at least Isaac Newton. Up until his deathbed he was still trying to find a simple classical formulation that would restore the infallible confidence of physicists even at that level of detail, because "God does not play dice."

In Africa, God does apparently play dice. When one goes on the ground to study African people, they soon discover that there is no such thing as "Africa." The concept they held in their head suddenly disappears. Every place is different. And even places within places are different, sometimes in very fundamental and surprising ways. The people may think differently, behave differently, value different things, and so on, not just from country to country, but even within each country. Africa is diversity on steroids: it is diverse diversity.

And like our quantum physics problems, this is not limited to space alone, but even extends to time. When you return to that place after you publish your book about it, you might not recognize it. Or you might. Some African societies are very susceptible to external influences and changes, some are not so malleable – and yet even that can change (are you still with me?)

When Catholic missionaries first arrived in the Great Lakes region of modern-day Rwanda in the late 19th century, their message of salvation was wholeheartedly embraced by the Hutus. This probably gave the missionaries a nice little formula on what to say to "Africans" and what to expect. But when they went among the Tutsis in the same area, they were baffled to see the same message (and method) totally rejected. Before you make a conclusion about the atheistic personality of Tutsis from this historical fact, you should also be informed that today Tutsis are among the most religious people in Africa (at least the last time I checked, that is!)

So does this mean that no one can ever make any general statement about Africa at all? I think that someone can make sufficiently general statements about Africa as long as they have enough experience among Africans to know the limits of their generalization, both in space (where it is true) and time (whether it is still true). It is here more than anywhere else that some sort of Popperian humility is imperative.

But it is ultimately like any other area of expertise. Those with the most experience are likely to make the most correct judgments (and yes, judgment is ultimately about probability). Following Malcolm Gladwell's rule on expertise, there has to be a certain minimum number of hours (years) spent spent among a certain minimum number of African groups that should enable someone to become more proficient in their judgments (and predictions) of Africans in general, while keeping in mind that it is also a continent of many black swans (no pun intended). What has been underrated in the past is just how complex this subject is and how much experience is required before anyone can say something intelligent about Africa.

The real experts on Africa have spent many years of deep interaction with different societies of Africa (even I, an African living in Africa, do not really qualify). When you meet this rare group of humans with such ample experience, it is always astonishing to witness the level of accuracy with which they constantly explain aspects of your own (African) country. Of course they are not always perfect, but like a grandmaster of chess (whose level of play also resembles art), their intuition has been honed into lightening-quick judgment calls from the endless number of questions they have asked in their African peregrinations.

Gregg Pascal Zachary comes from that endangered species of journalists who sincerely ask questions because they really do not know the answer. Many modern journalists start with an answer – "the" answer – and then devise the questions (and sometimes the "sources") that are likely to confirm it, a trend that is probably as culpable for the slow death of traditional journalism in the West as Google is. These modern journalists could not possibly do proper African field work because the first rule in the manual is that one has to check his own ideology (whether conservative or liberal) at the airport, especially if one is not psychologically prepared to witness events that will certainly eviscerate some important tenets of that neat ideology.

In Zachary's work you see many times when he has to bring out a fact that you know does not support a conclusion he holds, but he reports it anyway, and then wrestles with its meaning. He even exposes the misinformation reported by some other lesser journalists who happen to falsify aspects of a story in order to sell a neater conclusion, and one that he would actually love to be true. It is this brutally honest, “scientific” approach to journalism that has qualified him for this arduous task of subjecting Africa to traditional investigative journalism at the quantum level.

Enjoy his art.

No comments: