Africa must stop waiting for Godot and take charge of its own destiny

Friday November 16 2012

South Sudanese refugee children play outside a make-shift hut at the Dar es Salaam refugee camp located in  Khartoum.

South Sudanese refugee children play outside a make-shift hut at the Dar es Salaam refugee camp located in Khartoum. 

In his tragicomedy Waiting for Godot Samuel Beckett writes about two men who wait expectantly for an elusive man named Godot, who never comes.

As they wait they eat, sleep, converse, argue, sing, swap hats and even contemplate suicide. They also bicker, moan and reconcile, doing anything “to hold the terrible silence at bay.”

The two characters, Vladimir and Estragon, are more than just sad men. Though sometimes they seem lost in double-speak and meandering philosophical asides — at times jovially sour and at times like twitching, meditative clowns — they could be speaking to us.

The Nigerian writer E.C Osondu, winner of the 2009 Caine Prize for African Writing, captures a similar mood in his short story Waiting, when he depicts his characters waiting for salvation from the West. The story is set in a refugee camp, one of the many in Africa.

Osondu’s story is more poignant than Beckett’s and does not speak in parables. He starts it with the sad words of a refugee boy “My name is Orlando Zaki. Orlando is taken from Orlando, Florida, which is what is written on the T-shirt given to me by the Red Cross. Zaki is the name of the town where I was found, from which I was brought to this refugee camp. My friends in the camp are known by the inscriptions written on their T-shirts. Acapulco wears a T-shirt with the inscription, Acapulco… Paris’s T-shirt says See Paris and Die. When she is coming towards me, I close my eyes because I don’t want to die… Some people are lucky: London had a T-shirt that said London and is now in London. He’s been adopted by a family over there. Maybe I will find a family in Orlando, Florida that will adopt me.”

Waiting. Waiting for salvation. That seems to be Africa’s curse. Waiting for the International Criminal Court to save us. Waiting for salvation from our politicians; and our politicians have showed us their true colours like Godot does in the play — sending a messenger to Vladimir and Estragon to whet their appetite with promises of heaven and delivering nothing.

In Osondu’s story, the main character reads Waiting for Godot.

He writes, “Sister Nora is the one who told me to start writing this book, she says the best way to forget is to remember and the best way to remember is to forget.

“The first book she gave me to read was Waiting For Godot. She says the people in the book are waiting for God to come and help them. Here in the camp we wait and wait and then wait some more. It is the only thing we do. We wait for the food trucks to come and then we form a straight line, and then we wait a few minutes for the line to scatter, then we wait for the fight to begin, and then we fight and struggle and bite and kick and curse and tear and grab and run. And then we begin to watch the road and wait to see if the water trucks are coming, we watch for the dust trail, and then we go and fetch our containers and start waiting, and then the trucks come and the first few containers are filled and the fight and struggle and tearing and scratching begin…”

The children in the refugee camp even have to wait for a photographer, who fortunately, turns up – sometimes. Osondu writes, “Today we are waiting for the photographer to come and take our pictures. It is these pictures that the Red Cross people send to their people abroad who show them to different people in foreign countries and after looking at them, the foreign families will choose those they like to come and live with them. This is the third week we have been waiting for the photographer, but he has to pass through the war zone so he may not even make it today. After taking the photograph, we have to wait for him to print it and bring it back. We then give it to the Red Cross people and start waiting for a response from abroad.”

In much of Africa we wait for external salvation especially from Western donors. There is something sad about a man or woman who waits to be bailed out by others; they need to take charge of their destiny and stop waiting for Godot or any other “saviour.”

Why must we wait for the Red Cross or the World Bank and yes, now even China, to come to our aid when we can solve our problems ourselves?

We should take charge of our destiny and not wait for Godot — he never comes.

The writer is the CEO of Phoenix Publishers. Views expressed are his own.