Author and economist, Grieve Chelwa, believes popular economics is often wrong about Africa: ‘When you read leading texts about why Africa is poor, they always blame us. They forget about history: slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, interference.’
First Draft is our interview column, featuring authors and other prominent figures on books, reading, and writing.
Our questions are italicized.
What books or kinds of books did you read growing up?
Growing up in the 90s in Zambia was a very difficult time economically. The schools weren’t very well resourced at the primary level, so I didn’t get to do much reading at that level. My reading picked up when I finished secondary school and as I was transitioning to university. But the first book that I remember reading that really left an imprint on me was Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. I got a copy of this book from my grandfather.
After I finished secondary school, I spent about two years before entering university. My grandfather gave me a series of books in that two-year gap. One of such books was How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. The book explains why the continent is underdeveloped, and links that underdevelopment to the development of Europe and much of the western world. That book left an imprint on me. I can now see that the path I subsequently took in terms of studying economics and the type of economics I’ve been practicing, and that I want to practice, is really linked to that particular moment about 20 years ago. And then, I also read books by Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president who sadly passed away in June. My grandfather gave me Kaunda’s Letter to My Children. There are so many lessons about who we are, what it means to be African, and what it means to be a citizen of the world.
In my childhood, I’m sure I read Western storybooks at some point, but I don’t remember those. But non-Western books, especially the ones written by African thinkers and African diasporic thinkers, really left an imprint on me.
If you could rewrite a classic book/text, which would it be and why?
That is very difficult. I mean, they are classics for a reason, right? They’re classics for a reason in the sense that they are timeless. An attempt to rewrite them would be sacrilege, because when I think about classics, I think about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. I think about Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s The River Between, Weep Not, Child, A Grain of Wheat. These are classics and you shouldn’t fidget with them.
I suspect I would not rewrite How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, per se, but I would update it. Rodney wrote it in the early 70s and he obviously had a sense of history up to that time. So I suspect what one would do is to update it for our time, which would pretty much reconfirm his main thesis; the undevelopment of Africa continues unabated. So I think I would update, not rewrite, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
My reading picked up when I finished secondary school and as I was transitioning into university but the first book that I remember reading that really left an imprint on me was Walter Rodney’s ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.’
What’s a book everyone should read before leaving university?
I’m interested in Africans, diasporic Africa and Africans in the diaspora. You have to read How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, because it explains how we find ourselves where we are and how it is that we are so underdeveloped, how it appears as if we’re not making any progress or any strides. That book helps you make sense of everything. Another fascinating book is Malcolm X’s autobiography, the one he wrote with Alex Haley called The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I read it when I was waiting for university and it left a huge imprint on me.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X is a story of a man who starts out his life not knowing who he is goes to prison for theft, finds himself, and discovers that he’s a descendant of great people. He then decides to change his life. He dies in his late 30s. He has clearly left a huge mark on the world’s imagination, especially on the imagination of black people. Malcolm X’s autobiography is worth reading. It’s an amazing, amazing book.
What’s the last book/article you disagreed with, and why?
I have stopped reading randomly. I have stopped going into a bookstore, picking up a book and reading it. I read rather selectively now because reading can be traumatic, especially with right wing or racist texts. So the stuff I’ve been reading rather recently has been stuff that certainly speaks to me. So I’m a biased reader in that way, which means I rarely disagree with what I read. It’s almost like I’m reading to confirm my biases.
I started on this road of reading towards my biases about six or seven years ago. Before then, I must have read a bunch of stuff which I used to read randomly so I’d pick up racist pieces. I once read that controversial book, The Bell Curve by Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray, that talks about IQ and how Black people in the US have lower IQ than White people. So that kind of stuff I disagreed with. I read very selectively now, to know more about a topic. For example, if I want to know more about African history, I’d rather read an African writing about African history. But even if they’re African, I have to know what their sense of politics is. I know it’s not the way a scholar should do things but reading can be traumatic, you know, and I have to protect myself when I read. I want to be very careful. It’s like seeking out friends.
I have stopped going into a bookstore, picking up a book and reading it. I read rather selectively now, because reading can be traumatic.
How has the pandemic changed/affected your reading tastes/habits?
I’m a parent of two children, one of whom was born in the pandemic last year in May. When the pandemic hit, we lived in Cape Town and then our son arrived. And then because of the pandemic, South Africa went into lockdown, which meant we couldn’t get anyone to help with the children. So my reading got completely sacrificed. I stopped reading at the pace I used to read. And then my number one priority was keeping the home going, and also doing my day job. So the pandemic really disrupted reading longer texts and books and I began to spend a lot of time on Twitter and just see what’s going on with the pandemic. I read lots of pieces by epidemiologists and how they were thinking about the disease and read a lot of newspapers, to see what was going on. So the pandemic, in many ways, at least last year, disrupted my reading of longer texts. But then since moving back to Zambia, where the pandemic wasn’t as bad as it was in South Africa, we’ve been able to get help. We have somebody who helps us with the kids. Now, I’m reading longer books, and spending time reading quite intensive pieces that require attention. So, the pandemic really disrupted me and pushed me towards very light reading.
What’s the last book you read that changed your mind about something?
I read toward my biases. So, what has been happening is I’ve been learning much more about things that I sort of vaguely suspected. For example, I just finished reading Kehinde Andrews’ new book, The New Age of Empire, which came out early this year. The argument in Andrews’ book, that the world was crafted in White supremacy, is not entirely new. You know, once you think about that, and things like slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, genocide, these things are not strange, but I’ve just been learning more about those things.
These are things that we kind of know, but don’t have in-depth facts about. For example, I learned in this book that 99 per cent of the native, indigenous people of America were rendered extinct pretty much because of contact with Europeans. So these things we sort of kind of vaguely knew.
If anything, reading towards my biases is making me much more certain about things that I knew already, or I thought I did. So I haven’t read a book that changed my mind about anything. I think that changing my mind stuff probably ended eight years ago. Maybe it is what happens to scholars, but I haven’t read anything that changed my mind fundamentally about something.
If anything, reading towards my biases is making me much more certain about things that I knew already, or I thought I did.
What’s a common misconception economists have about Africa?
I think one has to be quite clear in defining terms. So often, when somebody says economist we picture a White man from Europe or the US. I think what you’re asking is generally the ones who shape debates about things and those are mostly White men in Europe and America. Their common misconception is that Africa is poor because of its own fault. When we were growing up, we were taught to read books, like Think Big by Ben Carson. They were books that blamed you for your circumstance. When you read leading texts about why Africa is poor, they always blame us. They forget about history: slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, interference. The story of Nigeria, for example, and all the coup d’etats that happened between 1966 and 1999. Those are stories where neocolonialism plays a role. So the biggest misconception about Africa is that Africa is poor because of Africans. That is partly true. That only makes sense if you don’t think about the fact that external forces are at play.
You’re developing a ‘radical/game-changing’ guide to economics/African economies. Which three authors and/or texts are on that guide?
The three authors that would be in the guide are Thandika Mkandawire, Claude Ake and Walter Rodney.
With Thandika, it’s pretty much his entire oeuvre that thinks seriously about the process of development and what form that needs to take in the African case. I summarized some of what I consider to be the most impactful of Thandika’s work in this article for African Studies.
For Claude Ake, I particularly like his 1979 book Social Science as Imperialism in which he argues that Western social science has played the leading role in the impoverishment and underdevelopment of Africa. The book then goes on to propose a radical alternative paradigm which can serve as the springboard of Africa’s development.
For Walter Rodney, it is his magnum opus How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. You cannot understand Africa’s present predicament without reading Rodney’s book. We are poor now precisely because of the Atlantic slave trade, imperialism and colonialism. These historical modes of extraction and exploitation then morphed into neocolonialism (as theorized by Nkrumah) which has continued the underdevelopment of the continent. The book, through its vivid retelling of the past, contains within it the solutions for a liberated and prosperous Africa. If we are to develop, we need a radical break from the chains of history.
When you read leading texts about why Africa is poor, they always blame us. They forget about history: slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, interference.
What three books should be on everybody’s bookshelf?
Everyone should read How Europe underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney.
Things Fall Apart was deep and I really liked it but I prefer No Longer at Ease, which focused on Okonkwo’s grandson’s life in Lagos in the 60s. He gets a job with the scholarship board of the civil service and eventually gets involved in corruption and that’s where things go bad for him. This book captures the issues going on in Nigeria at that time. While Things Fall Apart blames the Europeans for Nigeria’s issues, No Longer at Ease complexifies things by acknowledging that there were other issues in Nigeria at the time. No Longer at Ease is a really interesting book because it talks about Obi Okonkwo’s journey from his village to Britain, then his return to Nigeria. He returns with a conviction of changing things but he then gets caught up in the mess that is going on around him, and in the process, he lets down his people. It is a really fascinating book.
The third book is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s The River Between. The River Between is like Things Fall Apart. It goes back to the period when the colonialists arrived in Kenya and the disruption that arises. Although, much like Achebe, Ngũgĩ’s later works become more complex in their diagnosis of the African malaise.
If there’s the chance for a fourth book, I would add The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
What’s your writing process: edit as you write or draft first, then edit?
I like to get it perfect the first time I write. I’m fascinated by people who can write very quickly. I really wish I was like that because that would make me a fast writer. But no, I want to get it right as I go along. When I was younger, I read a story about Gustave Flaubert who wrote Madame Bovary. He apparently was so obsessed with picking the right word that he would spend hours worrying about what the next word should be. I’m obviously not that extreme but I think I’m in that mode of writers. So I write as I edit, which slows me down.
I’m fascinated by people who can write very quickly. I really wish I was like that because that would make me a fast writer.
You’ve written extensively on African economies. What was your process for writing ‘Does Economics Have an “Africa Problem”’?
I have a blog version and a scholarly version. So the blog version, I wrote it in one go, I think I wrote like 800 words in one night, in early 2015. It is something that I’d been thinking about for maybe months, and I thought ‘this is obvious’. I just poured it from my heart in one draft over one night. I didn’t even have an outline, per se. I just wrote, and that has been my style, where I often just vaguely think about a thing that’s worth writing about. I then sit down and write. I’m now learning that some people create outlines before writing. But me? I think about the issue I want to communicate, the problem that I want to articulate, and I just often just write like that.
What’s a hack for reading/writing academic texts?
Writing: I haven’t found it. I’m also looking for that hack. I suspect, maybe learning to say no, a lot more often and then having passion projects. However, we don’t live in a fantasy world. We live in a world where we have to pay bills so in that kind of world, sometimes you have to choose practicalities. So you often say yes to projects because you want to make money from them. But I think that if there was such a thing as a life hack, the way I see it is to have enough money so that you can work on a passion project. So, what I’m learning is to say no more and focus on certain things that are super interesting. If you can find that marriage between the thing that is super interesting and the thing that pays you, you’re lucky.
Reading: Read things you are super interested in. That way, you won’t need a hack because the interest itself will carry you through. Read things that you’re genuinely curious about learning about. And I learned from somebody to cut your losses. If you’re reading a book, and you are ten pages in, you’ll know pretty early if it will be good. If it is not good, cut your losses and don’t bother reading further. For academic texts, reading the abstract, or the intro should give you an idea of the piece. I use the abstract as an indicator of whether I should read further. I think that is a tricky thing. If you’re a student, for example, you don’t have the luxury of choosing what to read, it’s assigned to you by your professors, so I guess in those kinds of circumstances, you just have to read the text.
I think that if there was such a thing as a life hack, the way I see it is to have enough money so that you can work on a passion project.
What’s the most meaningful piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
Write every day. I’ve not put this into practice but I’ve always thought that if I did, I would be a much more productive writer. I’m yet to put it into practice though.
Who is an author you wish you had discovered earlier?
I wish I had discovered African fiction writers much earlier in life. I discovered them very late: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka. I wish I discovered them in my formative years. I wish I had discovered African economists much earlier to. I only discovered the late Thandika Mkandawire in 2015 after my PhD. Luckily, I got to meet him once or twice but I wish I had discovered him before I got my PhD. I probably would have written about some of his ideas for the PhD. The general thread is I wish I had discovered more African thinkers early.
What is your favourite topic to write or read about these days?
My favorite topic to write about is African economic development issues, and our achievements as Africans against all odds. Even with COVID-19, there’s a story there about African ingenuity, resilience, policy innovation but many people want to simply see it as luck.
I enjoy reading about development issues, history, especially the history of people of colour and indigenous people. I also enjoy reading about the policy decisions that got China to where it is today: taking advice from outside but also localizing and contextualizing it to their own situation.
I wish I had discovered more African thinkers early.
What can we expect you to write about next?
There are so many things I want to write about. I am working on a book project about African economic development issues though I haven’t really had the time. I hope I will be able to finish that book. Besides that, things that are interesting to me include looking to Africa’s post-independence past to see if there are any policy lessons there. Most times, when we look back, we tend to see just tragedy but there were things to learn as well.
Question from Promise Frank Ejiofor: If you had the power of immortality and could make a writer live forever, which writer would that be? And why?
I wish Walter Rodney was never assassinated. No one has ever provided a better diagnosis of the African problem.
Bonus: Please suggest a question for a future author’s First Draft.
If you had a yearlong all-expense-paid fellowship and were given the chance to write a book about African history, how would you write it?⎈
We want to hear what you think about this interview. Submit a letter to the editors by writing to [email protected]