“Liberty” (2018)

This is a remarkable TV meditation on whether the African can be like, or even understand, the European, or vice versa. It makes a rather good and very sad case that they can’t, or anyway that the aid system wasn’t doing so in the 1980s. Both sides were too busy exploiting each other’s many weaknesses. I write the following not least in case it tempts others to pitch in with their reading of the show.

I should say that two women buck the main theme of Liberty’s main thrust. One, a nurse, never loses her idealism and keeps coming back to minister to Africans. In my own experience (now of visits twenty years ago) there was plenty of that sort of behaviour. I also met well-intentioned aid expats. But I had several glimpses of several aid projects which had ended in expensive failure. Liberty portrays these in a dark light and what now intrigues me is to see evidence as to whether its account is too cynical or merely accurate.

As a side bar, it is intriguing that The Widow (2019) had very similar themes, and they also produced almost no comment, being quite drowned out by the excitement caused by Beckinsale’s ponytail.

Liberty shows us several dimensions of these issues and one is bound to try to fit them in with older accounts. There has always been a pair of competing tropes in the white view of Africa. Well into the last century it was permissible to hold that, first, Africans are essentially much like whites but trapped in childish underdevelopment which amounted to an innocence one might call prelapsarian on a good day. The second held that Africans are essentially primitive and thus over-sexed, superstitious and violent. Liberty would not accept either of these ideas wholesale, and yet it portrays an Africa in which happy European or Western notions of a common humanity seeking rational progress are not playing out well – and the reason is in part an African conservatism.

Liberty readily invites and stands comparison with Conrad’s The Heart of Darkness. Borth fictions portray Africa as a place in which whites become or at any rate became prone to a self-destructive exploitativeness. Liberty shows us important aspects of those stereotypes to be relevant in our time. All the whites are corrupted by Africa’s darkness. Or even: Africa affords freedoms to whites which lead them into their own darkest souls.

In Liberty the white aid system is shown as careless: it is keen to spread money in Africa and along the way is very slack in allowing its white expat agents to fall into profiteering. But even its virtuous agents must become corrupt because African officialdom must be paid off in order to stop aid enterprises falling prey to the careless viciousness of black Africa’s ways of doing business.

One Swedish aid worker is seen as criminal or corrupt and self-seeking in almost all his dealings (at work or in bed) as he runs his aid-sponsored business as an increasingly private enterprise. But when push came to shove, the Swedish government insists on decency. Meanwhile, a very decent Danish expat similarly running an aid-sponsored business is shown to be stitched-up by black locals and the upshot is that the Danish government uses him to spray corrupt money at the problem sooner than be associated with failure.

As thrilling as these parallel business stories are, there is an even more perfervid drama in the personal relations within and between the blacks and whites. One black boy, Marcus, in particular is the centre of our attention. He has ambitions and is prepared to work corruptly with the Swede mentioned above. He has an affair with an expat wife. This woman, the other of the whites whose decency surives rather well, loves the youngster and her feelings are to some extent reciprocated, though perhaps ambivalently.

As the series unfolds. Marcus has very mixed fortunes. Above all, we see him as someone who is both educated and bruised by his stepping into the white world. In the end we are unclear whether Marcus has become hardened by his dealings with whites, or rediscovered his inherent African toughness, and indeed whether he is now tough enough to thrive.

Marcus has aspirations to be a DJ, masterminding a local night club. Along the way he meets a troubled expat Danish boy, Christian, with whom he partners up. Things, predictably, do not go well for either. Christian’s father (if I remember right) says of him that he is trying to be black and doesn’t realise how difficult that will be. (Shades of the Trustafarian trope.) But then, in a matching or mirroring narrative twist, his father later thrives by canny and hard-nosed compromises, and says that Africa is no place for heroes.

I find it striking how little commentary or crtique this series has garnered. I should have thought there were various sorts of people interested in it, including that generation of aid workers who are depicted and all those Post Colonial academics who make a profession out of anatomising imperialism and its aftermath. And why aren’t there loads of confused young wondering if their parents’ generation were really that aweful. And Africans keen to pick the bones out of this latter-day manifestation of the way, firstly, the West aimed to help them in the 1980s and, secondly, how TV producers justify the accuracy or merit of this seconf millenium account of events.

For my part I found it challenging, and accurate if very slightly exagerated. And exciting.

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Publication date

19 May 2019