a radical discourse on Africa – these words, I felt, had gone awry right from the
moment they escaped my tongue; or rather, as soon as with great
effort I rolled them down my tongue, and into the microphone only
to see them spill at the feet of the audience. Caution - Enter
at your own Risk.
I read my poem, African Revolutions, I kept hearing the words
rushing down the podium with the constancy of a fast moving train
so certain on set rails – and on eventual destruction. I couldn’t
pull the brakes. What a way to introduce a poem! Couldn’t I have
simply said poems do not need introduction and ushered in mine,
alone to fend for itself with neither preface nor epilogue?
rolled out line after line, Her womb pressed against the desert
to bear/ the parasite that eats her insides like termites drilling
dry wood/ he is born into an empty bowl, fist choking umbilical
cord until mercifully the sigh of the last line – for a tree
to grow comrade, it must first own its own earth. Finally I
was done. As I walked back to my sit on the stage, followed by silent
and polite applause, I pondered over the landscape I had suddenly
crime? I had done what is simply not done; I had brought politics
to a celebration of African cultures. Now, ready yourself for a
stray quote from Fanon – “Every generation must out of relative
obscurity find its mission, fulfill it or betray it.” But here
the earth’s wretched have gathered for a banquet – what polite conversation
shall accompany the clinking of the champagne glasses? What hungers
do those black hands cradling the stem of a wine glass reflect?
offer in place of the proverbial proverb - A radical discourse
– yes, a bit self-righteous as most activists are. I will even admit
to a tinge of poetic affectation - but what does radical discourse
us start at the beginning. A few years ago, I was invited to read
a poem at an African Cultural Festival in Madison, Wisconsin. I
was particularly pulled by the mission of the occasion, which was
to build bridges across the African Diaspora. Africans are not visible
to each other and any mission that makes us less estranged to each
other is to be welcomed. Most Kenyans for example have not met a
Senegalese and vice versa. So, perhaps I should put a disclaimer
here and say that cultural festivals are intrinsically of good value.
That it is a good in itself to see Africans and friends coming together
under the banner of the Diaspora.
why such a disclaimer? Let me lay it all out here – African cultural
celebrations have mistaken Africa for a proverb, they create an
Africa in the image of the Westerner – of dances and drums, of an
apolitical culture – they in short deculturalize culture. When did
African culture become mere song and dance? The beating of a drum?
Or the recital of riddles to eager white faces in Madison, Wisconsin?
theorists quote from Socrates, Hegel, Marx, Rousseau, Foucault,
Derrida and even Machiavelli, but when it comes to Africa a few
proverbs suffice. There is a lot at stake here. Imagine the following
equations. Western political philosophy - He that is master of
himself will soon be master of others. Hegelian dialectics –
one plus one equals two. Newtonian physics – what goes
up surely comes down. Marxist philosophy – it takes a village
to raise a child. Aesthetics – Beauty is in the eye of the
beholder. It doesn’t add up to infantilize Western philosophy
like this – Western thought is not immediately reducible to a set
of wise sayings. Why is it to so easy to seamlessly move from Western
philosophy to African proverbs? Why is it so easy to ascribe and
celebrate philosophy in the West and laugh and embrace African proverbs
in place of African philosophies?
Africa has a full spectrum of human experience, it has great and
mundane philosophical debates, the extremes of love and hate, war
and peace, it has known oppression and met it with resistance –
in other words, it is a place of humanity. It is not just the West
that has been busy infantlalizing African thought systems – Negritudists
like Leopold Senghor helped. Western Enlightenment says the African
is irrational; Senghor agrees and says emotion is to the
African as reason is to the Greek. Thanks to the many Senghors
who have been populating African halls of power, the enlightenment
project is no longer being expressed through colonialism; it has
found a comfortable home in the free market and democratizing missions.
is the kicker – all cultures have the equivalent of proverbs. But
while in Africa they are called proverbs, in the West they are termed
aphorisms. That is, you never hear of Western proverbs because they
have been given a better name. The dictionary definition of an aphorism
according to the American Heritage Dictionary is – “A
concise and often witty statement of wisdom or opinion, such as
‘Children should be seen and not heard.’”
proverb on the other hand is “A short pithy saying in frequent
and widespread use that expresses a basic truth or practical precept.”
They are one and the same thing, but aphorisms do not stand
in the place of Western thought. Yet proverbs are confident metaphors
of African thought. If we were to follow Kwesi Wiredu’s How Not
to Compare African Thought with Western Thought, we would compare
aphorism for proverbs, historical period for historical period,
and Western philosophical thought for African philosophical thought.
We would compare a dynamic African culture to a dynamic Western
try this for size; in Western philosophy you talk about Antinomy
– a logical contradiction – not an oxymoron – because meaning is
contained in the clash of its competing claims – An earlier version
the Hegelian dialectic. In Zulu culture you have umuntu ngumuntu
ngabantu - A person is human being through other people. This
concept, usually treated as a proverb is really an antinomy – that
is, my humanity is dependent on your humanity, I cannot be a human
being alone. The Zulu antinomy is a summation of Ubuntu philosophy,
in the same way the movement from thesis, antithesis to synthesis
is a summation of the Hegelian dialectic. It is not a proverb.
philosophy is one of the most exciting fields in African scholarship
today. This is where the battle for the African mind (for this is
what is at stake) is taking place, where the great questions of
existence, with African thought at the center, are being debated.
Were there African philosophers before colonialism? The late Odera
Oruka argues that amongst the Luo existed sage philosophers – that
is, a group of men and women who were known and respected as carriers
of philosophy. In literature, what could be more philosophical than
Wole Soyinka’s Fourth Stage, where he uses Yoruba mythology
to talk about tragedy in theater? Or the concept of permanent transitions,
the Abiku child as fictionalized in Ben Okri’s Famished Road?
let’s get back to the African Cultural Festival. Three prayers were
offered to give thanks and bless the day, each led by an African
Muslim, a Christian and, a non-Muslim/Christian African, the latter
representing a myriad of African religions. To me, the optimism
with which each religion graced the stage was misplaced. Indeed
it was putting in theater form, Ali Mazrui’s triple heritage
theory of religions and civilizations (Western, Islamic and
African) finding a happy polygamous marriage in Africa. Mazrui always
fast on his feet with a quick fix, argues that Islam, Christianity/Western
Culture and African cultures co-exist and intermingle peacefully
in Africa - and that Africans are all the more culturally richer
nothing has caused more violence in Africa that the meeting of these
three civilizations, each claiming the right to lord over the African,
each manipulated by the political elite to keep the Africans at
the bottom of the triple heritage pyramid weak and divided. Where
do we find Du Bois double consciousness in the triple heritage?
Where is the African afflicted with “two souls, two thoughts,
two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body,
whose dogged strength alone keep it from being torn asunder?”
The Herero genocide by the Germans in Namibia, Leopold’s killing
machine in the Congo, and Britain’s gulag as historian Caroline
Elkins calls British colonialism in Kenya – all in absentia. This
history did not inform the gesture behind the prayers.
the clerics had triply blessed us, Daniel Kunene, a South African
poet and freedom fighter, tall with a head full of gray hair but
with the calmness of a murmuring volcano, led us into singing the
African national anthem. Many times in the 1980s in Kenya we sang
this anthem in solidarity with South Africa. He introduced the poets
and we huddled onto the blessed stage, promptly occupying one side
of it ready for quick dispensation. I was sitting closest to the
podium, therefore was first to read. I was sweating. I managed a
quick smile to two of my friends in the audience. I said my piece
and was followed by another four poets. One read a piece on Senghor.
Unfortunately I couldn’t hear most of it, sitting behind the speakers,
and cannot render an accurate reading of her reading of Senghor
– but at least I didn’t hear the words black prince or you,
African warrior who made us black again.
young poets followed and read quite well though for the life of
me I couldn’t understand why they decided to translate one of their
poems from English to French – unless they were speaking to that
great divide between the Anglophones and Francophones, a divide
that we should find ridiculous and simply refuse. These baptismal
names - Francophone, Anglophone, and Lusophone - that Africans go
by should be returned to the owners. This divide that follows the
borders created by the imperial powers in the 1884 Berlin Conference
is probably the single most important challenge to Pan-Africanism
today. To go to Mali from Kenya, you apply for a visa at the French
consulate in Nairobi. To get to Kenya from lets say Senegal, you
retrieve a visa from the French consulate in Dakar. Why is the relationship
between Africans still being mediated through their former colonizers?
Moroccan poet followed the two young poets. She performed her poetry
powerfully. One of her poems was about love. I had thought about
reading a love poem – we tend to forget that even suffering people
fall in love but at the last minute decided against it, seeing as
to how there was already too much happiness.
dragged the poems out too long. Let’s face it, poetry, unless well
performed is a medium best taken in small doses. So it was with
great relief that Daniel Kunene closed out the poetry section with
a poem that sought to contextualize us not only in a post-September
11th world but in history, for history did not die only to be birthed
by Bush; to the contrary, Sept. 11th is but a speck in a continuum.
His poem spoke of this crime that took the lives of 3,500 people
and then asked what of the thousands, indeed millions who have lost
their lives at the hands of oppression? What of the lives lost in
Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, Algeria, Zimbabwe and Rwanda?
Indeed, didn’t Vietnam lose a million lives compared to the 3,500
American lives lost on 9/11?
suppose there is no need for me to go on in this manner; you can
see where I am heading. The cultural festival simply played out
a part given to it by history – that is the role of denying the
African complexity. That the cultural festival with an exception
of Kunene’s poem (and dare I thrown in mine?) was so apolitical
as to seem almost deliberate.
in the United States tend to isolate themselves from the political
shenanigans of their host country. Africans who, because they have
an accent are seen as foreigners, or because they are students in
good standing, or are professors, or have professional jobs, are
exempt from police racism – we have what I have to refer to as the
foreigner privilege. The foreigner privilege puts the racist at
ease – you will not be here too long, you must be educated, you
are not like them- and of course we eat it up and start seeing
other minorities through racialized eyes.
in the US view the African American as whites view them – as ingrates
of the great American democracy, drug addicts, and welfare queens
– who deserve the prison-industrial complex. This not to say that
there isn’t a strong tradition of African and African American solidarity
– Du Bois, Kwame Ture, George Padmore, Malcom X to name a few. But
at the bottom, Africans and African Americans view each other
with contempt – they see each other through racist eyes – so solidarity
at the top, mutual suspicion at the bottom. At a gathering such
as ours, a truly diasporic event would consciously challenge both
Africans and African Americans into examining this relationship.
And it is interesting to me how we are claiming Barrack Obama. The
Africans claim his African half, while African-Americans claim his
black half. And neither of us knows what to with his white half.
The Africans do not want to be black and African Americans do not
want to be African –gasp, it is an antinomy.
there is nothing wrong with dancing or drumming or for that matter
celebrating our existence (indeed I saw the most amazing dancer
and drummer, who in my opinion defines what it means to be a truly
gifted artist at this festival). God, Allah, Ngai or even
a great void understands that the African must create spaces in
which the day’s troubles have to be denied their reach and give
us some respite. But even in these spaces, we have to be in a true
dialogue with each other. That is the difference between escapism
and a healthy confrontation; one declares a problem non-existent
and the other embraces the day’s challenge and seeks ways to subvert
it. One is afraid; the other is brave in that it demands a full
us talk of historical debts, of historical connections in a common
struggle. Let us not forget the white Appalachian who has black
lungs from working in the coal mines, the Puerto Rican and Native
American, and African American freedom fighters still in jail.
us eat, dance, drum in celebration of these constant and unbroken
bonds. In the evening let us gather around as in a palaver and plot
how to free ourselves, how to further this struggle that started
the moment when one of group of people decided it is human nature
to subjugate others.
Africa we had on stage was not the Africa I know even though I know
of drums and proverbs. I simply could not recognize it, that Africa
forgets, it has no memory; it has no past, and certainly does not
have an eye on the future. And it scares me. It scares me for anything
that eats its memories, that eats its past, that so casually ignores
the pain of others with whom it shares a common destiny, that laughs
and dances without misstep or doubt is a mirage. It scares me because
it is attractive and easy to live in. So I keep reminding myself
that those that see a mirage in a desert still die of thirst.
cannot be silent, it is not a drum, and it is not a proverb. I suppose
this what I have been saying all along – culture is struggle.
BlackCommentator.com Guest Commentator, Mukoma Wa Ngugi, is a writer
and political analyst, the author of Hurling
Words at Consciousness
(AWP, poems 2006), a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor, where
this commentary first appeared, and a political columnist for the
BBC Focus on Africa Magazine. Click here
to reach Mukoma Wa Ngugi.