Books & arts
Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Re-membering Africa (2009)
Issa G Shivji
2009-10-01, Issue 450
European renaissance marked the beginning of the dis-membering of Africa, her body and soul were torn apart as her resources were raped and her beauty disfigured. Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 – ‘good hope’ for the invaders and ‘bad omen’ for the invaded. In early 1500s the great city states of Kilwa, Mombasa and Malindi, which were the centres of blossoming Swahili civilization, were ruthlessly cannoned. European civilization came to Africa, (to use Marx’s phrase in relation to capital), ‘dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt’. Four centuries of slave trade dis-membered mother Africa into the continent and diaspora, as a century of colonialism dis-membered it into, what Mwalimu called, vinchi – statelets.
The memories of the great pre-Vasco da Gama epoch – the Indian Ocean civilization of the Eastern Coast and the great learning of the West Coast centred around Timbuktu – were submerged in the doctored and orchestrated histories of obscene barbarity called European civilisation. Formal independence of the so-called African states was a great, potentially revolutionary moment in the re-membering of the continent and recovery of African memory but the foetus was spiritually strangled at its birth. It carried the ugly birthmarks of territorial nationalism as the umbilical cord with its progenitor, Pan-Africanism, was severed.
The dis-membering of Africa continues to this day, its most current reincarnation being neoliberalism. I shall not go through the seemingly new forms of dis-membering Africa. Sufficient to quote this graphic posting by a young African blogger - Chambi Chachage – in UDADISI: Rethinking in Action:
As we re-act to Barrick Gold's Toxic Sludge into River Tigithe in North Mara, Tanzania lets pro-act-ively inform ourselves about what Barrick Gold is (un)doing in other countries that are also at the receiving end of Speculative Capital masquerading as Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) by reading Barrick's Dirty Secrets and heeding the call for support from Rights Action and the call for protest from ProtestBarrick in the light of this famous statement in Karl Marx's Das Kapital 1867 Part VIII Volume 1 Chapter 31: ‘If money, according to Augier, “comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek”, capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt!’ [posted on May 29, 2009]
In Re-membering Africa, Ngugi captures an important intellectual moment in the long struggle of African people to re-claim and recover our collective memory. As Mwalimu said, the history of Africa has not simply been one of deprivation, dispossession and exploitation but also one of resistance and struggle. At the centre of this struggle has been the quest for re-membering Africa, so brutally dis-membered by the ‘vultures of imperialism’. Kinjikitile united Wangoni from the south to Wazaramo on the Coast against German invasion and occupation. It was an act of re-membering. Ali Ponda founded the African Association which was named Chama cha Umoja wa Watu wa Afrika. In the language reminiscent of nineteenth century founders of Pan-Africanism, of which he did not know, Ali Ponda said:
The African Association is a union of the black people of Africa. Any black man of Africa can be a member of this association…for this association is not concerned with any one tribe, or with wealth or indeed with poverty. This association is for men of any religion and any tribe and any condition, it is for the black people of Africa. Do not accuse us of belonging to this or that religion, this is or that tribe, this or that condition. We have one father and one mother. And that is indeed AFRICA… [quoted in Iliffe, 1979:414]
When the young Chambi Chachage calls upon his fellows to proactively protest against the poisoning of our people by the modern-day vultures of imperialism, the multinationals, he is re-membering Afrika.
Ngugi goes further. He asks: Can you really re-member Afrika in the images, symbols and languages of the master? Can you really dream the dreams of liberation in the language of the oppressors? Just as you cannot bring down the master’s house using the master’s weapon, so you cannot re-member Africa using the master’s language. Yes, indeed, you can even better the language of the master, sing songs of liberation in the language of the master, condemn and protest against the master in his language. Yes, indeed, you can do all that and do it so beautifully that the master awards you Pulitzer and Nobel Prizes. Your great contribution, though, remains a contribution to enrich English, French, or Portuguese literature and language. And you remain rooted in the Europhile elite. You may even represent the masses, and talk to the master for the masses, in his language, but you cannot be one of the masses because you do not speak, write, think and dream in the people’s language.
Re-membering Africa has two powerful messages. You cannot re-member Africa outside the vision of Pan-Africanism, the vision to re-member Africa across states, races, tribes, religion and cultures. The time for aggressive Pan-Africanism has come. Let it not go, says Ngugi wa Thiongo. ‘Seize the hour. Seize the time.’ This message echoes the great Julius Nyerere Intellectual Festival Week on Reflections on Pan-Africanism that we held on this Campus last April. You will be happy to know, brother Ngugi, that one of the outcomes of that Week was to make Pan-Africanism a mandatory course at this University. The process to do so has begun.
The second message is that you cannot re-member Africa, you cannot reclaim and recover African memory, outside your own languages. That is the message, hopefully, that will go out of this Pan-Africanist gathering coming on the heel of the April Festival.
Ewe ndugu Ngugi,
Mwana wa Baba En’doinyo Ormoruak
Na Mama Mto Kiyiira.
Mjukuu wa Kinjikitile
Mrithi wa Ali Ponda.
Afrika ni Moja,
Vinchi ni feki.
Eti wajidai Uafrika!
Ndoto zenu Kireno,
Lugha yenu Kimarekani.
Walimu wenu wafadhili,
Viongozi wenu mafisadi,
Uafrika ni Umajumui wa Afrika.
Oteni ndoto, Kizaramo,
Fikra, Kiswahil; mawazo Kigikuyu.
Fuateni nasaha za Sheikh Ali bin Ponda:
‘Baba ni Afrika, Mama ni Africa’.
Silaha ni U-africa,
Askari ni AfrikaMoja.
Nkosi sikelele Afrika.
Mungu ibariki Afrika.
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* Re-membering Africa by Ngugi wa Thiong’o is a local edition of Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance, published by Basic Civitas Books (ISBN: 9780465009466).
* Issa Shivji is the Mwalimu Nyerere Professor of Pan-African Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.
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