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Which Pan-Africanism? A Critical Reading of Ngugi’s ‘Re-membering Africa’

Discussion in 'International Forum' started by MziziMkavu, Jun 14, 2010.

  1. MziziMkavu

    MziziMkavu JF-Expert Member

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    Jun 14, 2010
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    “The Pan-Africanism that envisaged the ideal of wholeness was gradually cut down to the size of a continent, then a nation, a region, an ethnos, a clan, and even a village in some instances… But Pan-Africanism has not outlived its mission. Seen as an economic, political, cultural, and psychological re-membering vision, it should continue to guide remembering practices” – Ngugi wa Thiong’o

    A quote from Ngugi wa Thiong’o (2009) book Re-membering Africa that was recently posted online sparked an interesting query from his compatriot: ‘Has this book arrived here in Kenya? Is it available in Africa? Or should we wait until it is savoured exhaustively in Euro-America!’ Needless to say information on how to get hold of it was appreciated to the extent that another Kenyan thus exclaimed just after reading its launching review
    : ‘It has really awakened me!’

    This quest for a book that was published a year ago reveals in a ironic way the twin tragedy that Ngugi has been attempting to transcend over the years – the limited (and lack of) access to knowledge produced in and on Africa among and by Africans. Apparently this book is published by East African Publishers Limited based in Nairobi, Kampala and Dar es Salaam. Interestingly, it was launched at the University of Dar es Salaam among, I presume, other places in Africa.

    It is this ironic background – the story of a very important book published in Africa yet not widely, as in adequately, known among Africans – that has prompted me to pen this critique. The book constitutes four chapters, three of which are based on the 2006 McMillan-Stewart Lectures at Harvard University. The other is primarily based on a lecture I was privileged to attend and which left a lasting impression on my mind – The 2003 Steve Biko Memorial Lecture at the University of Cape Town. As such the book has varying themes but they are all tied with a common thread – the importance of memory in explaining and renewing contemporary Africa.

    Ngugi’s preface categorically states that this “book speak about the decolonization of modernity” as there is “no region, no culture, no nation today that has not been affected by colonialism and its aftermath.” The author is so convinced of this to the extent that he affirms that “modernity can be considered a product of colonialism.” Now to those who have been following Ngugi’s consistent works this claim may not seem new. But what makes it novel is this research finding:

    It was astonishing to discover, in writing them, the centrality of the Irish experience to the colonial question, especially as it relates to language, culture, and social memory. Ireland was England’s first colony, and it became a prototype for all the English colonies in Asia, Africa, and America. Irish missionaries, army officers, and administrative officials were often considered part of the British empire, thus possibly explaining why Rudyard Kipling chose to make Kim, the eponymous hero of his novel, both Irish and working class, as if to show both the British proletariat and the colonized alike were willing servants of the empire. Anglo-Irish literature was certainly used in the service of the cultural self-image of the empire: It was integral component of the English canon in schools and colleges in Africa, often taught as the empire’s “gift to the world.” But colonial context of the Irish writers’ texts was erased from their artistic being (Ngugi wa Thiong’o 2009: vi - vii).

    On the basis of this finding Ngugi aptly entitles chapter one of the book ‘Dismembering Practices: Planting European Memory in Africa.’ Therein he provides two individual cases that highlight how Euro-American colonial-cum- capitalist modernity could not really thrive without first trying to erase the memories of those it sought to colonize and capitalize in ‘new lands’.

    The first case is that of Waiyaki wa Hinga who resisted British military occupation in the 19th Century. When the British captured him they removed him from his region, that is, the base of his power. In the realm of military tactics this is quite understandable. Even killing him is logically explainable. But they didn’t just kill him – they buried him alive with his head facing the bowels of the earth. Why such a strange form of burial? Ngugi’s explanation underscores the fact that this was an act of cultural imperialism aimed at making a statement against the cultures of those who were resisting colonialism. To Ngugi, the British applied this cultural-cum- military tactic in “opposition to the Gikuyu burial rites’ requirement that the body face Mount Kenya, the dwelling place of the Supreme Deity.” It is indeed an old tactic that even features in Biblical narratives of conquests whereby the vanquished’s names, bearing their God, were changed. “Similarly”, he notes, “in Xhosaland, the present-day Eastern Cape of South Africa, the British captured King Hintsa of the Xhosa resistance and decapitated him, taking his head to the British Museum, just as they had done with the decapitated head of the Maori King of New Zealand.”

    Yes, if I may add, the Germans did the same with Mtwa Mkwawa of Uhehe – who successfully defeated them in the famous battle of Lugalo – and went on to hang in public the consortium of leaders who were inspired my Kinjeketile Ngwale of Ngarambe to resist German occupation in the legendary Maji Maji War (1905 – 1907). “The relationship between Africa and Europe”, as Ngugi aptly observes, “is well represented by the fate of these figures” since a “colonial act – indeed, any act in the context of conquest and domination – is both a practice of power, intended to pacify a populace, and a symbolic act, a performance of power intended to produce docile minds.” This relationship is characterized by what the author refers to as dismemberment and defines as an “act of absolute social engineering” that occurred in two stages. In the first stage “the African personhood was divided into two halves: the continent and its diaspora.” Then, in the second stage, the infamous Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 “literally fragmented and reconstituted Africa into British, French, Portuguese, German, Belgian, and Spanish Africa.” This tragedy and what followed afterwards is what Ngugi’s Re-membering Africa aims to undo:

    The result was an additional dismemberment of diasporic African, who was now separated not only from his continent and his labour but also from his very sovereign being. The subsequent colonial plantations on the African continent has led to the same result: division of the African from his land, body, and mind…Whereas before he was his own subject, now he is subject to another (Ngugi wa Thiong’o 2009: 3 - 4).

    Thus, both generally and specifically, the African mind/memory has been colonized and neo-colonized by Euro-American “capitalist modernity”. Invoking, albeit not entirely agreeing with, V. Y. Mudimbe’s Idea of Africa, Ngugi’s reaffirm that wherever “they went, in their voyages of land, sea, and mind, Europeans planted their own memories on whatever they contacted.” He then narrates the way this was done, from how our places – such as Kirungii and Namlolwe – were renamed Westlands and Victoria respectively and our names – such as Ngugi – was changed to James to submit Africa to Euro-American memory and identity. It is this submission that stamped and continues to stamp Euro-America’s sense of ownership of Africa. Predictably, Ngugi moves to, and concludes with, his favourite subject of language to unmask this process:

    If the planting of its memory on the body was effected through names, the one on the mind was accomplished through the vast naming system of language… Africans, in the diaspora and on the continent, were soon to be recipients of this linguistic logic of conquest, with two results: linguicide in the case of the diaspora and linguistic famine, or linguifam, on the continent. Linguicide…is the linguistic equivalent of genocide. Genocide involves conscious act of physically massacre, linguicide, conscious acts of language liquidation…This is precisely the fate of African languages in the diaspora…On the continent, languages are not liquidated in the same way. What happens to them, in this post-Berlin Conference era of direct colonialism, is linguistic famine. Linguifam is to languages what famine is to people who speak them – linguistic deprivation and, ultimately, starvation… In the African continent, African languages – deprived of the food, water, light, and oxygen of thought, and of the constant conceptualizing that facilitates forging of the new and renewal of the old – underwent slow starvation, linguifam (Ngugi wa Thiong’o 2009: 11 - 14).

    Since language is indeed “a communication system and carrier of culture by virtue of being simultaneously the means and carrier of memory” that bears “the weight of a civilization”, the ultimate result of this dismemberment through linguifam, and thus, culturefam, is a “destruction of the base from which people”, in this case, us, Africans, “launch themselves into the world.”

    Thus far, I agree with Ngugi. As far as re-membering our African languages is concerned I have no qualms with him
    . The problem starts when he invokes a global version of ‘Pan-Africanism’ and a Euro-American conceptualization of ‘African Renaissance’ and ‘Afro-modernity’. I have already addressed the racialist pitfalls of the former in my online discussion
    with champions of such a version so I won’t dwell so much on it. Here it is important to observe that Ngugi’s apt premise that Africa has been dismembered between the continent and diaspora logically leads to his conclusion that re-membering such an Africa is to bring back these two halves together. This is how he puts it in the second chapter entitled ‘Memory, Restoration and African Renaissance’:

    Political Pan-Africanism should make the continent a base where African peoples, meaning continentals and people of African descent, can feel truly at home – a realization of the Garveysian vision of Africa for Africans, both at home and abroad. Such an Africa would be a secure base where all peoples of African descent can feel inspired to visit, invest, and even live if they so choose (Ngugi wa Thiong’o 2009: 68).

    Inherent in such a conceptualization is the idea of ‘race’ – the African/Black race to be precise – as a tie that visibly bind what has been referred by Chinweizu, in an online discussion, as “the Pan-African constituency.” The Julius Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan-African Studies who presented the book’s launching review referred to above thus captures this race-cum-cultural dilemmatic which, intentionally or unintentionally, reduces Pan-Africanism to a racial project:

    Often both the ideologues and detractors present pan-Africanism as a racial construct… Yet, the notion of the African nation, even among Pan-Africanists, is a fiercely contested concept. It is, unfortunately in my view, formulated in a rather fruitless question: ‘Who is an African?’ Are the Arabs in North Africa part of the African nation and therefore included in the Pan-Africanist project? Are the Indians in East and Southern Africa, the Lebanese in West Africa, the Boers and Malays in South Africa etc. Africans? (Issa G. Shivji, 2010, on Kwame Nkrumah’s Thought in the Evolution of Pan-African Ideology)
    It is my contention that by invoking the essentialist term ‘African descent’ Ngugi falls into this pitfall of presenting Pan-Africanism as a racial construct. If I were to rewrite his call above I would invoke Mwalimu Nyerere’s no-racial clarion call for an inclusive continental Africanity by declaring that Political Pan-Africanism should make the continent a base that “will belong to Africans” whereby “this word ‘Africans’ can include all those who have made their home in the continent, black, brown, or white” (Julius K. Nyerere, June 1961, on The Future of Africa).

    This conceptualization of Pan-Africanism is local in a continental sense, rather than global in a diasporic sense, and in a significant way it augurs well with Ngugi’s own call that “Economic Pan-Africanism will translate into a network of communications – air, sea, land, telephone, Internet – that ease intra-continental movements of peoples, goods, businesses, and services” whereby “Africa becomes a power bloc able to negotiate on an equal basis with all other global economies (Ngugi wa Thiong’o 2009: 67 - 68). Such a Pan-Africa, I still assert, is post-racial.

    © Chambi Chachage
     
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