“I’m conflicted. Sometimes I want them to just tear it down. But it’s also part of our history. If we don’t deal with the legacy of that past then we are likely to repeat the same mistakes”.
Wachira Waheire spends several of the first minutes of our interview sizing me up. As he shares this observation with me, he is guarded and measured, uncertain that he will collaborate with me until he establishes who I am and why I need to speak to him. It is Saturday morning in the Kenyan capital Nairobi and the museum coffee shop where we are meeting is buzzing. Only when I show him samples of my previous writing on my phone does he begin to relax and speak a little more freely. “You know this story is very traumatising,” he tells me. “Every time a journalist asks me to talk about it, I give a piece of myself away. I relive the experience again. It’s very hard.”
Waheire was bundled back into the vehicle and driven around for hours before he was dropped off in the bowels of a building he didn’t recognise. “I was promised a short questioning – I ended up in prison for four years. But had I not been so young and healthy I’m not sure I would even be here today,” he says, laughing mirthlessly.
This story is the 17 days Waheire spent in the tower looming over us during our interview, days in which he was beaten, tortured and interrogated before he was finally transferred to a maximum security prison, where he was held in solitary confinement for four years. In 1986, Waheire was 25 and two years out from university when Kenyan Special Branch officers showed up at his office and asked him to follow them. The officers calmly escorted him to the back of a four-wheel-drive vehicle and took him to his home. There, they found a political poster featuring an ear of corn and an AK-47 that stated that food insecurity was the root of revolution. The officers argued that that was enough to charge him with sedition. Suddenly the mood shifted.
Waheire was bundled back into the vehicle and driven around for hours before he was dropped off in the bowels of a building he didn’t recognise. “I was promised a short questioning – I ended up in prison for four years. But had I not been so young and healthy I’m not sure I would even be here today,” he says, laughing mirthlessly.
The building where Waheire was held is Nyayo House, once the Nairobi provincial headquarters and administrative heart of the city. Commissioned in 1973 by the Ministry of Works, it was initially planned as the 14-storey “Nairobi House”. In 1979, a year after he assumed office following the death of his predecessor Jomo Kenyatta, President Daniel arap Moi, also known by the sobriquet Nyayo, renamed the project Nyayo House. In a 2003 interview, the then chief government architect, the late A. A. Ngotho, said that by the time they broke ground, the decision to use the building for Special Branch offices as well as other government ministries had been taken.
Nyayo House is loaded with symbols of the relationship between the two presidents. It was for several years the second tallest building after the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, a nod to the way Moi, who served as vice president under Kenyatta, always positioned himself as secondary to his predecessor. Indeed, the word “Nyayo” is Kiswahili for footsteps – a nickname that Moi gave himself and his political philosophy to indicate that he would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor. Thus the building initially conceived as Nairobi House became Nyayo House on completion, and for almost 22 years, Nairobi’s big men symbolically presided over the capital city until Times Tower was completed in 1995.
Both Nyayo House and Nyati House were at the heart of the Moi regime’s torture network, and Kenyans who remember the 1986 to 1992 period still associate the two buildings with arbitrary arrests, detentions and disappearances. Growing up in Nairobi, we avoided walking past Nyati House, especially because of rumours that you could be arrested and held incommunicado for simply looking at the building in the wrong way.
The Moi regime was on shaky grounds from the beginning, but its most severe challenge was an attempted coup by the air force in 1982 that triggered a wave of punitive repression that arguably didn’t end until the Moi regime itself ended and reached its apogee in sites like Nyayo House. Between 1982 and 1985, after the building had been finished, the government architects who oversaw the project were asked by the Special Branch to make several alterations to the original planning that would turn an office block in the heart of a major city into one of the most secretive and notorious prisons in the country. Twelve strong rooms in the basement were turned into pitch black holding cells and concrete slabs blocked elevator access to all but five floors. Access to the top three floors was blocked almost entirely, except through a single door.
In a 2003 interview with a local paper, the then police commissioner Bernard Njiinu argued that even he didn’t have a sense of the full scope of what was happening in the building. “I knew what I read in the newspapers like anybody elsewhere,” he told journalists, even though he was building a picture of his own from titbits of information he gathered independently.
Waheire gives credence to this argument. “It used to be a very busy government office,” he recalls, “but we were always brought in at night, and they made it so that the office workers never knew what was happening in the basement.” Thus, while by day bureaucrats pushed paper and traded water cooler banter, by night hundreds of political prisoners were held incommunicado in the basement, shuffled to the rooftop for painful beating and interrogation sessions, and then shuffled back downstairs for more torture in the form of sensory deprivation and environmental manipulation. Those in the offices may not have known the particulars, but certainly most of Nairobi suspected that all was not well within the building. There were too many “suicides” off the top floor. There were too many armed police officers milling about in the corridors and at the entrances, shouting at civilians to stay away from the staircases.
The scale of the operation was eventually so large that it couldn’t be contained completely and locals would swear that even the air around the building was sodden with the stench of death. The fear and paranoia it triggered is still reflected in the way Nairobians who remember that time navigate the city, leaving a wide berth around Nyayo House even if it is the shortest route to their destination. It is seared in the collective memory of the city.
Do buildings have memory? The phrase “institutional memory” generally refers to the way ideas get preserved and transmitted across a network over time. But there isn’t really a word to describe the ways in which negative energies become indelibly associated with buildings or constructed artefacts that have been used to violent ends. Yet violence like torture marks buildings not least with the physical debris of damaged human bodies: blood stains the walls and floors and soaks into the concrete; human waste in substantial quantities festers in poorly ventilated spaces.
Walking through such spaces, especially when these spaces have been built or altered to accommodate such uses, one often gets a sense of claustrophobia. Spiritualists may argue that this is the weight of tormented spirits that succumbed to unnatural deaths in these spaces, but non-spiritualists would probably observe that our perception of physical spaces is altered by the uses we associate with them.
Moreover, there’s the more ethereal sense of oppression that lingers even after the torture. Walking through such spaces, especially when these spaces have been built or altered to accommodate such uses, one often gets a sense of claustrophobia. Spiritualists may argue that this is the weight of tormented spirits that succumbed to unnatural deaths in these spaces, but non-spiritualists would probably observe that our perception of physical spaces is altered by the uses we associate with them. The philosopher Saul Fisher argues in the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy that beyond aesthetics or beauty, our experience of the built environment contributes to our state of mind – “the ways we experience architectural objects may contribute to how we comprehend, and interact with, those objects.” So an ugly building used as a space to save lives will evoke an entirely different emotion from a beautiful building used for torture.
The experience – even if second hand – of associating a building with torture, or even with deep uncertainty that is amplified by watching others’ anxieties around such buildings, shapes the way we experience these buildings. You feel it when walking through the basement of Elmina Castle in Ghana, a major stopover for the transatlantic slave trade, where hundreds of thousands of slaves were held in near complete darkness before being shipped off to slavery between 1637 and the abolition of slavery in 1814. It is present in the small rooms of Tuol Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where almost 20,000 Cambodians were tortured and killed during Pol Pot’s regime. Long after the blood stains have dried and the smell of decaying flesh has wafted, the weight of history hangs in the air in these places, altering our experience of even the most banal bureaucratic artefacts.
But does it persist forever?
Certainly, a collective memory of oppression changes the way people interact with buildings and constructed artefacts: a step is just a step until a parent tells you that it is the “naughty step” where you’re expected to wait out a time out. But buildings like Nyayo House in Nairobi or John Vorseter Square (Johannesburg Central Police Station) in Johannesburg, which both remain in quotidian use, raise the question of whether the legacy of torture is imprinted indelibly into the structures’ DNA. Like Nyayo House, John Vorseter Square was at the heart of a violently oppressive state in which political prisoners were arbitrarily detained, tortured and killed. The similarities don’t end there; John Vorseter Square is also an architecturally uninspiring building that would be left out of any city tour of Johannesburg were it not the site of so much of the apartheid state’s machinery of murder. As with Nyayo House, none of this is a secret, but governments continue to use these buildings.
It’s been 25 years since the last confirmed incident of torture at Nyayo House, and in the lead-up to the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, the city has still not resolved what to do with the building. The Truth Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) convened in 2008 and suggested that it should be turned into a museum, a move that Waheire – who worked with the commission – supports. “It’s a symbol of unfinished business because it remains there and it remains in use,” Waheire reflects. Yet, Waheire isn’t convinced that demolishing the building would give victims the closure that they need. “It should remain,” he tells me, “and they should retain the name to retain the essence. If they change the name they can change everything. It should remain Nyayo House so that the history is encapsulated.”
Memory is an idea that Waheire obsesses over, especially as he watches the state erase the truth about Nyayo House torture from the minds of younger generations by leaving it out of the current school curriculum. In other countries, such buildings are decommissioned and turned into museums – spaces where a community can reckon with an ugly chapter of its history. But Nyayo House is a staggeringly tall tower in the heart of a city struggling for space. There simply aren’t enough artefacts from the 12-room cell below and the three stories at the top to fill every space of the building as a museum.
Waheire sees a compromise, arguing that the basement alone should be turned into a museum, instead of its current use as a storage space and dumpsite for office waste from above. “The government hasn’t accepted the idea [of Nyayo House as a historical site] so they are attempting to delete that history. It’s filthy. It is a dumpsite. It was cleaned in 2013 during the [TJRC] hearings but since then …” he trails off. Preserving the memory of these dark years is Waheire’s main work that he does as a volunteer, pushing for the public to rally and protect this memory so that it may never happen again.
Nyayo House is one of a pair of buildings in downtown Nairobi indelibly marked by a legacy of torture, the other being Nyati House, a squat and architecturally uninspiring stack of gray concrete that once served as the headquarters of the dreaded Special Branch, a clandestine arm of the police force that was instrumental in arresting, detaining and torturing real or imagined dissidents during the Moi era. In a 2012 interview with a local newspaper Wanyiri Kihoro, a former detainee, observed of Nyati House that “people would get shivers just from passing by the building’s entrance. It was shrouded in so much mystery that it would seem your own personal demons came alive with each step towards it.”
Over time, stories began to leak, especially when it became impossible to ignore the sheer number of “suicides” reported at Nyayo House. It seemed strange that while no one was allowed access to the top three floors of the building, and at a time when suicide was technically illegal in Kenya, a dead body having allegedly jumped off the top floor would show up every few days. Growing up in Nairobi in the 1990s, I remember being advised to walk past the building quickly in case a body was falling.
Nyayo House, on the other hand, has at least some architectural merit. The dull orange exterior dominates the intersection of two of Nairobi’s main thoroughfares – the Uhuru Highway and Kenyatta Avenue – and its phallic symbolism is all the more prominent as it towers past the trees of the three parks that comprise the southern boundary of the central business district.
Although fundamentally an archetype of the sterile brutalism of Nairobi in the 1980s, it is not an entirely uninspiring example. Rather than a solid rectangular shape, it has a doubled-H shape, and is essentially three towers connected by a corridor. The orange of the two outer towers contrasts slightly with the dull brown of the core tower, and its corners are rounded where other towers have sharp edges. Combined with the flamboyant two-tone colour, the structure of the building adds a touch of quirkiness to the austere design.
In 1985, when it was opened, Nyayo House reflected a style that was perceptively different from the city’s Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC). The latter conformed to the flamboyance of the African modernist frenzy of the 1960s and 70s – the euphoria of the independence era leading to fanciful, extravagant designs that birthed a rotating restaurant flaring from the ceiling of a tower like an elaborate head dress, while a squat plenary hall echoing the lines of a traditional hut sits nearby. Nyayo House, on the other hand, was a concession to the pragmatism of the economic austerity of the 1980s – clean, tame lines with only the smallest concessions to artistic flare.
Both Nyayo House and Nyati House were at the heart of the Moi regime’s torture network, and Kenyans who remember the 1986 to 1992 period still associate the two buildings with arbitrary arrests, detentions and disappearances. Growing up in Nairobi, we avoided walking past Nyati House, especially because of rumours that you could be arrested and held incommunicado for simply looking at the building in the wrong way. In a 2014 interview with the local press, John Ng’aari, a pro-democracy activist in the 1980s, said that he still felt an urge to urinate in fear whenever he walked past Nyati House and that “seeing it evokes memories of the old terror days when speaking out was a crime. Amongst our prayer items in those days was ‘may God save us from Nyati House’”.
Waheire’s ambiguous position on Nyayo House is indicative of the less categorical perspective that Nairobians have towards Nyayo House compared to Nyati House. Unlike Nyati House, which is still used as a police building, and is therefore, closed to the public and shrouded in secrecy, Nyayo House has always been a mixed-purpose building. Since 1983 when the building was completed, it has been home to the Department of Immigration, the provincial administration where Nairobi residents applied for various permits and official documents, as well as the head office for the first privately owned television station in the country’s history, the Kenya Television Network (KTN). Given this expansive use, it has always been and remains one of the busiest buildings in the country, with queues for new passports and permits often snaking around the parking lot and into the street. All of this went on even while people like Waheire were moaning in misery – beaten, deprived of food, sleep and water – in the basement below.
Buildings like Nyayo House are integral to the process of administrative massacres because they allow authorities to bureaucratise the process of torture and killing and to normalise the process as a function of the state.
Ngotho, in the Saturday Nation of 5 May 2012, insisted that Nyayo House was not deliberately built for torture, but testimony given at the Kenya Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission argued otherwise. In their summary findings, the commission argued that “the infamous Nyayo House torture chambers were designed and built […] specifically for the purpose of terrorising those who were critical of, or perceived to be critical of, the established regime.” Waheire concurs. “After the 2002 change of government,” he tells me, “they tried very hard to destroy evidence of all the torture that had happened but when they tried to demolish the torture chambers, the architects told them that if they did that it would undermine the structural integrity of the whole building. That suggests that the torture chambers were part of the structure from the beginning.”
Ngotho argued otherwise. He told a newspaper in 2003 that the sound- and waterproof rooms that would become the main torture chambers were designed as strong rooms for the storage of important documents produced by the government officers upstairs. They were poorly ventilated because people were not expected to spend extended periods of time there, he insisted. Similarly, the elevators to the basement only served certain floors because only the occupants of those floors required access to the money and the secret documents kept in the basement at any time.
Another architect working on the project concurred with Ngotho. Gideon Mutemi Mulyungi told the TJRC that the rooms were initially designed to store cash and sensitive and valuable government documents, and that they were built with reinforced concrete so that they would be fire resistant, and that because of the lack of natural ventilation, air was piped in through special air vents in the roof and walls to assist in climate control.
Still, Ngotho conceded that the Special Branch did, in fact, have a hand in the final design of the building. He recalled that two senior Special Branch officers and a British national, a “Mr. Parkins”, regularly briefed his team on changes that needed to be incorporated into the structure. And to make the situation really work, the building’s administrators put in place several restrictions on the structure’s use. For instance, the original elevators to the basement only served five of the 27 floors: “those government offices that really needed them”, recalled Ngotho. When public elevators were made available, civilians were prohibited from using the staircases even to the first floor, meaning that the lifts at Nyayo House were always crowded. Eventually, the flow of everything from people to recycled air was structured around restricting access to the extremities of the building.
Eventually, the building could no longer contain its secrets. Over time, stories began to leak, especially when it became impossible to ignore the sheer number of “suicides” reported at Nyayo House. It seemed strange that while no one was allowed access to the top three floors of the building, and at a time when suicide was technically illegal in Kenya, a dead body having allegedly jumped off the top floor would show up every few days. Growing up in Nairobi in the 1990s, I remember being advised to walk past the building quickly in case a body was falling. The suicide theory held up only as long as the autocratic regime remained in power. Soon after the democratic vote in 2002, survivors and security officers who had worked in Nyayo House confirmed that those who died during the torture would be thrown off the top of the building to mask the extent of their injuries.
In a 1995 article for the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, law professor Mark Osiel defined an administrative massacre as “large scale violations of basic human rights to life and liberty by the central state in a systematic and organised fashion, often against its own citizens.” An administrative massacre is particularly horrifying because it involves building a bureaucracy around human rights violations in order to sanitise them and create an illusion of legality. The political theorist Hannah Arendt first used the term to describe the horrors of British colonialism, especially in India, when colonial administrators would justify widespread murders and deportations of locals in the most sterile bureaucratic terms, a practice that extended to Nazi Germany, where SS officials kept meticulous records of the machine they built to exterminate Jews, Romas, homosexuals and other groups deemed “undesirable and irredeemable”.
Architecture is an integral part of an administrative massacre, particularly where the state in question wants a visible monument to both contain the horror and make an example of those who endure it. Buildings like Nyayo House that are geared primarily to this purpose are not designed to horrify – a remarkable building that stood out from the rest of the architecture would quickly become a focal point for protest and possibly revolt. Rather, the more banal and routine the exterior, the more citizens are likely to accept that what goes on within is a normal part of state function – even if this banality is a function of how quickly the buildings are put together by an autocratic state.
Examples of this type of building can be found on every continent. Many have been turned into museums, like Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh and the Stasi prison in Berlin. Some are still in continuous use, like John Vorseter Square. The US government’s Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba is the most notable addition to the list, although similar smaller sites, like Richmond Hill prison in Grenada, also exist. Oftentimes buildings that facilitate administrative massacres are modified from other functions, but rarely are they as architecturally striking as the Escuela de Mecanica de la Armada in Buenos Aires – the largest detention centre used during Argentina’s Dirty War from 1976 to 1983. Even though it was an educational facility like Tuol Sleng, this classical revivalist building, with its four imposing pillars, looks more like a museum than any of the other buildings on this list, and so the transition into a museum of the period was perhaps smoother.
Nyayo House was part of the administrative massacre of Kenyans in the 1980s. Unlike generalised violence in neighbouring countries like Uganda and Somalia, it percolated slowly and relied on the acquiescence of the public rather than on widespread demonstrations of force. It focused on fear as a method of control rather than outright destruction, and caused significant physical harm to a few in order to impose psychological control over the majority. It also altered the character of the city significantly – until the mid-2000s, pedestrian traffic around Loita Street was uncharacteristically light for a bustling African city, as civilians avoided walking past both Nyayo House and Nyati House in order to avoid getting caught in the dragnet of a paranoid state.
Although the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission (TJRC) recommended that the Nyayo House torture chambers be converted into a museum, the government has so far resisted this recommendation for many reasons. Quite simply, the state refuses to acknowledge the magnitude of the suffering it inflicted on its citizens.
Buildings like Nyayo House are integral to the process of administrative massacres because they allow authorities to bureaucratise the process of torture and killing and to normalise the process as a function of the state. It is, therefore, almost predictable that the most banal exterior should house a bloody history of violence because the form of a building that truly manifested the function of such buildings might prove too grotesque to contemplate. Similarly, the decision to use buildings close to the proximity of the city centre serves not only to speed up the process of arbitrary arrest and detention, but also serves as a visual reminder of what the state is doing. An administrative massacre relieves the perpetrator of the need to entirely mask what they’re doing: they need the public to suspect just enough so as to incite paranoia and paralysing fear.
Although the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission recommended that the Nyayo House torture chambers be converted into a museum, the government has so far resisted this recommendation for many reasons. Quite simply, the state refuses to acknowledge the magnitude of the suffering it inflicted on its citizens. Many of those who ended up in office after the end of the authoritarian Moi regime had served under that regime. Mwai Kibaki, the president who set up the TJRC, was once vice president under Moi and also served as chair of the National Security Committee that oversaw internal security at the time that the Nyayo House machine was being deployed. Beyond having knowledge, it is possible to infer that he was complicit, and thus had no incentive to adopt the recommendations of the commission. Kibaki’s successor Uhuru Kenyatta, who received the final report of the TJRC in 2013, has also failed to adopt the commission’s recommendations.
This leaves survivors like Waheire in limbo. On the one hand, they have been financially compensated following prosecutions against the state in the days after Moi left office, but, on the other hand, they sense that without a physical monument to their suffering their place in history is being systematically erased. Kenya is a young country with an average age of 18.1 years, meaning that an entire generation has already emerged since the last prisoner left Nyayo House: an entire generation that doesn’t know why people walk quickly and look up when passing Nyayo House.
Waheire believes that such collective amnesia is disrespectful and undermines the stability of the country in general. As a founding member of the Nyayo House Torture Survivors Association, he battles the state on preserving the memory of the era. (The organisation remains unregistered because the state said its mission was prejudicial to national security.) Waheire volunteers to keep information archived and organised, sharing the Kenyan story at regional and international meetings of torture survivors but is pushing back against apathy from other survivors who, once compensated, argue that the past is better buried.
The sole “good” dimension of the administrative massacre is the meticulous record-keeping that makes such memory projects possible. “We have all the information we need,” Waheire tells me. “We know 98 per cent of the names of the people who were held there and my long-term goal is at least to be able to memorialise them in a plaque or statue of some kind.”
Until then, the tower remembers for everyone. The torture cells below can be buried underneath reams of waste paper but they cannot be detached from the building, which also means that they cannot be physically erased from our collective memories.
This article was initially published in Disegno Magazine, #15, June – August 2017.
The Contribution of African Philosophy to Conceptual Decolonisation: A Reply to Sanya Osha
Kwasi Wiredu’s contribution to philosophy not only pushed philosophical discourse forward but has been instrumental towards the decolonization process in Africa.
In “Conceptual Decolonisation: Kwasi Wiredu’s Disruption of Philosophy”, published in The Elephant on 25th April 2019, Sanya Osha argues that while the celebrated Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, has disrupted Western philosophy, his efforts at conceptual decolonisation within the framework of analytic philosophy are not radical enough because, allegedly, they remain captive to the Western philosophical canon. Osha has pursued the same line of argument in his article on Wiredu in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
It is appropriate to remind ourselves early in this article that since colonisation denotes foreign invasion and occupation that robs its victims of their political autonomy, material resources, and their attendant right to cultural expression in its diverse manifestations, conceptual decolonisation necessarily implies the victims’ initiative to evict foreign ideas that occupy and dominate their way of thinking, and to assert their right to think and act as they choose. Scholars have frequently observed that colonisation had a three-pronged approach: military action to physically subdue the armed resistance of its victims, religion to weaken their resolve for armed resistance, and formal education to superimpose on them a Western worldview with its “white” supremacist orientation. Conceptual colonisation mainly functions at the level of religion and formal education, and so its deconstruction must operate along the same lines.
Not bound to Ancient Athens
Osha asserts that “The Athenian origins of Western philosophy obviously do not address the urgencies of African existential dilemmas and this is probably one of the reasons that African philosophy sometimes appears not to be in the forefront of the social processes of decolonisation in Africa. … the African subject is compelled, with little or no voice, to find its locus of muteness within an invariably Western philosophical canon.” He seems to be implying that all African scholars of philosophy only feel accomplished in the discipline if they can expound the thoughts of the ancient Greek philosophers such as Thales, Pythagoras and Anaxagoras, Socrates himself, and his myriad academic descendants such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, among others. However, Osha’s view, which implies that philosophy is essentially a Western discipline, risks creating the false impression that non-Western cultures in Africa, Asia, Central America, South America, New Zealand and Australia do not undertake philosophical reflection, thereby reinforcing the conceptual colonisation that he and Wiredu are agreed ought to be uprooted.
For centuries the West debated the question as to whether Africans had the ability to philosophise, to which Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the introduction to his Philosophy of History, gave a definite answer in the negative, insisting that Africa was a dark continent without logic, and therefore without history and civilisation. Underlying this question was the widespread belief in the West that Europe’s culture is characterised by reason and non-European ones by emotion, superstition, or whatever else, but certainly not reason. Thus the renowned Kenyan philosopher D.A. Masolo, in African Philosophy in Search of Identity, observed that at the centre of the debate on African philosophy is “the concept of reason, a value which is believed to stand as the great divide between the civilised and the uncivilised, the logical and the mystical.”
However, as Jennifer Lisa Vest correctly observed in “Perverse and Necessary Dialogues in African Philosophy”, “To engage in academic dialogues implicitly or explicitly guided by a request or a felt need to justify and defend the very possibility of African philosophy or African rationality is to engage in perverse and unnecessary dialogues” – perverse because they question the very humanity and attendant rationality of Africans, and unnecessary because such humanity and its attendant rationality need no demonstration.
For centuries the West debated the question as to whether Africans had the ability to philosophise, to which Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the introduction to his Philosophy of History, gave a definite answer in the negative, insisting that Africa was a dark continent without logic, and therefore without history and civilisation.
The publication of the English translation of Placide Tempels’ La Philosophie Bantoue as Bantu Philosophy in 1952, with a second better known edition in 1959, was a classical enactment of the adage that one ought to refrain from judging a book by its cover, for it ironically argued that Africans are incapable of individualised, rational, philosophical reflection, reinforcing the belief that Africans are outsiders to the kind of philosophical reflection undertaken in Europe. For Tempels, “African philosophy” simply meant a purported monolithic African worldview. Indeed, Tempels was convinced that Africans could not articulate their own “philosophy”, so that it rested on Europeans to explicate it: “It is we [Europeans] who will be able to tell them [Africans], in precise terms what their inmost concept of being is. They will recognise themselves in our words.”
Regrettably, John S. Mbiti’s celebrated African Religions and Philosophy, first published in 1969, adopted Tempels’ theoretical framework, with Mbiti sparing only one chapter for what he called “African philosophy”. Notice that the title of Mbiti’s book suggests that there are many African religions, but a single African philosophy.
It is also regretable that Mbiti’s book got to be much better known than The Mind of Africa, written seven years earlier, in 1962, by the Ghanaian philosopher William E. Abraham. Abraham’s book was a philosophical masterpiece that grappled with various issues regarding the direction that newly independent African states were bound to face. In his preface, Abraham wrote: “I have not merely tried to describe and isolate the forces at work in Africa, and to describe the people among whom the forces are unleashed. I have sought the fundamental framework within which these forces are set, that framework which reveals the people of Africa in their human condition in society. Every society has an ideology. It is the ideology of a society which yields those principles in the light of which significant events are judged to be significant.”
Since Abraham’s seminal work, philosophers too many to count, from different countries in Africa, have penned down their thoughts on various subjects, not least that of conceptual decolonisation. These include, but are certainly not limited to, Ghana’s Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye, Benin’s Paulin J. Hountondji, Senegal’s Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Cameroon’s Jean-Godefroy Bidima, Nigeria’s Olu´ Fe´mi Ta´ I´wo` and Nkiru Nzegwu, Malawi’s Didier Njirayamanda Kaphagawani, Ethiopia’s Bekele Gutema Jebessa, Eritrea’s Tsenay Serequeberhan, and Kenya’s H. Odera Oruka and D.A. Masolo.
Wiredu in touch with the people’s struggles
Wrote Osha: “For philosophy to obtain relevance to the practices of everyday life in Africa, it has to be embedded in and defined by everyday struggles and experiences.” This is precisely what Wiredu does in a good number of his works.
In his 1967 “African Traditional Thought and Western Science”, Robin Horton asserted that Africans are incapable of a detached evaluation of their systems of thought in terms of truth and falsity. More specifically, Horton asserted that African religious systems of thought were “closed”, by which he meant that they did not envisage alternatives to the established systems of thought.
However, in “How Not to Compare African Traditional Thought with Western Thought”, published as a chapter in his Philosophy and an African Culture, Wiredu points out that Horton ought to have compared African religion with Western religion, and African scientific thought with Western scientific thought. While for Osha this is a mere attempt at disrupting the Western philosophical canon through a synthesis of African and Western philosophy, Wiredu’s rejoinder served the crucial role of slowing down the spread of one more Western myth presented as objective analysis of African realities.
An important issue in philosophical discourses by African scholars is the role of language: how much independence can such scholars really assert in their intellectual productions if they continue to be beholden to the languages of their erstwhile colonisers? In Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Ngugi wa Thiong’o famously highlighted the fact that there is no escape from mental subjugation to Western imperialism as long as creative writers in Africa continue to use such languages. Osha is aware of the fettering effect of language, but charges Wiredu with perpetuating it: “The African subject thus finds him/herself entrapped within a Western philosophical vocabulary that necessarily constrains his/her discursive agency, notwithstanding the realities of being ensconced within an ostensibly African voice, in this case, Wiredu’s own voice.”
An important issue in philosophical discourses by African scholars is the role of language: how much independence can such scholars really assert in their intellectual productions if they continue to be beholden to the languages of their erstwhile colonisers?
However, Wiredu has consistently called attention to the challenges of undertaking philosophical reflection in Western languages on the basis that they are carriers of Western worldviews that necessarily colour the cogitations of the African philosopher. He presents some of his thoughts on this issue in his “Formulating Modern Thought in African Languages: Some Theoretical Considerations”, which appeared in The Surreptitious Speech: Presence Africaine and the Politics of Otherness 1947-1987 edited by V. Y. Mudimbe.
Furthermore, in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion”, Wiredu is emphatic that African philosophy will go a long way on the road to decolonisation when African scholars utilise their indigenous languages in their philosophical works, and points out that many other people think philosophically in their indigenous languages as a matter of course. To illustrate his point, he takes up Placide Tempels’ claim, in Bantu Philosophy, that for the Bantu, “Being is force and force is being”, and points out that the very sentence cannot be translated into his Akan language, which, he tells us, does not have the existential verb “to be”. From this he infers that what Tempels claims about the Bantu in this regard cannot be attributed to the non-Bantu Akan, and that this is particularly significant because Tempels often gives the impression that what he purportedly found among the Bantu is applicable to all Africans.
Wiredu further points out that the late Alexis Kagame, himself from the Bantu, reported that Tempels’ sentence is also incapable of translation into Bantu languages. Wiredu goes on to observe that “If Kagame is right, then whatever it was that Tempels noticed about Bantu thought was radically mis-stated by the use of an inapplicable Western category of thought, namely, the concept of being as existentially construed. It is a concept that was obviously deeply ingrained in Tempels’ own manner of thinking, and he very well may have thought it universal to all human thinking.” Consequently, Wiredu points out that “it is fair to say that any Africans who go about disseminating Tempels’ claim without confronting the conceptual issue are simply advertising their colonial mentality for all who have eyes to see.”
What is more, Wiredu has led by example, in that he has contributed a chapter written in his Akan language to Listening to Ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy, a ground-breaking volume edited by Agnes B. Curry and Anne Waters, with a foreword, most appropriately, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The other six contributors to the anthology – every scholar writing an essay in his or her own language, with accompanying English translations undertaken by scholars who are native speakers of the respective tongues – are Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Wolof), Messay Kebede (Amharic), D.A. Masolo (Dholuo), Fred Ochieng’-Odhiambo (Dholuo), Betty Wambui (Gikuyu), and the late Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (Igbo). The editors indicate that Wiredu’s calls for conceptual decolonisation played a large part in inspiring the anthology.
Moreover, while Osha seems to imply that Wiredu’s philosophy is purely analytic (the kind undertaken in the British Isles and North America), D.A. Masolo noted in “Narrative and Experience of Community as Philosophy of Culture” that one implication of the communalistic and narrativistic approach of African philosophy is that the dichotomy between analytic and continental philosophy, so characteristic of Western philosophy, is not applicable to it.
Besides, contrary to the impression that Osha creates that Wiredu’s philosophy is strictly analytic, Wiredu also delves into contractarian philosophy, so closely associated with continental philosophy, when in Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective, he questions the almost hegemonic confidence in the Western liberal majoritarian multiparty systems of governance in post-colonial African states, and appeals for the adoption of no-party ones characterised by consensus-based decision-making in their place, on the grounds that many pre-colonial African communities effectively governed themselves through such systems. He asserts that “When representatives are not constrained by considerations regarding the fortunes of power-driven parties they will be more inclined in council to reason more objectively and listen more open-mindedly. And in any deliberative body in which sensitivity to the merits of ideas is a driving force, circumstances are unlikely to select any one group for consistent marginalisation in the process of decision-making. Apart from anything else, such marginalisation would be an affront to the fundamental human rights of decisional representation.” Wiredu is emphatic that while unanimity might be the perfection of consensus, quite often it will be enough to ensure that all views are adequately articulated in the course of decision-making to secure the goodwill of those whose wishes are not adopted for implementation.
Wiredu will also go down in the annals of African philosophy for having curated and edited A Companion to African Philosophy, a forty-seven chapter volume bringing together the contributions of philosophers from around Africa and a number from other parts of the world. His inclusion of non-African scholars is appropriate for at least two reasons. First, it confirms that African philosophers have made contributions that have been noticed and responded to by academics beyond the continent. Indeed, several philosophers of European descent, working in Western universities, have now thrown in their lot, not with the enslaving approach to African philosophy championed by Placide Tempels and John S. Mbiti after him, but rather with the emancipatory approach to it championed by a host of contemporary African philosophers. Second, Wiredu’s inclusion of non-African philosophers in A Companion to African Philosophy highlights the fact that African philosophy is taking its rightful place in the emerging discourses on world philosophies, thereby further whittling down the hegemony of the Western philosophical canon that Osha seems to think is invincible.
Diverse schools of African philosophy
Osha talks of “the Anglophone school of African philosophy”, suggesting that he holds the view that the schools of philosophy in Africa are organised along the Western imperialist mapping of Africa into Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) – a view that perpetuates Western imperialism by legitimising the criminal partition of Africa in Berlin towards the close of the nineteenth century.
However, there is no single Anglophone school of philosophy, but rather a number of schools of philosophy in the so-called Anglophone Africa. For example, the late Kenyan philosophy professor, H. Odera Oruka, identified six such schools: ethnophilosophy (which, led by Placide Tempels, treats African philosophy as collective wisdom or a shared worldview); nationalist/ideological school (comprising works of political leaders such as Julius K. Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, and Leopold Sedar Senghor); professional philosophy (practised by academically trained individuals teaching and writing in universities); sage philosophy (the thoughts of men and women rooted in their indigenous African cultures); hermeneutical school (borrowing from the insights of the phenomenological and existentialist movements in Continental European philosophy); and the literary school (comprising the philosophical thoughts of African novelists, poets, playwrights and other creative writers).
Preserving the identity of African philosophy
Osha’s pessimism regarding the potential of African philosophy to contribute to conceptual decolonisation is perhaps most striking when he writes: “By interrogating the overarching tradition/modernity dialectic, Wiredu has announced cultural synthesis as a pragmatic approach. But it seems the benefits of this conceptual approach would have been better realised in the fields of cultural studies, and other related discourses.” Osha’s proposal is in line with positivism – the view, popularised by Auguste Comte, that only what can be apprehended using the five senses is worth scholarly inquiry. This line of thought is at the core of the incessant attacks on the humanities, with their focus on introspective inquiry.
Osha talks of “the Anglophone school of African philosophy”, suggesting that he holds the view that the schools of philosophy in Africa are organised along the Western imperialist mapping of Africa into Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) – a view that perpetuates Western imperialism by legitimising the criminal partition of Africa in Berlin towards the close of the nineteenth century.
In A Short History of African Philosophy, Barry Hallen notes that in the mid-twentieth century, both religious studies and social anthropology challenged the autonomy of African philosophy by popularising the view that all African thought was “traditional”. This approach is evident in Mbiti’s flagship book, African Religions and Philosophy, in which he unapologetically apportions a much lower status to philosophy than to religion: “We speak of African traditional religions in the plural because there are about one thousand African peoples (…), and each has its own religious system…Religion is the strongest element in traditional background, and exerts probably the greatest influence upon the thinking and living of the people concerned.” He further alleges that “While religion can be discerned in terms of beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and religious officiants, philosophy is not so easily distinguishable.”
Furthermore, during a public lecture at the University of Nairobi on 27th March, 2015, Prof. Mbiti related how he participated in establishing the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Makerere University, Uganda, in the 1960s. Notice that the name of the department followed the pattern of his book title – African Religions and Philosophy. A look at the Table of Contents of Mbiti’s work reveals his unapologetic subjugation of philosophy to religious studies: of the twenty chapters in the book, fifteen have an explicitly religious focus, while the remaining five (Chapters 1, 2, 17, 18 and 20) are marginally philosophical. It is also noteworthy that several scholars of religious studies have insisted that there is no essential difference between philosophy and religious studies, to which many African philosophers have replied that religious studies investigates dogma, while philosophy focuses on the clarification of terms, verification of the truth of claims, and the logical connection between claims and evidence provided for them. Indeed, an attempt at integrating philosophy and religious studies would produce a monstrosity which would be neither philosophy nor religious studies, for it would incurably distort the distinct methodological approaches of the two disciplines.
On its part, social anthropology, which professes to inquire into the entire range of cultures and societies in the world, originally concentrated on non-Western so-called primitive societies, with sociology reserved for modern Western societies. Ethnology is generally regarded as one of the major sub-branches of social anthropology, and as Paulin J. Hountondji aptly illustrated in his African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, the original racist orientation of social anthropology certainly influenced Placide Tempels’ paternalistic approach to African philosophy in his Bantu Philosophy; this is what led Hountondji to refer to Tempels’ approach as “ethnophilosophical”.
As for cultural studies, which Osha prefers to African philosophy, it professes to be an interdisciplinary field concerned with the role of social institutions in the shaping of culture. Britanica.com informs us that among the central concerns of cultural studies are the place of race or ethnicity, class, and gender in the production of cultural knowledge. Cultural studies emerged, not in Africa, but rather in Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Consequently, one wonders what the basis for his optimism towards it is in contradistinction to his pessimism towards philosophy.
Furthermore, for almost three decades now, neoliberalism has been vigorously questioning the value of the humanities and social sciences, with buzz phrases such as “market-driven courses” being used in reference to applied sciences such as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and engineering, and governments resolving to allocate greater funding to them. Nevertheless, the social sciences have managed to convince those who hold the purse strings of their contribution to the economy, leaving the humanities, under which philosophy falls, grossly under-funded. As a result, some scholars of African philosophy are now trying to prepare research proposals that pander to the demands of funding agencies. This situation prompted me to write “Research Methodology in Philosophy within an Interdisciplinary and Commercialised African Context”, in which I argued that in view of the limited number of natural and social phenomena available for scholarly inquiry, there will always be intersections in the subject matter of various disciplines. As such, the only way for a discipline to preserve its identity and to contribute meaningfully to inter-disciplinary inquiry is to stay true to its methodology.
African philosophy Transforming the conceptual apparatus
Osha went on to write: “… essentially, what we require more than ever is a complete transformation of the conceptual apparatus so that we are able to embrace more fully our essential realities rather than being alienated and stymied by them at a fundamental conceptual level.” Although Osha thinks that African philosophy is an obstacle to the attainment of this noble aspiration, philosophers all over Africa are engaged in innovative projects aimed at conceptual decolonisation. We have already cited three such innovations by Kwasi Wiredu, but a few more examples would be helpful.
Scholarship has been inundated by the Western liberal concept of personhood, with its emphasis on the atomic individual who pursues his or her personal interests without any consideration of the common good except as it directly promotes his or her personal good.
The late Prof. H. Odera Oruka, from his base at the University of Nairobi, launched the Sage Philosophy Project in 1974, with the aim of collecting the individual, reflective and didactic thought of indigenous thinkers among various ethnic groups in Kenya, and this culminated in his Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy. D.A. Masolo, in a chapter in Sagacious Reasoning: Henry Odera Oruka in Memoriam, edited by Anke Graness and Kai Kresse, aptly referred to Oruka’s Sage Philosophy Project as an instance of “Decentering the Academy”. Besides, in “The Philosophy of Foreign Aid: A Question of the Right to a Human Minimum” in his Practical Philosophy: In Search of an Ethical Minimum, Oruka wrote on the politics of foreign aid, responding to Garrett Hardin’s “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor”.
Scholarship has been inundated by the Western liberal concept of personhood, with its emphasis on the atomic individual who pursues his or her personal interests without any consideration of the common good except as it directly promotes his or her personal good. However, Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye edited Person and Community, and D.A. Masolo authored Self and Community in a Changing World, both of which question Western liberalism and present incisive reflections on African communalism. Similarly, while in the post-Cold War world Francis Fukuyama announced the victory of liberalism in The End of History and the Last Man, Ademola Kazeem Fayemi, in “Towards an African Theory of Democracy”, aptly noted that Fukuyama’s liberal democracy cannot be the end of human history simply because we are not at the end of human intelligence.
Nkiru Nzegwu’s “Feminism and Africa: Impact and Limits of the Metaphysics of Gender” in A Companion to African Philosophy edited by Kwasi Wiredu, and her Family Matters: Feminist Concepts in African Philosophy of Culture, among others, are valuable contributions to the current discourses on gender equity.
The sum of the matter is that contrary to Sanya Osha’s diagnosis, African philosophy is making its robust contribution to conceptual decolonisation alongside other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. What is of crucial importance is that African and Africanist scholars indefatigably aim for academic excellence grounded in an ideology that is resolutely on the side of the African masses. There is wide room for inter-disciplinary co-operation between African philosophy and other disciplines. For example, collaboration between African philosophy and critical discourse analysis (CDA) would enrich African philosophy by placing at its disposal the thoroughgoing methodology and the avowedly pro-people ideological orientation of CDA, thereby yielding abundant fruit for conceptual decolonisation.
Morning yet on Another Day of Indaba
A response to Panashe Chigumadzi’s essay, “Why I’m No Longer Talking To Nigerians About Race.
Reading Panashe Chigumadzi’s “Why I’m No Longer Talking To Nigerians About Race,” was quite a trip. Halfway through the essay, I was certain that I would join issues with it. Bold, piquant, exacting, yet strangely endearing, the writing staked out a particular challenge to Nigerians who, it seems, have a reputation on social media for not fighting shy of hot-and-heavy gauntlets. Most people have opinions about Nigerians, who have opinions about nearly everything on earth and in outer space, so Chigumadzi’s pinpoint digital pre-indaba was a lucky strike. It immediately elicited a flurry of tweets, replies, and counterreplies, most of them approving. Typically, the impulse-engineered attention did not last.
It is true that a couple of other Nigerians came up for sharp censure in the essay, but none had Ṣóyínká’s standing, or provided enough straw on which to hang the argument.
For me, though, two things stood out in that altogether necessary challenge, and they were obvious in the two tweets I sent in sharing the hot link. First, I felt that the claim that Nigerians lacked sufficient political solidarity with (southern) Africans on the basis of race was debatable (a good thing), and that, second, placing the writer Wolé Ṣóyínká as the exemplary figure of that national lack of empathy could use a more considered appreciation of the writer’s involvements as a political personality.
It is true that a couple of other Nigerians came up for sharp censure in the essay, but none had Ṣóyínká’s standing, or provided enough straw on which to hang the argument. The first issue was the authors’ main beef, and she marshaled many points, some relying on personal observations and others distilled from quite impressive reading. “If it is true,” she wrote, “that we of African descent have grown up in different households, that shape our experiences of the world differently, how do we respond to the pain and yearnings of our sisters?” I imagined addressing this question with a combination of historical details and actual examples of Nigerians’ commitment to racial solidarity that Chigumadzi might have missed. Then, parenthetically, I would add a long paragraph to offer a complex picture of Ṣóyínká’s racial politics, in art and in life.
In the meantime, I hoped someone else, another Nigerian or anyone from anywhere informed about Ṣóyínká’s work, would pick this gauntlet …
Reflecting further on the task, however, it seems to me that building an argument around Ṣóyínká’s politics in relation to the black world, and to southern Africa in particular, is the more productive way to address my two quibbles with the essay. It presents an opportunity to put on record information about African literary culture that is not well-known, much less treasured. The prevalent attitudes among African creative artists, especially those who are socialized in digital culture, do not seem to sufficiently encourage habits that make confident creatures of sensibilities—curiosity, criticism and the eschewal of easy answers. It is to the benefit of Chigumadzi’s readers that they are made aware of the political exactions of writers like Ṣóyínká and others, whether or not such readers are inclined to take literature as vocation. Writers also make our history, after all, and they do so in ways that give us cause for hope, for the most part. And who knows but that refreshing relevant parts of this history can foster (actually rekindle!) the solidarity that the author felt to be lacking.
Writing with Attitude
Chigumadzi wrote that Ṣóyínká “had been so unimpressed and impatient with the Negritude movement spearheaded by the Francophone writers of African descent that he famously dismissed them at the 1962 African Writers’ Conference held at Makerere University, quipping: “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.” At a conference in Berlin two years later, Ṣóyínká elaborated this: “a tiger does not stand in the forest and say: ‘I am a tiger.’ When you pass where the tiger has walked before, you see the skeleton of the duiker, you know that some tigritude has been emanated there.”” She added, subsequently, that “Ṣóyínká was [not] the only one to critique the Negritude movement. It was just that he was the loudest, and perhaps the most flippant, in his response.”
Readers of Myth, Literature and the African World might recall that Ṣóyínká actually turned to endorsing certain of the principles of Negritude in the following decades, and he is known to have declared that Abibiman, the world of black peoples, was his primary sphere of artistic and political interest.
With the right context, Ṣóyínká’s attitude toward Negritude and toward racial politics in Africa and the world appears as two different, clearly justified, things. Yes, a lot has been written about that “tigritude” statement, and Chigumadzi’s summary was largely accurate. However, her interpretation of that statement as a “flippant” dismissal of Negritude, and thus of racial solidarity, was mistaken.
What Ṣóyínká intended with the statement in Kampala was clear, and as soon as an opportunity for clarification appeared, (during the Berlin conference mentioned in Chigumadzi’s essay), he seized it: “To quote what I said fully, I said ‘A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces … The distinction which I was making at this conference (in Kampala, Uganda, 1962) was purely a literary one: I was trying to distinguish between propaganda and true poetic creativity. I was saying in other words that what one expected from poetry was an intrinsic poetic quality, not a mere name-dropping.”
In an unpublished text tracing the history of the tigritude jive, the critic James Gibbs has observed that both the initial statement in Kampala and the clarification in Berlin “did not come out of the blue. Ṣóyínká had toyed with similar ideas and kindred images before. In ‘The Future of West African Writing’ published in The Horn [a magazine at the University of Ibadan], he wrote: ‘The duiker does not paint ‘duiker’ on his beautiful back to proclaim his duikeritude’. [Y]ou’ll know him by his elegant leap.’” That essay came out in June 1960, two clear years before the Kampala meeting.
Ṣóyínká clearly wanted to take a stand. Here was a young writer taking it to the elders, Leopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire in the main, eager to clear for himself a space from which to speak as an artist with his own mind. And he was hardly the only one. Kampala also provided the stage for the late Christopher Okigbo’s unforgettable declaration that he wrote his poetry only for poets. Such statements are prone to quotations, misquotations, paraphrases and outright decontextualization. These are understandable reactions; they come with the territory, and Ṣóyínká must have issued enough rebuttals to bore himself to exasperated silence, the fate of the verbal magician trying to control the motions of a genie he’d not expected to grow legs as it slid out of the bottle. But silence is not his inclination. On the contrary, he is likelier to downplay his exactions. At another conference in Sweden in 1967, Ṣóyínká’s self-ironizing remarks about “writers holding up radio stations” elicited criticisms from Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Dennis Brutus, neither of whom was aware that the speaker had recently suffered detention and trial in Nigeria for such daring.
Claims of a lack of racial solidarity are hardly tenable, then, in so far as Ṣóyínká is concerned. In his work and activism, he has one of the strongest records among black writers of the modern era in taking on the racial question.
Readers of Myth, Literature and the African World might recall that Ṣóyínká actually turned to endorsing certain of the principles of Negritude in the following decades, and he is known to have declared that Abibiman, the world of black peoples, was his primary sphere of artistic and political interest. As a work of intellectual accounting, that monograph offered much that Ṣóyínká needed to put before the world concerning his views of the continent’s cultural unity, agreeing with the likes of Cheik Anta Diop and Chancellor Williams where evidence required it, and parting ways with them where necessary. No one who has carefully read the final chapter, “Ideology and the Social Vision,” can pretend to any doubts about where the writer stood on the issues. Ironically, in that book he made such a strong case against racist denigration of African experiences that, in mistaken appraisal of his premise, critics like Kwame Appiah took him to task for daring to speak of an African world!
Claims of a lack of racial solidarity are hardly tenable, then, in so far as Ṣóyínká is concerned. In his work and activism, he has one of the strongest records among black writers of the modern era in taking on the racial question. As the Nigerian poet, Peter Akinlabi tweeted in response to AIAC’s post of Chigumadzi’s essay, The Invention, one of Ṣóyínká’s earliest plays written while he was still a student at Leeds University, was his first foray into the political and human costs of apartheid in South Africa. Around this time, he also joined a cadet corps in Leeds in preparation for a planned invasion of the apartheid enclave, and had close contacts with South African exiles in London (Gibbs, pers. comm.).
His collection of poems, Ogun Abibiman, is a creative deployment of the martial ethos of the deity Ogun in confronting racial subjection on the continent. It made its way into the world in the context of the military alliance against apartheid, spearheaded by the late Samora Machel, the founding president of Mozambique, and was subtitled “an epic poem dedicated to the Fallen of Soweto.” In 1975, with fellow writers Kofi Awonoor and Brutus, he founded the Union of Writers of the African Peoples, UWAP, and used that platform for his literary and political activities for several years. (In Los Angeles in the late 1990s, I hung out with the South African poet, Keorapetse Kgotsitsile (“Bra Willie”), whom Chigumadzi quoted in her essay. He spoke often and lovingly about the letters Ṣóyínká wrote to him inquiring of the activities of South African exiles across the world, and of ways to be of help. Later, in the company of another South African, the writer and political activist Nomboniso Gasa, I tried to tease out further information from Ṣóyínká about that episode, but he demurred, obviously unwilling to overemphasize his roles. At any rate, there are other records of this kind of commitment, including an important disclosure by Ngugi in Detained, his prison memoirs.)
Nigerians Making African History
All of this might come across as so much background information concerning an issue that Chigumadzi proffered only as an example of a contemporary trend among Nigerians who show scant attention to the racial complexities that black people in and outside the continent have to deal with. But it is necessary to know these things to better understand why some or even most Nigerians do not relate to racism the way a South African or a Namibian might do. Against the background of Ṣóyínká’s exemplary championing of the cause of black people everywhere (and he was not the only one to do this even in Nigeria), Nigeria’s own efforts in the political arena appear exceptional but evolving, and the reasons for the trend that Chigumadzi attacked are easier to appreciate.
Historians, anthropologists, literary critics and economic historians have pointed to the roles that different colonial models in west and southern Africa played in fostering ambiguous attitudes toward race or racial issues in the post-independence era. Wild conquest (to use the title of Peter Abrahams’ novel) of broad swathes of eastern and southern African societies brought about material dispossession of land and customary property in Rhodesia in a manner that could not be achieved in, say, Nigeria. Additional environmental factors such as climate and vegetation prevented the establishment of settler colonialism in West Africa, and the creation of apartheid as state policy in South Africa was the culmination of European racist ideologies for which the age of capital was suitable, give or take a few accidents of geography. But as Chigumadzi observed, the fact that Nigerians did not live in a country where racism was state policy does not mean that they cannot relate to the experience of those who did, and still do. That is empathy, a sentiment that humans are expected to extend to others.
She also does the important, detailed job of documenting Nigeria’s role in supporting anti-apartheid movements, groups, and initiatives during the long, dark night of that racist madness. Nigerian school children of my generation not only made monetary contributions to anti-apartheid relief funds, we were also taught something unforgettable: the left-hand corner of the blackboard in classrooms in Western Nigeria remained sacrosanct with the declaration: “Apartheid is a crime against humanity.” This message should not be wiped off the blackboard, under any circumstance. As recently as 2002, there were schools in Ibadan where the legend still spoke clearly, white chalk on a black background. In all likelihood, former pupils who took this message to heart also paid the ultimate price during the xenophobic violence exploding across South African cities in 2008, and reigniting periodically. What Nigerians viewed as a national duty with respect to the struggles against apartheid also existed in their music, from reggae, pop, to fuji, best exemplified in the career of the late Sonny Okosuns. This duty doubled in importance for the so-called “frontline states” in the mid-1970s, including Angola, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Mozambique, and Namibia. Support for liberation movements in the region became the centerpiece of Nigeria’s foreign policy, starting with the formal recognition and declaration of support for the MPLA, the anti-colonial party in Angola.
While different high-level political maneuverings shaped that diplomatic outcome, it is important to add that UWAP, the writers group coordinated by Ṣóyínká, played a major role in making the support for Angola count as more than a choice by the Nigerian government. At a symposium organized by President Senghor of Senegal, in 1976, all the writers and scholars, including the Trinidadian political thinker C. L. R. James, who gathered in the National Assembly in Dakar used the occasion of a plenary session to vote—unanimously—in support of the MPLA. Ṣóyínká and Senghor had since mended fences over the “tigritude” diss, assuming any were considered broken, but he made UWAP stand on principle while Senghor, the generous host, had stated his preference for MPLA’s rivals.
To understand the evolving history of this political solidarity, readers need to appreciate the progressive character of the political society in Nigeria, a character that does not always coincide with the forms and practices of the Nigerian state or the habits of its citizens, whether highly placed or not. This means that the principal impulse in the nation that Nigerians worked to build, even long before they came to be identified as Nigerians, was for the betterment of human values, and that a primary identity as Africans was fundamental to stabilizing this impulse. There is no space here to explain these claims in detail, or discuss how this progressive politics developed. It should suffice to note, however, that Nigeria came into existence as a modern, black, African nation at a time when the intellectual values of the black world were coming together, from such unusual places as the writings and activities of Edward Blyden, James Johnson, and other forerunners of the nationalists of the 1920s and the 1930s, as well as the contradictions built into the economic antics of Pax Britannica.
At some point in her essay, Chigumadzi quotes Kwame Appiah to the effect that what “race meant to the ’New Africans’ –the generation of African intellectuals of the 1960s educated in the West such as Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere – was different to what race meant to “educated blacks in the New World” such as African-American, Afro-Caribbean and Black British people.”
The fact is that between the Pan-Africanist origins of modern Nigerian nationalism and the radical overtures to political struggles in southern Africa, a great variety of symptoms appeared in the body politic that entrenched bourgeois liberalism as the default social mode in the population’s self-apprehension, even though the political outlook could still remain largely progressive
Appiah arrived at this conclusion only in analysis, and a partial one at that. In practice, generations of political activists before Ṣóyínká such as Hezekiah Davies, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Margaret Ekpo, Fúnmiláyọ̀ Ransome-Kútì, and Nkrumah posed the question of anti-colonialism as Africans partly due to their experience of living and studying in the US and England, and partly because even in countries without policies of racial segregation, colonial prejudice often manifested itself in terms of racial hierarchies. Whites got paid more than their African counterparts who held the same or more demanding jobs, and Africans were unable to rise in the professions unless they obtained expensive degrees that were not available in the colonies. What these political figures did when or if they got into power might run counter to those principles, but it would be ahistorical to ignore the situations which shaped their radical politics and the courage with which they responded to those situations.
“At the End of the Small Hours…”
This history does not always inform the way that contemporary Nigerians relate to issues of racism on the continent and in the world at large. The fact is that between the Pan-Africanist origins of modern Nigerian nationalism and the radical overtures to political struggles in southern Africa, a great variety of symptoms appeared in the body politic that entrenched bourgeois liberalism as the default social mode in the population’s self-apprehension, even though the political outlook could still remain largely progressive. Among these symptoms was the fact that the party which came to power after the 1959 elections intensely distrusted radical politics, and exacted heavy penalties from those who professed even a mild form of it within three years of self-government. Moreover, and perhaps as a consequence of the first symptom. a combination of ethnic, religious, class and linguistic differences catalyzed a climate of opportunism that made a fair game of needs considered extraneous in political terms. As examples of Pan-African solidarity, the support for the frontline states in 1975 and the establishment of the Technical Aids Corps (through which Nigerian professional expertise was distributed to African, Caribbean and Pacific countries) both occurred, irony of ironies, under military regimes.
Much later in the essay, Chigumadzi posed another question: “Why are so many of these [Nigerian] writers seemingly so apolitical around race politics and deliberately refuse to understand these basic ethics of solidarity and instead bask in the glory of individuated reward of model minority?” The question became necessary because of the ‘blame-the-victim’ standpoint of a Nigerian entrepreneur like Chika Onyeani, author of a bestselling book in South Africa (Capitalist Nigger), and other newly emergent writers. This question may be related to the main one about lack of empathy, but it is in fact different. It speaks to a particular condition among colonial and postcolonial intellectuals, especially those of African descent everywhere. It is informed, I think, by the opportunisms that go with pursuing an artistic/intellectual career in a world that is run by mostly white capitalists and that rewards those who are unwilling to ask difficult questions about economic and social injustices, or prefer to ask them only of Africans, the way an Onyeani would. It is a form of power grab; the Indian writer Arundhati Roy addresses an aspect of it in her book, Capitalism: A Ghost Story. Whether things would change if that world were to be run by black or brown capitalists is an open question, but we have provisional answers from the way the affairs of Nigeria and South Africa have been managed in the last two decades. Neither country, as far as I can see, places any real worth on the lives of its citizens. Chigumadzi shows a keen awareness of this problem when she writes of “white racial capitalism and coloniality which is sophisticated enough not to need the presence of white bodies to function.” We can be mindful of the records of British colonialism in Nigeria without thinking to hold Theresa May accountable for the genocidal level of poverty in Nigeria today.
The two questions are ever necessary, and we should be grateful to Chigumadzi for the courage and imagination to raise them. She speaks in a register that is familiar to those who are inclined to form their opinions through soundbites and short reads. Praises on social media of the brilliance of her analyses arrived in lockstep with complaints about the length of the essay. (There are other waters that the essay could have troubled. For example, do contemporary Ghanaians practice a better form of racial solidarity than Nigerians? When prominent politicians such as Ignatius Kutu Acheampong (Ghana), Frederick Chiluba (Zambia) and Alassane Ouattara (Ivory Coast) became victims of the nationality test, any surprises that Zimbabweans living bare lives in South Africa, or Nigerians in Libya, should suffer the fate of blacks in segregation-era Mississippi? But we can hope that such impressions are not lost on informed readers of the essay.) The passion with which Chigumadzi has connected a variety of global-black experiences, through literary and musical references, points to an intellectual sensibility that those interested in their place in the world would do well to cultivate. Chinua Achebe is right: to partisans of African occasions, it is morning yet on creation day.
I suspect that the title of the essay is used tongue-in-cheek. Even with the disposition toward “stanning” “famzing” and surface “bants” among folks on social media there are many people who may be prepared to work their way to genuine awareness if provided with information. This is a responsibility that falls to artists and writers, and they should do it wherever and whenever possible, in spite of the tendency among people on social media to take offense when corrected on points of fact, style or logic. Once at the University of Ibadan, I listened with horror as a student responded to a lecture by a visiting African American professor by dismissing him as a ‘Negro’, not an African! The professor didn’t expect this, in Ibadan of all places, and so did not know how to respond. I issued a quick rejoinder, and after the lecture the person who’d made the offensive comment came up to me to apologize which, I sensed, was genuine.
These attitudes always have to be cultivated, lifelong, vigilant, unapologetic. Like Lewis Nkosi, Maryse Conde, Mongo Beti and Bessie Head, Ṣóyínká appeared early to observers as an unusually gifted writer who displayed these qualities, but always in the guise of a citizen, and of a country that only happened to be Nigeria. A wonderful accident of birth, the gift of history as citizen of two countries scarred by racism, we hope, makes Chigumadzi another exemplary figure. Her essay is a strong sign of that irrevocable commitment to asking difficult questions, without which silence might be taken, falsely, scandalously again, as the response of sentient black people to the manifold conundrums of the world.
Editors Note: This essay was originally published in Africa as a Country
Black Skins White Masks Revisited: Why I Am No Longer Talking to Nigerians About Race
If Nigerians want to be the true Giants of Africa and, indeed, the world, they must walk it with the empathy and humility befitting of a true politics of black and pan-Africanist solidarity.
I had been a lazy author. I was so absorbed in my excitement for my first visit to Nigeria, that I didn’t bother to look through Aké Arts and Book Festival’s draft program in time to communicate any adjustments I had before it had to be finalized. When I did finally look through the program days before the 2016 edition I discovered a curiously titled panel: “The Irony of Black Lives Matter in Africa.” I was concerned for two reasons. First, I felt there was no “irony.” Second, there was only representation from West Africa: moderator, Nigerian Patrick Okigbo, Nigerian novelist Helon Habila and Ghanaian-Kenyan Kinna Likimani. As soon I saw this I pestered Lola Shoneyin, the festival founder and organizer, to add me onto the panel. I was sure that the experience of living between two African countries that suffered white minority, settler-rule late into the 20th century—by virtue of my having been born in Zimbabwe and raised in South Africa—would lead me to have a different response to the two Nigerians and Ghanaian-Kenyan on the panel.
Months earlier, my first visit to Uganda for the 2016 Writivism Literary Festival had given me my first real encounter with the “experience gap” between black people on the continent. During the day Uganda National Museum, Writivism’s venue, is a hive of schoolchildren. I was struck by the appearance of a particular group of girls from Gayaza High School. They had the most beautiful school uniform I have ever seen: an assortment of red, yellow, green, orange, pink, purple and blue short sleeve dresses that sung against the girls’ dark skin. More than that, their heads crowned in a variety of beautiful natural shapes and styles—short, medium sized, buns, round, square. A product of the South African “Rainbow Nation’s” schools that insisted on unflattering uniforms (including my high school’s kilt-inspired skirt) and hair very intimate with sodium hydroxide, I found myself staring, and, overcome with emotion. When it came time to introduce myself during the Festival’s schools outreach, I tried to express how happy I was to see the girls: You look so beautiful. Can I take a picture to take home? The other African writers and the girls themselves didn’t get it. That every girl had natural hair was nothing to talk or write home about, let alone take pictures. What else would I have them do with their hair?
They couldn’t understand why I was making such a fuss, because that to them, was the default. With some help from Nigerian-Barbadian-South African writer Yewande Omotoso, I tried to explain why it would be noteworthy that they had hair the way they did. I was unsuccessful. Not for a lack of words, but a lack of context.
All of these different attacks on black bodies—whether on African soil or outside of it—is not unrelated to white racial capitalism and coloniality which is sophisticated enough not to need the presence of white bodies to function. This is after all why, for example, African countries remain one of the world’s largest markets for skin lightening creams.
If I had visited the Gayaza Girls just a week later, I would have given them the example of their South African age mates at Pretoria Girls’ High School who, on the very day that I returned from Uganda, were protesting against bans on afros and other racist practices at their historically white school. This incident would have helped me explain how the absence of visible racialized markers—namely white teachers and white classmates with hair “that falls” and is the acceptable standard of feminine “neatness” in school codes of conduct—meant that the Gayaza Girls were spared the same kind of explicitly racial pathological relationship to self and body. The girls were avid readers, and so, if I had had better presence of mind I might have given them a black girlhood reading list: Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Merle Hodge’s Crick Crack, Monkey!, Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions, Kopano Matlwa’s Coconut or even their own country woman, Doreen Baingana’s Tropical Fish. Without these examples, the Gayaza Girls and I fumbled our way to some of sort of understanding about this hair issue. The girls thought it a strange experience, but as readers who had developed enough empathy and curiosity to learn of the experiences of far off lands, they smiled and nodded as I shared anecdotes from my years as a black girl aspiring to and failing the standards of “hair that falls.” I was at first a little frustrated that I had to explain, but I quickly reminded myself that this was how it should be. This was the beauty of a childhood in which your imagination is fully formed before encountering the daily delusion that is whiteness.
I had something of this regional “experience gap” in mind when I gate crashed the Aké panel, which began as I expected: How can we as Africans be concerned about Black Lives Matter in the United States when we were not looking after our own in our countries? What are African Americans saying about the Chibok girls? While some of these rhetorical questions contained valid concerns, they were undermined by the generally dismissive and flippant tone towards the subject of race and blackness that I’ve come to expect from many Africans who did not grow up in “former” settler colonies. Fortunately, Kinna Likamini, who had also lived in Zimbabwe and the United States, was able to make the global and historical links of black people within the context of global white supremacy.
All of us are suffering coloniality, it’s just that the significant presence of white bodies in South Africa and the United States make it easier to visualize
I complemented her by offering examples of the specific experiences of “former” settler colonial South Africa where, under black governments protecting white property interests, black lives have clearly been shown not to matter. The first was the example of Marikana massacre, where 37 black mine workers demanding decent wages were killed after orders from then-Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, a shareholder board member of the company, for the police to take “concomitant action.” The second was closer to home. It was my experience as a student in the “Fallist” movement that effectively debunked the myth of Mandela’s Rainbow Nation ever having existed. It began when shit literally hit the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) statue of Cecil John Rhodes’ and students demanded its removal, part of a call to decolonize Eurocentric symbolism, curricula and staff demographics of historically white university campuses such as UCT and Wits University, where I was studying at the time. It then took on a more “bread and butter” focus with the #FeesMustFall protests driven by black students’ demand for a “free, quality decolonized” education. I related how the movement often used the bodies of white students as human shields when encountering police because we knew that they would not let a bullet pierce white skin. And more importantly, we knew and understood that Black bodies, or indeed life do not matter.
The sophisticatedness of white supremacy means that even with the visuality and presence of whiteness in one location and its invisibility and absence in another, both spaces continue to suffer similar kinds of psychic, material and discursive impact.
Together, Kinna and I argued that the indifference to the missing Chibok girls in Nigeria, the country with the largest black population on the planet, is as much linked to the unpunished police shootings of unarmed black people in America as it is linked to the murder of black mine workers demanding better wages in South Africa as it is to extra-judicial killings in Kenya. All of these different attacks on black bodies—whether on African soil or outside of it—is not unrelated to white racial capitalism and coloniality which is sophisticated enough not to need the presence of white bodies to function. This is after all why, for example, African countries remain one of the world’s largest markets for skin lightening creams. It is why Africans still prize white intellectual labor and cultural output as supreme (whether we admit it or not). It is why a fluency in the colonizing languages of English, French, German, Portuguese, instead of our own indigenous languages, remains the true marker of not only of educatedness but sophistication and worldliness across the continent. It is why in times of emergency our governments will often choose to address foreign press before they address us, their people. It is why a black person in position of authority or wealth might be called “oyinbo,” “muzungu,” “umlungu,” “murungu” or “ obroni” depending on where you are on the continent. All of us are suffering coloniality, it’s just that the significant presence of white bodies in South Africa and the United States make it easier to visualize. The sophisticatedness of white supremacy means that even with the visuality and presence of whiteness in one location and its invisibility and absence in another, both spaces continue to suffer similar kinds of psychic, material and discursive impact.
As we spoke, it wasn’t lost on me that this debate over the “irony” of having to state that “black lives matter” in Africa was taking place in Abẹ́òkuta, or Aké, the storied hometown of Wole Soyinka who had been so unimpressed and impatient with the Negritude movement spearheaded by the Francophone writers of African descent that he famously dismissed them at the 1962 African Writers Conference held at Makerere University, quipping: “A tiger does not proclaim his tigritude, he pounces.” At a conference in Berlin two years later, Soyinka elaborated this: “a tiger does not stand in the forest and say: ‘I am a tiger.’ When you pass where the tiger has walked before, you see the skeleton of the duiker, you know that some tigritude has been emanated there.”
It’s not that Soyinka was the only one to critique the Negritude movement. It was just that he was the loudest, and perhaps the most flippant, in his response. For years I puzzled over what it was that might have made Soyinka so dismissive of his Negritude counterparts. After all, the tiger can only be free to pounce on the poor duiker if his environment is free. Just what kind of environment might have induced Soyinka to pounce on his fellow Africans in the way that he did? The view of Aké from its highest point, Olúmọ Rock, provided me with part of the answer.
After a brisk hike up the Olúmọ Rock stairway, a careful negotiation around the Ifá divination shrines (and their devotees), I turned to an unwitting Nigerian writer: “My brother, this, you call a mountain? Come and visit Zimbabwe, the Great House of Stone. You will see boulders and granite mountains so large they make the villages below them look like toy houses. You will see Olúmọ Rocks in everybody’s backyard and then you will never waste visitors’ time again with this.” My Nigerian brother could only offer an apologetic laugh. This time the “giants of Africa” did carry last. Standing out of earshot, I allowed myself to admit that there was something that did impress me at Olúmọ Rock: the view of Abẹ́òkuta, the “refuge among rocks,” the nearly two centuries old African town unmarked by the generational trauma of apartheid era bulldozers and trucks that segregated people into “European” towns and farms and “non-European” “townships” and “homelands” and instead etched with a history that preceded colonialism and succeeded it through its very own idiom, that made the sprawling, undulating terrain of Soyinka’s childhood appear to me as luminous and magical as it appears in his 1981 memoir Aké: The Years of Childhood.
In his introduction to In My Father’s House, Ghanaian-American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah uses Soyinka’s Aké childhood to explain why it is that what race meant to the “New Africans”—the generation of African intellectuals of the 1960s educated in the West such as Jomo Kenyatta, Kwame Nkrumah, Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere—was different to what race meant to “educated blacks in the New World” such as African-American, Afro-Caribbean and Black British people. Appiah argues that, unlike their counterparts who grew up facing the crudest forms of racial and colonial discrimination in the West and the Francophone subcontinent, the likes of Soyinka were “children who were extracted from the traditional culture of their parents and grandparents and thrust into the colonial school [but] nevertheless fully enmeshed in a primary experience of their own traditions” in cultures where black people were both in the majority and their cultural lives continued to be largely controlled by indigenous moral conceptions.
Unlike Soyinka, whose homeland had known a total of 60 years of indirect rule beginning in 1900, his South African contemporary Es’kia Mphahlele, whose country had suffered settler rule since 1652, could relate to the “double consciousness” that black people in the West, Africa’s settler colonies and the Francophone subcontinent know only too well. And so, Mphahlele’s apartheid upbringing led him to criticize the Negritude movement for reasons both more sophisticated and different to Soyinka. Mphahlele’ criticized the “evolue” class of Francophone writers for their “black romanticism” and pointed to Senegalese poet-president Leopold Senghor as a “classic representation” of the movement’s “unholy alliance” with Africa’s emergent national bourgeoisie. In other words, Mphahlele, like many other black South Africans felt that negritude was not radical enough in its challenge to colonial logic.
South Africa’s late poet laureate Keorapetse Kgositsile, who had been exiled to the United States in the early 60s and worked closely with members of the Black Arts movement, persistently argued against Negritude on the grounds that it was a purely cultural or aesthetic approach to black self-determination, that in itself was too dependent on white aesthetics, and so offered a vision of black liberation limited by its concern with justifying itself to a white audience. Disappointed by the First World Festival of Negro Arts hosted by Senghor in Dakar, Kgositsile wrote in his 1968 essay, “I Have Had Enough,” that Negritude is a type of “an academic masturbation or deviation, a kind of mannerism—fornicating with the white eye and then emerging on some stage with Western arguments for the validity and glory of a black Virginity.”
Kgositsile’s critique of negritude’s dependence on white aesthetics and approval was informed by his involvement in the Black Consciousness movement, South Africa’s answer to Black Power and Negritude formed by political leaders such as Bantu Steve Biko, cultural figures such as poets Mongane Wally Serote and Kgositsile and jazz saxophonist Winston Monwabisi “Mankunku” Ngozi. Through it, they defined Blackness beyond simply being oppressed as a “non-white” but as a positive state of mind. For the likes of Mphahlele who grew to adulthood in apartheid South Africa where their existence was officially defined in the negative as “non-European” and “non-white,” there was no irony in positively declaring their “capital-B” Blackness or to demand that the curriculum be decolonized. They were dehumanized as “non-whites” on African soil, and so it was necessary to proclaim their Blackness in order to reclaim their humanity, a feat that was both incontrovertible and incomprehensible to the likes of Soyinka. Mphahlele himself would eventually become the champion of what he called “African humanism,” a philosophy that attempts to undo the kind of psychic damage wrought by apartheid and so poignantly illustrated in his classic 1959 childhood autobiography Down Second Avenue.
Even with the creep of British indirect rule, Soyinka’s Aké was not Mphahlele’s Marabastad. If Soyinka’s Aké is enlivened by the strong wafts of the market women’s deep fried akara that “jostled for attention with the tang of roasting coconut slices within farina cakes which we called kasada; with the hard-fried lean meat of tinko; the ‘high,’ rotted-cheese smell of ogiri; roasting corn, fresh vegetables or gbegiri” and his mother’s akara, ogi, moin-moin and agidi, apartheid impoverishes little “Es’kia’s Second Avenue kitchen table so much that it rarely offered more than coffee and bread (with butter when there were visitors) for breakfast and porridge served with meat (or fried tomatoes when there was no money) and on, a Sunday, vegetables too, for supper. Where four year old Wo̩lé could lose himself in pursuit of a police band across the horizon of Aké’s parsonage only to be returned home on the crossbar of a Hausa policeman’s bicycle, Es’kia’s” movements are boxed in by the baton and the open palms of the white and African policemen who patrol their township.
A lack of a direct experience of another’s pain is not the basis for dismissal, it is an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and, more importantly, solidarity
As an adult, Mphahlele is compelled to leave South Africa for Nigeria in 1957, not only for himself, but for the sake of his two small children and soon to arrive third born. He despairs watching the way his four-year-old Motswiri clings to you tightly when he sees a constable walk up or down the road and says Ntate, is the policeman going to arrest me is he going to take you is he going to take Mamma? You hold the frightened kid close to you and think of Second Avenue the long long great divide. Another time Motswiri comes to you with imitation handcuffs crudely made of wire and shouts “Bring your hands here, where’s your pass? I’ll teach you not to be naughty again.” Now he wants a torch and a baton and a big broad belt and a badge, how agonizing!”
Once in Nigeria, the “new air of freedom” is initially bewildering to Mpahlele, but in time he and his wife Rebecca are relieved that their children are visibly happier and “will be able to learn something worthwhile, something that is fit for all mankind, not for slaves.” Mphahlele eventually ends his autobiography during his time teaching at CMS Grammar School, Nigeria’s oldest secondary school, where he observes that his Nigerian schoolboys are “worlds apart” from his South African boys. For Mphahlele, there is a “complacency” within CMS’s “placid” atmosphere, whereas he and his South African schoolboys “were both hungering for many things and getting little, which in turn sharpened the edge of our longings. I responded to every throb of pain and restlessness in them, and I think they responded to my yearnings.”
Empathy outside your mother’s house
In Mpahlele’s sentiments about the differences between his South African and Nigerian schoolchildren lies the question at the crux of this essay: If it is true that we of African descent have grown up in different households, that shape our experiences of the world differently, how do we respond to the pain and yearnings of our sisters? What happens when that pain that is unfamiliar to us because it is pain particular to their households but foreign to ours? If our sisters say there is a fire in their house, do we deny it because there is no fire in ours? Do we shout over their shouts for help because our house is not burning? What if we have never encountered a fire before? Do we criticize the way our sisters try to fan out the flames before we have learnt the nature of fire?
How can we have any meaningful pan-African, and indeed any other kind of, solidarity if we lack empathy for those whose experiences we do not share? Where would the world be if sharing a common experience was the first requirement for supporting another’s struggle?
This is exactly what Soyinka did when he pounced on the Negritude writers and proclaimed his own Tigritude. Nigerians who dismiss our understandings of race often use their lack of experience of racial discrimination as the reason for their positions. This is unconvincing. What I find missing in my interactions with many Nigerians who dismiss our experiences of race is this: a profound lack of empathy that takes the form of unwillingness to understand and share the pain of another, as well as a willful refusal to self-examine the tacit, but powerful presence of the racialized politics that already operates in their own society.
A lack of a direct experience of another’s pain is not the basis for dismissal, it is an opportunity to demonstrate empathy and, more importantly, solidarity. How can we have any meaningful pan-African, and indeed any other kind of, solidarity if we lack empathy for those whose experiences we do not share? Where would the world be if sharing a common experience was the first requirement for supporting another’s struggle? The irony which seems to be lost on Nigerians who choose to dismiss the struggles of their black sisters is that their country has a long tradition of supporting the struggle for liberation in Southern Africa’s minority white settler regimes. Just as Nigeria was preparing itself for independence in October 1960, the 21 March Sharpeville Massacre of 59 black South Africans protesting pass laws led the Nigerian public to pressure what would become Abubakar Tafawa Balewa’s government to condemn the apartheid regime. Two years later when Rolihlahla Nelson Mandela clandestinely traveled to Nigeria to get support for the armed struggle, he received it. The next year Prime Minister Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa declared, “We in Nigeria are prepared to do anything towards the liberation of all African countries.” Nigerians kept their word. By 1976, Nigerians paid from their pockets to support the liberation struggle through the monthly “Mandela Tax” on civil servant salaries paid into the Southern African Relief Fund (SARF). Young Nigerians, who had been moved by the plight of their South African age mates who had been killed in the 1976 Soweto Uprising formed anti-apartheid clubs such as the Youths United in Solidarity for Southern Africa (YUSSA) and the Nigerian African National Congress Friendship and Cultural Association (ANCFCA), voluntarily contributed to the SARF too. For twenty years Nigeria chaired the United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid until South Africa finally achieved its democracy in 1994. By then, Nigeria had contributed an estimated US $61 billion towards the anti-apartheid effort.
When we talk of solidarity politics we must ask ourselves: What happens when we find ourselves as visitors to the houses of our brothers and sisters? What if we find ourselves permanent adoptees in their homes? How do we behave in our adoptive homes? How then do we respond to the fire in our sisters’ homes? When we do criticize our sisters do we do so out of love or out of contempt? A deep sense of empathy or superior dismissiveness?
The answer is critical.
Of late I think much about these questions, questions of racial and political solidarity, because I’ve recently moved to America and often have to remind myself that this is not my mother’s house. There are things I do not quite understand and must learn about this country. This is despite the fact that it’s a country I’ve always felt quite familiar and comfortable with as I shared in the long-held kinship and solidarity ties between black South Africans and African Americans. From Charlotte Maxeke and WEB Du Bois; Pixley ka Isaka Seme and Alain Locke; Es’kia Mphahlele and Langston Hughes; Miriam Makeba and Sarah Vaughan; Hugh Masekela and Miles Davis; Lewis Nkosi and James Baldwin to Keorapetse Kgositsile and Gwendolyn Brooks; Bessie Head and Toni Morrison; and Ellen Kuzwayo and Audre Lorde, black South Africans and African Americans have always had a way of understanding each other and helping each other through it despite coming up in different homes. When I was a teen developing my political consciousness, Biko’s I Write What I Like I read alongside The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Matlwa’s Coconut alongside Angelous’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions with Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Unlike many Africans Coming to America, I have been black for as long as I can remember. I was black long before I came here. I did not need America to know that I am black. For this reason I often feel I relate far more easily to African-Americans than I do to my African sisters. Indeed, I’ve long stopped reading a certain type of African immigrant essay. It usually begins with, or includes the assertion that, “the first time I knew I was black was when I arrived in [insert Western country]”. It’s a favorite essay topic for liberal publications interviewing non-American black people. This essay “genre” would be useful if it were an entry point into a deconstruction of the fallacy of race as biological fact, but all too often all this simply ends in an exposition of what will become life-long indignation that the author could possibly be degraded to the status of black and rarely leads them to develop a broader politics of racial solidarity.
What is perhaps most frustrating about these Africans writing of their sudden awakening to the fact of their blackness is that they rarely fail to reflect on the crucial fact that their racialization as black people did not occur in the moment of (varying degrees of) voluntary migration to the West in the last few decades but centuries ago when the first Africans were forcibly taken to the New World as enslaved people. If we were, for example, to return to Soyinka’s Aké and look more closely at the landscape, we would be confronted with the fact that, while it may be unmarked by the tracks of segregating bulldozers, the terrain does bear scars of the many settlements and displacements wrought by the transatlantic slave trade’s destructive path. A closer examination of history would reveal that Ẹ̀gbá peoples founded Abẹ́òkuta amongst the protective rocky outcrops in the early 19th century as they sought a place of refuge from warring enemies, including the slave raiding kingdom of Dahomey who unsuccessfully invaded them in the mid 1800s.
It is also true that that very same landscape bears the marks of many other complex settlements and displacements, conquests and defeats which over time has defined how Nigerians might imagine themselves. Long before the British, Nigeria suffered its first wave of colonialism by Arabs who wiped out cultures and instituted the Arabic way of life chiefly in Northern Nigeria. Within the arbitrary border drawn up by the British, the Nigeria of today contains multitudes. Be it in total number – more than180 million people. Or sheer ethnic diversity – more than 250 ethnic groups. The largely middle class Nigerian writers, students and artists I have read and spoken with over the years about the race issue do not represent the full and highly complex picture of larger Nigerian identit(ies) and histories. Indeed, for many, Nigerian identity in and of itself is still up for debate. For many Nigerians, their first consciousness might be as Yorùbá, Igbo, Hausa or any of the other ethnic groups. Aspects such as religion, class and gender further shape the contours of this consciousness. In the end, the tensions between the many Nigerian national consciousnesses are the reason behind conflicts most tragically exemplified in the Biafran War. In a highly unequal society, class wars between the ruling, middle and working classes would also shape much of the Nigerian identity writers bring to bear when they Come to [insert Western country]. How an undocumented working class Nigerian will approach American race relations will likely be different to how a multiple passported middle class Nigerian will do. As a friend told me of his own experience as a working class Nigerian poet in America, those working class Nigerians, particularly with no papers, long accustomed to the experience of operating at the margins of society even in their home countries, would not only likely find it easier than their middle class counterparts to grapple with the kind of marginalization blackness confers in the West but, find it easier to empathize with and stand in solidarity with the racial struggles of their hosts. (We get something of the impact of class difference in recent African immigrant fiction, where for example, the Princeton-going Ifemelu of Chimamanda Adichie’s Americanah and the Ivy League family of Taiye Selasie’s Ghana Must Go (who would very easily fit Selaisie’s Afropolitan tag) take on American racial politics in ways very different to the asylum seeking limousine driving Jende Jonga of Mbolo Mbue’s Behold the Dreamers and Darling, the undocumented preteen of NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names.)
This complexity of identity is true of many other African countries also suffering the consequences of arbitrary colonial borders, nonetheless, it’s still troubling that the African writers making claims about blackness as only “discoverable” in the West are speaking as though the racialized understanding can only come as a result of experience. More than ever, before we can only no longer say we are unaffected by racial consideration no matter where we may be located because its shapes and contours are beamed to us daily through our screens (and, long before that, if we cared to really read each other, that is, with a deep sense of empathy, we would know the pain of our sisters’ homes intimately). It seems a disingenuous claim. It’s one thing to say they may not have experienced it directly but to say they are not aware of racial subjectivity and subjection is willful ignorance and a lack of emotional and political imagination. These are writers after all: does that mean that everything they write about they have experienced or have familiarity with it? The question is what is the political purchase or utility of making such a declaration? Why are so many of these writers seemingly so apolitical around race politics and deliberately refuse to understand these basic ethics of solidarity and instead bask in the glory of individuated reward of model minority?
For all my familiarity and ease with American racial politics, I constantly have to remind myself that this is not my mother’s house. What I mean by that is that I am a newly arrived “cousin-sister” to the house built by my African American sisters and currently occupied by white Americans. For all the similarities black South Africans and African Americans share, there are important differences between a white-dominated white majority country and a white-dominated black majority country, and so, perhaps for some time, I should keep quiet and observe how and why things are done as they are in the house before I begin to pounce with my declarations on how best to do things.
Long before I moved to America, my years as a Zimbabwean born African living in South Africa since I was three years old taught me something of the political ethics involved in making a home of my sisters’ house. (To be clear, I claim both South Africa and Zimbabwe as my homes). Among them is to understand that the cardinal rule for white nations is that everybody always loves somebody else’s n*gger. It is why the French will welcome African Americans in France, while shunning Francophone Africans and Arabs. It is why white Americans will welcome (documented) Africans while shunning African Americans. It is why white Australians will welcome Africans while shunning Aboriginal Australians. In response to this, the foundational rule is that wherever you find yourself in the world, in whosever house you find yourself, it is your duty to align yourself with the struggle of the oppressed in that country and actively resist being used to undermine that struggle. Abiding by this duty is made possible by having the humility to understand that if it weren’t for the very struggle you might feel inclined to dismiss (because you have yet to understand it), you would not be able to make a successful life in your adoptive country in the first place. Likewise, it is your duty to actively seek an understanding of the historical context of your sisters’ historical and current struggle, so that you aren’t liable to the popular ahistorical and decontextualized myths about their conditions you will encounter outside of your mother’s house.
During my brief stint in corporate South Africa, I once had a lunch with my (non-black) boss who praised me as a model black as he bemoaned the (black) South Africans workplace performance by throwing around statements that are not uncommonly used by the Zimbabwean community in South Africa: “[Black] South Africans are uneducated, they don’t like school.” Too often I’ve heard fellow Zimbabweans, who take pride in our supposed status as Africa’s most educated population, glibly agree with white South Africans that black South Africans “don’t like school” and are “uneducated.” When we do this, we dismiss history and we dismiss context. Despite my growing political consciousness, I hadn’t developed a politics of solidarity that could grapple with the anti-black roots of the South African xenophobia (as I’ve since done here and here) that myself and many foreign-born nationals experienced and so I didn’t use my knowledge of the country’s history to rebut my boss’s claims about black South Africans as I should have. I should’ve told him that while black Zimbabweans also suffered a colonial education system, it did not reach the degradations of the apartheid government’s Bantu Education system which not only tribalized education and destroyed the mission education system that had produced the earliest generation of nationalist leaders such as Mandela and Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, but was explicitly designed to teach black students to be, in the words of the grand architect of apartheid Hendrik Verwoerd, “hewers of wood and drawers of water”. I should have told him about black South Africans who demonstrated that they “don’t like school” by, for example, getting banned from teaching Es’kia Mphahlele as did a result of his activism and losing their lives, as hundreds of Black Consciousness Movement inspired high school students did during the 1976 Soweto Uprisings against the introduction of Afrikaans as the medium of instruction. If I had a sufficiently developed politics of black solidarity at that time I would have told my boss not to use my example as a second–generation university graduate, (curtsey of post-independence state sponsored loans and bursaries that made it possible for mission educated black Zimbabweans like my parents to have a tertiary education) to perpetuate falsehoods about black South Africans’ educational achievement.
Had I been more knowledgeable, I might have taken something from the example of the late Nigerian-American anthropologist John Ogbu who actively sought to disprove racist myths about the academic achievement gap between racial minorities in the United States, where Nigerians are the most educated population group in the country, often held up as a “model minority”. Ogbu’s seminal research demonstrated that cultural differences alone cannot account for differences in achievement, arguing that in the American context, one of the key reasons “voluntary minorities” such as Nigerian-Americans tend to outperform “involuntary” or “caste-like” minorities such as African Americans is because they lack the “historical baggage” that leads them to develop to an oppositional position to the dominant white American culture. This lack of “historical baggage” puzzlingly leads to an ahistorical attitude among highly educated African immigrants who bemoan the “laziness” of their African-American counterparts and seem unable to acknowledge the important history of black struggles for the very education they enjoy. The ahistorical attitude sees them unable to acknowledge the contribution of historically black colleges and universities to African American advancement, the tireless campaigns that pushed through Brown vs Education Board, or the brave black children who faced jeers, spit and death threats from children and adults alike to desegregate the very institutions they now excel in.
Ogbu’s example is a useful counterpoint to the kind of anti-black falsehoods contained in the late African Sun Times publisher Chika Onyeani’s 2000 best-seller Capitalist Nigger: The Road to Success, a Spider-Web Doctrine. Onyeani’s book did the rounds in the South Africa of my teenagehood, a time when much of white South Africa began to kick up a fuss about the emerging black middle class and then President Thabo Mbeki’s Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) policies – not because they were truly invested in a leftist or black radical critique of BEE’s neoliberal “trickle down economics” that have not addressed the fundamental questions of post-apartheid economic justice and redistribution, but because it was money in undeserving black hands. In this contested climate, Capitalist Nigger spurred much debate for its central argument that black people are an unproductive consumer race who must mimic Asians and adopt what he calls a “spider-web doctrine. Long before the debates about colonialism set off by Things Fall Apart (shockingly, our first set work by a black African writer) in our final year of high school, the national debate set off by Onyeani’s book found its way into a discussion between my white schoolmates and I. Without the tools to meaningfully engage the subject many of us teens eagerly parroted the book’s many pseudo self-reliance arguments such as this: “Blacks are economic slaves. We are owned lock stock and barrel by people of European-origin … I am tired of hearing Blacks always blaming others for their lack of progress in this world; I am tired of the whining and victim-mentality. I am tired of listening to the same complaint, day in day out – racism this, racism that. It’s getting us nowhere.”
Aside from the many inaccuracies Onyeani relied on to make his arguments, he leaned heavily on tired racial myths and stereotypes. As the infamous keynote speaker at a Black Management Forum (BMF) conference held in Johannesburg in October 2005, Onyeani drew on stereotypes of “lazy blacks” and “successful and entrepreneurial Indians” to infamously “critique” the state of black economic transformation eleven years after the end of apartheid saying: “The black middle class in South Africa must study what has happened in the 52 African states and also in India. You are not only middle class but also black intellectual class. The African renaissance demands that we purge ourselves of this parasite. You don’t have to be parasitic on the rest of society because you feel you are entitled. I don’t want us to mortgage the future of our children for a quick-fix economic solution.”
Ironically, the conference session was chaired by Xolela Mangcu, a South African scholar and biographer of Steve Biko and his politics of black self-determination. Mangcu, a long-time critic of Onyeani’s economic gospel, reminded Onyeani that India’s success in the world economy, particularly in the United States, was the result of generations of the wealthy class preserving and passing their wealth on. Importantly, in the US where people of Indian descent have the highest per capita income, this had nothing to do with India achieving independence in 1947. Within India itself, he went on to point out, there is a huge wealth divide that leaves the majority dirt poor. After Mangcu cited several academic sources to support his claims, Onyeani retorted: “Our intellectual class likes putting forward ideas which other people have written.”
We could all too easily dismiss Onyeani’s “original ideas” if there weren’t the likes of US-based Nigerian Booker Prize shortlistee Chigozie Obioma to take on the mantle of bootstrap race “analysis” in a more sophisticated manner. A few months before the 2016 Aké Festival Black Lives Matter panel, Obioma saw it fit to make his intervention into the debate as the wave of protests over the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in July 2016 engulfed the United States. The thesis of Obioma’s Foreign Policy op-ed titled “There Are No Successful Black Nations” is that “the core reason why black people have remained synonymous with the denigrating experience of racism. It is, I dare say, because of the worldwide indignity of the black race.” This argument is tolerable enough until Obioma pulls an Onyeani by insisting that “Black elites and activists across the world have adopted a culture of verbal tyranny in which they shut down any effort to reason or criticize us or black-majority nations by labelling such attempts as ‘racism’ or ‘hate speech’.” To bolster his argument, Obioma makes a familiar appeal to “[g]reat men like Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Malcolm X” who understood that “the future of their race could not be advanced by endless protests or marches of “equality” or “justice.”
After dismissing the necessity of protest in struggle, Obioma goes on to hold up his country of birth Nigeria as an example of an African state on the brink of collapse because of a “culture of incompetence, endemic corruption, dignified ineptitude, and, chief among all, destructive selfishness and greed.” While these are undeniable contributing factors, Obioma’s argument remains shallow as he fails to nuance it by speaking, for example, to the continent’s historic underdevelopment (see, for example, Walter Rodney), nor the history of Western nations undermining democracy by intervening and propping up the very dictators he bemoans (see, for example, the CIA’s declassified documents). The net effect is an argument with an unfortunate lack of analysis of power, political economy and history echoing Onyeani’s, that black people should shut up about their oppressions and simply pull themselves up by the bootstraps.
This Soyinka-esque impulse to wade in and pounce on debates on the racial struggles of their sisters is as baffling as it is laughable. If it is that the impulse comes from the sense of superiority derived from having “never experienced racism”, you would think that our Ethiopian sisters, the only ones amongst us all to have never been colonized, would be pouncing all over race debates too? Surely they would be the loudest and most biting in their dismissal of the protests of their colonized sistren? Much in the same way that I do not expect white people to have well developed racial politics, I do not expect Nigerians I come across to have well developed racial politics. It is, quite frankly, guilty until proven innocent.
I borrow this essay’s title from British-Nigerian journalist Renni Eddo-Lodge’s best-selling Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race because I do believe that my Nigerian sisters have the ability to engage racial politics meaningfully. It’s just that a significant number choose not to. And when they choose not to engage meaningfully they usually choose to do it loudly. In response, I choose to engage “Africa’s Giants” at their level by borrowing from the famously combative style of the (Black Arts Movement) inspired Bolekaja intellectual tradition championed by the notorious troika of Chinweizcu Ibekwe, Ihechukwu Madubuike and Onwuchekwa Jemie. Since you will not be quiet my Nigerian brothers and sisters, Giants of Africa, bolekaja! Come down from your glass house and let’s fight! Come down and let’s fight about this thing we call race.
Redeeming Nigerian Tigritude
Just before I traveled to the 2016 Aké Festival, my first experience of Nigerian “Tigritude” took place within the Johannesburg consulate in which the low-grade international diplomacy war between South Africa and Nigeria plays out. It was there that I first encountered the decidedly abrasive and confrontational manner that is an adjustment for many of us in Southern Africa who tend to be more indirect and polite (although we can never match the “Pole, Pole” of Zanzibaris).
As I sat waiting for my turn for my visa to be processed, a white man turned up. He demanded to speak to the manager. With the arrogance typical of white South Africans in their dealings with black South African civil servants, the white man rolled out his best “Where is your manager routine?”. The Nigerian civil servant he was shouting at to look up from his desk and reply calmly, “I am the man”. The white man continued to shout. The Nigerian manager rose to his full height. He reprimanded the white man like he was his schoolboy. As a headmaster does, he finished his dress down of the white man by instructing him to sit down. He would serve him when he was ready. The white man did as he was told and thanked the manager for his time.
Having suffered many South African queues in my lifetime, I can almost certainly guarantee that if a black South African manager had decided to defend their dignity, they would do so by first declaring that they are a proud black person and on that basis would not allow themselves to be treated by a white man in this way. The ordeal might have lasted longer, drawn in more people and unlikely have ended with the white man expressing his gratitude for the black man’s graciousness. While it is true that the manager’s booming voice and imposing physical stature already gave him an unfair advantage, I can say almost certainly that it was his Nigerian “Tigritude” that allowed him to summarily dismiss the white man’s temper tantrum, not necessarily because he was a racist oyinbo (which he almost certainly was), but simply because he was a client with bad home training behaving badly in his house. Negritude? Tigritude!
I will never repeat these words anywhere else, but let it be said here: sometimes it is only Nigerian arrogance that can successfully stare down white racial arrogance. With a little more sobriety, I use this example to argue that there is indeed much to be gained for black people all over the world in having the most populous black nation be one in which black people walk tall and do not cower in the face of white supremacy. The trouble is when that confidence veers into the kind of loud and dismissive arrogance that it so often does.
Aside from the late Ogbu, there are many other Nigerian academics, writers, artists, and intellectuals such as Bibi Bakare Yusuf, Olu Oguibe, Ashley Akunna, Hakim Adi, Biodun Jeyifo and Moses Ochonu who have engaged with the subject of race with that rare combination of rigor and empathy, using their Nigerian experience as an opportunity to build and not to undermine broader black struggles. They act within Nigeria’s long tradition of supporting black struggle. Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, individuals (including Soyinka himself), movements, organizations and the state played an important role in Southern Africa’s liberation struggles against white settler rule. Along with the Frontline States, Nigeria was actively involved in the negotiations, embargoes, boycotts, and economic sanctions that eventually brought an end to official apartheid. Shortly after the recent passing of Okwui Enwezor, a son of Anambra whose groundbreaking work in the art world demonstrated a fierce commitment to a radical ethics and politics of black and pan-Africanist solidarity, African American artist Hank Willis-Thomas hailed him as a “true titan”, saying, “I once asked how he was able to walk into so many spaces being the only one and accomplish so much radical change with such poise. He replied simply, ‘It’s because Nigerians are Fearless.’”
If Nigerians want to be the true Giants of Africa and, indeed, the world, they must walk it with the empathy and humility befitting of a true politics of black and pan-Africanist solidarity. If instead, you walk as giants blind to the pain and the struggles of your sisters, your presence only serves to destroy the work done by others instead of elevating us all to new heights.
Editors note: This essay was originally published in Africa as a country with the title, Why I’m no longer talking to Nigerians about race.
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