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.
A Wake-up Call to Youth, Kenya’s Most Important ‘Tribe’
10 min read. If Kenyans under the age of 35 comprised a single “tribe”, they would be 77% of the population. Using the logic of adherents of the tyranny of numbers doctrine of tribal supremacy, the 77% should currently be dictating government policy as a democratic imperative.
Nanjala Nyabola, author of Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, points out that Kenya’s first digital election in 2017 was the most expensive election in world history, at $28 per capita, more than four times higher than that of India’s $6. (That was on the first round alone.) This gargantuan deployment of resources can be attributed to the evolution of elections into a massive transnational profit-making industry that is amoral in its misappropriation of digital assets, data mining and brokerage. Thus the irony that Jubilee’s 2013 campaign strategy to frame the International Criminal Court (ICC) process as a foreign attack on Kenyan sovereignty was in fact the brainchild of a foreign corporation – the Anglo-American political consultancy Cambridge Analytica – that was based on a covert survey of 47,000 Kenyans.
Misinformation has always been critical to the survival of the colonial state. No economic caste system in the world has ever survived without the tacit approval of the majority of its serfs because from the perspective of power, it is much more costly to impose rule over an overwhelmingly antagonistic population than over one that participates willingly in its own exploitation. So it is not surprising that Kenya’s ruling oligarchy would engage firms that specialise in misinformation for profit. Their product is a personalised fiction tailored to the emotional vulnerabilities of unsuspecting citizens.
Unlike broadcast media, digital media allows private messaging below the radar of law enforcement or opposition monitors, thus making it a favourite medium for hate speech. This threat of unfettered Western capital influencing elections has no borders. Digital colonialism, as this business model has come to be known, was incubated in Kenya where “nobody was paying attention” and has since been repatriated to effectively disrupt referenda and elections around the world, including most flamboyantly in the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
Nyabola’s book begs the urgent question: If information, rather than misinformation, was our goal, how else might we have invested a hundred and forty billion shillings?
A wonderful usage of $28 per capita would be to cultivate a new identity that subverts the destructive logic of tribal politics in a way that benefits the majority of Kenyan citizens. There happens to be a “tribe” to which all of us must belong for a time, and that is the tribe of young people. Africa is the youngest continent in the world, but her colonial states are ill-suited to harness the potential of their most productive citizens, leaving thousands to decay as economic migrants in Libyan slave markets or at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. While African bodies are denied free movement, African capital and resources move freely out of the continent in the form of debt interest repayment, Chinese infrastructure payments, and most significantly, the massive misallocation of capital through corruption.
Kenyans under the age of 35 years are the most vulnerable to the shocks of systemic corruption, unemployment, lack of maternity care, ecological destruction, forced migration and the education gap. If Kenyans under the age of 35 comprised a single “tribe”, they would be 77% of the population. Using the logic of adherents of the tyranny of numbers doctrine of tribal supremacy, the 77% should currently be dictating government policy as a democratic imperative.
If the 77% were to become politically self-aware, its representation in the cabinet would be so overwhelming that it would be taken for granted. An absurd institution, such as the Ministry of ICT, Innovation and Youth Affairs, would not exist because no president would be allowed to get away with insulting the 77% by giving them half a ministry. More than an insult, it would be considered profoundly undemocratic to reduce the ecological, economic and political concerns of this majority to their utility in the ICT sector. What a politically self-aware 77% would demand instead is representation at the heart of decision-making institutions in every single arm of government – regardless of whether or not ICT is involved.
Kenyans under the age of 35 years are the most vulnerable to the shocks of systemic corruption, unemployment, lack of maternity care, ecological destruction, forced migration and the education gap.
Technology and innovation are no doubt important to the 77%, but so is defending our constitution and our environment from wanton abuse of power. The 77% would resoundingly assert, “We do not wish to become Dubai or Singapore, however much you dynastic dinosaurs would wish to bribe us with that fantasy. We are a constitutional democracy and we will never trade democracy for the sake of your so-called ‘development’.”
The goal of this thought experiment is not in any way to endorse our normalised tribalism as a legitimate mode of governance, but rather to push the limits of our collective imagination. This in my estimation would do infinitely more to strengthen our public institutions without expensive bridges to nowhere. If our public policy was informed by the interests of the 77%, there would be no need for private initiatives between boardroom brothers.
Yet because private bedroom initiatives are the favourite ruling format of Kenya’s fraudulent elite, the primary function of the billions in campaign spending is to make sure that the 77% never ever becomes politically self-aware by splintering it into toothless sub-categories. Only through such fragmentation is it possible for thinking human beings to willfully vote against their own economic interests and uphold a system that concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a fraction of a percentage of the population. This is the enduring triumph of colonialism that has proved far more insidious and resilient than the freedom fighters could have ever anticipated. It has proved much harder to remove the crony capitalist ideology brought by the coloniser than it was to remove his flags because his ideology now speaks our language – very fluently.
For the tyranny of numbers ideology to function in practice, it requires more than simply state violence, plentiful though that is. It requires the erosion of public institutions supported by a massive cultural project of misinformation and fraud that turns the 77% into either slack-jawed consumers of propaganda, or alienated and apathetic gamblers. Only through this social engineering does systemic abuse of power not trigger the sort of rage that could bring our house of cards raining down.
This social engineering includes the imposition of punitive fines and defamation laws against the media, and the narrowing of the spectrum of ideas that can be freely expressed with the aim of reducing journalists to stenographers. A good example of this is how over the past month critical questions of rule of law, human rights and citizenship were effectively trivialised into a binary question of whether or not we approve of Miguna Miguna’s manners – as if our rights are contingent on good manners.
But perhaps the most crucial lever of social engineering is an education policy that eliminates creative education from its curricula with the aim of graduating a docile workforce that does not ask those in power critical questions. For the few creative professionals that do survive the education system, they still have to contend with a philistine environment that has driven many promising young artists to suicide.
As numerous contemporary educators, including myself, have pointed out, eliminating creative education is a disastrous misstep for Kenya at a time when creative thinkers are needed more than ever before. The tyranny of numbers fundamentalists have no response to our most pressing contemporary challenges – ecological destruction, systemic corruption, a debt crisis and technological unemployment – except to warn us of a repeat of the 2007/8 violence if we do not give them what they want. That is, state jobs, chase cars and overpriced initiatives, ostensibly for our sake.
For the tyranny of numbers ideology to function in practice, it requires more than simply state violence…It requires the erosion of public institutions supported by a massive cultural project of misinformation and fraud that turns the 77% into either slack-jawed consumers of propaganda, or alienated and apathetic gamblers.
As the 77% hangs onto dignity by its fingernails, a confrontation with these dynastic dinosaurs that rule Kenya is inevitable. Under the weight of economic mismanagement, fissures of discontent are beginning to crack our social fabric. As young workers struggle to support their elderly relatives, business-as-usual politicians will spend billions on divisive campaigns to preserve their cherished tyranny of numbers doctrine, adding the risk of unrest to our already mounting challenges. Kenya’s rulers have already demonstrated a willingness to encourage violence among a splintered 77% for the sake of power. The only way to avoid the grave that they are digging for us with the aid of mercenary capital is for the 77% to become politically self-conscious.
Our minds are the battleground for the survival of the dream that is Kenya. With our labour, will we pay the price for the largest debt accumulation this country has ever seen. If we are to avert catastrophe, we have no choice but to wake up from our millennial slumber and own our power. Democracy is strong when the powerful fear the citizens and not when the citizens fear the powerful. This is a form of tribalism to which I will happily subscribe long after my membership inevitably expires.
As the most dynamic segment of the population, young people are the most capable of adapting to change if only their education facilitates this innate ability. As one of the youngest countries on earth, Kenya should be reaping huge rewards from its youth bulge. Instead, we are squandering our precious resources on everything except young people and undercutting what little support they have. Where public playgrounds once sat, huge private hotels and apartments are illegally erected, complete with barbed wire fences and NO IDLING signs. Whereas once children were encouraged to love learning, now they receive the relentless message from the state that the arts and humanities in general are economically useless and therefore not worth pursuing. The thinking (or lack of) behind scrapping humanities such as art, history and literature from our public school curricula is that in our quest to become rich like Dubai or Singapore, we must prioritise science, technology and mathematics (STEM) at the expense of all other fields.
This worldview assumes that Kenya in 2020 can follow the same industrialisation path of Singapore in 1950 by making Kenya an attractive destination for labour-intensive industries that can absorb its millions of unemployed youth. That is a dangerous assumption to make in 2020 and is woefully uninformed by recent trends in digital technology, which are more likely to generate jobless “growth” and enrich a tiny fraction of our population, as is already occurring.
Our minds are the battleground for the survival of the dream that is Kenya. With our labour, will we pay the price for the largest debt accumulation this country has ever seen. If we are to avert catastrophe, we have no choice but to wake up from our millennial slumber and own our power.
In this decade, numbers such as GDP that purport to describe our lives are completely divorced from the reality of ordinary Kenyans. Capitalism powered by exponential technology has finally evolved to the point where a handful of individuals can own billions worth of shares in decentralised autonomous organizations (DAOs) that operate without human supervision.
Without a creative lens with which to evaluate our current reality, our education system will continue to lock the minds of the 77% into a hapless cycle of reactivity to the changes happening around us rather than proactively harnessing the winds change for the benefit of society at large, including our elders who depend on us for support. Moreover, the STEM prescription is rarely applied to the wealthy politicians who can afford to take their children to private schools that offer art and literature. Rather, the evidence suggests that the STEM prescription is motivated by the desire to standardise and commodify public education for the benefit of a few foreign edutech corporations marketing “scalable” solutions. Educators have tried in vain to warn against selling out the 77% to these corporations, but their money talks louder than Kenyan teachers.
Creative education, on the other hand, shows us that unlike digital information, we humans inhabit an analog planet which we must learn to see, sense and cultivate if we are to survive in it. Our growing population and finite resources such as freshwater cannot sustain the same exponential rate of growth as capital accumulation. This is an irreconcilable difference between the natural world and the digital world.
A digital sound recording can only approximate the totality of information contained in a sound wave from an actual musical instrument or a singer’s vocal chords. A digital image, no matter how dense its pixels per inch, still remains constrained by the eyesight of the viewer. No matter how much content we can upload to video platforms such as YouTube, the amount of attention we have available to spend remains constrained by our competing need for sleep. Only by appreciating the richness of the living systems that sustain human life can we hope to become architects of a digital layer that improves our wellbeing rather than harming us.
Creative education works by combining our innate passion to an external learning goal to create motivated learning. Motivated learning is the difference between studying physics in the middle of the night so that you can realise your childhood dream of building a computer game, versus studying physics in the middle of the night so that you can pass an exam in the hope of someday finding a job. In this example, the learning goal is the same – to learn physics – but the outcomes are vastly different.
Motivated learning leads to mastery and meaning, whereas coercive learning yields disengagement and alienation. Furthermore, from a social perspective, most people prefer to work with motivated peers rather than with uninspired peers, regardless of their skill level. If we are sincere in our Singaporean ambitions, creative education should become our number one priority.
Unleashing a cultural renaissance
When I was a little boy, I recall shuddering at the mention of the word “culture”. It was often spoken with an ominous air of religious obligation that conjured in my mind images of strict discipline and painful circumcision. If we wanted to find “culture”, the place we were instructed to look was in the past. The more distant that past, the better.
It was not until fairly recently that I began to develop a much more nuanced understanding of what Culture – with a big C – is. Culture is not a frozen relic of the past that we can display neatly in a rectangular museum. Culture is an evolving system of ideas, language and technologies that set the parameters for our interaction with the world. Most importantly, I learned that we have agency in setting these parameters. Most of our agrarian ancestors lived in a relatively unchanging geographic and technological context where most of their relatives lived within two days on camel-back. In this context, the most important reservoirs of knowledge were those who had lived the longest.
The same is not true today. Understanding the most culturally transformative technologies of our age is now the province of teenagers. This does not mean rewriting cherished norms, such as respect for elders, but it does, however, demand that we develop a relationship of mutual respect with our youngest citizens.
After the president congratulated himself on his “inclusivity” after appointing two twenty-something-year-olds to his cabinet this month, he urged them to “learn from your more experienced elders”. What he failed to make clear was exactly what these youth are expected to learn from elders who have presided over the worst economic mismanagement in our history and reversed our progress towards democracy.
Brothers and sisters of the 77%, if we have any self-respect, we must refuse such tokens of false friendship and instead advise the “elder” to learn from us. Until this president and his boardroom brothers are subject to the same law that is inflicted on the young people selling chapatis on the wrong side of the road, we can only be doubtful of his claims of solidarity with us. Our survival demands that we bring about a cultural renaissance. It is a collective project that no one individual can bring about alone, but one that all of us can influence by abstaining from consuming the idiocy that is sold to us in the name of “culture”. Let us create our own culture by tearing down the walls of the silos that were erected around our minds.
Stolen Minds: The Real Reason for the West’s Prosperity
9 min read. As Western nations deride China for conducting industrial and technological espionage, they fail to recognise that their own wealth was built on stolen technology and the theft of intellectual property.
“Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” – Honore de Balzac
It is 1848. The Scottish botanist Robert Fortune has transitioned from the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Scotland, to the prestigious Horticultural Society of London. Fortune’s fascinating memoir of his first trip to China’s richly biodiverse and scenic Wu Yi highlands has got the ears of London’s nobility, particularly now that China, an imperial power in the East, hoards tea seedlings and tea technology. The status-chasing British elite remain infatuated by tea as an upper class beverage since it was introduced to Victorian high society as a cultural fad by the Portuguese royalty Catherine of Braganza.
As Sara Rose would later recount in How England Stole the World’s Favourite Drink and Changed History, Fortune was approached by a representative of the East India Trading Company to smuggle tea seedlings, Chinese tea experts and tea technology out of China into British-controlled India. The theft would become the most critical economic espionage of the 19th century and would effectively shift the global centre of economic power from the East to the West for the next 130 years. (China wouldn’t recover until the late 1970s.)
Stealing technology as a model for growing economically isn’t just a distinctly British trait. In 1258, as the 13th century Islamic scholars Al-Tabari and Ibn al-Nadim would recount, intellectual property exports were fueled by what’s now known as the Translation Movement of the late 800s AD. The project saw much of the Greek Hellenistic intellectual, economic and commercial capital translated into Arabic, a move that partly aided the rise of the Islamic Golden Age from the 12th to the 15th century. Done under the guise of integrating the large Greek-speaking populations into the expanding Islamic kingdoms, the translations helped chronicle the contributions of Greeks, Indians, and Persians to science, mathematics, trade, and philosophy.
Stealing technology as a model for growing economically isn’t just a distinctly British trait. In 1258, as the 13th century Islamic scholars Al-Tabari and Ibn al-Nadim would recount, intellectual property exports were fueled by what’s now known as the Translation Movement of the late 800s AD.
Beginning in the 600s AD, the Islamic Umayyad Empire swayed more towards militaristic conquest which, while broadening its borders, brought into its fold numerous disparate groups speaking different languages. The Abbasid Empire that followed after in the 800s benefited from the intellectual curiosity of the Buddhist-Iranian Royal Islamic family, the Barmakids, whose translation efforts rendered much of the ancient scholarly work into the Arabic language and nuances.
Soon enough the Arabic translations plus the resultant Islamic innovations made their way to Christian Europe via Sicily, Andalusia in the Mediterranean, Toledo in Spain and Venice in Italy. This Islamic conquest of Europe precipitated a Norman-Arab-Indo-Byzantium culture through which Eastern ideas seeped their way West via trade, wars and industrial espionage. This contradicts long-time Harvard professor and political scientist Samuel Huntington’s claim in the Clash of Civilizations that Islam and the West have always been incompatible and fundamentally opposed to each other.
Venice, the glassmaking capital of the ancient world, grew its commercial stature on the back of the industrial skills found in those translated texts in the Byzantium Empire and the Orient. The Venetians, well aware that industrial espionage fuels the rise or fall of nations, in 1295 passed a Venetian law that banned foreigners from learning the skill and also forbade its most skilled craftsmen from traveling out of the city. They’d go as far as locking them up in the Venetian island of Murano from which we get the legend of Murano glassmaking that has lasted till date.
However, in 1612, a Florentine priest and chemist, Antonio Neri, published his seminal work, L’artra Vetraria (The Art of Glass) that revealed industrial glassmaking secrets and made them accessible to the wider public and foreigners. Over time, the Bohemian Kingdom in the westerly region of the Czech Republic stole the glassmaking technology and so did the French.
The Victorian aristocracy not only swindled industrial tea technology from China to India, it would also loot the Indian subcontinent through the Raj colonial rule. As recounted by former United Nations diplomat Shashi Tharoor in his work Inglorious Empire, under British colonial theft, India’s share of global manufacturing fell from 27 per cent to 2 per cent.
Keep in mind that as British macroeconomist, the late Angus Maddison, had calculated, in the 1800s, China and India together accounted for 52 per cent of global trade. Colonial theft, industrial-scale looting and loss of trade secrets to Euro-American imperial powers brought these two giants to their knees.
How nations prosper
Conventional textbook wisdom dictates that the path of nations to prosperity is dependent on a multitude of variables, key among them being democracy, managed bureaucracy, equitable taxes, property rights, the size of the (in)formal sectors, and the inclusivity of the economy.
Controversial British social historian Niall Ferguson credits what he calls the six killer apps of Western civilization – competition, science, a property-owning democracy, modern medicine, a consumer society, and the Protestant work ethic – as the engines of Euromerican economic power.
Meanwhile, Coolidge lecturer and professor of economics emeritus David Landes credits Western values, primarily hard work, the advancement of scientific knowledge, and a passion for progress, as the keys to a nation’s success. In his book The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, he makes a treatise for the role of markets and governments, with Landes preferring a statecraft built to intervene only when necessary but one that mostly leaves the nation-state to the power of the markets for good and for ill.
In the 1800s, China and India together accounted for 52 per cent of global trade. Colonial theft, industrial-scale looting and loss of trade secrets to Euro-American imperial powers brought these two giants to their knees.
Christian historian Russell Kirk follows the path of divine discipline, his central claim being that culture itself descends from cult or religion. It’s his belief in Civilization Without a Religion that metaphysics makes it possible to establish basic set of common values out of which emerges public trust that makes greater cooperation and progress possible. Hence out of metaphysics emerges physics from which cultures grow into civilizations. This, he believed, is what gave rise to Western civilization as we know it, traced mostly to the Protestant Reformation of the 1600s when Martin Luther rebelled against the Catholic Church.
Back at the British Empire, if they imagined themselves as unique in the long chain of global industrial theft, then history awaited them. In 1791, as America’s 13 colonies emerged out of the American Revolution, Pennsylvanian economist Tench Coxe and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton were convinced that the only way the young colony could grow was through the age-old route of empire-building industrial tech theft.
In 1787, the American agent Andrew Mitchell had been intercepted by British authorities as he was trying to smuggle new British models and drawings of the latest industrial machines and technology to the US. He fled to Denmark to escape capture. The mission had been funded by Coxe, Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s friend, who’d also go on to encourage George Parkinson to steal the textile spinning machine from Britain. Massachusetts businessman Francis Cabot Lowell too pilfered the automated cloth-weaving designs and later established the massive American textile industrial town of Lowell, which is named after him.
From its inception, America encouraged immigrating foreigners, private citizens, state officers, and travelling traders to smuggle in industrial designs, drawings, and European innovation to aid in state-building. America pursued contradictory paths in which it incentivised industrial espionage and theft abroad while firming up intellectual property rights and protecting innovations at home.
Historian Doron Ben-Altar portrays America’s Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s ambition as an enabler in what he describes in Trade Secrets: Intellectual Piracy and the Origins of American Industrial Power as “unabashed, state-sanctioned flouting of British law”. America at inception fits the model of a den of rogue economic hitmen and intellectual pirates.
The country’s list of bootlegging and contraband capitalism, as portrayed in In Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America, is extensive, ranging from West Indies molasses and Dutch gunpowder in the 18th century to British industrial technologies and African slaves in the 19th century, to French condoms and Canadian booze in the early 20th century, to Mexican workers, Colombian cocaine, and Middle Eastern oil in the 21st century.
From its inception, America encouraged immigrating foreigners, private citizens, state officers, and travelling traders to smuggle in industrial designs, drawings, and European innovation to aid in state-building.
The biggest industrial theft in history though was orchestrated by the Soviet Empire and the US Allied Forces against the Nazis. As World War II heated up and Nazis were in retreat, American and Soviet scientists, researchers and analysts teamed up to loot occupied Germany of military, scientific and technological designs. Trailing behind Allied combat troops, technical teams, such as the Technical Industrial Intelligence Branch (TIIB), and the Combined Intelligence Objectives Subcommittee (CIOS), began confiscating and extricating classified research documents and detaining German experts from German corporations like Hoescht, I. G. Farben, Volkswagen, Messerschmitt, Dornier, and hundreds others in the rural towns.
Visualisation by Juliet Atellah
C. Lester Walker’s Secrets by the Thousands chronicles hundreds of instances where Allied researchers and forces stumbled upon Nazi technologies that were lightyears ahead of what Americans, Soviets, and the British had in their respective countries. This ranged from industrial dyes to V-2 bomb technologies, vaccines, infrared technology, and dairy production designs.
It didn’t take long for research teams embedded among the Allied Forces to realise that they were encountering technology that they couldn’t even operate let alone conceive. This gave birth to Operation Paperclip that saw upwards of 1600 Nazi scientists hurriedly scuttled out of the Nazi-occupied regions onto transatlantic flights heading West.
Annie Jacobsen’s account, In Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program That Brought Nazi Scientists to America, proves that the fathers of America’s space technology, Wernher von Braun and Kurt Debus, were senior and controversial Nazi scientists and so were physicists Georg Goubau and Friedwardt Winterberg.
The Soviets too, through Operation Osoaviakhim, repatriated more than 2,200 German specialists to work in the Soviet Union as the Red Army ransacked the other end of the Nazi Empire. The operation conducted under the leadership of Russia’s KGB boss Ivan Alexandrovich Serov on 22 October 1946 targeted mostly military technology, a tragic tunnel vision that fueled their loss during their Cold War against the West.
The Hoover Fellow Norman M. Naimark, in The Russians in Germany, paints the Soviet industrial age dilemma, given that, unlike the Americans and the Allied forces, the Germans weren’t too far from the Soviet border. The capture of the Nazi scientists therefore carried with it urgent anthropological and historical issues for which mythmaking and brainwashing were deemed necessary.
As Lester Walker notes, it’s a disturbing realisation for modern humans that the most creative period in world history may have occurred under the Nazis between 1932 and 1945, and that it was the murderous and racist Nazis’ scientific research breakthroughs that gifted the modern world a significant majority of its current industrial and technological conveniences.
Still is it even a vice if the French haven’t tried it? In a 2014 WikiLeaks cable Berry Smutny, the head of the German satellite company OHB Technology, called France the top offender when it comes to industrial espionage, terming them worse than China and Russia.
France has consistently been accused over the decades of going after military, space and aviation technology from every country it deems to have superior inventions in these fields. America’s former Defense Secretary Robert Gates asserts that besides China, France is the second most tenacious and capable cybersecurity risk to America’s defences.
It’s a disturbing realisation for modern humans that the most creative period in world history may have occurred under the Nazis between 1932 and 1945, and that it was the murderous and racist Nazis’ scientific research breakthroughs that gifted the modern world a significant majority of its current industrial and technological conveniences.
It’s laughably obtuse, therefore, given the historical economic records, for Europe and America to consistently complain over what they dub China’s massive industrial espionage. According to the US authorities, from 2011 more than 90 per cent of the State Department’s cases alleging economic espionage involving a state pointed at China, and more than two-thirds of the Department’s theft of trade secrets cases were directly linked to China.
For a country with at least 1.2 billion citizens, and 100 cities with at least 1 million people each, and at least 100 firms with a market capitalisation of over $1 billion dollars, China seems unstoppable.
Between 1978 and 2017, China lifted roughly 600 million citizens out of poverty, averaging at 20 million each year, leading to an overall 94.4 percentage points reduction in poverty. By any measure, the economic progress that started with Deng Xiaoping in 1978 remains the greatest economic miracle in the history of mankind. The country’s economic engines might keep pumping for another decade or two before it plateaus out. That’s not how the West view it though. In China, they see a rogue state who steals ideas, and one who’s refused to anchor her growth trajectory on Western patronage and powers, like Japan did in the 80s.
Trade is war
Further south, Africa’s wealth, encumbered by global geopolitical and geo-economic contestations, has consistently been the site of plunder effected through tax havens and illicit financial flows. A significant chunk of this resource theft takes advantage of weak legislation, sleaze, civil wars, population displacement, and weak governance structures. The spread and pervasiveness of this economic carnage can be at best quantified through the over $200 billion in mostly illicit outflows and less than $160 billion inflows through loans and grants.
The Ugandan scholar Yash Tandon, who’s an honorary Professor at Warwick and London Middlesex University, consistently warns African countries that trade is a battle and often a zero sum game often pegged on the scale and efficacy of industrial espionage. Africa, as a crucible of innovation over the last 3,000 years, hasn’t properly calibrated its creative contribution to modern civilization and the resultant loss from corporate espionage.
In Trade is War, Tandon demonstrably shows the Bretton Woods institutions for what they really are: internationally tentacled Western leeches designed to loot African economies and resources. His valuable insider view traces the skewed and aptly misnamed free trade agreements as simply state-sanctioned industrial espionage where economic hitmanship are ratified through charters.
African state bureaucracies, with their inherent mediocrity, often deploy the services of the intellectually weak, the illiterate and the inarticulate and sometimes the naïve among its ranks to represent them in these high stakes intergovernmental forums. The disregard for the fact that it is these global economic institutions who pass regional laws, regulations, pacts and charters ends up favouring their industries, experts, and products over those of the global South.
Crucially, the cyber-espionage bugging of the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa, the dramatic break-in at South Africa’s Pelindaba nuclear facility, and the KGB-cum-CIA double agent Yuri Loginov’s targeting of the Central Bank of Kenya are pretty much the highest profiled and publicised industrial-scale espionages on the continent. Often planted moles, wiretapping, bugging, spy software and rogue employees or a litany of spy methods get deployed to pilfer sensitive corporate and economic data from African state agencies, their embassies abroad, the military, public contractors, national archives, repositories, and research institutes. Africa has not only failed to protect its industrial, commercial and economic secrets, it has for the most part failed to also deploy its own industrial espionage against far much more innovative states and companies across the globe.
That’s why Tandon’s critique constitutes the single biggest indictment of the African nation-state’s lacklustre approach to global trade, the future of their states, trade secrets, and the economic welfare of their firms and citizenry. A significant cluster of African states and those of the global South seem not to have figured out that shrewd pacts, industrial theft and illicit financial flows may just be the paths that propelled the countries whose economic power Africans admire to their current First World status.
Haiti: Symbolism and Scapegoating in the Americas
11 min read. French colonialism, economic embargoes and authoritarian leadership, coupled with natural disasters, have turned Haiti into the basket case of the Western hemisphere. But what the world doesn’t recognise about this former slave colony is that it gave birth to a revolution whose roots are “numerous and deep”.
What is happening in Haiti right now?
Another president. More allegations of corruption at the highest levels. More riots in the streets. More foreigners wringing their hands publicly as they privately feed on the carcass of this once (and potentially future) prosperous part of the world. Haiti is still – as it has been for most of the last 215 years – the cliché summed up in a unitary phrase typically used to describe it in news reports: the-poorest-country-in-the-Western-hemisphere.
A recent episode of Al Jazeera’s news and social media show The Stream took up the question of whether change is possible, whether Haiti might have a future that is better than its past. One of the commentators on this question observed that the popular protests against Haiti’s current president, Jovenel Moïse, had been peaceful for the previous eighteen months and had only now turned violent. The discussion went on to note that violence is a way for people to make their voices heard, echoing the injunction attributed to American president John F. Kennedy that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”.
For long-time watchers of the nation’s politics, it is clear that what is happening in Haiti now is a consequence of the fact that the voices of the Haitian people have never been listened to, never been taken seriously, by those who have the power to clear away the obstacles that prevent people from making their lives better.
Following the current events and politics of this troubled nation easily breeds despair in those of us who watch from afar. The names change, but the misery remains a constant reality. The impulse to turn away is understandable. It is also wrong, and misguided, for at least two reasons. First, because turning away from suffering is immoral, inhumane. Second, because Haiti is not a singular case; it is an illustration of the dangers and difficulties that must be faced by any nation wishing to chart a free and independent future for itself and its people.
Once upon a time, Haiti was a French colony known as Saint Domingue. It produced the sugar and coffee wealth that propped up the pre-Revolution ancien régime. Back then, too, foreigners flooded in to enrich themselves, but in those days the adventurers some now call “vulture capitalists” fed on a body that had plenty of meat on its bones.
That unchallenged feeding frenzy ended when news of the French Revolution and the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen passed by a new republican parliament in France arrived in the colony. This declaration asserted, among other things, that all Frenchmen had a right to liberty, and was a harbinger of the 1794 abolition of slavery in France. Inspired by the declaration’s guarantees, the Africans of Saint Domingue, who had been kidnapped from their homes and sold at auctions to be viciously and ruthlessly worked to death as they produced France’s sugar and coffee wealth, became the world’s first and only example of slaves who rose up and freed themselves.
For long-time watchers of the nation’s politics, it is clear that what is happening in Haiti now is a consequence of the fact that the voices of the Haitian people have never been listened to, never been taken seriously, by those who have the power to clear away the obstacles that prevent people from making their lives better.
The path to liberty and the transformation of Saint Domingue into the new nation of Haiti was neither easy nor entirely successful. It is this “not entirely realised” nature of Haiti’s revolution that provides the instructive lesson for all decolonising polities.
The birth of this new nation – an inspiration to all those who have followed in the long struggle to break the shackles of colonialism – was marked by failures to fully achieve both political and economic sovereignty. The economic consequences of the brutal 13-year-long war the former slaves fought against one of the great military powers of Europe were devastated infrastructure and the collapse of their sugar and coffee exports. Politically, the initial decades were characterised by diplomatic isolation, largely due to European belief that Haiti’s independence was an aberration, and that France would eventually reassert control over its wayward colony.
France had acquired from Spain, and at that time still held, the eastern side of the island of Hispaniola (the territory that is today the neighbouring nation of the Dominican Republic) so re-invasion by French forces was a real threat faced by the emergent nation. By 1825, however, the restored French crown was manoeuvring for monetary compensation and indemnity, for their “lost assets” – the land, and the slaves who had freed themselves—rather than reconquest.
Haiti agreed to the indemnity and the bank loans to finance the indemnity payments in the hope that French recognition would translate into diplomatic relations and economic opportunity – a move that drained the country’s coffers of precious tax revenues and foreign currency reserves all the way through until the final payment on related loans was made in 1947. These payments amounted to 122 years of economic parasitism that are valued in current US dollars at approximately $21 billion.
A toxic political tradition
The men who emerged as the revolution’s generals and leaders, first, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and then, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, were both committed to continuing the plantation economy required for the former colony’s sugar production despite overwhelming support of the population for a “cultivateur” economy of small-scale coffee farms and other self-sustaining agricultural operations.
In the waning days of the revolution, as independence was increasingly seen as possible, then likely, Toussaint declared himself Governor-General for Life, inaugurating a toxic political tradition of authoritarian rule that continues to plague Haiti. Dessalines, the general who inherited his leadership mantle after Toussaint was captured and imprisoned by the French, continued to rule as a military dictator, first declaring himself Governor-General (following Toussaint’s example), then Emperor of Haiti (in a move thought to be modelled on Napoleon Bonaparte’s example in France).
Dessalines was the leader who proclaimed both the initial declaration of Haitian independence and its remarkable Imperial Constitution of Haiti, 1805, but his growing unpopularity led to his defeat almost immediately after independence, upon which the nation was divided into a northern kingdom and a southern republic for most of the first two decades of its existence.
In the northern Kingdom of Haiti, Henri Christophe continued the Toussaint-Dessalines policy of trying to impose an authoritarian military regime and an export-based plantation economy. His rival in the southern Republic of Haiti, Alexandre Pétion, only partially cut against this orthodoxy. Trying to develop a new economic model, Pétion broke up the large plantations into smaller parcels and instituted a “sharecropping” system, while simultaneously reforming taxation policy to collect revenues from imports and exports rather than internal economic transactions. However, he also embraced political authoritarianism.
Haiti agreed to the indemnity and the bank loans to finance the indemnity payments in the hope that French recognition would translate into diplomatic relations and economic opportunity – a move that drained the country’s coffers of precious tax revenues and foreign currency reserves all the way through until the final payment on related loans was made in 1947.
The nation was reunified after Christophe’s death in 1820 by Pétion’s successor, Jean-Pierre Boyer, but the model for Haitian governance for most of its subsequent history was set: authoritarian rule that ranged from being unresponsive to the population’s needs to being openly and brutally corrupt.
It was not until 1874 that Haiti had a leader, Jean-Nicolas Nissage Saget, who served his term as president and then retired voluntarily. Nissage Saget, however, had come into office as the result of a coup, so the first truly successful transfer of power from one popularly elected president to another would have to wait until 2001 when René Préval handed the office over to Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The destructive role of Haiti’s powerful neighbour
While all of this external exploitation and internal mismanagement (political and economic) was taking place, Haiti’s most powerful neighbour, the United States, was jockeying for geopolitical advantage. Happy to trade with the colony and with the emerging nation in its early days, the United States nonetheless wanted to discourage further European expansion in the Americas (a position that later became known as the Monroe Doctrine) even as it sought opportunities to acquire territorial possessions from France and Spain.
One manifestation of this was the economic embargo on Haiti by the US from 1806 on, in collusion with France and Spain. Haiti’s American neighbour had in fact profited handsomely from the French defeat in the Haitian Revolution; in financially desperate circumstances partly attributable to the revolution, France negotiated the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, a transfer of lands around the Gulf of Mexico which, at the time, doubled the territory of the young United States.
American antipathy towards Haiti was not just about doing business with the Europeans – for example, currying further favour with the French in order to gain control over Florida; it was also driven by racist pro-slavery factions who could not tolerate the idea of a nation of self-liberated former slaves next door. For all of these reasons, the United States gave Haiti no diplomatic recognition until 1862, halfway through the US Civil War (when the Southern racists, having formed their own break-away government, were no longer in the national legislature).
Since this recognition, however, the United States has militarily occupied Haiti (from 1915 to 1934), propped up brutal dictatorships (supporting the vicious Duvaliers, for instance, as a bulwark against Fidel Castro’s Communist Cuba), and colluded in removing popularly-elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power (twice). It is almost too obvious and too inadequate to make the same point about Haiti that former Mexican leader Porfirio Diaz (1830-1915) made of his own country: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States!”
Unapologetic blackness: Haiti’s “new man”
The remarkable 1805 Imperial Constitution of Haiti that I alluded to above is an example of the promise that Haiti is still struggling to realise. Dessalines promulgated Haiti’s independence on January 1, 1804, calling on all “native citizens: men, women, girls and children” to defend and take pride in the country of “our birth”. He backed up that declaration with a radical re-thinking of racial hierarchy in the 1805 constitution. Article 14 of the Imperial Constitution of Haiti reads: “[a]ll distinctions of color will by necessity disappear…[and] Haitians shall be known from now on by the generic denomination of blacks..”
It is, I think, worth noting that the basis on which attempts have been made to build solidarity has changed over the years; the post-Duvalier 1987 constitution (that in fact re-constitutes Haiti as a democratic state) attempts to unite Haitians through designating Creole as the country’s common language rather than through assignment of a political “race.”. But, in a hostile and racist world, the 1805 claim that Haitian national identity would be synonymous with blackness can be read as a fundamental (hence, radical) challenge – a compelling attempt to decolonise the mind – and stands as one of the most crucial contributions that the Haitian Revolution has made to progressive struggles around rhetoric and representation.
American antipathy towards Haiti was not just about doing business with the Europeans; it was also driven by racist pro-slavery factions who could not tolerate the idea of a nation of self-liberated former slaves next door.
Arguably, it is a precursor to the non-racial conception of Algerian nationhood that Frantz Fanon celebrated in A Dying Colonialism (published in French as L’An Cinq, de la Révolution Algérienne, 1959). Where the Algerian conception of national unity (“Every individual living in Algeria is an Algerian”) was empowering because it recognised citizenship and national belonging as a matter of nominal membership in a category (one chooses to name oneself as belonging, therefore one belongs) and a matter of personal choice, rather than postulating some definitive essence that one must possess in order to qualify as a citizen of the new nation, the first Haitian constitution of 1805 sought national unity through disruption of racial categories and hierarchies. The bold declaration of what today we would call “unapologetic blackness” put Haiti at the forefront of the movement towards human liberation.
So is Haiti where we find the “patient zero” of Frantz Fanon’s new man? Perhaps. Fanon tells us – principally and most directly in The Wretched of the Earth (Les Damnées de la Terre, 1961) but implicitly in all his writings – that it is decolonisation that brings forth his new man, the liberated, agentic human being who recognises the moral value of all human lives and does not allow others to compromise or restrict his (or her) ability to live fully and freely in this world that is his (or her) birthright.
We can certainly see approximations of this ideal in some of the more stirring actions and rhetoric of those we now remember as the architects of the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint and Dessalines, in particular. It is the voice of Fanon’s new man that promulgates the radical rejection of racial hierarchy in the 1805 constitution, and it is the new man who was speaking when Toussaint reproached as futile his capture by the French. “In overthrowing me, only the trunk of the tree of liberty has been cut down,” he is reported to have said. “Its branches will shoot up again, for its roots are numerous and deep.”
Yet another story in anti-war activist Stan Goff’s post ‘The Haitian Intifada’ on his now defunct blog The Feral Scholar, presents Dessalines in the guise of Fanon’s new man. Goff tells the story of Dessalines’s response to French demands that he surrender: Dessalines replied to them that the Haitian people “would turn the island to ashes before they would accept the reimposition of slavery” and, to show that he meant what he said, he reportedly picked up a torch and set fire to his own house. (American podcaster Mike Duncan tells a version of this story that attributes the uncompromising response and the house-burning to Henri Christophe, not to Dessalines, but the point remains.)
But Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe were, as I have noted, all committed to continuing the plantation economy of the former colony. This required authoritarian, hierarchical rule, and forced labour for the masses, arguably a betrayal of the ideals for which the self-liberated people of Haiti had proven themselves to be willing to live and die by. I would argue that Haiti’s first leaders only fitfully embodied Fanon’s new man; he (she) was born in the masses and struggles still to survive.
Duncan, who produces a fascinating podcast series (10 seasons and counting) about political revolutions that have shaped the modern world, devotes season four to the Haitian Revolution. Despite mangling (by his own admission) many of the French and Haitian names of the people and places involved in this revolution, he pulls off the impressive task of telling a reasonably balanced history of the birth and fitful life of this nation that he styles “the avengers of the new world.”. He concludes the 19-episode season by observing:
Today, Haiti is, as everyone is contractually obligated to point out when talking about Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. They got there through the mix of the world screwing them over a lot, their own political and economic mistakes, and then environmental catastrophes caused both by God and their own hands. But they will never not be the country that was born from the only successful slave uprising in the history of the world … they had been created by a group of men and women who would not be slaves anymore, who beat back every major world power who tried to come in and tell them how it was going to be. The history of Haiti is not pretty, and Haiti is not in great shape right now. But I’m proud to know them, proud to know their history.
There is yet another story worth knowing in order to assess what respect and what honour we owe to the people of Haiti. In the colony of Saint Domingue, one French delicacy of choice at fine dinners was said to be pumpkin soup, a delicate strained velouté. One of the decolonising moves of the Haitian people was to create their own pumpkin soup that they now call joumou. Joumou is not the refined, decadent delicacy the French colonisers sipped; it is a hearty meal full of chunks of meat, bones for flavour, pumpkin, gourd, and any other vegetables one has on hand – anything one can think of to put in a soup will find its way into someone’s joumou. It is an everyday soup, and an improvisatory one. Many cooks have their own jealously-guarded special recipes and it is a standard – even obligatory – feature on the menu of Haitian restaurants.
But Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and Henri Christophe were, as I have noted, all committed to continuing the plantation economy of the former colony. This required authoritarian, hierarchical rule, and forced labour for the masses, arguably a betrayal of the ideals for which the self-liberated people of Haiti had proven themselves to be willing to live and die by.
But joumou has a deep traditional significance when it is eaten on January 1, the first day of the new year and the anniversary of the day in 1804 that Haiti declared itself a free, independent black republic. On this anniversary, joumou is cooked to be shared with family and neighbours in a ritual of hope and solidarity. In Haitian diasporic communities like the one found in Montréal, Haitian restaurants open early in the morning on New Year’s Day so that members of the diaspora who do not have the time or cooking facilities to make their own soup (often migrant workers) can eat joumou as their own first meal of the year.
As we celebrate another year and all the promise it holds, spare a thought for all the Haitians, at home and in these diasporic communities around the world, who are sharing their joumou with each other in the enduring hope that they will find a path to the full realisation of their revolution that reshaped our world.
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