Panashe Chigumadzi’s long, digressive article, “Black Skins White Masks Revisited: Why I am No Longer Talking to Nigerians about Race”, on the necessity of Nigerians to engage with the question of race is purposely provocative. It also serves to mislead and misinform. For someone who obviously considers herself eminently qualified to speak in defense of “a radical anti-racist politics”, it would be appropriate to dwell a bit on what precisely are her credentials.
Admittedly, she has confessed to being schooled in white establishments virtually from kindergarten until her current base at Harvard University. In the essay where she makes this confession (“Of Coconuts, Consciousness and Cecil John Rhodes: Disillusionment and Disavowals of the Rainbow Nation”) she also admits to being a “coconut” (black on the outside, white on the inside, the perennial Fanonian quandary), what conscious African-Americans would call a “coon”, or in earlier times, an “Uncle Tom”. And so on the basis of this “impressive” set of accomplishments, she feels, still under the age of thirty, qualified to challenge a nation of almost 200 million souls to engage with the problem of race in globally explicit ways.
Her other accomplishments include her role at the height of the #FeesMustFall campaign when she was invited to Rhodes University, South Africa, to launch her novel, Sweet Medicine, in 2016. There had been a schism within the black students’ movement between purveyors of radical black thought and “integrationists” of the coconut stripe. White liberals were in full support of the integrationists who had been indoctrinated to misread and misapply the radical teachings of theorists such as Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko. Chigumadzi had appeared on the platform of the integrationists, obviously at her “coconutic” best.
It really does take some nerve to castigate an entire nation with such incredible blitheness and glibness. It is even more difficult to assimilate when one reviews her “lofty” credentials. Her “coon” education obviously did not prepare her to appreciate the canonical import of works such as Chinua Achebe’s majestic Things Fall Apart whose setting is in faraway Nigeria, and not nearby within the southern tip of Africa, as she points out in her characteristically digressive essay, “Rights of Conquest, Rights of Desire”, which casually glosses over perhaps the most powerful as well as the most insightful exploration of the colonial encounter in all of literature. Instead she smuggles unwanted black bodies in the midst of racist white angst as if that in itself constitutes a gesture of racial reconciliation. And just like a true coconut, she had to find a place for the swart gevaar (the black threat) by means of the most remarkable kind of Conradian literary inversion.
It really does take some nerve to castigate an entire nation with such incredible blitheness and glibness.
Wole Soyinka, the icon of African literary creativity and redoubtable social activism, is briskly dismissed in the following manner; “Soyinka […] had been so unimpressed and impatient with the Negritude movement spearheaded by the Francophone writers of African descent”. To bolster her point, she cites the now tired and lame quip, “A tiger does not proclaim its tigritude.”
After the usual interminable digressions, she makes a case for “redeeming Nigerian Tigritude” by concluding that Nigerians lack the qualities of empathy and humility to truly become the giants of Africa. You really must possess considerable reserves of patience to isolate her central arguments, namely, Soyinka’s, and by extension, all Nigerians’, appalling unfamiliarity with global race dynamics. Ultimately, this debilitating unawareness precludes Nigerians from being suitable to be at the forefront of African political struggles.
Curiously, she lists the impressive achievements of Nigeria in combating apartheid in South Africa through the national levies it imposed on school children, the numerous diplomatic initiatives it launched or participated in, the net donation of 61 billion dollars to the anti-apartheid struggle, and yet she cannot seem to think this is a most empathetic contribution.
Again, strangely, she fails to reflect on the scourge of Afrophobia plaguing South Africa, in which the business enterprises and bodies of foreign nationals – particularly, Somalis, Ethiopians, Pakistanis, Zimbabaweans and Nigerians – are razed almost weekly in exuberant public bouts of xenophobic rage. Of course, it is almost impossible to forge any kind of alliance or solidarity amid such constant orgies of rage, violence and destruction aimed at hapless foreigners. Rather than expect more empathy from Nigerians, it would be more logical to expect more gratitude from the proponents and culprits of Afrophobia.
Let us examine the myth that Nigerians have not been able to formulate the kind of emancipatory race politics Chigumadzi approves. Here, Soyinka immediately comes to mind. When he was eighteen years of age at the then University College Ibadan, Soyinka formed the first campus confraternity along with the likes of renowned Cambridge trained physicist, Muyiwa Awe and others, such as the broadcaster, Ralph Okpara. Their confraternity was established to serve as a bulwark against undue colonial indoctrination on their white-dominated campus. So rather than uncritically accepting the acquiescence and complicities of the coconut, there was already an awareness to question and resist racial oppression and injustice even before he had attained full maturity.
Curiously, she lists the impressive achievements of Nigeria in combating apartheid in South Africa through the national levies it imposed on school children, the numerous diplomatic initiatives it launched or participated in, the net donation of 61 billion dollars to the anti-apartheid struggle, and yet she cannot seem to think this is a most empathetic contribution.
Eventually, Soyinka attended Leeds University to complete his undergraduate course but whilst abroad, he was thinking of returning home once his studies were over. For further personal studies, he sought to recuperate orders of knowledge that had been demonised, suppressed and erased by the agents and machinations of colonialism. It was not long before he adopted Ogun, the Yoruba deity of war, iron and justice, as his special guardian spirit contrary to the Western education he had received and the Christian background of the home in which his parents had raised him.
Soyinka’s inquiry into his beloved ancient Yoruba cosmogony led him to forge lifelong links with other Yoruba-affiliated descendants of the African diaspora based in Brazil, Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, other places in the Caribbean and of course, the United States. Undoubtedly, when he visited those countries, he never failed to promote the tigritude of his Yoruba ancestry and cosmogony. Such was the case when he met Henry Louis Gates Jr., the founder and director of the African and African American Studies Center at Harvard where Chigumadzi is currently a PhD student.
At Cambridge, Gates, in various instances, admits that Soyinka had led him on a continuing journey to discover the truths about Africa that had been occluded by racist prevarication and indoctrination. Indeed since then, they have continued to enjoy close and productive collaborations in developing and strengthening the discipline of Africana studies. Gates would also go on to popularise the figure of Esu, the Yoruba deity of the crossroads, wit and intelligence, in his landmark work, The Signifying Monkey (1988). In this work, Gates explores the various appropriations and survivals of Esu within the context of African American culture and literature.
Soyinka’s transcontinental exertions did not end here. He has undertaken missions at his own personal expense to attempt to retrieve invaluable artworks looted from Africa by European colonialists. He was immensely active during FESTAC 1977, the global black festival that brought together artists and intellectuals of all persuasions to Lagos to celebrate and promote black cultures the world over. Indeed his efforts and initiatives at seeking and cementing Africana ethics and poetics of solidarity are too numerous to mention and cannot be over-emphasised. In a context when the notion of black excellence is increasingly becoming trite and perhaps meaningless, he remains a lodestar upon which we can begin a proper conversation.
Fela Anikulapo-Kuti is another exemplary figure who contributed enormously to black pride, agency and resurgence in incomparable ways. Incidentally, Anikulapo-Kuti and Soyinka are cousins and so it isn’t a surprise that they share and practise similar kinds of global black solidarity. Anikulapo-Kuti’s radicalism made him adversaries amongst the elite political classes in his native Nigeria and Ghana after he was hounded out of his country on account of his vociferous activism and oppositional poetics.
Due to his uncompromising radicalism, doors closed on Anikulapo-Kuti everywhere; the foreign-owned record companies at home and abroad shunned him, and the international music industry cartels made it difficult for him to have significant breakthroughs. Radio stations wouldn’t feature his compositions because he would not sing three-minute hits as opposed to the half-hour long tunes of great complexity and ingenuity he favoured.
When established record labels refused to release and market his music, he set up his own channels and platforms. His compositions, in the global era of disco, vacuous entertainment and feel-good funk seemed out of time by virtue of his trenchant ideological vision, his strident critiques of racism, imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism and international finance capitalism that impoverished and immiserated more or less all of Africa and much of what was then called the Third World.
During his lifetime, all the wealth Anikulapo-Kuti made was showered on the ill, needy and homeless, and when he passed away in 1997, he had almost nothing to his name, except perhaps, the ever-green radiance and energy of his astonishing compositions.
His work was not confined to the west coast of Africa and its multiple diasporas. When Hugh Masekela visited Lagos in the early 1970s seeking fresh sources of inspiration, Anikulapo-Kuti hooked him up with the inimitable Ghanaian back-up combo that propelled him to greater musical horizons. Miriam Makeba, Stevie Wonder, Kiki Gyan, Lester Bowie, Gilberto Gil, Sandra Izidore, Roy Ayers and Randy Weston, at various times, sought his unparalleled musical artistry and guidance in advancing their own projects. And just like his cousin Soyinka, Anikulapo-Kuti vigorously re-established connections that existed in Africa before the advent of colonialism.
After having studied European classical music and compositional techniques in London during the 1950s, he returned to Nigeria to study the indigenous methods of his ancestral forebears, paying particular attention to the spiritual aspects and trance forms.
Anikulapo-Kuti had every opportunity to be a certified coconut. His mother, Olufunmilayo, is widely regarded as Nigeria’s first modern feminist who visited the socialist countries of Eastern Europe and China on questions of mutual interest. She was also a friend and collaborator of the great exemplar of Pan-Africanist epistemology and praxis, Kwame Nkrumah, when he was the President of Ghana.
Anikulapo-Kuti could have led a comfortably sequestrated existence filled with the cheap glories of being a coconut but he chose to align himself with the lowly lot of economic and political outcasts, cultural renegades and oppositional figures of all stripes who naturally irritated the custodians of worldly power. But like a true Pan-Africanist fighter, he elected to remain a thorn in the flesh of decadent and corpulent power until his inevitably tragic end. He excoriated figures, such as P.W. Botha, the Prime Minister of apartheid South Africa, Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain, Ronald Reagan of the United States, and not least of all, Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria.
Perhaps employing the Pan-Africanist visions of Soyinka and Anikulapo-Kuti, it would be most appropriate to complexify the very notion of “the Nigerian”. Many Nigerians in their reflective moments know that it is an unfortunate and almost unbearable fabrication of the self-serving colonial enterprise. It is, in other words, a geographical entity of tragicomic proportions that was meant to frustrate and undermine its hapless inhabitants.
True, the inhabitants of Nigeria had always interacted in the precolonial days, but the modalities of interaction had been independent of arbitrary colonial interference. On the other hand, the new modalities of co-existence and co-operation had been funneled through the misshapen and counter-productive channels of colonialism. Those channels were not intended for sociopolitical success of postcolonial Nigerians, as they weren’t for most of the colonised world.
Anikulapo-Kuti could have led a comfortably sequestrated existence filled with the cheap glories of being a coconut but he chose to align himself with the lowly lot of economic and political outcasts, cultural renegades and oppositional figures of all stripes who naturally irritated the custodians of worldly power.
And so the geographical entities of postcoloniality always pose questions regarding their ultimate viability as largely baseless colonial constructs. However, Chigumadzi is unable to see the incongruity and innate discomfort in saying as a Zimbabwean-born South African (or whatever identity she chooses to adopt), I am able to castigate Nigerians for their perceived lack of empathy and ethics of solidarity. Colonial African geographical constructs were basically not designed for that purpose.
Soyinka has variously denounced this untenable situation with harsh words for the Organisation of African Unity (OAU, the precursor to the present African Union [AU]), which uncritically sanctioned this gross and violent colonial misadventure that should be considered as yet another deleterious scheme to violate and undermine African communities. This is why Nigerians and Ghanaians, for instance, can needlessly squabble over seemingly meaningless and counterproductive trivia without seeing that they had once enjoyed more humane and beneficial relations in abundance before the unwholesome truncation of colonialism. Chigumadzi’s rant is merely an extension of this ahistorical postcolonial mindset, or is it myopia, namely, the inability to interrogate, negate and (re)negotiate colonial African geographical constructs as eternal givens.
If this radical questioning remains always ignored and is not approached with a healthy dose of scepticism, preposterous political scenarios and vast genocidal scenes of utter disarray come to mind that are likely to abound only because we have accepted to be the slavish “coconuts” of unsustainable postcolonial geographical dispensations.
The uncritical subscription to a colonialist project of identification in the wake of the devastation of colonialism that differentiates Zimbabweans, South Africans, Kenyans, Ghanaians or Nigerians as bearers of immutable forms of identity and subsequently pits them constantly against each other, undoubtedly bodes ill for any conception of mutuality, or indeed, solidarity.
But even if we were to subscribe to the colonial geographical markers of identity as Chigumadzi does, Nigerians have been in the forefront of practising Egyptian theorist Samir Amin’s concept of “delinking”. Employing this concept, Amin argues for the decoupling of peripheralised African economies from the invariably inequitable global monetary system that enforces a centre/periphery dichotomy that reduces Africans to suppliers of primary products while the West plays the dominant role of manufacturers as well as incubators of technological innovation and advancement.
Rather than mentioning counter-paradigmatic Nigerian social scientists, such as Ola Oni, Sam Aluko, Adebayo Adedeji, Claude Ake, Bade Onimode, Omafume Onoge , Adebayo Olukoshi and a plethora of others who have offered the most devastating critiques of the Bretton-Woods institutional order that all but crippled the growth of African educational establishments beginning in the 1970s through the toxic mantra of profits-before-people, deregulation and privatisation, Chigumadzi instead chooses to linger on the forgettable work of Chika Onyeani, a reactionary self-nullifying anti-black character, and a darling of the white liberal press in South Africa, who simply does not register in the ever-vibrant discourse of Nigerian socio-economic theory.
If Chigumadzi is really concerned about pursuing a politics of global black emancipation – as she might perhaps imagine herself to be – she ought to be critiquing the bastions of white supremacy that have provided her the leeway from which to cast aspersions on Nigerians. Attacking Nigerians is indeed diversionary as she ought to embark on a quest for reparations for the descendants of the transatlantic slave trade, as the late Nigerian politician, business and philanthropist Moshood K.O. Abiola had with uncommon vigour, commitment and immense sacrifice before his death in 1998.
If Chigumadzi is really concerned about pursuing a politics of global black emancipation – as she might perhaps imagine herself to be – she ought to be critiquing the bastions of white supremacy that have provided her the leeway from which to cast aspersions on Nigerians.
For Chigumadzi to claim Nigerians are unaware of the problem of race is tantamount to ascribing to them an ignorance of a slave trade that wreaked extreme devastation on their territories, and across the entire West African region along with the lands of Angola and the Congo. Ancestral blood from those various territories, in spite of all protestations to the contrary, was largely responsible for creating the wealth of Europe and the Americas as we know them today. An appropriate global politics of black emancipation and inclusivity would need to calibrate these historical realities rather than being cocooned within the safe enclaves of racist power and privilege and then finding easy discursive targets amongst millions of toiling black folk.
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Boda Boda Justice
Local and national institutions should move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders and instead leverage their capacity to contribute towards grassroots processes of protection and justice.
We are all familiar with the idea that we, as people, plan, but those plans can be quickly altered by the animate and ever-moving process of life. On October 5th, I had a pretty straightforward plan for the day, and having an accident that could have taken my life was certainly not part of it. I was jogging along my regular route when, ahead of me, I saw a car turning into a wide driveway at great speed. I instinctively slowed down to allow the car to turn, only to be hit from behind by a motorcycle that had veered off the road.
Thrown into a ditch but fully conscious, I touched my head and felt it to be completely drenched. Before I looked at my hand, I readied myself for the eventuality that it was blood I was feeling, and that this could be my last day alive. To my relief, it was just mud. I slowly moved each part of my body, to find that I had no severe injuries. I picked up my glasses, stood up, and processed that I was, indeed, alive. A crowd quickly grew around me, with people asking me who to call, or whether I wanted go to hospital immediately. Through tears, full of adrenaline and in a state of shock, I insisted that I wanted to go home; I hadn’t jogged far. I got onto one of the many boda bodas that had gathered at the scene, and home I went.
Some 20 minutes later, as I was getting into a car with a family friend to be taken to the hospital, still in a state of shock and disarray, a boda boda rider approached me. He is a rider in the local area, so we were familiar with each other. He happened to have seen me leave for my jog before the accident, and was at the same place as I was being brought back, covered in mud and crying, some ten minutes later. He explained that he had been told what had happened, that he knew who had hit me and that he was willing to participate in a justice process. I won’t go into what I went through both physically and emotional here except to say that I had avoided a neck fracture and wore a brace for a few days to allow a slight injury at the back of my neck to heal. The shock took a few days to wear off, and I remain very aware of the fact that October 5th could have gone very differently.
However, what I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level, which the local boda boda rider wanted deployed. The episode highlighted the social, political and economic consequences of the way in which this working-class community is perceived by the wider society, and how Kenyan society could change for the better if these broad-brush and often negative societal perspectives were abandoned.
Several months before the incident, a group of boda boda riders had been recorded violently physically and sexually assaulting a woman whose car had hit one of them along Forest Road. The ensuing aggressive and outraged discourse across social media targeted the boda boda community and its collective culture. Given the nature of the injustice faced by that woman—an incident that I can only imagine would leave a person emotionally impacted long after the assault itself—the uproar, indignation, and anger of Kenyans was not misplaced.
What I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level
However, even with my limited experience of the country, I felt uneasy about the state’s knee-jerk reaction which was to take all boda bodas off the road in response to the incident. Firstly, I think that the culture of women being subjected to sexual violence as a result of men, or society in general, experiencing emotions like anger towards who they are and what they do has less to do with who boda boda riders are as people, and more to do with what patriarchy has normalized regarding how women should suffer the consequences when men get emotional.
Secondly, the dogmatic nature of the car drivers vs boda boda riders conversation on Twitter felt unfair. Months before the Forest Road incident, I had been part of a small group of people that had spent hours trying to help a boda boda rider that had been hit and badly injured by a car that had then fled the scene. Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.
Thirdly, I just couldn’t see where the post-Forest Road social media discourse was going and I was nervous to wade in with what, in the face of the national outrage, felt like a fickle personal opinion of a guest in the country naively suggesting “not all boda boda riders are…” I kept quietly to myself the thought that this just wasn’t who I had experienced the boda boda community to be. Not being a Swahili speaker, one of the ways in which I navigate new parts of Nairobi, and the country generally, is by locating the nearest boda boda stage if I need to ask for directions or for any other help. I have come to know boda boda riders in a way that the capitalist culture doesn’t allow you to get to know the service providers you engage with on a daily basis. But it would have seemed tone-deaf to contribute this experiences to the discourse at the time, although I was reminded of them again following of the October 5th accident.
Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.
Victor* the boda boda rider that approached me on my way to the hospital, is the security officer of the local boda boda riders committee. This is why, when he saw that I had been injured and learned that it was as a result of being hit by a boda boda rider, he made it his personal responsibility to advocate for me in a dialogue involving the police, the owner of the bike, the local boda boda community and the person who had hit me. This process lasted a week before I decided to stop pursuing the case because of the intimidation that Victor was facing from boda boda riders in the area. As the week unfolded, I was not only struck by Victor’s commitment to ensure that I obtained justice, but I was struck by his belief in the system that he was a part of and within which he was a leader, a system that I think many Kenyans don’t know exists, or if they do, aren’t sure of its purpose or its effectiveness. Even though in my case the effectiveness of this system was compromised because of the power relations between the owner of the bike and others in the local area, it has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.
A few days after we stopped pursuing the case, Victor and I sat down for an interview. Victor, who is 26 years old, has been a rider in the area for just over two years. Prior to that, Victor had been working in personal and housing security. In his words, it’s because of that experience that he was encouraged to take on the role of security officer and was elected by an overwhelming majority. “First of all, you have to understand, when you see a boda boda rider, you need to know that he is not only standing there for the money. We are keeping an eye on our surroundings in order to keep it secure,” was how Victor began his response to my question about the specifics of his role as a security officer. He went on to explain that “When anything happens regarding boda bodas, a security officer is the first person that is asked, ‘What happened?’ It doesn’t matter if it is 1 am or 3 am in the morning; if there is an incident, I have to wake up and attend to the situation, to understand what happened, who was involved, and what process is required moving forward. If you consider my area, it is part of my job to know every corner of it and be aware of every person operating in my constituency.” Victor explains that each boda boda committee that exists per constituency has a chairperson, security officer, treasurer, and secretary. “As committees, we are known by the NTSA [National Transport and Safety Authority], local police, and local community elders,” he says. People can serve in these positions until they move on, there is no term limit, and, he adds, one does not earn more for taking a leadership position. Sometimes, a person who has received help from a boda boda rider or from the committee will offer compensation in the form of materials such as boots or jackets, or cash. “We also support people financially. If a driver needs to repair his bike because of a hit, or if he needs to pay for damages caused and can’t afford it, we can organize amongst ourselves to support the person affected and be repaid slowly,” Victor explains.
It has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.
I asked Victor whether the level of organization that he was describing was present before the Forest Road incident. “After [that incident], measures got much stricter when it comes to registering with the NTSA. It used to be easy. You could talk to someone at any stage and you can start driving. Now it’s much more organized. There was the president’s order that this is the case, but even us, it is something that we took very seriously. You know, it causes you shame when someone from your community harms others.” When I asked Victor why he does this work, and why he pursued my case so vigorously, he shared the following moving reflections: “I didn’t study security or go past Form 2, but this comes from inside of me. I feel very good when I know that everybody in my surroundings is safe and secure. The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.” Interestingly, towards the end of our discussion, Victor also described a brief encounter he had had with the recently elected Governor of Nairobi, Johnson Sakaja. “I told him that we need to know each other; he needs to know us guys and we need to know them.”
As an Oromo who is actively engaged in the liberation struggle going on in Ethiopia today, I cannot help but feel a connection between the way Oromo grassroots cultural and political processes and institutions interested in the administration of justice have been misrepresented by the political and economic elites (of all ethnicities), and the way the reality of the boda boda community’s collective life has been similarly unjustly misinterpreted. If local and national institutions could move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders in order to keep them at the margins of society and use them as political scapegoats when convenient, they could play a productive role in empowering and resourcing this community’s capacity to organise for grassroots justice and projection.
“The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.”
Speaking off the record (but giving permission to use this information on the record), Victor told me about a domestic violence dispute that he was able to safely intervene in because of the work he does as a security officer. The victim in question was over 30kms away from Victor’s station, but because he could identify her as a member of his local community whose safety he feels personally responsible for, he took effective action to protect the woman. Even if—like in any institution where power and people are involved—the security institution within the boda boda community is not perfect, it is one of the many ways through which grassroots processes of protection and justice can have a transformative impact where more formalized institutional processes fall short. There is great scope for the latter to be empowered by the former in order to achieve that which I think we all want: to live safely and freely.
*Name has been changed to protect the rider
Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy
In his book Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience Kai Kresse examines the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya and the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.
Indisputably, the Kenyan intellectual tradition is rich, varied and influential. Furthermore, much more is known about its modern intellectual practices than its ancient discursive traditions. Perhaps this is due to the widespread popularity of its contemporary literary artists and public intellectuals. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s foremost novelist and public intellectual exerts an arresting presence over most issues deemed distinctly Kenyan. And this is understandably so, given his remarkable productivity, range and resilience as an author. Ultimately, perhaps much less can be said of his late compatriot, Binyavanga Wainaina, who was an equally influential essayist, unconventional journalist and famed memoirist. Wainaina’s lauded memoir, One day I will write about this place is a lambent, often lushly written but also arguably frustrating personal account of modern-day Kenya. Wainaina was concerned with the transitional or even fragmented phases of the contemporary moment and his confessional role as a self-appointed spokesman on the larger national canvas. He wrote enticingly about the Kenyan urban lingo intriguingly called Sheng but failed to explore momentous historical events such as the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion or paradigmatic precolonial life worlds suppressed by the colonial intrusion.
Wainaina also implicitly advanced the view that the contemporary moment was all that counts, that all we needed to know about an undoubtedly complex nation such as Kenya was enshrined in the present. But of course, Kenya has far more to offer intellectually and culturally and this is why accounts such as Kai Kresse’s Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience (2019) paint a deeper and more nuanced picture of the Kenyan intellectual tradition. Kresse, a German, ZMO Berlin-based anthropologist specializing in East African intellectual and philosophical traditions employs self-reflexive discursive strategies to complicate his positionality and the overall project of anthropology as a discipline. This makes his writings unusually refreshing and intellectually stimulating.
Kresse’s research into Kenyan intellectual formations spans three decades beginning with a work on sage philosophy published in 1997 and continuing to a monograph on philosophizing in Mombasa. In addition, his training as an anthropologist grants him perspectives and insights an ordinary philosopher would not only miss but perhaps would also not fully appreciate.
Kresse’s book is not just a close and intimate examination of the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya but also speaks to the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.
The Kenyan coastals, marginalized by centuries of external rule either by the Portuguese, the British or by Kenyan upcountry domination, classify their current status as “double periphery”. The coastals claim they are marginalized within the broader Kenyan nation space and also within the specific Muslim configuration of their geographic location.
As such, they are forced to endure a form of silence. This silence and the accompanying encroaching sense of marginality speak volumes when compared, for instance, with the political dominance of the northern Islamic elites in Nigeria, or in the cases of Senegal and Somalia.
In Nigeria, the Hausa/Fulani oligarchy has dominated the country since independence and its overbearing presence is often considered an inevitability or a fait accompli. Minorities such as the Ogoni, Ijaw, Tiv, Nupe and so many other ethnic groups in both southern and northern Nigeria have had to contend with Hausa/Fulani hegemony. From a Nigerian and Senegalese point of view, it is difficult to imagine an Islamic minority in an African context agitating for its own political expression or survival when Islam is considered to be the religious faith of political and military elites. Unfortunately, in Kenya, Muslims constitute a minority and once again, such sociopolitical complexities attest to the hybridized dynamics of postcoloniality in contemporary Africa.
In Kenya, works advocating self-determination such as Regionalism: True Freedom to Save the Coastal People, penned and self-published by an anonymous former education officer, bring to mind the plight of the Ogoni under the inspiring leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa or the Igbo under Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu during the Biafran/Nigerian crisis between 1967 and 1970. The sometimes violent contestations between ethnic minorities and majorities to gain political freedom or control are also inflected by a religious coloration. The shifts and eruptions caused by political power are never exactly definitive but move instead like swings of a pendulum according to the imperatives of circumstance and history.
Kresse argues that Swahili Muslim intellectual culture in Kenya is rather well developed. Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.
The concept and broad understanding of humanness are key to fostering relations of mutuality, therefore affirming the essence and significance of the human. The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance. Rather than being an isolated being, or even more radically, a frank social fact, the human, in fact, is a being-in-social process, reinforced and re-enacted in a continuum of social acts and affirmations that lead to mutual recognition, validation and reinforcement. Thus the ultimate goal of the human in existence and by extension, within the community, is to seek the good within oneself, re-living it in everyday life and tangibly creating sociality through a continual implementation of its values.
Kresse eloquently explores the philosophical basis of Swahili Muslim understanding of the human and then delves into the specificities of the intellectual culture it produced which turns out to be intricate, well-developed and ultimately, profoundly humanizing. It is a pity that continentally or globally, very little is known about this astounding intellectual culture. This culture also bears elements of political subversion, social discontent and self-determination which are expressed in narratives and counter-narratives of poetry (utendi) and radical political commentary.
The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance.
Kresse’s latest book, Rethinking Sage Philosophy: Interdisciplinary perspectives on and beyond H. Odera Oruka, co-edited with Oriare Nyarwath (2022), continues his focused exploration of Kenyan historic intellectual formations, this time, the discourse of sage philosophy, a form of re-configured folk philosophy popularized by the late pivotal modern-day Kenyan philosopher, Henry Odera Oruka. Under the philosophical school known as sage philosophy, a presumably western trained philosopher identifies the invariably illiterate elders of a rural, ethnic community and attempts to collate the folk wisdom and critical reflections of that community regarding life, knowledge and metaphysics, which are then translated and rendered in a metropolitan medium. Perhaps what needs to be tracked are the conceptual and linguistic transitions inherent in these renditions and how they might be contributing to the (un)making of a new philosophical language. Gathering an impressive pool of Kenyan and international scholars, the Kresse co-edited book places sage philosophy at the centre of postcolonial philosophical thought while seeking to eschew the essentializing and frequently polarizing overtones of coloniality.
Once again, a tripartite epistemological structure becomes evident. Ali Mazrui had argued that Africa, and Kenya in particular, is defined by a triple heritage comprising an indigenous African tradition, a Muslim/Mediterranean influence and a Christian/western inheritance. In Kresse’s work, so far, another kind of tripartite discursive formation reveals itself; one marked by an Islamic intellectual history, an indigenous/endogenous philosophical system known as sage philosophy and then a western philosophical idiom and canon through which a folk system of thought is articulated and elaborated. Either consciously or unwittingly, Kresse’s project traces the contours of Kenyan social thought as they unfold within the often overlapping matrixes of Islam, indigeneity and westernity with evident conceptual continuity and singularity.
Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.
The current trajectory of Kresse’s work tends to shadow contemporary European thinkers such as the late German philosopher, Heinz Kimmerle and Dutch anthropologist/philosopher, Wim van Binsbergen who interrogate questions of interculturality, otherness and marginality—often from a multiplicity of positionalities and perspectives—while also seeking to unbundle the inheritances of their North Atlantic intellectual pedigree.
Kresse’s interest in the philosophical and intellectual traditions of Muslims in Kenya, has succeeded in unearthing systems of thought, social activism and instances of political resistance that complicate Kenya’s supposedly unitary Christian construct of itself. And then his earlier work on sage philosophy, a largely Kenyan-spawned modern—perhaps Christian-based—philosophy tradition further complicates an already multi-layered national intellectual history and identity.
At the political level, there are also real existential entanglements to consider. Kenya, like any other colonial creation, ought to be viewed as a political and geographical aberration formed on the basis of a largely irrational colonial diktat. But like other postcolonial territorial anomalies-turned-miracles in Africa, it has managed to finesse its numerous irreconcilable differences into the improbable semblance of a nation.
The universe presented in Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience invariably yields a philosophical and intellectual tradition that has been virtually ignored in current African philosophical discourse. And then, in investigating the ramifications of sage philosophy, Kresse’s work further highlights the significance and impact of a dominant Kenyan philosophical formation. Arguably, Kresse’s attempt to bridge a fundamental epistemological schism by amalgamating a minority Muslim discourse (Swahili intellectual practices) with sage philosophy is certainly a kind of epistemic project a Kenyan would ordinarily find impossible to execute. This is due to the ingrained and perhaps often insurmountable separations caused by fractious internal politics and differences. There is also an implicit epistemic holism in this project of intellectual reconstruction. But how much it serves Kenyans from a practical point of view is another matter entirely.
Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa
An interview with former South African president Thabo Mbeki on 19 June 2022 presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid.
The quest for an independent and prosperous Africa spans several generations, continents, and themes. Notably, from the eighteenth century, people of African descent in Europe, America, the West Indies, and on the continent have been engaged in different variations of the liberation struggle to uphold their humanity, independence, and right to self-determination. After the triumph of the abolitionist movements over the menace of institutionalized slavery, Africa was again saddled with the task of dislodging an imperialist regime that wanted to perpetuate itself on the continent by every means available.
In most of Africa, colonialism produced various forms and levels of exploitation, deprivation, and shame—segregation. This prevalent atmosphere of injustice was to inform the establishment of resistance movements manifested in Pan-African coalitions and nationalist organizations focused on uniting Africans in a movement against the shackles of European imperialism. However, due to the varied nature of the colonial establishment around the continent, the successes of these liberation movements were also not to be attained uniformly. With the collapse of the South African apartheid regime in 1994 representing a close in the chapter of colonial oppression in Africa, the struggle for independence was drawn out in colonies like South Africa, Algeria, and to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which had substantial settler populations.
After liberation came the task of nation-building. The process of post-independence nation-building has been arduous for most of Africa, a situation emphasized by the frequent occurrence of violent conflicts on the continent. Many of the challenges—such as international sabotage, corruption, marginalization, unemployment, conflict and diseases—identified as impeding growth and development on the continent can be tied to the problem of national cohesion around Africa’s “nation-states”. In the absence of a powerful overriding national sentiment, an array of competing ethnic/sub-national interests within Africa’s national boundaries—a by-product of Africa’s colonial past—has made it difficult for African states to present a united front against threats to their (individual and collective) socio-political and economic wellbeing. Hence, territorialism, ethnicity, racialism, corruption, and nepotism thrive and continue to undermine African efforts at political and economic independence and prosperity.
Former South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki has been an avid campaigner for an independent, united, and prosperous Africa for over half a century. Born in South Africa to activist parents, Thabo Mbeki was inclined to join the struggle against the oppressive white minority government in 1955 at the young age of 13. With a passion uncommon among youths of his era (during colonialism), young Thabo became an active member of the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading organization protesting the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. During his activism years in the ANC, Thabo’s diplomatic skills and commitment to the organization’s objectives gained him some recognition and provided an opportunity for him to serve in very important capacities.
In December 1994, after South Africa’s first elections under universal suffrage, Thabo Mbeki was elected unopposed as the ANC’s deputy president, a position that saw him serving under the nation’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. As a long-standing member of the ANC who served with and succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki’s role in South Africa’s emergence as a continental model transcends the era of nationalist struggle to include the critical years of reconciliation, recovery, and reconstruction. Even after his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki has maintained his commitment to the unity and development of Africa, for which he has continued to serve in different diplomatic capacities. Hence, an interview with Thambo Mbeki presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to ask questions and raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid (liberation). Leading with the questions was a select panel that included the duo of Prof. Paul Zeleza, the former Vice-Chancellor of the United States International University Africa, Kenya, and Naledi Moleo, a media practitioner.
While discussing the lessons the ANC learned from the liberation struggle and the challenges encountered in building a post-apartheid nation, Mbeki conceded that creating a new nation, especially after coming out of colonial oppression, was indeed an important challenge. According to him, the first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy. This decision was particularly critical owing to a substantial settler population in South Africa and the high expectations held by an erstwhile oppressed majority. On its part, the government approached the task with two notable convictions. One, that there were no set ways to build a democracy. Two, that there were not going to be any quick fixes. Hence, in attending to the business of nation-building, the leadership made the informed decision to engage the people by communicating its policy decisions with them regularly and honestly so that they do not become disillusioned by the pace of development and withdraw their support.
The first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy.
On the question of his proudest achievement at the age of 80, Mbeki spoke about the sense of fulfilment that came with being part of a successful liberation struggle against colonial oppression. He also explained that the South African struggle provided Africans, home and abroad, with a reason to unite under the belief that a free South Africa would further stimulate development processes on the continent. Mbeki added that South Africa has, within its capacity, made some contributions to Africa’s development challenge. However, he lamented that Africa had lost the respect it had from the rest of the world, which resulted from the agreement between Africa and the G8 countries in which the latter agreed to meet Africa’s development needs at its recommendation.
Reacting to the popular question of youth participation in leadership, and specifically whether there was any plan within the ANC to hand over the reins to a younger generation, Mbeki recalled his progressive rise within the party from a place of relative insignificance to subsequent positions of responsibility and authority. According to Mbeki, his emergence within the party was not the result of a “handing over” but a natural progression in rank. As young party members, their continued commitment to the struggle ensured they became the ideal candidates to fill vacancies when they arose. Thus, he advised that young people should develop strong youth organizations to address the challenges of poverty and unemployment in their communities. This way, they gain the necessary leadership experience and from their role as youth leaders gradually rise to become national leaders.
Mbeki spoke of the pressure of meeting the high expectations of people within and outside the country concerning the key challenges encountered while in office. Another source of anxiety for the new post-apartheid government, he said, was the fear of possible counter-revolutionary action by disgruntled elements within South Africa’s large settler population who did not believe in a new South Africa. The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies that could manifest either in the assassination of key ANC leaders or as attacks on critical infrastructure. Therefore, for political and economic expedience, they decided on a measured approach in implementing political and economic reconstruction programmes as symbolized by the party’s famed reconciliatory post-apartheid political stance, the systematic introduction of a wealth tax, and the gradual extension of social welfare packages like the child grants to otherwise excluded Black populations.
Speaking on the impact of the reform programmes implemented by the Mandela administration during which he served as vice-president, Mbeki drew attention to the challenges the government inherited from the old apartheid government, particularly the huge debts incurred in a final attempt to buy dissenting voices. Given this financial deficit, the government decided to implement policies to bring the population to a level of development sufficient to generate wealth for the country. Towards that end, the budget structure was changed to cut down on foreign debt while directing the bulk of the generated revenues towards human development programmes instead of debt servicing. Mbeki alluded that these changes induced some economic expansion based on an expanded workforce that generated the wealth required to maintain a certain level of spending on social benefits. The resulting economic growth recorded was maintained for some period until the disruption brought about by the 2007/2008 financial crisis which was caused by the collapse of US banks and from which the economy never fully recovered.
The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies.
Addressing the matter of the constitutional issues faced while in office, particularly what Naledi Moleo described as a sharp decrease in the popularity of the constitution, Mbeki pointed out that this was mostly a result of the disappointment that followed the government’s decision to follow the path of reconciliation instead of the expected retaliation for centuries of alien oppression. He went further to explain that the ANC government’s decision to adopt a constitution that provided for the rights of everyone living in South Africa (Black or white) was more than an immediate reaction to political exigencies—a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence had always been part of the party’s ideology. Moreover, this decision was thought to be best for the state’s progress and to prove wrong those detractors who doubted the (Black) government’s capacity to operate a non-racial and non-sexist system while addressing the imbalances of the past; Mbeki said these people believed South Africans were incapable of that level of sophistication. He also discussed ideas of pride in an African identity and African self-esteem, which had come under severe attack from colonial oppression, and of the systematic alterations made to the African person (identity), beginning with his name and progressing to other aspects of his being (culture), all in an attempt to create a subservient subject/population. Mbeki said these were factored into the liberation agenda, informing important elements within the drafted constitution aimed at rejecting the colonial legacy and recovering the people’s self-esteem.
Concerning the socio-political challenges encountered while in office, Mbeki explained that, with regards to HIV/AIDS, the government opted to come at the challenge from the angle of correcting the South African population’s immune deficiency to boost resistance to the virus. As for COVID-19, the biggest challenge was overcrowding, which made respecting safety guidelines difficult, and the inability of Africa to produce its own vaccines. Hence, while acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa to counter such crises in the future.
Coming around to the subject of xenophobic attacks, Mbeki explained that South Africa’s Black population was very accommodating and that these attacks were orchestrated by the enemies of the state who wanted to see it fail. He insisted that the organizers of these attacks played on the economic insecurities of the average South African to achieve particular political goals, including attempts to destabilize the country and to influence election outcomes in Zimbabwe by terrorizing its migrant population in South Africa. He emphasized that these saboteurs must be identified and stopped as a matter of political urgency because they continue to threaten stability in South Africa. According to Mbeki, these people want South Africa to fail because it communicates a particular political message.
While acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa.
Lastly, on the question of conflicts and the challenge of political instability on the continent, which also formed a bulk of the questions from the audience, Mbeki related this to a sharp decline in the sense of Pan-Africanism among Africans. In his view, this dwindling commitment to a pan-African ideal has also negatively impacted the capacity of the African Union (AU) to carry out the duties for which it was established. As it is, the AU boasts of mechanisms for early detection of conflicts, but how effective have these been in conflict prevention? How well has the continental body fared in its conflict resolution attempts? For these reasons, Mbeki called for a greater commitment to the pan-African ideal, hence the need for an African renaissance. For this renaissance movement to achieve the goals of development (modernization) and prosperity in Africa, it must have the backing of a committed and well-organized youth with the passion to see such a vision come to fruition.
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