Mau Mau has always been a dangerous topic in Kenya. Marked by the brutality of the British counterinsurgency against it, Mau Mau is acknowledged by historians to have been simultaneously a nationalist war of independence, a peasant revolt, a civil war within the Kikuyu ethnic group, and an attempted genocide of the Kikuyu people. This plurality of meanings, which successive generations of citizens, politicians and historians have attempted to smoothen out and fit into neat categories, refuses to be tamed. Instead, the struggle for Mau Mau’s memory continues unabated, with little sign of a ceasefire.
The general contours of the Mau Mau war are widely accepted. On 20 October 1952, the Colonial Office declared a state of emergency in Kenya in response to the growing threat posed by the Mau Mau, a revolutionary military group, who had taken up arms in the forests of the central highlands, demanding “land and freedom”. Primarily involving the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru ethnic groups, but also the Maasai, the Luo and Kenyan Indians, among others, the uprising tore through central Kenya, sweeping up not only the guerrilla fighters hidden in the forests and their British adversaries, but entire communities. Forced to pick between Mau Mau adherence and “loyalist” British allegiances, both of which carried immense personal and ideological risks, rural communities were set ablaze – sometimes literally – as the war ripped families apart and forced people to choose sides in an increasingly complex and violent conflict.
By the most conservative estimations, tens of thousands of people died, mainly Mau Mau fighters and supporters, but also African “loyalists” and a few white settlers. Many hundreds of thousands more were forcibly displaced by the fighting, and by what was termed “the Pipeline”, a systematised network of concentration camps and forced villagisation that set out to quash the movement by “converting” Mau Mau adherents into loyal colonial subjects by any means necessary. By 1957, after the capture and execution of Mau Mau leader Dedan Kimathi, and with the majority of the forest fighters dead or interned, the war was officially over. However, the violence continued.
Shaken by Mau Mau’s surprising military and ideological resilience, and determined to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again, the colonial government doubled down on the Pipeline system, detaining, and often brutally torturing anyone suspected of harbouring Mau Mau sympathies. In the ensuing decade, it became clear that the rebellion had been quashed. But the writing was on the wall, underlined by the scandalous revelations of the colonial government’s conduct, Kenya’s independence was inevitable and urgent.
As one struggle was ending, however, another was just beginning. Now, the race was on for ownership of Mau Mau’s history. For the British, that meant Operation Legacy, a systematic destruction and removal of all evidence of their criminal conduct during the war. For the incumbent post-independence government, it meant carefully curating a Mau Mau narrative marked more by silences and omissions than by commemoration of the events of the war.
By the most conservative estimations, tens of thousands of people died, mainly Mau Mau fighters and supporters, but also African “loyalists” and a few white settlers.
For the hundreds of thousands of citizens who were survivors of the war, it meant finding ways outside of the public history-making to process the trauma and preserve the memories of the war. While the British government has been rightly condemned for its attempts to cover up the atrocities they committed and commissioned during the war, far less has been said of the Kenyan government’s complicity in the public silences around Mau Mau. For Jomo Kenyatta and his government, the past was a politically dangerous topic that needed to be carefully managed. Mau Mau, he proclaimed, was not to be discussed, and the organisation remained a banned terrorist group. The last holdouts in the forests were rounded up and persuaded to surrender, or arrested, and those who spoke about the movement publicly outside of officially sanctioned narratives often ended up in prison, in exile, or in the morgue.
Mzee Kenyatta’s mandate was clear: Mau Mau was to be forgotten, and not to be discussed publicly. The organisation remained an illegal terrorist group throughout the Kenyatta and Moi eras, and was only legalised after Mwai Kibaki’s inauguration in 2004. The “forgive and forget” policy of Kenyatta and his successor had several interlinked purposes. A generous assessment is that Kenyatta wished to promote national unity and to focus on a shared future rather than a divided past. However, this is only part of the truth. Personal interests needed to be protected, especially those of former loyalists who now held top government positions. In addition, land justice and redistribution, the key demand of the Mau Mau, and later the Kenya Land and Freedom Army – which emerged after the war, and named among its members many Mau Mau hold-outs – would not be a cornerstone of the post-independence political policy. In fact, many veterans returned from forests and camps to find that what little land they did have had been taken from them, and that the only recourse for them to regain it or acquire new land would be to buy it from the government.
Since Mau Mau had been a full-time commitment, and concentration camps did not award salaries, while loyalist Home Guards were paid, an inequity emerged between those who were able to afford land and those who weren’t, which fell along lines of allegiances during the war. A final reason for Kenyatta’s desire to silence any public discussion of Mau Mau was that British interests still needed to be protected. If Kenya wanted to emerge from the 1960s as part of the global economy, it would have to dance to the tune of its former colonisers, which meant not embarrassing them with tales of their past atrocities. All in all, it would be better to forget the whole sorry affair.
Personal interests needed to be protected, especially those of former loyalists who now held top government positions.
In practice, this meant a careful selection of which fragments of the truth of Kenya’s Mau Mau past could be discussed and by whom. As a student of Kenya’s national curriculum, if you learned anything at all about the history of decolonisation, it adhered to a specific narrative: colonialism came to an end when Jomo Kenyatta and other brave constitutional nationalists came to an agreement with the British. Depending on your age, you may also have learned the names of some long-dead Mau Mau heroes and heroines who helped win Kenya’s freedom.
Certainly, there would not have been any discussion of the ideological roots of the Mau Mau movement, rooted in land justice and economic freedom or a critique of the betrayed promises and the land-grabbing by the post-independence political elite. The issue is not that these things are untrue – although from a historical perspective, some of them are inaccurate – but that they are presented as complete truths. While it is true, for example, that Jomo Kenyatta was tried and imprisoned along with five other nationalist activists at Kapenguria for being a Mau Mau ringleader, historians now agree that Kenyatta’s conviction was based on trumped up charges that did not align with Kenyatta’s ambivalent relationship to the militant guerrilla movement.
Kenyatta was an African nationalist, but he was not a Mau Mau leader. Outside of the national curriculum, selective amnesia could most clearly be observed on national holidays, particularly Independence Day and Kenyatta Day. On such occasions, speeches glossed over the painful past, and focused on the economic development of the future. President Kenyatta and his successor Daniel Arap Moi seldom spoke explicitly about the history of the Mau Mau movement, instead alluding to the vague need to “commemorate Mzee Kenyatta and the blood that was spilled in our struggle for independence”. The careful ambiguity about whose blood that was, and why it might need to be commemorated speaks to the fact that Kenya’s Mau Mau past remained politically dangerous. Veterans could be used to mobilise voters in specific regions of the country, but would otherwise remain nameless, and, more importantly, silent.
My research as a historian has focused on what happened to the memories of Mau Mau in the face of this public silencing, and seeks to understand what grassroots memorialisation looks like in the face of political amnesia. Working with oral histories from veterans and their families, alongside archival material, I have been consistently struck by the plurality of experience that characterises the Mau Mau war. There is no one definitive historical truth, and a key part of the mishandling of Mau Mau histories in the decades since independence has been rooted in the ill-fated attempts to discipline the complicated and fragmentary history into something that might fit neatly into tales of heroes and villains.
Through my research, I have found that a rich material culture of Mau Mau has existed in rural communities since the end of the war, one that was astutely aware of the history-making endeavours, but did not adhere to them. While the archival material on Mau Mau was systematically destroyed at the national level, it was carefully preserved by thousands of individuals across Kenya, for whom forgetting the war was never an option. Veterans pulled out boxes of photographs and documents, personal archives carefully preserved far from the censorial eyes of public history-making. Many pulled up their sleeves or skirts to reveal scars, offering their very bodies up as living monuments to the war. Away from the ceremonial lip service of national holidays and hero-worship of the official narratives, these veterans found ways of memorialising Mau Mau on their own terms.
If Kenya wanted to emerge from the 1960s as part of the global economy, it would have to dance to the tune of its former colonisers.
For many years, Mau Mau history was marked more by what is not said in public than by what is said. It has, for successive generations of Kenyans, been characterised by profound silences: family members who never came home, land that was lost, unmarked graves, and gaps in family trees. However, this should not be confused with forgetting. In fact, the silences around Mau Mau and who was permitted to speak of it have often served to amplify the unhealed traumas of the past, which sit just below the surface of everyday life.
In 2003, President Kibaki’s un-banning of Mau Mau allowed veterans to organise publicly for the first time, and saw the beginning of attempts to memorialise the conflict and to portray Mau Mau fighters in a positive light, as heroes of independence. However, there is still no national museum dedicated to histories of the struggle, and national institutions remain reluctant to address the complexity and unhealed traumas of Kenya’s Mau Mau past. This period in the early 2000s coincided with the emergence of a new generation of urban youth, enlivened by stories of the ferocious fighters and their brave struggle for land and freedom, who created their own myths and memorial cultures of Mau Mau.
In Nairobi today, Mau Mau sightings are a frequent occurrence. Yes, there are a few national monuments, and a small display at the National Museum of Kenya, but, more importantly, Mau Mau appears in more quotidian forms. Dedan Kimathi sits astride a matatu, weaving through traffic, sandwiched between Tupac Shakur and Bob Marley. The words “Mau Mau” are spray-painted on walls and on the mud flaps of trucks. Young men wear dreadlocked hair and t-shirts with Kimathi’s face.
These representations of Mau Mau history have a lot to say about how memories of the war have come to take on new meanings for Kenyan futures. Mau Mau in general, and Kimathi in particular, have entered into an iconography of revolutionary history that holds a strong sense of continuity for young urban Kenyans today. After all, the grievances of this generation are disturbingly similar to those of the generation of the 1940s who took up arms in the Mau Mau movement. For both, it is about land and freedom. The slum demolitions and police brutality that animates young people in Nairobi and Mombasa and Kisumu have their roots in a not-so-distant colonial and post-colonial past. Increasingly expensive and precarious living situations, lack of economic opportunities, and a government more interested in accruing wealth and resources for a small elite than in ensuring the welfare of all citizens led to the Mau Mau war, and this struggle continues.
In this sense, contemporary popular representations of Mau Mau speak to the fact that Mau Mau cannot be neatly placed in the box marked “distant past” only to be opened under governmental supervision on Mashujaa Day, when veterans are wheeled out to recite carefully crafted histories of heroes and heroines. Mau Mau is still a living present. Despite their best attempts to bury the bodies, they lie in very shallow graves.
The lack of public history has led to a grassroots memorial practice that is as imaginative as it is true. The material cultures they have created around Mau Mau speak to an active attempt to reclaim histories of the struggle. What archival material has been revealed and declassified in the UK and in Kenya is coloured by the colonial gaze, so that there are still questions of authorship that remain to be answered by national historical institutions. What does addressing these archival inequities mean? Ignored by institutionalised history-making and, at times, actively silenced, new generations have continued the veterans’ practice of personal histories, crafting their own living monuments to the war. The model of a museum is unsuited to such histories, which are marked by their strong emotional truth more than their historical accuracy, and which need to live defiantly within communities, not cloistered behind the guarded gates of national museums.
The careful ambiguity about whose blood that was, and why it might need to be commemorated speaks to the fact that Kenya’s Mau Mau past remained politically dangerous.
This rejection of the conventions of public history, often characterised by material cultures produced by the elite, has liberated Kenyans to imagine their pasts, and, in turn, their futures. Following in the tradition of writers and artists of the 1970s and 80s, who often paid dearly for their representations, Kenyans use fashion and hip hop and graffiti to write into the decimated historical archive, harnessing their imaginative power to unravel the silences and reawaken a revolutionary sentiment.
National history projects like clear lines and straight narratives of heroes and heroines, but Mau Mau cannot and will not fit into such simple constraints. Mau Mau historical plurality reminds us that there is an urgent need to redress the injustices of the past, not by presenting a simple counter-narrative to the official sanctioned myths surrounding the war, but through embracing the plurality of experiences around Mau Mau pasts, presents and futures. These histories were never forgotten. They were deliberately obscured, but have lived active lives throughout the years of political forgetting. They are infused into our national consciousness, into our knowledge of who we are and were and might be.
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Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.
In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.
Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.
Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.
But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.
When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.
Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.
For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”
The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.
Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.
In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.
Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.
The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.
Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.
Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”
Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.
When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?
Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.
It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.
And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.
Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.
So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.
Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.
And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?
Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.
The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.
And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.
Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement
The greatest achievement of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu was to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained.
Ask ten people what decolonization means, and you will get ten different answers. The term’s incoherent resurgence has sparked an understandable backlash, with complaints directed mainly against its liberal and or neoliberal defanging. When attempts to pin down decolonization’s meaning pit “real” material work against mere theory, staking out a position feels easy enough. Things are harder to parse where the object of concern is knowledge itself.
What exactly counts as “decolonizing” in the resolutely immaterial domains of concept, culture, or moral life? Because this question must be hard to answer, the certainties with which it is often answered fall short. It is typical of our moment that Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s death this year was met with much-unqualified praise of his “decolonial” status, with that descriptor confirming countless more specific—and discordant—views.
In Wiredu’s agile hands, the decolonization of knowledge was a distinctive method: it entailed clear analytic steps as well as safeguards against cultural romanticization. This means that it can be learned, given the time and commitment, and indeed must be learned regardless of one’s cultural starting point. In this sense, Wiredu was a staunchly disciplinary thinker even as his political ideals have far-reaching resonance. Trained at Oxford mainly by philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle, Wiredu’s writing is marked by what Sanya Osha recently described as “a matter-of-fact fastidiousness and tone.” The difference between Wiredu’s disarmingly lucid philosophy and the more abstract, even poetic modes of decolonial thought now in broader circulation is the difference between grandiose calls for the world’s “unmaking” or “delinking” and the painstaking disaggregation of cultural wholes into constituent parts. Wiredu’s hallmark move was to break down “culture” into particular traditions, beliefs, and phrases, which could then be evaluated on their own merits. He was a master of “showing his work,” and the sheer amount of labor he expended to do so in print makes his work unsuited to an age of easy excerpts and virtual point scoring.
Wiredu’s method is most fully worked out in two books, Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars (1997), but many of his essays have also stood the test of decades. One of the most memorable examples of how he takes his native Akan (and specifically, Asante) heritage apart to assert its philosophical importance appears in a 1998 article titled, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” Wiredu here wields insights into the nature of Twi syntax to present the Akan God as an architect rather than an ex nihilo creator.
Whereas the Christian God is linked to a Western metaphysics of being that can, in principle, be unmoored from context, Wiredu argues that the nature of the verb “to be” in Twi or Fante—expressed as either wo ho or ye—necessitates some kind of pre-given situation. (I cannot, in Fante, state simply “I am,” or “she is.”) Whereas the Christian God can thus be imagined to have made the world from nothing, the Akan counterpart is assumed to have worked with pre-given materials in its construction. By extension, whereas the Christian tradition prioritizes miraculousness, the Akan tradition puts more weight on design and ingenuity. Neither one is right or wrong, intrinsically better or worse. Wiredu’s agenda is to make clear the level of conceptual distinction and follow-through required to place them in an equal-footed conversation.
This penchant for linking fine points to grand plans is also on full display in a late-career, 2009 essay called, “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Here, Wiredu turns to the Akan tradition of talking drums to refute simplistic ideas of cultural uniformity. Using a well-known drum text rife with metaphysical implications, Wiredu concludes that the drums’ theology is in fact opposed to the broader Akan belief system. (The drum text is in his view pantheistic, while Akan religion is theistic as he describes it in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.”) His reading yields a few important insights, including into the formative role of intra-cultural disagreement in what might later appear to be shared oral traditions.
The main thing to emphasize, however, is that Wiredu’s deep dive into Akan knowledge results in its destabilization. This does not mean that Akan culture, such as it may be said to exist, is somehow “not real” by virtue of being complexly constructed; this is true of all cultures, everywhere. It means, instead, that it is robust enough to withstand real pressure on pieces of it in order to think seriously about the whole. While acknowledging the colonial odds historically stacked against African knowledge traditions, Wiredu’s philosophical approach to Akan concepts insists that intellectual work can and must do more than reflect this injustice.
Kwasi Wiredu’s lasting decolonial achievement—and that which must be widely memorialized—is to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained. He refused to treat it as fragile, even as he stared down the many ways it has been sidelined and subjugated. To be “decolonized,” for Wiredu, is to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction. Worship traditionally or as a Christian, he wrote, but in either case really know why. Getting there on his model is daunting, but at the end of the exertion is moral and cultural reciprocity that cannot be claimed lightly. Or, as Wiredu once put it, it yields “the golden rule that gives us the basis … to consider every person as one.”
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