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The African Research Assistant as Hunter-Gatherer: An Insider’s View

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Research assistants are merely the “hunters and gatherers” of knowledge, relegated to the periphery as “brokers”, doing the bidding of those who pull the purse strings, argues Wanjiru Gichohi.

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The African Research Assistant as Hunter-Gatherer: An Insider’s View
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The so-called research industry in Africa is a fast growing sector that is dominated by for-profit firms, state agencies and academia, among a litany of players who are trying to understand society and make nuanced policy on critical societal issues. At the heart of this industry is the research assistant who is part fixer, part liaison, part translator, part moderator, part research broker, part administrator, part baby-sitter.

Perhaps that last one sounds a little exaggerated when it comes to the many hats that the RA—as the research assistant is referred to in local research circles—has to wear, but on the ground it is nonetheless an apt description; research respondents have been known to show up for a Focus Group Discussion (FGD) with toddlers or babies in tow.

Recruitment of RAs

An RA’s journey typically begins with an induction session offered by the research team. Typically, these are foreign nationals, senior consultants operating locally, or development organizations that have received research funding. In the course of their training, RAs familiarize themselves with the data collection tools and methods that will be used in the project. Where possible, a pilot session is organized.

The RAs are then sent out on research missions; they may be tasked with recruiting study respondents, moderating group discussion sessions, conducting interviews and taking notes and it is not uncommon to find an RA playing any two of these roles. The level of remuneration that RAs receive is usually determined by the top management of the hiring organization. Given the high unemployment rate and low bargaining power of many potential research assistants, more often than not, they accept less than they are worth.

Recruiting respondents and the politics of compensation

Of the tasks typically assigned to the RA, the recruitment of potential respondents is perhaps the most challenging. Most people will need to know what they stand to gain by participating; “kuna chai? which is Kenyan for “am I getting a little money out of this?” This question can be justified depending on how you look at it; one, these people are leaving their productive spaces for approximately half a day, and two, they are spending money on transport. It is not unusual to oversee a research project in a remote community where respondents are coming in from villages that are as far as 40 km away from the venue of the Focus Group Discussion (FDG).

The common practice is to recruit respondents in excess to cover for potential no-shows but in some cases, all the recruited persons turn up leaving the RA to deal with those that have to be sent away who may become aggressive as they demand reimbursement of their costs. This is a situation that calls on the RA’s negotiating skills, as money for such reimbursements is often not included in the study budget. Fixed budgets mean that the respondent who brought along his wife and child can leave the RA out-of-pocket as s/he provides the extra meals and the cost of transport back home. Husbands have been known to pocket the incentive and immediately disappear, leaving their families stranded and forcing the RA to provide money for transport from personal funds.

You may wonder why, but NGOs have made it a practice to offer incentives to research participants. International NGOs can afford to give large amounts of money as incentives, and sometimes include foodstuffs. Research participants have come to expect the same level of incentives from all other research bodies and will complain if that standard is not met.

Meet the serial respondent

Then there are the “serial respondents” who are all too familiar with research studies. This is common when a recruiting agency uses the same database of respondents for several projects. Serial respondents come with expectations regarding the type or amount of compensation they should receive based on previous experience.

Serial respondents will often have participated in studies undertaken by various (international) NGOs and as such, they usually have an idea of the “going rate”. This is why they sometimes bring along friends who have not been invited to participate by the RA so that they too can “get on the gravy train”. Participants can make up to KSh2,500 (US$25) for taking part in an FGD, a reasonable amount to make for a 2-hour engagement in many parts of the country.

Of critical concern, however, “is whether serial respondents” lend credibility to the research process. Given that they participate in many discussion groups, interviews and surveys, is it possible that they have “learned” how to respond to questions? Have they devised ways of manipulating recruitment agencies in order to remain on the recruitment databases? Also, how do local researchers without huge research budgets, compete in a situation where foreign researchers have tipped the “market” in their favour?

The black market of knowledge

The above narration reflects the everyday administrative experiences of a research assistant that are often discounted by the contracting researchers. However, beyond administrative duties, RAs usually also make epistemic contributions to the research process. First, prior to recruitment, the RA is issued with a respondent profile that gives the general characteristics of the individuals who will participate in the study.

The RA is then left to make quick judgements, from a 10-15 minute face-to-face or telephone conversation, on the capacity of the selected persons to effectively contribute to the research exercise. During interviews and focus group discussions, the moderator or interviewer is tasked with bringing the data collection instrument to life, through translation and probing for responses that will drive the discussion towards the research objectives.

In the data collection phase, the moderators and note-takers play the critical role of providing data that will later be transcribed and analysed to generate research findings. Overlooking this crucial role played by the local research assistant is tantamount to choking the knowledge production machinery.

Of critical concern, however, “is whether serial respondents” lend credibility to the research process.

After the fieldwork, the RAs are not acknowledged as having been part of the research projects they have contributed to, but are merely relegated to the periphery as “research brokers”. In the black market of knowledge production, research assistants, such as myself, do not even have a say in the amount of remuneration.

Given the crucial role that research assistants play as research brokers, where then are they positioned on the research spectrum? How then do we begin to recognize them as critical drivers of the research process and treat them as such in deed and in compensation? As Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni notes, “The silencing of ‘local’ and ‘African’ voices in research is largely to blame for the epistemic divide between the Global North and South where the research assistants have remained hunter-gatherers’ of raw data and ‘native informants’.”

These locals collect data on behalf of researchers from the Global North who then develop theories and publish that data. The theories and concepts are consumed and, at times, even tested in Africa.

Faceless ants of the research colony

Research assistants have long been at the periphery of the knowledge production continuum. Western researchers swoop in with the funding, armed with the research design and methodology but with little or no knowledge of the local context. They are forced to rely on local researchers to “fix”, “broker”, and facilitate interviews and discussions with respondents as well as for other types of research activities.

At the end of it all, the research assistants walk off with their pay, sometimes meagre, with no recognition whatsoever in the research outputs. So what contribution do local research assistants make to knowledge production in Africa? Are they merely a means to an end? How can local researchers rid the epistemological space of the extant racial hierarchization and asymmetrical power relations to claim their space as “research collaborators” rather than merely being viewed as “assistants”.

In his article, Decoloniality as the Future of Africa, Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni mentions that despite Africa having attained independence, spheres such as culture, religion, language, aesthetics, the mind and psyche have remained colonized. He alludes to the fact that African knowledge systems still remain subject to the Euro-North American-centric systems. As such, decoloniality is imperative to dismantle the power relations and conceptions of knowledge that propagate the reproduction of gender, racial and geo-political hierarchies birthed or energized by the colonial world.

RAs are not acknowledged as having been part of the research projects they have contributed to, but are merely relegated to the periphery as “research brokers”.

It is unfortunate that we find these hierarchies and dichotomies replicated in the research and knowledge production space where Westerners have positioned themselves as the “controllers” of the research agendas and initiatives. These “perceived” or “implied” privileges are probably because one, funding follows along a North-South channel and two, seemingly sophisticated and progressive knowledge systems are prevalent in the West. The consequence of this positioning is that researchers and knowledge systems situated in the Global South are relegated to the bottom of the research food chain.

Owning our research stories

Local researchers, mostly research assistants, then become more or less the “hunters and gatherers” of knowledge, doing the bidding of those who pull the purse strings. We are now caught up in a situation where foreigners use African experts to study Africa and African phenomena but totally erase or sideline the locals that facilitate their research. As African scholar Chinua Achebe has said, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”

This is not to romanticize indigenous and vernacular approaches, or to imply that they should be taken as they are without a commensurate level of scrutiny and analysis. We still need to create and open up spaces for narratives and knowledge from the Global South to interact with and confront or bolster those from the Global North. It is time that African researchers are centred in African narratives, especially where intellectual contributions have been made.

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Wanjiru Gichohi is a Research Fellow at the African Leadership Centre (ALC). She is part of the Research Department and is responsible for contributing to the ALC’s research outputs, research programs coordination and organizational resource mobilization.

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Educating the Native and the Ivy League Myth

Elite schools in the US continue to place a premium on institutions, not ideas. Where you went to school is what matters.

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As a young student, I was always fascinated by the “top” universities and the erudite people that emerged from those august institutions. My first contact with Ivy League people was when I arrived at Mpala Research Centre in Laikipia in 1999 to start my MSc research. I met students and faculty from Princeton University (which is a trustee of the research centre) and was reassured that they looked “normal”, given all the academic challenges and foibles that a Kenyatta University student like me had. After I finished my MSc, the administration was impressed enough with my work to offer me a job as resident scientist, which I took up with the alacrity of someone catching a big break through hard work (I got a rude awakening later, but that’s a story for another day). As part of my job, I was to supervise a group of Princeton undergraduates undertaking a senior field project and, wanting impress, I sharpened my ecologist brain, especially because I thought I would be instructing some of the world’s sharpest young minds. Now I laugh at my consternation when, after mapping out clear and easy ecological transects for them, they strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle (they were ladies) and that the boss might be offended.

Later on, I asked a postgraduate student from the same institution how these ladies could be so casual about their studies and she couldn’t hide her amusement at my ignorance. “Grad school is competitive. Undergrads get in because of money and name recognition.” I was stunned, but I remembered this when I saw the poor work they submitted at the end of their study. Being an aspiring lecturer (and a student of the late brilliant Prof R.O. Okelo) I marked them without fear or favour, assuming that they would be used to such standards at Princeton. I was told that I couldn’t give them such low marks because they were supposed to qualify for med school after their biology degrees.

They strayed off into a neighbouring ranch and I got a call from the security personnel there that they were sunbathing topless on the research vehicle.

The next cohort included one serious student who I actually enjoyed instructing and who finished her course successfully. By that time though, I was getting restless and had started writing an academic and financial proposal for my PhD, and I finished it about six months after my student had returned to the US to graduate. The then Director of Mpala, Dr Georgiadis, refused to let me do my PhD on the job, so I submitted my proposal to several conservation organizations, including the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. I received a positive response from them (offering me a grant) which hit me with a strange mixture of feelings. First of all, I was elated at the prospect of starting my PhD, but I was completely baffled by the signature on the award letter. It was signed by the undergraduate student that I had supervised about eight months earlier. An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder. It was my rude awakening to the racial prejudice that is de rigueur in African conservation practice. But I had to get my academic career moving, and indulge my first taste of the ultimate luxury that my competence and my work could afford me, which was the ability to say “NO”. It was with extreme pleasure that I wrote and signed my letter of resignation from my job at Mpala, leaving it on the Director’s desk.

Years later, after I finished my PhD and had a useful amount of conservation practice under my belt, I attended the Society for Conservation Biology conference in Sacramento, California, where there was a side event featuring publishers from several Ivy League universities. I excitedly engaged them because at the time Gatu Mbaria and I were in the middle of writing “The Big Conservation Lie”. I pointed out to all of them that there were no books about conservation in Africa written by indigenous Africans, but they were uniform in their refusal to even read the synopsis of what we had written. I later understood why when I learned that in US academia, African names — as authors or references — are generally viewed as devaluing to any literature.

An American undergraduate who had spent two months in Africa was somehow qualified to assess a PhD proposal on the ecology of African wildlife written by an African MSc holder.

From Sacramento, I made the short trip to Stanford University in Palo Alto, to give a seminar to an African Studies group. I felt honoured to be making an academic contribution at an Ivy League university and I prepared well. My assertions about the inherent prejudices in African conservation practice were met with stunned silence by the faculty, many of whom are involved with conservation research in Africa. One bright spot in that dour experience was the brilliant PhD student who echoed my views and pointed out that these prejudices existed within academia as well. I later found out that he was Kenyan — his name is Ken Opalo and he now teaches at Georgetown University.

Fast forward to today. The Big Conservation Lie was published, and after the initial wailing, breaking of wind, gnashing of teeth and accusations of racism, Mbaria and I are actually being acknowledged as significant thinkers in the conservation policy field and our literary input is being solicited by various publications around the world. Now, the cultural differences between how European and American institutions treat African knowledge are becoming clear (certainly in my experience). I have been approached by several European institutions to give talks (lectures), and have contributed articles and op-eds (to journals and magazines) and one book foreword. Generally, the approach is like this:

“Dear Dr Ogada, I am_______ and I am writing to you on behalf of________. We are impressed with what you wrote in _____ and would appreciate it if you would consider writing for us an article of (length) on (topic) in our publication. We will offer you an honorarium of (X Euros) for this work, and we would need to receive a draft from you by (date). . .” Looking forward to your positive response. . .”

When inviting me to speak, the letters are similarly respectful and appreciative of my time. The key thing is the focus on and respect for one’s intellectual contribution. Publications from American Ivy league schools typically say:

“Dear Dr Ogada, I am __________, the editor of __________. We find your thoughts on _______ very interesting and we are pleased to invite you to write an essay of________ (length) in our publication. Previous authors we have invited include (dropping about 6-8 names of prominent American scholars).

The entire tone of the letter implies that you are being offered a singular privilege to “appear” in the particular journal. It is even worse when being asked to give a lecture. No official communication, just a casual message from a young student saying that they would like you to come and talk to their class on__________ (time and date on the timetable). No official communication from faculty or the institution. After doing that a couple of times, I realized that the reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications, or (God forbid) have an African name in the “references” section of their work.

The reason these kids are so keen to have an African scholar speak to them and answer all their questions is because they need his knowledge, but do not want to read his publications.

European intellectuals seem to be catching on to the fact that knowledge and intellect reside in people, not institutions. That is why they solicit intellectual contributions based on the source of an idea they find applicable in that space and time. Name recognition doesn’t matter to them, which is why they seek people like Ogada, who doesn’t even have that recognition in Kenya. The elite schools in US still place this premium on institutions, which is why whenever an African displays intellectual aptitude, those who are impressed don’t ask about him and his ideas, but where he went to school. They want to know which institution bestowed this gift upon him.

For the record, I usually wait about a week before saying “no” to the Ivy League schools. Hopefully, they read my blog and will improve the manner in which they approach me, or stop it altogether.

Aluta continua.

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Cuba Can Help Vaccinate the World

On 25 January, the Progressive International will host a special briefing live from Havana with Cuba’s leading scientists, government ministers and public health officials as part of its Union for Vaccine Internationalism.

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2022 began with a “tsunami” of new Covid-19 cases crashing over the world, according to the World Health Organization. Over 18 million cases have been recorded in the past week alone, a record number since the pandemic began two years ago. In the first 10 days of January, nearly 60,000 Covid-19 deaths have been recorded worldwide — though the total death count is far higher than the official statistics describe.

The Omicron variant is reported to have less “severe” implications among vaccinated patients. But the world remains perilously under-vaccinated: 92 of the WHO’s member countries missed the 2021 target of 40 percent vaccination; at the current pace of rollout, 109 of them will miss their 2022 targets by July.

These statistics tell a story of a persistent vaccine apartheid. Across the EU, 80 percent of all adults have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Meanwhile, only 9.5 percent of people in low-income countries have received a single dose. Omicron is a death sentence for thousands in these countries — and as the virus travels across the Global South, new variants will emerge that may be less “mild” for the vaccinated populations of the North.

But the governments of these Northern countries refuse to plan for global vaccination — or even meet their own pledges. By late last year, they had delivered only 14% of the vaccine doses that they had promised to poorer countries through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing initiative. Big pharmaceutical corporations are focused almost exclusively on production of boosters for the world’s rich countries, creating a shortfall of three billion doses in the first quarter of this year.

President Joe Biden could easily help fill this shortfall by compelling US pharmaceutical corporations to share their vaccine technology with poorer nations. But he has so far refused to do so. A new production hub in Africa — where only 3 percent of people are vaccinated — is now trying to replicate the Moderna vaccine. But without Moderna’s help, or Joe Biden’s executive action, production could take more than a year to begin.

Amidst this crisis of global solidarity, Cuba has emerged as a powerful engine of vaccine internationalism. Not only has the island nation successfully developed two Covid-19 vaccines with 90 percent effectiveness, and vaccinated more than 90 percent of its population with at least one dose of its homegrown vaccine, Cuba has also offered its vaccine technology to the world. “We are not a multinational where returns are the number one reason for existing,” said Vicente Vérez Bencomo of the Finlay Vaccines Institute in Cuba. “For us, it’s about achieving health.”

But the US and its allies continue to oppress and exclude Cuba from the global health system. The US blockade forced a shortage of syringes on the island that endangered its vaccine development and hindered mass production. US medical journals “marginalize scientific results that come from poor countries,” according to Vérez Bencomo. Meanwhile, the WHO refuses to accredit the Cuban vaccines, despite approval from regulators in countries like Argentina and Mexico.

That is why the Progressive International is sending a delegation to Havana: to combat misinformation, to defend Cuban sovereignty, and to help vaccinate the world.

Bringing delegates from the Union for Vaccine Internationalism, founded in June 2021 to fight the emerging apartheid, the Progressive International will convene Cuban scientists and government representatives to address international press and members of the scientific community in a showcase of the Cuban vaccine on 25 January.

The goals of the showcase are both local and global. Drawing attention to the promise of the Cuban vaccine and the perils of the US embargo against it, the showcase aims to forge connections between Cuba’s public biotech sector and manufacturers who might produce the vaccine and help the Cuban government recuperate the costs of its development.

In the process, the showcase aims to set an example of international solidarity in the face of the present global health crisis, advancing the cause of vaccine internationalism around the world.

This article was first published by Progressive International.

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DRC: Bring Patrice Lumumba Home

The return of Patrice Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and coverup.

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For much of the past year, there have been plans for the sacred human remains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s first post-independence prime minister, Patrice Émery Lumumba, to finally be returned to his children in Belgium, and then repatriated to the Congo. Originally scheduled for a ceremony on June 30, 2021, the 61st anniversary of the country’s independence passed with Lumumba’s remains still in the custody of Belgian authorities. The ceremony with Belgian King Philippe, current Prime Minister Alexander de Croo of Belgium, and Congo President Felix Tshisekedi, was then planned for January 17, 2022, the anniversary of the assassination. Last week, Tshisekedi announced another delay—this time until June 2022. The official reason for the delay was the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the Congo, but the pandemic crisis is deeply entangled with a series of other political maneuvers and other crises that are undoubtedly factors in the decision.

At the center of this story, Lumumba’s family continues to be victimized. As Nadeen Shaker recently reported, his children were forced to escape to Cairo during their father’s house arrest, never to see him again. The disturbing fact that the remains of Lumumba spent another Independence Day in Belgium may provide opportunities for metaphor and analogy, but, amid the widespread complicity in this ongoing desecration, the most important outcome must be to respect the ethical and legal claims of his children, which daughter Juliana Lumumba described in an open letter to the Belgian king last year.

The story of the execution and its aftermath is well told by Ludo de Witte in The Assassination of Patrice Lumumba. On January 17, 1961, Lumumba was killed along with comrades Maurice Mpolo and Joseph Okito by Belgian authorities, with the support of neocolonial Kantangan separatists and the US. Two days later, Gerard Soete, Belgian police commissioner of Katanga, and his brother exhumed the body to chemically eradicate all physical evidence of their crime in order to prevent the kind of mobilization which its identification would inspire. Though the execution was kept secret for nearly a month, its announcement inspired exactly what his executioners feared, as African people throughout the world engaged in protest and other revolutionary acts of remembrance—from the well-known demonstration at the United Nations, and other cities throughout the world to a legacy in a visual, musical, and literary culture that continues to this day.

In February 1961, while the Cultural Association of Women of African Heritage organized a major protest at UN headquarters in New York, Lumumba’s widow Pauline Opango Lumumba led a march of family and supporters to the UN offices of Rajeshawar Dayal in Kinshasa. There, she requested that the UN help her receive the remains of her husband for a proper burial. After Ralph Bunche offered “apologies” for the New York protest, Lorraine Hansberry “hasten[ed] publicly to apologize to Mme. Pauline Lumumba and the Congolese people for our Dr. Bunche.” Meanwhile, James M. Lawson of the United African Nationalist Movement and other Black activists organized a wake for Lumumba at Lewis Michaux’s Harlem bookstore. When Pauline died in Kinshasa in 2014, she was still waiting to bury her husband. She, and her iconic demonstration, are memorialized in Brenda Marie Osbey’s poem “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba,” which is part of a long line of African American efforts to uplift the Lumumba family. The immediacy of Pauline’s demands remains after 6 years.

While Lumumba’s body was dissolved in sulphuric acid, Soete, like the US lynchers of Sam Hose and so many others, kept trophies of his victims as he traveled from the Congo to Belgium, often displaying them for friends and journalists. After Soete died, his daughter Godelieve continued her father’s tradition, culminating in a bizarre 2016 interview, during which a reporter found the remains in her possession. (In her efforts to defend her father, Godelieve further revealed that his brutality was visited upon his children.) The Belgian police intervened and, for the past five years, Lumumba’s remains have been held by the Belgian government responsible for his death. In September 2020, a court finally ruled they should be returned to the family.

These most recent delays are occurring at a time when the ongoing mistreatment of human remains is receiving public attention. The case of the Morton Collection at the University of Pennsylvania led activist Abdul-Aliy Muhammad to uncover the ongoing desecration of the remains of Tree and Delisha Africa, who were killed when the city of Philadelphia bombed their family’s home on May 13, 1985, leading to the discovery that the city held additional remains of the victims of its violence against the MOVE organization.

Since 2005, in South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) created the Missing Persons Task Team to identify the remains of the Black victims of the country’s apartheid era. Drawing on the expertise of researchers with experience in similar initiatives in Argentina and elsewhere, this government project has been deliberate in its efforts to include the families of the missing at all stages, while seeing their work as integral to the larger mission of the TRC, and further representative of a larger model of repatriation of human remains and possessions. As different as these cases of violence may be, government sanction—at multiple levels and taking different forms—remains constant.

In an October 2021 program hosted by Friends of the Congo, Juliana Lumumba explained that for her, as the daughter of a martyr, repatriation and memorialization of her father’s remains were not finite events to be completed like items checked off of a to-do list. Rather, the return must be part of a wider and ongoing process: “I told Belgium, that if we want a reconciliation we need reconciliation of memories because we can not make a reconciliation when our memories [are] so different and so contradictory.” Juliana’s words carry a particular weight at a time when the Special Parliamentary Commission on Belgian Colonial History has received a sharply critical historical report that may or may not lead to meaningful action of the sort that the family has demanded.

Lumumba’s son Guy-Patrice Lumumba opposes Tshisekedi’s efforts to exploit the repatriation for political gain. Tshisekedi himself is familiar with some of the political challenges of memorialization after the remains of his own father, longtime popular opposition leader Etienne Tshisekdi, spent more than two years in Europe before their return in 2019 after Felix’s election. Felix is quickly losing whatever claim he had on his own father’s mantle (see Bob Elvis’s song “Lettre à Ya Tshitshi for a recent indictment of the president’s abandonment of his father’s mantle). He may find value in an association with a revered nationalist icon amid political protests from opponents concerned about his overreaching efforts to control the country’s powerful electoral commission as the 2023 election cycle approaches.

Meanwhile, the younger Tshisekedi’s international standing has been consolidated through his position as head of the African Union, where his responsibilities include negotiating for the provision of COVID-19 vaccines for member states. He recently met with President Biden and made an official visit to Israel, the latter of particular concern given its historical involvement in mercenary efforts against pro-Lumumba rebels and its ongoing role in the plunder of the Congo’s resources (to say nothing of Tshisekedi’s support for Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem and its status as an observer at the African Union). Such actions highlight the extraordinary distance between Lumumba’s legacy and Tshisekedi’s leadership.

For decades, the Lumumba family has made a series of unanswered demands through formal inquiries and legal appeals. A group of scholars and activists have also asserted the return of Lumumba’s remains must not be an occasion for Belgium to congratulate itself, but rather an opportunity for a full accounting of the colonial violence that led to the assassination and its subsequent coverup.

Hopefully soon, Lumumba’s family can mourn on their own terms and have all of their demands for justice met immediately and without equivocation.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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