In 2018, at the height of my public engagement on the competency-based curriculum, the concept of homeschooling gained prominence media discussions on education. In a few interviews, journalists asked me if homeschooling was an alternative to CBC and public schooling. I answered from my experience of having taught homeschooled students in my university classrooms in both the US and Kenya, saying that some of the students whom I consider outstanding were homeschooled.
In hindsight, I now see that I was naïve, and that I fell into a trap that I did not know I had fallen into. I understood the trap after I criticised a media report on homeschooling and received an unexpected and persistent backlash from homeschooling parents.
Before I talk about the news report, I need to clarify the following. I am not making a personal critique of the parents involved or their children. In a free world, making this caveat would be unnecessary, but not in Kenya which has such an entrenched anti-intellectual and passive-aggressive culture that is used to bully and harass Kenyans when we dare to discuss anything social. The first response in the anti-intellectual and passive-aggressive toolkit is usually to brand commentary on social phenomena as attacks on specific people, or in Christian parlance, as “judging others”.
Secondly, education is more than just the personal choices of select families. I will address this neoliberal ideology of choice further in the article, but for now, let’s say that the project of education is a complex one where we must ask not only about individuals, but also about the society. Education requires complex thinking, which once again takes us back to Kenya’s anti-intellectual public and institutional culture, a culture that seeks to alienate complex thinking from public discourse. And finally, by virtue of that argument, a debate on whether children should go to an institution or school at home is not the interest of this article.
Education mumbo jumbo
Following the closure of schools last year to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the government and the complacent Kenyan media offered parents the option of covering the curriculum at home. The manner in which this endeavour was packaged is troubling, because it mixed terms which seasoned educators know refer to different types of education. On their twitter handle, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) talked of “home based learning”, which misleads parents into thinking that they now have access to homeschooling which normally only a minority can afford. However, what KICD was really offering is curriculum content that is broadcast on radio and TV. In yet another tweet, KICD introduced yet another term, “digital curriculum” while announcing content available on the KICD cloud.
The media played its part in this muddying of the Kenyan public awareness. KTN reported about a homeschooling family that was teaching an unnamed curriculum to the children. In a twist that once again made CBC and homeschooling strange bedfellows, the parent talked of choosing homeschooling to develop the children’s “talent”, an argument which the government has also made about the new education system.
The concept of talent is problematic. “Talent” gives parents the impression that their children are receiving an arts education and that the education system is addressing parents’ desire for opportunities that do not emphasize academic performance. In reality, however, “talent” in the new education system refers to the pathway for children whose performance might most likely be determined by their limited access to resources.
For an arts educator like me, this jumble of different elements of education was too much to bear. I ranted on Facebook that the middle class are in over their heads, and that they were choosing to run away from the public education system without understanding the philosophical implications of the education choices they were making for their children.
Head start in an unfair race
I was not surprised by the parents who responded that teaching is best done by parents, because this argument, again ironically, was also made by KICD when they were marketing CBC as unique because of its “parental involvement”. “Parental involvement” in CBC found fertile ground in the middle class, which had, for the 40 years that the American evangelical movement has been in Kenya, consumed family enrichment programmes such as James Dobson’s “Focus on the Family”.
What I did not anticipate was the persistent rebuttal of certain Kenyans who refused to address the points I was making.
Their first line of defence was that I don’t know what I am talking about because I have not met any homeschooling parents, and I should only comment on homeschooling when I meet them. They did not clarify how they determined that. They would repeat this line even after I pointed out that sample size, a question of method, still did not respond to the philosophical question I was raising. When I insisted on my position, they started talking about me in the third person on my wall, about my character and what colleagues say about me. For a group of people who insist that their education raises Christian children, this conversation was weird.
I was not surprised by the parents who responded that teaching is best done by parents.
When the snide comments on my wall persisted, I asked why it was so important that I support homeschooling, even against my own conscience. Because I am a prominent voice on education, I was told.
That answer struck me as odd. As an advocate of good public education, especially for the poor, why would my voice on education matter to homeschoolers? After all, I had been emphatic that we should have a public education system that is so good, that parents would choose a different type of schooling for reasons other than running away from the public system.
More than that, what I was saying about arts and education was not at all new. The argument I made about “talent” as a replacement for the arts is the same one I had made when criticizing the public education system.
That was when it occurred to me that for my critics, my argument was fine as long as I restricted it to the public education system, because then I articulated a case for homeschooling as the alternative to the public school system. That is what the media was referring to when they asked me about homeschooling. It was essentially another way of asking, “How do I protect my own children from this clearly botched public system?”
At some point, some were brazen in their assumption that I was a voice for homeschooling. At various times, homeschooling advocates reached out to me, tried to twist my tweets as support for homeschooling, and were adamant in refusing to listen to my clarification that criticizing public education did not mean I was advocating for homeschooling. Others even reached out to me to join a court case they were pursuing to get the government to include homeschooling in the Basic Education Act.
The exchange on Facebook made me realize that there was a pattern in the behaviour towards me. Even in encounters with homeschooling advocates two years ago, they were politely and patronizingly rude, refusing to engage in my arguments despite my responding to theirs. I now understand that they were trying to shut me down from commenting on homeschooling since I was their PR person in their justification as to why they were avoiding the public education system.
So far, I have mentioned two points of convergence between CBC and homeschooling: the idea of talent, and the emphasis on the nuclear family as the primary space of education.
There is a third convergence between CBC and homeschooling: the neoliberal ideology. Neoliberalism is an ideology that is committed to destroying the social aspect of life. Its vision of humanity was famously articulated by Margaret Thatcher as follows, “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families.” The goal of neoliberalism is to fragment society so much, that individuals become independent and isolated atoms that never collaborate. And the reason is obvious: collaboration is always a challenge to power and profit.
Others even reached out to me to join a court case they were pursuing to get the government to include homeschooling in the Basic Education Act.
Neoliberalism is a complete contradiction to education, because education is necessarily an affirmation of society. When we take children to school, it is because we want children to relate with the world and people outside the family. So there is no education without all of us asking, together, with whom children will interact, and what we want for all the children, not just for some children.
This means that the best education for individuals is the education that wants the best for society as well. What disturbs the status quo about my thinking on education is not that I am opposing the government programmes. It is that I am saying that for us to have a coherent, humane education system for individual children, we must think about all aspects of society – including the economy – differently. At the risk of sounding absolute, there is no good education for a child if there is no good education for all children.
If, as my critics say, they want the best education for their children, then they must articulate a vision for SOCIETY that goes beyond them trying to force me to accept that an individual (bourgeois) family is a substitute for society. Yet at every turn, they block that conversation and get upset when I insist on it.
Which leads us to a deeper, more disturbing paradox.
The homeschoolers want to have their cake and eat it. They want to privately benefit from ideas on how to treat individual teachers and the classroom, but they want those ideas removed from the social thinking from which it springs. They want to use social thinking to give their children a head start in a privatized status quo. That is why my ideas are useful to them when I’m talking about teaching and children, but not when I ask broader social questions that influence decisions about content and teaching in the classroom. But for me, one comes from the other. Social thinking and how we educate children are inseparable, hence the need to bully me by restricting my discussions to the public education system.
So in essence, homeschooling and government schooling are not opposed; they are collaborators. Homeschooling gives children not an alternative, but a head start in meeting the demands of KICD and the private sector. As one advocate put it, with homeschooling, “good moral and mental habits, high academic achievement and success in career are almost guaranteed.” Questions about whether the government or economic system we have is human, fair or efficient, is outside their purview. After all, to afford homeschooling, one is already doing well in the system as it currently exists. So if the private sector says it wants not just certificates but also a compliant character that is, ironically, authentic, homeschooling gives children a head start in moulding such a person.
This means that in an environment of extreme inequality where only 2 per cent of Kenyans have a university education, homeschooling will create a hyper social class has lacks either the interest or the worldview to improve the public education system, because they benefit from having an edge in it.
Homeschooling and mainstream media
This collaboration between homeschooling and public schooling becomes clear when one examines media reporting on homeschooling. Using the discussion on homeschooling on NTV Kenya’s morning show Living with Ess as a sample, a number of common features emerge from these shows.
The shows which host a discussion on homeschooling are the morning shows that are typically about lifestyle. On NTV, it was Living with Ess, on KTN recently, it was Morning Express, and on Ebru TV, it was on Being Mommy. The fact that the hosts are mainly women, and that homeschooling is associated with motherhood, as on Ebru TV, shows a clear imperial and evangelical ideology about the role of women in the nuclear family.
These types of broadcasts necessarily imply that there is no debate or critique of homeschooling, as we would expect of the more overtly political shows. Similarly, the same type of show essentially packages homeschooling as a lifestyle choice or consumer product, when homeschooling is fundamentally a political choice.
At the risk of sounding absolute, there is no good education for a child if there is no good education for all children.
For instance, in the Living with Ess episode, homeschooling is presented as shielding children from the competitive culture that dominates institutionalized education. Yet, as I have explained, the reality is that children who are homeschooled ARE still competing. They are just getting an edge over the others. This is confirmed by the show providing a list of American celebrities and an interview with an employee who was homeschooled.
The symbol of advantage of homeschooling is typically arts education, subjects that the Ministry of Education, the media and the private sector typically fights against through misrepresenting the arts and frustrating artists. The end result is that children in public schools are unlikely to get an arts education, a situation that is highly discriminatory against poor children but is politically deliberate.
The ideology of homeschooling is the neoliberal ideology of choice, which ignores the reality that options for choice are not equally available to all. Some time back, the media reported about a woman from a poor Nairobi neighbourhood who was arrested because she chose not to take her children to school for religious reasons. This discrimination becomes glaring when one considers that homeschooling in Kenya is largely informed by religion.
I’m sure I have disappointed some parents who may have wanted a balance sheet about the pros and cons of public or institutionalized education and of homeschooling. But what I am saying, in essence, is that with education, we cannot avoid political questions about what kind of society we want. The lesson of COVID-19 is that our standard of living is only as good as the standard of living of the poorest among us.
It takes a village
So in conclusion, let me clarify the following: Parents perform a unique role in children’s lives that cannot be replicated by any form of schooling. Lessons of identity, character, love and work ethic are taught by parents and extended family. No school can provide those. It is this love that should compel parents to make political demands of the public education system and of public culture as a whole.
Homeschooling is not simply about learning from parents alone. Whoever designs or informs the curriculum which the parent is teaching the child also has a huge role in moulding the child’s consciousness. While many Kenyans may think that this does not matter for children, it has political and psychological implications when the children become adults, and not just for the children, but for the entire society. Therefore, homeschooling is not the absence of state in a child’s education; it is a choice about what kind of state.
Accessing curriculum materials online is not necessarily homeschooling, or “digital learning”. Accessing digital materials is simply that, and it is no different from using a textbook. It does not necessarily translate into better education.
Online learning refers to education conducted almost entirely online, when meeting physically is the rare exception rather than the norm. Kenyans should know that online learning success rate is terrible, especially for adults who do not already have a strong background in the traditional face-to-face learning.
The media and KICD are misleading the public when they refer to use of materials online or on broadcast media as “digital learning”. The desire for online learning is a project that the president has flirted with since he was the Finance and the Education Minister in the Kibaki government and it is designed to deny poor children in public schools access to education provided by human teachers.
The ideology of homeschooling is the neoliberal ideology of choice, which ignores the reality that options for choice are not equally available to all.
That parents are the best teachers of children is a claim that is not necessarily true and is definitely not ideologically neutral. The claim comes from a specifically ideological project, and for Africans, especially those who use the Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, this ideological project is troubling.
Incidentally, the same argument applies to CBC, where the state has decided to intervene directly in families in the name of promoting “parental involvement”, but the involvement is modelled on the Eurocentric middle-class Christian nuclear family. If anything, one would argue that in Kenya, homeschooling ideologically paves the way for privatization of public education.
Homeschooling converges with CBC in its ideology of talent, parental involvement and employment. It therefore does not offer alternative education but simply an alternative venue and facilitator.
Although parents often feel that they are making a practical choice between homeschooling and institutional education, my argument here is that this is not a real choice. Homeschooling is as good, or as flawed, as public schooling.
At this time of the COVID-19 pandemic this analogy may, hopefully, warn us against complacency about public education. Just like the middle class is vulnerable to a pandemic if the poor don’t have healthcare, it is also vulnerable to the cost of ignorance when the poor are getting a bad education. And public education is wider than schooling. It includes culture, festivals, arts, research, publishing, public libraries, public spaces like parks, museums, playgrounds and halls. In other words, anywhere where people can get together and learn from each other.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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