The discussion took place in November 1995, in a panel convened at the African Studies Association conference to respond to an article by Phillip Curtin, the eminent African history scholar, published in March in the academic magazine Chronicle of Higher Education. In the piece entitled "Ghettoizing African History," Curtin offered anecdotes of hiring practices that, in his view, were reducing African history scholarship to a “ghetto,” because American universities were reserving African history positions for faculty on the basis of their black skin, rather than on their competence.
The Ghetto debate
In November that year, ASA convened a panel to respond to that article. One of those panelists was Micere Mugo, another Kenyan scholar in exile. There is a sense in which Mshai Mwangola’s vivid rendition of Prof Mugo’s response, in true orature fashion, captured the spirit of Prof Mugo’s presentation almost twenty-one years ago. Even the editors of the Association of Concerned African Scholars would later say that Prof Mugo gave an "electrifying presentation.” As she talked, people clapped and cheered.
Prof Mugo was unique in two ways. First, she was a scholar of literature responding to an argument that was in history. However, she argued, what Prof Curtin had written was “relevant to all scholars of African origin and beyond, irrespective of their academic disciplines.” The second unique feature of her response was the colorful, literary language with which she made this point. She continued to say: “the stench of Professor Curtin's imagined ‘ghetto’ that Africana historians are supposedly creating in the United States is likely to hit all our noses at some point. You know how easily ghettoes and their attendant problems sprawl! In any case, reading between the lines, one suspects that Professor Curtin is only acting as a spokesperson for a larger, covert constituency of offended intellectuals.”
I am quoting what Prof Mugo later wrote, so I can only imagine that the original speech must have been even more electrifying than the words on the page.
Twenty-one years later
The day before the panel, I got a respectful brief from the two graduate students who were in charge of lobbying the students to attend the panel. Were it not for them, the article I would be writing now would probably be probably more tortured. As they briefed me, I pointed out the odd composition of the panel. However, they said, it was felt that a more “global” perspective to the issue was required. I didn’t think much of that, until I was in the room.
So, on the day itself, when the moderator announced that she would pose the questions, I honestly considered riding the tide and just endorsing what these other panelists would say, because I considered that speaking my mind could hurt my career.
However, when I looked at the audience of mainly Kenyan students, many of whom I have unsuccessfully convinced to read some more African scholarship, I felt that the stakes were too high for me to settle for being what Prof Mugo called, on that day in 1995, a “voiceless academic collaborator… witnessing and affirming the finished efforts [of others].” I remembered Mshai Mwangola’s rendition of the famous panel at the ASA discussion, and especially Mshai saying how important Prof Mugo’s discussion was, even for the time. So I decided to walk in Prof Mugo’s shoes and at least let the students see an African standing her ground and offering an alternative view. It was likely that they would not remember what I say; but remembering that I spoke, was good enough.
So I braced myself. After we introduced ourselves and briefly discussed our academic journeys, the first question put to us was whether there’s a problem with the theoretical output in African research. Luckily for me, I was at the far end, so I got to start the discussion.
Of course my answer was yes. I talked about the concerns I’ve had for the last eight years: we do not teach enough African theoretical works in the Kenyan classroom. Over forty years after the publication of Orientalism by Edward Said and thirty years after that of The Invention of Africa by V. Y. Mudimbe, few Kenyan students at home have heard of critiques of Euro-American studies on Africa. Maybe I am the only one with this experience, as my colleagues may say in rebuttal. If my case is isolated, then glory be to God. But in the tens of post-graduate works that I have examined, the bibliographies are overwhelmingly non-African, and the few African ones cited are often for providing primary and secondary data, rather than for providing theoretical engagement.
But more than that, students tend to cite Euro-American scholarship less in theoretical engagement and more as submission to authority, as banking-education style regurgitation of foreign-authored textbooks, in what seems to be an effort of candidates to prove that they deserve a post-graduate certificate at the end of the process. This deference to foreign scholarship makes it difficult for me to call out students on plagiarized work, because I’d be asking the students to critique the theories they are using, when they’ve probably not been exposed to the tools with which to do so. I concluded my answer by telling the students: for whatever theory one uses (no matter the origin of the theory), one must know the context in which it was produced. And one does not have to start from scratch because for centuries, African thinkers have been producing their own theories and critiquing Western ones. If you know your intellectual ancestors, critical discussions of academic work shouldn’t be too difficult.
One of the other panelists then argued that there was no need for African-focused studies, because all theory is universal, and focus on African scholarship would create an African studies ghetto. The panelist continued to say, I think in reference to my status as a literary scholar, that their social science field has managed to remain historically and geographically neutral. The discussion was then opened to the floor, which raised my fear that the panel would end with students believing that that argument was not problematic. The fact that one student affirmed the universal argument did not help in allaying my fears.
I kept thinking of Micere Mugo at that ASA panel. I thought of the African students in the audience, fearing what they would take away from that session. I thought of my family heritage. I thought of being a witness in 2001 to the struggles at "The Village," led by Assata-Nicole Richards and LaKeisha Wolf, protesting death threats against black students and that opened, ever so slightly, opportunities for students and faculty of color at Penn State. Ever since that time, I knew that I had gotten as far as I did in my education because of African American struggles. I also remembered my mournful email conversations with Lewis Gordon, as I was writing a dissertation affirming the dignity of African migrants drowning in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe, against scholarship whose main question was “what is wrong with these Africans?” I remembered how liberated I felt to read Tiyambe Zeleza’s historical narratives about African studies, because they helped me know that I did not need to buy wholesale into what the post-colonial trinity of Edward Said, Giyatri Spivak and Homi Bhabha were saying. I could imagine my friend Pius Adesanmi telling me that he'd trained me well enough to respond to such a conversation happening on home turf.
So I knew that I just had to speak. Like Prof Mugo said in that ASA panel in 1995, “there is also a costly historical debt hanging around our necks if we refuse to intervene in critical moments to interrogate [such claims]. Such refusal is not just a mark of cowardice but a surrendering of our human dignity. If we choose to forget this, history will remind us."
And so I responded. Forcefully. I told the students not to ignore the intellectual conversations intertwined with the history of struggle. I told them to remember their intellectual ancestors.
After the discussion, people came to congratulate me. But I was not proud; I was tired. I felt battered, like a boxer who may have won but has a broken lip or a broken eyebrow. I was not sure I had really “won,” anyway, since the way I spoke may impact my career prospects, something which even Prof. Mugo talked about. She recounted how, three years earlier, she had given her honest opinion on an African studies program, after which she was warned that she could not “criticize leading U.S. Africanists like that and hope to survive academically or professionally." Prof Mugo brushed those concerns aside, but sure enough, her intervention was not published, and later on, she received employment rejections that could be traced back to her talk in 1992. But in 1995, even though she acknowledged the risk to which she was exposing her career, she said, “And now, in the face of all this, here I go again!”
The chaining of our imagination
Even though I was sitting in the secluded room of a university, on my mind were the struggles in cultural spaces, in which Kenyans have been engaged. The bill for censorship which Magunga protests, or the draft, as Ezekiel Mutua insists, is brazenly colonial. It is colonial, not just because its parent bill is a 1963 law, but because it is against the Kenyan people and Kenyan creativity. Magunga captures the problem in his blog essay as follows: “this government looked at the arts industry in Kenya and the first thing that came into their minds was the need to take something away.”
And though the artists seemed to gain a victory when Mutua took the bill off the table, we are still back to square one because three days later, Mutua recanted that position.
And as if that is not enough, this week, David Maraga was sworn in as Chief Justice, dressed in the colonially inherited judicial gowns, replete with a horse hair wig, a costume which previous Chief Justice Willy Mutunga ditched during his tenure. Of course, that was a signal that the new Chief Justice had shunned Justice Mutunga’s reforms, and some lawyers gloated that the authority of the judiciary has now been restored. Those of us who were horrified by this unapologetic affirmation of the pre-2010 constitutional dispensation sought solace on social media, only to be unpleasantly surprised.
Our Facebook conversations – in which Mshai has been passionately engaged – reveal that some Kenyans think that equating a colonial symbol to authority in Kenya is not that big of a deal. The irony though, is that they argue that the clothes do not matter, as long as the Chief Justice efficiently “performs” his duties, which begs the question as to why colonialism worked so hard to change what Africans wore if, by the same logic, the colonial government would have been efficiently run with people wearing African clothes.
And as if to rub salt in an open wound, our increasingly verbose president said that Mutunga’s tenure as Chief Justice was a mistake, because Mutunga is an “activist.” What was more revealing was that he should say this the day before Mashujaa day when the country celebrates people who also refused the status quo, and were not called activists but were called terrorists. Yet were it not for those people who refused to adjust to oppression, there would have been no nation for Uhuru to be president of today.
So, my experience in the academic boxing ring is simply one instance of a larger struggle: the struggle to define our own institutions and our own ideas. The independence struggle made open praise of Western dominance impossible, but we still have to struggle for the logic of our institutions to be that of service to we, the Kenyan people. In rebuttal to this struggle, we are given words like “performance,” “policy framework,” and “regulation,” as if what matters more is the law and job contracts of officers than the people whom the law and those officers are supposed to serve.
In my blues, as I reflected on these absurdities, I stumbled across these words by “Anonymous,” who commented on Patrick Gathara’s analysis of Ezekiel Mutua’s theatrics in January. Anonymous asks: “Where do we find a bigger imagination for our Kenyan existence? This is not just a clamp down on bloggers; this is a clamp down on a different imagination of and for Kenya.” To which Gathara replies:
I think the first and most important thing we can do is to resist the chaining of imagination. We have to keep the dream of a better Kenya alive by constantly articulating and sharing it and refusing to let it die. Then we must begin to organize, to bring together like-minded folks who can amplify one another's voices and make it expensive for those who wish to take away our liberties. But above all, we must abhor the silence.