The two classes were a departure from the official curriculum. However, I felt that my students would not understand Plato, Aristotle and all the dead white men in the official syllabus, before understanding that theory exists in Africa, and understanding that their job was not to be vessels in which I would dump knowledge, but to use whatever I present to create ideas and theories of their own. And I knew they would not believe that it was possible to create ideas until they saw a person of their age also doing it. That’s why they had to hear Siyanda.
My initial plan was that next week, I would immediately go back to talking about the dead white men so that I can complete the syllabus. But the chemistry last Wednesday made me wonder if I maybe we should discuss some of the African thinkers Siyanda mentioned, like Steve Biko, Frantz Fanon and Thomas Sankara, before returning to the official syllabus.
I stopped wondering this morning when I read the president’s speech at the flashy launch of the Jubilee party.
Honestly, I was going to ignore the Jubilee party launch, since I really don’t care for Kenyan political soap operas. But when I heard that the president has mentioned Lumumba in his speech, I was livid. Lumumba is an icon of Pan-African history, which has been the refuge of many of us Kenyans who find Kenyan political discussions so stifling. To the Kenyans who embrace it, pan-African history has given us the tools to unite across tribe and age.
In our forum Ajenda Afrika, which was formed by Muoki Mbunga about eight years ago, teachers were led by students. We have never, ever, disagreed on personality basis, because our consciousness is built on the heroes in our continental and diaspora history. Within the same space, we have found empowering love and marriage across age, tribal and national boundaries, including me who had long given up on getting married because I had believed that African freedom and marriage were incompatible.
At Ajenda Afrika, we have all been united in our Christian faith and our deep belief in the motherland and its history beyond the continent. Pan-Africanism and an African liberation theology were the last safe spaces left for us to discuss our continent without degenerating into personality attacks, tribal animosity or Afro-pessimism. We were able to hide there because Jomo Kenyatta and subsequent presidents avoided pan-Africanism like the plague, and came down like a ton of bricks on intellectuals who mentioned it. Until now. That is why when the president appropriates pan-African history and Christian faith, I have to write back. And I have decided that my class will discuss Steve Biko, Frantz Fanon, Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba and Julius Nyerere before we return to the official syllabus.
On the suave and flamboyance, the president has definitely not disappointed. Kenyans have been treated to pomp and glamor, and the opportunity to ooh and aah at a president who is down to earth enough to hug a child and to call his deputy William, although Ruto is the name more familiar to us Kenyans. I accept that the media and many Kenyans need pomp and sound bites to consider a politician worth reporting and worth their vote, so I won’t go into the ironies of the spending on the campaign. I talked about that irony in 2012 anyway.
I could dispute some of the developments cited in the speech, especially the record on education and medical care. The president talks of hiring more teachers and medics, yet his government refused to raise teachers’ salaries, the county governments refuse to hire and to pay medics whose services are so badly needed, and the political class relies on philanthropy to bandage public hospitals while politicians seek treatment abroad.
However, these discrepancies are just technical. My main concern is the ideology and justification of the Jubilee Party based on misquoting the Bible and misrepresenting pan-African heroes.
On the Bible, for instance, the Jubilee party borrows its name from the Year of Jubilee, which is expounded in Leviticus 25. To this day, I marvel that few Kenyans have picked the contradiction between the wealthy, flamboyant Jubilee coalition on one hand, and the celebration in the Bible in the other. In the Bible, the year of Jubilee was a time to reset economic disparities (and to oppress foreigners). Debts were written off, and Israelites who sold off their labor and their land to pay off their debts received their property back, no questions asked.
In fact, in verse 24, God is explicit about why land should not be permanently owned by anyone: land was created by God, and we human beings are just stewards of it. That was, in fact, the same philosophy of land use in African traditional societies. In Kenya, though, colonialism distorted these land values with title deeds, and the political class has used title deeds ever since to amass wealth and power. The president should probably have been the last person to quote that passage. Someone’s job should be on the chopping block for that miscalculation.
But the point for me is not so much the contradiction between Leviticus and the president’s heritage and power; it’s that the president used the Bible in the first place. With a neurotically Christian community like Kenya’s, where Christians have been unable to prophetically speak about the destruction of the environment and of our social fabric through vices like gambling and destruction of public spaces, but go hysterical about atheists, citizens are probably going to swallow the use of the Bible as a divine confirmation of Uhuru as the son in whom God is well pleased.
Christians – if are any are left in Kenya – should not let the Bible be misused in this way. But funny thing is, within the next year, I will not be surprised to hear a preacher talk about those poor Christians in the communist Russia or China being persecuted for speaking publicly about their faith, and asking us if we will die for ours. Our churches apparently think that it’s only Chairman Mao who persecutes Christians. Never mind that he’s been long dead, and the country built on the revolution he led is now building our infrastructure.
The president’s use of pan-African history is more agonizing to read. I have to quote the section that pains me the most:
Jubilee is the party of African unity. We embrace our rich pan-African heritage, our glorious and painful history as Africans. We remember the days when the Voice of Kenya was transmitted from Cairo, supporting our freedom fighters in their struggle. We are uplifted by the memory of Mwalimu Nyerere who was reluctant for Tanzania’s independence to come before Kenya won freedom. We look up to the giants such as Kwame Nkrumah and Patrice Lumumba, who stood tall and for a time carried a continent’s hopes on their broad shoulders … We follow in their footsteps. We believe the African can achieve anything to which he sets his mind. We pursue our vision for Africa with deeds: by driving the integration of our region and the entire continent.
To then say that we want borders removed so that Africans can work anywhere means, in reality, that we want Kenyans to work anywhere in Africa but not Africans to work in Kenya. The Tanzanians are more aware of it than we are.
Seeing Lumumba cited here brings me deep pain, especially when one knows why and how Patrice Lumumba struggled and died. Lumumba left the colonial prisons of Congo arrived at the independence “celebration” in Belgium with bandaged hands. He then suffered a brutal death at the hands of Mobutu, the Belgians and the CIA. Lumumba was arrested, tortured, shot dead and his body was quartered and immersed in acid to prevent Africans from remembering him. His mortal sin was to imagine that the wealth of the Congo mines, which continues to claim the lives of many Congolese and strip Congolese women of their dignity in the most brutal of ways, could be used for the benefit of the Congolese. By contrast, in Kenya, the land for which people died was not given back to the people. Kenya instead adopted the “willing buyer, willing seller” arrangement, which essentially left the land in private hands. Kenya is definitely not following Lumumba’s footsteps.
I almost got angry to see our history being distorted in the Kenyan public sphere, until I remembered that the president basically has a clean slate on which to retell the history of Africa. And why? Because Kenyans never get to hear these names in the public sphere. In our Theory class, my students had never heard of the names cited by Siyanda Mohutsiwa.
But this lack of knowledge of African history should come as no surprise. The voice of pan-Africanism was silenced in Kenya in the 70s and 80s, and intellectuals who defied that silence, like Micere Mugo, found themselves in the dungeons of Nyayo House or in the loneliness of exile. The remainder of us have had to struggle to even teach or mention any African thinker in our classes. In a few universities, some of us members of Ajenda Afrika have suggested courses on pan-African history with no success. We’ve been told that we want to teach communism or that we want to confine Africans to a ghetto. Why teach about black people, we’re asked, when we are not black but global?
So what has happened in Kenya is a systematic silencing of pan-African consciousness over the last five decades, clearing the way for politicians like William Ruto to repeatedly say that teaching history in our country is a waste of resources. And that is the legacy that Uhuru Kenyatta has inherited: our silence. Our silence built through decades of detention, police brutality and mis-education has enabled him to openly speak in the name of pan African history and the Bible when in reality, Kenya’s socioeconomic history contradicts them.
But like I said, it is not that contradiction that spurs me to write today. The thing that pains me the most is that Uhuru has grabbed and distorted the last intellectual and religious space for Kenyans to think globally and in unity. We must not allow that to happen. We must speak truth to power.
And so, I have decided that for the next few weeks, my Theory of Literature class will discuss African thinkers. I will be inspired by Siyanda Mohutsiwa’s social pan-Africanism, and these are the words that will be ringing in my teaching ears:
Now, political Pan-Africanism already exists, so I'm not inventing anything totally new here. But political Pan-Africanism is usually the African unity of the political elite. And who does that benefit? Well, African leaders, almost exclusively. No, what I'm talking about is the Pan-Africanism of the ordinary African. Young Africans like me, we are bursting with creative energy, with innovative ideas.
Using the Internet, we can begin to think collaboratively, we can begin to innovate together. In Africa, we say, "If you want to go fast, you go alone, but if you want to go far, you go together." And I believe that social Pan-Africanism is how we can go far together.
And this is already happening. Access to these online networks has given young Africans something we've always had to violently take: a voice. We now have a platform. Before now, if you wanted to be heard by your possibly tyrannical government, you were pushed to protest, suffer the consequences and have your fingers crossed that some Western paper somewhere might make someone care. But now we have opportunities to back each other up in ways we never could before.
We support South African students who are marching against ridiculously high tertiary fees. We support Zimbabwean women who are marching to parliament. We support Angolan journalists who are being illegally detained. For the first time ever, African pain and African aspiration has the ability to be witnessed by those who can empathize with it the most: other Africans.
READING LIST: Resources on pan-African thought
- African political thought: This was a syllabus I developed in 2012 to help participants analyze pan-African thought. It includes many classics, like those by Fanon, Cheikh Anta Diop, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Thomas Sankara and Micere Mugo.
- Ajenda Afrika blog: The blog captures some of our conversations and sermons on art, culture, sex, faith and politics from a pan-African perspective
- Pambazuka News: Voice for Freedom and Justice
- Lewis R. Gordon: As I explain on my About page, Prof Gordon is the single greatest influence on my thought.