Africans all over the world celebrated Africa Day. The Day was first observed in 1963 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa when 32 African countries formed the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU). Since then, 21 more countries have joined the OAU. South Africa was the last to join in 1994 after the end of Apartheid.
The original mission of the OAU was to help ensure freedom in African countries that were still under colonial rule in the 1960s, uphold their human rights and defend their sovereignty. The OAU would in 2002 become the African Union (AU), which to date supports political and economic integration among its 54 member nations.
Africa Day, which is widely commemorated on May 25, is a national holiday in some countries. This year’s celebration comes amid new challenges including the Covid-19 pandemic. The Day is on the theme: Arts, Culture And Heritage: Levers for Building the Africa We Want.
Africa Day, which is widely commemorated on May 25, is a national holiday in some countries. This year’s celebration comes amid new challenges including the Covid-19 pandemic. The Day is on the theme: Arts, Culture And Heritage: Levers for Building the Africa We Want.
To celebrate Africa Day, here are seven interesting facts about Africa you should know.
Africa is not a country
You probably know this, but it must be repeated — Africa is not a country. To those who think Africa has similar histories, cultures and challenges, kindly note that the continent is made up of 54 sovereign states (plus the disputed territory of Western Sahara) that are diverse culturally and geographically.
Africa is not all about famine and poverty
It is documented that about 40% of the continent’s people live on less than $1.90 a day, but things have been improving. In 2011, it was found that one in three Africans is now middle class. Researchers discovered that record numbers of people in Africa own cars, houses, send their kids to private schools and foreign universities while using mobile phones and the internet. “There is a middle class that is driven by specific factors such as education and we should change our view and work with this group to create a new Africa and make sure Africa realises its full potential,” Mthuli Ncube of the African Development Bank said at the time.
In fact, six of the 10 fastest growing economies in the world are African — Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Benin. In 2015, Ethiopia was the world’s fastest-growing economy. The country’s real GDP grew by 10.2%, IMF said.
And if you thought the region was all savannah and wild animals, please take note that Africa has gorgeous cities, historic ancient sites, and beautiful beaches as well.
Every African country has English, Portuguese, French or Arabic as one of their official languages, except Ethiopia
Over 25% of the world’s languages are spoken only in Africa. Around 2,000 languages are in use in the continent. Europe colonized all of Africa except Ethiopia and Liberia. After those colonized gained their independence, they still kept the language of their colonizer as one of their official languages. At the time, Liberia, having been founded by African-American settlers in 1847, already had English as its official language. Ethiopia was not colonized, though it was briefly conquered by Italy ahead of World War II. Thus, to date, its official language is Amharic. Many students however study English as a foreign language in school. Curiously, more people speak French in Africa than those in France do.
The earliest stages of human evolution are believed to have begun in Africa
This was about seven million years ago as a population of African apes evolved into three different species: gorillas, chimpanzees, and humans. From prehistoric Africa, humans would spread to populate much of the world by 10,000 B.C.E. Then came some of the world’s first great kingdoms, with the most famous being Egypt, which existed from roughly 3,150 to 332 B.C.E. Other ancient kingdoms were Carthage in Tunisia, Axum in Ethiopia, and Kush-Meroe in present-day Sudan, all of which lasted for many years. Kingdoms of Mali (c.1230-1600) and Great Zimbabwe (c. 1200-1450), which were involved in intercontinental trade, became famous for being wealthy states. Before European colonization, all of the above states, apart from being powerful, prospered in Africa.
Africa’s population will triple by the end of the century
Even as the world shrinks by the end of the century, Africa’s population will triple in the same period. A Lancet report says that Nigeria, already Africa’s most populous country, will see an expected population of 790.7 million by 2100. Nigeria will become the second biggest country globally by 2100, behind only India. Other countries in Africa are expected to have populations higher than 100 million by 2100, including Niger and Chad. The expected population growth will be due to Africa’s young population and the current high fertility rates across the region, the report says. It has already been reported that over 50% of Africans are under the age of 20, compared to a global median age of 30. By the year 2100, 40% of the global population will be African.
South Africa produces almost half of all the gold mined in Africa
South Africa is well known for its rich deposits of gold, a majority of which comes from the Witwatersrand Basin, which hosts the largest known gold repository on Earth. It is estimated that 40 to 50 percent of all the world’s gold ever mined has come from Witwatersrand. The Witwatersrand Basin is an underground geological formation that was then “the floor of a prehistoric sea where rivers deposited their sediments, forming gold and other minerals.”
A small town in Kenya is where the best distance runners in the world are trained
In Western Kenya near the Rift Valley is Iten, a small Kenyan town which is now a mecca for runners from around the world. Thousands come from around the world to train and be discovered in the town that it’s known as “the city of champions.” Some of the world champions from the community include Eliud Kipchoge, who is referred to as “the greatest marathoner of the modern era”; Wilson Kipsang, who has run under 2 hours 4 minutes for the marathon on four separate occasions; and Vivian Cheruiyot, who won the 2018 London Marathon. An increasing number of international top athletes like British Olympic champion Mo Farah have traveled to train in the Rift Valley.
NEW YORK, May 26 2021 (IPS) – It has been one year since the police murder of George Floyd, an outrage that resonated around the world. The killing forced people to the streets, in the USA and on every inhabited continent, to demand respect for Black lives and Black rights, proving that protest was essential even during the pandemic.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) demonstrations are the latest in a great global wave of protests that started with the Arab Spring 10 years ago and continue today, seen in the brave civil disobedience people are mounting against Myanmar’s military coup and the protests against Israeli violence in Palestine, with people taking to the streets around the world to show solidarity and demand an end to the killing.
Millions of people are protesting because they can see that protests lead to change – the trial of the officer responsible for George Floyd’s killing was an incredibly rare event that would likely not have happened without protest pressure – and because mass mobilisations often offer the only means of resistance to repressive governments.
CIVICUS’s just-published 2021 State of Civil Society Report describes how decentralised movements for racial justice and gender equality are challenging exclusion and demanding a radical reckoning with systemic racism and patriarchy.
Threats posed by economic inequality and climate change are enabling people to connect across cultures, spurring mobilisations in many different countries. Today, not only in Myanmar and Palestine, but in Colombia, Lebanon and Thailand among many others, people are demanding economic opportunity, a real say in how they are governed, and an end to discrimination.
Much blood is being spilt in unwarranted violence against protesters by repressive security apparatuses acting on the behest of vested interests. Inarguably, the right to mobilise is being sharply contested because of its potential to redistribute power to the excluded.
Major political transformations in modern history have been catalysed through largely peaceful protests. Sustained mass mobilisations have resulted in significant rights victories including expansion of women’s right to vote, passing of essential civil rights laws, dismantling of military dictatorships, ending apartheid, and legalisation of same-sex marriage.
In the past year, despite the disruptions of COVID-19, populist demagogues have faced stiff resistance from people driven by a hunger for justice and democracy. In Brazil, thousands came out to the streets to protest against horrendous bungling by the Bolsonaro administration in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic which has resulted in a monumental loss of lives.
In India, thousands of farmers remain steadfastly defiant in camps outside Delhi to protest against hurriedly drawn-up laws designed to undermine their livelihoods and benefit big business supporters of Prime Minister Modi’s autocratic government.
In Russia, pro-democracy protests in several cities against the grand corruption of strongman President Putin have so alarmed him that he engineered the imprisonment of his most prominent political opponent. In Uganda, political opposition led protests have inspired people from all walks of life to stand up against President Museveni who’s been in power for 35 years.
In Belarus, protests by ordinary people displaying extraordinary courage helped bring international attention to an election stolen by Alexander Lukashenko, the first and only president the country has known since the present constitution was established in 1994.
In the United States, the decentralised Black Lives Matter movement is spurring action on racial justice and the unprecedented prosecution of police officers engaged in racist acts of violence against Black people.
The movement not only helped dispatch a race-baiting disruptive president at the polls, it also had a deep impact beyond the United States by spotlighting racism in places as diverse as Colombia, the Netherlands, South Africa and the United Kingdom.
Notably, women-led movements are challenging gender stereotypes, exposing patterns of exclusion, and forging breakthroughs to lay the groundwork for fairer societies. Concerted street protests by women in Chile helped win a historic commitment to develop a new justice-oriented constitution by a gender-balanced constitutional assembly that will also include Indigenous people’s representation.
In Argentina, legislation to legalise abortion and protect women’s sexual and reproductive rights followed years of public mobilisations by the feminist movement.
Our research finds that, in country after country, young people are at the forefront of protest. Young people have taken ownership of climate change to make it a decisive issue of our time. The Fridays for Future movement which began with a picket in front of the Swedish parliament on school days now has supporters organising regular events to demand urgent political action on the climate crisis on all continents.
Present day movements are deriving strength by taking the shape of networks rather than pyramids, with multiple locally active leaders. Hong Kong’s ‘Water Revolution’ may have been repressed by China’s authoritarian might, but the metaphor of behaving like water – shapeless, mobile, adaptable – holds true for many contemporary movements.
Unsurprisingly, powerful people’s mobilisations are inviting sharp backlash. Protest leaders and organisers are often the first to be vilified through official propaganda and subjected to politically motivated prosecutions.
Many of the rights violations that CIVICUS has documented in recent years are in relation to suppression of protests. Persecution of dissenters, censorship and surveillance to stymie public mobilisations remains rife.
They are all part of a tussle between people joining together in numbers to demand transformative change, and forces determined to stop them. Yet, the principled courage of protesters who mobilise undeterred by repression continues to inspire.
Protests are about challenging and renegotiating power. To succeed they need solidarity and allies across the board. The responsibility to safeguard the right to peaceful assembly enshrined in the constitutions of most countries and in the international human rights framework rests with all of us. History shows us that when people come together as civil society great things are possible.
Mandeep Tiwana is Chief Programmes Officer at global civil society alliance CIVICUS. The State of Civil Society Report 2021 can be found online here.
My path to the West was long and circuitous. Like many among the new diaspora, it started in pursuit of graduate education, which was underdeveloped at the University of Malawi when I finished my bachelor’s degree in 1976. I belong to what the late Thandika Mkandawire called the second generation of Africa’s postcolonial intellectuals. The first generation, his own, received their undergraduate and graduate degrees abroad because there were so few universities on the continent; many countries didn’t even have a university, or shared a single regional university as in East Africa or for Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe with the University of Rhodesia and Nyasaland.
In those days, it was a common expectation that those of us who sought to pursue an academic career would go abroad. Our lectures often recommended the universities where they themselves had studied. Moreover, scholarships were mainly provided by institutions or agencies from the global North that demanded study in their countries.
The arrangement at the University of Malawi was for those of us selected to pursue graduate studies to be employed for one year as teaching assistants, or what was called staff associates. I was offered staff associate positions in the departments of history and English. I chose history because while my real passion was English as a writer and someone fascinated by literary criticism, I thought history would stretch me further intellectually. So for one year, in 1976-1977, I served as a staff associate during which I applied for graduate studies at the University of London. In the course of the year, I got a scholarship from the European Development Fund through the University of Malawi.
I chose the University of London because of the reputation and record of the two schools I sought to enroll in that had trained the previous generation of African historians and radical political economists. One was the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and the other was the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
I arrived in London, my first trip outside Africa, in September 1977. The city was eerily familiar because as a postcolonial subject I knew a lot about it already. As the children of empire, we had been fed and brought up on a steady and suffocating British cultural diet. But it was also disconcerting to witness and experience daily racist denigration and the polite contempt reserved for migrants from the ex-colonies. In the one year I worked on my master’s degree, I lived in different parts of the city in a continuous search for the comforts of belonging—at an international students house in Regents Park, a house owned by a Nigerian in Haringey, and a shared student house in Hackney.
In the course of that year, I cherished making friends from all over Africa, and other parts of the world including those from the African diaspora in the Caribbean, the United States, and Canada, and from the post-colonies of Asia, especially India. This enriched my commitments to Pan-Africanism and internationalism. In Britain, I became both African and Black. This was the time of intensifying liberation struggles in the settler laagers of Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa, and fierce civil wars between retrograde and progressive liberation movements in Mozambique and Angola. London was a major center in the international solidarity movement over Southern Africa. I participated in political rallies and intense debates on and off campus, which I found energizing and intoxicating.
As graduate students we also bonded over regular parties in our respective abodes all over London. In this mega multicultural city, one could find any community one was looking for from home and elsewhere. At the time there were not many African restaurants in the city, so we often went to the Africa Center, a magnetic cultural hub for the African diaspora where we went to sample mouth-watering African dishes, watch performances and exhibitions, engage visiting writers and artists, and listen to liberation fighters and politicians.
My actual academic studies developed their own interesting import and rhythm, although I never found them taxing. The seminars were intellectually invigorating as we, students, vigorously debated and engaged each other and our lecturers on the dominant theoretical paradigms, ideological discourses, and pressing geopolitical developments of the time. British politics was caught in the paralysis of post-imperial reckoning and the unraveling of the welfare state that culminated in the rise of Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and the muscular neo-liberal restructuring of Thatcherism.
I had a terrible experience towards the end of my studies. Driving home one night from one of our legendary graduate student parties I forgot my briefcase in the taxi. I woke up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. Of course, I couldn’t track the taxi. In the briefcase was my MA thesis, files of archival notes from the Public Record Office (PRO), and several books I had bought that afternoon including Alex Haley’s magna opus, Roots.
When I’m faced with a sudden crisis or tragedy, I had long trained myself not to panic. Panicking clouds one’s judgement and doesn’t solve anything. I had two weeks to go before leaving for Canada to start my doctoral studies. So that weekend I began reconstructing the thesis and over the following fortnight I went back to the PRO and retrieved as much as possible of the archival records I had read. I submitted the dissertation to my supervisor the day before I left for Canada. A couple of months later, I received my master’s degree.
Canada offered a relief from the racial aggressions always evident in Britain, the belly of empire. It was also materially a richer and more comfortable country to live in certainly for a graduate student on a meager scholarship. The University of Malawi had refused to support me for a Commonwealth Scholarship because I had not returned home after my master’s degree. The real reason, I suspect, is that they knew I was involved in anti-Rhodesian and anti-apartheid struggles and that I fraternized with opponents of the Banda dictatorship. All the university had to do was endorse me; it was a Canadian scholarship.
As fate would have it, before the end of my first year as a doctoral student the History Department at Dalhousie University nominated me for the university’s most prestigious scholarship, the Killam Award, derived from an endowment established in memory of Izaak Walton Killam, one of Canada’s most eminent financiers from Nova Scotia who died in 1955 at the age of 70. It was given to students and scholars of exceptional accomplishment and character. I was the first African and Black person to receive it at Dalhousie University, one of the leading universities that disbursed the Killam fellowships.
The days of my doctoral studies were exceptionally rich. Not only did the History Department have some of the country’s leading historians, the university boasted renowned faculty in other departments and schools that constituted one of the country’s oldest Centers for African Studies. I worked under a fine supervisor, John Flint, a liberal scholar and Africanist, who reinforced my own values of extensive research, rigorous theoretical understanding and argumentation, and clarity of writing. He didn’t agree with my Marxist informed analysis, but in the comprehensive examinations he and his fellow examiners gave me an A. As a supervisor I adopted his style. I tell my students that I don’t have to agree with their theoretical premise or ideological perspective as long as they thoroughly understand it and can back up their arguments with impeccable logic and copious evidence.
I decided to do my doctoral dissertation on Kenya after doing my master’s thesis on Tanzania for several reasons. First, when I left Malawi, I wanted to return and teach a region other than Southern Africa. East africa was both close and far enough to expand my intellectual horizons. Second, when I got to SOAS the doyen of African history, Roland Oliver, the first lecturer appointed to teach the field in Britain in 1948, who invited each new graduate to prostrate themselves before him, asked me what my ethnic group was and how important it would be for me to write its history. I was deeply offended. Any lingering inclination to study Malawi evaporated in that encounter. Why was it okay for Europeans and Americans to study any African country or community they chose, but for Africans to study only their ethnic group?
Third, having written on Tanzania’s colonial economic history, I was intrigued to do a comparative examination of the economic history of its northern neighbor. Kenya was a settler colony and its economic history replicated features of settler colonial capitalism evident in Southern Africa and the European outposts of the Americas and Australasia. I thought it would provide a good testing ground of the prevailing Marxist, dependency and neo-classical paradigms that were then all the rage.
The icing on the cake was, fourth, the fact that Kenya was the home of the great writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o whose novels I admired for their trenchant critiques of the pathologies of the postcolonial order. Additionally, Malawi’s own renowned poet, David Rubadiri, taught at the University of Nairobi. President Banda used to denounce him as a “rebel” for siding, while serving as Malawi’s first ambassador to the US, with the young ministers who rebelled within weeks of independence against Banda’s creeping tyranny and conservative policies. Above all, Kenya was home to the illustrious historian, Bethwell Alan Ogot, who had been an external examiner at the University of Malawi in 1976 who sought me out and endorsed my passing the bachelor’s degree with distinction.
I came to Nairobi in September 1979, a year after the death of the founding President Jomo Kenyatta and accession to power of President Daniel arap Moi. The country was clearly in political transition. Nairobi was then truly a city in the sun, orderly and clean. The country’s middle class was growing steadily, so was the working class. However, the stubborn legacies of colonial uneven regional development remained stark, and ethnic antagonisms appeared more pronounced than I had seen in Malawi and Zimbabwe. Corruption was also clearly on the rise.
I rented a bungalow in one of newly established lower middle-class neighborhoods called Umoja. My work at the Kenyan National Archives and interviews with various people and readings at the University of Nairobi library and other libraries was accompanied on weekends by the revelry of a young man in his early twenties. I sampled the delights of nightlife in the numerous clubs within the city and its outskirts. And I made new friendships. The University of Nairobi and the History Department boasted some remarkable radical scholars that I gravitated to. I recall the powerful academic vigil held in honor of the incomparable public intellectual, Walter Rodney, following his brutal assassination in Guyana in June 1980.
I almost didn’t return to Canada. I became increasingly perturbed by the idea of getting my PhD in African history at a Canadian university. While I hardly had any qualms with my supervisor and the History Department that had treated me quite well, I was increasingly becoming troubled by the unequal intellectual relations in African Studies between universities on the continent and those in the global North. Ever since my encounter with Roland Oliver I had become acutely aware of the asymmetrical relations in the production of knowledges on and about Africa and the unsavory gatekeeping functions of white Africanists.
In the end, I did return fifteen months after coming for my field research which was supposed to have lasted a year. I was able to finish my PhD dissertation in good time, at the age of 26. Writing the dissertation was exciting but also exhausting. For diversion, I would switch to writing my novel, which was on a broadly similar subject as my dissertation, about the economy and the lives and struggles of working-class people. History and fiction are both narrative arts, but they follow different discursive protocols of truth-telling. In the novel I could imaginatively recreate the lives of my characters without the encumbrances of the verifiable evidence of the historical text. Working on my dissertation and novel simultaneously was quite stimulating and saved me from the tedium of dissertation writing.
The life of graduate students in the humanities and social sciences can be lonely as it mostly involves writing by oneself. As graduate students we found considerable relief at the Grad House where we often gathered towards the end of the week for long nights of camaraderie and fun, sober conversations over what we were working on, and heated debates on contemporary events.
Some of my friends and I also made efforts to get to know the Black Nova Scotian community. That’s how I met my first wife who was a student at a women’s college nearby. Through these encounters I began to appreciate that systemic racism was as entrenched in Canada as in Europe and other settler colonies. The Black community in Nova Scotia and the other Atlantic provinces in Canada was founded by loyalists from the American war of independence. Despite their contributions to the province, they remained marginalized. There were hardly any domestic Black graduate students at the university. Also missing were students from Canada’s indigenous peoples.
As African students in Canada we faced overt racism and micro-aggressions on and off campus. We were called a “Visible Minority”, but our people remained largely invisible in professional and political life. The university’s professoriate and staff, leaders in business, state government, and the media were almost invariably white. The stereotypes of Black Nova Scotians were often as vile as those in the southern United States. Given their relatively small numbers, and notwithstanding generations of civil rights struggles, Black Nova Scotians suffered from forms of marginalization that were assuaged in the United States by the sheer demographic weight of African Americans. Also, Canada’s two solitudes between the French and English, only allowed indigenous people, not other racial minorities, in the national discourse. In contrast, in the US the national discourse centers on the two solitudes of Black and White, often to the chagrin of other minorities.
So when I finished my doctoral studies, I was determined to work in an African country or a country that was predominantly populated by the African diaspora. I applied for jobs on the continent and got offers at a university in Nigeria and another one in Zambia, but my colleagues at Dalhousie and elsewhere from the two countries strongly discouraged me from taking either. In the end, I accepted a position at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.
In Jamaica I was viewed and accepted as an African brother from the motherland. I was the only African lecturer on campus. I was proudly aware that I took the position once occupied by the great Walter Rodney. I readily welcomed frequent invitations to speak to the media, community organizations, political parties, religious groups, schools, and trade unions. I arrived in September 1982. The rebel Caribbean cricket tours to South Africa in 1982-1983 put the anti-apartheid struggle on the front burner in Jamaican political and media discourse, and I found myself addressing audiences about the evils of apartheid.
I hosted on campus or at my house leaders of the South African and Namibian liberation movements, the ANC and SWAPO, respectively, on their solidarity visits to Jamaica. In addition, I often hosted African delegations to international conferences in Jamaica, such as the then prime minister of Tanzania, Joseph Warioba, while attending a conference on the Law of the Sea. It was all heady stuff for a young lecturer in his twenties. Thus, it was in Jamaica that I learned public speaking, turning complex histories and ideas into public speeches. It was also in Jamaica that I became a scholar of Africa, for people expected me to know and talk about the whole continent from ancient Egypt to contemporary Zimbabwe.
I recall one day, I was invited to speak to secondary school students in Kingston. A female student asked me how African economies looked like and functioned before the European slave trade and colonization. I was stumped for I had studied colonial capitalism, not precolonial economies. I was of course able to mumble some answer. But that question troubled me, so I decided to study precolonial African economic history. Ten years later I had a belated answer to that student with the publication of my book, A Modern Economic History of Africa. Volume 1: The Nineteenth Century. Some consider this my most important book, which won the Noma Award in 1994, then Africa’s most prestigious book award. This only shows that the inspiration for one’s scholarship can come from serendipitous encounters and innocuous questions by students.
The Kingston of the early 1980s was a vibrant city in terms of popular culture from reggae music to theater and dance. Almost every weekend I was invited to some party by colleagues at the university or their friends. The hunger for an African identity and connection was particularly palpable among the poorer segments of society and members of the Rastafarian community, who often invited me to talk about African history. I was always careful not to offend their sensitivities on Haile Selassie who I regarded as a tyrant. I particularly enjoyed meeting the reggae stars in person whose music I had ravished as a graduate student in Britain and Canada, such as Jimmy Cliff, Rita Marley, and the Third World band.
One of the pernicious legacies of slavery in Jamaica and other parts of the diaspora in the Americas is colorism and the denigration of things African among some of the elites who often tend to be lighter in complexion than the vast majority of the diaspora population. I could see this on the campus where the proportion of brown and light-skinned students and staff was higher than in the general population.
The campus was an extraordinary center of robust intellectual activity. The Senior Common Room served as an endless seminar room. Intellectual and ideological debates in the wider society were articulated with the sharpness only academics are capable of. Each department held weekly seminars from which I learned that fierce disagreements didn’t entail personal disapproval, for we would often retreat to the SCR afterwards and continue the debates with humor leavened by drink.
I regard my two years at UWI as the most formative of the academic and public intellectual that I eventually became. But I missed the continent. While it was flattering being the only African at the university, and invited to address all types of audiences, I wanted the reality check of being among African scholars in an African university. So I packed my bags for Kenya, the country on which I had done my doctoral research. I wanted to be judged and accepted as a historian of Kenya among Kenyan historians and other scholars. I got a job at Kenyatta University College, then a constituent college of the University of Nairobi, which I joined in August 1984.
My wife and I and our eight-month daughter arrived at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport exhausted following two nights of travel from Kingston, Jamaica, through Toronto and London. Traveling with a baby on long flights is not fun, so I don’t complain when I sit beside or near a distraught parent trying to quieten their crying baby. Fortunately, when we landed, Ali Mazrui, the late renowned Kenyan scholar, who was on the same flight and who I had first met in my class at the London School of Economics, introduced me to the Vice Chancellor of the University of Nairobi, Prof Joseph Mungai, who kindly arranged for us to go to his house to freshen up before going to a hotel. We stayed at the hotel of Utali College, then the premier training college for the hospitality industry in the country for three weeks while our house on the campus of KUC was being prepared. It was a memorable stay because that’s where my daughter started crawling. It was a wonder to behold when I saw her crawling towards me as I came out of the bathroom!
I spent the next five and half years at KUC, which became independent as Kenyatta University (KU) in 1985. When I started teaching there it was a relatively small university of a few thousand students. The classes were manageable. This changed following what was called the double intake of 1986, when the numbers exploded beyond the available infrastructure. Introductory classes that would have two or three dozen students suddenly had hundreds. There were no classrooms to accommodate such large numbers of students, so some hang on windows outside. It was like trying to teach at a noisy political rally. One could see teaching and learning standards slipping before one’s eyes.
Salaries were low. Fortunately, my wife got a job with an NGO that paid her a higher salary than mine. I also supplemented my income teaching as an adjunct at the Catholic University of East Africa on the other side of Nairobi. And I learned to hustle with consultancies. It became financially unsustainable so my wife and daughter returned to Canada. She would occasionally send me money as my salary was not enough even for me to live on, especially after my sister joined me from Botswana to go to college in Nairobi. Academic careers were being ravaged by structural adjustment programs that were imposed with religious zeal by the international financial institutions. At a conference of Vice Chancellors in Harare in 1986, the World Bank brazenly declared that Africa did not need universities.
The devaluation of academic labour was part of the dismantling of the post-independence social contract, of the developmental state in the global South and the welfare state in the global North following the triumph of neo-liberalism and the demise of the postwar Keynesian consensus and the increasingly evident failures of the socialist alternative. As difficult as these years were, intellectual life, certainly in the History Department at KU remained robust. We maintained our weekly seminars, and the senior professors were exemplary scholars.
Professor Ogot became my most invaluable mentor. He would often take me to a nearby hotel for lunch during which we would discuss my research, and he would organize invitations for me to attend conferences of eminent historians locally and abroad. In 1985, I co-wrote a paper with him on Kenya’s decolonization for a conference in Harare that came out in a volume of prominent global scholars. In 1986, he arranged for me to be a rapporteur at a conference attended by the editors of the eight-volume UNESCO General History of Africa. To be in the presence of some of Africa’s most distinguished historians who commended my work was electrifying and empowering for a young scholar.
In 1989, a festschrift was published to mark Prof Ogot’s sixtieth birthday, A Modern History of Kenya 1895–1980: In Honor of Professor B. A. Ogot. I was the only author with two chapters in the book which received considerable national media attention. My active research and publication record did not sit well with some of my colleagues, who didn’t seem to like the fact that a person from another African country was becoming a recognized authority on the history of their country. They never seemed to mind the white scholars who wrote extensively on Kenya. Life in the department became increasingly intolerable for me so I began contemplating leaving.
I used to visit my family in Botswana and during one such visit I began exploring with colleagues at the University of Botswana (UB) for a position. The university hosted many scholars from Malawi and other African countries. The Chair of the History Department asked me to draft a syllabus for an economic history course that I already taught at Kenyatta. I did, but when the job was advertised, I wasn’t even informed. They gave the position to a white historian who had spent years hopping from one African country to another including Kenya and Nigeria. But I had the last laugh as years later when I visited the campus after I had relocated to Canada, I was told they used my book on African economic history. I joked that the students would have received the knowledge directly from the author without paying a fortune for the book!
I had no luck in the country of my birth either. After I interviewed at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) in 1989 I was offered a job in the Department of Economic History in which a couple of my friends who had been students with me at SOAS were teaching. I found the prospect of joining them and living closer to my family in Botswana and my relatives in Zimbabwe quite exciting. But the offer was for a lecturer position; I had been a senior lecturer at KU for several years already. I was told UZ was a superior university with much higher standards than Kenyan universities. I turned down the offer.
I reluctantly decided to go back to Canada. Fortunately, towards the end of 1989, I got a “Reflections on Development Fellowship” from the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA) sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. I was one of a dozen scholars who received the fellowship which allowed the recipients to undertake a research project anywhere they wished. In January 1990, at the age of 34, I left Kenya for Ethiopia to do research for a few weeks at the Economic Commission for Africa, enroute to Halifax and my alma mater, Dalhousie University to continue working on the research project, which resulted in A Modern Economic History of Africa.
As it happened two months after I arrived, Trent University advertised for the only job that year in Canada in African history. Actually, the job was for African or Latin American history with an ability to teach European history. I applied, was short-listed, and got the job. At the end of June 1990, my family and I moved to Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario to assume my new position as an Assistant Professor. Thus, began my 25 year sojourn in Canada and the United States. A year later I received early promotion to Associate Professor and three years later I became a Full Professor. I was 39 years old.
You lived in the diaspora for a long time, what prompted you to return to the continent?
In a sense, over the past forty years I have circulated between the diaspora and the continent in between my studies and jobs. As I noted earlier, after studying in Britain and Canada and working in the Caribbean I went back to the continent to teach at Kenyatta University where I stayed for five and half years. As it happens, I left Kenya in early January 1990 and after spending more than twenty-five years in Canada and the United States I found myself returning to Kenya. In the interregnum I had to reckon with my diaspora location and identity and the issue of return to the continent.
The issue came to a head in 1994. As a political exile, which is how I saw myself as I had stayed away from Malawi largely because I couldn’t go back unless I wanted to end up in political detention or worse, the end of the Banda dictatorship posed an existential quandary. All along, I had expected, indeed, convinced myself that I would return home once the Banda regime was gone. My life hang in permanent suspension of the anticipation of return. I lived under the proverbial packed suitcase of the exile who longs to return at a moment’s notice. When the opportunity suddenly presented itself, I realized that I had actually been living and building a whole new life in exile, in the diaspora. I had a good family; I had a comfortable job; I had developed new affiliations of belonging. I had even taken up Canadian citizenship. Home was no longer confined to Malawi.
I welcomed the political transition in Malawi from dictatorship to democracy with elation. In the early 1990s as the winds of change for the “second independence” began blowing, I became involved in Malawian exile politics. Several of us based in Canada and the United States formed the Malawi Action Committee (MAC) to lobby the Canadian and American governments against supporting the Banda dictatorship and channel support to opposition forces organizing on the ground and in the neighboring countries. I was on the executive committee of MAC. I believe that it was partly because of my diaspora political activism that I was contacted by the leading opposition party, the United Democratic Front (UDF).
One day in the middle of the night, I got a call from Malawi. I thought it was my younger brother, and I started cursing for being woken up. Didn’t he know the time difference, I asked? Was there a family emergency? The person on the other side, said he was Brown Mpinganjira, an old friend of mine, who was one of the leading figures in the UDF. He said he was calling on behalf of the president of the UDF, Mr. Bakili Muluzi, who wanted to speak to me. I got out of bed. Mr. Muluzi told me he had been following our political activities in the diaspora. He wanted me to join his Shadow Cabinet that would form the next government should his party win the election. I said I would think about it and get back to him.
Later that day, my young brother called with the surprising news that at a massive political rally, Mr. Muluzi had announced the Shadow Cabinet and my name was included as the Shadow Minister of Industry and Energy! I screamed in disbelief. I had not accepted any such appointment. In the next few days I was inundated with calls of congratulations from friends and family in Malawi. I must admit, I found it all tempting. However, I was not going to make a decision, upend my life and that of my family on a whim, however enticing and flattering. So I wrote the Secretary General of the UDF a long memo inquiring about the position of the party on a series of issues from economic to foreign policy, women’s rights to environmental management, public appointments to the powers of ministers. President Banda was notorious for humiliating his ministers in public and dissolving the Cabinet at will. Consequently, ministers became embarrassing sycophants, who would even kneel for the tinpot autocrat. I never got a response to the memo.
In May 1994, I went to Malawi after many years in exile to witness the watershed multi-party democratic elections, which the UDF proceeded to win. Many thought I had returned to take up the ministerial appointment. A rich businessman offered me his Mercedes Benz to drive around. I was also offered more substantial enticements to “settle down”. I began to see clearly the traps and trappings of power. Two hours before the inauguration I met with the incoming president at his residence and I explained that I would not be joining his government. The UDF Secretary General who had not bothered to respond to my memo looked at me aghast. Other people in the room smacking their lips with the sweet taste of impending power tried to hide their bewilderment. My relatives were shocked that I would turn down a ministerial appointment, depriving them of their chance to “eat”. Unfortunately, my misgivings turned out to be correct as the new government ushered in an era of unprecedented corruption.
I returned to Canada to my academic job, as clear as I had ever been that I was likely to remain in the diaspora for the foreseeable future. Ironically, my refusal to join the government gave me credibility that my political criticisms were not motivated by self-interest. I have continued being a principled critic of Malawian governments ever since. In the meantime, I became more immersed in diaspora activities. I was already engaged with the African Canadian arts community as a member of the executive committee of the Canadian Artists Network: Black Artists in Action which organized book launches, literary readings, exhibitions and conferences for African Canadian artists and visiting artists from various parts of the African diaspora. I was thrilled with the publication of my stories in two collections, Voices: Canadian Writers of African Descent and Eyeing the North Star: Directions in African Canadian Literature, and my own short story collection, The Joys of Exile published in Toronto in 1994.
My acceptance of a diaspora identity as a key aspect of my social biography was reinforced by my immediate family. As my Canadian born daughter, Natasha Thandile, grew up both in Canada and the United States, we had fascinating conversations about identity, hers, her mother’s and mine. When she moved to live with me in the US, as a single parent, the conversations became much richer. Her friends in middle school and later high school always seemed pleasantly surprised to discover that Natasha’s dad was an African with a “cool” accent, meaning “strange”. Natasha came to describe herself as African North American.
When I remarried in 1999 to an African American woman, Cassandra, the two would sometimes gang up against me, the African, when it came to the issue of dating for Natasha. This was often in jest, but my diaspora household inspired my reflections on the diaspora condition, the relations between the historic diaspora, my wife, the new diaspora, me, and the bridge between the two, my daughter. The late Ali Mazrui called my daughter’s generation American Africans as distinct in their trans-Atlantic identifications from both the African Americans and African immigrants. Straddling both the continent and the diaspora, they were destined to be build the affinities of meaningful dialogue and engagement. This has been borne out in the literary world. For example, Yaa Gyasi’s novel, Homegoing, is an astonishing multigenerational dialogue between Africa and the diaspora through the lives of the descendants of two sisters, one who was enslaved in America and the other who remained in West Africa. Yaa is the daughter of Kwaku Gyasi, the first faculty member I hired in the Center for African Studies at Illinois, so I remember her as a child, and I’m thrilled she has become such a fine writer.
In a significant sense, given my background, my diaspora condition and identity in North America was an extension of my southern African multinational experience and identity. It was therefore relatively easy for to embrace my new diaspora identity as one that is not fixed in one place but circulatory encompassing multiple places. This was a major motivation behind my interest in diaspora studies. Quite simply, I wanted to better understand myself and my family and our multiple affiliations and mobilities. Interestingly, the crystallization of my diaspora research work took place in Nairobi in 2002.
I had gone to Kenya with my wife on vacation. While there I met my good friend Tade Aina, who was then working for the Ford Foundation office for Eastern Africa. He mentioned that the foundation had recently sponsored a group from the Indian African diaspora, the Siddis, to tour East Africa. He wondered whether I might be interested in doing a comparative study of African diasporas in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean worlds. I was intrigued. Three years later, in 2005, I wrote a proposal and submitted it to the foundation. I got the grant and for the next four years I spent every summer visiting different countries, sixteen altogether, in South America and the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. I was interested in three things: mapping the dispersals of African peoples in different world regions over the last two thousand years, the diverse formations of their diaspora identities, and the flows of demographic, cultural, political, ideological, economic, and iconographic engagements with their ancestral continent.
In 2012, I published a compendium of my travel diary recording my daily encounters and experiences in the various countries I visited, entitled In Search of African Diasporas: Testimonies and Encounters. The book led to my being invited by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to undertake a research project on the African born academic diaspora in the United States and Canada, its demographic size, career trajectories, and modalities of engagement with African higher education institutions. The project, which was conducted in 2011-2012 was in two parts; first, it focused on the academic diaspora in the two countries, and second, on how they were viewed in West Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa by university leaders and academics.
The following year, after the research report was submitted to the CCNY at a convening attended by several foundations, African academic leaders, and intergovernmental agencies such as the World Bank, the Carnegie African Diaspora Fellowship Program (CADFP) was established. It had a direct impact on my second prolonged return to the continent in forty years. While its intention was not to promote diaspora return or repatriation, but brain circulation between the diaspora and the continent, several fellows ended up returning permanently to the continent. Hearing their stories got me thinking about the possibility of my own return. It was in this context that I applied for the Vice Chancellor’s position at USIU-Africa which I assumed on January 1, 2016. In a sense, I wanted to be part of the brain circulation I wrote about and promoted through CADFP.
I welcomed the opportunity to contribute to the development of African higher education, a subject I had also written extensively about. USIU-Africa had its own attractions as the oldest private secular university in Kenya; the only university in the region that enjoyed dual accreditation by the Commission for University Education in Kenya and the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in the United States; it was the most international university in the region with students from more than 70 countries; an institution that took diversity and inclusion seriously; a comprehensive university with several schools and bachelor, masters, and doctoral programs; it harbored serious ambitions to become research intensive and boasted quality physical and electronic infrastructure.
A few years earlier, my son had relocated from Texas to Malawi. He said it would be easier for him to have an impact and make money in Malawi, the country of his birth, than in the United States. I became intrigued by talking to some friends whose children, many of them equipped with MBAs like my son, also relocated to the continent. I read in an African magazine that 70% of African MBA graduates returned to the continent attracted by the opportunities of “Africa Rising/Rising Africa”. If my son saw prospects in the continent of his birth, why not me? The idea of being closer to my immediate and extended family including my aging father became increasingly attractive. However, some of my relatives and friends wondered why I would leave the world’s wealthiest country for a developing African country. But when I make up my mind, which often comes after serious thinking and consultation with my wife and family and trusted friends, I don’t look back even if I might come to regret the decision. And I have learned not to dwell on regrets either.
My impending departure for Kenya inspired me to spend nearly six months on a fellowship at Harvard University working on a book I had long planned to write, which came out the following year, The Transformation of Global Higher Education, 1945-2015. The book examines the development of higher education on every continent. Researching and writing the book gave me a much-needed opportunity to reflect on what I had learned as a university administrator at every level, on the verge of climbing to the last rung on the ladder, the college presidency.
What do you think is the role of the African diaspora in African development more generally?
The African diaspora, both the historic diaspora and the new diaspora, are an integral part of African history and future. The historical diaspora comprises people dispersed to other world regions before Africa’s colonization, while the new diasporas are of more recent lineage, mostly going back to the post-independence period. For example, in the United States, the historic diaspora comprises descendants of enslaved Africans and those who relocated from the Caribbean and South America. The new diaspora is made up mostly of African migrants who have arrived over the last three to four decades. The number of African immigrants rose from 80,000 in 1970, to 200,000 in 1980, 364,000 in 1990, 881,000 in 2000 and 2,060,000 in 2015.
The two formations of African diasporas enjoy different connections and engagements, memories and imaginations of Africa. However, they have each made and will continue to make mutually reinforcing contributions to the continent. Pan-Africanism was born and bred among the historic diaspora in which the collective racialized subjugation and the consciousness of Africanness first developed. Out of it were incubated the various territorial nationalisms led by leaders such as Pixley Seme, one of the founders of the African National Congress, and the founding presidents of Ghana, Nigeria, and Malawi, namely, Kwame Nkrumah, Nnamdi Azikiwe, and Kamuzu Banda who were educated in the HBCUs and socialized into politics by African American activists and movements. For others, such as Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta, they encountered Pan-Africanism in Europe.
As the struggles for civil rights brought political enfranchisement and the historic diasporas assumed greater representation and inclusion, they flexed their political and economic muscles on behalf of African countries and causes. The Congressional Black Caucus and organizations such as TransAfrica in mobilizing support in the USA against the apartheid regime are well known. The ascendancy of Barack Obama to the presidency and Kamala Harris to the vice presidency, as well as the steady rise of Black corporate executives and leaders in other sectors, including historically white universities, underscores the fact that Africa can only ignore the historic diaspora at its peril.
The new diasporas play important political, economic, social and cultural roles in their countries or regions of origin and across the continent. They channel their activities through formal and informal networks in their countries of residence and origin as well as through the international system. Their motivation for engagement varies from generous to profit considerations to status-seeking in both the diaspora and homeland. Families, communities and governments on the continent increasingly value the economic and financial contributions of the new diaspora. There’s hardly an African I knew in the US who didn’t know where Western Union and other money transfer shops were located.
In 2019, Africa received US$84,280 billion in diaspora remittances, the largest inflow of external resources, higher than the outlays from China, the EU, or the United States. Thus, the diaspora is Africa’s biggest donor. In many African countries, remittances are the most important and stable source of capital inflows, in some cases exceeding both ODA (official development assistance) and FDI (foreign direct investment). For the top ten recipients, remittances accounted for between 2.9% of GDP for Kenya and 9.9% for Senegal. The new diaspora has also become an important player in investments by purchasing equity on stock markets, lending to local businesses or setting up their businesses, or being a source of philanthropy and human capital for development. In June 2017, Nigeria pioneered the issuing of a diaspora bond for US$300 million to finance development projects, which was oversubscribed.
In recognition of the importance and role of the diaspora, in 2004, the African Union designated the diaspora as Africa’s sixth region, although this has yet to be fully translated into the formal structures of the AU. More than thirty countries now recognize dual citizenship. Diaspora communities are highly differentiated according to the social inscriptions of gender, class, ethnicity, religion, and ideology. Their engagements with their homelands are equally complex, contradictory, and always changing. Politically, they can exert negative influences by fomenting and bankrolling conflicts or supporting social movements for democratization and post-conflict reconstruction efforts.
Diasporas also acquire and possess social and cultural capital—attributes and attitudes, skills and sensibilities—that can be mobilized to develop their countries of origin. However, diasporas often suffer from superiority complexes and display the insufferable arrogance of what used to be called in African literature the “been-to” mentality, or we can call the development aid mindset of donors. More recently, there has emerged digital diasporization, the rise of social media and streaming services through which diasporas perform their national and transnational identities.
Notwithstanding some of the inherent challenges of engagements with the diaspora, I believe they are indispensable for building capacities in African countries to realize the enduring triple Pan-African and nationalist dreams of self-determination, development and democracy. Clearly, more than any other external community, the diaspora comprises people with the necessary affective commitments and social and economic capital so essential for the continent’s integrated, inclusive, innovative and sustainable development.
INTERVIEW ANALYSIS AND REFLECTIONS
BY TOYIN FALOLA
The Diaspora Experience
Migrations to the West have always been a principal marker of colonial relationship and, by extension, colonial dependency. In the wake of Africa’s independence, the nationalist drive for an academic adventure was considered important in the quest for self-determination and political freedom. People concerned about self-government would not do so without solid educational exposure to managing multiple identities that colonialism brought to existence. Of course, Africa ruled itself admirably before the intervention of the West centuries ago, but the magnitude of leadership and the geography of control expanded the very moment the colonizers joined disparate civilizations together, and this has necessitated the fact that an informed system, which can be built by having strong education, is immediately needed for the management of the complexity brought about by multiple identities.
As such, the first generation of Africans who got educated was inclined to travel overseas to actualize this dream due to the scarcity of university institutions in the period. They had not many options except to go to the West in their quest for intellectual redefinition and regeneration. Among this category is Paul Zeleza, although he belongs to the second generation of African scholars, with similar circumstances but slightly different. He was educated in the continent but had to progress for his postgraduate studies in the diaspora. During this period, the Global North countries opened their arms to African countries or anyone with similar sociopolitical experience of colonialism to strengthen their relationship and deepen their mutual engagement in economy, politics, and other diplomatic avenues. However, the political infrastructure of the West has established a lopsided relationship between them and the African countries in their continuous association of Africans with barbarism and backwardness.
Before any African can travel abroad for whatever reason, their image, identity, and profile had traveled there ahead of them, and it is based on their examination of these transported attributes, as convoluted and contrived as they are, that the Global North countries established a union with these Africans, mostly on a relationship of master-subordinates that births racism or racial prejudices. In essence, one of the core challenges confronting African Diaspora is racism, and its existence has cut deep into the fabric of African identity, so much that it has continued to create a magma of complex problems in modern times. For example, it was because racial discrimination was, and still is, deep-rooted in the politics of the West that several Africans in the contemporary time deny their African identity or trash it in their quest to attain social or economic balance in their host Global North countries.
While racism is, therefore, a matter arising from the institutionalization of racial superiority pronounced in the era of the Atlantic slave trade and extended thereafter, its brainchild is a denial of identity, exilic and undamaged (to borrow the words of Edward Said), conditions that are associated with African immigrants. For Zeleza to survive the climatic conditions of London that were especially racist, he had to seek solace or assistance from individuals who shared similar color with him in the neighborhood. Although the experience of this blatant racism and the irritation that comes with it is limited temporally, the psychological consequences always linger on, predictably indefinitely. The seed of hatred for any group of people, provoked by the color of their skins, laid the foundation for regrettable postcolonial politics, which though masked by African diasporas, continue to dictate their involvement and attitude in the different diaspora communities.
Maybe it is unknown to the Global North (which I doubt very seriously) that the conscious and deliberate act of segregation against the Black people was an inspiration for creating a Pan-African identity that would be jealously guided and emotionally embraced by many victims of segregation. One of such instances is the experience of Zeleza, who, in the course of seeking an alternative arena that would entertain his blackness, came across individuals from different African countries and established a bond with them, bringing about the immediate creation of a nationalist agenda. Of course, racialization was targeted at the Black people and other individuals of color, but the experience was turned by Africans to the foundation of their pride and unity.
Beyond the advantage of bonding was an inelastic stretch of opportunity for mounting pressure on dictatorial governments at home in Africa. It was difficult to escape the pangs of neocolonialism and the wrath of its agents in Africa, as the postcolonial African leaders used the political power invested in them to pursue personal ambitions. However, the diaspora community was supportive of the people’s struggle for political equity for reasons that are not unconnected to physical distance. Apart from the distance that was physically erected between them and their home countries (that invariably protected them from being molested for airing their opposing opinions), their voice was quickly heard by the international communities, who could sometimes intervene in situations by liaising with necessary authorities in Africa who were oppressing the people and denying them of their fundamental human rights. For Zeleza, the struggle for true independence, especially from the captivity of these neocolonialists, was real and irrevocable, as it was the only hope to restore the Black people’s pride and confidence. The diaspora environment provided this opportunity, and he was one of the committed Africans who used it greatly. As a result, the diaspora community is one of the most suitable places for protest, where the voices of the subaltern could be heard in contemporary times.
More than the stings of racial prejudices were the experience of unequal treatment or asymmetrical relations between the knowledge productions of the Europeans and the Americas and their African counterparts. Africans were seen as subservient and not mature enough to claim knowledge generation and or transformation for all its worth. They were usually configured to function as appendages or subordinates to their Western colleagues and not as independent individuals in their own right. Zeleza discovered this from the implicit conclusion of a senior scholar who questioned the motive of his Ph.D. research so condescendingly and in manners that would not be tried with a European student. The racial bias is not exclusive to Oliver, as many similar racially hostile comments preceded his. It was a system of racial relationships that the supremacists have comfortably institutionalized for a long time. In other words, many scholars did not only show what they had against the African people; they also revealed the systemic problems with Black people, which had been entrenched into their bloodstream. As such, those like Zeleza had challenges, and going to the diaspora was the visa they needed to experience the ambivalence of human relationships. And because they were exposed to these attitudes, they committed themselves to the course of freedom.
However, beneath the determination to gather important knowledge and experience in the diaspora is the hostile environment that African countries have constituted for different revolutionary voices, where Zeleza incidentally finds an identity. Of course, they have acquired substantial amounts of information and gathered numerous experiences as exiles in places beyond the continent, but the determination to become equally valuable to the continent of their birth is usually crushed by harsh politics that has become the general threat to people in the continent. In Zeleza’s case, he is a vibrant voice, especially against dictatorial and oppressive regimes in Africa. His voice makes impressionable positions against the political administration of Banda in Malawi at a point in time, and this glued him into staying permanently in Canada. Meanwhile, his exilic condition could have been motivated by the country’s political situations. Nonetheless, it was an important part of the reasons for the indestructibility of the diaspora influence in the making and shaping of the continent. In this case, he contributed his quota through continuous intellectual engagement with the dictatorial government by constantly challenging, questioning, and making them accountable, basically because he was geographically far from their power.
Whereas the country’s situation commanded him to stay eternally away from his preferred abode, his ancestral background invariably created a new identity where affiliation with individuals and a hospitable environment forced him to develop another sense of attachment to the culture and environment that provided him succor. In essence, the concept of home became so flexible for him as, most importantly, other African diasporas of any time and age. While it is not untrue that they were exposed to series of political and economic disparagement in their new environment, they were nonetheless integrated by some fraction of the society who understood and appreciated their contributions. All these became the factors that make the diaspora experience a combination of good and bad.
Their stay in the diaspora became the proverbial license needed to establish a foundation to uproot all the bad elements in the political community in Malawi. It provided the opportunity for eggheads to combine their intellectual and economic forces to drive miscreants away from political involvement in their homeland, which has been the greatest impediment to the development of these countries. As such, the fortifications of their political infrastructure in Malawi once actively depended on the level of international influence they could muster by dialoguing with a superpower for their interventions.
Being in the diaspora is very important in the making of African countries in contemporary times. Against the oppressive Banda regime, the irrepressible voices of people in the diaspora pushed individuals like Zeleza into the political limelight. He was duty-bound to play an important role in building a good country for his people. The opposition leader recognized his outstanding contributions to the enhancement of a democratically responsible government that he was invited officially by Mr. Bakili Muluzi, the opposition leader seeking to take power from the claws of Banda. However, because he had been groomed by the practicality of colonialism and the postcolonial politics, which have combined to inform his knowledge and personal philosophy, he declined the juicy opportunities to represent at the political level. The incomparable corruption that the United Democratic Front (UDF) represented eventually would later justify him.
Individuals who found themselves in the diaspora communities are bound to create another set of African diasporas with different identity colors from their own. They are caught in the web of creating individuals (their children) whose identity straddles between being Africans and being Westernized. Their political and socio-cultural affiliations with Africa could not be compared with that of their parents because they are developed in the said environment and barely have anything that can associate them with their indigenous epistemology. As such, being exposed to the New World culture, it is difficult to pin down the identity of trans-Atlantic products who were not migrants themselves but offspring of migration (of their parents, for example). Due to the uniqueness of their situation, they have constituted another dimension of the African Diaspora that must be considered in the discursive space of identity politics. As these individuals become more mobile and unfixed, the fixation of their identity equally becomes very difficult. The patterns of migration and or the retention of familial connections, despite age-long mobility, are fertile ground for interesting research, open to transnational and diaspora intellectuals because the intellectual space is always wide and open for exploration.
It is impossible to deny the place of the diaspora in the making of the African political movements. The importance of the unity of individuals who are not living on the continent is huge. And because of the uniqueness of the case with Africans, diaspora communities are very pronounced in shaping many things that concern Africa. For one, they provide geographical solace for individuals who are tormented by their indigenous environment, and in that process, it enables them to criticize or plan carefully and artfully for the installment of good and reliable representatives so that they can collectively move forward as a people. Plus, being in the diaspora environment has exposed them to plural ideas and extensive philosophy.
Conversely, the new diaspora class constitutes people who voluntarily travel away from their cultural environment in the quest for a better life, protection, advanced knowledge, or purely out of voyeuristic engagement. The combined population of those who belong to this category forms a demographic confraternity that forces different and new thinking and engagement of the diaspora affairs. We cannot pretend that the unprecedented increase in the number of people who have migrated in the last five decades projects the diaspora in a different light and, incidentally, shows the level of internal shortcomings either in the political or economic system that constitutes the centripetal forces keeping people away outside of the continent. Both the historical and new diaspora have different but complementary feelings about Africa because their reasons for leaving the continent differ proportionately. Despite the difference in their time dispersals, they have used the medium made available by the diaspora community to bring about a few desirable results in their African homes.
Pan-Africanism, for example, started as a product of diaspora affairs developed by the revolutionary actions of individuals who combined their intellectual and political energies to fight for liberations. They used the movement as a political tool to enable positive democratic actions, as a power to project themselves in environments that were hostile to them as a result of skin color or that were needlessly repressive of their opinions because of imperialism. It produced remarkable success, as we see in the careers of Du Bois or Kwame Nkrumah.
The place of the diaspora in the making of contemporary Africa cannot be underestimated as nearly all the founding fathers of the African political nationalism were developed from the diaspora environment. They attracted the world’s attention because of the level of brilliance they exuded, the confidence displayed, the perseverance they demonstrated, and a lot of other qualities shown. It was these earliest generations that birthed a number of the African diaspora who equally birthed advocates of civil rights like Martin Luther King Jnr, Malcolm X, and different others who were involved in the fight for political enfranchisement in the diaspora and were instrumental in the remaking of those lopsidedly biased societies. Therefore, their efforts yielded a form of political inclusion that promoted participation and quality representation.
Consequently, the diaspora experience has constituted a permanent index of African history, and because of this situation, it has inevitably made itself an integral part of the African future. There is the impression that minor influence can only be contributed to a people from the outside, but this has been challenged with the level of international influence that African diasporas continue to exert in their home countries. While some make economic contributions through the monies sent to their indigenous countries, others make political and intellectual additions in how they engage their countries and invite international communities to the discursive space where ideas are debated, argued, and collectively examined to advance their common interests. These generations duplicated themselves in different countries, and their products are also seen from a different category of diaspora debates. Essentially, the historical diasporans are the ones forcefully taken from the comforts of their homes. In the course of being disconnected from a cultural and religious nucleus that their different countries constituted, their identities continue to change according to the transformations of their host environment.
As the world continues to gravitate towards the consolidation of knowledge systems to understand human diversity and intricate identities, the opportunity that location in the diaspora communities introduced to scholars is unending. Apart from making them constant go-to sources whenever knowledge about indigenous Africa is required, they also become actively involved in reconstructing African identity to the world. As a committed intellectual on diaspora studies, Zeleza’s vast experience and knowledge are usually sought by different organizations seeking to consolidate their knowledge about others. For example, he was handed the opportunity to research the patterns of migration of people in South America, the Caribbean, Europe, and Asia so that the world would understand their demographic flows from one place to another and how this has contributed to the identity struggles that come with such mobility. Thus, through a culture of research and the diagnosis of African problems that include but are not limited to lack of brain circulation, Zeleza could recommend workable solutions to the continent and invariably became a part of the process by returning home to make concrete contributions to Africa’s transformation.
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, May 10 2021 (IPS) – Producers and consumers seem helpless as food all over the world comes under fast growing corporate control. Such changes have also been worsening environmental collapse, social dislocation and the human condition.
Longer term perspective The recent joint report – by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and the ETC Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration – is ominous, to say the least.
Jomo Kwame Sundaram
A Long Food Movement, principally authored by Pat Mooney with a team including IPES-Food Director Nick Jacobs, analyses how food systems are likely to evolve over the next quarter century with technological and other changes.
If current trends continue, the food system will be increasingly controlled by large transnational corporations (TNCs) at the expense of billions of farmers and consumers.
Big Ag weds Big Data The Davos World Economic Forum’s (WEF) much touted ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ (IR4.0), promoting digitisation, is transforming food systems, accelerating concentration in corporate hands.
New apps enable better tracking across supply chains, while ‘precision farming’ now includes using drones to spray pesticides on targeted crops, reducing inputs and, potentially, farming costs. Agriculture is now second only to the military in drone use.
Digital giants are working with other TNCs to extend enabling ‘cloud computing’ infrastructure. Spreading as quickly as the infrastructure allows, new ‘digital ag’ technologies have been displacing farm labour.
Meanwhile, food data have become more commercially valuable, e.g., to meet consumer demand, Big Ag profits have also grown by creating ‘new needs’. Big data are already being used to manipulate consumer preferences.
With the pandemic, e-retail and food delivery services have grown even faster. Thus, e-commerce platforms have quickly become the world’s top retailers.
New ‘digital ag’ technologies are also undermining diverse, ecologically more appropriate food agriculture in favour of unsustainable monocropping. The threat is great as family farms still feed more than two-thirds of the world’s population.
IR4.0 not benign Meanwhile, hi-tech and asset management firms have acquired significant shareholdings in food giants. Powerful conglomerates are integrating different business lines, increasing concentration while invoking competition and ‘creative disruption’.
The IPES-ETC study highlights new threats to farming and food security as IR4.0 proponents exert increasing influence. The report warns that giving Big Ag the ‘keys of the food system’ worsens food insecurity and other existential threats.
Powerful corporations will increase control of most world food supplies. Big Ag controlled supply chains will also be more vulnerable as great power rivalry and competition continue to displace multilateral cooperation.
There is no alternative? But the report also presents a more optimistic vision for the next quarter century. In this alternative scenario, collaborative efforts, from the grassroots to the global level, empower social movements and civil society to resist.
New technologies are part of this vision, from small-scale drones for field monitoring to consumer apps for food safety and nutrient verification. But they would be cooperatively owned, open access and well regulated.
IPES-ETC also recommends taxing junk food, toxins, carbon emissions and TNC profits. It also urges criminal prosecution of those responsible for famine, malnutrition and environmental degradation.
Food security protocols are needed to supercede trade and intellectual property law, and not only for emergencies. But with food systems under growing stress, Big Ag solutions have proved attractive to worried policymakers who see no other way out.
Last chance to change course Historically, natural resources were commonly or publicly shared. Water and land have long been sustainably used by farmers, fisherfolk and pastoralists. But market value has grown with ‘property rights’, especially with corporate acquisition.
Touted as the best means to achieve food security, corporate investments in recent decades have instead undermined remaining ‘traditional’ agrarian ecosystems.
Big Ag claims that the food, ecological and climate crises has to be addressed with its superior new technologies harnessing the finance, entrepreneurship and innovation only they can offer.
But in fact, they have failed, instead triggering more problems in their pursuit of profit. As the new food system and corporate trends consolidate, it will become increasingly difficult to change course. Very timely, A Long Food Movement is an urgent call to action for the long haul.
Food systems summit According to Marchmont Communications, “writing on behalf of the UN Food Systems Summit secretariat”, the “Summit was originally announced on 16 October 2019 by UN Secretary-General António Guterres and was conceived following conversations with the joint leadership of the three Rome-based United Nations agencies…at the High-level Political Forum in July 2019”.
On 12 June 2019, ‘Inspiration Speaker’ David Nabarro announced to the annual EAT Stockholm conference that a World Food Systems Summit (WFSS) would be held in 2021. The following day, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the Office of the UN Secretary-General.
It stirred up so much controversy that the MOU was later removed from the website of the WEF, hardly reputed for its modesty. Unsurprisingly, many believe that the WEF “pressed the Summit onto a reluctant UN Secretary-General”, and can be traced to its Food Systems Initiative.
With so much at stake, representatives of food producers and consumers need to act urgently to prevent governments from allowing a UN sanctioned corporate takeover of global governance of food systems.
July, 1969, marked the beginning of a new era in human history. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did what no man had done before, namely place foot on the surface of the Moon. Up to this very moment, many human beings do not regard the Moon as something that has a surface with sand and rocks, much less as something that is a world in its own right.
Three young men started off from Kennedy Space Centre on a trip to the Moon in the Apollo 11 Mission. Only two reached the surface of the Moon. As Armstrong took his small step on the Moon, which signified a giant leap for mankind, and as Aldrin got lost in the “splendid isolation” of the Moon, a third astraunaut called Michael Collins was orbiting the Moon in the command module, which he was pilot of.
Armstrong and Aldrin had gotten into a vehicle called the Lunar Lander (christened Columbia), which separated from the command module and descended to the surface. When it was time to leave, the Lunar Lander lifted off the surface and rejoined the command module before the Earth-bound trip was embarked upon.
While Armstrong and Aldrin attained celebrity status when they returned to Earth, the third member of the team, Collins, remains relatively unknown. That, probably, is the price you pay for going to the Moon and fall short of touching down on the surface. And yet the role played by Collins was as crucial as those played by Armstrong and Aldrin, for without Collins, the two would not have managed to come back home.
We lost Armstrong in August 2012. He was aged 82 at the time of his death. Just last week, we lost Collins, aged 90. Aldrin is the only surviving member of the Apollo 11 crew.
These three men showed the rest of us that space could, actually, be visited; that it was possible to go to another world away from Earth and come back. Twelve white men have so far landed on the Moon, Armstrong being the first. Each, but one, of the missions, from Apollo 11 through Apollo 17, landed two astronauts on the Moon. The only exception was Apollo 13, which developed a mechanical problem just before they arrived on the Moon, prompting them not to land. Thanks to mission commander, Astraunaut Jim Lovell’s decision to attempt to come back to Earth. The team made it back successfully after the aborted mission.
NASA is planning to send a crewed mission back to the Moon soon, possibly by 2024. This time round, they want to open up space exploration to all groups of people and, therefore, there will be at least a woman, and at least one black person on the crew.
There are a number of African American women who have the credentials to join the 2024 crew to the Moon. Among them, is Jessica Watkins, a 33-year-old African-American woman whose PhD was on landslides on Mars.
In Africa, we have several girls who could be considered for accolade of being the first woman or the first black person on the Moon. Several articles I featured a Nigerian girl, Esther Okade, who had already enrolled for university education at the age of 10. She turned out to be a mathematics genius, performing better than her older classmates in a British university.
Another Nigerian girl, Faith Odunsi, emerged the winner in a mathematics competition in March, this year, after beating contestants from Africa, Europe, Asia, Australia and the United States of America. We have no shortage of Africans with the necessary credentials in mathematics and the sciences to meet requirements for such lofty tasks as travelling to space.
Collins and his colleagues were the pioneers of space travel. They did their part and are now leaving Earth, one by one, for their final destination. It remains for us to take on the cue and conquer space in this or the next generation. The Moon is now regarded as a local or near local destination. People’s eyes are now cast on further bodies such as Mars, or even some satellites of the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune).
If we search within Malawi and within Africa, we will find many eligible young people who can ably follow the footsteps of Collins et al and open up new chapters in space travel. Elon Musk is planning to establish a city with one million inhabitants on Mars. Perhaps, some of the people to trek to the neighbouring planet will be from Malawi.
I remember my college years with great fondness. This is not just the nostalgia of aging, or because my experiences were necessarily all positive, but because I grew up in so many ways personally, intellectually, creatively, and politically. To begin with, it was a great privilege to be selected for university. At that time the country had only the University of Malawi and in that year two classes were combined for university entry, those who sat the last Cambridge school leaving certificate and those who sat the first Malawi Certificate of Education. I was among the latter. Altogether, Chancellor College, the main campus of the university, admitted 120 students. The names of the selected students were announced on national radio and in the newspaper. So our families and even neighborhoods or villages and districts where the students came from celebrated. It was truly exhilarating.
College had its great fun moments. There were the parties, learning to drink alcohol, dating, and making friends some of which have lasted to this day. We felt and were made to feel special. In 1973, we moved from Blantyre to a brand new campus in Zomba. Everything was immaculate, the grounds well-manicured, the food in the cafeteria delicious and abundant. Visiting the campus in 2014 to give a keynote address marking 50 years of Malawi’s independence was shocking: the campus looked dilapidated from years of neglect. My son expressed disbelief that this is the campus I had talked about so fondly over the years. As one of my colleagues in Kenya put it at a conference on higher education in Nairobi several years ago, for our generation going to university was like going to a five-star hotel; for the current generation of students it’s like going to prison as far as their crowded and dilapidated accommodations are concerned.
Given the small composition of our class in which everyone was an A student, all through the next four years it was extremely competitive. At that time if you failed one course you were thrown out, “weeded” as it was called. Out of the 120 students only 65 of us graduated. The gender imbalance was highly pronounced. There were only 28 female students in our cohort. This of course negatively affected our dating opportunities on campus as young men!
Our classes were very small usually no more than a dozen students, which meant intense engagements with our lecturers and very high expectations. I remember in my English classes—I majored in English and History— for each class we were expected to read a novel a week. Our lecturers consisted of young Malawians who had recently received their PhDs abroad and an assortment of expatriate academics, especially from Britain and the United States, and some from Zimbabwe, South Africa, and even Russia and Canada.
The rigor was so high that those of us who proceeded to graduate school in Europe or North America found our graduate studies plain sailing. My generation of academics was well trained. Unfortunately, one can’t say the same for more recent graduates from many African Universities, some of which are no better than glorified high schools. My undergraduate experience informed my teaching philosophy in later years as a professor: I set very high expectations for my students as I believe students don’t rise to low expectations. Setting rigorous standards is not only an educational imperative, it is also an ethical imperative in so far as university education offers the only opportunity for students from poorer backgrounds to acquire the social capital essential for their personal and professional success and the opportunity to transform the lives of their families and communities.
At that time, lecturers were solid members of the burgeoning middle class, so as students we not only admired them as academics, but they showed us becoming an academic was not equivalent to making a vow of poverty as it became in the devastating years of structural adjustment programs (SAPs) in the 1980s and 1990s that wrecked African universities. From our second year, my closest friends and I started calling each other Doc, convinced we would follow the path of our lecturers by getting PhDs. And all of us did become Docs!
The early and mid-1970s was a period of great intellectual ferment for our newly decolonized nations. Universities were seen as custodians and creators of the national intelligentsia. They were producers of professionals for the Africanization or indigenization of the civil service, parastatals and the economy more generally. But the euphoria of independence was fading, and discontent with the failed promises of uhuru were rising. So as students we were increasingly drawn to radical literature informed by Marxist perspectives to explain the contradictions of our societies, between the proverbial richness of Africa’s natural resources and the grinding poverty of its peoples.
I remember the electrifying impact reading Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa published in 1972 had on our collective imaginations and radicalization against European imperialism and colonialism and their neo-colonial legacies. In my English classes we read Frantz Fanon’s trenchant treatise on the deforming psychological effects of colonialism in Black Skin, White Masks and his searing indictment of the African ruling elites in The Wretched of the Earth. We were exposed to great African, American and European literatures. For American literature, what left an indelible imprint were the novels of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, as well as the autobiographies of Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver, among others.
My generation were undergraduates when the honeymoon between universities and the postcolonial state was waning. Student activism was strongly discouraged in Malawi under its authoritarian one-party state. You couldn’t trust anyone as the ruling party had eyes and ears everywhere even in our classrooms and dormitories. Things became so bad that several of our lecturers and even some students were arrested and put in political detention. Often, these arrests represented the politicization and externalization of internal professional and ethnic rivalries. They made students fearful and influenced the decisions of some of us to remain abroad after completing our graduate studies.
However, this climate of fear also taught some of us resilience and the need to undertake resistance in subtle and strategic ways by adopting a kind of intellectual guerrilla warfare. I turned my energies to creative writing. I stumbled into creative writing almost by accident in my first semester of my first year when one of our English lecturers, Dr. Felix Mnthali, gave us an assignment to write a short story. Not only did I get an A for the story, he invited me to have it read on the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation for a program that he runs called the Writers’ Corner. After that I became a regular on the program for the next four years of my undergraduate studies. For each program we were paid MK10, so in a month I would sometimes make up to MK40. This was a lot of money in those days considering that our monthly stipend as students from the government was MK6 and civil servants made about MK100. This taught me financial self-reliance and that if you do well in the work you love financial rewards will eventually come.
On campus we formed the Writers’ Workshop that met once a week in the evening at which budding short story writers, novelists, poets, and playwrights discussed each other’s work guided by our lecturers. In my second year, a few of us founded the Malawi Writers Series under the auspices of one of the country’s leading presses. The first book to be published in the series was my collection of short stories written in 1974 when I was 19 entitled, Night of Darkness and Other Stories. In my creative writing, like that of my colleagues, we learnt to use allegory and subtlety to critique the regime. When my collection of short stories was submitted to the Censorship Board for clearance, I was invited by the chairman of the Board, a thick and gruffly man, who demanded the removal of six of the stories unless I wanted to be accused of subversion and go to jail “like that subversive Nigerian, Wole Soyinka,” he said.
It took a lot of persuasion from my English lecturers to proceed with the publication of the book, which I felt was mutilated. They convinced me that it was important I begin my writing career by getting published, that I would have plenty of time to write what I wanted. They were right. A few years later, as a graduate student, I wrote my novel, Smoldering Charcoal, a bitter commentary on the aborted dreams of post-colonial Africa. This experience taught me that the cost of writing was not a bad critic’s review, but possibly your very life. It emboldened me, drove me into self-imposed exile, and reinforced my opposition to the pernicious tyrannies of the postcolonial state.
Why did you become an academic?
It’s quite simple, really. At the heart of it all is curiosity. I’ve always had this insatiable curiosity, this hunger to know, to discover why things became and are what they are, and how they can be changed for the better. Two people captured this abiding quest for understanding, for knowledge quite pithily for me. One was an African American artist who I met in Oman in 2009 while doing research for my global African diaspora project. As he showed me and my research facilitator his spacious and tastefully furnished house, we went to his bedroom and on the side tables by the bed several books were open. I remarked that he seemed to read a lot. He smiled and said, “Every day, I want to know what I did not know yesterday.” He was 94. He captured my condition, the continuous search for knowledge, the endless quest to know.
The other was a guru from India, Jaggi Vasudev, popularly known as Sadhguru, who mesmerized a group of people who gathered at the home of the Chancellor of my university, Manu Chandaria, the renowned Kenyan industrialist and philanthropist, a few years ago. Sadhguru said he was driven by a deep sense of ignorance, which forced him to constantly strive for the enlightenment of knowledge. He noted that people who are aware about their ignorance are less certain, less rigid, and less judgmental of others, more humble, more respectful, and more accommodating of otherness. Intolerance, he said, and conflicts and wars are often fomented by those who don’t recognize their ignorance and fervently believe in their self-righteousness.
Thus, I became an academic because of my enduring craving to know arising out of a deep sense of ignorance. I was inspired by my teachers, lecturers and professors, who progressively turned me into a more informed citizen of my multiple worlds. I admired my academic mentors, their lives of the mind, their ability to produce and disseminate knowledges that enlightened students and society. What could be better than pursuing such a career, a vocation really, of constant discovery, contemplation, and public conversation, a life of teaching and learning, research and scholarship, public engagement and service, invention and innovation—the four missions of higher education? And to get paid for it, earn a decent living reading, writing, and talking!
You have been at many universities in different countries, what has that been like?
It’s been an amazing journey of opportunities for personal and professional growth. There have of course challenges as well. However, I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without the experiences of studying and working at a dozen universities in six countries on three continents and the Caribbean region. Every time I went to a new country and joined a new institution, I was challenged to get out of the familiarities of my comfort zone, which stretched my intellectual, emotional, and cultural bandwidth. It forced me to develop tolerance and resilience, as well as coping mechanisms tailored to each context. The result is that I’m often comfortable wherever I am; I fully inhabit and embrace each space and moment. Without sounding grandiose, these institutional and intellectual sojourns have made me a citizen of Africa, the diaspora, and the world, which has enriched my life immeasurably.
Moreover, having been at all sorts of universities, both public and private, large and small, research intensive and teaching intensive, old and new, secular and religious affiliated, national and provincial, international and local, and in developed and developing countries I have come to understand higher education in its dizzying complexities and contradictions, possibilities and pitfalls which has nourished both my scholarship and administrative leadership. I have carried the intellectual imprint of each spatial, temporal and institutional encounter into an ever-expanding repertoire of scholarly production and political engagements.
These rich and diverse multinational and multi-institutional encounters have progressively extended the disciplinary and interdisciplinary landscapes of my scholarship and activist passions. So, I write unapologetically about any subject, country, or world region I choose to focus on, about mundane local issues and pressing global challenges, and freely borrow insights from the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences. In embracing the life of an anchored cosmopolitan intellectual, I have become free from many of the confines of academic systems and cultures, of narrow and national specializations.
In each country and institution, I have lived and worked in I have been struck by the differences, but more often than not by the similarities. I have encountered generous and mean people, bigots and liberals, internationalists, nationalists and nativists, and sexists, racists and fundamentalists, as well as feminists, non-racialists and ecumenicals. In the academy I have seen the insecure bullies, arrogant superstars, and institutional workhorses, conscientious and lazy academics, insufferable ideologues and inspiring intellectuals, authoritarian and tolerant administrators, and backward-looking reactionaries and forward focused progressives. I have come to a simple, almost banal conclusion: no country or institution has a monopoly on virtue or vice. I find this a reassuring testament to our common humanity.
INTERVIEW ANALYSIS AND REFLECTIONS
BY TOYIN FALOLA
Education, Culture, and Philosophy
Having the opportunity to proceed to a tertiary level in the pursuit of academic excellence comes with varying degrees of celebration, especially when we consider the context where such experience happened. For Africans during the colonial and early postcolonial periods, it was beyond the acquisition of knowledge at an advanced level; it was also a marker of status in most countries. This is understandably logical when the circumstances that established the primacy of education are first factored in. The invading Europeans designed an educational system, popularly tagged “formal education,” away from the non-formal type available to Africans prior to the encounter. And because of this development, getting quality education was almost synonymous with being at par with the Europeans. As such, those who enrolled in schools were automatically seen as potential leaders and forerunners who would be saddled with the responsibility to oversee the affairs of the people and the country.
During the postcolonial time, it became redefined as showing why investment into an academic engagement was necessary and incumbent. Zeleza’s story shows the adrenaline feeling that comes with getting to the next level of education through admission into the tertiary institution. As at the time Zeleza got admission into the higher institution of learning, there was only one university in the country, the University of Malawi. This further confirms the inviolability of education and its significance in constructing a new identity for the Malawians and Africans in general. Thus, it was inevitable that the values attached to scholarship and those involved in its pursuance increase self-worth and create in them a sense of pride. Zeleza recounts the happiness he felt when offered the opportunity to advance his career at the university level. It was a grand celebration rendered for the few individuals who had the opportunity to progress that far. Acquiring education at this level was inherently desirable because it showcased the students’ brilliance without them trumpeting it themselves.
However, the frenzy of going to school is only complemented by the personal dedication and abiding commitment of an individual to their educational course. While going to school automatically confers on an individual the privilege of being literate, it does not guarantee that they would be educated because being educated is not necessarily the same as being literate. Quite contrary, to be literate does not require much effort or dedication, just the ability to scribble down ideas sometimes in a coherent manner. To be educated, one needs more.
Educational brilliance is the aggregate of human intellectual culture displayed on the different phenomena and strange ideas. Experience has demonstrated that what we know as humans cannot be compared with what we do not know, as unraveling events show why we are still at the infancy of knowledge advancement. Therefore, as one great philosopher once asserted, learning continues from the day one draws their first breath to the day they draw the last.
Having a conversation with Zeleza would not only immediately fling open the depth of his educational culture but would also reveal his philosophical and ideological convictions about life in one swoop. Apart from being an incurably avid reader, Zeleza is insatiable in his pursuance of knowledge. Although his inelastic search for knowledge must have been understandably improved by his interaction with a well-established reader, Oman, an African-American man whom he met in 2009, Zeleza’s educational culture has been planted from the very days when he was introduced to the significance and importance of education, especially in transforming human lives and also in making the society a beautiful and better place. Reading has been conditioned to his lifestyle, and he has been able to travel to countries and cities without necessarily leaving his spatial setting. Zeleza has a working philosophy, and that is the understanding that each day provides a man with a fresh opportunity to learn those things they have not learned before. Moreover, because this requires increasing one’s inquisitive behavior generally, he cannot but be identified as an individual dedicated to exploring ideas at every given opportunity.
As an educated individual, Zeleza observed the emerging trends in Malawi’s educational system and identified the intergenerational gap in the management or envisioning of a better future. During the event to commemorate Malawi’s 50th independence anniversary, Zeleza gave a speech to express how traumatized he is by the obvious generational gap. He understands that something fundamental is wrong, and the dots are not difficult to connect. The generation who benefited immensely from the flowing advantages and promises associated with Africa’s political independence has shown a poor sense of management or an intellectual brainpower deficit, making it difficult to maintain the good academic culture they inherited. For example, the decline of infrastructural brilliance is attributed to the failure of contemporary leaders who cannot see the connection between the good and excellent management of the schools and the enhancement for productive youths. To illustrate, the system and culture that the generation managing these educational systems experienced gave them the necessary boost to make their lives better and improve themselves. Sadly, they cannot keep to the culture when they now occupy various leadership roles in the society.
Beyond the infrastructural dilapidation is the poor sense of human management displayed by the African government at different levels. Zeleza recalled that during his time as a student, the students’ population did not numerically explode the school’s capacity or overstretch their systems. The admission of students to ensure that the available materials were equitably managed was not because there were no individuals seeking to advance their educational pursuit beyond the high school, but because they prioritized the quality delivery of academic services than producing the number whose quality cannot be ensured. However, he was amazed by the disturbing numbers of students compacted in a classroom in the contemporary time, despite the exposure to more knowledge and information about the quality of education. The number of students in these classrooms makes it impossible for each of them to have a personal engagement with instructors as they would not only be unable to meet up with the numerical size of the students, they would also have been too exhausted in some cases when they intend to engage them. Meanwhile, there is a strong linkage between the production of quality graduates and their engagements with sound intellectuals in the form of their lecturers. Not admitting only the number that the school can adequately take care of overstretches the resources, and it comes with disheartening consequences for the people.
As an academic, this situation opens for Zeleza the opportunity to develop a worthwhile philosophical idea, and that is the imperative of increasing expectations and standards. Although the justification for the poor educational system in the contemporary time may be attached to dwindling economic prosperity and the simultaneous rise in numbers, what should be known, however, is that failure is always a willing companion of individuals who have failed to plan ahead. African leaders, it appears, are unconcerned about the transformation of the political and sociocultural conditions of the people but would pursue self-aggrandizement at whatever cost. Therefore, it is only logical that when the cacophony of greed submerges the voice of reason, the materials available for the advancement of the people’s collective development would be mismanaged. It was against joining the bandwagon that Zeleza developed the philosophy to increase the standards of his work and improve his work ethics. To do this, he placed a high demand on the students, as it was impossible that students who have been taken through the process would not stand shoulder-to-shoulder with colleagues from other socio-political backgrounds.
Undeniably, the decline of the country’s educational standards and systems came from the poor management of the people’s economy in the 1980s and 1990s. The previous generation had been groomed by educators who were self-sufficient financially, and their jobs as educators were their economic mainstay. They were models rather than riffraff, they were dream molders rather than dream killers, and because they were given strong socioeconomic positions in the society, they were able to groom and nurture individuals in ways that would benefit them and the society at large. The dwindling financial comfort of the post-independence time showed an accelerated reduction in the quality of the students in African universities in the contemporary time. Students were left to themselves, discouraged with no sign of their transformation or that of the society that educational institutions were meant to effect. Due to this abandonment, they failed to believe in the educational dream. Immediately Zeleza saw the shimmering connection, he was determined to imbibe a culture that would revolutionize the polity.
It appeared that the only instrument with which to engage this existential challenge is education, and Zeleza was ready. He became strong and focused, equipping himself with the knowledge of the environment and converting it to intellectually edible products that readers can masticate. Having been introduced to writing as an undergraduate, he created various ways of establishing himself in writing books. He networked his ways and writing career from the time in school, so that cross-fertilization of ideas became a given to him at that young age. Even when political representatives made governance seem bad and discouraging, he was determined to continue to make an impact through writing. He was undeterred by the pervasive political activities of leaders who prioritized their personal ambition above the collective interest of the people. He had no reason to bow to their pressure. Instead, he was motivated to revolutionize the polity by developing brilliant educational philosophy to confront the long-standing anomaly that had taken over the academic space. To positively affect the lives of others, one would need to demonstrate having sufficient qualities; therefore, for people like Zeleza, the best way to do this was to show that he was essentially gifted and would always make an
For Zeleza, being an academic developed from the overall examination of the significance of teachers in the shaping of identity for the society. Teachers occupy the cardinal position because without their expertise and constantly evolving knowledge, it would be difficult to project quality education into the younger ones on whose shoulders rest the responsibility of moving the world to a greater height. Academics are social scientists, and their laboratory of professional practice has always been the society. They study the cultural and political conditions of the society and give expert diagnoses, recommending the necessary and effective antidotes in areas where the people are seriously underperforming. To mentor people is an honorable profession that gives one the opportunity to see through the nakedness of people’s minds, the innocence of their ignorance, and the seriousness of their helplessness. When people have the mental fortitude and the intellectual capacity to arrive at this position, it means they have been equipped with the knowledge that would be useful for transforming human society. Education makes teachers learners because they improve their knowledge through the fluidity of knowledge and the unfixed nature of meanings. It is in the process of this self-discovery that individuals unlock the key to innovative ideas.
Education inspires an enduring quest for the accumulation of knowledge to better people’s lives and the environment. It automatically confers on individuals the prospect of becoming the intellectual brainpower of the society who engage in research for progressive scholarship. In the course of improving themselves academically, people begin to engage the society, and they are assured to arrive at the most important end by putting into practice the accumulated knowledge that they have gathered. This is why researchers are central to the attainment of excellence in human society. When they have undertaken quality research engagements, they turn to society to engage them with productive services. Even though the school is considered their primary catchment area, they use the larger society to test their knowledge and make notable contributions to its development. As a result, teaching is considered an outstanding career and a call from nature to serve the people and expand the horizon of human society. Teachers cannot be repaid sufficiently or remunerated in the proportion of the services they render to the society. It is impossible to have any aspect of human activity flourish without the impact of teachers. All these realizations informed Zeleza’s educational interest and developed an undefeated zeal in him.
Meanwhile the world itself is constantly evolving and expanding its terrains. Any people or civilization that wants to be in tune with the happenings of the modern time would have to also constantly improve their information generation capacity about their immediate environment and the distant places. This means that people’s success in contemporary times depends on their ability to expand their knowledge about themselves and the people who are culturally and politically different from them. This is necessary because the globalization agenda that has become part of the motivations and aspirations of the developed countries cannot be possible without having a good understanding of the world and their immediate environment.
In essence, it is demanded that for anyone to function maximally in the contemporary time, they would have to be multicultural in thinking, multidimensional in philosophy, diverse in political understanding, and also eclectic in human management approach. While it was an easy feat for people from the developed countries to understand the socioeconomic and sociopolitical trajectory of the world because of the efforts they have made in previous centuries to understand the world around them, Africans need an increased conscious effort in this regard. As such, many of us cannot but be involved in cross-country migrations to gain knowledge of the world and to help us shape the thinking of in-house Africans in our quest to build a competitive continent. Zeleza admits that this would particularly assist in human development needed so seriously to enhance Africa.
Whereas the prospects of acquiring knowledge from different cultural backgrounds remain very glamorous, the sacrifice needed to enhance quality assurance is unarguably tough. While the people would be exposed to the market of ideas and philosophies used and practiced in the new environment, they would also have the challenges of cultural detachment from their indigenous culture and face other innumerable sociopolitical challenges. Getting an education in a diaspora environment is an added advantage for individuals from Africa, but the sacrifices are usually massive. The first challenge is how to develop a thick skin for the pervasive racial prejudices that would inundate them in the New World, and apart from this, they would need additional confidence to continue to showcase their African identity in a cultural environment where they are considered as the less privileged. Perhaps these are all the reasons the educational culture of Zeleza’s generation is notably different. Like him, many of them have been taken through the expanse of different cultures and have retained theirs regardless of the mounting pressure and predatory environment. In the process, several of them have to battle with identity crises because they could not delineate African sociopolitical identities from others. They were submerged by the pressure of host countries to modify their culture in the process of becoming.
However, for people like Zeleza, these various experiences have shaped his academic culture into an ever-expanding repertoire of knowledge production. These plural identities and diverse human experiences created a different version of him, informed his scholarly drive, and encouraged him to become the man he is, addressing biting issues and controversial topics that affect the continent and its people. It is impossible to have such an experience associated with Zeleza and not break these boundaries of intellectual limitations and academic confines that delimit the functionality of the human brain. He is eclectic and dives into local and international topics that have a bearing on the human development project so that issues that need utmost intellectual attention are not denied because of the narrow specializations that humans have formulated.
People are different culturally and religiously, as they are diverse politically. Therefore, it is important to celebrate these differences in Zeleza’s academic engagement, showing the beauty and fecundity of human diversity. However, beyond this diversity, he sees similarities. He notices that most people in the world face similar socioeconomic challenges that continue to frustrate their efforts towards self-actualization. Moreover, because this has been carefully imported into the culture of the people, individuals who are confronted with similar conditions or challenges, rather than speak in unique voices, are divided by racial, cultural, and, more insidiously, political identities. In summary, there is no group of people with the monopoly of anything.