Conversing With Africa

Can you tell ZNet, please, what your new book is about? What is it trying to communicate?

In Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change, I am trying to communicate the need of activists in Africa and elsewhere to restore a much needed radical dialogue.  In a forthcoming book from Kimaathi Publishing House (Looking at America: A Malignant History), I trace the growth of an activist to an agitator and finally into a revolutionary amongst other things. Or rather I reflect on the subtle but far reaching nuances of each term.  In Conversing with Africa, this very idea is much alive. 

Right now it seems to me that we have become satisfied with carving spaces within governing historical oppressive laws and agitating from them.  I am also interested in speaking to the new generation of activists who are trying to answer Fanon’s call of “Each generation must out of relative obscurity find its mission – fulfill it, or betray it”.

I argue that indeed what we have lost is our ability to dream, to project ourselves onto the future informed by a history of oppression and resistance.  This calls for an analysis of why we have become fatigued of dreaming. I therefore look at past attempts at change in Africa and elsewhere as a way to say this is where we went wrong.  And more importantly, this is what we can do right today.  I look at the Chinese, Russian, Grenadian, and the Haitian revolutions amongst others.  I also talk about the example of Burkina Faso’s Thomas Sankara.  I also look at the ANC of South Africa, the negotiated political settlement and how the South African example falls far from the ideal of revolutionary democracy.   I argue that it is important to situate African struggles in other struggles especially those of Latin America.
The underlying question is the meaning of independence or democracy if the people continue to live in the same conditions before the advent of the vote, or if freedom can be achieved in liberal African governments that are neocolonial.  In the book I am also interested in the twin questions of history and the role of the intellectual in society, African philosophy as a tool of liberation, the consciousness of the oppressor and the oppressed, and the future of a radical pan-Africanism as a guiding theory towards the practical end of African unity.  I therefore talk about the Africanists (and suggest that they too suffer from Said’s Orientalism) and the African intellectuals who their Western counterparts have declared history dead. I also speak about history as marked by events under girded by historical laws. I argue that unless the historical laws governing a certain event are brought to a close, or the contradictions therein are brought to a close, history can only be understood as living, as part of the present.  The African or Africanist intellectual who then argues that history is no longer relevant has only understood history as a mere passage of linear time.  Pan-Africanism I argue needs to understand Fanon’s pitfalls of nationalism and really become a revolutionary theory with all that that entails.  This has called for an honest look at the Pan-Africanism of yesterday as understood by W.E.B. DuBois and Kwame Nkrumah.

Basically, I am trying to communicate the need for a dialogue that is at once radical, honest, doesn’t shy away from history, from our own complicity in our demise, betrayals and most importantly a dialogue that wants to project itself onto the future by way of continued and renewed resistance.

Can you tell ZNet something about writing the book? Where does the content come from? What went into making the book what it is?

The book was written in spurts, not of energy but of a searching consciousness. I hit many walls from the very beginning. I wanted to address the African condition from a position that was cognizant of our rich history of resistance.  Yet, with a few exceptions there hasn’t been much radical political theory written after revolutionaries like Fanon, Cabral or Thomas Sankara.  So a lot of the work went to tracing past attempts at change only to hit a wall when it came to revolutionary thinking in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.

I wanted to acknowledge that while the world has indeed changed (what with the fall of the Soviet Union and the globalization of poverty?), we still need to be informed by the fundamental relationship between the oppressor and oppressed, exploited and exploiter and oppression and resistance.  Every now and then, I would come to not knowing and would have to go back to the drawing board or rather improvise (in a jazz sense) on one.  (For myself, this was the best part of writing Conversing with Africa for truly – and the reader might not see this- it was in the truest sense a dialogue or conversation with history. Conversation falters, it hesitates, there are challenges and counter challenges, gathering of thoughts, new thoughts until, in this meeting, what needed to be said finally finds a way to be said).

The content of the book is informed by past attempts at change.  It is also informed by the crisis that has accompanied the so called “second wind of change”.  (Certainly we will be hard pressed to pass the IMF and the World Bank as agents of democracy as they run amok all over the continent). Like James Baldwin, I agree with the idea of the writer as a witness of their times, indeed the impossibility of writing outside their times.  Therefore a lot of the book is an attempt to engage the past for the present.  Or rather, it is an attempt to outline the dislocation of the present from the past as told by our intellectuals while in real terms tracing Africa’s past and present on what really has been a continuous rail of exploitation since the advent of slavery.

What are your hopes for “Conversing With Africa”? What do you hope it will contribute or achieve, politically? Given the effort and aspirations you have for the book, what will you deem to be a success? What would leave you happy about the whole undertaking? What would leave you wondering if it was worth all the time and effort?

In terms of dealing with what some are terming as the new form of imperialism, on closer inspection one finds that while the situation has become dire, it is not really a new phenomenon. Colonialism, while it had not perfected the idea of capital gain as the motor of national politics, well understood that international monopolies were the way to go. Slavery itself was a corporate affair (see Eric Williams, Slavery and Capitalism in which he traces the profits from slavery to still existing corporations.  Walter Rodney in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa and of course Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Imperialism also speak to the not so humble beginnings of modern day Transnational Corporations.  However the title of the book can be reversed to read Capitalism: The Highest Stage of Imperialism).  Latin and Central America, (see Walter La Faber’s Inevitable Revolutions), also point to how international corporations can indeed replace governments or rather how governments become relegated to the role of giving safe passage to international money flow. 

Struggle, at the risk of oversimplification has to be what it has always been; it has to be both local and international.  For example the Ogoni of Nigeria whose struggle against Shell exploitation and devastation of their environment saw the blatant execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa is a global and at the same time a local struggle. I do hope that Conversing with Africa localizes as well as internationalizes struggle.

What would I deem as the success of the book?  Now that is a tough one.  My audience, as I say in the preface is the marginalized, it is a conversation with the marginalized in Africa and elsewhere.  In the preface I state that while those that gain from our oppression are welcome to eavesdrop, I have made no pretenses as to the audience and purpose of the book.  Following Fanon’s example, I speak of the oppressor but never to the oppressor.  The first thing I in fact dispensed with is objectivity.  If the book can serve as a meeting table, if it contributes to reigniting radical discourse and reverse some of the theoretical concessions that we have made (like Marxism is dead as if it did ever exist outside the debilitating march of Capitalism, radical discourse belongs to those who have not caught up with the times, only the West can save Africa, Africa is suffering from growing pains etc), then I would deem it a success. 

But it is my hope that it will do much more by way of eroding the political apathy that seems to have afflicted members of my generation.  My personal feeling is that the African is becoming radicalized by the times.  If the generation before became radicalized after the betrayal of independence (what some have called ‘flag’ independence as colonialism did not make any economic concessions), I am of the opinion that my generation is becoming radicalized by the failure of the Multi-Party state.  There is recognition, as I say in the book that Western democracy has become capitalism’s pimp both in the West and in Africa.  The problem is that history had already telegraphed the failure of the 1990’s stabs at change in Africa.  Therefore books that are witness to this second betrayal become all the more important if we are to indeed seize initiative, define and implement change for ourselves.

On what would leave me thinking that the whole project was not worth it? My training is in poetry. In poetry, I suppose as a sort of defensive mechanism against rather unforgiving critics, one learns to simply write as well as you can to give the utmost respect to the subject and also the intended audience.  From there, your piece is out of your hands.  There is, one learns, an art and even a joy to spilling milk after all.  But more to the point, my reading of history illustrates that as long you do not speak in its blind spot where only the needs and life span of your generation exists, as long as you do not pretend history doesn’t exist with all its beauty and ugliness, your writing will be okay.  So I just hope that Conversing with Africa does not find itself in the straight jacket of history’s blind spot.

Conversing with Africa: Politics of Change by Mukoma Wa Ngugi

To order the book in the United States, please contact Rainbow Bookstore, 426 West Gilman Street, Madison WI 53703, phone 608-257-6050 or by e-mail [email protected].

To order the book in Africa, or for more information on upcoming titles contact, Kimaathi Publishing House at e-mail [email protected]

The author can be reached at [email protected].

PS/Please note that starting end of January the book should be available in your local bookstores but in the meantime please order your copy from Rainbow Bookstore

Mukoma wa Ngugi has a degree in Political Science and English from Albright College and an MA degree in Creative  Writing from Boston University. His works have appeared in: Step into a World: A Global Anthology of New Black Writing, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, One Hundred Days, Barque Press, 2001, Brick Magazine, Wisconsin Literary Review, and Chimurenga Journal amongst others. He co-authored with Wanjiku wa Ngugi, Consciousness Before Dawn, a play performed by Kimaathi Theater Group at Rutgers University, New Brunswick in 2000. He serves as a host of WORT’s Radio Literature and recently served as the Coordinator of the “Towards an Africa without Borders” conference at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His second book, A Malignant History: Looking at America is also forthcoming from Kimaathi Publishing House.

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