African Irony by David Nderitu

African Irony

by David Nderitu

When the Greeks went to war with Troy, the great Greek general, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenea so that the gods could grant victory to the Greeks; after a gruesome war, the Trojans lost and the god Nike of victory proved that he could keep his promise. In my struggle for knowledge, I have sacrificed my pleasure to the gods of time and now I am fighting a pitched battle with Ignorance-Trojan but soon, I hope to be enlightened on many issues. When I do, my campaign will have been won and like the Greeks, my sacrifice will not have been in vain and the god of Time will keep my achievements in his custody. If my quest seems like Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, I hope to be equally rewarded and to learn from where Jason failed to keep his allies at the end of the mission.

In my frustrations to express my vision, I have realised that knowledge is arming where ignorance is disarming. If ignorance is languid, knowledge is awakening. Where knowledge is power, ignorance is enslaving. My quest has taken me to disparate islands of wisdom and edification and if the will is the power of continental drift, I intend to try and pull those isles together in an attempt to delineate that vision that is currently stilled in the slide-camera of my mind and to fit a jigsaw-land of enlightenment. I anticipate to deliver a message in a language so that the deaf shall hear, the blind shall read and the disabled shall reach the fountain…that, without neglecting able-bodied people whose moral disability may not be all too obvious. It occurs to me that where knowledge is a good physician, ignorance is the sadistic, malicious and evil pet-dentist who nefariously and needlessly makes a hungry dog toothless, only to throw some meat to a hounding pack and to watch the toothless dog starve to death while the hounds eat.

I have studied and I am still studying some European, African and World History in general, in an attempt to spot some form of congruency, no matter how remote. It is striking how events, even over two hundred years ago in one remote part of the world, could effect some action in a distant land. This reminds me of the mythical butterfly whose fluttering wings could have caused Hurricane Katrina or Elizabeth. But while the weather is a creation of nature, it is good to observe that sexism is a creation of man, making Katrina and Elizabeth a contingent of irrationality and ranging women, whose causes man least understands but whose effects are all too devastating, with an occasional Hugo…but rarely. It is a ‘credit’ in today’s political-correctness world for those men doing the naming to have gotten away with such slander. Politics of winds aside but if the name Hugo is French, there are others things that have emanated from France, which have had more profound effect on the world besides the French Cuisine and the Metre-length hidden somewhere is Paris.

It was ironical that the French Revolution of 1790 brought about the very demise of imperialism, which the French and their European rivals had created and wanted to perpetuate. When the revolution occurred and the Jacobites promulgated the Declaration of Rights of Man (liberté, egalité, fraternité) it also granted the rights for local Assemblies in the French Colonies, which the blacks in St Domingue ( Haiti) exploited, leading to an Independent Island within the ocean of colonialism. The situation became a euphemism: the fluttering wings of a black butterfly of liberty in Haiti under Toussaint L’Oeverture that brought the storm of independence to Africa, emancipation and some sort of movement towards equality for blacks in America and Europe. But it was not a wind whose storm gathered without being fed by many Black luminaries of the time e.g. Toussaint, C.L.R. James, E.B.W. Dubious, Marcus Garvey, George Padmore and many more just to mention but few. Isn’t it ironical that the French had started a full circle of event, which only later, or too late even, their Social Scientists could only observe through the mirror of time? In the “Concept of Irony”, Kierkegaard says: Irony is the distancing device that folds immediate experience back onto itself to create a space of self-reflection. How true!

My writing is not meant as a Historical Review, but it is also supposed to create a challenge, to reveal the irony that Independent Africa created in its wake. There is neither blaming those who worked hard to achieve that independence nor wishes of going back to slavery and colonialism where some have been heard to whisper that the master ere emancipation ensured a full measure of a bushel and a pound of meat, where now they die under their own rule; no! no! no! Some even ask: What good is Liberty to a dead man? Cynicism has its own place. Nothing is good to a dead man, but to others, there are lessons to be learnt.

In trying to go back to history, one should look at it in its own context, hoping to awaken some spirit that is presently dormant and which can be stirred to start a flaming fire and to alight Africans to greatness and to enlighten those, who like me are searching for that African Golden Fleece which went missing centuries back. It may be a Golden Fleece, It may be the Tree of Knowledge, it may be the Light of the Earth but its benefits are the driving force of man’s civilisation since he realised his vulnerability and decided to fortify his position within this hideously competitive world. It is a force that engenders different reactions. Some are predisposed to ask a question: Why? Some are swayed to ask why not, while most just call it a state of nature and silently accept it. It is the few who ask why and how who go on to be knighted as the Light of the World. Toussaint et el did ask why and how when the cloud of slavery and colonialism came. They fought and brought liberty, an apogee and a crown of glory to their travails. However, when their time was done and the cloud went away, most Africans sank into that euphoria. They revelled in the glory of their Independence and omitted to see another cloud coming, failing to realise that the end of yesterday’s season of harvest was the beginning of today’s season of planting. My generation went to school in a reaping mood and parroted some meaningless words to pass time. The system failed to plant new seeds into the ground in us and where it may have done, we failed to sprout.

When we became of age, we went to school because we had reached school-going age and when we left school, it was because we had reached school-leaving age but in between, we played an imaginary children’s farm game. When the reality hit home that we were the matured crop to be harvested, it was a rude awakening that there was no crop in us. We too were looking to eat the fruits of our labour for the years spent at school, but if there were any fruits for our picking, they were bitter fruits of frustration and wasted time. We hungered, we thirsted we slept rough. We blamed our fathers instead of realising the mistakes our brothers, who had slightly gone before us had made, failing to know that the farm needed continuous planting, and that the sooner we got on with it the better. We were yet another generation that was building a pyramid of hopelessness…a path to nowhere. For those whom luck smiled on their faces and came across some succulent orchards, they ate the tree to the roots. Desertification in Africa became an ecological and an enlightenment phenomenal nightmare …a disaster so to speak. Where any planting had been done, it was in shallow sandy infertile soils while the oases drained away to some far off land, where past masters had retreated…some fresh water steams flowing into the ocean. The so much-required light of luminaries faded away like a receding star. Africa slowly started to sink into the darkness of technology, economy and good education, the yellow golden light sunk almost literally and financially to the west and Africa became a debt-ridden farmer who could not feed his children…a sharecropper in his own land. It became a hopeless dream to many. Some fled, some died, most stayed…like all human beings over the ages when disaster strikes, the angel and wind of dispersion to the for corners of the world. But if there is irony in its own failure, it is the irony of the dark cloud in Africa starting to reveal the inextinguishable red ember preserved and buried in the ashes after the fire has died down to light yet another fire. Yes, Africa could be starting another age of enlightenment but between the roaring flame and now, there will be a lot of ashes to blow and fuel to gather!

It is one thing to accept that there is hope, it is yet another to define and to formulate how that hope will be crystallised to bring about changes and to reverse knowledge desertification. To Africans or to anyone else in that state of affairs, it is a much bigger challenge than reversing global warming. Nevertheless, it something that needs doing and once dreamt, the vision must translate either into reality or into hopelessness. How can this dream become a reality?

In the world today, the mention of ‘Philosophy’ makes one look as if he were a Greek reincarnated ghost or at best a phantom from the Renaissance or simply a quixotic dreamer. Even though that may be derogatorily applied, that is what philosophers are: Dreamers. Philosophy seems to be the mother of all fields of inquiries and if not, at least it is the mid-wife who delivers the babies. Philosophy is derived from the Greek, meaning love of wisdom. A.C. Grayling says that philosophy is an inquiry and a reflection to include the widest features and thoughts of the world and of human experience. Before one can rush to prescribe an overdose of African Philosophy to the malaria-prone continent, it very important to go back and understand the healthy and unhealthy history of the continent to enable the Philosopher to develop the curative methods to heal and to restore that which has been lost. As it is, African Philosophy is a poorly defined term and the reality of the African world today may not place it in a friendly corner of word definitions. So New African Philosophy needs to be developed which, while taking into account the history, it must be written to provide the mode and direction which Africa must move in order to make a bright future. If yesterday’s African Philosophy is dead, it is not because it was wrong, it had simply outlived it useful life in congruence to what Philosophy is supposed to do. A.C. Grayling says: Philosophy tries to bring itself to an end, either by solving its problems or by finding ways of transforming them into special inquiries. In other words, philosophy brings its own demise once a problem has been solved but it does not stop there, it searches for new frontiers to be explored; Africa should be a Philosophical Explorer’s dream. But first, African History!

In the African Origin of Civilisation, Cheickh Anta Diop states that the African History will remain suspended in the air unless it is connected to the Egyptian History. Cheickh Anta Diop did not make a vacuous claim; he made solid connections that need to be reinforced by others in order to be widely accepted. Today he is a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. Why is it so important to connect African history to Egyptian History? One must realise that history is not just a frivolous and an asinine repertoire of the past, it provides both the moral guidance to its future generations as well as the strength, pride and respect to those it is bequeathed. Rich history is the economy that makes a rich man richer while poorly documented history is the tool that makes a poor man poorer. In agreement with Cheickh Anta Diop, Africa must reclaim its own to enable them to define a philosophy that will offer clear and lasting directions. But history must not be warped to claim what is someone else’s; it must be factual if connectivity is to take place and to if it will provide the beam of light that Africa so much needs as it gropes for itself in the dark past.

Over and above a people discovering themselves in the mummies of history, history in itself lights the fire of a culture forgotten, giving birth to the fraternal twins of art and literature, the fuel to the popular culture. In other words, art and literature give the history of a people but in a different popular way. Where demanded, they alter history effectively, making appropriate and suiting dichotomy, without being accused of a cruel surgery. After all, are they not just arts, subject to various interpretations? They adjust the past to suit the philosophy of the period, directing whole nations without using force. Popular culture spurs hope, respect and admiration and is the substratum of domination. Whereas Africans should not aspire to dominate anyone, they should seek to lift themselves from obscurity and hectoring long endured. Africans should realise that their future almost literally lies buried in the cemetery of the past and that they should seek to resurrect what they can and build their future on from there.

However studying specific cases of history may help in understanding where things for Africa started to go wrong. But one must also realise that History and Destiny are extremely long, almost unbounded, and that events that seem real and paramount to us today may be written off by the scribe of Time as inconsequential; their importance lying only in the provision of a continuous line of human existence. Whether that existence was ensured by war or peace, freedom or slavery, communism or capitalism, frugality or waste, sharing or the winner-takes-it-all, may not be that important; making man a mere means to a future held in the mysteries of time.

Today, echoes of grumbling departing colonialists reverberates across the whole of the African Continent. And like a standing wave in a laboratory or a cavernous ocean-cliff, the grumbling has refused to die down, the energy to ensure continuity of the unsettling wave provided by the capitalism. Nothing illustrates the bitterness felt by the departing colonialist from Africa more than the troubles that ensued once Belgian Congo gained independence. Within three months of Patrice Lumumba becoming the Prime Minister of the baby republic, the CIA and the Belgians had groomed a Prime Moster…Colonel Mobutu Seseko together with his allies Moise Tshombe and Kasavubu and installed him to take care of their interest. They told him: You are different. You are cultured. You are one of us. And as if to confirm their assertion, they offered him a napkin and dined with him, watching him so gluttonously eat, dropping food on the table, but they complimented him. In Congo, they had installed a despot, but a despot sanctified by his subservience to his former Colonial Masters. Ruling by proxy acquired its true meaning in Congo and in Mobutu’s ruthless, his Masters characters were reflected in full spectrum. If Congo was a cursed nation, this was a double whammy but its real curse came from the generosity of nature underground. Congo has the World’s largest deposits of dreaded Uranium, large deposits of the precious diamonds, copper, gold, tin and several other minerals. Some of these, like diamonds and gold, caused the trouble being valuable because they are desired, but the real curse for the Democratic Republic of Congo as it has been called today, lies in the Uranium, which is desired because it is valuable. If the imperialists had enticed Mobutu with an ideology, it is doubtful if Mobutu could understand the dangers posed by Communism or the benefits of Capitalism. But if Capitalism could offer the gun and the power, well, it must be the better ideology! Lumumba had relied on the UN to deliver justice but ironically, it ensured his capture. The UN facilitated the death of a great Pan-Africanist. It would not be the last time that the UN would play the music to the liking of the American ears. Money Talks!

Mobutu plundered his country’s wealth with impunity, sharing the spoils with his handlers while helping to paint an image of a continent that cannot manage itself…a lacerated and a disfigured image made in the western studios. But it was not that Africa could not manage; the painters were fake and Mobutu was not an African; he was a white man’s carving in a black mask whose image became the epitome and a sample of the African rule to the west. But those who made the harlot slept with her because she gave them pleasure. To correct that distorted painting so much fronted to the western world, making the African children a laughing stock at the school playgrounds, African Historians and artist must repaint that picture to provide Mobutu with his true shade. But if they expect the white artist to lift the mask, they can as well join in the mockery of their own descendants at the playgrounds.

Sadly, capitalism and more so globalisation, as it seeks to take what it failed earlier to acquire, has found new and eager players to amplify the derision to the African children. It is the Scene Two of the Scramble for Africa. The recruitment drive for the actors has just started; the cogs are in motion as the masters at the World Bank and International Monetary Fund snap their fingers for the mirth machines to start. Some Africans are laughing out loud, trying to outshine each other, falling over themselves in order to prove their worth to their Masters and handlers, but behind the Bank’s closed doors where no African is entertained, the real laughter begins…the Masters clink their tumblers…What Idiots to sell their motherland! The bankers shake their heads in disbelieve but celebrate, having struck uranium, gold and copper in the idiots. It is Congo all over again and all over Africa, as crude democratisation and unfair trading terms dabbed as free trade, which is not free decimates what little pride that the African had in him. But the actors are told that they are different and they believe it. They must be, to take pride in being told that they are different from their own.

In order for the Africans to learn where their fathers failed, History must be taught in its proper perspective and the actors derided for selling their own to other nations for their selfish ends and pittance benefits. Failure to do so will perpetuate the Mobutu Dynasty for generations to come.

However even as we censure those who act against the interest of their own citizens, it is important to realise that political leadership has been the football field for demagogues over the ages with the masses cheering on the winning team. And like their counterparts in the football field, they take all the gate collections to lead flamboyant and sometimes careless life styles. Why has it been that political science seems to have provided man with insurmountable problems while man has always come up with right solutions in other situations? The political demagogy that spews out of those with aspirations is a careful psychological analysis of people’s thoughts and expectations. People feel so much relieved that someone can psychoanalyse them without applying hypnosis. But if the mass response is anything to go by, it is the masses that are unaware of being hypnotised. The demagogue provides the people with the so much required psychotherapy while the people provide the politician with support. The whole scenario is a marriage between the demagogues who may be genuine in promising to deliver specific goals to the people, but has to employ the whole spectrum of people’s wishes to garner support, which would otherwise be denied and the current hindrance would then remain in place, but the failure by the political leadership to qualify their statement is a great misnomer. They should not promise to deliver one of the inalienable rights, that is pursuit of unlimited happiness which people so much want, without making it clear to them that while the government will ensure that that right is maintained, it is upon each and every individual to pursue what makes his life tick. For the government to deliver bespoke raiment of happiness to everyone, it is trim all down to one size. This would severely contradict the very principal of the pursuit of happiness.

Further, in order to foster trust in people, political leaderships have to learn that once a specific goal has been achieved, especially ones with huge implication on the societies, they have to yield power to someone else who will define his own goals acceptable to the people and the process repeated. This will make the people feel responsible for their mistakes if the government does not deliver while offering them hope that a change is coming without having to result to mass action. Democratically elected governments will always ensure that that hope remains. Education plays an important role in eliminating peoples illusionary hopes, while promoting a few with the right ideas in life to lay the carpet on the future national pathways. But while education works, poverty is the enemy that de-educates those who swim on the education’s shallow waters. They forget the ideals of education while retaining the cutting edge of evil. They become the dangerous sword that cuts it owner, instead of aiding him into the battle. The direction that a nation takes cannot be defined at a people’s court, but the political leadership has the mandate to define it. Institutions of learning should be temples where the natural course of a nation shall lie, while the politician should ensure that the nation remain on course. As Aristotle said, man is a political animal by nature and no matter how we may wish to run away from politics, the social rules of existence when a community comes into being is politics and anyone who does not want to play those rules, to quote Aristotle, is either a god or a beast. While attaining divine status is something we all so much want, it is important to realise that we lead a human life within orderly societies, otherwise and ironically, nothing will stop us from becoming beasts.

On the question of democracy in Africa today, it is something that was delivered in a demagogic American way. It was meant to be the panacea and a quick fix to the African problem. Those in power did not want the pill for they rightly saw the demise of their own dynasties. For others, it was a dirty divorce in a western court with their ex-partners but for those who descended on the people like doves offering hope, they had more in common with the doves naivety of the dangers ahead than with the withered fig leaves on their lips. Today, African tinsels towns are scenes of people demonstrating like school children clamouring for sweets. They have abandoned their farm implements waiting for the sweets of democracy. Whereas those sweets will finally arrive, after adjusting their own taste over a long period of time, the bitterness of the present may not be easily masked by the desirable taste. Yes, democracy is good but it has rules to it…that’s how it works and that how it has always worked. Democracy without rules has an ugly head if not insane…and wobbly feet; it just collapses on itself. The west told the African to throw away the old distorted rulebook but it never made it clear that it meant expunging unfair and undemocratic clauses. Now people are moving en-mass almost leaderless if not rudderless and where they exist, they lead from behind. It is the old African situation repeated. When will Africa come up with its true solution to its own problem? African will have to come up with institutions of people with special skills. Universities should be starting points but children who show special skills should be helped to realise their potentials to the full. They should be helped and equipped with the citadel of ideology to protect their true talents and as the first generation, to train others. Everyone should be properly equipped with the ultimate morality and a categorical imperative philosophy of life. To paraphrase Immanuel Kant: Always act in such a way that you can also will that the maxim of your action should become universal law. If the Kantian rule sounds complicated, it can be rephrased to read: Do unto others the way you would like them do unto you.

Copyright – David Nderitu, Sunday, 19 February 2006

References

  1. Soren Kierkegaard , On the Concept of Irony
  2. Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood, Pan-African History
  3. Chieckh Anta Diop, The African Origin of Civilisation: Myth or Reality? (1974)
  4. AC Grayling, Philosophy 1, A guide through the subject (1995)
  5. Aristotle on Politics
  6. Immanuel Kant, The Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals (1785)

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