Ngugi and Fela - A Salute to two Afrocentrist Culture Warriors
Copyright © Chinweizu 2005
In the name of the only true religion, or higher civilization, or progress, century after century has witnessed the dismantling, deforming, and defaming of African institutions, a necessary precondition for the more perfect exploitation of African peoples and resources. This perennial onslaught has been waged not only by foreign invaders, but also by African converts to the alien cultures. --Jacob Carruthers, Intellectual Warfare, (1999), p.270
When Goebbels, the brain behind Nazi propaganda, heard the word culture, he reached for his pistol. This shows that the Nazis had a clear idea of the value of culture as a factor of resistance to foreign domination. --Amilcar Cabral, Unity and Struggle, (1980) p.139
Before the European conquest of Africa in the late 19th century, all African societies were Afrocentric, except for those few which had been partly Arabized or Europeanized. They were Afrocentric in the basic sense that (a) each society's language was the language of communication and culture for its members, and (b) each society educated its members for a full and un-alienated life within it. Under the Expatriate Colonialism that the conquerors imposed, Africa's societies were shattered and their broken cultures were forcibly swept to the margins as the European cultures of the imperialist powers were given center stage, and were empowered and entrenched. African languages were deprived of their ancient cultural roles; African institutions were dismantled, deformed and defamed; and the new education system deliberately alienated their victims from African life and groomed them to live as imitation Europeans, and in mental slavery to Europeans. Despite that European conquest and Europeanization of African societies, there has been a minority of African voices which rose to defend and revive the African way of life. Under the Comprador Colonialism that, at independence, replaced Expatriate Colonialism, such have been lonely voices crying in the wilderness, and their message, Afrocentrism, has largely fallen on the deaf ears of the African majority who are converts to Eurochauvinism.
A shortlist of those who defended or campaigned to reinvigorate African Civilization in 20th century Africa would include Chinua Achebe, Amos Tutuola, Okot p'Bitek, Ousmane Sembene, Ayi Kwei Armah, and Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o in literature; they, in their different ways, tried to tell the African story from the African standpoint, and to Africans, lest Africans completely forget who and what their people were. Outside literature, a shortlist would include Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko in political struggle, Cheikh Anta Diop and Alioune Diop in scholarship, Babs Fafunwa in Education, Innocent Onyewuenyi in philosophy and Fela Kuti in music. A rollcall of Afrocentrists in the African Diaspora, since the 18th century, would include Bookman, the inspirer of the Haitian liberation struggle; Dessalines who led that Haitian struggle to victory; and Marcus Garvey, the great apostle of global political Afrocentrism. Each of these occupies a distinctive place in the hall of the heroes of the Afrocentrist movement.
I would like to focus here on the Afrocentrists of the African homeland and briefly explore some patterns in their careers. Biko and Cabral were assassinated: Biko by the Europeans, and Cabral by their African agents. Since they were involved in struggles in which the Europeans used utmost force to mow down even unarmed schoolchildren, as in Soweto, the assassination of Cabral and Biko may be said to be expectable occupational risks. However, Ngugi and Fela are remarkable on two counts. First, they stand out because they were persecuted for their cultural work: Fela for boycotting FESTAC '77, an official cultural event, and for his satirical, consciousness-raising songs; and Ngugi for his theatre work. Some other African men of letters have, in contrast, been detained or jailed for their parapolitical activities, and some have even been executed for coup plotting or murder. It is not often that purely cultural activities have drawn reprisals from the state, so Fela and Ngugi are unusual in that way. Secondly, they suffered persecution, not at the hands of Europeans but of Africans who used the machinery of the Comprador Colonial State to brutalize and imprison Fela; and to detain Ngugi without trial, force him into exile and then brutalize him on his return, in 2004, from two decades of exile. Whereas the comprador colonial state has left other Afrocentrists to shout themselves hoarse in their lonely wilderness, it has found it necessary to persecute these two. Why?
To appreciate why Ngugi and Fela were so viciously attacked by their peers in the African comprador lumpenbourgeois elite, we need first to understand the mentality, aspirations and interests of that riffraff elite, and second to understand the effectiveness of the modes of campaigning against cultural imperialism which these two Afrocentrists employed.
Government insulated from a tranquilized population
The imperialist masters of the world need a system where their plutocratic government is insulated from popular critical awareness and interference. After WWII, Winston Churchill articulated this need thus:
The government of the world must be entrusted to the rich men dwelling at peace within their habitations [to protect] the interests of the satisfied nations [whose power places them] above the rest so they are not troubled by the hungry nations who seek more. --quoted in Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues, (1993), pp. 33, 61
The African lumpenbourgeois elite, like their imperialist masters, prefer to preside over and help to exploit a passive and tranquilized population, a population that is politically marginalized, socially atomized, culturally zombified, and thoroughly indoctrinated to feel apathetic and impotent about changing their condition.
The tranquilization recipe
How is this sort of population created and maintained in Africa? They are captured as children and taught, by school and church, to be ashamed of their ancestors, mother-tongue, ancestral religion, and even of the weather in their homeland. They are deliberately infected with historical amnesia, Afrophobia and Europhilia. They are inculcated with the belief that the European bourgeois way of life is the one and only good life to be sought at whatever sacrifice.
Cultural and political exclusion is achieved mainly through the language barrier: since, in the case of Anglophone Africa, English is the language of official communication and culture, those illiterate or otherwise incompetent in English are thereby excluded from participation in state affairs. They can only be mute spectators restrained from thrusting themselves into public affairs by a lack of self-confidence induced by their ineptitude in English. Isolated in their poverty, and cut off by high walls of illiteracy, they can languish in the ghetto of their devalued mother-tongues and their demonized ancestral religions. Social atomization is ensured by the individualist land tenure system with which imperialism extinguished the communal land holding system of ancestral African societies. Persons who shared ancestors and held land rights jointly were thereby obliged to organize their lives and political activities together; once this communalist foundation is destroyed, as was done during European conquest and expatriate colonialism, each person is let loose on its own, to eke out whatever it can from the overbearing system; and the population, however numerous, is left without an inherited and natural basis for communal solidarity and socio-political action. Furthermore, a population shorn of its historical memory lacks the inspiration of its own heroes, and has no rallying point for resistance to whatever is imposed on them, however humiliating.
In his masterly way Chinua Achebe summed up the Afrophobia-cum-Europhilia that is inculcated in Africans by the school, church, media and life generally under imperialism:
Africa has had such a fate in the world that the very adjective African can call up hideous fears of rejection. Better then to cut all the links with this homeland, this liability, and become in one giant leap the universal man. Indeed I understand this anxiety. But running away from oneself seems to me a very inadequate way of dealing with an anxiety.
For persons so indoctrinated, Afrocentrism, which calls them back to the African way, elicits psychic panic and threatens their precarious hold on the ladder to their cherished model of the good life. Yet that is precisely what Fela and Ngugi trigger in the comprador lumpenbourgeois African who is desperately upwardly mobile away from African primitivism to European civilization.
Fela's unsettling songs and image
The words of Fela's songs summon the lumpenbourgeois African back to African ways; they satirize, not only the European way, but also African apeing thereof. Perhaps even more unsettling to the lumpenbourgeois African psyche is Fela's self presentation in the semi-nudity of his panties. Fela's iconic nude-peasant-working-in-the-sweltering-sun attire conjures up, in the mind of the lumpenbourgeois African, everything he detests about the peasant life from which he is escaping; indeed, it conjures up everything that reminds him of what he has been taught to see and despise as African primitivism. Unlike Hindu society where the semi-naked Sadhu is venerated as a holy man and sage; unlike European society where the bikini clad beach girl is glamorized as a sex kitten, and where a stripped-to-his-panties Jimmy Weismuller was celebrated as Tarzan the hero; in lumpenbourgeois Africa, such semi nudity in black skin evokes anxieties about primitivism. Fela's message was delivered mostly in the pidgin English that appealed to the volatile proletarians and lumpen-proletarians of Lagos and other urban areas of Nigeria . If the message of Fela's words and his iconic presence and his volatile audience brought forth brutal nastiness from the lumpenbourgeois operatives of the Nigerian state, Ngugi's campaigns seemed calculated to terrify their counterparts in Kenya even more.
Ngugi's first campaign was ˜the Great Nairobi Literature Debate, 1968-74". It resulted in the Eurochauvinist curriculum of the Literature Department at the University of Nairobi , which focused on the English Tradition and the emergence of the modern West, being replaced with another in which African literature took the center, with all other literatures placed at the periphery and viewed in relationship to the African center. One key result of the change was a transformation of the idea of the good African, from the idiotic hero, the sell-out who collaborated with the European colonizer-- as he was depicted in literary works by the colonizers-- to the African who resisted colonialism, politically or militarily, as he was presented in literature by the colonized Africans. That successful curriculum campaign at the university initiated a trend that would spread to Kenya 's secondary schools by 1974.
Politics and Literary Language Ngugi's second campaign was through his recruitment in 1976 to help out in the Education and Cultural Center of Kimiriithu village. Through the communal theatre work at Kamiriithu, he participated in helping to revive Gikuyu's role as the language in which the people there explored their past, experienced their present and explored and advanced toward their future. As Njoki wa Njikura, a 70 year old peasant participant, put it in a 1982 newspaper interview, the Ngaahika Ndeenda experience showed how, through drama, children may know what their past was like and so that they may help in the building of a healthy society. The new play, Maitu Njugira, is equally important because very few Kenyans today know what it meant to be colonized in the 1930s which is what the play is about.
That sense and use of historical literature is in contrast with the comprador colonial African elites who, trapped in the English language and its alien cultural freight, did not know their people's history, and could not make it the basis of their lives and future.
Why was this rural theatre work so provocative to the comprador colonial state of Kenya ? Kamiriithu theatre used Gikuyu language, which enabled it to involve the peasantry, as well as the proletarians and lumpen-proletarians of rural and urban areas, and even some of the elite, like Ngugi himself, from the university. Though implicitly monoethnic, such an autonomous constituency that straddles class lines is a potential nightmare in the eyes of the lumpenbourgeois elite. In the imperialist system which they serve, autonomous organizations of the populace are considered inherently subversive. Kenya's comprador colonial state already felt accused by the anti-imperialist, anti-comprador contents of Ngugi's writings in English. It also was uncomfortable about the anti-imperialist impact of the Afrocentrist curriculum campaign. Though bad enough, all of that had been insulated from much social impact by the fact that they were targeted at those already in the English-literate section of the society, and therefore would have little direct impact on most ordinary Kenyans. But when Ngugi resorted to fraternizing with the feared and despised peasantry, and joined them in organizing a community theatre that used an African language, the elite felt threatened in several fundamental ways: The self-organization of the most de-politicized and atomized victims of the imperialist setup; the revival, through collective cultural work, of their communal solidarity and self worth; the ending of their amnesia of their history through composing historical drama; and the fostering in them of anti-imperialist spirit by the pro-Mau Mau content of the plays, all that constituted a potentially explosive cocktail.
Anything that teaches self-confidence and communal initiative to the depoliticized and atomized peasantry and proletariat is tantamount to agitating and setting fire to the bottom rungs of the ladder of exploitation on which the comprador vampires and their imperialist masters are perched. Anything capable of ending the enforced atomization, passivity and defeatism of the victims of the system could lead to a crisis of governance by helping them to collectively thrust their concerns into the political process. From organizing theatre, the compradors feared, it would be but a short step to organizing other, more menacing, things “like unions, demands for higher wages and benefits, and strikes that could destabilize the economy and even touch off a social earthquake. Any such development had to be prevented, and by the habitual resort to state violence. So, in order that Winston Churchill's ˜rich men" could continue ˜dwelling at peace within their habitations" untroubled by the ˜hungry nations" who ˜seek more"; and so that their local comprador agents and monkey's paws could feel secure in their commissions and possessions, the Kamiriithu experiment had to be stopped and a discouraging example had to be made of Ngugi, the ˜traitor" from his class. The Kamiriithu performances of Ngaahika Ndeenda were banned on 16 November 1977; Ngugi was detained without trial on 31 December 1977 and held in prison for all of 1978. When Kamiriithu regrouped in November 1981 to do the play Maitu Njugira, the center was outlawed on 11 March 1982, and on 12 March 1982 its open air theatre was razed to the ground. It should, perhaps, be noted that, for attempting to organize the unorganized lower classes in El Salvador ,in 1981-82, some 8200 union members were murdered, wounded or disappeared. In comparison, Ngugi, I suppose, was lucky to emerge alive from detention and go into exile.
What does Ngugi have to show for his pains. Quite a lot. Ngugi's exemplary decision, taken while in prison, to write only in Gikuyu, gave a fillip to Gikuyu and African language publishing in Kenya . His novel Caitaani Mutharaba-ini (Devil on the Cross) which he wrote in Gikuyu in his prison cell, was published in 1980 and became a bestseller, particularly in rural areas. Every one of his subsequent novels in Gikuyu has been a best seller too. So his publisher assures us. Furthermore Ngugi's example has stimulated publishing in African languages. Ngugi's publsher in Kenya testifies to this:
It is Ngugi's advice and the resultant exchange of views that encouraged me to give priority to oral literature in my publishing programs. It is Ngugi's conviction and my own willingness to experiment with some of his ideas that made me venture into publishing in African languages.
How should Ngugi's achievement for Gikuyu literature, and his persecution for it, be correctly understood? What examples from other lands can help us gain an illuminating perspective.
When a people, after a period of cultural suppression under foreign domination, begin to re-establish their human dignity, and to reassert their historical personality by re-becoming themselves, one of the chief ways they do so is by returning to, and revitalizing, their ancestral culture. In certain situations they do so by once again using their own language as their language of culture. For example, in Serbia in the 19th century, after three-and-half centuries of Turkish rule with its suppression of Serbian culture, the Serbs began a revival of literature in Serbian. Likewise, in Ireland where, after some seven centuries under English conquerors and settlers, Gaelic had almost died out as a spoken language and English had become entrenched as the language of culture among the Irish, the Gaelic Revival movement began, in the 19th century, to challenge the situation, and to reassert the historical personality of the Irish. In Spain in the 13th century, when the Reconquista had recovered most of Spain after five centuries of Arab rule, King Alphonso X, "the Wise", promoted historical and fictional literature in the vernacular, and thus created standard Old Spanish.
Even with a people trapped in the cultural legacy of long-vanished foreign rulers, there comes a time when they take the decisive step to develop their historical personality by using their own language as their language of culture. Such was the case in Europe some 1000 years after the collapse of the Roman Empire . During those 1000 years, Latin, the language of Rome , had remained the language of elite culture in the former western provinces of the long defunct Roman Empire . Then began a stirring of national consciousness, and vernacular languages began to emerge as languages of culture, resulting in what are today the official languages of the European countries, such as English, French and Italian. In the 14th century, some 1000 years after Roman rule ended in England and some 300 years into Norman rule in England, Chaucer with his stories played a pivotal role in the rise of English as a literary language. And in 14th century Florence, Dante with his masterpiece, greatly helped vernacular Italian to replace Latin as a literary language in Italy.
In late 20th century Kenya, in the aftermath of a British rule that suppressed the African cultures in Kenya, Ngugi's example helped Gikuyu specifically, and the African languages of Kenya generally, to revive themselves as languages of their people's cultures. When seen in the light of such examples from other societies, it is clear that Ngugi deserves high praise and honor from Kenyans. His persecution by the Kenyan government is as outrageous as would have been a persecution of Chaucer by the government of England for writing The Canterbury Tales and his other works in English rather than in Latin or French or Anglo-Norman; or a persecution of Dante by the rulers of Florence for writing his Divine Comedy and other works in Italian rather than Latin. So disgracefully wrongheaded and unpatriotic is the comprador elite of Kenya that, like Goebbels and the Nazis, it reached for its guns and goons to crush a stirring of Kenyan national culture at Kamiriithu so as to protect the structures for the imperialist exploitation of Kenyans.
Ngugi has, by his example, done for Gikuyu what Chaucer and Dante did for the flowering of literature in English and Italian in the 14th century. And his impact through helping to initiate an Afrocentrist educational curriculum in Kenya is also seminal. He has thereby contributed to realizing two of the strategic objectives of Afrocentrism, namely (1) to revive each African language as the language of communication and culture in its society; and (2) to restore Afrocentric education in each society.
The careers of Fela and Ngugi make it clear that campaigning for Afrocentrism in comprador colonial Africa can be a dangerous adventure. For persevering courageously with their campaigns despite the harsh reprisals they earned from their comprador elite peers, they are exemplary and deserve Africa's salute.
- --Achebe, Africa and her writers quoted in Ngugi Decolonising the Mind, (1986) p. 29
- quoted in Ngugi, Decolonising the Mind, (1986) p.60
- [Chomsky, Turning the Tide (1987) p.97]
- --Henry Chakava, Publishing in Africa: One Man's Perspective, (1996) p.62
Cabral, Amilcar (1980) Unity and Struggle, London : Heinemann Educational Books
Carruthers, Jacob (1999) Intellectual Warfare, Chicago : Third World Press
Chakava, Henry (1996) Publishing in Africa: One Man's Perspective, Bellagio , Italy :
Bellagio Publishing Network & Nairobi , Kenya : East African Educational Publishers
Chomsky, Noam (1993) Year 501:The Conquest ContinuesBoston : South End Press
Chomsky, Noam(1987) Turning the Tide, Boston : South End Press
Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1986) Decolonising the mind, London : James Currey
Copyright Â© 2005 by Chinweizu
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Â© Chinweizu 2005