Ali Jimale Ahmed

The transcript of the speech titled "African Solutions for African Problems: Limning the Contours of a New Form of Connectivity" delivered by poet and scholar Ali Jimale Ahmed at the 10th anniversary of the Hargeysa International Book Fair in July 2017.

Let me first thank Dr. Jama Musse Jama and his colleagues for inviting me to the 10th anniversary of the Hargeysa International Book Fair. Ten years is a long time to observe and gauge the development, consistency and staying power of a new idea. It is gratifying to know that the book fair, a fledgling project ten years ago, is now a full-fledged institution. But that is not all. Dr. Jama and his colleagues have succeeded in teaching by example: Thanks to him, we now have the Mogadishu Book Fair and Garoowe Book Fair, with many more book fairs cropping up on the horizon, and coming soon to a city near you. What this shows, then, is that people in Somalia are now emulating the good deeds of Jama and Co. He has shown that institutions can be built and sustained over the years. And for that, we give our thanks.

Now let us turn to the matter at hand.      

We live in interesting and challenging times, to quote from a purportedly age-old Chinese adage that never ceases to be relevant. Our time is the best of times and the worst of times. It is the worst of times in that history has mercilessly deposited us at a crossroads; and crossroads, by nature, baffle the traveler. This is the time when old ideas unmitigated by wit cannot help; it is also a moment in time when the future is still in its inchoate or embryonic stage. But our times also represent the best of times, for there are two ways to look at calamities or apocalyptic events. We could view the apocalyptic as a ground for despair, to paraphrase Gerald Graff. You could also see it—and seeing is an act of interpretation—as “a ground for celebration” (a ground for hope, that is).  In short, the apocalyptic could be interpreted through its antiphony, the visionary. Apocalypse, as you know, signifies rebirth, renewal. It is the end of the world as we knew it or have known it. And the end, as in all endings, is a prelude to a new beginning.   And while it is painful to be living in a time when self—both communal and individual-- and history collide, it is also a moment of immense opportunity, as truth, to paraphrase a Somali proverb, is born or created at the dissolution of another truth.  I have mentioned elsewhere that all forms of crisis should be seen and embraced as challenges. The Chinese word for “crisis” is weiji, which consists of two characters: danger and opportunity. So in the midst of crises, one finds opportunities. But to find opportunity in the bosom of crisis, one must be willing to think outside the box.

What the times—difficult as they might be-- allow us, then, is to imagine new ways of confronting problems. They help us rethink the past, and envision a better future. Thus, the rallying (epiphanal) cry around which coalesces the slogan “African solutions to African problems” involves nothing less than looking at the world with fresh eyes, which implies transforming our consciousness. By consciousness is meant a process through which a person’s mind becomes aware or cognizant of something and in the process becomes willing to strive for its realization.  With our consciousness thus transformed and equipped, our surroundings and the world beyond would no longer be able to taunt us, as before. The plural sense of the transformation is intentional.  A transformation that does not go beyond an individual consciousness cannot claim to bring about or usher in a new way of looking at the world. The kind of consciousness transformation alluded to here is best captured by a Somali proverb: “Cir tarraaray rag tashaday waa tolikaraa, taako labadeede” (After steep consultations, men of good will could mend holes in the sky). The operative words in the proverb are: “consultations,” mend, and the phrase “holes in the sky.”  Consultations imply or spring forth from discourse, discussions, and debates where the participants seriously reflect on the issues and are allowed to freely formulate their views, while at the same time upholding the rights of others to speak their mind. The implication here is that the outcome of such consultations would empower the community or the participants to perform duties they would otherwise be unable to accomplish individually or under tyrannical conditions. In short, the community, after lengthy, robust and fruitful consultations, would be able to commission expeditions to repair holes in the sky. (Imagine the power and reach of this African proverb, no doubt coined before the age of Sputnik satellites and Apollo spaceflights.)

For my purposes here, the operative term that interests me most is “consultations,” as all subsequent actions hinge on it, as it points to how the coming together of a community to chart its own path may be freed from the tyranny of the quotidian. Consultations allow the community to produce ideas by harnessing the best minds available in its midst. And here is where the concept of connectivity assumes a new meaning for me. Connectivity entails the ability, the willingness, to reclaim our narrative, reinterpret it, and rethink and reproblmatize its contours.  The emphasis here is on a kind of connectivity in which Africans become aware of the existential threats arrayed against them. In other words, “Subjectivity”, to quote from Liu Zaifu, “is first a problem of human beings’ ontological existence [before it is] a problem of epistemology.” In this speech, I’ll use “subjectivity” and “agency” synonymously. In the words of Wimal Dissanayake, the “’agent’ …denotes the locus from which an action can be initiated, whether it be one of reconfirmation or resistance.” (In Bakhtinian terms, this means that the agent moves from an “authoritarian enforced discourse” to an “internally persuasive discourse.”) This kind of connectivity is spearheaded by subjects who are aware of their historical responsibility and who are empowered as agents able and willing to take their destiny into their own hands. Connectivity thus viewed is “globalization writ African, writ human.” If by globalization we mean the free movement and circulation of ideas, people, and commodities, then the kind of connectivity implicit in my speech is one that gauges the content, reach, drift, extent, and purpose of communication among Africans—of all shades of knowledge, countries, cities, and across time and space. Being connected means being an active member of a community, a place, a movement. More important, being connected means knowing “why.”

Seen thus, connectivity has always been there, as people were always connected to some place or cause, etc. The new connectivity, in addition to making use of old conductors such as physical infrastructures (land, sea and air transportation lanes), also relies on a new conductor: it’s fueled by a digital age. The new connectivity therefore calls for a willed intention with roots in a nuanced political consciousness. This demand necessitates the need for a new appraisal of the African condition. It has been said before that Africa is a sleeping giant, that Africans saw themselves as people being deprived (from without) of their rights to improve their lives. In the words of Abdillahi Qarshe, father of Somali music: “Hadhuub nin sitoo hashiisa irmaan/Ha maalin la leeyahaan ahay” (I am a man who carries a milk vessel and who/Is forbidden to milk his own she-camel), (John Johnson, 1974:80). “From without” refers to both internal and external powers, as it also carries or is borne across time in the sense of pre- and post-colonial epochs. To be forbidden to milk is to be denied access to your natural wealth, whether the denial is in the form of refusing to share technological know-how or technology transfer or through other more blatant forms of domination; the intention in all cases is to frustrate African efforts to qualitatively ameliorate their lives. The obstacles placed in the people’s path to ameliorate their life could also come from within, as national states might resort to tactics that mimic those of erstwhile colonial masters.

On such occasions, the state in power shows intolerance or reluctance to let any contumacy go unpunished, even when those deemed recalcitrant are exercising rights already enshrined in the state’s own charters/laws.  Such was the case in the 1980s when a group of young professionals returned to this city, Hargeysa, from abroad and from other regions of the then Somali Democratic Republic (SDR). They all came back, in the words of Jama Musse Jama, to “undertake on a voluntary basis anything to improve the living conditions of their people and the city. They were of the same age, in their early 30s, and they shared the enthusiasm with which they wanted to improve the quality of the life in the city” (My Teachers’ Group, 18). As is the case in moments of severe scarcity and degradation, the call for action to pool society’s resources to help themselves resonated well with the residents of the city. Here was a group of learned and talented professionals, including teachers, medical doctors, and entrepreneurs and various individuals from the middle class, all united to do something about the deteriorating situation in their beloved city. The returnees came back to schools and hospitals that were mere shadows of their former existence. Their return also coincided with a severe brain drain, as teachers and health professionals were leaving in droves in search of greener pastures. Some went to Yemen; others tried their luck in the Gulf countries. In the process, those left behind floundered in despair, as schools were dilapidated and lacked qualified teachers.  The young professionals summoned up all they could to bring about a transformation in the consciousness of the people of Hargeysa. They called on people to help themselves, for God helps those who help themselves. The international community and their NGO representatives praised the gallant work of the young professionals. They called them the “Hargeisa Self-help Group.” The people of Hargeysa gave a different and distinctive name to the group; they called them “UFFO,” referring to, as Jama explains, the ‘“whirlwind” that usually precedes the rain in the tropical climate’ (n.2, p.18). Jama Musse, on the other hand, prefers to give the group the sobriquet: “My Teachers’ Group,” as most of his high school teachers were members of the group. Here was the beginning of a group that believed in finding solutions to some of the problems that beset their society. Their work must be seen as a microcosm of the subtitle of my speech: African solutions to African problems (ASAP). The acronym for “as soon as possible,” resonated well with the intentions of the group, whose philosophy was grounded in a Somali precept: “Hawl aan ku horeyn, horaa loo qabtaa” (Work that could not wait must be expedited); in essence, that which could not be avoided must be performed in advance.   This early form of self-help work demonstrates that the ASAP has precedence in the continent, and does indeed demonstrate the African people’s determination to improve their lot by finding solutions to their problems.

And it is here where I propose to shift the terms of the debate. The call, oftentimes, prioritizes peace-keeping efforts that are in the main meant to correct, mend, or bolster a broken system. Peacekeeping more often than not points to a simple fact, namely, civility and bonds are given to the dogs. The peacekeeping precept or effort, then, is a way to create a breathing space for the combatants in the hope of reviving those broken communal bonds, and bringing back a sense of national consciousness. My argument in this speech is to imagine the terms of the debate a bit differently. Peace and its dividends are not lost on the African people. Societies are aware that with peace come prosperity and a modicum of stability, that war and the threat of war instill fear and unease in the minds of people. A Somali adage has it that “Men’s real ‘gogol’ or bed is peace. (“Rag gogoshii waa godob la’aan.”) Only in the absence of fear of retribution would men be able to sleep well, in peace.  The operative phrase is “godob la’aan” (without a prior or unattended “injury.” That is, the victim’s relatives were not given any form of solatium or compensation for this injury.

 In short, it’s obvious that without peace, no human would be able to function in society. What I would rather propose is that we imagine a time before the conflict, when conflicts could be averted, in much the same way we could build dikes and barriers to proactively protect a city, a country, from flooding. Again, a Somali proverb says, “Daad inta uusan ku soo gaarin ayaa la iska moosaa,” meaning, before flooding strikes or reaches you, make sure that you protect yourself against it. It simply means: to prevent flooding, construct levee dikes or walls. (Put simply: Prevention is better than cure.) Now how do we avert the dangers of imminent conflicts, those that are in their inchoate stages? I once proposed the formation of an institution that could signal the advent of conflicts. That is, an institution that could alert us to the coming of the storm.

In African traditions and cultures, we find a plethora of poems and oral narratives and even snippets of anecdotal sayings that, collectively understood, could signal a sound warning system against communal violence. In Somali society, anyone who had a modicum of knowledge of Somali lore could foresee the gathering storm in what some thought was a distant sky. All we had to do was pay attention to and heed well the poetry and stories that populated the Somali consciousness. How did clans view themselves and their others? Many intellectuals who claimed to possess progressive and socialist ideas at the time demonstrated the chasm between their professed ideologies and their daily living and practices. Alas, some could not even see how they were implicated in their actions and ideologies. The rest of society, especially those who were thought to be on the margins, the bulk of the nation, was not to be duped. They could see through the elite’s political skullduggery. The Somali masses could concur with the words of the Congolese [Zairian] woman, who, perplexed with the excesses of the political establishment, lamented: “When will this Independence come to an end?” (The anecdote could be part of the ignored or unattended apocryphal narratives that dot the landscape of African culture.) The lament was more of a disappointment with how those in power were conducting themselves and the affairs of the nation. In short, she had a practical consciousness, to borrow from Raymond Williams, one that made her see through the empty rhetoric of those leading the nation. And here is where I am going with this: had we heeded the lady’s prophetic verdict on Mobotu and his goons, perhaps the Congolese people could have spared themselves the pain and anomy that later ensued or came on the heels of the collapse of the regime. The same is true of the Somali case. In the early 1980s (1983, to be exact), I gave a talk at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles on Somali language, culture, and politics. In the Q&A section, a student asked me if I could sniff the air and tell them what I thought would become of the SDR in the coming ten years. In retrospect, I am amazed by the ease with which I responded: “A vicious civil war will engulf the whole country and Somalia will disintegrate.”  There were two or three Somalis in the audience, and I was surprised that none took issue with my assertion. How did I know, since I never claimed to possess a crystal ball? My early interest in Somali culture, coupled with what was going on in parts of the country, especially the turmoil and oppression that citizens in Hargeysa and other places were going through was decisive here, unless one preferred to sink his head, ostrich-like, in the sand, it was obvious that the situation was untenable, and that, sooner or later, something had to give. I would hazard a thought here: the Rwandan situation would not be that different than their Zairian and Somali counterparts. I posit that that if we could listen carefully to the poetry and oral narratives in Kinyarwanda, or its parent language Rwanda-Rundi, one would find hints, threads, or snippets that point to the brewing storm that led to the genocide. Traditions are made by humans; while circumstances create humans, humans are not mere sponges that absorb with no change in the makeup of the sponge. Thus, it is important to listen with our ears, our hearts, our being. “Do you hear me doesn’t mean “Can you hear me?” Rather, it means “Do you understand me?”

The call for a return to African culture and tradition to solve African problems should entail knowing what the source and its derivatives are. The return also takes a simple fact into account: neither the returnee nor the source is the same, because of the dialectical nature of reality. It is here that we need a new way of theorizing about the past, one that would compel us to steer clear of romanticizing the past. As I said before, any attempts to resuscitate the past should be mediated by wit. The past thus called on would yield positive results/fruition.

Imagine for a minute the role the following African traditions still play in the lives of people: the Gada system of the Oromos in Ethiopia and elsewhere, the Rwandan Gacaca, the Kgotta system in Botswana, and the Geedka Xeerka in Somali tradition. (Remember, I said: Somali tradition; I differentiate here between what I called elsewhere discourses of the nation and discourses of the state.)

The Oromo in Ethiopia had over the centuries a socio-political system that ensured the smooth running of their affairs. In Gada: Three Approaches, Asmarom Legesse writes:

The gada system is a system of classes (luba) that succeed each other every eight years

in assuming military, economic, political and ritual responsibilities. Each gada class

remains in power during a specific term (gada) which begins and ends with a formal

         power transfer ceremony.  (81)

What is amazing about this system is its visionary power. The Oromos early on understood the importance of taking turns; in other words, the importance, to speak in contemporary jargon, of term limits. But the system also views community leadership in a holistic manner; thus, the amalgamation of the political, economic, and ritual matters of the community. This ensures that the gada class in power does not remain aloof or become ensconced in ivory towers somewhere in the capital. When the term of a group expires, the outgoing administration gives its blessings to the new incoming gada class. This ensures a smooth transfer of power in all its facets. We cannot underestimate the soothing effect this kind of system would have on the psyche of those waiting for their turn. It ensures stability.

That said, I want to emphasize and reiterate the need to avoid all forms of romanticizing the past. The gada system also had negative side-effects, whether intended or not. Again, in the words of Legesse, “Before assuming a position of leadership, the gada class is required to wage war against a community that none of their ancestors had raided. The particular war is known as butta and is waged on schedule every eight years” (81). That aspect of the tradition is something we could live without. We could prove our machismo and bravery through more constructive channels.

I’ll touch briefly on the remaining three systems—kgottla, gacaca, and the geedka xeerka. The kgotta is in simple terms a “meeting place,” specifically a community forum held in a chief’s court. The idea is to ensure that people contribute to the running of their affairs, and in the process solidify the ramparts of “social harmony” (ka gisano, in Tswana). The application of the other two systems is important in that both systems came to the rescue of their respective users. The gacaca is a Kinyarwanda word meaning a kind of grass on which people sit when they need to discuss or adjudicate matters of interest to the community. This system came in handy for Rwandans trying to heal the painful experience of the 1994 carnage. The court system inherent in the gacaca deliberations expedited the process of reconciling victims and perpetrators of the genocide. It is partly a kind of talking therapy in which the victims speak their minds and let off steam. The villains also own up to their crimes, and in the process attempt to come to terms with their past. The important element which accentuates its effect is the presence of the two parties in the same space, within hearing distance of each other. The villain can feel and palpably perceive the extent of his/her actions on the victim. Yet this is not to institute or maintain a kind of victim-victor stasis. The exercise is meant to learn from the past and put in place some mechanism that would guard against a repetition of past injustices, against future blunders.

The geedka xeerka is a venerable Somali tradition that all kinds of Somalis have practiced over the years. Xeerbeegti or guurti (those steeped in customary laws) meet under the shade of a tree, whether it’s a galool, or Yaaq or mukki, etc. After the civil war, the people of Somaliland decided to gather under the shade of a symbolic tree to chart a new vision for their people. The gathering met in the important and blessed town of Boorama. After months of deliberations, a verdict was hammered out, and Somaliland came into being. Under the shade of the geedka met representatives from all walks of life. The system ensured that discussion and civil discourse carried the day. (Perhaps this is a model for other Somalis in Somalia to emulate. I have been on record that I have no objections to Somaliland and its efforts to achieve independence and hopefully joining world bodies. It is in our interest that Somalis live amicably and as good neighbors. As a Punjabi proverb has it, “When halter and heel-ropes are cut, do not give chase with sticks but with gram (grain).” We must acknowledge that ruptures have taken place, and ruptures are steeped in contradictions; and contradictions have a history. Unless you can understand the pain of the other, you won’t be able to empathize with humans. Ethical imperatives compelled me to call Hargeysa the Somali Guernica—almost 20 years ago.

(That said, I would be remiss not to add that I foresee a time when nations and groupings in a region might be compelled by life’s vicissitudes and vagaries to seek shelter in numbers. But that should not be precipitated through compulsion and force or even unnecessary and unproductive tug-of-war. The more the status quo drags on, the more intransigence becomes entrenched.)        

What do the traditional systems mentioned above have in common? They all refer to a gathering of citizens under the shade of a tree or sitting on soft bristle grass, or, in modern parlance, meeting under the symbolic shade of a modern conference hall. The intention or objective of the gathering is to come to terms with the reality on the ground. The intention is to solve a problem. The intention is to rethink the issues by reinventing or reinterpreting existing traditional fora, with a view to reinventing ourselves. The gada and geedka have similar etymological roots: both refer to shade and shelters, and, synecdochically, share with the other two systems the search for truth and reconciliation through a process of intense and honest meeting of minds. Taken together, the four systems exhort people to find solutions to their problems by availing themselves of mechanisms already built into the structure of their traditions. By tradition is not meant something that is out of date, antiquated. Rather, as V.Y. Mudimbe writes in The Invention of Africa, “tradition (traditio) means discontinuities through a dynamic continuation and possible conversion of tradita (legacies). As such, it is part of a history in the making” (189). Thus, I propose, again that in the search for African solutions to African problems, we prioritize culture. I have elsewhere defined culture as “the way of life of a community, which encompasses its values, knowledge about itself, and how that knowledge is described, mythologized, allegorized, and prescribed in discursive modes, over time. To put it in another way, culture connotes the articulation and crystallization of tradition, custom, and belief systems of a community, which are, in turn, preserved and disseminated through chronicle and ritual” (The Road Less Traveled, 1). [The definition does not claim to be exhaustive, no definition could. In Cartographies of Diaspora, Avtar Brah states that in 1952 Theodore Kroeber and Clyde kluckhohn could identify more than 164 definitions of “culture” [1996:18]). By now it should be evident that my purpose here is to underline the importance of culture for any attempts to find solutions for our seemingly intractable problems. My argument is not to allocate to culture a hegemonic space that trivializes other spheres of life. Rather, the argument is based on the importance of stories, narratives that allow us to enter into other people’s lives. Stories as edifying material compel us to commune with ourselves and in the process lead us to formulate an imperatively ethical understanding of the other. Narratives, in short, bring to the fore the materiality of experience.

Let me illustrate this point with an example from Sembene Ousmane’s novel Xala. The protagonist, El Hadj Abdou kader Beye, loses his virility at exactly the moment when he is at the height of his power. Fear and shame overwhelm him. (Of course, this is before the age of Viagra, etc.) In a bid to regain his manhood, he travels far and near to find a cure. In the process, he loses his wealth and power. The narrative ends with El hadj Beye brought down to his knees and asked to sit naked before a small assembly of unlikely judges, who claim to have a cure for his ailment/illness.  The cure is found in their spitting on him, sitting naked before them. (This tradition is akin to what the Somali academic and poet Mohamed Eno calls “Tuf or blessed spitting” [306].) The erstwhile arrogant businessman is humiliated in the presence of his family. The beggars who humble the big man are none other than lowly peasants who have lost their share of a tract of a prebendal, communally owned land that Beye swindled from them with the stroke of a pen. Beye’s willingness to accept the terms of the cure indicates or reveals the depth of the transformation wrought on his consciousness by the experience. Here I posit that Sembene indigenizes both the problem and its solution:  the impotence that challenges Beye, and by extension, Senegal, as a postcolony that is linguistically, economically, politically, and culturally impotent. A reminder of Thomas R. Kanza’s pithy statement: “Independent Africa is not yet free.” The paradox is equally true of Beye and his coterie of colleagues who claim to be the “synthesis of two cultures.”

Sembene is a novelist, and as such does not prescribe solutions. Instead he suggests, and it’s up to the reader to extrapolate a meaning. This early call for connectivity to place and tradition in order to find solutions for African problems will find voice in later narratives by African authors.

The call also found early resonance with African philosophers. The call for African renaissance was made by Cheikh Anta Diop as early as the late 1940’s. In his Towards the African Renaissance: Essays in Culture and Development, 1946-1960, Diop points to the need for a comprehensive understanding of the African past in order to vault into a better future. That early call was resuscitated by the former president of the Republic of South Africa. Thabo Mbeki’s African Renaissance initiative hinges on a complex balancing of the nexus between development, culture, and economic growth, for which the requisite elements are good governance, peace, and stability. While there is hardly anything to quibble about the president’s initiative, I am of the opinion that we are still putting the cart before the donkey. Good governance, peace, and stability will be had after we give our cultures solid anchoring.  For me, “it’s the culture, the culture, the culture.” Our survival hinges on a comprehensive understanding of the confluence of culture and other forms of the social, political and economic life of the African. It’s perhaps to this end that the African Renaissance Institute in Pretoria, with its headquarters in Gaborone, Botswana, was founded. This is a philosophical and political movement. 

And until we revamp our priorities and reinvent ourselves by dialectically shifting the terms of the debate, we’ll be in this rut. For culture informs and shapes the kind of stories we tell about ourselves, the stories we suppress to account for our being weaklings. It’s a dialectical return to our cultures that would compel us to account for and correct the misperception of Africa as “a scar on the conscience of the world,” to quote the former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Mr. Blair adds, and “[I]f the world as a community focused on it, we could heal it. And if we don’t, it will become deeper and angrier” (Blair’s comments were made at the Labour Party Conference October 2004).   (Here I do not mean to cast aspersions on Mr. Blair’s intentions, even when you reflect on the repetition of the inanimate, third person “it” that he employs to characterize the scar, in lieu of humans living with the effects of colonialism and its aftermath. Rather, my concern is: How does it feel to be a scar on the conscience of the world? Perhaps it’s about time that we asked Africans themselves to proffer some thoughts on this. Perhaps a book on this topic is in order. A book to accompany W.E. B. Du Bois’s “How does it feel to be a problem,” and its reincarnation in Moustafa Bayoumi’s How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?)

Now fast-forward to June 2017. At the last G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, German Chancellor Angela Merkel gave a speech at the “G20 Africa Partnership--Investing in a Common Future,” and her speech is qualitatively more nuanced than Blair’s. In her speech, the tone and drift of her comments are meant to foster an ambience conducive to humans talking to one another at a human level. She early on asserts the fact that “pan-global development can only succeed if all continents share in such development.” Then she talks about something that reminded me of Levinas’s use of the term “pathways”, when she says: “This also means, first and foremost, that the African continent has to make progress on its development pathway over the next few years” (5th paragraph; 12 June 2017 in Berlin). Levinas calls for dialectical ways through which the ethical traditions of the West could be encountered through culturally specific pathways. The encounter implied here is one that actively engages and that does not assimilate the other. Chancellor Merkel speaks of the need to speak with Africa and not about Africa. “That’s why,” she says, “[the initiative put forward by her ministers of Finance and Development] is called the Compact with Africa, not the compact for Africa” (6th paragraph). And then comes, the penultimate paragraph that goes beyond anything I have heard from a Western or African politician before. She says: “Ladies and gentlemen, this conference also serves to draw our attention to the differences between your countries, to the diversity of challenges faced in Africa. […] And so let me ask all of you here today not to mince words, to talk “tacheles”, as we say in Germany. Simply saying nice things doesn’t achieve anything. We have to learn from one another. And we need results. That’s what we are here for” (emphasis added). Tacheles is to speak in plain terms or to make a clean breast of it. What the Somalis call: Laabxaar.  (Hopefully some African leaders at the conference did not interpret her words as a kind of stratagem, a ploy, meant to “let a hundred flowers bloom.” The Somalis have a saying along those lines: Ayaa la rabaa in laga hadalsiiyo? [Who is going to be baited to speak their mind?])  

Following on the heels of the Chancellor’s historic and frank speech, let me not mince words and finish my speech with some proposals for the future.

We must own our research agenda; imbue it with our values, a robust African normative vision, with a locally conceived, locally-tailored epistemology.

We must shift the terms of the debate away from purely reactive concepts like peacekeeping.

We must understand that the slogan, “African Solutions to African problems,” is a call for action, one that emanates from the depths of a people willing to unleash a new subjectivity, willing to become catalysts for the change they hope to see.

We must transcend the myopic, mutual suspicions among African leaders (whose head should go on the block? Remember the story of the 3 oxen and the shrewd hyena).

We must do all the heavy lifting necessary for our wellbeing/development, if we wish to reverse the hemorrhage that is slowly killing us; a hemorrhage that has given us nothing but a triage economy, a triage everything, including the young and the able-bodied of the continent dying in coffin ships reminiscent of the Middle Passage; only this time, we are rushing to our own death. (Here we are not even given the benefit of the doubt: Think what could have happened if Britain and other countries were not able to send excess population to the colonies? Read Cecil Rhodes’ speech. If Europe exported itself out of depression, on our backs, why can’t we do the same? Here I’m not talking about reparations, though that, too, is suitable grist for discussion.)

We must understand how each country’s liberation, including African women’s liberation, is tied to the total emancipation of the African people.

We must remember bell hooks’s apt observation about the requisites for being a community: we were a community, not because we were black, but because of what we did together.

We must cultivate the need for what I would call “dialectical anticipation”, something akin to the Nchi bird’s practical wisdom culled from heuristic observations of its world: Ever since men learned how to shoot straight, I also learned how to dodge their bullets. (African leaders and even scholars are oftentimes taken aback by the crispiness of the argument/points/discussion of their counterparts.)

The new connectivity and the call for African solutions to African problems do not advocate a kind of epistemological nihilism; we could and should learn from other people’s experiences; the need is to contextualize the experience.   

Finally, we must remember that it’s only the shoe wearer who knows where the shoe pinches; and that chance favors the prepared mind.

And since this year’s guests to the Book Fair are from South Africa, let me end my speech with:

Woza Africa! Rise up, Africa!  



Works Cited

Achebe, Chinua. Things Fall Apart. New York: Anchor, 1994. Print.

Bayoumi, Moustafa. How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.

Brah, Avtar. Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities. London & NY: Routledge, 1996. Print.

Dissanayake, Wimal. “Introduction/Agency and Cultural Understanding: Some Preliminary Remarks.” Narratives of Agency: Self-Making in China, India, and japan. Ed. Wimal Dissanayake. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1996. Ix-xxi. Print.

Bu Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1994. Print.

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