Europhone or African Memory: the Challenge of the Pan-Africanist Intellectual in the Era of Globalization1

Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o is Distinguished Professor in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Irvine. At the same time he is Director of the University’s International Center for Writing and Translation. H)

The current global situation, a world being shaped by the imperative of capitalist fundamentalism with its quasi-religious ideology of privatization and imperial requirements for the unfettered movement of capital across national borders, poses a special challenge to social science and the general search for and organization of knowledge in Africa today. Fundamentalism, secular or religious, is a belief, a claim and an assertion that there is only one way of organizing reality, and the demand that all conform to that way or else be excommunicated from the global temple of true believers and in some cases be hauled to hell.

The economic panacea dished out to all who seek out loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund has the same identical demand, privatize or perish, and the homily, leave everything, even your social fate, to the tender mercies of the market. This fundamentalism of finance capital and the elevation of the market to a universal deity are generating other fundamentalisms, religious and secular, either in alliance with it or in opposition. These forces are at the heart of globalization, itself not necessarily new historical phenomena, but nevertheless moving at a breakneck speed, to a possible mutation into a form qualitatively different from its earlier manifestations in the evolution of capitalist modernity. The ever-changing speed and sophistication of technologies of information hasten this economic integration of the globe. It facilitates, for instance, the management of global enterprises from a single center and also the instant movement of capital in and out of national borders.

But they also speed up the social integration of the globe, with the world being shaped in the image of a consuming West. A global middle class with similar tastes and style of life is emerging. The knowledge and information shared in a global neighborhood, results in a global intellectual community. And yet, what emerges from this global neighborhood is not the equality, fraternity, sisterhood, liberty, the mutual dependency and care of the traditional peasant neighborhood where neighborliness is truly a moral value, with its emphasis on hospitality over hostility. No, this global neighborhood hosts hostile camps!

Thus the major character of the emerging globe is the division of the world into a minority of very wealthy creditor nations, mostly Western–and who, incidentally, also harbor weapons of mass destruction–and a majority of debtor nations, mostly African, Asian and South American–who, incidentally, are always buying arms from the same dominant group–and within each nation, a yawning gap between a wealthy tiny social stratum and a poor social majority, the mean between and within nations being squeezed out, the world becoming shared by opposing extremes of poverty and wealth, the poor ironically adding to the wealth of the wealthy through debt slavery. It has happened before in history when slavery fuelled the beginnings of capitalist modernity in the seventeenth century. The tragedy of the dawn of capital is being replayed, almost four hundred years later, as a grim comedy of the wealthy nations and social classes within nations literally gobbling up ninety percent of the results of global social production. This consumption includes that of information and knowledge and you know the saying that information is power.

Despite her vast natural and human resources, indeed despite the fact that Africa has always provided, albeit unwillingly, resources that have fuelled capitalist modernity to its current stage of globalization, Africa gets the rawest deal. This is obvious in the areas of economic and political power. But this is also reflected in the production and consumption of information and knowledge. As in the political and economic fields, Africa has been a player in the production of knowledge. The increase in universities and research centers, though with often shrinking resources, have produced great African producers of knowledge in all fields such that brilliant sons and daughters of Africa are to be found in all the universities in the world. The constellation of thinkers and researchers around CODESRIA is a testament to this. So why the raw deal for Africa, even in the consumption of knowledge produced by the sons and daughters of Africa?

It is only fitting and proper that we raise this question at this gathering to mark and celebrate thirty years of the existence of CODESRIA2 founded in 1973 by African social scientists with the noble and most appropriate aim of developing scientific capacities and tools that would further the cohesion, well-being and development of African societies, the founding visionaries being very conscious that the Council would be considered to be meaningful only if a conscious effort was made to foster a pan-African community of intellectual workers active in and connected to the continent, the accent being on commitment to that connection. Thus Pan-Africanism has always been embedded in the ideals and ambitions of CODESRIA.
The fact that thirty years later we are all gathered here, on African soil, from the different parts of the continent and from the four corners of the globe, bespeaks of the success of those laudable aims and it is only fit that the grand finale is organized around the theme of Pan-Africanism. It is indeed a remarkable continuity, an intellectual effort and output of which Africa should be proud, for it is a continuity which has resulted in the production of a dazzling array of books, journals and monographs. CODESRIA is reflective of the vitality of intellectual production in Africa and by Africans all over the world.

Has this vitality resulted in the enhancement of a scientific and democratic intellectual culture? Are African intellectuals and their production really connected to the continent? Even from a cursory glance at the situation it is clear that there is a discrepancy between the quality and quantity of this production of knowledge and the quality and quantity of its consumption by the general populace. Ours has been a case of trickle-down-knowledge, a variation of the theory of trickle-down economics, a character of capitalist modernity, reflected more particularly in its colonial manifestation, which of course is the root base of modern education in Africa.
And here I am talking of social production and consumption of knowledge and information in the whole realm of thought, from the literary to the scientific. Since our very mandate as African producers of knowledge is to connect with the continent, it behooves us to continually reexamine our entire colonial heritage, which includes the theory and practice of trickle-down knowledge. This means in effect our having to continually examine our relationship to European memory in the organization of knowledge.

Wherever Europe went in the globe, it planted its memory. It did so first on the landscape: Europe mapped, surveyed the lay of the land, and then named it.3 The classic text of the colonial process, Shakespeare’s Tempest, illustrates this. You remember that when Prospero first arrives at the Caribbean island inherited by Caliban from his mother Sycorax, he learns everything about the island from its own native, and then renames whatever Caliban shows him. The colonial explorer’s journal is a record of his acts of planting memory on the landscape. The East Coast of America for instance becomes New England. The Great Lake that links Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania and the most important source of the Nile becomes Lake Victoria. In fact after 1884, the African landscape becomes covered with French, British, German, Italian or Portuguese memory. It is in the naming of the landscape that we can so clearly see the layering of one memory over another, a previous native memory of place buried under another; a foreign alluvium, becoming the new visible identity of a place.

The same Europe planted its memory on the bodies of the colonized. One way of looking at Western Christianity is as a vast renaming ritual. To name is to express a relationship, mostly of ownership, as was seen in plantation slavery where slaves were branded with the name of its owner and when they changed plantations or when the same plantation was taken up by another owner, they were made to take up the new name, a marker of their new identity as the property of the new owner. There is that horror scene in Sembene Ousmane’s film, Ceddo, where this ownership and identity is branded on the body of the slave with hot iron. The forcible religious renaming is very much a cultural continuation of that violent tradition. In colonized Africa Christian converts had to abandon their names and take on holy ones like James, Iron-monger, Margaret, Bush or Smith. One could never be received in the Christian Heaven without a European name. As a result, European names, like the iron brands of Sembene’s film, cling to the body of many African peoples and whatever they achieve that “name” is always around to claim its ownership of that achievement. A name given and accepted is a memory planted on the body of its grateful or unquestioning recipient. The body becomes a book, a parchment, where ownership and identity are forever inscribed.

Europe went further and planted its memory on the intellect. This was achieved through an imposition of European languages on the conquered. In Africa this meant raising European languages to the level of an ideal whose achievement was the pinnacle of pure enlightenment. But language comes with culture and the role of English, for instance in the recruiting of new servants of the empire from among the colonized, was best articulated by Lord Macaulay when he saw the teaching of English in India as producing a class of natives, Indian in blood and color, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect, a class which would stand as interpreters between the English and the people they governed, a buffer between the real owners of the Empire and the vast masses of the owned.
Language is a means of organizing and conceptualizing reality; it is also a bank for the memory generated by human interaction with the natural social environment. Each language, no matter how small, carries its memory of the world. Suppressing and degrading the languages of the colonized meant also marginalizing the memory they carried and elevating to a desirable universality the memory carried by the language of the conqueror. This obviously includes elevation of that language’s conceptualization of the world, including that of self and others.
There is the famous encounter between Friday and Robinson Crusoe in Defoe’s novel of the same title. Here Friday is assumed to be a kind of tabula rasa with no previous knowledge of the world and Crusoe takes on the duty and responsibility of educating his new human possession and this starts with language, Crusoe’s language of course. “Your name is Friday because I found you on a Friday. And my name is Master.” Their relationship of inequality is defined and normalized by language.

Europe also planted its memory on method. We go back to the same Shakespeare’s classic, The Tempest. Here, in the relationship between Prospero and Caliban we get illuminations of colonial knowledge and scholarship and, in fact, its very method. Initially, it is the native informant who knows everything about the immediate environment including the location of water and means of survival. It is the native informant who imparts this local knowledge to the colonial intellectual, in the form of an explorer or administrator who codes it into his language.

Historically we get the same process in the encounter between Christopher Columbus and the Amerindian world he thinks is Asia. Columbus’ journal is among the first of a long line of other intellectual servants of capitalist modernity renaming the landscape.After waxing rhapsodic about the beauty of the Caribbean islands and the generous reception by the natives, Columbus then seizes some of them “in order that they might learn and give me information of that which there is these parts ... I shall take them with me.”4 Learning, or shall we say education, is tied in with capture and enslavement. Presumably what he learns from the learned captives is coded in Columbus European language, in this case Portuguese.

Somewhere in this process, the original text and memory of place is lost or becomes forever buried under that of Europe, for at the end of the process, a European language becomes the only storage of knowledge about the place. Note also that the entire method is that of an outsider, helped by native informants; call them research assistants, looking in. Helped by the research assistant, he records primary statements, yes, codes them in, say English, and these notes become the primary data, and somewhere along the lines, the original text, in the original language, is lost for ever. What the outsider now says of place, his memory of place, becomes the primary source of subsequent additions to knowledge of place, even by the nationals.

The result is really the subjection of the colonized to Europe’s memory (to paraphrase Sylver Winter), its conceptualization of the world, including its notions of democracy, its conception of the state in the form of the nation state, or its conception of rationality, epistemology, say its organization of knowledge, including methods of organizing and coding that knowledge. Here it is not a question of whether those notions are right or wrong, just or unjust, enlightening or not, but they are the results of the colonizer’s gaze, shaped by his field of experience and expectations. It is knowledge shaped by the colonial context of its acquisition.

Note how even the thinking about the world by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, the whole lot, including later, the great dissector of rationality, Hegel himself, is shaped by their years of reading explorer and missionary narratives of other places. The work of the Nigerian philosopher-scholar Eze, particularly his piece on the color of reason, should be a must for studies of genealogies of Western rationality and epistemology.

I want to suggest that our various fields of knowledge of Africa are in many ways rooted in that entire colonial tradition of the outsider looking in, gathering and coding knowledge with the help of native informants, and then storing the final product in a European language for consumption by those who have access to that language. Anthropology, the study of the insider by the outsider, for the consumption of those who share the culture of the anthropologist, permeates the genealogy of European studies of Africa. We, the inheritors and continuants of that tradition, in many ways “anthropologize” Africa, especially in method. We collect intellectual items and put them in European language museums and archives. Africa’s global visibility through European languages has meant Africa’s invisibility in African languages.

How many social scientists have ever written even a single document in an African language? How many researchers’ have even retained the original field notes in words spoken by the primary informant? Our knowledge of Africa is largely filtered through European languages and their vocabulary. There are those of course who will argue that African languages are incapable of handling complexities of social thought, that it has no adequate vocabulary, for instance.

This objection was long ago answered by one of the brightest intellects from Africa, Cheikh Anita Diop, when he argued that no language had a monopoly of cognitive vocabulary, that every language could develop its terms for science and technology, This is the position being maintained by contemporary thinkers like Kwesi Kwaa Prah whose CASAS (Center for Advanced Studies of African Society) based in Cape Town, South Africa, is doing so much to advocate the use of African languages in all fields of learning, even in scientific thought. Other places with similar advocacy include that of the philosopher Paulin Hountondji, at the African Center for Advanced Studies … based in Porto-Novo, Benin, which intends to promote African languages as media for African scientific thought.

There are other individuals like Neville Alexander of Cape Town, South Africa, who chaired the committee that came up with the very enlightened South African policy on languages and Kwesi Wiredu, who long ago called on African philosophers to engage issues in African languages. This advocacy has a long history going back to the Xhosa intellectuals of the late nineteenth century and has continued among Zulu Intellectuals of the 1940s. The advocacy of Cheikh Anita Diop is well known.

All these intellectuals have tried to debunk the claims of inadequacy of words and terms. In practice, the continued Ethiopian scholarship in African languages belies the negative claims, and it should not be forgotten that even English and French had to overcome similar claims of inadequacy as vehicles for philosophy and scientific thought as against the then dominant Latin. Those languages needed the courage of their intellectuals to break out of the dominance of Latin memory. In the introduction to his Discourse on method, Des Cartes defends his use of vernacular for philosophic thought against similar claims of inadequacy of concepts in French.

What African languages need is a similar commitment from African intellectuals. In this we may need to read over and over again the words of the Asmara Declaration which, while calling on African languages to take seriously the duty, the challenge and the responsibility of speaking for Africa, also called on African intellectuals to develop the capacities of African languages for science and technology. It can be done; it has been done in Tanzania where Kiswahili has now developed a massive vocabulary in all the branches of learning. It only needs courage and hard work.

It is in this context that I want to cite the case of Gatua wa Mbugua. Gatua wa Mbugua is a graduate student at Cornell University and in May 2003, he presented and successfully defended his Master’s thesis on biointensive agriculture to the Department of Crop Science at Cornell University. There is nothing unusual in this. What was new was the fact that the entire Master’s thesis was in the Gikuyu language. … For Gatua wa Mbugua, it meant sheer dedication and lots of work for he had to provide an English translation as The impact of biointensive cropping on yields and nutrient contents of collared greens in Kenya. …

Writing scientific works in African languages is not novel in places like Ethiopia but for most Africa, this is new. As far as I know, Mbugua’s work is the first-ever scientific work in Gikuyu at any university in or outside Africa. He had no tradition on which to fall back, not even that of a stable scientific vocabulary, but this did not daunt his spirits. All his field work and field work notes in Kenya were in Gikuyu. He wrote the entire thesis in Gikuyu before doing auto-translation for purposes of his teachers who, of course, had to evaluate the scientific content.

There are cynics who will respond to this with: so what? The Gikuyu language cannot sustain a written intellectual production. The Gikuyu people are about six million. The Danish are about four million. All books written and published in Gikuyu cannot fill up a shelf. Books written and published in Danish number thousands and fill up the shelves of many libraries. The Yoruba people number more than ten million. The Swedes are about eight million. But intellectual production in the two languages is very different. How come that ten million Africans cannot sustain such a production whereas eight million Swedes can? Icelanders number about two hundred and fifty thousand. They have one of the most flourishing intellectual productions in Europe. What a quarter of a million people can do, surely ten million people can also accomplish.

But does the existence of many languages not contradict the ideology of Pan-Aricanism and dreams of continental unity? This is a genuine concern but the perception of irresolvable contradiction is largely based on the assumption that monolingualism is the sine qua non of modernity which also leads to the historical fiction of other societies being marked by mono-culturalism. The existence of many languages is not a peculiarly African problem. It was this that made Cheikh Anita Diop, in 1948, respond to “the objection, usually raised, that “Africans can never have linguistic unity,’’ with the dismissive rejoinder: “Africa does not need such linguistic unity any more than Europe does.”

It is a fact that each African country, let alone the entire continent, has many nationalities and languages. Furthermore, colonialism divided peoples of the same language and culture across different borders, factions of the same historically constituted peoples owing allegiance to different territorial states constituted more recently. Should we not accept that reality as the starting point and then pose the questions? How can we turn the division of peoples of the same language and culture across different borders into strength? How can the many languages be used to bring about the unity of African peoples within a country and within the continent? In short how can these languages and cultures serve the Pan-African ideal of our dreams?

We have to look at Pan-Africanism as a people-to- people relationship and not like that between heads of states or that of the intellectual and western educated elite held together by their common inheritance of European languages and their rootage in a European memory of place, organization and conceptualization of reality. There is no rational basis, other than convenience, for regarding colonial boundaries as sacrosanct and by implication the residents of either side of the colonial border as foreigners. These borders were historically constituted, markers of European memory on Africa, in order to meet colonial needs. There is no reason they cannot be historically reconstituted to meet African needs and in order to reconnect with African memory. The people with the same language, culture and history on either side of colonially drawn borders–what is called border communities–constitute a shared community that culturally links the two territories. A good number of these border communities have a common spiritual leader and in reality they refuse to be bound by the colonial borders that divide them. In their cultural practices, they have always challenged the colonially derived nation state. Again should we not be using these peoples with a common spiritual authority and history to unite instead of criminalizing their crossings or impeding them through visa barriers and border police control? For instance, if Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia itself were to see the Somali people as a shared community, then uniting Ethiopia, Kenya, Somali and Djibouti would not be yoking together cultural strangers. There is not a single African country which does not have a shared community on either side of its borders. These shared communities would form links of the chain of African unity from Cape to Cairo, from Kenya to Cape Verde.

Acceptance of shared communities would not, in itself, solve the contradiction of many languages. But accepting our languages as a fact of our being, enriching them and then encouraging dialogue among them through the tool of translation is the best way of a creating a firmer cultural and democratic basis for African unity. If all the books written in different African languages including those produced by Africans in the diaspora in any language were all available in each and every African language, what we at the International Center for Writing and Translation at the University of California Irvine call The Restoration Project, it would surely create a common intellectual inheritance and become the
common cultural basis for more intellectual productions with roots in a common African memory. If a continental language of inter-ethnic, inter-regional should emerge, but not on the graveyard of other languages, it would be a gain for Africa, adding another dimension to conversation among African languages.

What would be the place of European languages? No matter how we may think of the historical process by which they came to occupy they place the now occupy in our lives, it is a fact that English and French have enabled international visibility of the African presence. But they have achieved this by uprooting the intellectuals from their linguistic and cultural base. They have merely invited African intellectuals to operate within European memory. European languages (principally English, French and Portuguese) also are the immense deposits of some the best in literary and general African thought. They are granaries of African intellectual productions, and these productions as a whole are the nearest thing to a common Pan-African social property. The names of Samir Amin, Ali Mazrui, Wole Soyinka, Sembene Ousmane,
Mariam Ba, Ama Ata Aidoo, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Sedar Senghor, Agostino Neto, Alex la Guma (to name just a few) are part of a common visibility of African presence. They also enable conferences like the one we are having here today. The latter in fact defines best the mission we should assign to French and English. Use them to enable dialogue among African languages and visibility of African languages in the community of world languages instead of as a tool of disabling by uprooting intellectuals and their production from their original language base. Use English and French to enable and not to disable.

This then is the challenge of social science in Africa today: How best can we fulfill one of the most basic aims of CODESRIA, to really connect with the African continent, in the era of globalization? How do we create and strengthen a common Africa base from which to engage with the world? African economic, political and cultural unity is surely the answer but while political unity and economic integration lie in the realm of decisions taken by political leadership, African intellectuals are bound by their very calling as intellectual workers to create a common intellectual basis for that unity. There is need for a strong body of public intellectuals rooted in the common languages of the people to argue out, rationalize, popularize, and make common the case for a genuine people-based African union.

I believe that only by the use of African Languages shall we be able to break with European memory and look at Africa and its contact with the world, including engagement with European memory from the inside. We cannot afford to be intellectual outsiders in our own land. We must re-connect with the buried alluvium of African memory and use it as a base for the further planting of African memory on the continent and in the world. This can only result in the empowerment of African languages and cultures and make them pillars of a more self-confident Africa ready to engage the world, through give and take, but from its base in African memory.

I end my talk with the call I have been making over the last thirty years. African intellectuals must do for their languages and cultures what all other intellectuals in history have done for theirs. This is still the challenge of our history. Let’s take up the challenge!


1. Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa.

2. Keynote address by Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature and Director of the International Center for Wiring and Translation, University of California, Irvine, at CODESRIA’s 30th anniversary grand finale conference and celebration, 10th December 2003, Dakar, Senegal.

3. See Chapter 10, “Census, map, museum,” in Benedict Anderson. Imagined communities. Rev. ed., London: Verso, 1991.

4. Quoted in Bronwyn Mills, Caribbean cartographies, unpublished Ph. D. Dissertation, Department of Comparative Literature, New York University.

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