In 1963, Julius Nyerere penned an article with the optimistic title, “The United States of Africa.” He opened with a series of claims that are worth revisiting.
There is one sense in which African unity already exists. There is a sentiment of ‘African-ness’, a feeling of mutual involvement, which pervades all the political and cultural life on the continent. Nationalist leaders all over Africa feel themselves to be part of a greater movement; they recognize a special responsibility to the political unit in which they happen to belong, but feel personally involved in the triumphs and set-backs of all other African countries. (1)
I am struck by Nyerere’s evocative phrase, “happen to belong,” a phrase that recognizes the arbitrariness of national boundaries and denaturalizes belonging. Political units are neither organic nor inevitable. They are accidental, strategic.
It is precisely this “happenstance” aspect of political units that allows Nyerere to formulate an inter-nationalist ethic. To recognize belonging as a historical accident permits us to look beyond our own units, to recognize that, given a nudge here or there, we might be in that political unit, not this.
To recognize happenstance is to cultivate care. To see oneself in faces across borders.
I begin with this utopian vision to shield myself from what follows, to modulate the cynicism against which our politics compel us to struggle.
For better or worse, Africa exists as a political unit. As the (mostly western) press has it, the world has China, India, and Africa. We have tended, since independence, to insist that Africa has individual countries and is a continent. Increasingly, I wonder what we permit by insisting on our uniqueness, by embracing organic definitions of identity and identification, by taking accident for inevitability.
My title is adapted from Ken Saro-Wiwa’s searing indictment of African politics, “Africa Kills Her Sun.” In the story, he explains, “that’s why they call it the dark continent.”
A few weeks ago, Wambui Mwangi circulated an essay that reflected on what Kenya would have done to Obama. Briefly, the essay claims Kenya would have destroyed him, as it destroys so many of our strong, beautiful, talented citizens, stealing their dreams and feeding them bitter herbs.
Her claims continue to disturb me, in part because I don’t want to believe in the dystopic vision she paints of Kenya. Yet, the list of names she offers is convincing, too convincing. Most tragically, perhaps, David Munyakei, without whose testimony the extent of the Goldenberg scandal would never have been discovered. We thanked him by ignoring him. He died like so many of our brave and beautiful, unrecognized.
We have many unmarked graves.
Whatever the outcome of Obama’s campaign, it will be tinged, across Africa, with the shame of what we permit, what we sanction by our silence, our inaction.
Mugabe, the tyrant we tolerate because were we to oppose him our own shameful nakedness might be exposed. Africa gave Moi a free pass. Africa gives Mugabe a pass. We seem to have an inexhaustible number of passes for warlords and petty tyrants. I wonder if we believe that our dead bodies will fertilize arid lands, if our legacy to the future will be human-enriched soil.
With each passing day, the sun is stifled. We kill our sun.