An Open Letter to Contemporary African Intellectuals

Dear contemporary African Intellectuals,

We find your names on lists published in western media, among the top African Public Intellectuals, sometimes among the lists of Global Thinkers. And we celebrate. ‘Our’ thinkers are shaping the world, we say. You appear in TIME’s lists of Influential People. You have theorised about important things. About the end of capitalist hegemony. About the failure of the African state. About the representations of Africanness. About the rise of Afro-capitalism. About many things your Western audiences find very captivating. And this is why they rank you highly alongside their own intellectuals. You are indeed one of their intellectuals as well.

What if Africa needs or desires a different intellectual from what the West needs? How do you become an intellectual for both societies without losing relevance in the other? These are questions I want you to think about. I am writing because I seek knowledge. I want to understand if, on the streets of Burkina Faso, The Gambia, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria and other African countries, you are still the intellectual you are in the West. Let us exclude the prophet is not appreciated in their own home alibi, because we know for sure that Africa, or Asia, or South America does not identify intellectuals for Europe or North America. It can’t be that this prophetisation of intellectuals applies only to Africa!

I will refer to Africa’s immediate post-colonial period to show what I mean by relevance of an intellectual to the African condition. Ngugi wa Thiong’o. Haunted out of Kenya because his theorising was ‘radicalising’ the Kenyan rural masses and pockets of the urban elite, where he was taking his plays that hit hard on the neo-colonial nature of post-colonial Kenya, he has since found refuge in the West. You see, Ngugi’s intellectualism was in the language the majority of his people understand. Gikuyu. And so he became so influential in his own homeland and too dangerous to Euro-American interests in Kenya, and thus had to be eliminated. The story of his imprisonment over his writing is known to you. The story of the novel he wrote on toilet paper in his prison cell is also known. The story of his liberation of the Literature Department at University of Nairobi from the hegemony of English Literature to the fresh shores of African Literature is also known to you. No one will deny that Ngugi was therefore a Kenyan intellectual in his prime. His ideas were not only relevant to Kenya and Kenyans but also influential. We know this because were they not influential enough, the post-colonial Kenyan establishment would not have shut him up by all means.

Cross the border into Uganda, where Ngugi studied, at Makerere University. His contemporary Okot P’Bitek also exemplifies the image of a relevant intellectual to their society. P’Bitek believed that theory does not only belong to the hollowed walls of universities and addled pages of newspapers and books. He was head of the extra-mural department of Makerere University, based in his home-town of Gulu, not the ivory tower at Makerere. Ideas live with people. While he was director of the Uganda National Theatre (the first African director of the institution), he took theatre out of the elitist urban Kampala to the people, through festivals in the countryside and the work of a travelling theatre troupe. He was also active in Kenya with travelling theatre companies, after running away from Idi Amin’s regime. As he wrote in his posthumously published collection of essays, Artist, the Ruler, “In an African society, art is life. It is not a performance. It is not necessarily a profession. It is life.” I would like to extend the argument to intellectualism. Ideas are life. They must be relevant. Lived. Or they are dead and non-existent.

I return to you, our esteemed contemporary African intellectuals. Where are your ideas in our life, us Africans living in Africa today? I understand that your theorising makes sense to those who praise you and list you among the most influential thinkers of our time. But do they make sense to us? Do they benefit us? Do we live by them? When you leave your busy lives in Western universities, your non-stop lecture schedules in all the world’s (read ‘developed’ world) capitals and retreat to Africa, where majority of the population still lives in rural areas and obviously does not consume Western media, do you feel that your intellectualism is relevant to the lives we lead? Do you feel that the Socrates, Adam Smith, Hegel, Marx, Kant, Keynes etc. that you are always citing is relevant to our lives?

Of course you know for sure that every society is based on certain philosophies, ideas and systems. Or else it would not be a society. Who or how do you think the ideas, philosophies and systems that inform our lives came to exist? Or are you still purveying the fiction that these philosophies are dead-dying? They are not, I can tell you. They are evolving and what they are becoming is not necessarily a replica of Euro-American life. There is such a thing as African contemporaneity that is not mimicry of European culture nor is it a re-imagination of an African past. If you refuse, come and I take you to Nyanja, the village of my birth and upbringing. Or do you think the okadas in Lagos or boda bodas in Kampala are mimicry of the West? Did our ancestors ride them? There is your hint. But you are the same advising African city managers to ban these things because in your Euro-American vision, they do not exist!

I will share something I learnt from a renowned African journalist, Charles Onyango Obbo. In Kampala, there is a big sewerage problem. Whenever it rains, or even when it does not, you find sewage freely flowing on the city streets. According to Charles Onyango Obbo, much of Kampala under colonial times was inhabited by Europeans and Asians, and so the infrastructure was to serve their needs. He says that these Europeans and Asians did not eat heavy organic food and so their waste was lighter. Africans on the other hand eat heavy organic food. The sewage pipes made for Kampala in colonial times were therefore light as the waste would not be heavy. Africans took over most of these houses that used to be inhabited by the Asians and Europeans on independence. The size of sewage pipes has not changed. Even new pipes bought are as small as they were then. Africans have not urbanised culturally. They still eat their heavy organic food. And the pipes are always bursting. Kampala is stuck with its sewerage flowing on the streets? Why? Because the post-colonial intellectuals have not decolonised their thinking. They think for Euro-America shadows. But Africa has not necessarily become a shadow of Europe. This is probably why in the West, Africa has intellectuals that speak to a reality the West knows. In Africa, these same intellectuals are leading to solutions that cause more problems. Like the flowing sewerage.

Most of you have been insistent on the need to ‘develop’ Africa. Some of you speak about this development in the economic sense, while some of you talk of social development. You are partly responsible for the cliché that Africa is bedevilled with ignorance, poverty and disease. Our esteemed African intellectuals, have you asked yourselves if this development you preach is necessary or even desirable for African populations? Have you re-thought what development actually means? You now talk of Globalisation! Dear fellow Africans, is Africa the centre of the globe in your globalisation vision? If Euro-America is the centre in this globalisation vision, is this then, not Westernisation? Isn’t this why Euro-America calls you African intellectuals? Is this not your utility to them? You centre the future on them and yet you are African by descent. You intellectualise for them. You are their intellectual but also African.

As I conclude, I would like to quote one of you, Andrew Mujuni Mwenda, Foreign Policy Top 100 Thinker, TED speaker etc., to whom I wrote in January 2014 about his obsession with Socrates and search for an irrelevant intellectual space in the Ugandan media (see my letter to him here). After a visit to Dubai, he literally swallowed much of his preaching about neo-liberalism and confessed:

” … what makes nations successful is the ability to find public policies and political institutions that their people understand. Part of the problem of Uganda (and Africa) is that we spend so much time reciting foreign ideologies chapter and verse but always fail to relate them to our realities. Thus while our problems are local and the demands to solve them are locally generated, the tendency is that when it comes to designing solutions, we retreated to theories drawn from textbooks.

These theories evolved in North America and Europe to explain a specific historical experience – how changing technology drove structural change and all this led to political struggles. These struggles were nourished by existing norms, values, traditions, and shared cultural understandings and therefore produced a specific institutional set-up. It is unlikely that one can cut and paste it on a society with different social dynamics and they work. Therefore, a major source of failure in Africa may be this mismatch between demands and solutions.”

Republished with permission from the author, Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire.

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