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African Writing Archives


Mildred Kiconco Barya


Mildred Kiconco Barya

Barya is a Ugandan writer. She won the 2008 Pan African Literary Forum Prize for Africana Fiction. She is writer-in-residence at TrustAfrica, the Dakar-based pan-African charity. She has written two poetry collections, Men Love Chocolates But They Don't Say (2002), and The Price of Memory: After the Tsunami (2006).


 Reflections on the Significance of Africa Day

Over the years, Mother Africa has been gathering her broken pieces and making attempts to construct a new image for herself and her people. Many of us realise that we cannot continue to blame our current predicament on what happened to us in the past, although it is true that when you have been beaten, battered and broken, it is tough to complete the healing process without recalling moments of wellness before the fall. Psychologists tell us that we have to go back into a nation’s past to understand what is going on today, and what can be done in the spirit of tomorrow. This is Africa’s current state. Her coming together to heal will flow from a conscious remembering of the past - both glorious and shameful. Only from that remembrance can we begin to deconstruct the ugly patterns so as to rise from the ashes. Only from that remembrance can we realize that we have done our nations proud before, and we can do it again. I cannot think of a better way to reflect on Africa than within the context of Africa Day, celebrated on the 25th of May every year.

Africa Day is a gift that predates Kwame Nkrumah’s visions of a free African continent. It was foreseen by Patrice Lumumba and Sekou Toure. Nelson Mandela dreamt of it. Muthoni wa Gachie, along with other Mau-Mau freedom fighters, battled for it. Albertina Nontsikelelo Sisulu’s role in the struggle against apartheid forever lives in many people’s heart and minds. Going further down the centuries, Dahia al-Kahina of Mauritania, who assumed personal command of the African forces, is unforgettable for having directed the most determined resistance against Arab invasions of North Africa. Her patriotism and aggressive leadership briefly forced the Arabs to retreat.  In 701, however, after fierce fighting, the Africans were defeated and Dahia al-Kahina took her own life because she could not imagine an Africa that was not for Africans. In this vein, one remembers the active role of justice, governance, balance and priesthood played by the great queens of KMT and Nubia kingdom — Ancient Egypt and Nile Valley lands — which in those days of democratic Africa comprised what we now know as Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan and parts of Uganda.

Africa Day is a day that was born when the blood of freedom fighters mingled with the earth, the red and black soils of Africa, as the captives fought to break the shackles of slavery and colonialism. Africa Day was born out of the bleeding waters of the Atlantic, when those clutched in iron fetters looked back and saw no door of return. Many attempted to swim back to the motherland, a feat that was impossible. In their hearts and minds, they imagined Africa Day. A day when there would be no blood. No chains. No deprivation.

To some, however, Africa Day remains an isolated idea, existing only in a few people’s minds labouring to give it collective recognition. The good comfort is that year after year the idea grows, taking shape in many places and being celebrated in different ways. Officially, Africa Day is celebrated on May 25th. It was launched in 1963, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, when the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was established. In 2001, the OAU was genetically modified. It shed its former skin and took on the name Africa Union. It was well received in Zambia, and the birth was attended by about 41 heads of state. Many hoped that we would see positive change under the African Union leadership, beginning with Zambia itself, a country so mismanaged that its annual copper production worth billions of dollars has little to show in the country’s record budget. President Chiluba is quoted to have said,

"The Assembly is determined that the African Union should be more than just another OAU with a different name. It should effectively address African challenges."

In July 2002, the AU was launched and President Thabo Mbeki chosen as Chair.

Before we get to the African challenges cited in Lusaka and Durban, let’s see whether the OAU achieved part of its mission in its 38 years of existence.

The OAU’s main agenda was for all African countries to attain political independence, though unity and solidarity among the countries continued to be elusive. I will not go into details of the broken fragments that we still are, and the gigantic human rights violations still taking place on the continent. Just think of a country, Sudan, Congo, Zimbabwe, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda…and images of bloody atrocities will emerge. These are not simple scars that we bear but deep wounds festering and manifesting daily. Is Africa Day lost? Was Nkrumah wrong when he declared,

“We are going to see that we create our own African personality and identity.”

Having actively fought for Ghana’s independence and attained it, Nkrumah knew what strength lay in unity and what weaknesses could be exploited in division. So he dreamt how Africa could become one of the greatest forces for good in the world.

To start with a name, Nkrumah was wise not to call his people Goldians as the British would have liked, that was smelly and signified nothing but blood and exploitation. Instead, he recalled the splendor and dignity of his people during the Ghana Empire. He believed they could get there again, so Ghanaians they became. While Ivorians — it’s even hard for me to write this here — are of course not elephants carrying ivory but African people whose leaders haven’t had Nkrumah’s illumination to get a proper name. We’ll proceed with Nkrumah as he continued to dream. The greatest beauty of his vision is that it was embraced by several others who believed like him, who saw what he saw, those who had gone before him, those who had come after him, and then his peers who all shared his incurable optimism. Knowing our current strife on the continent, should we think that these torchbearers were blinded in their vision? Patrice Lumumba, for instance, was he one foolish dreamer trapped in an idyllic state? Here is what the books tell us:

Before Patrice Lumumba was killed by the Americans and Belgians, he had a vision similar to that of Nkrumah, and he passionately spoke that vision into being.

“Africa will write its own history, and it will be, to the north and to the south of the Sahara, a history of glory and dignity…it will not be the history that Brussels, Paris, Washington or the United Nations will teach, but that which they will teach in the countries emancipated from colonialism and its puppets.”

Then he was brutally killed and his murder became the murder of the entire country.

The words and actions that Lumumba exemplified in his days are still relevant and applicable to many African countries today. In fact, they fit into so much of today that an energised skeptic would think we have not moved an inch. We have not made any progress. So to stay positive, Lumumba’s words must remain a challenge and inspiration, perhaps our mantra when we think of the African continent and Africa Day. This could be a reflexive exercise. Whenever Congo is mentioned or flashed in the news, we could echo Lumumba’s speech:

“I know that my country, which suffers so much, will know how to defend its independence and its liberty. Long live the Congo! Long live Africa!”

From thought to speech we would finally arrive at action and possession. That will be Africa Day. Right now that day is wedged between the dreaming and the coming true.

Lumumba, in his time, was able to rise above ethnic challenges and tribal preoccupations to imagine a country with a decent existence, exercising dignity without hypocrisy, and independence without restrictions. The murky reality is with us now. It is true Congo has more than enough natural resources to develop the entire continent, yet one third of the Congo population goes without food, shelter and health services. Scarcity, starvation and death haunt the people night and day. Singling out Lake Kivu, it contains enough methane to power chunks of the sub-Sahara, yet regular electricity is a rarity in Congo itself. Congo gives and receives generously, abundant rainfall, verdant vegetation, minerals, beautiful people, and all kinds of resources. But the people and the country continue to be tortured, in particular Congolese women, reportedly hitting the highest rape record ever to be noted in a country.

This is the legacy that was begun by King Leopold II of Belgium, who maimed, raped and exterminated an estimated 10 million people. Today, King Leopold’s ghost and curse are alive and well, having passed on to the second, third and forth generation of leaders wearing different skins in Congo. Congo has known nothing else but a bloody legacy. Congo is one of those situations that call for the highest desire and responsibility to protect human life and rights, something every African should heavily invest in and every government should endorse, to make sure it’s embraced by all the people. This is an emergency. For a start let’s imagine how troubling it would be to see the faces of our mothers, sisters and daughters behind the rape numbers.

Now, do we need to get back to the African challenges that are to be addressed by the AU? The assembly and the African people everywhere have this crippling pattern to break. We can close the OAU chapter conveniently and say the OAU accomplished its first mission. By 1994, all the African countries had attained political independence. The last two countries to gain this kind of independence — South Africa and Namibia — celebrated Africa Day with a bang and twang of black consciousness. Africa Day was also commemorated in Addis Ababa as the first home of OAU. The AU is being watched to see how it takes on the more complex challenges blocking the continent’s cohesion and peace.

To tackle the root of the problem, historians like Dr Runoko Rashidi, have pointed out that the African presence and mistreatment globally calls for nothing short of unity among Africans. When you think of the lost generations of the Aboriginal people, the intolerable suffering and unforgettable killings committed by the British against Blacks in Australia and Tasmania, and then you think of the years devoured by slave trade in Africa, in America, and on the different islands, the colossal torture of the Black Dalits in India—also called untouchables—and the disinheritance going on against the San people—who were given the derogative bushmen—here is a repeated mistake and a terrible forgetting: Forgetting the essentials. Dismissing the wisdom embedded in the San rock art and paintings, forgetting that the San still possess the secret to healing and rehabilitation of post-conflict traumas as well as other disturbing sicknesses. Forgetting that the San of the former Monomotapa territory, the Khoi-Khoi, the Kalahari’s, and the Twa of the Great Lakes region, are one and the same but are now a minority group in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, Angola, Gabon, Namibia, Cameroon, Central Africa Republic, Zambia, and Botswana. And, forgetting that all African people were not always where they are now, hence the reason why, as clearly put by Dr. J.B Danquah,

“When you see in the Ashanti’s, the Yoruba’s, the Akan culture, you see the people with the same hair-cut, the same beads and jewelry as Queen Nefertari (the wife of Pharaoh Rameses II in the Nineteenth Dynasty), and Queen Nefertiti (the wife of Pharaoh Akhnaton in the Eighteen Dynasty).”

African historians suggest that there are a billion Africans scattered around the world. That is why it has become urgent to look at Africa in the eyes of Africans globally. Africa Day therefore presents an opportunity to focus on the continent while embracing all those Africans living in the South Pacific, India, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Japan, Yemen, Israel, Turkey, Russia, China, Philippines, Fiji, Costa Rica, the Caribbean, North and South America , Australia, Europe and so on, and their relationships to Mother Africa.

I am inspired by how the Jewish people, wherever they are, stand together in a collective spirit to commemorate the Holocaust Day. Every year they dedicate time on 1st May to stand outside their homes and look down in shame, recalling the horror of the holocaust. They do not end there. With their heads held high they walk back inside their houses to celebrate victory and an indomitable Jewish spirit. It makes me think that for Africans not to recognise the significance of a day like Africa Day is because of the following reasons:

  • Simple ignorance. We do not know that it exists.
  • We know that it exists but we do not know why we should celebrate it.
  • We are in holocaust denial and the African shame is greatly exaggerated
  • We simply do not know that we are a resilient people in possession of a shared identity and diverse resources.
  • We’ve misunderstood the concept of celebration. Our people, our dances, our history, wildlife and songs are nothing but references to ridicule.

Professor Abdalla Bujra, the executive director of Development Policy Management Forum says that it is important to emphasize Africa Day because we need symbols to unite us. We only have national days specific to countries, but we need a day whose linking arms touch and stretch beyond the continent. He says that we need a day when we can focus collectively on who we are as African people, not just individuals, families, clans or countries.

When you think of it, Africa Day is the only symbol that we have to celebrate the Africa that we are from and the Africa that is in us, as best expressed by Dr. Marimba Ani,

"We are not Africans because we are born in Africa, we are Africans because Africa is born in us."

And Dr John Henrik Clarke,

"Without the African connection, we are a disjointed people ...begging for entry into somebody else's house."

It is this cultural heritage, not difference, that connects all African people no matter how many generations they have been removed from it. This makes Africa Day resonate with beats of a shared identity. It is no longer helpful, never was anyway, to inherit on the other side, a ‘history’ of forgetfulness. Literature and art knows the way, will show us the way, if we can approach it with humility and a true learning mentality. The works of Cheikh Anta Diop, Theophile Obenga, Yosef ben-Jochannan, Asa Hilliard, Jacob Carruthers, W.E.B Dubois, J.A. Rogers, and several others reveal to us what a fabricated lie it is that Africans have no written history and documented evidence of who they are, what they were and where they came from. From the mentioned scholars’ harvest, we garner how the Africans were not only familiar with literature and art but they were the inventors for many years before their fatal contact with the Western World, that’s why Egypt has more ancient documents and other artifacts than any other civilization known.

Is it that important to bring up this knowledge in our making of Africa today?

Dr Runoko Rashidi gives us the answer.

“All strong peoples emphasise their history all the time; weak peoples do not. Not only must intellectuals do their work, they must give the information to the masses. I believe that as Africans, if we are to be a strong people again, we must continually clarify who we are and where we are, and constantly emphasize the things that made us great in the past.”

So to the past we return to break the mental prisons. Not only to a time when we were masters in astronomy and engineering, as witnessed by sea-farers and navigators relying on the Egyptian calendar, and by the enduring pyramids we put up, but to that time when the Greeks and Romans came to learn from Africa, and two of the Greek scholars—Plato and Aristotle—carried back with them the philosophies of Ancient Egypt and Nile Valley civilizations. Dr. John Henrik Clarke clarifies why this mental-historic journey is the first liberating step to overcoming the challenges we have in Africa.

“History is a clock that people use to tell their political time of day. It is a compass that they use to find themselves on the map of human geography. It also tells them where they are, and what they are. Most importantly, an understanding of history tells a people where they still must go, and what they still must be.”

Dr. Rashidi again has something to say to make sure we don’t miss the path.

“I say that history is a light that illuminates the past and key that unlocks the door to the future.  We need that light and we need that key. Not only must we emphasize our historical greatness as a people, as well as analyze the mistakes that we have made, we must inject it into the minds of the masses of our people and build upon it.  This is a fundamental step in our liberation process.”

From history, we continue to learn that Egyptians at the time of greatness did not have a barrier that stopped them from spreading out, from going to other parts of Africa. This now begins to seem familiar, to confirm that the AU is on the right track. The AU assembly proposed a passport to allow free movement of citizens of Africa from one country to another. The assembly also suggested formation of a common currency, a national defense force and dual citizenship for Africans in the Diaspora. Their wish is to effectively integrate into the African Liberation Movement, Africans that are outside Africa. When this is done, the Pan-African dream will be complete and hopefully, the historians will witness total unification of the continent, cohesion among African people beyond the continent, and utilization of Africa’s vast resources for and by African people, as it was done in Ancient Egypt and the entire Nile Valley civilisations. This will be our future which in fact is our glorious past. By now you must realise that there is nothing new after all except learning, of course. So we have a future, we have a past, and we have a present for plugging holes, which is what all Africans hanging between the dreaming and the coming true ought to be doing now.

After dynastic Egypt, we need to pay tribute to the outstanding social structure of the West African empires of Ghana, Mali, and Songhai, especially the remarkable intellectual nucleus like the University of Sankore in Timbuktu, where African scholars were held in reverence and thousands of students from many parts of the world showed up to learn science, medicine, law, engineering, grammar, writing and so on. Hopefully, we can recreate such first class learning centres as a way of reclaiming what was destroyed.

With an understanding of this new importance, we can change Africa. Here is how: The era of slave trade may have ended but try telling that to a Mauritanian who is still caught up in the throngs of this evil. Besides, we are now trafficking over international borders an average of 800,000 people a year, 70 percent of whom are women and children. On the issue of peace, there is a mistaken notion that it can be achieved by raising an army, by drumming up men and sending them to war, by establishing military bases in Africa. So the US will plant military bases in Senegal, Egypt, Djibouti, Gabon, Guinea, Mali and other African countries. What else could be more insane? Just imagine would there be a Tanzanian or Senegalese military base in France, Spain, the US or Portugal?

And Uganda will go to Congo and Somalia, making it easier to pretend that it’s within the interest of peace and security, and paying a blind eye to the incessant minerals flowing from Congo to Uganda. Recovering our African power is about disarmament and a different kind of security.

It is the kind of armament that would stop Uganda from embarrassing its citizens and receiving another $200m loan from the World Bank to finance its so-called poverty reduction programmes, while plunging the country in greater debt, and not mentioning other illegitimate debts incurred by several dictatorial regimes.

It is the kind of armament that would stop Ethiopian troops from slitting Somali throats. And it’s the kind of armament that would pay no attention to the ignorance of men when they stand to give a speech as this: “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has never really entered into history…” Then you’d know who has the assured laugh.

There’s a social group discussion that suggests one solid way to solve the African challenges: Concentrate all energy on Congo and Sudan. ‘Once you sort out Congo and Sudan,’ they say, ‘you have sorted out the whole of Africa.’ The group justifies their perspective by considering the number of countries that are affected when Congo and Sudan sneeze. Sudan’s problems spill into Uganda, Egypt, Congo itself, Chad, Central African Republic, Kenya, and so many other countries. Congo’s troubles too engulf about ten other countries because it is physically vast, it is beautiful, it is rich, it is chaotic, it is contested. Every problem that is manifested elsewhere on the continent first happens in Congo and Sudan. So perhaps, if indeed these two countries are sorted out, we would then have our ancient Egypt and Nile Valley civilisations. It will then be easier for Namibia, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Kenya, Djibouti and others to learn from Congo and Sudan than the reverse. And then there may no more be Congo and Sudan as we know them now.

The next critical and perhaps most significant step will be to take Berlin. It is where the knots of fate were tied. Had we needed borders as Africans, we would have made them. At the Berlin conference in 1885, bilateral agreements were made on Africa and no African was present. White colonialists partitioned Africa and now we have the curse of borders. King Leopold II carved out the boundaries of Congo. Once he secured ownership, the rubber boom erupted. There emerged joint ventures between Belgians, British and Dutch firms for rubber sap. The Anglo-Belgian India Rubber and Exploration Company (ABIR) was making a staggering 700% profit on unpaid African labor. In the rubber regions Africans had to gain a state permit for travel outside their villages. More borders against African’s movement within Africa were constructed as King Leopold went on to plunder, loot and rape Congo.

We know our cultural ties go beyond colonial borders. We are into yesterday and we are tomorrow's people too. I have this vision that the time has come for us finally to go to Berlin to break down the borders and reshape our continent. Having gone to Ancient Egypt, we will now take Berlin and we shall need no guns. No guns. Guns lack the refinement of peace. And to quote Nuruddin Farah, ‘Guns lack the body of human truths.’ No guns to Berlin. But we shall need laptops to record everything that transpires. Pen and paper were used in the old days, then tape recorders. We can have all the three and a lot more when we take Berlin, but not guns. ‘Guns lack the body of human truths.’ We shall need sober heads, and no, we won’t be negotiating anything. We will be redefining ourselves and our continent. No alcohol, no guns, but a different kind of armament. We will drink only water. And every good mind knows how to convert water into wine if you know what I mean, if you have watched a scarab beetle rise out of dung, if you have the mind of truth, if you have the mind of God. No guns. Guns lack the body of God, the mind of truth. May we continually celebrate Africa Day that’s here and yet to come, without guns. May we bless the African Union on the broken path that shall bring us home.

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