Prof. Ngugi wa Thiongo. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
During the last day of the annual “Congo Week” events focused on empowering Congolese and other Africans on the history of colonization and the adverse impact of contemporary neocolonialism I was honored this Saturday, Oct. 24, to moderate a panel whose speakers included Prof. Ngugi wa Thiong’o—distinguished professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California at Irvine—one of the world’s greatest writers and intellectuals; Cherie Rivers Ndaliko, an associate professor of geography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Petra Ndaliko, founder of Yole! Africa cultural organization. The theme of the webinar was “Dismantling The Lingering Edifices of Colonialism.” Over the next several days, Black Star News will bring you excerpts from Professor Ngugi’s responses to my questions to the panel. His latest book is The perfect nine: the epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi. “Congo Week” is sponsored by Friends of Congo and the Maysles film center.
Question: Julius Nyerere, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the late president of Tanzania once said to an interviewer that winning political independence did not automatically translate into the end of imperialism and the late Kwame Nkrumah, another great Pan-Africanist, wrote a book entitled “Neo-colonialism The Last Stage of Imperialism.” So to put my question bluntly to my panelists, so long as imperialism exists can we really say that colonialism has really ended in Africa?
Ngugi wa Thion’go: If I might put in one phrase—for the African continent independence became Africanization of the colonial inequities and that is really the problem. Instead of uprooting the very basis of colonialism, we Africanized it. So the same inequities that were there during colonialism are still there. The dominant powers—our economies being dominated by the Western European corporations, that is still there, and if you don’t have economic independence or economic self-reliance then politically you become also dependent. You become dependent politically; culturally, you also become dependent you know, so by Africanizing the colonial inequities we really became—all the distortions if you like, the economic, political, and cultural exploitation of Africa by the West continues. The only difference is now there is a class of Africans who now ally with that exploitation of the continent.
Those who come from, especially the former settler colonies like, say, Kenya, South Africa, will know that colonialism had a racial character. Think of the pyramid—the structure of the pyramid with Whites at the top, generally in a case like Kenya, Asians in the middle, and Africans at the bottom. That was an economic, political, and cultural pyramid.
Now what we did at independence was, if you like, was the removal of the racial barrier to moving up and down the pyramid, but the pyramid structure remained the same, meaning at the top of the pyramid only a few people could occupy that space. But unfortunately for us also, that pyramid was connected to a bigger pyramid in Europe. So think of two pyramids, the big one in the West, again same structure, with our pyramid subservient to the European pyramid, right? And this is what, if we are to think of dismantling colonialism, we have to think of that pyramid structure of our society—but in our case also, additionally, how to delink our pyramid from the big pyramid in the West, okay? But within us, we have to overturn the pyramid structure upside down because the real power of Africa is really the ordinary people of Africa. And we know that is true because whether it’s the Congo, Kenya, or South Africa, we won our independence, whatever it was, on the backs of the support of ordinary men and women. It’s not that we had more guns or firepower than our colonial masters, but what we had was one thing—a general unity of purpose between the nationalist elite, if you like, and the population as a whole.
Recently, you remember those in South Africa for instance during Mandela, when in Robben Island [imprisonment], how just the sheer sight of people in South Africa marching the streets singing Amandla and so on, that alone moved you no matter where you are. That power was there in the Congo during Lumumba’s time, was also there in Ghana, Nkrumah’s time, was also there in Kenya, and then at independence, it came to our mind, somehow or other, especially the elite that…Europe which for 60 odd years did not do anything about economic equality would now be our friends, would be helping us to do what they could not do for 60 to 100 years. It’s like asking a thief to somehow help you [get] rid of thievery—and trusting that they are going to do so.