2nd Yr Ph.D Student
African American And African Studies
Michigan State University
(The following is the transcript of an Africa Unity Day speech I shared with brothers and sisters in attendance at the Kara Heritage Institute Commemorations this year.)
“I was recently approached by a primary school classmate and good friend of mine who resides in China. Like me (and millions of other young Zimbabweans in the past decade), he left the country at the peak of its socioeconomic crisis and currently works in some capacity at a Chinese elementary school. When he called, he explained to me that he had been asked to present a speech for a Children’s Day celebration they were having, and was thus seeking my assistance in coming up with something thought-provoking. I spent an hour or two throwing some ideas together and send them his way. A couple of days later, he shared it with me the forum on which the final speech had been shared, and, as it turned out, he had presented the speech as I had given it to him verbatim (absolutely fine by me.) Well, almost verbatim. See, I had signed off my version as follows:
“There is an old African proverb that says ‘If you can walk, you can dance; if you can talk, you can sing'”
In his version, the ‘old African Proverb’ had been changed to ‘old American proverb’ and, before I had come to confront him about the wrongful appropriation of wisdom, he offered up the explanation that ‘I figured they were more likely to take it seriously if I said it was an American thing…”
Although Pan-Africanism, as a named ideology, was born at the turn of the 20th century, the ideals it embodies are as timeless as the continent herself. Indeed, our pre-colonial empires and communities were often the amalgamation of several ethnic groups. There are tales of inter-ethnic alliance developing on the very ships that ferried our brothers and sisters across the Atlantic into slavery, and histories of formerly enslaved Africans returning to the motherland upon earliest freedom, thereby creating a fluid connection between the continent and her Diaspora.
Over the years, the concept of Pan-Africanism, dedicated to the uplift and unity of all of Africa’s descendants- particularly in the face of oppressive Western imperialism- has adopted many various names and approaches from Negritude to Nkrumaism, Black Power to Ubuntu- and continues to be a vehicle for the advancement of our people.
As with all things noble, Pan-Africanism has faced relentless cynicism over the years. On one hand, it is refuted and rallied against by the racist and imperial elements that have benefitted and continue to benefit from the discord and suffering of Africa. On the other, this oft- romanticized theory has, it would appear, let African people down time and again. Many point to the several instances of inter-African conflict, animosity and betrayal as evidence that our call for Pan-African Unity is idealistic and impractical. After all, they argue, Africans owned slaves prior to European contact, and in fact sold their kin during the Atlantic Slave Trade; and the freed slaves, upon their return to Africa as the new nation of Liberia, treated the native Africans much like they had been treated in slavery era USA. Some may even point to the apparent disloyalty of revered African leaders during the wars for independence and, in the post-colonial times, such conflicts as the Rwandan Genocide and, more recently and closer to home, the Afrophobic attacks are evidence of a weak, if not non-existent, base for a Pan-African platform.
Although superficially valid, these criticisms overlook the fundamental and omnipresent influence of the imperial hand, whether directly or otherwise. The ‘slavery’ of pre-colonial Africa was not unlike that often found in other pre-capitalist communities, and is a far cry from the inhumane, soul-crushing colossal enterprise that uprooted multitudes to cruel lands and left their neighbors reeling from the wounds of a broken society. The Americo-Liberians, as with the Rwandans, fell victim not to each other, but to attempts to run their lands through inherited forms of government designed to oppress them. Afrophobia is not the result of innate hate among brothers, but rather the legacy of heightened tribalism due to Apartheid policies that privileged the separation of people, as well as continuing Apartheid era economics which have left many of this nation’s people’s livelihoods only marginally better than 25 years ago.
I make this argument not to fall into clichéd ‘It’s not our fault’ narrative that ironically robs us of agency in our own destiny. Instead, I argue so only to emphasize the importance of African Unity. An economically sound and socio-politically unified Africa is less susceptible to the manipulation of outside actors, and far able to curb its internal tribulations as well.
Furthermore, Pan-Africanist initiatives have much to be proud of in their relatively short history. Fluid communication and idea sharing between the continent and their diaspora allowed for the simultaneous obtaining of African and Caribbean independence as well as the success of the American Civil Rights movement. The Frontline States were critical to the liberation of Southern Africa. The African Union is the world’s largest regional organization- by population size and number of member countries, boasting near-universal membership. In addition, their initiatives in gender equality are cutting edge, with a mandatory 20% minimum female membership in the Pan-African Parliament among other things. The creation of the sixth region, intended to incorporate the African diaspora, thereby going back to the original essence of Pan-Africanism.
Finally, some detractors like to point at our beautiful diversity, both of nature and of experience, and say that ‘How can there be a basis for unity for people speaking thousands of languages, of all ethnicities and beliefs, and who have gone through significantly different things?” While that may be so, we must remember that racism and its subsequent pillars of oppression such as slavery and colonialism, were based on “scientific” arguments and theories that defined the ‘African’ as inferior’… If for nothing else, that composite ‘African’ exists and has risen up to prove these absurdities wrong, and Pan-Africanism will continue and Africa is self-sufficient, proud, and unshakeable in its confidence- knowing it brings more to the table collectively than anyone else. Indeed, Pan-Africanism will continue until my friend no longer feels the need to change that ‘African Part’: because that African Part is exactly why his wisdom and contribution is worth paying attention to.