Suncolor's Blog

how africa was decolonized: back story

Posted on: October 1, 2010

by john otim
The lofty halls of power
Benson taught at a famous school in the far north of the colony. Here he made waves and became a star. It was easy; Benson was a born showman, a man of remarkable abilities. Folks referred to him simply as Peter Pan, even those that had no clue who or what Peter Pan was. People talked about Benson. You longed to see the man. Could he be all those things they said he was!
It was sure to happen. Benson soon attracted official notice. As colonial authorities go the administration was ingenious. The Governor or the ruler, used to roam the land disguised as an Indian trader. It was easy; Indians were everywhere.
Anyhow Benson was picked and shipped off to Britain. A study tour, they called it. They had a name for everything. But this was a rare chance. Had this been Nigeria people would say Benson had gone for the Golden Fleece. The whole town would have gathered at the market square and there would be a big celebration. Women would dance. Men would give speeches. Once you left you had to bring back the Golden Fleece or never return. A do or die.
During the year abroad Benson was attached to a Teachers’ College in the Midlands, Cheltenham College, to be sure. The choice was deliberate. Authorities meant to keep Benson far from the London crowd. The real mission for Benson’s tour laid elsewhere. At the Colonial Office, officials planned and drew this with great care. Benson’s itinerary included a flurry of visits to centers of imperial power and majesty. Let him feel the weight of empire.
If the colonial enterprise had a premise, it was this. Always impress the native. It is all there in King Solomon’s Mine. Do this and the native will be yours for ever. He will be your man. You will be his hero and Lord. Robinson Crusoe had his Man Friday, Cecil Rhodes his Shona guides, Baroness Blixen her Kamante. You could draw a list. General Idi Amin when he first came to power had his own white lords before he dumped them for the Arabs.
At the lofty halls of power, at the grand palaces of science, arts and culture, Benson was received like a prince. He was accorded all due honor. He was shown around, he was fussed over. He was wined and dinned. He attended talks, he attended shows. They took him to performances at the Royal Albert Hall. There were times they asked Benson to give talks of his own. It pleased him. His well-placed hosts listened to him attentively and politely. Frequently they asked him questions. What they were after was to trick him, to catch him. But Benson was bright, he had the gift of words, the man could think on his feet.

Ladies and Gentlemen we got him
One day they pinned him. It was the tail end of a diplomatic bash. The type only London could stage. The hall was filled with foreign ambassadors and European aristocracy, who stood in small groups, making small talks. Midway through the evening after they tossed him and indulged him, they led Benson to a far corner of the lofty hall and there set upon him. A nationalist demagogue pretending moderation, a would-be Mao Se Tung, a terrorist, they hurled phrases at him as though they threw stones, words calculated to cause pain.
It was an ambush. Get it over and done with. Flash the bustard out of his hideout. Descendants of savages! You were at each others throats before we arrived? You needed Empire more than we did. They summoned Joseph Conrad to deal with him. The authority of the great writer was intimidating. The steamer toiled along on the edge of the black and incomprehensible frenzy. The prehistoric man was coursing us, praying to us, welcoming us – who could tell? … They scoffed at him.
But Benson was born to this kind of thing and they did not know it. In his father’s big household of many wives and many siblings, insults and brawls were a common fare. He looked at them now and smiled at their crudity. He had no wish to spoil the party. Presently he said. I have no problems with Empire. History is what it is. Time takes time. Look at the Romans. Look at the Ottomans. Everyone plays a part. It is the story of humanity. But men are men. That is what we are, the same everywhere, the same with my own people. Benson smiled his winning smile. A perfect set of teeth. Benson said. My people danced naked once, but so?
His voice was calm, as if he was talking to a date he meant to impress. What he said made sense and he sounded sincere. There was no hint of aggression they could detect in his voice. No element of toadying so common in the natives they had encountered. The man stood on his dignity. Here is a fellow we can trust, he speaks his mind.
Winds of change
The whirlwind and tête-à-têtes was designed to turn Benson into a convert and a lover of empire. When Benson returns home at the end of the year abroad, his role was to spread the good news. In their estimations, things had gone well. They filed a glowing report. Benson is an exceptional native; smooth, smart, intelligent, a man we could do business with. Someone we must cultivate.
Benson’s year abroad coincided with the moment of the wind of change that swept Africa. Even here on the streets of London among these cultivated men and women you sensed it. Blacks walked tall and proud, even bus conductors and others in lowly jobs that Whites wouldn’t touch. At Hyde Park, on campuses across the land, in the great Palaces of Westminster, there were voices raised in defense of the African cause. This was new.
Despite these developments, maybe because of them, Whites in some colonies talked militantly about building Whites only paradise in which Whites would rule for a thousand years and natives would toil for ever. For of his dominion there shall be no end. To further these goals the militants assembled a fearful array of modern weaponry. We have a right to this land buster. We shall defend that right.
But in this corner of East Africa, the land they called the pearl of Africa, there was calm, there was peace. Independence was a sure thing. No white settlers raising hell. No natives breathing fire and hailstones. Despite the tumult in the Congo and the state of emergency in Kenya, here was tranquility. Love seemed real here. It is only love and that is all I am telling you.
Whites, Blacks, Indians, lived in harmony. A native king there was. He was a monarch as elegant as any. The image of him riding downtown in his open silver Rolls Royce was part of the fairytale. Man, women and children basked in the sun. It is only love and that is all I am telling you. This was the land of the lotus eaters. Benson and the others were being groomed to take over the colonial state and run it after a fashion. For of his dominion there shall be no end.

Young Americans everywhere
There was suddenly a flurry of activities in the colony. Authorities appeared as though men whose house had caught fire. From across the land hundreds of sons of the soil were hurriedly picked and flown abroad for special training. The doors of the once rare golden opportunity blew open.
Had the authorities left too late the task of building a group of people who in color, blood and looks were fully native but in conduct and outlook were British to the core? Had the authorities left the task too late? Had they meant to stay put in this the Garden of Eden! While away their time eternally by the fabled mountains of the moon where butterflies dance in the midday sun, where native women are famed for their ways! How difficult it is for men to leave paradise.
As if to complicate matters the Americans were suddenly in on the act. Young Americans everywhere. They looked colorful and robust, proud of their young and handsome President who had sent them here on a mission. More worrying for the old colonial powers, the Americans were popular with the natives. They were flying people in and out. The Americans had the dollars. They had everything. They gave the British a run for their money.
Even cash starved Russians eyed for a piece of the action. At night spots when the music stopped, suddenly you noticed the hardened gaze of the old communists, men who survived Stalin. The West Germans were upbeat and upfront. Looking on the East Germans said hell why not, and made a dash for it. The once rare and golden opportunity exploded.
Was the native on sale? Everybody scrambled to assemble a group of natives who would do their bidding. Was the native a tab-u-lae ra-sae? On which the West or any body else, could and may write their texts. Was the native to endure forever? There were rumblings in the distance. The Chinese were coming. When will this end!

The university degree
At the time Benson of course knew nothing about grand imperial designs. In those days natives were a bunch of innocents. You could buy and sell a native over and over and he will smile at you. Benson knew only that he needed a university degree. He felt it deep inside. His old mom once said; Benson my son, books will be the end of you. Had they offered Benson the Presidency of the new state right away Benson would have refused! At the end of the year abroad when it was time to go Benson stayed on to pursue his dreams at Imperial College London where he had secured admission for a degree program in history. Benson was gunning for the Golden Fleece. History was his first love. Did he not drink it at the feet of his fore fathers? Now his friends and sponsors at the Colonial Office were thoroughly alarmed.
They fumed! You fool, you bustard, you wait and see. The communists will get you. They will use you they will dump you. The CIA will come get you. You will regret this. There was nothing they did not say, but there was nothing they could do. They wept for him for they loved him. It was so difficult for a camel to enter the eye of needle. Despite their angry words they thought a hell lot of him. How sweet natives can be! But how abominably erratic! Nothing would deter Benson but his scholarship and sponsorship were over now. Must have been love but it was over now.
Son of a Chief
To make ends meet Benson took odd jobs here and there. Benson hated it. He could not see himself moping floors, cleaning toilets, he the son of a chief. One morning in class, the professor’s overdrawn rhetoric got to him. “So here we are in our own time, this modern edifice, this Europe. Before us, were the Greeks, founders of our shinning heritage that bestowed upon us the dominion of the world! After the Greeks came the Romans, men who built roads, bridges and the first modern army. And here come the Ottomans, a proud a race once, but today a despicable lot. Now the Africans, what can we say, a degraded lot, totally outside history. The history of Africa is the history of European activities on the Dark Continent.”
The professor rummaged. The Indian girl sitting next to him knew was running inside his head. She nudged him. They looked at each other and smiled. The pains left him, banished by the light of the orient.
In the years ahead, while he presided over state functions the image of the Indian girl would return and Benson would smile again. But for now as he paced about in Hyde Park that late afternoon, his mind in turmoil. It was one thing for officials at the colonial office to talk like that. But a man in academic garbs, perched on the podium in the sacred halls of learning. A year later, Benson packed his bags and returned to Africa.
He came back home and went straight to our school. There he took over from Teacher as the new math and music teacher. His former reputation as a miracle man followed him. We were young, we were innocent. Imagine how thrilled we were to be in the company of this man. But Benson did not stay long at our school and he never looked back. But not before he added to the school repertoire what instantly became a hit song. God bless Africa. In the years ahead the song would become the anthem of the new South Africa. We sang it with great pride in the local language of the country, Mi gum ikom Afica.

Those not kissed by the gods
With Benson you could never tell. Benson was smooth. The first thing you noticed was that Benson had shed off the white sleeves and khaki shorts worn by teachers. An outfit Benson spotted with pride before. Benson was distancing. He was positioning himself. Benson presently donned the light morning suits of London spring weather. But he did so with a difference. Not for him the tie, the insignia of the colonial elite in Africa. Frequently he had the jacket off as well, appearing only in his dazzling shirts. These had the effect of setting him apart from other mortals. They made him the focus of attention.
Benson saw that it worked. Now he added a unique hairstyle that made his face and his whole profile when viewed from the sides give a hint of the map of Africa. Benson walked tall, his head held high. Later when his pictures began to appear on magazine covers and on the pages of newspapers his choice turned out fine. One magazine cover spotted him with his trademark pipe (tobacco was not the pariah it is today). Rhetorically the magazine asked. Will he be modern Africa’s first philosopher king?
In those days Benson retained his trim boyish looks. In those Oxford Street gear he looked cute. His baritone voice, which in the years ahead would dominate the airwaves, was deep and flawless. His diction was perfect. From head to toe Benson was a gentleman. He appeared like a male model, the black god. There were whispers, Too good to be true. This was put down as jealousy by those not kissed by the gods.

Peter Pan
Everybody admired Benson. Women could not take their eyes off him. But he took no notice. In the macho environment that was the colony this made him a sensation. He wasn’t married. He was still young. He was like a fresh breeze on a summer’s eve. At public occasions like Sunday mass people converged around him, eager to hear his words. He seemed at those moments to fly on wings. Benson had become a modern day Peter Pan.
Where others saw only empire continuous, Benson enthused about approaching independence. The Whites are leaving. They have no choice. Look at India. He deplored what the Whites had made of Africa, the appalling lack of schools, the absence of any industries, the relegation of culture. At the local university, he said, they could not even make a mere pin. The worst thing Whites did was to undermine confidence in things African. Benson called for a new society erected on the basis of modern science, in which all will have a stake. No I am not a communist, he said.
No one before Benson had talked like this. He deplored many aspects of our lives. Benson was a man in earnest. You saw this in his eyes, large luminous bulbs, they burned like coal. He was like a prophet. Like a prophet he attracted followers, multitudes of them. Indians would close their stores and gather to hear him talk. An Indian closing his shop, now that was something. Whites passing by in their cars would slow down and sometimes stop altogether to listen. A new spirit moved across the land. The old gods believed dead were living again.

Prophets and madmen
Now a prophet is sometime, like a madman. Benson at times appeared a madman. Benson did not shout, he did not rent his hair or go about in shabby things. Benson was immaculate, sat peacefully at bus and train stations, surrounded by volumes of books, which from time to time he consulted. Benson knew of the native’s respect for books and of his crave for education. Benson was presenting himself as a learned fellow.
At times he took his position by the market gate or by the great Indian bazaars, dotted all over the land. Really, regardless, Benson should have stayed on in London and got the degree. Yeas later as Chancellor of the prestigious local university Benson would intone. By the powers conferred upon me I confer upon all those whose names have been read, the degree of Bachelors of Science. At those moments you thought you heard in his voice a note of nostalgia for the London days.
But for now Benson’s tactics worked. People gathered around him. He talked to them, earnestly gently. He did not shout; he shunned crude drama beloved of modern preachers, imitators of the pop style of Michael Jackson. He was the polite and charming guest in the living room that children loved. His voice and manners set people at ease. What he said made sense. What a contrast to the other men of learning? Who drove in flashy cars, loved the company of free women, called attention to themselves, showed off with their loud mouth and big grammar. What a difference this man was?
People saw that Benson talked about their own lives, their history. But really he told them stories they already knew. But they loved it the more. People saw that he knew what he was saying. Sometimes, but this was rare, Benson blamed the people. And people saw that he spoke the truth. Benson was passionate about the need for a brand new future. He said this was entirely possible.
People thought: here is a man who knows, a man who cares. In the years ahead Benson named his mass circulation paper The People, he called his party The People’s Party. People were impressed by simple symbolisms. They thought him learned. They thought him very intelligent. But the man was sharp. Years later after Benson had won and lost power, all in great style, a retired colonial Governor wrote from Surrey, England. Benison was the most intelligent human being I had ever encountered.
One morning as I sat in my office, an apparition appeared and approached and set the very walls around me alight with his tongue. I found myself despite myself carried like on a whirlwind. In my long years administering native lands, controlling native populations around the world, nothing like this had happened.
I had at that moment in all but fact, surrendered to the native. In my surrender I had become aware of something I never saw before. Groups of natives, hundreds of them, perhaps thousands, marching singing and dancing on the streets outside my windows as only natives can. A prettier more joyous sight I never saw. The Empire as I knew it was over. Long live the Queen.

In history we encounter again and again the confession. Whenever this occurs it marks a moment in which one human being speaks to another on terms of complete equality, bereft of pretensions. The kind of thing Desmond Tutu tried to achieve with his Truth Commission.

Soon after his encounter with the Governor, Benson was arrested as an enemy of the State. The rest as we now know is history. God bless Africa.

Mi gum ikom Afrika ayi Rwot
tinge wek giyile malo twal
winy kilega megwa Rwot maber
mi gum ikom wan ducu
mi gum ikom wan ducu

Bin ayi cwiny bin ayi cwiny
bin ayi cwiny bin ayi cwiny
bin ayi cwiny maa leng paa Rwot
maa leng paa Rwot

John Otim
The ICT Directorate
Ahmadu Bello University
Zaria, Nigeria

Copyright John Otim 2009


2 Responses to "how africa was decolonized: back story"

This is an extraordinary a masterpiece! got fascinated by it.
many thanks

David you know when I looked at the politics of Africa today, the massive resources, the theft, the squandering, the people left in the cold; I thought of the beginning. Thank you for your comments

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