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Archive for the ‘african intellectuals’ Category

early days on campus at ahamadu bello
by john otim

I joined the Ahmadu Bello University the year I left graduate school in the early eighties. Arrived in the middle of a cold dry dusty season locals call the harmattan. The campus was filled with expatriate academics from around the world. Poles, Indians, the British, Americans, Africans, and others; it was a seething pot of nationalities. It was an exciting moment and place to be.

Weekends were filled with parties. The feeling of being in a new African country far different from one’s own was intoxicating. For a young single male the local women appeared the ultimate in famine charms. But on campus there was work to be done. I was amazed at the number of sharp young academics one encountered on campus. Perhaps because my expectations had been low, I was after all coming to a rural campus. But later I felt I never learnt so much in one single place but then I never stayed longer in any other one place.

"attracted to books"

book corner

            In the humanities and the social sciences where I belong Marxism was the popular mode of analysis. All the good thinkers seemed to be Marxist. When the one hundred anniversary of the death of the prophet arrived they held a conference themed Karl Marx in Africa. Participants came from far and wide. There were good papers, there were bad papers, they were all there. It was an exciting moment. A woman from Portharcourt wrote about male chunism in Achebe; one of the very first to do so, she demonstrated her case well. My own paper discussed the division of labor and the production of knowledge. It was an ambitious if pretentious look at the rise of knowledge from its communal folk origins. At first the common property of all from the common collective labor, but then the split begin to occur along the emerging fault line in the workplace. Soon one strand of knowledge or view of the world grew dominant and was universalized; a long the line that eventually led to the New York Review of Books.

            A few years down the line a new military government came to power in Nigeria. The year was 1986. The new rulers were abrasive and knew what they wanted, and it was not the common good. They proceeded nosily to adopt the structural adjustment program, under the supervision of the IMF while pretending to carry everyone on board. Soon the oil rich country was paying more on interest rates. Which had now grown far bigger than the original debt. There wasn’t a great public service but there was some. Now it began to slump, especially in the crucial areas of health and education. Soon the economy collapsed. And so began the exodus from campus of skilled and experienced academics.

"central campus"

central campus

            Yea there was in Nigeria at the time and there still is in Nigeria plenty corruption and dozens of corrupt and corruptible officials and politicians. On campus many Nigerian colleagues traced the beginning of corruption in their country from the time of the civil war they fought in the late sixties, when all norms broke down and gave way to the free for all dominion. But those of us who had read Chinua Achebe’s earlier novels, especially No Longer at Ease, knew that corruption in Nigeria as a matter of public concern dates much earlier. Nevertheless it seemed to us at the time that the IMF and its Structural Adjustment Program was abating and aiding corruption in the country; knowingly feeding the corrupt machinery of government. But the world is what it is.

            Was excited when I got your mail and regretted that I did not inform you in the first place that I was working on a book on Ahmadu Bello University. How greatly my book would have profited from your rich perspectives.  I was writing at the invitation of the university. And that created complications but I tried to be my own man as a writer should.

            There was a time at the forum when they were boasting that they were going to get you back to help them discuss the other Barack Obama. Meaning the President’s father who was then apparently in the news. But the forum is dead now. It died when you left. Nowadays lucky is the day the forum gets even 2 posts. DrVali still tirelessly counts the number of his pages in his forever forthcoming book.

Greetings and thanks



reflections on the post colony
by john otim

The great Hall teamed with postcolonial students in their trademark red gowns. Present were nearly the entire faculty and quite a few members of the country’s political and administrative elite from downtown. The occasion was the debut of the play: Not now sweet Desdemona, written, directed and produced by Murray Carlin. Murray Carlin was a White South African teaching literature on campus. Murray Carlin fancied himself a liberal. And in the dense postcolonial atmosphere at Makerere he was.

"Makerere University"

makerere university (photo James)

To appreciate Murray Carlin’s drummer one had to know something of the politics and the workings of South Africa’s Apartheid Society as it then existed. And one aught to have some familiarity with Othello, the great Shakespearean masterpiece. In the play set in the medieval city state of Venice, Desdemona, a young White woman of  beauty, grace and nobility, marries Othello, a Black General and war hero of  charms, grace and nobility. That Shakespeare’s Othello, though black was in the age of imperialism,  a commanding figure in the small city state, spoke volumes.

The context of Shakespeare’s play differ from that of Murray Carlin’s;  the women differ too. But Shakespeare’s Desdemona suggested Murray Carlin’s Desdemona. Shakespeare’s Desdemona is young, vivacious and ready for life. Carlin’s Desdemona is older; wedded to the State, and one might say over with life. Neveretheless in their private lives both women run into currents of racism at play in their two societies. For the younger woman in the prime of life, matters end in tragically. For the older woman there are frustrations, but in the end it is politics and officialdom that dominates.

In Murray Carlin’s play the white President of South Africa fortunately or unfortunately turns black whilst making love to his wife at State House.  In the eyes of the Apartheid State, of which he as President is the ultimate symbol and representative, his and his wife’s relationship become at that moment, both immoral and illegal. In the confusion the First Lady, a true daughter of Apartheid, reaches for the phone and calls the police, to report the illegal presence of a black man at State House in the bed chambers for that matter. Was he an intruder?

Within moments apartheid police burst into the Presidential Mansion located at an exclusive suburb of Cape Town. Police could recognize the President for what he was. But now they saw only a black man, who was naked and who was in bed with a white woman who was also naked. Police arrest the pair for a breach of Immorality Act. Law and order following its due course. Shocking headline revelations across the land, the President and the First Lady go on trial, charged with the crime of making love across the color line. In the Republic such as it was, this kind of situation had occurred before. But now it was different.

At the trial, perfectly legal according to the laws of the land, the onus is upon the prosecution to prove that the transfiguration of the President from a white to a black person occurred in the heat of passion. If the color change occurred after the act, the President and the First Lady had no case to answer. Although the President, now as a black man, could still face other charges. If  the color change occurred, during the act or before the act, the pair were clearly in breach of the famous Immorality Act and would face long years of jail terms.

In Not now Sweet Desdemona, Murray Carlin was determined to demonstrate the absurdity of Apartheid. Look how stupid it is.  But in realiy Carlin ended up trivializing the horrors of a system that had blighted the lives of so many; the systems whose legacies stood to haunt South Africa for years to come. Of course it is true that many African rulers today by their own deeds have made Apartheid look like child play.

At the trial the President pleaded not guilty. The prosecution listened sympathetically and turned to the First Lady for explanation. Madam at which point during the affair did the President turn black?
Ah it was, it was, it was …it was …
Madam speak up! Tell this Court precisely the moment in which the President turned black? Was it before, was it during, or was it after?
Ah it was, it was, it was du-du-during … Madam was a Stateswoman.

Makerere students and faculty burst into laughter. On stage before them a white woman and a black man stood side by side accused of making love together. The audience could not withhold itself. At that moment it saw only the luscious act of sex, not the scores impoverized or jailed and murded by apartheid.

Murray Carlin nervously paced the grounds outside the great Hall. When he heard the burst of laughter and the prolonged applause at the final end, he was elated. He knew the evening had been a success. Many in the audience of Makerere University students and facul thought so. But in reality this was a sad moment. Few if any in the audience came out of the play better informed or more engaged with the burning issue of the continent that apartheid really was at the time. 

"Makerere Main Hall"

Makerere Main Hall

Not now Sweet Desdemona had reduced the serious business of Aparthied to something as mundane as sex. It directed attention at the outer trappings of Apartheid and hurled insults. The audience for sure had a good laugh. But the play and the performance left no dent in the bulwark of Apartheid. Had the President in reality turned black as the play imagined him to do, he would have been swiftly and smoothly replaced. The system would would have gone on. Apartheid like postcolonial barbarism in Africa today, was a logical system within itself. There was nothing in it to laugh at. Apartheid was not a commedy of the absurd. There was everything in it to be abored and opposed, to struggle against, and to defeat.  as eventually was done.

John Otim
Suncolor Media Consultants
Kampala, June 2011

Copyright john otim 2011

The Harvard of Africa
by john otim

In the garden city
The city was heavily European and Asian. Its superb tea houses, restaurants, cinemas, including the national theater were almost exclusive White terrain. This was inevitable. Only recently these people had run the show, and even now they still ran most things, independence regardless.
The key sector of the economy, the import export trade, banking, what industries there were, were in their hands. They ran most of secondary education and the whole of higher education. The only spots really African were the football stadiums, the bars and the night clubs. I don’t think the malwa joints that serve local brews had made their way to the city then.
On campus students struggled with the problem of identity. Not that they knew. But the gentleman image in a suit and tie held fast. A legacy from a past when city Africans in the alien and subjecting colonial town, sought to out dress Whites as a way of asserting themselves.
The young and handsome Sir Edward, King of the Baganda, was a splendid exponent of this school. The Baganda set the pace. Sayani, the leading city shopkeeper who happened to be Indian, was a beneficiary of this movement. The bravo of James Bond on celluloid gave the movement unassailable lead.

The invisible student
Students went about the city disguised as gentlemen. Not that they knew. On campus you observed no attempt to create a separate a student youth image that would perhaps be African. Newly liberated from the school uniform they wore for years, most Makerere students were comfortable and happy in the new uniform Sayani had expertly tailored for them. They knew not that it still was a uniform, its style and superb finish regardless. Sayani, and many others like him, smiled all the way to the bank.
The lack of a sense of identity, the invisibility of the student in the neocolonial city easily translated into the poverty of discourse evident on campus. This was inevitable. Discourse required superb self confidence. The colonial experience schooled these guys to follow not to lead.
This was the tragedy of the glamorous and altogether charming Makerere student of the early period of the postcolony. He was glamorous but he was anonymous. It is a paradox but it is true. City babes took after him for he was young and elegant, always neatly turned out. You thought he went to bed that way. And emerged in the morning trim fresh and complete that way. There was about the student a touch of desperation, even something of the tragic. He was so obviously talented but you thought you heard the voice of Elton John serenading over him: don’t let the sun go down over me. But the sun was going down.

Don’t let the sun go down
A steady supply of government bursaries ensured that the Makerere student was well off. Better off than the neocolonial worker on the streets downtown with his hordes of wives and kids. With his riches the student was the pure image of the young man about town. His appearance and mannerisms were far from the portrait of the scholar as a young man.
The student enjoyed his new riches and powers immensely. It took his time, it took his energies, and in the end it nearly consumed him. He vacated something.
In the vacuum that was created, the gifted and young Paul Theroux moved in and flourished. With a little bit of help from his friend Rajat, the creator of Transition Magazine now issued from Harvard, and a node from the great Naipaul, he celebrated Tarzan on the pages of Transition and launched his amazing career. In his latest book about Africa the famous American writer pays tribute to this period, Uganda was the making of me.
Recently I came across a piece on a web blog in which a Makerere student of the early years of independence enthuses that he got away with a two one without ever setting foot in the library. In those days the Makerere library was something. It was the pride of the college. It was the pride of the city. It was a stopping place for North American and European visitors who marveled at the wonder that was created in the heart of Africa.

Brilliant journalism
After years in the Diaspora the student had no regrets over his past delinquency. There were bound to be others like him who walked away with good degrees and unread minds. These were the glamorous lot for whom Theroux said the body had taken over. These were East Africa’s elite who novelist Bahadur Tejani calls the uneducated conscience.
You are about to ask, well, what about The Makerereian, that marvelous piece of student journalism of the time. How do you explain that? The Makerereian was a minority affair. Created, produced and sustained by a set of gifted highly motivated students, the brightest and the best.
But the fact remained most Makerere students approached the paper in consumer mode. The same way they approached their lectures. They would delight over favorite quotes of their famous professor. Mankind should neither at once nor entirely depart from antiquity. They thrilled at the language but they would not engage the quotes much less the professor that dished them out like so many barbacues. They sounded nice.
The lack of student city presence ensured that the wonderful student newspaper never got going beyond the sparkling green loans and flowering shrubs of the campus, in those days a paradise set in a colonial garden city. Physical restrains imposed other limits. Of course the President and some of the Cabinet and the diplomats read the paper. But it did not grip the uneducated consience of Kampala.

Beyond the gates
When the sun did come down as it was bound to do. In the coup that introduced General Amin to the world, a coup that was as much directed at the university and at the students whose lifestyle the soldiers envied and craved, the postcolonial students found themselves down and out. They were without a voice. They stood in a void. They were like a people expelled from paradise.

The first act of the soldiers upon seizing power was to drive in a convoy round the paradise that had exculded them. And in their eyes belittled them. They drove round shooting in the air looking for campus babes to rape.
Once in a lecture at the University’s Main Hall before a packed audience of students wearing their trademark red gowns a distinguished personality of the period warned the students. While you are here study as much theory as you can. Beyond those gates are practical problems awaiting practical solutions. Practical problems now breached the gates of the city of learning.
East Africa’s famous poet p’Bitek once teased the students as they sat before him in the Main Hall wearing their trademark red gowns. You wear red gowns but you are not revolutionists … you are exploiters. I feel like shouting a revolutionary slogan . The uneducated of Africa, unite. You have nothing to loose but your chains.
The soldiers such as they were, were most of them unschooled and uneducated. But they were not the uneducated of Africa. They were the group that Captian Lugard had found stranded and starving in the Sudan desert. They were a desparet lot waiting for death. Lugard had rescued them and turned them into instruments of imperial conquests. Lugard who was himself stranded without an army had called the encounter God’s providence. Now almost a centuary letter, the coup leader, using the same desparate bunch or their decendants as his crack troop, had called his own encounter God’s providence. God was everywhere.

john otim
ahmadu bello university
zaria, nigeria

Copyright John Otim 2008