At the time of writing, Jacques Depelchin, Executive Director of the Ota Benga Alliance, was a visiting Professor at the Centre for Afro-Oriental Studies at the Federal University of Bahia, Salvador, Brazil in the fall of 2007. Reprinted from Pambazuka News December 11, 2007.
Jacques Depelchin reflects on the growing economic, political and cultural relationship between Brazil and the Africa and urges for a solidarity from below that is cognizant of black revolutionary history.
Almost everyone knows about Brazilian football, especially Pelé; but, it is a fair bet that a very tiny percentage of the same people will know about one of the foremost intellectuals of Brazil in the 20th century: Milton Santos (MS), winner in 1994 of the Vautrin Lud prize given to the most outstanding geographer (sometimes known as the nobel prize for geography). Others have described him as the Noam Chomsky of Brazil. One could go on with the accolades. Thanks to a recent documentary (directed by Silvio Tendler) on and around his ideas, MS’ reputation (1925-2001) is likely to gain greater recognition among Brazilians as they begin to realize how far ahead his visionary understanding of humanity’s plight and challenges was.
This is not an essay on MS, it is an encouragement to those who already know him or of him and those who do not, to get to know him better. It is also an appeal to those who have the wherewithal to contact the film maker and make it available in other languages, including Kiswahili since he did teach in the geography department of the University of Dar es Salaam in the mid-seventies.
The main reason for this essay is to reflect on the growing convergence (economic, political and cultural) between Brazil and the Africa which is not delimited by its geographical borders. To paraphrase MS’ view: surely, another kind of globalization is not only possible, but a must if humanity is going to be born . Inexorably, it will be thought and led by the poor, or the Wretched of the Earth, as Franz Fanon long ago, saw it coming. Will African intellectuality join them or prefer to carry on their mimicking of the West?
1. Mimicking or thinking? 1804 or 184?
In one of his interviews (and in the documentary), MS lamented the fact that most Brazilian intellectuals were more interested in copying what is happening in Europe or in the USA, rather than thinking from where they are, where they have come from and where they would like to go. Calling it intellectual laziness, he pointed out that it is easier for people to consume than to produce. Obviously, he is not the first to have said so , the question however, for all thinking Africans, as we enter the era of 50th anniversaries of Independence, is what happened after Independence? Is it something one could reasonably describe as an event? One which could or should have mobilized fidelity to what it meant? Were they events on the same scale as other previous emancipatory events , e.g.Quilombo de Palmares in Brazil(1597-1695), Haiti (1791-1804), and so many other unknown feats of resistance. Which kind of subject emerged out of such a collective birthing event? Did Independences rupture the colonizing enterprise, like truths puncture lies? Did there emerge an emancipated subject in our individual and collective consciousness? Which kind of consciousness prevailed in our countries, 50 years after Independence? We can point to heroes and heroines who did all they could to maintain fidelity to the emancipated subject which emerged out of that event. Each reader can fill in the dots.
In Haiti today, 184 is the number of people and institutions who signed a petition against President Aristide, denouncing him in a manner reminiscent of the Congolese who colluded with external forces to eliminate Patrice Lumumba, back in 1960/1. Could 184 coincidentally be an apt metaphor of what came to be of 1804 ? The shrinking and squeezing of freedom, equality and fraternity to the point of a group of 184 whishing it never happened? Could it be said that the same process has occurred in many African countries, namely that of reducing Independence not to an event, but to a transition used and abused by a small group to enrich themselves while the largest part of the population remained poor or got poorer? Shouldn’t what happens to every single Haitian today, because of that transition from 1804 to 184, be of concern to all thinking human beings?
On December 12, 2007 it will be 4 months since the disappearance of Pierre Antoine Lovinsky . Kidnapping (or rendition?) might be a more appropriate word. How many (among those who knew of it) have done even a symbolic gesture calling on his kidnappers to let him free? Kidnapping used to be one of the ways people were ripped from the continent and dragged to the forts and slave ships. Wherever he is, Lovinsky could be asking himself why there has not been greater efforts to get him back from where he is. He must wonder, like many others, why the Brazilian government, headed by a president who visited Gorée and, more or less , apologized for slavery, does not go out of its way to go and find Lovinsky. Or, as some have speculated, is it part of the agenda of the UN mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) to silence, completely, all those who have vowed to continue calling for the return of President Aristide to Haiti?
It is impossible to think of Africa 50 years ago without, at the same time, thinking about its history from 500 years ago, because it is only by looking over the entire period that one can only begin to guess at the magnitude of the crime which has been committed with unimaginable, relentless impunity. If the Brazilian government, through its President, really meant to apologize for slavery, should it not be seen thinking and acting in a manner which is aimed at restoring the Haiti of 1804 rather than allying itself with the 184?
2. Brazil-Africa: South-South or South-North-South?
As more and more thinking Africans clamor for greater and greater South-South cooperation, it is encouraging to observe how the Brazilian government is willing to tread where its ruling clique would not like to go. The ruling clique is only interested in so-called Real Politik, and not at building a Planetary future through healing emancipatory processes. Even if, as everyone can see from the climatic changes, such a course is the only viable one. The ruling clique is more interested in fitting in the world as it is, rather than trying to build a different world, in which solidarity with Africa (and Asia) would loom large. But the world as it is, as seen from G8 Meetings and places like Davos is not interested in solidarity with Africa ; Africa and all of the poor of the world –they tell us in their own way– shall be rescued by charity . The charitable option is the most logical given that even the G8 and Davos have lost their grip on world decision making processes as these have been eroded by the weight and impact of financial decision centers via “the markets”. Described as self regulatory, these financial monsters are beginning to show growing signs of being out of control. How could it be otherwise given that the few regulatory leashes in place have been removed…so that these financial monsters could –so the logic went—even better self-regulate themselves .
The pressure for greater solidarity with Africa, in Brazil, comes from its African ancestry population and its allies (indigenous, landless, working, jobless people). Even the ruling clique cannot completely ignore the fact that more and more people in Brazil are clamoring for greater justice, and so, on occasion, it has to be seen as responding to these demands. As an emerging country, Brazil wants to have a permanent seat at the UN Security Council. This is one of the objectives which has driven President Lula’s foreign visits, including the visits to Africa, including his recent stop in Burkina Faso, on October 15.
As readers of Pambazuka News know very well, October 15 2007 was the 20th anniversary of Thomas Sankara’s assassination (along with 12 of his comrades). One can only presume that the ruling clique decided that one additional vote for the quest of a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, should be achieved by any means necessary, and, therefore, accepted the Burkina Be invitation to “celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Burkina Be revolution”. In the eyes of Sankara’s foes such an accolade from Brazil would help bury Sankara one more time. Or for good!
However, this cynical collusion to treat African history like a serviceable walking mat does help illustrate the longer process of how the splitting apart of humanity has been carried out by the very ones who apologize in one venue and do the exact opposite in another. Most academics are likely to condemn these colluders. And yet, again, should one not ask the same question raised with regard to the 184 in Haiti? However inconvenient it might sound, is it not the case that, overall, 50 years since Independence, African people have been betrayed by those who were supposed to be thinkers and who, on paper at least, always like to be seen and heard as being on their side? Independence as a truth, as an event, has been treated like a mere happening, one which did not seize intellectuals to change their world view of the past, the present and the future. Yes, however uncomfortable it might make one, each one of us should be able to ask: did I do all that could/should have been done, and more, to turn that emancipatory event into a real transformation of the colonial situation? If one thinks one did, then the result should tell one that it was far from enough.
Now and then the daily routine of the last 50 years has been ruptured by someone like Thomas Sankara who did try to live in fidelity of that Independence as an Event. As MS might have said, Sankara’s courage was to think. Thinking, in a context dominated by mimicking, submission, keeping quiet, is the most courageous act, suggested MS. Pushing further: are intellectuals in Africa, of Africa, from Africa, thinking? Over the past 50 years, have we become, more or less, like the 184 of Haiti? Faced with either catechizing or thinking, which way has been the easier road to follow? What happens when a so-called “discovered” (e.g. Lumumba, Aristide) “discovers” something the “discoverer” does not want discovered? Ever since 1804, that question has been answered unilaterally in only one way, over and over, almost like a silent but persistent internal prescription: Shrink that 1804 to 184, from the outside and from within.
3. Lumumba (1960) Sankara (1987) Aristide (2004)
Certainly none of these three would have passed the catechist exam for mimicry. In the world of African spirits, one could imagine Sankara’s spirits, from wherever they are circulating, letting us know how they understand the difference between mimicking and thinking, between a revolution and its fake. Listening attentively, one might be able to hear the following from Sankara’s spirits:
“Why and how is it, that starting with resistance to dehumanizing practices, structures, mentalities, from the beginning of humanity, but especially since our Independence, our leaders (not just in Burkina Faso) have colluded with their worst enemies to liquidate those who were trying to change course? More importantly, why not have an open dialogue so that our own voices could be heard, against those whose version of events is patently self-serving?
Right after they got rid of my comrades and I, they began to say that they were the real revolutionaries. I would not have minded if, indeed, they went on pursuing (reaching new heights) what we had started together, but, instead they started describing the revolution from the moment of my liquidation, as they went on liquidating many of the projects we had initiated. Those we had planned were archived never to be heard of again. As singers have sung before why is it that we get rid so easily of those who struggle with the poorest of the poor, and in their place put the defenders of the richest of the rich?”
And Sankara’s spirits continue: “ From where I am, it is easy to meet with fellow victims of liquidation, including those who faced their fate after liquidating countless of their own people themselves. One with a very long name from somewhere at the centre of our continent told me, crying like a child that he wished he could be back and bring back to life the leader whose punishment was so severe that they dissolved his body in an acid bath. These liquidizers or liquidationists, after coming here, were confronted with the real history of our continent, one which, given what happened, is impossible to measure even by the standards imposed by those who claim no one has ever suffered more than themselves. These spirits are in such pain for what they did that it is difficult not to sympathize with them. Here is what one of them said (there is no point naming names, but he is one of the main characters in Ahmadou Kourouma’s Waiting for the Vote of the Animals): I knew our situation was bad, but first I really believed the stories of the experts on development who kept repeating that sooner or later tickling (sic) down would get everybody laughing all the way to the bank (just like it happened to me), but then it kept getting worse, and it is only after coming down here under ground that I could see (literally from below) how bad the suffering has been. I had seen some of it above ground, but from down here, I could not imagine how extreme the level of suffering has been. It is only now –continued this crying spirit– that I understood how terribly, and horribly wrong I was. Somehow I bought into the notion that our suffering is lightweight, so trivial, not worth talking about, let alone, complaining. No one, not even some of our best griots, has been able to convey, in words what really happened, the terror, the fear that was inflicted through those wars of hunting for slaves. Those who escaped the brutal fate, either by luck or choice (becoming part of the hunters, in exchange of a few cowries, alcohol, cloth and/or guns), and their descendants, did their best to ensure that their own role did not get to be known. In short, what we are witnessing today, is a repeat of what has happened before: it is not the first time that our kin has colluded in and with self-liquidation.”
Again in the world of the African spirits, one would hear the spirits of Zumbi (the hero of the Quilombo de Palmares) and the spirits of Sankara meeting and commenting on the systematic downsizing, downgrading of the history of the continent, leading the 184 from Haiti and from other places to the point where downgrading would coincide with denigration and, finally, simply denial. Zumbi would say to Sankara: “You know, my spirits tried to talk to Lula about that choice and making him see that doing that visit on that day would be the equivalent of laughing at our own 20th of November which has been chosen by the African brothers and sisters to commemorate when I was killed on November 20th, 1695 . But there was so much interference, there was no way he could have heard me. Of course, part of the problem is that he is trying to satisfy everybody.”
Not long ago, France, under Chirac passed a law calling slavery a crime against humanity, but in a world where the nation-state has become one more instrument of the financial oligarchy, the mind set which emerged out of slavery has been reinforced rather than weakened. Every time it looked like one was about to correct the history of the continent, one goes the other way, as if the ruling principle is to keep laundering it until it becomes unrecognizable. With forces trying to negate what happened and others deforming it beyond recognition, is it surprising that 50th anniversaries or any attempt to recognize a truth, an event is turned into its opposite, like the ruling clique of Burkina Faso celebrating the assassination of Thomas Sankara as the birth of something they call a revolution.
Undoubtedly, some readers will take issue with the raising of these discomforting questions. Others might even condemn it as a disguised way of celebrating afro-pessimism or useless self-flagellation. The vast majority of Africans will not even be able to access these words, and yet, it is this vast majority which has been robbed of what could have happened, had there been more thinking than mimicking within African intellectuality.
To carry on as the African brothers and sisters (by now ancestors) did in Haiti, from 1791 through 1804, without any help from outside, without human rights organizations cheering on the sides, took a kind of courage which is difficult to imagine today. Yet, one must nurture the courage to say, as MS did in the documentary, that there has been no humanity, so far; only now is it being built, little by little. Universalism has always been preached as coming from the Enlightenment. To which MS replicated: “we, Brazilians, are not universal because we fail to be thoroughly (sufficiently) Brazilians”. The same could be said of Africans. The failure has been one of not keeping at it: trying and trying to be sufficiently (i.e. more and more) Africans.
4. Brazil and the 10.639/2003 Law
In a context dominated by hesitations and vacillations, those who have most benefited from the systematic laundering of African wealth/history would like to keep on laundering it after each new phase, even if it means reducing the entire Planet to an unlivable place for all of its inhabitants. Those who have been cowered into submission still know that they were right to resist, but are running out of the courage of 1804. They do see the 184 waving at them to join their side, which, from the distant, does look like paradise on earth. Among them a half-despairing Congolese mutters: “do not get fooled”. “Back home”, he continued, “we had someone who also built a so-called paradise in the equatorial forest at a place called Gbadolite. Nature has returned. He and his paradisiacal Zaïre are gone.”
On the other hand, thanks to the work of people battling to carry on the spirits of Zumbi in Brazil, a law was passed in 2003, calling for the teaching of Africa and people of African ancestry in elementary and secondary schools (NB pre-primary and tertiary/higher levels are not mentioned). As its passing, the implementation will depend on keeping alive the spirits of Zumbi, Sankara and so many other known and unknown truth discoverers. In and of itself the law will not change the mindset, but it is arguable that the mindset will change faster, provided that on the African side there is the courage to respond to this law –10.639/2003. There is no point spelling out the possible multiplicity of responses because each individual, each collective can generate emancipatory thoughts/responses aimed at transforming the current situation for the better for everyone.
More than laws will be needed. No thoughts will be too small, no thoughts will be too big once total and complete emancipation from the remaining shackles of 1804 are turned into the single minded objective for humanity wherever people of African descent live, which is everywhere on the Planet.
* Jacques Depelchin works with the Ota Benga Alliance for Peace Healing and Dignity. He is currently visiting Professor at the Centre for Afro-Oriental Studies at the Federal University of Bahia, Salvador, Brazil
* Please send comments to email@example.com or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/
1. For those interested in knowing more on Milton Santos (Portuguese), see the following sites: http://www.nossosaopaulo.com.br/Reg_SP/Educacao/MiltonSantos.htm
There is also an interview/conversation with Gilberto Gil (in English): http://old.gilbertogil.com.br/santos/eentre_0.htm
2. The number of people one could list her is too long and diverse, but among those who come to mind are C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Amilcar Cabral, Amiri Baraka, Ayi Kwei Armah, Mongo Beti, Walter Rodney
3. For more information on the G184, see:
4. For more on Lovinsky disappearance see the article by Roger Annis on Znet (September 27, 2007) http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=13901
5. There is no space here to enter into the discussion of whether Lula’s apology in Gorée was properly carried out. I do think that apology alone is not enough, given what happened.
6. Davos could be best described as the recycled Berlin of 1884-5, i.e. the place where the most powerful people of the Planet meet decide the future of its inhabitants. It could also be described as the kitchen cabinet of the UN
7. The literature on how poisonous/ruinous charity can be, is growing. See, among others: Michael Maren, Naomi Klein. However, as one reads these authors, many will have the feeling that what they are saying has been said before. The syndrome of discovery is still at work, whether the above authors like it or not: for the West it is hard to accept that it went wrong, but it is willing to accept it being said by those it can trust. Another way of saying this: a slave who fights for freedom cannot be trusted by those who profit from slavery until, from the latter’s corner emerges abolitionists who will then celebrated as the discoverers of slave’s freedom.
8. Any reader interested in verifying this assertion should read regularly, at least twice a week, the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times.
9. Analogies can be misleading, but November 20th is Black Consciousness Day in Brazil. Its equivalent in the US would be Martin Luther King Day.
10. Will this law be properly advertised in all of the Brazilian diplomatic and cultural missions abroad, especially in the countries with African ancestry? It is through such publicity that Africans outside of Brazil will know of these efforts and, thus, be in a position to think, in turn, of how to respond.