When I left Kenya 35 years ago, it was a reluctant and painful departure from the people and country I loved, but I knew I could no longer live where collective wisdom was rapidly becoming a relic of the past. From what I could tell, collective wisdom had been jettisoned everywhere I looked on the African continent and knowing that weighed on me. I didn’t want my children to become part of the problem either as victims of the lack of wisdom or as possible participants in its sustenance. Their mother’s way of life had many virtues and I’ve written how she brought her virtuous and wise ways into my life thus rebirthing me in a tribal system of thought. However, those ways and those virtues are part of an Africa which was severely, perhaps mortally damaged by the events of history and now, given the dearth and continuing diminution of collective wisdom, seem to be ways which will likely fade into oblivion.
Africans say that collective wisdom was always part of life in tribal society and my wife’s stories of tribal and family life suggested that the wisdom permeated all aspects of daily life. Much like the stories of the ancient Jews who carried them generation to generation for thousands of years by oral tradition, so did Africans preserve their traditions and laws. This oral tradition provided ethical and moral solutions to the day-to-day problems they faced. The elders collectively and individually formed the library of the collective knowledge and the wisdom flowed from them like water from an eternal fountain, forever available. You only had to ask. In those days, chiefs did not act as if they lived inside a vacuum. The elders had to be consulted.
This system of collecting, storing and sharing wisdom faced severe challenges when the Arab and the European arrived on the African continent. The intrusion by the outsiders disrupted and sometimes methodically destroyed the fabric of African tribal cultural heritage and wisdom, which proved too fragile for the challenge. This was most apparent in the area of religion, the formulaic representation of the wisdom of the invading peoples. History tells us just how these invading societies used these formulas to breakdown the oral tradition based belief systems of African tribes to replace them with the systems of the invaders. The absolutism of the these mono-theistic religions was uncompromising and could not accommodate the relativism of African theology nor the existence of alternate deities. Islam and Christianity are all-or-nothing options for believers and their missionaries laid waste to tribal collective wisdom as manifested through spiritual and theistic beliefs. Thus, the rooting of Islam and Christianity took place by undermining, then replacing the basic tenants of tribal collective wisdom. Once the invaders had achieved this end, the full exploitation of the continent was just a walk in the park. Indeed this message is a common theme in the writings of some great writers of African literature including Ngugi wa Thiongo, A Grain of Wheat, and Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart.
Ngugi was Thiongo, author of A Grain of Wheat
Chinua Achebe, author of Things Fall Apart
Slavery was an early and notable consequence of the intrusion by the outsiders whose own systems of collective wisdom were so corrupted by self-serving individuals they justified the enslavement of Africans. With the Quran or New Testament in one hand and a sword or gun in the other the invincible conquerors carried off human booty. African chiefs became complicit enablers as tribal collective wisdom and the tribal knowledge base were too provincial to tackle the complexities of the slave trade. Tribal chiefs used slavery for personal gain and to weaken enemies. Tippu Tip, the Zanzibar Arab who was a prolific trader of slaves, wrote in old Swahili a first hand account of his business dealings. He traveled the savannah of East Africa to the rain forests of modern day Congo trading beads and cloth with African chiefs for slaves. He might as well have been dealing with cattle. The deals were described without sentiment and there was never a word of regret for the misery caused. Did those African chiefs who sold fellow Africans for cloth and bead know what the fates of their captives would be? Did they care? Did they have an inkling of what the world would later say about treating people as the equivalent of property? Would they have behaved differently? Slavery, it has been said, had always been subject to tribal collective wisdom but its practice was different from the slavery practiced by Arabs and Europeans. When one tribe defeated its rival in battle and killed the men or chased them off, the women and children were taken as the equivalent of slaves. Eventually those “slaves” were absorbed by their new tribe as wives and children and fully integrated. When the Arabs and Europeans arrived a new opportunity was available to the African chiefs. They could exchange their captives for goods. This meant that male captives, who would normally be killed, could be sold and that the women and children no longer had to be integrated. They, too, could be exchanged for Arab and European products or commodities.
Portrait of Tippu Tip which can be seen in the municipal museum of Zanzibar
There are anecdotal historical records which reveal how some tribes used their collective wisdom in effective ways to deal with the invading outsiders. When the British colonized East Africa, they didn’t ask if they were welcome. They weren’t, by the way, but that didn’t matter to them. The Brits had a deeply imbedded self-delusion they deemed irreproachable. Thus, those whom they encountered were faced with uncompromising attitudes. The Maasai people were faced with the dilemma of the militarily powerful, uncompromising Brits. The invading British were determined to build a railroad right through the middle of their grazing lands so the Maasai consulted their Laibon, the men of a priestly class, who advised them to not resist arguing the Brits had overwhelming force. That was a difficult admission to make because the Maasai were not used to compromising with anyone. Reluctantly, they made a deal that allowed the British to build their railroad and allowed the Maasai to preserve much of their grazing lands. You can read about this in an historical novel called The Lunatic Express. The agreement worked also to preserve the way of life for the Maasai for over 100 years and, even today, many Maasai live as they always have, moving from manyatta to manyatta with their cattle following the water. The Maasai’s decision to accommodate the British invaders is an example of institutionalized collective wisdom, a systematic way of dealing with human conflict. It may have had another unanticipated benefit for the Maasai have the highest per capita control over grazing and agricultural land in East Africa. This could translate to unparalleled wealth as the astute Maasai negotiate their way through the gradual and inevitable acculturation process that will result in full fledged economic membership in future Africa.
The historical record documents the effect of the Arab intrusion into Africa and the effect of Islam on the African way of life. The Arabs penetrated Africa in the north and the east. The Arab effect was so profound in North Africa that their language and culture replaced those of the societies invaded. In the east of Africa the Arab invasion let to a melding of cultures. The Swahili language and culture were the products of that melding in coastal urban centers ranging from modern day Somalia to Mozambique. Even though the Arab intrusion was disruptive and brought devastating consequences to tribes because of the Arab slave trade, the long term effect produced a new society with rules that worked. And that’s the point. If the interlacing of different societies can lead to a new, workable society, with rules that function to the benefit of all, then there is “wisdom” in that society. Swahili society wasn’t perfect. Slavery, for example, would have maintained the rift between Arab and African societies, but it was to be eliminated by the British, for the Brits, though devoid of insight, weren’t inherently evil and did some good things. Without slavery the Swahili people evolved into a group of coastal Africans, religiously muslim, who were accepted by traditional African tribes and essentially lived a peaceful co-existence with African tribal societies. Conflicts did occur but for the most part there was enough collective wisdom in the Swahili world and the surrounding tribal societies that they could live in relative peace and cooperation.
Melding worked, too, in parts of the Sudan. The Arabs created a way of life that worked for many and had enough collective wisdom that Arabs and African peoples lived in a harmonious coexistence more often than not. The Nubians, the black, proud,and dominant indigenous African group of the Nile may debate the point because the Arab dominated government has destroyed much of Nubia by building dams, but, for the most part, the Arabs and the Nubians live in a modicum of peace and harmony. In other parts of the Sudan, however, the invading Arab was not able to reach a peaceful and long term co-existence with African tribal societies. Sudan’s Arabs, who in the majority are really Arabized Africans, have disdain for non-Arabized Africans and a long history of subjugating African people. It doesn’t even matter if the African is muslim. An African muslim who maintains his tribal affiliation is the enemy of the African who calls himself an Arab in places like Darfur. This enigmatic racial disdain and hatred over-rides the religious affiliation. In the south and in the east of the Sudan this has played out as genocidal warfare that has its roots in age old hatreds resulting from racial and religious bigotry. In the case of the Sudan, no matter how strong the collective wisdom of the melded society, it wasn’t wisdom enough to serve the interests of everyone who came under the influence of the new rule.
When the earliest explorers, like Vasco da Gama, opened the door to Africa, the first Europeans who followed were completely wisdom-less and unpretentiously exploited the continent. Gold, copper, diamonds and ivory were carried by the shipload to Europe, while slavers packed Africans into ships to become the property of European colonialists in the New World and Europe. The European who invaded the African continent had bestowed upon himself a self-endowed right of exploitation and many evoked philosophical principles, such as their obligation to assist in the development of primitive people. England, France, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium, the invading European societies, gladly deceived themselves using a self-serving “collective wisdom.” The well intentioned individuals of the religiously imbued like Dr. David Livingstone were, if not self-serving, at least misguided. Livingstone fought to destroy the slave trade, but his first purpose was to bring Christianity to the continent which “pacified” Africa and opened the doors to the entrepreneurs and farmers who followed. Entrepreneurial colonialists like Cecil Rhodes imbued with philosophical principles of British superiority were simply wrong, if not disingenuous, and self-serving. The blatantly self-serving goals of the Boers in the South of the continent were, like all self-serving goals, short in vision and, as we know, had no long term potential for survival as they were devoid of wisdom that served the people whose land they invaded. They had no intention of accommodating the world of tribal Africa and they had little intention other than to exploit the African for the purpose of taking his land and using his labor.
The eventual turnaround of the exploitation of Africa by invading European societies was inevitable. There are just too many people of non-European origin below the Sahara. Besides, European societies were not devoid of wisdom. They realized their mistakes and finally withdrew from the continent, though force was sometimes required to stimulate wise thinking and hasten their departure. The real test of the people of Africa would follow the departure of the European colonizer. How would the African respond once the European was no longer in control of the situation? We know the answer. The personages of people like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Mobutu of Zaire, Mengistu of Ethiopia, Doe of Liberia and Idi Amin or Uganda are good examples of how dysfunctional the African would behave in the absence of the European colonialist. The exploits of these men, who are but the tip of a massive iceberg of dysfunctional, self-serving African leaders, are more than adequately chronicled elsewhere. In short, they acted treacherously and unconscionably using their newfound power for personal gain. There would be other personages, though, to show the African could behave in wise ways. Two of the most notable are Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and the revered Nelson Mandela of South Africa. These two men are gems of African wisdom. Their visions inspired. Their words and deeds met the highest standards of humankind and make the point that Africa, too, even with the systematic dissolution of their tribal societies could produce men with exemplary vision and intelligence. However, two men aren’t enough to solve the woes of the world of the African. There must be collective wisdom, not just the wisdom of the one, or the two. Nyerere and Mandela have shown virtuous and wise ways for others to follow, but there are just too few who do follow. Although there are certainly Africans who say the right thing in university classrooms, editorial pages of newspapers, and parliament houses, the old adage, “talk is cheap,” applies to almost everyone. The forces of power and greed are unfettered at the highest levels in the lands of Africa and just about nothing stands in the way of the men who control these societies.
This leads us to another humongously obvious, always ignored elephant-in-the-African parliament. The chief executives of Africa are, with only one exception in the history of the continent, as are the vast majority of all African leaders, men not women. Call it a world of “chiefs gone wild,” a playground for power and greed mongers. It is the last vestige of tribal collective wisdom, though it is arguably the least functional surviving element of tribal society and it’s no surprise that it survived. You can’t get more self-serving than to behave as does a chief, especially a chief who no longer has to answer to the collective wisdom of the tribal elders. Post-colonial Africa was the perfect setup for men who had aspirations to gain from their new found powers. If any element of tribal society had a chance to survive in post-colonial Africa it was the idea that chiefs rule, a ruler always rules as a chief, and chiefs are always men.
The women of Africa have been systematically excluded from roles which permit access to power and wealth. Consequently women have had little impact on the evolution of collective wisdom in post-colonial Africa and collective wisdom is impossible without the inclusion of women. If that statement should go without saying who is doing the saying? If women are saying it, they are doing so very carefully or not at all. As individuals, wise African women have had their impact but in areas which don’t effect the acquisition of power and wealth by men. African men have not permitted a challenge to their hegemony over wealth and power on this continent by women. A Kenyan wise woman who has little but symbolic impact on the collective wisdom of her country in a way that facilitates, promotes or empowers the African woman is Wangari Maathai. She received the Nobel Prize for her efforts to preserve the trees of Kenya. I can’t help but to think that the trees of Kenya are offered as proxies for the women of Africa. African men will permit achievement among women, even applaud it, as long as it doesn’t impact on their control of power or wealth. If a woman promotes the idea that women deserve equal rights under the law, including equal access to power and wealth, she might be able to if she calls a woman a tree, but otherwise she may be ostracized, demonized and possibly be murdered. Consider the fate of Chelugat Mutai, a female member of parliament from Eldoret, Kenya, who aggressively fought for equal rights for women in Kenya. Her fellow parliamentarians trumped up charges of corruption against her. Of course, they were quite familiar with the crimes they accused her of since they themselves were practiced perpetrators. She had to seek refuge in neighboring Tanzania. Ultimately she repatriated and now stays quiet, but alive, on her farm in Eldoret, Kenya.
Wangari Maathai of Kenya, Nobel Peace Prize
How does the lack of collective wisdom affect that day-to-day life of people who live in Africa? It does so tragically and the wisdom-less behavior pervades every level and facet of society. Take the example of male teachers in Kenya, who routinely use their position as teachers to extract sexual favors from their female students. These teachers act with impunity and when a female student is impregnated by a teacher, the student is expelled from the school to return home to deal with the pregnancy. There are occasional charges brought up against these male teachers, but they have acted pretty much without consequences for decades. Rape is not just a way of life in sub-Saharan, non-Islamic Africa. It is the right of men. In Uganda, over 60% of women over the age of 15 report that they have been forced to have sex by men, so says the Voice of America. To me, knowing how reluctant women are to speak out about anything in Africa, 60% sounds more like a near-universal experience. Women, in most African societies, are part of a man’s wealth. She is an object. She is owned. She has a function to bear children, and in no way does a man’s commitment to support her mean that he will be faithful to her. African men, with few exceptions, see themselves as free to engage in sex with women other than wives. It’s been a time honored right and in spite of what is written in the law books, what is said in church or in parliament, what is seen on TV in soap operas, and what is written on the roadside anti-HIV billboards, there has been little to change this perceived right. There may be wise men in Africa who understand that this should not be the way, but there aren’t enough to meaningfully change the way women are viewed on this continent. For this reason, the HIV epidemic has the potential to plague Africa for as long as current attitudes and behaviors persist. The out-of-control epidemic is the prevalent and inevitable consequence of egregious male dominance and indifference to their impact on the women men control. There are well known examples of just how bizarre and how insane the rule by men goes in a world where their self serving ideas and their unfettered control over women permit the most hideous and counter-productive of crimes against women. I’ll briefly describe two of these. There is a practice among men in Africa who are infected with HIV which they believe will cure their infection. These men will have forced sex with virgin girls in order to cure their infection. Since it’s difficult to prove virginity these men will go so far as to have sex with virgin infant girls to “cure” their HIV. Yes, babies. Another bizarre and completely counter-productive practice has been reported in multiple societies in Africa. It’s called “cleansing.” A cleanser is a man who is designated to have sex with a widowed woman to make her ready for re-marriage. In a world of HIV epidemic gone wild, many of these widows are already infected. Almost certainly the “cleanser” is infected. As a consequence, this practice comes close to guaranteeing that HIV will infect the widow or the cleanser if either is not already infected. One man, called Mbeki, who occupied the highest office in the most powerful of all African nations, South Africa, would contribute to the disinformation, if not unwillingness, to accept the wisdom of learned scientists and medical experts. He proclaimed for all to hear that a virus could not be the cause of AIDS. In so doing, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Africans died who would have otherwise been treated with available anti-virals.
Power and wealth (the word “greed” works well too) go hand in hand. Power facilitates greed and greed seeks the power to quench its thirst. In a society where there is little systematic or institutionalized wisdom, this translates into “corruption.” It’s a word one hears a lot in Africa. Even the politicians rant against it. They have to. Their rantings are the most effective way to protect their own corrupt behavior. The current Kenyan president, Mwai Kibaki, announced on the day of his inauguration that “corruption will cease in Kenya from this day forward.” Of course it was a lie. The forces of corruption are far greater than the words of one man, besides if the president uses the words to camouflage his own corruption then he does much to protect the other crooks in government. This, according to John Githongo, the man assigned to stop corruption in Kenya by President Kibaki, is exactly the case. Githongo had to escape Kenya in order to make that statement or he would no longer be alive to make it. If you want to read about it, check out Githongo’s story in It’s Our Time to Eat. Perversely, Kenyan politicians have used the corruption argument to become among the highest paid politicians in the world. If they’re paid well, they argue, they wouldn’t need to behave in a corrupt manner. However, it was an argument to create a protective shield around their own corrupt behavior. Corruption is rampant in Kenya in a world where the few honest politicians go broke and their families resent them for not taking advantage of their political power. The stories of how politicians use their offices to milk money from any and every opportunity are legion. I hardly feel the need to repeat them since they are universally recognized as the way of life in Kenya. I heard of instances daily when I lived here 35 years ago and after returning I heard them daily again.
Corruption is not limited to politicians. They just set the gold standard for government officials. From the heights of the highest office in the land, the corruption and all its associated accouterments, including its cynical disregard for humanity’s misfortune, spills downhill to the economic lowlands of African life. There at the bottom the consequence of corruption festers like a disease searching a cure. Poverty, ignorance, malnutrition, crime, and an epidemic of HIV are some of the progeny of corrupt government and nearly everywhere one travels in sub-Saharan Africa, there is ample evidence. The most obvious to overland traveler is the behavior of the police, who are flagrant and frequently encountered practitioners of corrupt behavior in the wisdom-less world of sub-Sarahan Africa. This is government sponsored roadside banditry. The police set road blocks anywhere and everywhere. It’s common to be stopped multiple times on a day’s journey. Once we were stopped five times on the island of Zanzibar on a trip of only 30 miles over a period of one hour. The police are astute predators and cherry pick their victims for their vulnerability. A traveler with an out-of-country license plate is prime pickings, not to imply that fellow Africans are exempt. Far from it. The majority of the illegal income comes from fellow Aficans. The police may demand a document that doesn’t exist. This happened to us. Police can say you obstructed traffic if you slowed down at a road junction to read a road sign. That one happened to us, too. One policeman in Zambia told me that I passed a truck in a no passing zone. The truck was going so slow I thought it may have stopped and told the officer this. “Didn’t you see the solid white line?” “No,” I told him and asked for permission to return to look for the solid white line. He agreed. I returned to the location where I passed the truck, took a photo, and showed him that there was no line. He said, “Okay, you’re right, but you passed on a curve.” That wasn’t true either, so the argument continued. The police can tell you any one of a million things. I found it refreshing when one policeman asked, “what do you have for me today?” and another demanded “give me a book.” These men deserve praise for their honesty. They may be corrupt, but they get to the point without any pretense. The police will also tell you that to avoid going to court or to avoid paying the “full fine” you only have to give them a small amount of financial assistance. The amount is rarely less than forty dollars and often much more. They won’t provide a receipt for it and they would deny it if you made a complaint against them. Their fellow police would verify the truth of their lie. This is a way of life in most of sub-Saharan Africa. There are exceptions. The Sudan is righteously honest because Islam demands this though we were stopped many times to show travel documents. The most refreshing exception was South Africa where we traveled nearly 10,000 km and never experienced one police road block.
Businesses are particularly vulnerable to corruption in sub-Saharan Africa. Whatever needs government to be done will be done if money is paid to make it happen. That’s the short of it. The more vulnerable you are, the more likely you will be “charged” for your vulnerability, so the last words a businessman wants to say to a government official is “I really need this.” More than one businessman told me that he doesn’t doesn’t use those words and he doesn’t make demands or threats at the licensing office when faced with a corrupt official who has held out his hand for a supplementary fee. Some businessmen refuse to pay on principle or because they can’t afford to pay. When the government declines the request while intimating or even demanding a personal fee, the businessman just walks away with the hope that in time the government official will yield and provide the license without demanding a bribe. Typical documents for which officials commonly request bribes include accounting records, building plans, ownership documents, etc. In Africa, there are few men more powerful men than those with rubber stamps, except for their bosses who have empowered them and who in return expect compensation for the power bequeathed. It all adds up so that at the end of the day the cost of doing legitimate business in Africa becomes either prohibitive or you pass the costs on to the customer. Merchants burned by corruption find it arguably reasonable to turn to illegal methods of doing business. The Black Market is rife with stolen booty, so the merchant buys it on the cheap to sell for a profit. They give the police their share of that profit and everyone is happy. In much of Africa, government is a mafia organization that takes care of the brotherhood of the internal bond that is most often tribal based. In Swahili, they call this “eating the little thing.” Everyone eats. They call it little, “kitu kidogo,” but it’s not. It’s huge and they are eating themselves to self-destruction. When the access to power and wealth by dominant tribal segments of African governments is threatened, the result is often violence, even genocide. This has happened notoriously on a large scale in Ruanda and Burundi, but has also happened to the same or lesser degree in multiple countries all over sub-Saharan Africa.
When the colonizer left Africa he dealt a second, inevitable and, possibly the coup de grace to the hope that collective wisdom would survive colonial rule. He left a vacuum of power that had to be filled by Africans who had never ruled. The consequences were inevitable. Wisdom-less politicians filled with aspirations for power and greed rushed to fill the power vacuum and fulfill their fanciful dreams. In the worst cases, for example, like Zimbabwe, the African leader, the Oxford-educated Robert Mugabe, just took what he wanted from the White Zimbabwean citizen and showed him the door. In Uganda, the infamous Idi Amin, who used military might to acquire the position of chief executive, kicked every Indian, regardless of Ugandan citizenship, out of the country, stripping every thing he could from the departing Indians. For good measure Ugandan soldiers terrorized the women with rape as a parting gesture of hate. Of course, Amin didn’t stop there. He went on to wreak havoc upon fellow Black Africans, especially from competing tribes, employing unconscionable and bestial methods. Sometimes whole societies acted as did individuals like Amin. The Hutu sought systematic destruction of the Watutsi in Ruwanda and the Watutsi sought the same of the Hutu. Theirs was an age old conflict that resulted from the forced subjugation of the Hutu by the Watutsi who invaded the region many centuries earlier. It’s called tribalism here but it is no different than racism in its worst form. The Watutsi are derivatives of Cushitic nomads who stormed across Northern Uganda to the Ruwanda region a long time ago. They established kingdoms over the existing bantu who had occupied the region. This happened all over Uganda as well and is behind some of the ancient resentments between the African peoples of this region. These themes play out all over sub-Saharan Africa. The vacuum of collective wisdom created by the exit of the colonial powers left Africans free to seek revenge for abuses and conflicts that went back so far no one remembered for sure what the original cause was. Typically, one group would gain more power than another and used the gained political power as a way of demonstrating its wrath towards the politically weaker tribal group. Genocide in Africa has been the worst manifestation of the lack of wisdom in post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa.
One African ruler who showed wisdom in post-colonial Africa by taking bold and decisive action on sensitive issues was Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. In order to dampen the effect of tribalism on post-colonial Tanzania, he used forced migration across tribal lines. It wasn’t welcome but it significantly reduced the impact of tribalism on the future of Tanzania. Today, Tanzania proudly claims that tribalism is not a problem in modern Tanzanian society. That is a disingenuous exaggeration but our experience with day-to-day life in Tanzania suggests some truth to the claim. In addition, Tanzania is proud of its distinct Swahili culture that is predominately Muslim. Muslims and Christians live and work side by side throughout Tanzania which includes mainland Tanganyika and the island of Zanzibar. This is an amazing outcome given the treacherously exploitive history of Muslims who ruled ruthlessly over the mainland from Zanzibar for hundreds of years. Then in 1964 a racially charged grass roots revolution overthrew the ruling Arabs and non-Arabs sought genocidal revenge against the Arabs. Thousands of Arabs and non-African muslims were reportedly murdered. In the aftermath, Nyerere, then president of Tanganyika, worked with the Zanzibari leadership to create Tanzania. Arab rule would remain a thing of the past, but tolerance of other cultures was a hallmark of Nyerere’s policies. Many argue that it was Nyerere’s inclusive philosophy that created a united Tanzania with racial tolerance.
Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania
Faced with the onslaught of foreign investment and political influencing during the post-colonial cold war Africa, Nyerere provided his people with a philosophy to face the future. The post-colonial period was characterized by “neo-colonialism,” a colonization of a different type. Africa worried about Western economic control and cultural invasion. Nyerere formulated “Ujamaa,” a reshaping of the ancient practice of “African Socialism.” He created the “Kijiji” or small village economic unit, which had a reminiscing feature of the communes of Marxist socialism. Nyerere refused to accept aid without attaching the aid to certain criteria. He didn’t want a tractor from the West without understanding how to use it because he didn’t want interdependence that could lead to a persistent subjugation. So “gifts” had to come with a full plan to teach Tanzanians how to maintain proper care of the gift. Ideally, Tanzanians would eventually learn to build their own tractors. Nyerere’s socialism failed in some respects because the “Kijiji,” the self contained economic unit, an ideological solution that also failed in communist countries, failed in Tanzania. Nyerere’s Afro-centric approach was still successful. He sought African solutions to African problems. He inculcated the belief of self-reliance and the belief that the African way of life must be preserved as Tanzania moves forward. Swahili, the language created through the interface of Arab and African cultures, became the “Lugha ya Taifa” or language of the nation. It gave Tanzanians a unifying voice and it is an African voice. It is the only lingua franca of Africa that actually originated in Africa. Today Tanzania is a country that still carries Nyerere’s legacy. Even though the corruption that has infected the rest of sub-Saharan Africa has infected Tanzania, and post-Nyerere Tanzania has suffered greatly as a result, there is a greater sense of self-reliance in Tanzania than in neighboring Kenya. In contrast to Tanzania, Kenyan corruption has turned the face of Kenya into that of the suppliant, the prostitute, the beggar, the roadside policeman, the thief, the corrupt politician, willing to do whatever is needed to get while the the getting is good.
The wisdom of Nyerere was anecdotal evidence that sub-Saharan Africa had a vision for the future in a post-colonial world. Unfortunately, the few leaders who demonstrated wisdom had almost no pervasive or systematic effect on the people of sub-Saharan Africa. Wisdom, collective wisdom, is a long, hard fought, well deserved process that is an eternal work-in-progress. It requires the participation of all members of society and its goal is to serve all members of society. It’s the product of a body of law and the willingness to see the law fulfilled. It is constantly evolving and requires open methods of communications as well as strong systems of accountability. There is little of this in the current world of sub-Saharan Africa and there never will be if African politicians and their surrogates continue to pocket every bit of cash that passes their way. Africa requires the full participation of all, men and women, the wealthy and the poor, to create a collective wisdom. Without the education of children, without nourishment for their growth, and without the inculcation of principles of self-reliance and communal commitment, there is no vitality to nurture a collective wisdom that can stand up to the bullies, the tyrants, the greedy and corrupt. Until the nurturing ground of a collective wisdom exists, the bullies, the greedy, the corrupt will do everything in their power to prevent it from happening.
The closest Africa has come to creating a just and fair society, engineered by a wisely constructed set of guidelines emerged from one the most fractured and wisdom-less countries in the world: South Africa. Fifty-two years ago, South Africans codified a system called Apartheid. It was a corrupt formulation of ideas that guaranteed a minority of people would benefit from a majority of the wealth generated by South Africa. Non-whites were sub-categorized into “coloreds,” “Asians,” and “blacks.” Each was provided according to his color only what the whites were willing to provide. Apartheid was a system that did not mind using force, wrongful imprisonment or even torture to insure its hated subjugation of the people it disenfranchised. Not unsurprisingly it would be dismantled because the disenfranchised people protested, but it took 46 years of struggle. Some protesters resorted to violence when the violence used against them in Sharpeville in 1960 and Soweto in 1976 was so bloody that it shocked the world . The protesters were led by the wisest and most influential of all African leaders in the history of the continent. His name is Nelson Mandela. He is the rarest of men, a visionary statesman with courage, principles, and energy, willing to sacrifice his life rather than compromise his purpose. Mandela was incarcerated for 27 years because he threatened the existence of the wisdom-less state of South Africa. In spite of being at the receiving end of Apartheid’s brutal injustice, he guided the transition of South Africa from the absurdity of apartheid rule to a democratic country. Amazingly he started his work while still a prisoner of the state he would reform. He is known in South Africa as Madiba.
Nelson Mandela "Madiba"
In 1995, one year into his presidency of the first democratically elected government of South Africa, Mandela supported the Springboks, South Africa’s rugby team that represented everything black South Africa hated about the apartheid regime. Mandela attended the World Cup final and thanked the underdog Springboks for bringing honor to South Africa. Francois Pienaar, the captain of the South African’s rugby team, corrected Mandela with these words: “No, Madiba. You've got it wrong. Thank you for what you've done for South Africa.” “Mandiba” is a Xkosa word which refers to his clan, implies a deep sense of the bond between Mandela and the ancient wisdom of his people and sounds like “savior” when people use the term. Madiba is revered by all people in South Africa, black, white, “colored,” and Asian. To the world he is one of the wisest men of our generation. He has shown Africa the value of wisdom. It is his gift to his people, to everyone in South Africa, to everyone in the world. Madiba showed unusual courage and profound wisdom when he, and those who followed him, ushered in the new South Africa. He convinced millions of South Africans to do what so many predicted could never happen, to put behind them the transgressions of the white Africans who had exploited the land and people of Africa to unconscionable levels. He also convinced the transgressors themselves that the new South Africa will embrace them as partners in the creation of a new country. In doing so South Africans enabled a future that had been previously illusive, if not impossible, and provided a game plan of justice, fairness and accountability for other African leaders in post-colonial Africa. The New South Africa will neither be white, Asian nor black, Zulu nor Xhosa. Even the “coloreds,” who neither fit in the white nor black world in times past, have a place in New South Africa where a constitution guarantees a color and gender blind future. In this sense the New South Africa aspires to be a melding, of different cultures and of different people, who will have a collective wisdom that serves the interests of all and not just the few. More than one South African has boasted to me that their constitution is the most progressive in the world. It is fair and it is just. Yet they are only words on paper, as were the words on the Declaration of Independence in the United States. Americans know well how difficult it has been to follow those words. It is because of the vision of and the demand by this one man called Madiba that the South African constitution and bill of rights were written and it is because of this one man that there may be a future in South Africa. Without the vision of Madiba, the World Cup in South Africa could never have been possible.
Nelson Mandela congratulating Francois Pienaar
There is no event in the history of Africa which has caught the attention of Africans, or brought more attention to Africa from the outside world, than has the World Cup. It is the source of immense pride. The World Cup has stimulated a gargantuan effort to meet standards that many critics argued South African could never meet. To the amazement of the World and to the delight of the people of South Africa those standards were not only met, expectations were exceeded. But can the World Cup save Africa as is so boldly asked in the title of this blog? The World Cup has had a remarkably salutary effect on South Africa and Africa as a whole. Hope, like the sound of the vuvuzela, is in the air. It’s palpable. Mention the words “World Cup” and the faces of Africa change, whether the tea lady of the Sudan, the sheep herder of Ethiopia, the taxi-cab driver of Kenya, the dow captain of Tanzania, the fisherman of Malawi, the border guard of Zambia, the office worker of Botswana. It is the hope for a better day, for a better world, a world which is inclusive and fair, where justice is available to everyone.
Can the World Cup save Africa? It is a strange question to ask in the context of an unsettling discussion, if not a straight up diatribe, about corruption in Africa. Certainly FIFA, the governing body of the World Cup, did not come to Africa to save Africa. FIFA is interested in staging the largest and most popular single sport tournament in the world. FIFA is interested in making a profit and the early estimates indicate a windfall in excess of 3 billion dollars just for the television rights and corporate sponsorships. FIFA did not come to Africa to stop corruption. FIFA and the World Cup cannot bring wisdom to South Africa, let alone the continent of Africa? No, the World Cup can’t save Africa in the sense that I’ve posed the question. Africa can only be saved by the inculcation of a collective wisdom that is committed to serving the well being of everyone, regardless of tribe, race, sex or age. The goal of wisdom is justice and fairness. Without these how can Africa effectively address the real issues of poverty, the HIV epidemic, the lack of education, the lack of women’s rights, the horrible nutrition, the lack of health care, the poor sanitation, the lack of clean water, the bad infrastructure, the unemployment, etc? These are problems requiring economic solutions but the economic solutions will never work if corrupt politicians and those who are empowered by them pocket any available cash. Moreover the economic solutions which will “save Africa” can’t happen without collective wisdom. There is no justice, there is no fairness, without collective wisdom, and without wisdom there is no prosperity.
Jackie Selebi, police chief of South Africa, convicted of corruption
When Mandela took the office of president in South Africa he, like Nyerere of Tanzania, broke the mold. However, his successors did not. Two presidents followed: Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma. Both presidents have been accused of the same patterns of corruption as seen in other African states. They even accuse each other. Interestingly, something momentous and timely happened recently which shows that South Africa intends to live up to it self-professed goal to be just, fair, and accountable. South African’s top law enforcement official, Jackie Selebi, was convicted of crimes against his country, including being in the pockets of one of the most powerful criminals in the country, a mafioso drug baron named Glenn Agliotti. The court decision came within days of the championship match of the World Cup. In addition, investigators uncovered information showing that Thabo Mbeki, the first president of South Africa to follow Nelson Mandela, the same man who impeded and threatened the campaign against HIV by declaring that a virus was not responsible for the plague, enabled if not abetted his chief law enforcement agent to use his office for personal gain. For those of you who love to read stories of intrigue and political shenanigans, the story of Selebi and corruption in South Africa will soon be told by journalist Adriaan Basson.
The World Cup brought sub-Saharan Africa a new vision and a new phrase, a boy who loudly sings the words South Africa wanted the world to hear. His words are: KE NAKO. These words are visible on billboards, on the sides of buildings, on banners flowing from standards at the stadiums. TV viewers around the world have heard the phrase over and over again before, during, and after World Cup matches. The words mean “It’s Time.” The World Cup Committee of South Africa, whether or not they intended, chose the perfect words for the times, for IT IS TIME. KE NAKO. It is time for children with sunken eyes, discolored hair and bloated stomachs. KE NAKO. It is time for the thousands of people, old and young, who line the roads of Africa holding their hands out with the hope for a coin, a piece of bread or an empty water bottle. KE NAKO. It is time for the infants dying in medical facilities throughout Africa who struggle for each of the few breaths remaining in their short lives. KE NAKO. It is time for the policemen of Africa to watch after and protect their fellow citizens instead of picking their pockets of available cash. KE NAKO. It is time for a 10 year old girl, Saneyt Hagos of Axum, Ethiopia who told me that she wants to grow up and be an eye doctor to help people see. KE NAKO. Is time for an 18 year old woman of Kapsokwpony Kenya, Evelyn Chebet, who told me that she wants to be an airplane pilot. KE NAKO. It is time to educate every child born on African soil so that all have opportunity and can make choices for their future. KE NAKO. It is time for women to have an equal voice in political matters, in the formation of laws, in the work place, and in the home. KE NAKO. It is time for all young African girls to be freed from the fear that they will be sexually abused. KE NAKO. It is time for the politicians to serve their people, to follow the best among them, to listen to the words and match the deeds of Madiba, and lead their people from the bondage of ignorance, poverty, and injustice.KE NAKO.
Tom Simpson, July 23, 2010
Saneyt Hagos of Axum, Ethiopia and her little brother
Evelyn Chebet of Kapsokwony who wants to be an airline pilot