‘The people will not save you this time’, musings from the Pan-African Youth Conference 2022

African History Project - Preview, Social - University of Ibadan copy 4

‘The people will not save you this time’

Musings from the Pan-African Youth Conference 2022

Dr Lwazi Lushaba was in full flow. It is difficult to halt genius in its tracks, especially if you know it is flowing for your benefit, that you will be changed by it, and that you may never have the opportunity to witness its flow again. 

As Dr Lushaba approached the first call for time during his keynote at this year’s Pan-African Youth Conference, he declared, ‘and that is the first of my three points’ or something to that effect. The Zoom went crazy as the Conference Chair’s shaking head suggested that Dr Lushaba was about to be muted and we’d be robbed of the chance to hear the final two points. If only we had been in a hall instead of on Zoom I dare say shoes would have flown in the direction of the Chair at the suggestion that Dr Lushaba would be removed from the people. A knowing smile crept over the professor’s face as he said cheekily that he hoped the committee was monitoring the chat box and could see that the people wanted more.

This must have been what it was like for Bantu Steve Biko at a SASO conference all those year’s ago in Dr Lushaba’s native South Africa. They say Biko was a charismatic one, that he spoke to your soul, that he made you want to stand right up and jump out of the skin you’d been wearing and become something else in an instant, the sort of African he spoke about, one that was not scared, and was sharp, and witty, and smart like him. As Dr Lushaba approached the second call for time, the Chair was taking no chances. He wrote a private message to the professor which of course like any good comrade he shared with his troops. The Chair has told me, revealed the professor, that the people will not save me this time. It was true, we could not.

African History Project - Muholi:Ibadan copy
Self-Portraits of Zanele Muholi from the collection Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness (2012-); and photographs of the University of Ibadan from the mid-20th century

It was sad to see the end of Dr Lushaba’s speech which threatened to keep us all in trances for another hour yet. Dr Lushaba indeed presented a version of the African that I challenge any African not to want to become in an instant. His African had removed her mask, had dislodged the puppet strings, and dismounted the framed photographs showing the non-African women she’d aspired to be. All of this is of course figurative but there is something very real about the first idea, the mask business. Fanon spoke of masks, Biko spoke of masks. In seeing the faces on the Zoom screen turn from emotionless non-descripts to nodding, shaking, smiling, distorted and determined disciples, it was as if literal masks had fallen off. Of all the things we can say of the charismatic Black intellectual, there is perhaps nothing more true than that, in their fervour, they never fail to accomplish their task, which is to make us all feel safe. 

It really was a safe space. Despite the violence suggested by the drastic changing of who you are, in Dr Lushaba’s clear call to be fearless, and sharper, and smarter, was the comforting familiarity of the Pan-African promise: that Africans shall meet in congress in every age without instigation, not to draw plans to hurt others, but to ponder how to make the world better, how to make their world better. Imagine that, that we have met for over two hundred years in churches, and shrines, and mosques, in courts, and living rooms, and student halls, in town halls, and hotel conference suites, and Zoom break-out rooms, to discuss how we can free ourselves, in body and in mind, from this incessant and pervasive hegemony. Despite the temptations, no permanent light has succeeded in completely removing the continent from its diaspora. In every space where Africans reside, there remains a committed grouping that reaches out and across and over to all the others and in this way we keep the Pan-African flame alive.

I was struck by the team of young people who’d put the whole thing together and who I wished I had known when I was their age. An internationally situated, internationally sourced, band of Pan-African patriots making history in deciding to be more than the degrees they are studying. Trevor Lwere led them out as Conference Chair, smashing through last year’s registration numbers to secure over six hundred sign-ups from across the Pan-African world. Did any of Du Bois’ conferences invite so great a number? And what of SASO conferences, I wonder how many they drew in? In any age and in any space it was a remarkable achievement that should make us all proud that the student movement is alive and kicking in this great Pan-African community. 

African History Project - Muholi:Ibadan 2 copy
Self-Portraits of Zanele Muholi from the collection Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness (2012-); and photographs of the University of Ibadan from the mid-20th century

When I’d gotten the message from Tanatsei Gambura asking if I would chair the culture and identity committee, I confess I didn’t read much past the customary “I hope this email finds you well” strap line before I clicked the reply button and was about to send a standard “Thanks, would love to help, but super busy, wish you luck, bye!” response. There are so many so-called Pan-Africans on these streets, wasting everyone’s time…the less said about them the better. But in truth, I had been losing my affinity for the movement for a while. A few weeks earlier, I’d had the pleasure of interviewing the historian and diplomat Dr Hilary Beckles but in the conversation he had all but declared Pan-Africanism dead! Add to this my less that pleasant interactions with organisations with “Pan-African” in their names but which were anything but, well, Pan-African in their behaviour. The result was a deep apathy. But there was something that struck my eye that changed my mind: as I was about to hit send I saw a note in the signature block: “In all my work, I prioritise my well-being and that of others…I’ve taken a long break from Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, but you can still connect with me on LinkedIn”. I couldn’t believe it. I was impressed by the confidence and self-assuredness of this young African. She was the African I had read about, the Biko-promised and Lushaba-imagined type of African that was no slave to this damned machine. I agreed to meet her!

In my first conversation with the team to discuss my chairing this year’s culture and identity committee, I let them know I was first and foremost a public historian, which means I don’t give lectures so to speak, I enter into conversations. They appreciated this. Next I said that for me no exploration of culture and identity can rely solely on theory, on the mad scribblings of one Black man or another. I wanted to re-insert multiplicity into the sources used in Pan-African exploration, the poetry, and art, and literature through which we evidence this thing we call culture. There was a pinch of scepticism (just a pinch) – the academic claims a love of the creative but really she hides a paranoid fear. Since Fanon brought down the Négritudists, who he professed to love, where has our poetry gone? I know it is there, but is it as central as it once was? And what of the art, it is worth something now and is sold right off the radical’s easel to be stored in warehouses for future prosperity before any Pan-Africans of today have had a chance to profit from it. I lament I wasn’t born in the age when Césaire’s Notebook was the Pan-Africanist’s bible and Senghor spoke in verse. In any case, I had nothing to fear. Tanatsei is a poet so our shared love of visual and sonic orality won the day. 

I had this crazy idea of dissecting the African into his constituent parts, throwing away the ideal of individualism suggested by all those self-help books that imagine we are able to save ourselves. The notion, that one is both the anchor and the float, that the debilitating energy and the elevating energy are in one and the same body, and all we have to do is play games with our minds such that after enough self-reflection we can somehow fix ourselves. Yeah, that doesn’t work for the Pan-African who by definition knows that she cannot save herself, that she needs help. She cannot save herself because she cannot come to know herself alone. She needs her community to help her with this so she seeks community across the widest expanse, the globe. 

So I split up the self into its constituent parts relying on the ubuntu philosophy that the African and his community are inextricable and form a single and coherent body and mind. 

African History Project - Muholi:Ibadan 3
Self-Portraits of Zanele Muholi from the collection Somnyama Ngonyama: Hail the Dark Lioness (2012-); and photographs of the University of Ibadan from the mid-20th century

To give us structure in the midst of all this deconstruction, I ran to Dr Edward Blyden. The esteemed educator gives in his Aims and Methods for a Liberal Education for Africans a pedagogy for the nurturing of a true African, a Lushaba-esque creation that seeks to mimic no one and is proud of his body and mind and all that they produce. From this we learnt what it means to give the consideration of culture the respect it deserves, with the critical and systematic reflection it needs.

Next we turned to Zanele Muholi to give us a modern pedagogy in the exploration of the “I” in our identities. Through her practice I wanted to show her advancement into self knowledge over a number of years and how she did this through an immersion into the lives of others which she shows us is the African way. I wanted to show that in all our intellectual productions and social interactions we have a duty to observe, and engage, and learn about who we are as Africans from those we claim as ours. It is our duty to improve in self-understanding, by improving our understanding of others and finding examples of Africans who are living fully and who can act as examples to us for how to do the same thing.

After this we looked at the people in our community more deeply and considered the extent to which how we define ourselves is a function of how others in the same space subscribe to what we think it means to be an African. We undertook this exploration by looking at the Question Bridge project, an audio-visual project that aims to facilitate self-knowledge in participants through posing questions to others about life and identity.

“If the people did not save you the first time, as a Pan-African you can rest assured that they will never stop trying.”

Finally, we turned to look at how much we as Africans define ourselves through our critique of other cultures. I posited that we must all become interpreters of other cultures, particularly those under whose suzerainty we have suffered to understand ourselves better. Through studying poems by Aja Monet and Aimé Césaire as well as an essay by Binyavanga Wainaina, we looked at how Africans critique the language and literature of others and in doing so come to understand what differentiates the African in his discourse. 

It was a thrilling ride and I am so grateful to have gone on it. The participants were engaged and open and I think we struck the right balance of study and discussion. People shared personal anecdotes, and you know when they do that you have really achieved something. Tanatsei was the model of a facilitator, keeping perfect time, I am grateful I did not need to ask the audience to save me. But I feel that I could have spoken for another two days yet. And without seeming arrogant, I feel some of the participants would have come on the journey with me. 

But alas, another conference closes and the task begins to live and work and play and create in line with these philosophies we spent two days excavating. Its not easy to live a Pan-African life, to believe and expect that there is an deluge of understanding behind every African’s well-placed mask. But what we can be sure of is that another Pan-African event is just around the corner. Another grouping of students, or activists, or scholars is at this moment swapping emails about one project or another with the word “Pan-African” in its title. If the people did not save you the first time, as a Pan-African you can rest assured that they will never stop trying. In a few months or so a really good event will pop up on our LinkedIn feeds, in the African studies centre newsletter, or you might even get an email from an African asking you to join them on a journey. Read the email, and if it grabs you, grab back and jump, go on the ride once again and fill up on Pan-African air. The Pan-African thing is sometimes the greatest hope that keeps us afloat, a centuries-old hope of the time when no more conferences will need to be called because, all fixed, the world won’t need fixing on account of the things that are done to us anymore.