I write to wish you all, good friends, the very best this holiday season. And, may the new year bring you more laughter.
This season, of all the others before it in a long while, and for reasons that only the good spirits can decipher, three beautiful African souls, long departed, have come to me with the inspiration needed to struggle on against the inhumane power wielders who continue to douse our dreams of love, peace and joy.
All three of them departed some ten years ago.
(1) A. M. Babu: I met this great soul only twice, but those two encounters produced a lasting memory, which I've previously shared with some of you.
The first time I met Babu in 1979 at Yale, this is what happened:
"Shikamoo, Mzee", I said, greeting him in the typical Tanzanian way (Shikamoo is a greeting used by a younger person in an encounter with an older person. It literally means "I hold your feet, Sir").
I was expecting a little blessing tap on the head, as the elders always do. No, not Babu.
His response was at once humorous, serious and endearing:
"Get off it!" he said. "I can smell a comrade a hundred miles away. You're a comrade, so what is this feudal business of holding my feet? We're now in the barricades together, fighting for Africa, so there should be no holding of feet." This gave everyone present a good laugh.
Babu had a superb ability to connect things and to capture the essence of developments, which I saw on display the second time I met him. It was one cold November night in 1991, when a few friends (Napo, Yen and Taju) and I spent hours at Babu's London flat talking about Africa, the release of Nelson Mandela and what it might mean for South Africa, etc. His perspective on South Africa was nothing short of prophetic, for everything he said came to be. T hat night, Babu did all the cooking and treated us to the most delicious Zanzibari meal I had ever tasted. When I commented on what a great cook he was, he said: "Comrade, you better learn to cook if you don't already know how to, because very soon we can tell a genuine male comrade from a fake one by whether or not he can cook. A male comrade who talks about women's liberation but can't cook is just a talker..." We proceeded to have a good discussion about the "liberatory" (and therapeutic) qualities of cooking!
Babu had two great sayings that came to mark his inspirational qualities. One was: "Don't agonize, organize." True, he took this from the US left in the 1970s, but Babu popularized and made it a resonant rallying statement for young Africans searching for a way to make their contribution. The other statement was, after his first visit to Eritrea, when he said: "I have seen the future of Africa, and it works!" (He might not be terribly happy about developments there now if he was still alive, but that statement aptly spoke to the possibilities of African agency, optimism, self-reliance and fulfillment).
As Amadou Hampâté Bâ would have said, Babu's death felt a bit like a great library going down in flames. He was the father of our dreams, and the tallest tree in our forest.
(2) Ken Saro Wiwa: I met Ken Saro Wiwa once, in 1990. He was not internationally well-known at the time, but he was even then a giant of a soul -- the fire in that man's eyes, the honesty in his voice, and the passion in his spirit were profoundly inspiring. I'll never forget that meeting.
The meeting was over dinner in Port Harcourt with the late Nigerian political scientist, Prof. Claude Ake. Claude was himself one of Africa's most brilliant and celebrated political scientists before his untimely death in an air crash in 1996. Ken and Claude were kindred spirits, in the sense that they were among the few Nigerian public intellectuals who fervently believed that a just and fair Nigeria (and Africa) was possible, AND sought to act on that belief.
Ken came to dinner late, made a lightening entry, with a laughter that almost shook the sitting room, and then proceeded to apologize profusely for his tardy arrival. He had been held up, he revealed, by a group of university students who wanted to talk to him about their plight. The University of Port Harcourt had been shut down -- the third time in a year or so -- and some students rusticated for some minor foibles. On and on and on.
Ken was passionate in telling the students' side of the story, and I took him on impatiently.
"The university students of today are spoiled," I said, unwisely. "They want to be fed, housed and taught for free, with the tax-payers' money. AND, as if that's not enough, they want to be treated like kings and queens when they act irresponsibly, while most youths have no access to higher education. In any case, this is a military regime (Babaginda's), so what do they expect? A bouquet of roses?"
Ken more than took me on. He laid out for me, in razor-sharp analysis, why I was wrong, why Nigeria (and Africa) could do more for its children and youth, how the political economy of kleptocracy worked, how some of us elite had betrayed our people, what could be done, what was being done by the "small people" below the radar, and how and why it is that those who struggle for social justice and revolutionary transformation (such as Jesus Christ and Che Guevara, he said) always ended up the way they did.
Ken did not shout at me; he did not lecture me. He patiently taught me. He spoke gently, respectfully. He would listen carefully to what I had to say, and then he would seek my permission to intervene. Yet, here was a man who was old enough to be at least a decade my elder brother. He spoke to me as though I was his classmate. I was compelled to listen, for he spoke only insightful words of wisdom.
By the end of the dinner, I was humbled, quite deflated and a bit embarrassed. But his parting statement was compassionate. He said: "Akwasi, here's my number. The next time you're here, please let's try to link up. I've learned a lot from you today, and I would like to stay in touch."
I never met him again after that, but his words, wisdom and spirit have stayed with me since. When I heard that he had been savagely hanged in Nigeria, I quietly called on the ancestors for him, and then I wept.
Ken didn't have to die that early. He, too, was one of the tallest trees in our forest, chopped down so heartlessly by the worst in our midst.
(3) Selina Adjabeng: This is the third beautiful soul, one of the most brilliant intellectuals our land has ever produced. Selina went much earlier in age than Babu and Ken, but she too went with them some ten years ago. Selina and I were in the same sociology honors class at the university. We studied together, playfully competed for the highest grade, and shared dreams of a more dignified Africa. After our graduation, we went our separate ways till fifteen years later in 1988, when I saw her again, almost by accident at the University of Ife in Nigeria, where she had gone to teach and research on technology policies and strategies. She was enmeshed in exciting work that refreshingly combined insights from sociology and Cheikh Anta Diop. The rumor, then, was that she had refused a top-level government job in Ghana, and another at the prestigious research institution, IITA (International Institute of Tropical Agriculture) in Ibadan.
I asked her about the rumor:
"My sister, what is it I hear about you refusing all these juicy jobs? You want to die a Poorfessor?", I asked in a jocular tone.
She responded: "An organic intellectual in Africa must be closer to the people and, in my field, what we need are researchers who can help close the gaps between so-called modern technology and indigenous knowledge systems. My place is here in the valley, not at the summit of the powerful."
I tried, feebly, to argue for her place at the summit, but she won't be moved by rationalizations. A couple of years later, Selina succumbed to breast cancer.
Selina's exemplary life must give us hope and courage. She, too, gave us one of our best dreams.
As I reflect on these wonderful people, I feel there's a bright future for our Africa.
With warm regards to all.
Akwasi Aidoo / PS: By the way, "re-membering" is a borrowing from my dear friend, Catherine Ngugi, whose brilliant work, "Wangu, A Story Untold", is a redeeming construction of the life of the indefatigable woman, Wangu wa Makeri, who was a leader in pre-colonial Kenya.