Kassahun Checole

Citation by Toyin Falola


It is my pleasure to welcome you to the second Distinguished Africanist Award ceremony. I want to remind us that the first recipient of the award, in 2005, is Dr. Olusegun Fayemi, a distinguished pathologist, photographer, and social activist based in New Jersey. Interestingly, this year's award will also go to a distinguished person from New Jersey.  Ladies and gentlemen, our honoree this evening is Kassahun Checole.

This award is a recognition and celebration of the work of a visionary thinker who has made far-reaching impacts on Africana scholarship worldwide by creating a publishing outfit that has enabled people of African descent, in his own words, "tell their own story." When the time comes to write the history of Africana studies in the era since the Cold War, I am certain that Kassahun Checole will prominently feature in that history.

But who is this person?
He was born in Eritrea, and he came to the United States to study. He received his higher education at the State University of New York (SUNY) Binghamton with specialization in political economy and development. He later taught at several colleges including Rutgers University in New Jersey and El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico-City. Having been haunted for several years by inadequate publishing outlets for Africa, he decided about 22 years ago to do something about it. He didn't go to Columbia University Press to plead for an increase in titles on Africa. He didn't apply for a position in Longman as an editor for Africa. He didn't take Chicago University Press to court for not caring to publish a credible book on the history of Nigeria or Egypt. Did he protest to Oxford University Press that Africans do not have control over the transcripts of their experience there? No. In his words, "One has to grasp one's place in history," "You cannot wait for others to hand it to you." He plunged himself into the unfamiliar terrain of publishing in Africana studies. He recognized that if scholars of African descent have any hope of establishing an intellectual base with the authority to make their constructed narratives authoritatively universal, then they must have credible, rigorous, and sophisticated publishing platforms on which Africans will intellectually engage each other and others on African terms.  Checole has given us that platform. With unflinching dedication, a burning sense of mission, self-sacrifice and perseverance, and support of family and friends, Africa World Press was born on the third floor of his home in Trenton, New Jersey. That was 22 years ago. AWP has since published over 1,000 titles in scholarly works, poetry, drama, prose, and languages by authors of many stripes and colors. Africa World Press now publishes about 130 books every year. This is unprecedented in academic publishing. Principle rather than capital laid the foundation for AWP, and that principle has become the building block of the most successful African publisher in the western hemisphere and the largest publisher of Africana books in the world, with offices in the US, London, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Ghana.

Checole is however not a mere sit-by publisher and scholar, he is also a social activist who has taken on many issues affecting Africa. When the turbulence in his homeland prevented him from returning during the 1970s, he joined the movements for the liberation of Eritrea and Ethiopia from military dictatorship from 1970s to the early 1990s.  Simultaneously, he was also active in the movement against the apartheid institutions and regimes in South Africa. He served in the 1980s on the board of directors of The International Oil Working Group (IOWG), an organization set up to implement an oil embargo initiated by the United Nations General Assembly against South Africa to protest the country's policies of apartheid. Since the creation of the Eritrean state in 1993, Kassahun has been active in civil organizations that foster democracy, good governance, and development in his home country. To this end, he currently serves as the Vice Chair of The Eritrean Development Foundation.

He has also joined others like Ngugi Wa Th'iongo, Chinua Achebe, and Wande Abimbola in advocating for the need to increase publications in African languages. Not too long ago, he made the biting statement "No civilization has developed with a foreign language." "It is a tragedy in our history that, as Africans, we have not noticed the relationship between language andŠeconomic development." He has therefore charged African policy makers, educators, and intellectuals at different forums to take African languages seriously as a medium of knowledge production and knowledge dissemination. To further this quest, Checole served as a co-chair to organize a conference in Asmara, Eritrea in Jan. 11 to 17, 2000 aptly titled "Against All Odds: African Languages and Literatures into the 21st Century." The conference brought together more than 250 African and Africanist writers, artists, linguists and scholars from 20 African countries and around the world, and another 500 Eritrean participants. He was a chief architect of the Asmara Declaration on African Languages and Literatures that came out of the conference. The Asmara declaration charges that African languages must take on the duty, the responsibility and the challenge of speaking for the continent; and that national language policies on the continent must be engaged in translations, education, research, technology, democracy and gender to meet developmental objectives. Imagine what our world will be like if only a third of all publications about Africa are in African languages! Kassahun thinks this is not only feasible but will empower Africa on the world stage.

Checole. Your story, your work, and your passion constitute an inspiration to us. With the power of vision, you conquered the fear of the unknown, and you have significantly advanced Africa's cause worldwide. By carrying African and Africanist authors to libraries and classrooms farther than we ever imagined, you are giving voice to those who would not otherwise have had a voice, and giving the world access to the beauty and the best of African minds. Single handedly but quietly, you are changing the course of Africana scholarship for the better.

This award recognizes your selfless service to the African world; celebrates your achievements as an eminent son of Africa, a distinguished citizen of the world, and an ambassador of Africana scholarship. In you, we see the shining star of African glory and the many possibilities to come.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure and indeed a rare honor to present  Kassahun Checole with the UT 2006 Africanist Distinguished Award.