This tweet caught my eye:
— Jill E. Kelly (@jekjek19) 24 November 2017
I’m not an expert on Ngugi’s work and I haven’t read Maya Jasanoff’s book on Congo, but I have read Conrad’s Dark Heart of Africa and am still, if I’m honest, working out what all the fuss is about (I feel the same about JM Coetzee’s Disgrace). My apparent lack of sensitivity might well be due to my having grown up white during Apartheid South Africa so am immune to comments others might find inappropriate, but I do believe I’ve overcome that thanks to the values of equality and humanity instilled in me by my parents and reinforced in my work across and with different cultures both in Africa and the UK (it’s as much a ‘country’ as Africa is).
I take my hat off to Ngugi for writing what he believed whatever his motivations. That his comments go against the mainstream view should be embraced as an opportunity to dig deeper. A point that’s been driven home more than most in 2017 is the differences across Africa. This particularly revolves around WW1 – reading the texts I have and working with Diversity House on their Breaking the Myths project has exposed me to life in West Africa in a way I hadn’t experienced it before: first hand from people who grew up there. And thanks to some West African historians who have managed to get heard outside of Africa (George Ngung in particular) it’s become clear that the West African experience, most studied by white Eurocentric historians (in Britain, America and Europe), has been the dominant one and coloured the reality of recruiting and military life in East Africa. I’ve got to this point the painful way – by assuming that experiences and reasons for things happening in East and Southern Africa are representative of what was happening in West Africa. Aikona! as we say in the south.
Bearing my journey in mind, I can only begin to imagine what Ngugi is/was thinking of when he wrote the review. It shouldn’t be discounted because he approves of what is currently regarded as ‘unfashionable’. It should rather be an inspiration to dig for the truth. Juxtapose this with Peter Hoeg’s short story Journey into a Dark Heart in Tales of the Night (which includes von Lettow Vorbeck visiting Congo in 1929) and both Conrad and Lettow Vorbeck are not the men one might have thought…