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NGUGI: Africans are lost in their own myths and images of the traditional past


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The late Abiola Irele’s essay In Praise of Alienation is not one you will hear referenced at conferences on Africa. Such gatherings prefer mysticism.

The essay was a counter argument to the notion of “alienation” advanced by many scholars of the pre- and post-Independence era. In a nutshell, “alienation,’’ as formulated by thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, is a state of mind that supposedly turns the African elite, graduates of colonial education, hostile to their culture and the traditional society which produced them.

The cultural and ideological points of reference for this elite, are not from their own culture, but from European culture and Western civilisation. The elite, as per this formulation, has been brainwashed into accepting the colonising ideology summarised by the philosopher Hegel’s view that Africans existed in the “conditions of mere nature.”

In literature, the black man who desires to be white because he suffers from an inferiority complex — or as Fanon put it, a “black skin in a white mask” — has been the subject of much of African literary expression.

The character of Ocol in Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino, the so-called masterpiece of African poetic expression, is perhaps the most famous literary representation of this condition. Ocol criticises Acholi traditional culture in crude and unintelligent ways that mirror the terms and imagery of the ‘‘civilising mission,’’ and not analytically or dialectically in a way that reimagine Acholi society.


In contrast to her husband’s alienation from his culture, Lawino makes claims of great technological and intellectual achievements by the Acholi. She celebrates superstition as science and defends oppressive practices. To her, the village teacher does not bring new ideas and knowledge.

Western culture has nothing to teach the African. She warns Ocol and those like him: “The pumpkin in the old homestead must not be uprooted.” Translation? African society can only be reimagined within the parameters and on terms provided by African traditional culture.

Lawino’s claims and views mirror the cultural nationalist and pan-Africanist arguments of the post-Independence period. These are well summarised by Julius Nyerere’s view that, “We in Africa have no need of being taught democracy; it is rooted in the traditional society that produced us.” Africa’s tragic post-Independence history is a result of various experiments to recreate Africa in the image of its traditional past.


Abiola Irele’s essay problematised the concept of alienation as formulated by the likes of Fanon, and instead offered a reimagining of Africa in terms offered by her modern, not traditional, experience. To him, cultural nationalist arguments and slogans were simplifications of a complex situation. Instead, he urged Africa to embrace not just science but the scientific spirit as well, not just education but the educational spirit of constant hunger for knowledge, not just capitalism but the entrepreneurial spirit.

Unlike Soyinka, who fell asleep during a presentation of classical music in high school, Abiola saw no contradiction in a person having knowledge of traditional as well as classical or operatic music.

Recent events in Kenya have evoked in me Irele’s vision of Africa. Have we fully embraced, not just the form, but the spirit of modern ideas and practices?

At the Masai Mara University, a professor is alleged to have masterminded the theft of millions from her school. Education should inculcate knowledge as well as social values that will improve society. The gown the professor wears during graduation ceremonies should not just be symbolic of academic achievement, but of intellectual and moral integrity. Then a lawyer threatened retribution for those opposed to his tribal chieftain. Legal minds, as in the example of Thurgood Marshall, should be custodians of justice. We have degree-holding tribalists and thieves. We have a “tenderpreneurial,” not an entrepreneurial culture. We have students of science, but few dedicate their lives to scientific research. Instead, they become MPs without the sense of public service.

We manage duty stations without a sense of duty. A few years ago, a minister, educated at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, confessed triumphantly that the only good thing about her position was that it allowed her to escape the terrible Nairobi traffic jams. We have, as highlighted in the previous column, governors with megalomaniac, not transformational ambitions. We call ourselves democrats, but we are without values of fairness and reasonableness.

We call Kenya or Africa great, but we lack the spirit to do truly great deeds that would wow the world. We live in administrative units, not nations.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator