Achille Mbembe’s Africa

if Africa wants to re-imagine itself it will have to look somewhere else than to Europe which “seems to be gripped by an enormous desire for apartheid.”

Image by IcyU2.

I just saw the publication of Achille Mbembe’s new book “Sortir de la Grande Nuit: Essai sur l’Afrique Décolonisée” (with a nod to Frantz Fanon’s ‘We must get out of the great night’ – or, ‘shake off the heavy darkness’, as the English translation of The Wretched of the Earth has it). Composed as a long essay, the book strings together critical reflections regarding Africa’s recent past and not-too-distant future. In an interview in French, Mbembe talks (in French) about some of the main questions raised in the book:

“I was born in the folds of Africa’s independence and I was brought up in an environment where my grandmother told me almost daily about things that happened during the fight against colonialism. Those children stories are directly linked to the environment in which my child’s imaginary was formed.” The first chapter contains a very personal reflection on his childhood in Cameroon. “I guess I wanted to take the readers along and make them accomplices in a personal experience from which the theoretical and political questions arise for those implicated.” His grandmother also tells him stories out of the Bible, but “I didn’t know what to do with this Christianity” until he read (the theologian) Gustavo Gutiérrez’ book on liberation theology which “allowed me to avoid Marxism and a certain kind of nationalism”.

He tells the “tragic story” of Ruben Um Nyobé’s skull, “the refusal to bury him” which is not just the story of Um but also of Félix Moumié, Ernest Ouandie and Osende Afana, “whose names have remained taboo for a very long time”. (The three men were radical independence fighters murdered by French colonial forces in Cameroon in the late 1950s.)

The book, says Mbembe, is essentially about (African) “life and community” both in the past and the present. But also in the future because “soon Africa will have more than a billion citizens – more than India (…). We are witnessing the emergence of an urban citizenry unseen in the region’s history. The constitution of an enterprising diaspora, especially in the United States. The arrival of new immigrants coming from China and the rest of Asia. The formidable remodeling of mentalities, (…) the religious revolution. All this calls for a new intellectual and political imagination which leaves me nonetheless optimistic.”

But if Africa wants to re-imagine itself it will have to look somewhere else than to Europe which “seems to be gripped by an enormous desire for apartheid.” Europe seems infected by an “unclear fantasy of a community without strangers”. “I have the impression the world we live in is moving somewhere else. Europe is an important actor in the future world but we have to look somewhere else if we really want to re-open the future.”

The irony of the cinquantenaire’s celebrations (in Africa and in Europe) aren’t lost on Mbembe: the celebrations are both “without symbolic form and content” at a moment when “we are trying to dress up the ‘Shameful State’ (a term coined by Congolese author Sony Labou Tansi) in rags”.

Two longer interviews with Mbembe have been published (also in French) by Télérama and MediasFreres. Another extract from the book (chapter 6: ‘The circulation of worlds: the African experience’) can be found here.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.

Writing while black

The film adaptation of Percival Everett’s novel ‘Erasure’ leaves little room to explore Black middle-class complicity in commodifying the traumas of Black working-class lives.

The Mogadishu analogy

In Gaza and Haiti, the specter of another Mogadishu is being raised to alert on-lookers and policymakers of unfolding tragedies. But we have to be careful when making comparisons.