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Musings of a (former?) radical

January 5, 2011

I’m preparing my syllabus for a Master’s level class that I am teaching on international development.  For some reason I’m feeling in a very theoretical, and particularly Marxist, mood which showed in the readings that I picked for the class.

Anyway, I was going through books that I read in college (mad props to Bruce and Shampa!) that had a huge impact on me and I came across Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Decolonizing the Mind.  Wow!

I remember reading his words as a young Diasporic African coming into my own sense of political self.  I added excerpts from his book to the signature line of my email and soaked in his words with a purposeful intensity.

I stopped going by Carolyne (yep, thats my former name!) and went back to Wanjiru.  I wore a necklace that spelled out my name to help out those around me.  I was THAT kid in college.

Reading his words these many years later (9 precisely) still gave me goosebumps.  They made me wonder about that young radical I was and where she went.

I fear that graduate school and the Ph.D. in Political Science disciplined the radical clarity out of her.   For those seven years it stopped being about a belief in black and white, clear-cut social justice and had to become about surviving and living though the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  For me, grad school was about trying to be a round peg in a square hole and the scars linger.

After that, the pragmatic needs of running a non-profit took over.  To raise real money in the ‘real world’ has forced me to blunt my razor sharpness as it was perceived as brashness.  Nobody gives money to abrasive  so I had to tone it down if  I had a whisper of a chance to nurture and grow an organization whose cause I deeply deeply believe in.

Listen, I’m not complaining. Mine is darned good life and I’m getting to do the things I love.

And it could well be that being pragmatic and doing what needs to be done is to be radical.

But is that just a rationalizing?

Part of the joy of working with college students is getting to still be part of that zeal, that passionate awareness of absolute right and wrong.  Where the cost of being on the right side isn’t so high.

Either way, sometimes I miss that freedom: to read Ngugi, soak and marinade in the truth of his words, and try to live them out:

The oppressed and the exploited of the earth maintain their defiance: liberty from theft. But the biggest weapon wielded and actually daily unleashed by imperialism against that collective defiance is the cultural bomb.

The effect of a cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland.

It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves; for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own. It makes them identify with that which is decadent and reactionary, all those forces which would stop their own springs of life. It even plants serious doubts about the moral rightness of struggle.
Possibilities of triumph or victory are seen as remote, ridiculous dreams. The intended results are despair, despondency and a collective death-wish. Amidst this wasteland which it has created, imperialism presents itself as the cure and demands that the dependant sing hymns of praise with the constant refrain: ‘Theft is holy’. Indeed, this refrain sums up the new creed of the neo-colonial bourgeoisie in many ‘independent’ African states.

The classes fighting against imperialism even in its neo-colonial stage and form, have to confront this threat with the higher and more creative culture of resolute struggle. These classes have to wield even more firmly the weapons of the struggle contained in their cultures. They have to speak the united language of struggle contained in each of their languages. They must discover their various tongues to sing the song: ‘A people united can never be defeated’.

Future blog posts: On playing ‘native informant’ and wearing my ‘African costume’ for public presentations.  What to wear is complicated when you are so keenly aware that your body is the site of so much identity construction.  Wearing a suit vs. a bold African print seems such a political statement! 🙂

5 Comments leave one →
  1. MzunguMrefu permalink
    January 6, 2011 9:06 PM

    Wow, very powerful. A beautifully crisp description of the true face of cultural hegemony in imperialism and therewith capitalism. Thank you very much for sharing this!

    I find your experiences of ‘deradicalisation’ intriguing, as most likely I arguably experienced the exact opposite. As an ancestor of exactly the throwers of the cultural bomb (two generations of missionaries in then German-East Africa/Tanganyika – though to his defence, my grandfather would only speak vernacular), I was raised and educated in the originating culture of that hegemony, being force-fed all that neo-liberal, Christian conservative rubbish on development. Only WHEN I started grad school, being encouraged to roam and read and explore freely, was I able to discover, cherish and truly appreciate what you called the ‘right’ side. And as a result I feel much more radical now close to the end of grad school, than I have ever felt – probably very much to the detriment of my starting ‘career’?

    I’m not saying mine is a typical experience, because it’s clearly not, but Isn’t it interesting how antagonistic those paths seem to be, presumably because of somewhat opposing starting points?

    Lastly, make sure that you don’t lose your radical self …. especially when you work in development, it is after all what will keep you sane in this crazy world. At least I shall hope so! 😉

    All the best,

  2. January 8, 2011 11:26 AM

    Thanks for posting that! Admittedly being from Kenya is more of an identity issue in some ways than being from Finland (I look like a white American – nobody notices I’m not until I open my mouth) but I was once again reminded by the importance of my own language and my Finnish name (that I have to spell every time even in a restaurant…)

    Also, the thoughts about being less radical when you age (but hopefully still retaining the ideology). I used to argue with my father a lot about politics (Finnish conservative) until at some point he decided and told me that young people need to be more radical than the old ones, that’s how the world functions and that’s how you get balance. I loved him for saying that although really hoped I wouldn’t become more like him politically through the years (not a danger yet.)

  3. January 12, 2011 4:38 PM

    Great post. Ngugi has had profound effect on so many. I was privileged to have him as my graduate school adviser. During that time he told me to think about writing in Ekegusii, the language of my ancestors. I said, “Get out of here.” (Not to his face, of course).

    Today one of my blogs is entirely in Ekegusii, and I can see people who thought our language was for savages beginning to appreciate it.

    I have, however, held on to my foreign name, mainly because I do not want to confuse the spirit of my father, who is deceased.


    PS: You know that he is going to be the keynote speaker at Nunu’s event, right?

  4. January 12, 2011 6:30 PM

    I’m loving the reaction that this post has generated!

    @mzungu, isn’t it wonderful the journeys and reverse journeys we have been on in terms of our radicalism. I’m glad grad school was radicalizing for you!

    @Tuittu, I do think your dad is onto something. I suppose nothing is as de-radicalizing as a mortgage!!!

    @Edwin, Congrats on your blogging! (whats the link?) I suppose I could try it in sheng but not in kyuk. Also, I’m actually going to have the honor of intruducing Ngugi at the event!! I’m dying of excitement!!!


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