Africa: Rethinking in action! Interview with Chambi Chachage

The art of questioning the conventional thinking, a critical understanding of prescrictive solutions imposed from the external, and the capacity of arguing the dominant intellectual practices that have undermined and still undermine Africa and Africans since the advent of slavery and colonialism. This is really what the new generation of Africans can still learn from the older generation of African intellectuals, Chambi Chachage points out. The interview seeks to explore the process of generational transition of the last 60 years in Africa, what Pan-Africanism means for young people and the role played - or that shall be played - by African intellectuals in today's society.

Q. First of all, could you explain the aim and the meaning of your blog's mission statement 'rethinking in action'?

A. Rethinking in action is an adaptation of the phrase 'thinking in action'. The latter focus on transforming thinking into action while the former is more concerned with action that is a result of questioning our conventional thinking. In other words, rethinking in action is about taking action to bring positive change to society after critically reviewing the forms of thinking that limits such change.

Q. How relevant is Pan-Africanism today? How is it understood by today's youth?

A. Pan-Africanism, as an aspiration for continental unity, is relevant in the sense that it promises a better Africa that is more connected and able to work together in the economic, political, social, intellectual and cultural realms. The more we realize it the more nearly 1 billion Africans can freely and easily move across our artificial borders as we trade with each other, exchange useful information, knowledge and cultural practices that can enable the continent to develop on its own accord. The youths of Africa are not homogenous but I can say with certainty that they all love freedom and that is what Pan-Africanism promises, the individual and collective self-determination that is needed in deciding about one's destiny beyond artificial borders.

Q. What is the role of African intellectuals today?

A. The role of African intellectual today is the same as it has always been: To enable Africa and true friends of Africans to make sense of the world in ways that enhance the welfare of the continent and its people. As Ngugi wa Thiong'o likes to put it, African intellectuals are interpreters. They interpret the realities and contradictions of life in this highly polarized world for the public so as to equip it for the challenges facing it. And so far the main challenge is Afropessism, the debilitating belief that Africans are not capable of developing and governing Africa. That is where Pan-Africanism, as 'a category of intellectual thought' to use a definition advocated by the likes of Souleymane Bachir Diagne comes in. We need Pan-African intellectuals who are bold enough to move beyond the conventional academic disciplinary boundaries that tend to dismiss Africa as an important site of transformative knowledge production. Such intellectuals would develop theories and practices that address local realities in Africa.

Q. What have the new generations of intellectuals learnt from their predecessors? What do they still have to learn?

A. One needs some sort of empirical evidence to assess what the new generation of intellectuals has learnt from their predecessors and what they still have to learn. However, if I take the liberty to use my experience as an example or representation of the new generation, I would say I have learnt about the importance of questioning the dominant intellectual practices that have historically undermined Africa and Africans since the advent of slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism, scientific racism and imperialism. The older generation, and here I am thinking of Julius K. Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, CLR James, Frantz Fanon, Colin Legum, Cheikh Anta Diop, Nawal el Saadawi, and Chinua Achebe to name a few, taught us that the liberation of Africa in all spheres of life is the main role of African intellectuals. Then there is this other generation which, in a way, picked the baton from them - the likes of Steve, Biko, Micere Githae Mugo, Archie Mafeje, Walter Rodney, Issa Shivji, Ernest Wamba, Mahmood Mamdani, Amina Mama and Paul Tiyambe Zeleza. These taught us not to give up in the struggle for African emancipation even when things seem to be bleak as they were during the so-called lost decades of Africa and Structural Adjustment Programs. From the remnants of these generations, who are still speaking truth to power, the new generation can still learn the art of questioning prescriptive and unworkable solutions that are still shoved on Africa and Africans by International Monetary Institutions, think-tanks and universities that operates within the conventional neo-liberal framework.

Q. Why is there seemingly a disconnect between intellectuals/knowledge and the action of the State?

A. What seems to be a disconnect between intellectuals/knowledge and the action of the State only applies to one type of intellectuals/knowledge - the organic. The reason for this is that the state has embraced the other type of intellectuals/knowledge - the traditional. And as Antonio Gramsci observed 'The Intellectuals' many years ago, the traditional intellectual are the ones who legitimize the state and its actions. They provide the knowledge needed to maintain the status quo. This has been particularly so in this neo-liberal era whereby a number of intellectual have become think-tank that echoes the International Monetary Fund and World Bank prescriptions to Africa. The state listens to them as they are part and parcel of it - they research and make neo-liberal policies for countries either through the state itself or through institutions affiliated to the state. While this is happening the organic intellectuals are still struggling to provide the alternative voice from the ground that is often dismissed as either too radical or outdated.

Q. I see that your blog is in Swahili too. How can the use of local languages contribute to rethinking and implementing new paradigms for African development? Who should lead this effort?

A. The issue of language for development is so close to my heart. It will take a whole paper to address it as passion will overtake me. So let me share this anecdote from my blog that says it all:

One day my teacher wrote this definition on the blackboard: 'Species are groups of organisms that can interbreed to produce fertile of spring.' I knew the meanings of fertile and spring. But I couldn't figure out how they fit in. Anyway, I memorized and reproduced it in the examination. As you can guess, I got it right. It was only later, much later, when I came to know what species are. Actually, they produce fertile offspring. I don't know whether it was my teacher's fault or mine. What I know is that as a boy I frustratingly tried to breed fish. But, alas, they produced infertile offspring! I didn't know why. What a missed opportunity to relate what I was taught with what I practiced! I wonder if my teacher taught what she knew. Teaching is primarily about imparting knowledge. When you teach someone to cook ugali what matters mostly is that s/he ends up knowing how to cook ugali. Language is only a medium to facilitate knowledge exchange. And the efficient medium is the one that knowledge users know reasonably well. Could it be that we have politicized language at the expense of professionalizing it. Are we trying too hard to know the form to the extent that we ignore the content?"

This is my personal experience. I am sure many Africans can identify with it. So, who should lead the effort of using local languages so as contribute to rethinking and implementing new paradigms for African development? I am tempted to say African intellectuals. But as far as I know, at least in the case of East Africa, organic intellectuals in regard to this issue, such as Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Martha Qorro, have tried to take a lead but state policymakers and implementers who are custodians of language policies are not listening. But, picking a leaf from the Kiswahili maestro, Shabaan Robert, I would argue that African people in general are already taking a lead as we have been resilient enough to continue using our local languages.

Q. What is the impact of social media and the 2.0 world in this process?

A. Social media and the 2.0 world has open unprecedented transnational spaces for Africans to interact beyond our artificial borders and thus foster Pan-African ties, develop our languages and produce relevant knowledge for Africa. For instance, in the case of Tanzania and the 'Tanzanian Diaspora' one can find numerous sites such as Michuzi Blog, Swahili Time and Jamii Forum that address a number of issues relevant to the wider African community in Kiswahili, our national language. Now Kiswahili has been accepted as one of the official language of the African Union, it just a matter of time before we see a truly 'African Renaissance' based on linguistic and cultural freedoms that informs social-economic and political self-determination in Africa.

Haya Mapambano Yanaendelea! A Luta Continua! The Struggles Continues!

Interview by Angela Zarro

Chambi Chachage is an independent researcher, blogger, newspaper columnist and policy analyst based in Dar es Salaam. He is author of the blog: Udadisi: Rethinking in Action

This interview was made on the occasion of 'Beyond Economics: An East African Conversation' the East African launch of the journal Development 52.3 'Beyond Economics', held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania on 2-3 February 2010. 


Photo: Rehema Chachage.
Rehema is a Dar es Salaam-based New Media artist. This photo was part of the Chipuza Exhibition, held at the Goethe Institut, in Dar es Salaam, from April 8 to 15, 2010.