Monday, January 3, 2011

FLEETING MEMORIES OF A NEGLECTED HERITAGE

Originally published on November 2010

PRESIDENT Jakaya Mrisho Kikwete visited us this week. President who? Odds are, out on the streets not many could answer that question. The clues that he is from the African continent and that his most famous forbear visited us 35 years ago, creating great excitement, would still not bring much of a response.

Kikwete is, of course the current President of the Republic of Tanzania and his famous forerunner was Julius Nyerere, one of the founding fathers of modern Africa, the man who was widely known as "Mwalimu" - Teacher. When he came to visit in 1974, he was a special person in a special time.

He was a voice to be reckoned with, a voice speaking for the freedom not only of his country, but of a continent, in a time when that message resonated around the globe. By the time President Kikwete came to see us this week, en route to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference which opened yesterday in Port of Spain, Trinidad, we had developed a new attitude towards African leaders. No matter how distinguished, we have been slower about bringing out the drums and getting the chants going, even among the still-faithful followers of the African Dream.

Although the Jamaican Government took President Kikwete on a whirlwind tour of aspects of our island culture (he was particularly interested in agricultural development), his presence here hardly created ripples. Then again, he came at a time when we're preoccupied not with "chanting down Babylon" as we were three decades ago, but with the songs of survival. Sadly, the refrain of solidarity which was our story has almost been stilled.

I find it interesting and ironic that President Kikwete was so impressed with our agricultural efforts, particularly in our livestock. His predecessor President Nyerere was a devotee of agriculture too and on his visit here, stirred up passion for his message of collective farming. The government of the day took it up and gave the Nyerere name to what was to have been a major agricultural experiment.

Set up with great fanfare, the project later crashed just as spectacularly. We may have bought the Mwalimu's dream but we couldn't sustain it. Greed over land ownership, flawed administration and indiscipline, along with political rejection of the socialist concept, brought the Nyerere farm story to an untimely end.

It would be interesting to know how much of that history came up in conversation with the current administration as President Kikwete went to see our beautiful, fat Red Poll cattle and hear the tale which we don't even tell our young people -- the genius of a Portland man named Thomas P Lecky and his remarkable gift in animal husbandry and genetics, which were far ahead of his time.

IF WE SEEK REASON for the fleeting impression of the Kikwete visit, we have to admit that these are changed times. Nyerere visited us in a time of change too, with even greater turmoil than today. We were fighting the ideological battle of a lifetime. The African story of struggle and solidarity had become our story at home and abroad. Africa's cause was our cause. The passion of those who bought into it was strongest over South Africa and Apartheid. That struggle gave meaning and inspired passion in many of our people, even in the midst of our own challenges.

We hailed the leaders of a progressive Africa and aligned ourselves with the cause, hence the enthusiastic welcome to Nyerere. Three decades later, the struggle has assumed different configurations. Today's African leaders are fighting the battle of the GDP and the IMF and the World Bank and the not always subtle nuances of the complexities of global warming and free trade agreements.

It should not come as a surprise, therefore, to see the buttoned-up Western-inspired image of the Tanzanian president who seemed to have left his robes at home or was saving them for Port of Spain. To some, he disappointed by not displaying African style. "The man never cut no dash," said an old Africanist who likes nothing better than to see "brothers of the Continent" in their full regalia, inspiring him to don his own too. Mi dear Sir, times have changed. Kikwete did not come bearing gifts. Not surprisingly, before he departed he invited us to invest in his country.

A QUESTION which we should not avoid answering is, why are we so reluctant to acquaint our children with the history of our times? Why do we refuse to speak of the African connection in social studies, civics, call it what you will, in school curricula? Why do we find it so difficult to say how it shaped aspects of our culture which we now take for granted?

In looking at the now-ended Tanzanian President's visit, I asked Professor Rupert Lewis for his reasoning on why so many -- young people in particular - seemed indifferent to it. He saw it not as any negative decision taken by a new generation, but posed the question instead -- how can they know what they've not been taught? He credits this to a failure of our political leadership which has never followed through with helping our people to know the real meaning of solidarity -- a oneness with each other.

What we now regard as indifference by a new generation is the vacuum created by lack of knowledge, a failure to tell the story, to interpret it to ourselves. Because we don't know, we fill the space with inter-personal violence and obscene mistreatment of each other. Solidarity has come to mean little or nothing to us.

Perhaps it is this uncertainty about ourselves which led to a morning editorial earlier this week recommending to Prime Minister Golding that he not attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Trinidad. There's too much to be done at home, it argued. In any case, it implied, the meeting is not all that important. Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Baugh could do just as well.

A noted personality who has been associated with matters of the Commonwealth for some time now, admitted that he was "horrified" by the editorial view. "Irresponsible" was how he described it. Dismissal of a forum where nations with a shared history and an inescapable responsibility to find common answers in a new time, is unworthy. Much of what we take for granted today has been the result of the discipline of listening to others and working together for a mutual solution, he reminded.

In the view of the gentleman, the Commonwealth association was never perfect but it served a purpose. At times it has had to face dissension in its ranks. Its current challenge as to how to regard Zimbabwe and its so-called rogue president has become an example of a bad family quarrel, but at least they're facing it.

What we should be concerned with, in our corner of the globe, I was told, is how the Caricom region is allowing its once strong influence to wane. "The Commonwealth Heads of Government concern is not only about GDP. It is about people - which is the reason for all the rest of the agenda", says my source.

gloudonb@yahoo.com



JAMAICAN OBSERVER

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