‘50 Years of Independence: Reflections on the Role of Progressive African Intellectuals’
As Walter Bgoya took to the microphone to begin his keynote speech at the African Studies Association UK’s biennial conference, I was immediately struck by his wisdom and humour, frankness and affability. These characteristics were to be continually striking as the talk progressed.
To start at the beginning, Walter Bgoya began his career as a diplomat and activist in Tanzania, working alongside organisations such as the OAU and UN in his support for the ‘second liberation’ of Africa following independence. This intellectual pursuit extended into publishing as Bgoya joined the Tanzania Publishing House (TPH) in 1972, which became, in the words of African Books Collective (ABC) colleague Mary Jay who introduced him, the centre of the liberation movement. Supported by Tanzania’s first President, Julius Nyerere, Bgoya’s work at TPH saw the publication of influential anti-imperialist texts such as Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Bgoya went on to start his own publishing company, Mkuki na Nyota Publishers in 1991, which continued to work towards the intellectual independence of Africa through its publication of both scholarly and literary work in Kiswahili and English. Bgoya’s role in the establishment of the African Books Collective (ABC) similarly sought to offer African publishers a network of collective self-reliance that continues today.
To go back to the very beginning, however, Bgoya offered the ASAUK audience a unique insight into his childhood in order to chart the growth of his own intellectual history. He recalled his time at a remote missionary school in rural Tanzania, where the colonial presence was minimal but still impactful, particularly with regards to personal and religious identity. He joked of having to choose between two Christian names, St. Pancras and Walter Scott, preferring, in the end, to be a writer than a saint! Compounded by his university studies in the US in the early 1960s and his experience of the civil rights movement there, Bgoya’s ethos of active participation in struggles of oppression is profoundly autobiographical. His sense of humour, far from deviating from this, gave the audience a further sense of Bgoya’s expansive personality.
‘Books, books, your life’
This same seemingly unlikely sense of humour came across during Africa in Words’ interview of Bgoya for this piece the following day. Asking him to tell us about why he became interested in literature and which books had influenced him the most, Bgoya sketched a long list that included texts as disparate as the Bible, Biggles, Le Petit Prince (which Bgoya has recently translated from French into Swahili for Mkuki na Nyota), James Baldwin and Pablo Neruda, followed by more theoretical and postcolonial-orientated texts by Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon. Bgoya went on to recount an impromptu visit accompanying a friend to an Italian fortune-teller in Ethiopia, who confirmed the importance to (the unbeknown!) Bgoya of the influential role books would play in his life. Chanting “books, books, your life…”, this lady’s predictions came true as, soon after, Bgoya joined TPH.
Speaking about his work as a publisher, Bgoya’s commitment to the cause of a progressive intellectual is clear. He described the beginnings of his time with TPH which mostly published textbooks; a form he had little interest in. Instead, his focus was on publishing progressive literature during a particularly stimulating period of political discussion and intellectual vigour in the Dar es Salaam of the 1960-80s. TPH was, at that time, the centre of African progressive thought, promoting a freedom of speech enabled by a lack of political repression, and driven by a pervasive sense of pride after Tanzania’s independence in 1964. The difficult financial climate of the mid-1980s, when the country signed up to the Structural Adjustment Programme, fuelled Bgoya’s departure from TPH in 1990. Bgoya continued, however, to promote and expand his progressive ethos of book production as founder of Mkuki na Nyota Publishers. Here, progress literature was the programme, with knowledge-based books carefully marketed to encourage a progressive – if not necessarily ideological – stance.
So what, according to Bgoya, is a progressive intellectual, and what is their significance in postcolonial Africa? Quoting Edward Said’s definition, which refers to an individual who possesses the faculty of embodying communal views, confronting dogma, and upholding principals of freedom and justice, Bgoya listed well-known figures such as Leopold Senghor, Nelson Mandela and Amilcar Cabral. He also stressed the importance of including activists in the wider community, from sports to arts and music. With direct reference to Cabral, Bgoya highlighted the need for the intelligentsia to work with the people. He also, however, emphasised the dangers of deviation, describing how many intellectuals have become entrenched in political power and corruption, forgetting their social responsibility as a result.
The failure of progressive intellectuals to exert more influence over the public sphere is a subject that Bgoya does not shy away from. Warmly addressing the ASAUK audience as “comrades, colleagues and friends” at the end of his speech, Bgoya reaffirmed the importance of solidarity between progressives. For academics, Bgoya urged, this entails a commitment to language as well as the circulation of scholarship. Echoing Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Bgoya asserted that Africa is held hostage to the language of the former imperial powers so long as African languages are neglected. This same dominancy is evident in the limited availability of books on Africa in Africa. A particularly memorable and hard-hitting statement of Bgoya’s – referring to scholarship from the UK and US most often being published in expensive editions that aren’t accessible on the continent – was: “You guys are doing African Studies among yourselves!”
The past and the present
Bringing the conversation on African intellectuals to the now, one of the questions I was interested in asking is: who are the progressive intellectuals today? Thinking in terms of the arts, are they figures such as Binyavanga Wainaina, founder of Kenya’s Kwani Trust, an organisation that was present at ASAUK through Billy Kahora’s plenary lecture. While time didn’t allow for me to ask this question at interview, Bgoya did offer some words of advice for new publishing houses in Africa. He advocated against external funding, stressing the importance of autonomy and its impact on the control of content. He similarly emphasised the need to address a wider audience than the minority few, in a language that corresponds to their collective experience.
In thinking of the now, however, I was mistaken, positioning a commonly-used dichotomy between the present and the past that Bgoya’s talk has done much to dispel. During interview, Bgoya eschewed the idea of the single moment, affirming that we exist as part of a context; that we are participants in the on-going struggles of the people. Although the majority of his speech was focused on the immediate post-independence period, with Bgoya himself affirming that the time given for his talk did not allow him to do full justice to his topic, his very presence at ASAUK indicated a continuation between progressive intellectuals of the 1960s and those of today. Having the privilege of listening to Bgoya – a figure who both championed and embodies so much of the postcolonial literature I have studied – certainly connected those two moments for me.
Categories: Conversations with - interview, dialogue, Q&A