THE LAST WORD | Andrew M. Mwenda | On December 30, 2018, President Yoweri Museveni tweeted thanking Miss World Africa, Quiin Abenakyo, for heeding his “advice” to keep her hair “natural”. Museveni claimed that this asserts her “African identity”. “God beautifully created Africans and there is no need to add or subtract anything,” the President tweeted.
I replied saying he had tweeted his comment in English, itself a foreign language, yet he could have done this in Runyankore, Lusoga or Swahili. Many responded saying the President used English to reach all Ugandans since it is not only our lingua franca but also the official language of Uganda. Granted! But Museveni could have tweeted in all the languages of Uganda, and they are not many.
We must note that language in an expression of a people’s culture. Therefore language is the most effective instrument to destroy the identity of a people. As Amilcar Cabral argued, to dominate a nation by force of arms is, above all, to take up arms to destroy, or at least neutralise and paralyse its culture. Culture is much more expressed through language than through hairstyles.
The two biggest assaults on African identity during colonial rule were religion and language. Adopted foreign hairstyles, dress codes, bleaching etc. were merely derivative. Chinua Achebe’s `Things Fall Apart’ presents the impact of the Christian religion on African society in one of the most compelling dialogues of African literature. Obierika tells Okonkwo: “The white man is very clever. He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. But now he has won our brothers and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.”
The Christian conquest of our souls was made more effective through language. In the English language, everything negative is black: blackmail, blacklist, black book, black market, black sheep or black Monday. Meanwhile words like whitewash give positive imagery of whiteness. Hence the African Christian can be heard praying loudly: “Wash me redeemer, I shall be whiter than snow.”
Indeed, there are very many contradictions regarding Africanising names, languages, practices, institutions, dressing and hairstyles. For example, Museveni always wears suits, which are not an “African” dress code. The institutions of the state of Uganda that he leads are not an assertion of African identity but a copy and paste from Western nations. The ideologies he has always embraced – initially Marxism and later neoliberalism – are not African. He is a Christian, a religion that was imposed on us through colonial conquest. His name Yoweri is the vernacular version of Joel from the Bible. Indeed, the names of his daughters – Diana, Natasha and Patience – are not African either.
Secondly, in `Sowing the Mustard’, Museveni blames former president, Milton Obote, for not promoting Swahili as a national language for Uganda the same way Julius Nyerere and Jomo Kenyatta had done in Tanzania and Kenya respectively. Obote led Uganda for a combined period of 14 years while Museveni has done 32 years. Therefore, according to Museveni’s standard, he carries the blame for keeping English as our lingua franca for this long.
So if we have accepted a non-African language as our official language (in spite of its degradation of everything African or black), adopted a non-African dress code, embraced non-African religions (Christianity and Islam), and use non-African institutions, why should we not use non-African hairstyles? Indeed, non-African institutions dominate our policy-making processes to wit the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and bilateral donors such as USAID, DFID, SIDA, etc.
Museveni lectures often in English
We have naively embraced Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) as the strategy for our development and international competitive bidding as the method for selecting those who build our infrastructure. Hence, foreign firms own the commanding heights of our economy just as they win all major construction contracts. This is largely because we believe that foreigners can manage and/or build things better than ourselves. This lack of faith in ourselves is much more damaging to the long term prospects of developing our country and asserting our African identity than Miss World Africa wearing an Indian weave on her hair.
The reader should not mistake me to be suggesting that we abandon English, chase foreign investors and contractors and drop our foreign names. Indeed, I am a proud bearer of the name Andrew, often dress in European clothes and English is the only language I am fully fluent in. The Japanese, Koreans and Chinese wear Western suits and speak English but have not lost their identity. As Aime Cesaire put it in his essay, `Discourse on Colonialism’, civilizations that withdraw into themselves end up suffocating themselves in their self-enclosure. And as Ngugi Wa Thiongo has argued, cultural contact is the oxygen of any civilization.
The real question is how do we adopt, digest and use foreign cultural, political and economic resources for our benefit? We should attract FDI not to supplant but supplement our local investors.
For example, Kiira Motors can partner with Hyundai (giving them a 20% stake) in order to benefit from their capital, skills, technology, experience, global market networks etc. Foreign construction firms are welcome if we can ensure they help us develop our skills and diffuse their technical knowledge locally. But Museveni has presided over a state that has handed the entire economy to foreign firms, displacing existing local firms and/or stifling their growth.
So the fundamental question is: who chooses which aspects of the African identity we should uphold and which should we ignore? I have not seen Museveni wearing traditional Kinyankore/Hima dress leave alone the kanzu (tunic) in decades. Our president treats traditional Africa religion as superstition as if Christianity is not equally superstitious. I, therefore, found his emphasis on the hairstyle arbitrary – not so much aimed at promoting some “authentic African identity” (whatever that would mean) – but rather to conform to his tastes.
Therefore, to address hairstyle and ignore language and religion, ideology and institutions in identity is to chase the rat and ignore the elephant in your plantation. The use of foreign languages and religions is more culturally damaging to the African identity than wearing a “non-African” (whatever that means) hairstyle. The overzealous reliance on foreign investors and contractors, often at the expense of local ones, is more damaging to our economy than wearing foreign hairstyles.