Africa Speaks Reasoning Forum

AFRICA AND THE DIASPORA => Our Beautiful People => Topic started by: Iniko Ujaama on May 01, 2009, 02:56:42 PM

Title: An Evening with Ayi Kwei Armah (excerpt from transcript)
Post by: Iniko Ujaama on May 01, 2009, 02:56:42 PM
I am not sure when this actually took place. It is likely that it took place in the early 1990s. While I do not share all of his perspectives, I do think he has shared some important views there. As this was transcribed from the audio recording, the subtitles were put arbitrarily to make it easier to follow

Introduction by Moderator: others, our special guest for today, our speaker; a brother whom we have uh...most of us in the (...) community and others perhaps through other means have come to be acquainted with him through his writings. In particular (..) Two Thousand Seasons. But Brother Ayi kwei Armah has written  other books: The Beautiful Ones Are Not Yet Born, Fragments, Why Are We So Blessed?,The Healers, in addition to Two Thousand Seasons. In Two Thousand Seasons as along with other writings of Brother Armah are struggling to have life...are struggling to have life as we as a people are struggling to have life. I want to share with you that uh.. Brother Armah, when we met with him a couple of weeks ago...he said “Brother ...I want to -- wait a minute. Hold on. I don’t write religious materials....I’m not a writer of religious things.”...
“Well brother Armah when most of or many of the so called religious writings in the world today were written they were not written with that thought, that purpose in mind.” Uh.. particularly comes to my mind are the writings of the New testament and the Holy Bible ...they were letters communicated to people of certain attitudes, certain set of values, a certain struggle. And it was how the people used those writings and what they came to mean to the people that made them sacred writings. And so our expression to him was, “We’ve found so much of our struggle so much of our values, so much of what we are about in your writings and we have made the decision -- we have been led to make the decision to use them in ways to help guide ourselves and stabilize ourselves and receive message from on high.” And so in that light and in that manner we take them as holy writings, as inspired writings, as sacred writings. And we will not put you on any pedestal that you don’t wanna be on; we won’t treat you as the sole incarnation of the holy one on this earth and that we should kiss your feet but we do sit at your feet to share wisdom with you, to share love with you, to share struggle with you. Brother Armah is in the US as many of you know to do some work, lecture at University of California Berkeley. He has his children with him, who he tells us when they came here they didn’t know any English or not much English but they were put into English-speaking schools in Berkley and I imagine they probably know a little more English than...than they knew when they started. He’s a beautiful, humble, sincere brother. We were impressed with him in that way when we met him and so it is great ...with great joy, with great pride, with great happiness, with great love, that I introduce to you and allow him to come in his own way to share with us concerns from his heart, from his mind, by the spirit and power of God working in and through him ...our brother Ayi Kwei Armah.

Ayi Kwei Armah:
I hope you can hear me in the back. Can you hear me now? Okay. Can you hear me now? Okay. First of all I’d like to thank all of you for this invitation to come and meet with you and to share a few ideas. As brother Nkolisi has said, I did point out that I have no prophetic gifts. I write books because I tried to do something more useful and failed and since I have been trained to write, I do that as a defence against total despair and seeing people like you who are actively engaged in trying to salvage pieces of our wrecked lives gives me some hope that after all we are not alone. It’s a pleasure then to be here; to come and observe and to the extent that it’s possible, to participate with you in the work that you are doing. I have been told that your focus today is on the theme of “the awakening”. I hope to contribute a little bit to your deliberations and I shall do so by concentrating on the work of an African intellectual who worked for our awakening. His name was Cheikh Anta Diop.

Now if we are concerned with our awakening, it is because we’ve been asleep. Now we were put to sleep by historical catastrophes. And you know when people get into an accident; they need to go to sleep in order to survive the accident. If you are totally conscious when it happens, you won’t survive. So sleep is sometimes useful. But after sleep we have to wake.
Now since these catastrophes began, our minds have been kept in a sleepy state of ignorance through a series of cultural and intellectual anaesthetics. Dope. Now sometimes the dope is called religion -- Islam, Christianity -- and we go to it looking for relief. I mean people don’t take dope because they are evil, they take it because they are suffering and they think that it will ease their suffering. Now, whatever the different names of the dope that we fill ourselves with, the effect is the same; to make us think we are nothing.
Now the awakening means for us that we need to regain knowledge of ourselves, the something that we are. To do that we have first of all to end our addiction to the poisons that put us to sleep. Secondly, we need to cultivate healing values that will help us remove—remake ourselves and then remake the universe.
Now such work requires careful preparation aimed at analyzing and seeing through the false values directed against us. After that, we also need to identify the regenerative values and put them at the center of our own conversations, our behaviour and our institutions. You see, I am not talking about speeches, I mean conversations. Because speeches are wonderful events but they’re just events, they’re not processes. They happen and then they can be forgotten. Conversations, we always have—everyday and things we do everyday are more important than the fantastic things we do once in a while and forget them.
Behaviour, because it is possible for us to know what is right to do and even to say it -- to utter it – but if cannot integrate it into our behaviour it is worse than useless because it serves only as a mask for the wrong things that we do. Now somebody who does evil and doesn’t know how to hide it is less dangerous than somebody who does evil but is smart enough and knows the words to cover.
Institutions, because our behaviour, our words, everything we do right, is ephemeral as long as it’s not anchored in something lasting. Cause institutions help us maintain the good that we have and weed out the evil that is bothering us. In other words, the meaning of our awakening is that we aspire to create a new way of life.
But awakening is not a simple process. An awakening that is hasty or brutal is bound to be incomplete. A deep, thorough, lasting awakening has to be well thought out, unhurried, slow and gentle, like good rain, like good love-making. Slow. Gentle. Well thought out.
Now there is a danger in incomplete, hurried awakenings ‘cause the body gets shaken, it’s hustled into action while the mind is really still asleep. The result is sleepwalking; physical action without mental, intellectual, spiritual clarity. And the outcome of such action is predictable; it’s a massacre of courageous but poorly prepared souls.
A complete awakening, on the other hand, is well prepared. It’s a process in which the body is not rushed into rising until the mind has woken, until the mind has taken stock of the situation, until the mind has planned the most effective routes to action and made room for contingencies. So that if a chosen route happens to be blocked, alternative routes stay open. Because motion is important, but it is the path followed that gives motion its meaning. And the path is important but it is the goal that gives the path its meaning.
Now there is a form of incomplete awakening which looks complete on the surface. It is blindness masquerading as sight. Now when we waken, we have healthy bodies inhabited by thinking minds. Now when many such people with able bodies and thinking minds are united by a shared goal, consciously chosen and embraced, the resulting interaction is powerful, purposeful and loving. Now that interaction of minds moving towards a shared goal is the closest thing I know to religious power.
Sometimes though, able bodies can be directed, not my thinking minds of their own, but by a believing heart which in its blind generosity, in its confused trust, allows the body to follow someone else’s thinking mind. Now when that happens, we get a community made up of a leader and a crowd of followers. Such a community can often look awake. Sometimes it can look dynamically, excitingly, sensationally alive. In reality though, it is still sleepwalking. ‘Cause the awakened soul does not need to follow a leader and the awakened guide does not need to be followed. Awakened souls are companions working together, moving together towards a common chosen goal.

Now, we think leaders are important because they have knowledge and experience of the paths we all need to travel on. If they do their work well, they will have no followers left. There will only be friends to work with in mutual respect.
Now to awaken souls, experienced guides share knowledge which brings them to the same level as their followers. Now when each soul in the community knows the way home, the entire community advances along the way together and it has a great deal more energy than if it was following a seeing eye dog called the leader.
Now, the problem with a community made up of followers and a leader, is that once the leader goes the community becomes acephalic. It has no head. It just wanders around. It’s a pitiful sight. What is needed is a community where the leadership runs throughout the entire body.
Now for too many centuries, Africans in our sleep have formed communities dependent on leaders. We have had heroes, leaders, saviours. They’ve been wonderful people and we’ve been right to love them but what happens when they go? Our problems remain. It’s therefore time to change the structures of our communities so they don’t depend so fatally on leaders; so that they can have such good leaders that they abolish themselves.... Time to find ways to open all eyes in the community... time to find methods for sharing knowledge of goals and paths with all in the community.
One of the terrible weaknesses of Africa has been the hoarding of power; the keeping of knowledge as secrets. Now, some of the keepers have done it because they saw knowledge as sources of power and in that they were right. But in using it as sources of power for themselves and their families instead of for the whole community they were wrong and we are paying for the problems they caused. The recent history of Africa is full of leaders who failed to create thinking self-sustaining communities. Some failed because they didn’t have enough time, they were killed. Some failed for lack of opportunity. But some also failed because they didn’t have any real desire to empower the powerless because they saw in the powerlessness of those who raised them to power, a source, and they were afraid that if they empowered the powerless there would be nobody beneath them bearing them up. At any rate, these leaders had tremendous (....) thrust on them. They were too busy to address certain fundamental questions regarding our awakening. That is why, although we have had such wonderful leaders, many of us are still asleep. But we’ve also had thinkers who did address these questions. One of them was Cheikh Anta Diop.

Cheikh Anta Diop
I went to Senegal ten years ago because I wanted to find out more. Not about him but about his work and the background to it. I tried to get to see him. I knew a friend of his Ousmane Sembene who is my elder brother, a writer. He took me to Cheikh Anta Diop’s house several times. We did not meet him ’cause he happened to be out for one reason or the other. So I would say “Well, it wasn’t in the cards that we were to meet.” But I would like it understood that I think, whatever he tried to do, it would be an honour for people like me to continue that work.
Now the questions he addressed were the following:
-Who in fact are we?
- What is our situation?
- What is our real history?
-What do our present prospects look like? And
-What are the resources, the natural and material resources, the intellectual and spiritual resources we can use? How can we reclaim these resources then use them to future prospects?
Now Cheikh Anta Diop spent his life working to find answers and the fruit of his research is contained in the work that he left behind. I have been following that work for so many years now and it saddens me that he’s got so much work which is not known in the English-speaking part of the world, because he wrote in French. When I arrived in Senegal, I contacted the University and I told them that I was capable of translating all Cheikh Anta Diop’s books because I’ve been trained to do that work. They said no. So what is available in English is usually bits and pieces from one book together with something else from another and so forth.
Now, that is okay but the better way to make his work available would be to translate all of it. And there are people willing to do that work. There will not be time to go into details about what is contained here. I shall try and make an outline. It will be inadequate but if there is an opportunity to go deeper into the content of this work I hope we can take it one day.
To the question “Who are we?”, Cheikh Anta Diop answered, “We are Africans”. Now that seems like an obvious answer but I remember there was a time when if you said to some people “I think you are an African” ...”really uh?”...sometimes these losses of identity can be funny: When I was a boy, I met an African-American called St. Clair Drake. He came to Ghana and there was some reason for me to meet him so I went meet him and he told me a story that he’d just been to the Congo and he was in a hotel and an African waiter came to him and said, “Where are you from sir?” and St. Clair Drake said “I’m from America.” He said “Ah! You must be an American Negro. I have never met a negro.” Now(laughter) ...So we have not always known ourselves as Africans and to this day if you go to the continent of Africa and you meet somebody and ask him “Who are you?” they are not likely to tell you “I’m an African”. They will say “I’m a Nigerian”, “I’m a Ghanaian”, “I’m a Tanzanian”, “I’m a Mozambican”, you know. Anything but “I’m an African.” They don’t know what it means to say “I’m a Nigerian”. What was Nigeria before white people met in Berlin to decide that whoever could draw lines along the territory and put guns to defend those areas owned the territory? So the identities that we have are fake identities. We have to remake our identities and the best identity we can have for now is the African identity, the continental identity.
Now, “What is our situation?” Again to that question Cheikh Anta Diop would answer “Confusion, division multiplied by ignorance”. But you see he did not say these things to condemn us, he said them as a prelude to suggesting ways of ending our confusion, our ignorance.
“What is our history?” He spent a lot of time answering the question because remember that there was a time, not very long ago when the idea itself of African having a history was considered unsound, academically wrong. You could not defend that in any thesis. Now, his answer was, “Not only do we have a history but we are the root of humanity; we were there at the beginning. That is to say that all human beings are kin to us, whether they recognize that or not. If they hate us, that is their problem. Those who do not hate us; those who would work with us, we can work with them no matter where they come from to find ways of remaking a universe destroyed by too much greed and too much hate.
He also said that we are at the root of civilization. This is another area from which we had been pushed. Now, we need to study seriously in order to understand what he was saying. He learned to read the records of ancient Egypt before he was able to assert “No, you people are lying.” That in effect was what his thesis was saying. He was saying to his professors, “Your traditions are lying. This is the truth. Look at it.” It was a courageous thing to say. But to the end of his life he suffered for it.
Now, it is not sufficient for us to just accept what Cheikh Anta Diop did and say “It’s done”. We need to do the studying that will make us possess these resources. They are highly valuable intellectual resources and you know, we should be teaching little children how to read and write hieroglyphic characters, ideograms because the values are there. But we don’t do it. We don’t have any plans for doing it. We don’t have the institutions for doing it. I’ve met plenty of people who know enough to take names from Ancient Egypt. When I ask them “can you write?” they say “no”. They are waking up but they are sort of stretching and enjoying just that early morning feeling of being awake again. Well, time to get up. There’s work to do, you see. We need to work on the knowledge, you see. It’s......You can have a certain kind of knowledge and it acts on you again like a drug, soothes you. Says, “Well, isn’t it nice to know that we are descended from these fantastic people who invented this and that and that.” No. Well they did their work and they’re gone. They did their work so well they left traces that people have tried to wipe out and they didn’t succeed. It’s not for us to use their work as mattresses to lie on. We ought to use their work as spring boards and move.
“What are our prospects?” Now for centuries, we have been organized according to principles that are completely alien to us; principles of profit and advantage. The greatest African values are principles of justice, balance, reciprocity which the Ancient Eqyptians called Maat. You will not find these principles at work in any of the great institutions of the modern world. The great institutions are the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and so forth. And all our political leaders are going to these people and saying “teach us what to do”. Well all these banks and stuff can teach is destruction. They can tell people, “cut down your forest, sell the wood cheap, then you will get some foreign exchange. With the foreign exchange you can get some guns to defend your president against people who are hungry and who may get angry at—on account....” Now, we’re going along with this because we don’t know our own values. Our values are opposed to this kind of stuff.

Our Values and Resources
The search for profit, the search for advantage...Well, we are people who have suffered from this search for profit. People have come to Africa to buy people, human beings. There are certain resources that should never be sold. If African values were on top of our existence, we would never sell land, we would never sell water, we wouldn’t sell the air, the sun and we wouldn’t sell human beings. But we did, and in order to recover our values we have to go back and know what they are and find ways of affirming them against all the power of destroyers.
Now, we shall not move out of our deprivation, unless we recognize our resource bases and work out intelligent ways to reclaim them. This requires precise knowledge of what these resources are. In a little book that was, I think, translated into English – I have not read the English version – but it’s Les fondements économiques et culturels d’un Etat Féderal d’Afrique Noire, The Economic and Cultural Bases, Foundations of uh...African...Black African Federal State. I think it’s available in English translation. Cheikh Anta Diop laid out the resources we have if we look at the entire African continent.
’Cause you see, it you look at a country like the Gambia or Sierra Leone...If you cut it off from Africa and you try to see, what resources do they have, you will come away thinking “Well these are poor people.” Look at the whole continent and you see that poverty is just nonsense on such a continent. That’s a continent three times the size of the United States with a lot of wealth; so much wealth that people come there to get the basis of their wellbeing. And it’s been happening for centuries and the continent is still not exhausted. But we need to stop this pillage. We need to find ways to stop this pillage and that starts with knowledge of ourselves and what our resources bases ought to be.
Spiritual resources. There was a time when people- African people – people of African descent thought that we did not have intellectual resource bases, that if we wanted to think, we had to go and borrow from other people. We know better now. We know better now. And it is time for us to get a hold of these resources. But for all that we need to study. Unfortunately, we have been told that knowledge and study isn’t our bag. We need to get out of that way of thinking because forward movement is not going to happen unless we recognize that there is a hierarchy of values; that a human being, according to Ptah Hetep,... is made up of a head, a belly and sexual organs among other things but if you want to stand up as a human being and work as a human being you have to recognize that the head is higher than the belly and both are higher than the sex. It is Ptah Hetep who says, “He who obeys his belly belongs to the enemy.”
I happen to know of a vow that healers make among my mother’s people. Before they can become certified healers, they have to learn a number of things including discipline. And one of the vows they take is never to let their sexual organs rise higher than their heads. It doesn’t say don’t let it rise. By all means...but not higher.
Now, it won’t be enough then to find these values and won’t be enough to absorb them. We need to develop institutions of awareness to help maintain them; to help make them more permanent than they have been so far.... Knowledge of our spiritual and material inheritance to be given to our children from an early age....we don’t -- If you wait till somebody gets to university before you teach them this, it’s too late. The first day they come to school they ought to be learning these things. In Ancient Egypt, they began at four. Now, as far as institutions are concerned, we all know that the schools available to us are full of holes. We want to build institutions. My suggestion is that we look at some old institutions but not to take them like that because they too were full of holes.
There was a wonderful institution in Ancient Egypt- in Kemet – it was called the Per Ankh. Per means a house, It was the house of life. That is where kids were taken from the age of four and they could stay there and study. The first thing they was taught was knowledge of their ancestors. That’s why it was called the House of Life. The Ancestors were dead but their memory was kept alive in the House of Life. Now, these were schools where the kids were taught and they ate there. There were adults whose job it was to look after them. There was not this business of “this is my child and therefore I give that child quality time”. Quality time belonged to all the children of the community and if adults were available well that was all to be good. We need to create modern versions of the oldest of African schools, the Per Ankh. Thank you. ( -download of audio ( - youtube video of Evening

Following this is the question and answer session which was also informative.