No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000
Edited by William Minter,
Gail Hovey, and Charles Cobb Jr.
Published by Africa World Press.
The 1970s: Expanding Networks by Joseph F. Jordan
The 1980s: The Anti-Apartheid Convergence by David Goodman
The following text is excerpted from No Easy Victories for web presentation on allAfrica.com and noeasyvictories.org. This text may be freely reproduced if credit is given to No Easy Victories. Please mention that the book is available from http://www.noeasyvictories.org and http://www.africaworldpressbooks.com.
Philippe Wamba: New Pan-African Generation
" This book is about my own journey along the fault lines of African - African American relations and the wider historical relationship between black Americans and their counterparts in the " motherland," writes Philippe Wamba in his acclaimed memoir, Kinship.
Born in Los Angeles, Philippe Wamba was the son of Elaine Brown of Cleveland and Ernest Wamba dia Wamba from rural Bas-Congo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). He grew up in Boston and Dar es Salaam, finished high school in New Mexico, and graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1993, going on to earn a master's degree from the Columbia School of Journalism. From 1999 through 2001 he was editor in chief of the Web site africana.com. Philippe Wamba died in 2002 in an automobile accident in Kenya, at the age of 31.
Reprinted by permission from Kinship: A Family's Journey in Africa and America (New York: Dutton, 1999). Additional information about Wamba is available on the Web site of the Harvard African Students Alumni Network at http://www.hasanweb.org/memphillipelife.asp.
The lessons of my parents and the prevailing climate of 1970s black outspokenness and pride provided me with a strong sense of identification with Africa. But though my own father was from Africa, and though a celebration of Africa was part and parcel of the pro-black rhetoric that had shaped me, I really knew very little about the continent. . . .
Africa was a place of my imagination, a mythical environment I constructed in my mind out of raw materials provided by my father, books I had read, and movies and TV shows I had seen. . . . Even my parents' ongoing critique of the stereotypical African images that appeared in the media and in books I read could not entirely shield me from the prevailing views of Africa that had long saturated the American psyche. . . . In the end, I knew more about Africa than my white classmates, but was still somewhat susceptible to the prevailing American popular wisdom, which held Africa to be a wild, untamed jungle plagued by famine and bereft of Western technology, infrastructure, and advanced social institutions. . . .
For me as a child in Boston, and for many other black Americans, despite Africa's new prominence as the inspiration for a revolution in African American culture, Africa remained a " dark" continent. . . . I venerated the glory of the African past in school projects on ancient Egypt, I expressed my cultural identification with Africa in my attire, and I eagerly absorbed my father's sentimental stories of his Congolese childhood. . . . For my brothers and me, a real understanding of Africa and what it meant to us only began when my family moved to Tanzania in 1980, an adventure that completely debunked our own myths of Africa and changed our lives forever.
In Dar es Salaam, his father taught at the university and Philippe and his brothers attended school and learned KiSwahili. But in 1981, his father, an opponent of the Mobutu dictatorship, was arrested on a visit home to Zaire. He spent almost a year in prison.
With the arrest of my father, an Africanist historian who had taught at several U.S. universities and at one of the most respected campuses in Africa, an international network of friends, family members, activists, academics, politicians, and students responded quickly to call for his release. My father had been a part of various political struggles while a student and professor in the United States, and many of those he had worked with in the 1960s and 1970s now moved to support him in his time of need. . . .
The campaign was truly international, and in many ways it was also pan-African, coordinated by his black American wife and his African, black American, and West Indian colleagues in Dar es Salaam. They alerted people all over Africa, Europe, the United States, and the Caribbean. . . . My mother shuttled between Dar, Kinshasa, and Boston, spreading the word and trying to generate political pressure on the Zairean government. Members of her family and activists in the American black community urged the U.S. government to intervene on my father's behalf, and a global coalition of Africa-oriented political groups launched letter-writing, petition, and speak-out campaigns, targeting the Zairean government from pan-African nerve centers all over the world.
But while my father survived a Zairean prison . . . we knew that the furor raised on his behalf would do little to change conditions in Zaire itself. . . . Some time after my father was released, my mother's sister in the United States told us how she had watched her TV with disgust while Mobutu was being warmly received at the White House. Reagan had smiled and embraced his African ally like an old friend. . . .
. . . I was thrilled and relieved to have my father safely back among us. . . . I resented the power of tyrants like Mobutu to imprison or even kill people seemingly on a whim . . . I began to wonder how I, too, could make a contribution to the struggle for freedom in Africa. Of course, at the time I had barely completed primary school, but in the years that followed I took an intense interest in African history and politics, and felt inspired by the courage and conviction of African freedom fighters who waged the continent's wars of liberation.
Philippe Wamba finished his secondary education at United World College in New Mexico, where he and fellow black students raised funds for the ANC school in Tanzania. He enrolled at Harvard as an undergraduate in the fall of 1989.
To my unhappy surprise, the African American students I met [at Harvard] were not necessarily any more interested in or informed about Africa than their white counterparts. I automatically gravitated toward the black students I met in those early weeks, and did establish some friendships that lasted. . . . But sometimes the cultural distance between my upbringing in Tanzania and that of African Americans from U.S. cities and suburbs seemed an obstacle to empathy. . . .
For myself and other African students, the examples of racism by the American media, as well as incidents we experienced every day, demonstrated the extent of the social obstacles that confronted us as blacks in America. . . . After the acquittal of Rodney King's torturers, some black students rallied in protest, angrily shouting our solidarity with those venting their frustrations in L.A. And we found plenty to complain about right at Harvard. We marched to protest the harassment of black students by white Harvard policemen, we demonstrated in support of the beleaguered Afro-American Studies Department, and we called for more faculty hiring of women and minorities.
Despite feeling encouraged by the black student solidarity that grew around such issues, I remained frustrated by my own perception of African American indifference to Africa and African affairs. . . . I became involved in local anti-apartheid initiatives, campaigning for Harvard's divestment from companies doing business in South Africa and raising money for South African refugees, and I also worked on campaigns targeting other African countries where dictatorships held sway. But though the anti-apartheid movement in the United States was led by prominent black American leaders, I found less enthusiasm for the struggle among my black student peers. . . . Too often it seemed as though black Americans were mainly preoccupied with their lot in America and did not see events in Africa as relevant. More than anything else, it was ignorance and apathy that kept many students from greater participation in political activism on Africa.
The most memorable political campaign of my student activist career brought me up against the despotism that had imprisoned my father. If Harvard students seemed to pay little attention to events in South Africa, they cared even less what happened in less celebrated tyrannies like Zaire. But when President Mobutu Sese Seko was invited to speak at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in the spring of 1990, SASC, the local anti-apartheid group to which I belonged, and other political organizations mobilized to protest the visit.
A coalition of campus and community organizations joined together to denounce Mobutu and the college administrators who had invited him, arguing that by hosting Mobutu's speech Harvard was needlessly legitimizing his brutal politics. The coalition organized rallies at which I spoke of my experiences in Zaire and my father's detention; we canvassed the campus dormitories, informing students about Mobutu's speech and our protest against it; and we wrote letters expressing our disappointment that Mobutu had been invited, delivering them by hand to seemingly indifferent administrators at the Kennedy School.
. . . I told many African American acquaintances about our scheduled rally, but some admitted to me that they didn't know anything about Zaire and said they'd have to hear " the other side of the story" before they agreed to participate. We distributed as much information on Zaire as we could, but it was difficult to prove to a skeptical and completely uninformed audience that millions of people in a distant African country were suffering under the iron hand of a tyrant. I felt that the black students we spoke to were especially wary of accepting our indictments of Mobutu at face value, perhaps with good reason; black people are used to hearing criticism of black leaders and have learned to treat much of the fault-finding as hostile white propaganda. . . . But I knew it was probably more likely that in many cases ignorance would become an excuse for inaction. . . .
The day of Mobutu's speech found two groups of demonstrators positioned in front of the Kennedy School building: students and community activists who had come to denounce Mobutu, including some Boston-based Zairean dissidents, and a group of pro-Mobutu Zaireans from the Boston area who chanted their support for their president in French and Lingala. I picked out several faces that I recognized from the occasional Zairean parties at my uncle's home in Lynn. . . . I saw their actions as a traitorous insult to all of those who still languished under Zaire's repressive government. When I later told my uncle about the Zaireans' presence at the protest, he laughed bitterly and told me that some days previously one of Mobutu's aides had contacted members of the Zairean community in Boston and offered them money to show their support at his speech. My uncle had also been approached with the offer but had flatly refused to get involved.
At the protest scene, police barricades separated the hundreds of demonstrators from Mobutu's convoy as it entered the parking lot at the rear of the building. Men in suits stood behind the police lines, coolly eyeing the protestors, and a man within the cordoned-off area snapped pictures of us, perhaps with which to open classified files in some shadowy government department. I led students in the South African shuffling stomp of the " toyi-toyi," the protest dance of anti-apartheid youth, and some of the Zairean dissidents began a call-and-response chant in French: " Mobutu, Mobutu - Assassin!" Inside the building, the demonstrators who had managed to get inside interrupted Mobutu's speech by unfurling a large banner that read END THE OPPRESSION NOW and were promptly ejected.
The demonstration made the local television news and was covered in the city papers. Veteran Cambridge activists said that it was the largest protest in recent memory, and student activists returned to their dorms satisfied that they had helped to discredit a dictator. But I left the demonstration alone, feeling empty, plagued by the same sense of discouragement that burdened my political activism throughout my college years. Was this really the best I could do? . . . It was [hard to] keep the wider context in mind, to somehow link my activities in Cambridge with the suffering that continued in Zaire. But when I discussed the protest with my father I felt that he was proud of me and that maybe I had actually managed to emulate some of his courage and conviction.
This page is part of the No Easy Victories website.