It is not the job of the present to tick off the past

An unlikely event occurred last weekend that occasioned one of those cautionary, if unexpected, turns. A Rwandan female friend joined our table looking a bit distraught. Upon a little cheerful probing, at least to ease her obvious distress, she explained that she was leaving her abusive Kenyan husband.
Gitura Mwaura
Gitura Mwaura

An unlikely event occurred last weekend that occasioned one of those cautionary, if unexpected, turns.

A Rwandan female friend joined our table looking a bit distraught. Upon a little cheerful probing, at least to ease her obvious distress, she explained that she was leaving her abusive Kenyan husband.

So bitter she was, she let on half-jokingly, that she was of a mind to change their young daughter’s Kalenjin name to a Rwandan one.

“Why would you want to do that?” somebody wondered, stunned.

Heaven knows that no husband or wife is perfect. And it was okay that, in her marital disappointment, she may want to forget everything to do with the abusive spouse and move on.

But it was doubtful she had any right to implicate her daughter, with even the mere suggestion of denying the child her Kenyan heritage as symbolised in her name.

The table fell silent. This was a delicate matter. But somebody had to say something.

In a round-about way, a thoughtful chap among us brought up the subject of the Mahatma Gandhi, whose earlier years as a young lawyer spent his in South Africa, often agitating for his fellow Indians’ migrant rights in that country.

It was recalled how his celebrated non-violent protests against British colonialism led to his country’s independence, inspiring freedom struggles and revolutionaries in Africa and elsewhere.

In this recollection, it is here the Rwandan lady’s woes turned instructive. Around September last year, what had appeared a fitting honour to the Mahatma to recognise him with a statue at the University of Ghana turned sour and had to be banished.

No matter, Kwame Nkuruma, the country’s first president and pan-Africanist, was a great admirer of the Indian icon.

Opponents, who included academics and students, quoted several of Gandhi’s early writings that were laden with racial slurs.

One sample reads: “Ours is one continual struggle against a degradation sought to be inflicted upon us by the Europeans, who desire to degrade us to the level of the raw kaffir whose occupation is hunting, and whose sole ambition is to collect a certain number of cattle to buy a wife with and then pass his life in indolence and nakedness.”

In view of this tainted reputation, despite its far removed history and context, the opponents insisted African heroes and heroines “first and foremost”.

But they probably should have known better. As one respected British historian put it, it was “not the job of the present to tick the past off”.

She was referring to similar agitation at South Africa’s University of Cape Town that, it will be recalled, saw the removal in April 2015 of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, who, despite his philanthropy, had unsavory colonial reputation.

Besides the argument that removing statues has the potential to distort our understanding of history, as one commentator observed, “instead of approaching the statue as a static monument with a fixed meaning that must either be endorsed or condemned, why not commission an artist or group of artists to propose a creative response? The statue of Rhodes could be modified, or incorporated into a larger work, making it part of a continuing dialogue rather than a monumental monologue.”

It is an argument the Ghanaian opponents ought to probably have considered: to retain the statue, but re-contextualise it to the present with a counter narrative.

The Gandhi statue debacle was a reminder that no icon is without a blemish. And that, in hindsight away from historical context, even the most deserving among us can be malignly argued against. No hero is without a past, even the supposedly holy.

I think that by the time our table was through with the statue debate the Rwandan lady’s bitter stance had softened somewhat.

A child is much more than a divorce. The little girl deserved her Kenyan father’s name, if only as part of a continuing dialogue as she grows up, but that, like the statue suitably re-contextualised, as a reminder to posterity of where we all have come from and where we may be headed.

Twitter: @gituram

 

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