Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese writer and film maker, made a profound definition of a slave. He wrote that it is not the person who is forcibly put in chains and kept in a cage that is the real slave, but the one who willingly accepts the chains spiritually (in the wider sense of the word) and intellectually. By this definition, Sembene raised the debate on slavery to another plane.
He moved it from the merely physical condition of deprivation of freedom to the level of control of the mind. He equated slavery with the wilful surrender of human dignity.
Several decades after these important words were written, and probably forgotten by most Africans, President Paul Kagame returned to the same message on 7th April during the 17th commemoration of the genocide in Rwanda.
He urged Rwandans, as he has done many times in the past, to put great store on their dignity as Rwandans and as human beings. More significantly, he reminded them that they alone can give it to themselves. It cannot be externally bestowed on them by some sort of benefactor.
How else can it be, you may ask. Well, until you listen to the president’s argument last week.
The genocide robbed Rwandans of their dignity in several ways.
First, their leaders and fellow citizens took it away when they hunted and brutally slaughtered them in their hundreds of thousands. The dignity of those who died and those who survived was forcibly removed from them.
Their spirit, though, did not die. And because of this, those who are still alive can be freed from this loss and have a liberating influence on other Rwandans. And indeed they have.
The restoration of dignity where the spirit does not die is close to Sembene’s take on slavery. Some people were forcibly taken, chained and sold into slavery. They lost their freedom, but retained their dignity because they did not allow their spirit to die. And because of this they could regain their freedom.
Secondly, and perhaps more seriously, some Rwandans acquiesced in the erosion of the dignity of fellow citizens but also of their own. By brushing aside the sanctity of human life and committing untold atrocities, the perpetrators of genocide, whether as masterminds or mob executioners, not only took other people’s lives but also debased their own.
In so doing they lost that element of existence that distinguishes intellect from instinct, good from evil and defines our humanness. They willingly ceded their humanity to a base a base ideology of destruction.
In addition, the different kinds of perpetrators took instructions and relied on support from elsewhere, became tools and in the process surrendered whatever vestiges of self-respect and independent thinking they may have had. In a sense they participated in their own shackling and debasement.
In the Sembene definition, they are like the people who, although not put in chains, willingly give up their worth and accept to be slaves.
Now, it is easier to break physical chains and free individuals held captive against their will. It is more difficult to cut people loose from mental chains they have helped to put there. But difficult as it is it has to be done.
To do this requires another sort of liberation in which individuals are not only freed but also have their self-worth restored.
This has been the message to those Rwandans who permitted themselves to be chained – liberation from guilt, regaining the ability to think independently, breaking the bonds of dependency on external influence (spiritually and intellectually) and reclaiming their humanness.
The message of restoration of human dignity, however, goes beyond the genocide. True liberation can only have meaning if recovery of what had been lost extends to all areas of national life.
This is a necessary condition for lasting economic development. Resolution of all manner of problems that we face is predicated on this. You cannot talk about self-sufficiency in food production, proper nutrition, good health and education without linking them to a sense of individual and collective dignity.
As in the case of liberation from slavery, no one can say it will be easy. No one who keeps others in chains lets them free without their having to fight to break them. No one has ever liberated himself without a hard struggle.
But equally, no former slave owner likes seeing a successful freed person, especially if they had never accepted that status in the first place. They will do everything to thwart their progress.
That is why real liberation is the result of a wilful effort to be free. This is the kind of effort Rwandans are constantly being asked to exert to free themselves, restore their dignity and march on to prosperity. And this is possible because most of them have refused to accept chains and as President Kagame put it, they have refused their spirit to die.
See also my blog: josephrwagatare.wordpress.com