Can the arts and humanities bring hope to East Africa?

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Tom Odhiambo
Can the arts and the humanities offer hope to the dreams of East Africans who are weighed down by a worsening economic situation, internal wars, oppressive and suppressive regimes and an increasingly worsening socio-economic life? What can literature, drama, music, sculpture, dance, or the whole of artistic performance, stories, proverbs, sayings, philosophies, etc, of Ugandans, Tanzanians, Kenyans, Rwandese, South Sudanese, Sudanese, Ethiopians, Somalis, Burundians or Djiboutis, do to help the live through the overwhelming dystopia?
First, we have to acknowledge that despite talk of scientific and technological advancements and economic progress, millions of people all over the world are joining the ranks of the desperately poor. The thousands of refugees – really economic migrants, whatever they may say – that are pouring into Europe, shaking to the root the old European notions of humanism, are evidence that humanity seems unable to even practice humanism. Dictatorial and thieving regimes (have) produced millions of dirt-poor Africans even as they preach(ed) national development in the past more than half a century since the end of colonialism. Africa remains a spectacular study in the hopelessness of hope.
So, given that the massive investments in the sciences, technology and now entrepreneurship seem not to change the fate of Africans, what are we to do? How do Africans begin to question the foundations of their nationalisms – nationalisms that have badly failed them? If the great call for freedom from imperial domination in the 1950s was led people who believed in the redeeming power of the arts and humanities, individuals who themselves drew much wisdom from their own communities, why haven’t artists or philosophers continued to contribute to debate on how to (re)build Africa in the 21st century?
I attended the 2nd East African Literary and Cultural Studies Conference at Makerere University to listen to scholars in the arts and humanities deliberate about the state of the East African society. The conference, run between the 20th and 22nd of August, drew participants from Europe, West, South and East Africa. The attending scholars teach and research literature, music, philosophy, language, gender, politics and sociology, among other subjects in the arts and humanities. There were also writers and even journalists. Indeed, I attended as both a teacher and journalist. While I hoped to listen to these scholars share their research experiences and conclusions, I was eagerly waiting to hear them also offer honest critiques of their own disciplines and societies.
But the first worrying impression of the great Makerere University is the sense one gets that time passed whilst it slept. Makerere remains breathtaking in any places. What dreams did its founders have when they chose the specific site, you ask yourself as you walk on campus. I was hosted by one of the deputy vice-chancellors, Okello Ogwang’, who stays in a house that was built in the early 1930s.
As I switched off the lights to sleep, I wondered which ghosts would be waking up in the same room at the time. On campus there wasn’t much going on. The support staff was on strike. They want more money. Some of the buildings have seen better days. The roads on campus are too narrow. Decay is around, like on many university campuses in Africa. But the enthusiasm and work spirit of the academic staff appears undaunted.
(East) Africanness everywhere
The conference itself was a success, not just by attendance but by the vigour and breadth of the presentations. It was redeeming to listen to South African and West African scholars speak so eloquently on East African realities. But what was more affirming was to listen to younger East African teachers and researchers reflect on ways of understanding East Africa societies beyond the regimented categories of nation, nationalism or nation-state. In other words, many scholars are willing to see East Africanness in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania or Ethiopia, rather than see these countries as independent of each other. This is to say that many scholars from and in the region disavow the geopolitical boundaries that politicians and policy makers continue to hold tightly onto.
There is a sense in which East African academics have always crossed borders. Indeed, Makerere isn’t just the mother “university of all universities” in East Africa; it is the spiritual home of much of what one can term the pedagogical philosophy of (higher) education in the region. For this conference Makerere was a significant host because it is there that great debates on the value of African arts and cultures were held. The Makerere School of Fine Arts was key in the way future practice and discourse of East African arts and culture would be received both in the university and the rest of the society. Makerere is where great East African minds were nurtured in the 1950s and 1960s.
It was therefore most enlightening to listen to deferent speakers at the conference and realise that the spirit of intellectual curiosity, engagement and research remains alive in the region. It was instructive to hear speakers speculate on homosexuality, domestic violence, political misrule, economic misery, transnational connections or Africa in the rest of the world, through the window of literature or film.
But one may ask: aren’t these mere academic exercises, without much influence beyond the lecture hall? In other words, one would be asking whether the arts and humanities are still relevant today.
Inhumanity of humans
In many ways, such questions do not add much value to greater questions about the fate of humanity today. Indeed, one of the burning questions today is about the seeming overwhelming inhumanity of human beings. The wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan; the Palestine crisis; the rise of the Islamic State or what is now casually called Global Terrorism; the unending suffering of victims of the civil wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan/South Sudan, and Somalia etc, continue to cast doubt on the claim to human civilisation in the 21st century.
But probably more disturbing is the fact that despite incredible advances in medical research and discoveries, millions of people die in the world because they can’t access medical treatment. What about the nauseating poverty that one encounters in global megacities such as Mumbai, Manila or Lagos, sitting side-by-side with equally nauseating opulence? What could account for illiteracy today when evidence suggests that instruments of disseminating knowledge globally have never been more advanced as they are today – this is to say, one TV screen, a laptop and a small power generator and one teacher can teach thousands of kids thousands of miles away, wherever in the world?
The arts and humanities don’t have a solution to these problems. But they have the potential to make people begin to ask these questions afresh but with more human sensitivity. In other words, beyond the great scientific discoveries, after all the mysteries of ICT have been unravelled, when we now have more than enough dollar billionaires in the world, what happens to universal poverty, diseases, illiteracy, violence, war and inhumanity?^
The writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. Tom.odhiambo@uonbi.ac.ke

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