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He nodded thoughtfully.
“Go it alone,” I said. “Forget about cynics and pessimists, they invented poverty and hunger. Forget about politicians, they invented greed and corruption. Forget about me and my peers we invented diddlysquat. Forget about my father and his peers, they were denied innovation, that’s partly why we are in this deplorable state.”
My father was wise and intelligent, but he was not allowed to think very much. They told him he couldn’t think much. They actually said he didn’t think at all and they convinced him.”
Thinking was for the Europeans, said Cecil Rhodes.
“Bwana Rhodes was the Great Colossus.” My father told us. “He dreamt bigger dreams than ours, Cape to Cairo dreams.”
In primary school I read about him. Books said he was imposing, tall and robust-looking with enough diamonds to buy the world. What I didn’t know at that time was that he was a bigoted buffoon who was the reason for my father’s under achievement.
As Prime Minister of the Cape Province he imposed his own racist philosophy of education of Africans and equated my father to a child. He compared him to a Druid—some barbaric Briton in the Iron Age.
European and Boer settlers constantly reminded my father that he was nascent, primeval, unrefined, and therefore thought like a Druid. They told him his brain was smaller than theirs, that he was a barbarian, savage, brute, Kaffir. They said it repeatedly until his confidence plummeted to zero.
When the muzungu shouted, Jeremiah!
My father shot up like a bullet: “Bwana!”
“You have passed. Here’s your certificate.”
He had passed in bricklaying. His friend barely passed in tanning. Their friend got zero in animal husbandry.
Rhodes was determined to leave my father and his peers in a state of barbarism. My father moved to a missionary school and came close to becoming an architect.
Rhodes despised missionaries because he feared they might produce natives capable of administering the telegraph and managing machinery. He feared that if natives were educated they would “get the franchise without difficulty.” At least he acknowledged the physical and mental power of my father and his peers.
“Under such racist environment my father and his friends could not use all their human faculties, to innovate, invent, remodel and transform to the full extent of their God-given ability or desire. Rhodes had succeeded in making the African environment hostile to innovation.”
With mild education my father could not research or discover. He was not curious enough to invent. Not confident enough. Not able; not at all.
He did not think about how the radio he had bought worked; how the telegraph relayed a message far and beyond. He left that to whites and jumped into the bus to go to work. At no point did he think he could make his own bus like the Asians did.
“Smart” was the word synonymous with my father’s time, but it was the wrong smart.
“Be smart,” my father said. “Comb your hair, brush your teeth, and polish your shoes.”
I reminisced with a smile: My father in his black shoes. They shimmered in the twelve clock sun like FTJs. He told us he dressed to kill, and he was right. They died so much they called him Mr. Smart.
They called me Mr. Smart too. I took after my father. I combed my hair and applied Senoria Mafuta, brushed my teeth with Pepisodent, and polished my shoes with Nugget Shoe Polish. Not once did I take a moment to say I could make my own Senoria, Pepisodent, or Nugget Shoe Polish. There was a cliché making its rounds in Zambia: Ifi fya basungu (These are for white people).
My father told us to be careful. “Don’t do the risky things whites do,” he said. “You’ll die. Don’t play with electricity you will turn into a skeleton. Don’t attempt to fly you will be a heap of broken bones. Don’t climb mountains, you’ll freeze to death. Don’t wander away you will be eaten.”
We became lizards, we didn’t go far from home, so we didn’t explore or discover. We never became daredevils like Evil Carnivelle. We never participated in risky ventures. We were as scared as hell.
In 1964, education began to make sense, I told my son. Soon we had a university of our own. But we still took after our fathers. We didn’t take risks in the laboratory. We made laughing gas and laughed like fools. We put together an electric bell and marveled like kids. No, we didn’t invent, not a faucet, not a toilet seat, not shoes, not toothpaste—nothing. Not even a mouse trap.
We didn’t invent. We still have not. When I google ‘African Inventors’ I am taken to ‘Inventors and Inventions: African American from George Washington Carver to Frank Zamboni.’”
I paused because it hurt. My son saw that it hurt.
“I feel for you dad,” he said and rested his hand on my shoulder.
I shook my head. “No, you don’t. You don’t know what this has done to us as a people. We are, like Walter said, at the bottom of the totem pole.”
My son knew Walter, the white man I had met on the plane. I had heard from him via email. He had written:
Hi Field (I have not forgotten your name),
A friend of mine forwarded me the story you wrote regarding our conversation on the plane that New Year’s eve. I got your email address from your editor. God! You have a memory of an elephant my friend. You remembered almost all and of course gave it your own spin.
You write well. A lot of Africans I have met write very well. They write far much better than the average American. And some of you guys speak very good English. And of course you are better at running. No one can catch those Ethiopian and Kenyan legs—even though you did not invent the marathon (joke).
By the way, my friends and I had a good laugh at some of the comments. Someone called you stupid, and another said you were an idiot, for tolerating me. It beats me the level of thoughtlessness
You Bantus do not take kindly to advice. That’s why from the time you and I spoke nothing has happened, and nothing will happen. No proper debate, only insults. You’re wasting your time writing. Africa is not going anywhere. It is stuck in the Middle Age because you all are very angry people. You all carry grudges, envies, distrusts and resentments. You hate the other’s guts. You are exasperated by your friend’s success.
Most conferences your leaders attend are a waste of time and money. The AU building is a white elephant—nothing compared to the UN and the EU. Men in Black, that’s what we call your leaders. They come, meet, eat, laugh, and leave.
When I was in Zambia we would sit around the table, four well learned Zambians and three of us. We would nod our heads and Zambians would be shaking theirs. We would say “yes” in unison, they would be arguing.
Wherever three Zambians are gathered expect one to have very strong opposing views to die for. That’s why you have failed and will forever fail.
I am in Africa, on my way to Zambia. I won’t disclose the location because I don’t want you to write about it. Your critics might give me a lashing of my life. Anyway, there is no progress here. Zip. The filth I left in the shanties is in heaps. I told the minister responsible to buy tippers instead of fancy cars for politicians and he did not take kindly to my advice. Anyway, I wish you the best in your writing. It’s a good preoccupation.
Walter (still the Bwana)
Again, Walter left a sour taste in my mouth. I felt failure—me and my peers. But I was left with one hope, my son and his peers. That’s why I was having a tête-a-tête with him and them.
“Tell your friends not to take after their fathers,” I told my son. “You all live in a world dominated by risk. Take risks. Spend time thinking. Create something for god’s sake, anything of world value with African inscriptions on it. Put to rest the persistent Western stereotypes about Africa; that Africans are lazy, thick, obtuse, and imperceptive.”
As my son got up to leave I was thinking about my country: There’s a Gates and a Jobs somewhere in Zambia. There are scientists, mechanics, physicists, and many gifted people. They are there brimming with great ideas. They are in towns and villages.
Unfortunately, the efforts of many endowed and gifted people follow a route of frustration. They have seen ahead an entire lifespan of constrained opportunities. When they try to present their ideas they are discounted.
The article “Zambian Intellectuals are Lazy” has inspired thinkers in Zambia and around Africa to challenge the limits of austerity and join the battle of ideas. There is a call for the creation of an African Renaissance in which Zambia becomes the region-wide test case of what happens to Africa ten years from now when our young leaders take up positions of leadership.
With the motto: “Ours is a Future of Innovation” we shall send a wave of dynamism that will shed off the unpleasant and humiliating legacy. Put the motto on your T-shirt. Tweet, text, email, tell, convince a friend. Simply spread the news. We must be joined by other Africans around the continent.
The undertaking we are forming is not about politics. It is about African men and women who, so downgraded by people like Walter, are asserting their fundamental mortality. It is a brazen quest for the millions of youthful Africans inspired by the future, just as it was for millions of youthful Americans inspired by Barack Obama.