Friday, 27 January 2012

Reclaiming African History by Jacques Depelechin

reviewed by Peter Limb, Pambazuka

The need to distill complex history into an easily digestible form suitable for policy action has never been more apparent than in today’s confusing global situation with its information overload. Jacques Depelchin, committed and radical Congolese historian and director of the Ota Benga International Alliance for Peace in the Congo in his earlier book, ‘Silences in African History’ (Dar es Salaam: Mkuki na Nyota Publishers, 2004), gave a detailed re-think of African historiography - urging scholars to be guided by social relevance. In this new book of eight short but pithy chapters - ranging from ‘Taking African history seriously as a pre-condition to healing humanity’ and solidarity with Haiti, to possibilities of a ‘South–South subversive globalization’ between Africa and Brazil, and commentaries on South Africa, the DRC, the food crisis, Gaza, and genocide - he makes the mosaic of African events understandable.

Themes of solidarity, especially in the South, and African diaspora connections with Africa are very much to the fore, as in the chapter on Haiti, which over the centuries has suffered and continues to suffer, slavery, coups and invasions. Wider themes such as genocide and the food crisis (co-authored with Diamantino Nhamposa) are also treated. One chapter is in poetic form. Capitalism over the centuries, he argues, has always been based on greed and split human conscience. Gigantic environmental and human security crises now threaten danger to humanity unless we can change; and taking seriously the negative impact on black people of their history is an important way to start.

The essays, previously published online from 2005 to 2008 in Pambazuka News, reconnect the histories of the dispersed, poor and dispossessed. Depelchin uses the metaphor of a deliberately shattered mirror to show (like Fanon and Biko) how Africans (and Haitians, Gazans and Brazilians) have been driven by Western power into a cul de sac in which they are forced to see their own histories in distorted form through the lens of the triumphant, dominant view of history in which the North, might, and the market are always right.

To combat this enfeebling mindset, he presents a new history to smash the intellectual bonds chaining Africans to dominant intellectual frameworks. By making connections between shack-dwellers in South Africa, Palestinian refugees in Gaza and raped women in Congo, he seeks to draw together the historical and politico-economic causes that have led to their plight.

The dominant history with which he jousts is not so much prevailing academic histories, often sensitive to the issues he raises, but rather the ruling ideas in society, or public history. Yet he also urges historians to better link across their narrow fields to see connections between different atrocities. If at times polemical, the tone is also conducive to stimulating thought and indeed the book seeks not just to critique but also to propose solutions - such as greater reliance on solidarity, the commons and resistance to inequality and complacence. A ‘breathing space’ is needed to enable people to think, for capitalism is stripping that capacity (p. 87). To help, this, ‘emancipatory politics must go hand in hand with emancipatory narratives of history (p. 72)’.

The value of this small and affordable book is to stimulate a re-think of Africans’ predicament and an understanding of its historical causes, and to encourage positive action to rectify current abuses. On another level, the arguments are deep and nuanced and if read carefully are a serious challenge for scholars to re-think their paradigms of compartmentalization of black people’s pasts. It is important for all interested in African and diasporan studies, history, and politics, with an additional salience for those such as social activists, NGOs, and journalists concerned to comment and act on African crises.