In 2020, I learned the elasticity of time. How every new day arrives with so much need for adaptation and emotional processing that the day before it feels like it happened 10,000 years ago. How the “old normal” of what I have taken to calling “the before times” can be imperfectly resurrected by rituals we used to participate in without concern, but which now seem worryingly, potentially harmful—my sister-in-law blowing out candles on her birthday cake, for instance. Are we still allowed to share birthday cake?
In 2020, I learned the visceral life-saving power of care. How much all of us who are managing to navigate the pandemic are being given that gift of being able to manage by—and at the expense of—a newly-recognised class, the “essential workers” whose jobs require them to care for us. These are the people who keep our hospitals functioning, the people who keep our grocery stores open and make it possible for some of us to move our consumption online, the people who keep freight trains and long-distance trucking going, and—in island nations—the people who work at our borders and our ports. They are also people on whom our lives depend: factory workers who make personal protective equipment (PPE), sanitation workers and janitors at hospitals, bus drivers, meatpackers, and farm workers.
2020 makes me think of the poignant conclusion American journalist Barbara Ehrenreich drew, a generation ago, from her experiments with trying to live on a minimum-wage job in Bill Clinton’s America (spoiler: you can’t—not in any way that encourages human flourishing). Speaking of the attitude she thinks we ought to adopt with respect to “the working poor”, Ehrenreich insists that “the appropriate emotion is shame—shame at our own dependency . . . on the underpaid labour of others.” Presenting this exploited and neglected segment of the labour market as “the major philanthropists of our society,” Ehrenreich explains that “[w]hen someone works for less pay than she can live on—when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently—then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life.”
I have considerable sympathy for the view that those of us who live well should indeed feel great shame in the face of all the people who provide us with the things we are not able to provide for ourselves. Every paved road, every functional traffic light, the towel I used after my morning shower; I couldn’t provide these for myself no matter how many bootstraps you might give me. But writhing in shame is neither a productive attitude nor an interesting one. It will not absolve our past heedlessness of our dependence on people whose labour is essential—and is devalued so that it can be affordable for us. It will not build a world in which all of the people we now see as necessary are adequately valued.
It has been a really hard year. But oddly, I still find bits of hope and consolation in the fact of this being a truly global experience, possibly the first of my lifetime. Every year is hard for the people who get cruelly sorted into underclasses and marginal subject positions. And there are events so devastating that they reach even into pockets of privilege and become a country’s (or a region’s) shared experience. But this? Everybody, everywhere, has been touched by this pandemic somehow. While the impacts are of course differently distributed, we are all grappling with the same crisis, and I can’t help but wonder whether this might be a moment in which we—all of us, as human communities—can start to see the enormous and under-rated value of care. So many of the people who have been shoved to the margins of global power structures—whole countries of the global south, indigenous populations within wealthy global north nations—have been revealed as people on whom our multinational inter-connected lives depend, or as “elders” who have a lot to teach us about community survival.
Those of us who live well should indeed feel great shame in the face of all the people who provide us with the things we are not able to provide for ourselves.
The first piece I wrote for The Elephant was an analysis of strands of decolonisation theory that are resonating today through the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM). Black Lives Matter began as an African-American activist movement to honour blackness and to protest the culture of policing implicated in the killings of unarmed black boys (Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown). Less than a decade after its emergence in the United States, the movement marked 2020 as a year of global protest against American policing in the wake of the killing of yet another unarmed black man, George Floyd. I noted in that first piece BLM’s commitment to “unapologetic blackness” and to building inclusive, intergenerational solidarity against state-sponsored violence, both locally and around the globe. I noted too the unmistakeable echoes of decolonising theorists Frantz Fanon and Sylvia Wynter in BLM calls for solidarity with (for love of) the men and women of colour whose lives have been taken from them.
Both Fanon and Wynter take on the discursive politics of domination that render our social worlds places where people of colour combat a perception that they must prove their humanity—or, even more toxically, learn that they cannot ever prove this humanity of theirs conclusively enough to establish themselves enduringly as persons of value. In her analysis of these ongoing struggles for recognition, Wynter indicts Eurocentric-North American epistemological commitments to hierarchy and to the belief that those at the top of the hierarchy are both the most worthwhile and the most fit to survive. For her, the monetisation of everything in our social worlds results in a warping of our capacity to see humanity, and the consequent capacity to see the value in all human lives. To cast her point in the language of the lessons of 2020: we must rethink what counts as value, in order to learn how to care (better).
Going back to what I wrote in 2019 after living through 2020 brings me that sense of elastic time I cited at the outset as one of this year’s lessons for me. I see in all of the pieces I have contributed to The Elephant a thread of awareness that survival and solidarity are linked. But it has taken the events of this past year for me to fully appreciate how much decolonisation theory and social-justice activism depend on care—both the practice of care work and the theorising of ethics of care. And it is only in retrospect that I see so clearly why empathy-building has been (has needed to be) such a central goal of the Black Lives Matter and #metoo movements that I was writing about here and elsewhere throughout 2019. Empathy can be built into solidarity, which (when well directed) manifests as the care that keeps us alive. This observation, I should note, is conceptually a restatement of critical race theorist and Occupy Wall Street activist Cornel West’s dictum that justice is what love looks like in public.
Black Lives Matter has been doing this empathy work—asserting that black lives are indeed among all the lives that matter—through protests and online awareness campaigns that confront and contest police narratives of criminality and justified response through pushing into public consciousness the names, faces, and life stories of individual persons of colour who have been killed. Their success in building a solidarity that can withstand law enforcement’s hostility and the public’s apathy was made evident in 2020; George Floyd’s name, face, and story have been in the foreground of the protests that have taken place in countries as far away as New Zealand.
In similar fashion, the #metoo movement invokes traditions of solidarity and community-building that very clearly aim at normalising and propagating empathy, and are embedded in its very name. “Me too” was the catch-phrase around which Tarana Burke, an African-American community activist against sexual violence, built her outreach efforts (which, years later, were introduced to the global online world through actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet, just as news stories of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation were first being published). Burke’s explanation of this catch-phrase that became, first, a community-organisation project, then an online archive of survival testimonies, was that it was the phrase she wished she had had the presence of mind to utter to the first young girl who disclosed a story of sexual abuse to her. In my 2019 analysis of the “black roots” of “me too”, I argued that this phrase needs to be understood within the context of African-American musical and linguistic conventions: a call demands a response. “Me too”, I noted, is a response resonant of these African-American call-and-response traditions, traditions that build relationship and community through recognition of shared perspectives: “me too’ … “you too?” … ”yes, me too.”
Frantz Fanon, one of the most fiercely beating hearts of decolonisation theory during the days of postcolonial independence that birthed the Third World, knew the importance of both empathy and care in building independence movements and new nations. His account of how Algerian independence forces reached the point of realising that their war against French colonisers would succeed (L’An V de la révolution algérienne, published in English as A Dying Colonialism) is rich with examples of both. Pan-Africanism, in all its variants, is built on appeals to “feeling with” (the literal meaning of “empathy”). What is new—what 2020 has given us—is an archive of heart-breaking examples of the need for care labour and the politically transformative power of care as an orientation towards others. I think, for instance, of the singing and music-making on balconies around the world as community responses to “lockdown isolation”, and the heroic decency of hospital workers who connected people on their deathbeds to loved ones via iPads so they didn’t die entirely alone.
Those of us who are gleaning inspiration and encouragement from online streaming during lockdowns of 2020 might recognise “black traditions” of care work as they are modelled (imperfectly) in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, through the supporting character of Jolene. The show has been criticised for its instrumental use of its most significant character of colour; Jolene is present in the story only as a source of care for the white girl whose life is the story’s focal point. That criticism is fair—Jolene is not drawn with as much nuance as she deserves, nor is her story given adequate weight—but there is something I see in the show’s presentation of her that goes beyond these criticisms. Yes, as a character, she is subordinated to Beth, the centre of the story. (And yes, that is a criticism that needs to be levelled against the show; it ought to bother us that black characters in the show are personified only slightly more than chess pieces.) But it misses the power of what I saw in how Jolene cares. This power of her care is notably (perhaps only?) on display in the scenes where she comforts Beth after the death of the man who taught her to play chess.
Empathy can be built into solidarity, which (when well directed) manifests as the care that keeps us alive.
I’m not at all certain that I would have seen those scenes the way I did if I had watched the show without having lived through 2020. Through this lens, however, I see something about the way Jolene was able to acknowledge the dark, unfair elements of life and death and was able to comfort with clear eyes (characterising the main character’s unexpected grief as “biting off more than you can chew”) that has stayed with me as emblematic of the orientation to care that I think we need in the wake of 2020.
In the white-dominated, (post)British-colonial cultures that raised me, there is a standard response to grief and trauma that involves dismissing or downplaying the trigger incident (it’s not so bad) and encouraging minimised emotional reactions (stiff upper lips). Jolene’s care in the face of grief does neither of those things; she can acknowledge the devastating, shattering experience of grief that Beth is undergoing and can sit with Beth through it. In this model of care, grief is not nothing, or a little thing, or not so bad. And the person who is grief-stricken is not broken, needing to be fixed. The grief-stricken person has been wounded and, in their healing, needs care from others—needs empathy and the authentic comfort that we find in solidarity. All of this strikes me as true of trauma as well as grief, which is why I see “how Jolene cares” as an attitude so well suited to our pandemic times.
All of us who have experienced 2020 have shared a year which has been traumatic for many. Practicing “how Jolene cares” is a project of acknowledging these individual traumas in our ongoing encounters with those who carry them as burdens. And it is a project of searching for ways to give practical, basic-needs-oriented care—not in the triage-inflected levelling-down of care to the barest necessities that characterised so many rushes to lockdown in 2020, but with attention to the other’s needs-within-their-healing-process that, for many of us who have wrestled with either grief or trauma (are they always distinct things?), is the ground out of which trust might be nurtured and grown and is the first nascent re-connection to a world that has been so wounding. If sustained practice of this care model also teaches us to see how much care we are receiving from others every day, all the time, it has the potential to be radically transformative—in exactly the way that Fanon and Wynter’s decolonisation theories urge.
At the very end of 2019, I wrote a piece about Haiti in which I offered an extended digression on a New Year’s Day tradition that builds and celebrates solidarity (January 1 is also celebrated as Haiti’s independence day, the anniversary of its decolonising declaration of itself as a free black nation). This tradition, the making and sharing of a gourd-based soup known as joumou, is a ritualised act of care through food, intended to inspire Haitians to re-dedicate themselves to each other in the coming year, and to build upon the promise of human dignity that was the Haitian Revolution. In that piece, I urged readers of The Elephant to honour the spirit of Haiti’s New Year’s Day tradition, and to recognise the role that Haiti’s revolution has played in creating a world that slowly—incrementally, but undeniably—is becoming less hostile towards blackness. Returning to my discussion of joumou with 2020 behind us, I want to bring to the fore the idea of food as love—something I think I elided in my earlier discussion of food as political symbol.
Many years ago, as a much younger woman, I waitressed in restaurants. I hated being treated like a servant by restaurant patrons, but there were many aspects of that work that I enjoyed and that have stayed with me over the years as behavioural habits. The thing I loved the most about waitressing was being able to bring someone a steaming plate of hot food on a cold day. (This was when I lived in Canada; there were many cold days.) That act of giving one person something they need to sustain their life and well-being was always a deep pleasure for me, because it always made me feel deeply connected to all my fellow human beings. This, I think, is the essence of what is being ritualised in the Haitian tradition of sharing joumou on the first day of the new year. Giving care—giving love, giving what is needed to sustain life—and receiving it can, at its most powerful, form connections among the people in a particular care-interaction that can also weave them all together into a larger community.
When I first discussed the idea for this article with my editor at The Elephant, his judgement was that he too thought “we should end the year with some empathy.” It took a long time to pull together my thoughts—so long that I rendered an end-of-year wish for empathy outdated. What I now offer readers instead is my profound hope that we can begin 2021 with empathy enough to make the new year one in which each of us is empowered by the care that we receive, and by the care that we give.
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
Manifesto for Human Life
On the anniversary of COVID-19, we must build a world centered on human life — a planet of care, equality, and popular sovereignty.
The crisis of Covid-19 has exposed the myth of “global health.” There is no global public health system, and there never was. The pandemic has stripped the mask of multilateralism from the pharmaceutical-philanthropic complex, revealing a system that serves rich countries before the rest, and puts private profits before public health. We should not celebrate the anniversary of the pandemic by reviving the myth of “global health.” We should build a system that actually delivers it.
The foundations of this powerful myth were crushed at the very outset of the pandemic. The Trump administration walked out of the World Health Organization, and its allies stirred racist, orientalist, and xenophobic sentiment instead of prepraing for the spread of the virus. Within months, a handful of rich countries had stockpiled every existing vaccine candidate, hoarding more than half the world’s supply. Meanwhile, they voted to uphold intellectual property rules that would deny them to the rest.
The institutional architecture of the so-called global health system caved immediately to these nationalist interests, from global health organizations — two-thirds of which are headquartered in the US, UK, and Switzerland — to international financial institutions, mobilized to protect creditors’ right to collect interest over debtors’ right to survival.
Even the philanthropists — who have worked assiduously to construct the myth of global health — played their part in this process, urging the privatization of vaccine technology instead of sharing it with the world.
Now, these institutions mark the anniversary of pandemic declaration with debates about the future of global health — finance reforms, governance mechanisms, innovation costs, and so on. But we cannot save a system that does not exist.
Instead, we must revisit the question at the very heart of the health debate: How can we protect human life? How can we resist a health apartheid that protects the lives of the rich and discards those of the poor? How can we build a system that prioritizes the love and care that we need to keep each other alive?
Convening scholars, activists, and practitioners from around the world, the Covid-19 Response group of the Progressive International has proposed some principles in a new ‘Manifesto for Life.’
First, a People’s Vaccine for Covid-19.
As long as the virus spreads, it can mutate and move. No one country can end the pandemic alone; Covid-19 anywhere is a threat to public health everywhere. A system truly premised on global health would guarantee open access to all know-how for the COVID-19 vaccine and the creation of production facilities across the globe.
Second, a World Health Organization that can work for world health.
The interests of its rich countries, private funders, and bad ideas of big financial institutions hinder the World Health Oorganisation. It is time to free the WHO from these constraints. This does not mean building a supranational authority unaccountable to the governments it serves; on the contrary, it means delivering on the WHO’s core promise of multilateral governance. A WHO focused on world health would focus on building the regional and national public health systems that enhance the principle of self-determination, rather than riding roughshod over it.
Third, private capital must be made to submit to public health.
The plain objective of “Big Pharma” is to profit from people falling ill. The right to life is made into a commodity and sold as a luxury to a limited few. To enshrine a global right to life, we must begin from the principle of free and universal healthcare, shifting from a private locus of provision over to a public.
Fourth, human life is not a bargaining chip.
We are asked to believe in a “global health” system that considers public health a source of geopolitical leverage. The pandemic has made clear that seeing health through the lens of “national security” leads to policing over provision, aggression over cooperation. A true global health system will end medical sanctions and the deployment of security forces in response to public health emergencies.
Finally, pride of place for our carers.
‘Essential’ workers have been hailed as heroes but dehumanized in practice: underpaid and overworked, often without any rights as workers or recourse to social support. Carer unions will be key to any public health policies. Workers must be trained, protected, paid, and their right to provide or withdraw labour respected.
One year into the pandemic, it is easy to feel that everything has changed. But it hasn’t, and it must. We continue to live by the laws of a “global health” system that does not exist, preventing us from building one that does.
There are only two choices. One path leads us backwards to a planet of neglect, where the rich shield themselves with the bodies of the poor. This is a familiar story. The other leads to life. On the anniversary of Covid-19, this is the path that we choose.
Áurea Carolina de Freitas e Silva
Elizabeth Victoria Gomez Alcorta
What #LindaKatiba Is, and Why It Matters
The BBI project is a return to autocratic rule, to an imperial president who is not accountable to parliament and to a parasitic model of government.
Linda Katiba is a citizen’s voluntary initiative that is determined to resist the government-led move to unconstitutionally cannibalise and overthrow the will of the people of Kenya encapsulated in the 2010 constitution. It is a collective movement of Kenyans who believe that our constitution holds great promise for the Kenyan people and when fully implemented will bring about the transformative changes envisioned by its framers and the Kenyans who voted for it. Linda Katiba is therefore an effort to help citizens sift through the falsehoods being peddled by the proponents of the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) and make informed decisions.
The most powerful feature of the 2010 constitution is that it places citizens (Wanjiku) at the centre of governance, providing them with the tools and the power to demand participation, inclusion, accountability, and transparency in governance processes. Where this is not complied with, the constitution further provides for interventions such as through the courts and people power.
This shift of power is what has put the political class in a direct collision course with the citizens amidst the recent misguided calls for constitutional reforms by a section of the political class. It is the reason why we must constantly remind ourselves that this constitution was negotiated by Kenyans over two decades with the objective of transforming Kenya by constitutionally overthrowing the old order that represented a parasitic model of government, where the political elite and top civil servants, despite earning hefty salaries, allowances and other perks (including multiple top of the range motor vehicles) on the peoples sweat, continuously ignored and failed to prioritise the critical needs of the people.
At its core, the BBI initiative is about defending this untenable parasitic model and that is why it is being led and defended not just by a section of the political elite, but also by top civil servants who by law are prohibited from participating in active politics. This nostalgia for a powerful past is probably the reason why BBI is being forced down our throats through bribery, threats and all manner of intimidation.
It is a life and death matter for a sizeable number of the political elite to defend undeserved and unearned privilege at the expense of underprivileged Kenyans whose right of access to critical government services such as health, education, water and sanitation, to housing and adequate food as guaranteed by Article 43 of the constitution has all but been ignored. The right to and provision of these basic needs is among the key reasons why protecting the tenets of the 2010 constitution matters.
Aware that Kenyans hold devolution dear, the political elite are using the promises of more money to the counties—a whopping 35 per cent compared to the current 15 per cent—as the bait to lure citizens to support the BBI project. This promise is coming from an administration that has for the last nine years been reluctant to disburse in a timely manner the 15 per cent, the minimum provided for by the constitution. Given that the constitution does not set a ceiling for the maximum amount that the National government may allocate to the counties, nothing is preventing the current administration and the BBI brothers, who jointly wield a majority in parliament, from implementing the budget increase coming June budget. There cannot be a better way for the BBI brothers to demonstrate good faith than to allocate the 35 per cent in this last year of Uhuru Kenyatta’s presidency. I suspect that this administration will not actualise this promise because they know it is mission impossible in the prevailing economic situation.
Our country is reeling under a debt burden that is almost at ten trillion shillings, a debt that we are experiencing difficulties servicing, forcing the government to seek a six-month moratorium from its creditors. Much of our revenue is going towards servicing the debt leaving us with little or no money for development and recurrent expenditure including salaries. This is the context in which the BBI proponents are saying to us that we should prioritise the expansion of parliament and the executive over our health needs, our livelihoods and our children’s education. Even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the BBI project prioritises political deal making over the lives of Kenyans. The government is telling us that it will take us up to three years for only 30 per cent of the population to access COVID-19 vaccines.
We are not helpless. We need to make our voices count. We must rise up and tell the BBI brothers that our lives matter, that our needs matter and that they must be prioritised above all else.
From where I stand, the BBI project is a return to autocratic rule, to an imperial president who is not accountable to parliament. It is a gateway to a bloated parliament and an expanded executive. It is a return to political intolerance spearheaded by the state. We are back to labelling people with divergent opinions as “enemies of state”. Teargassing of perceived opponents of BBI is now the preferred weapon of the state. The political environment is toxic and does not favour rational discussion of the BBI project by citizens. Moreover, the Jubilee administration is split down the middle, with divisions even within the presidency. It is time to tell the BBI brothers: “prophet heal thyself”. Let them heal the divisions within their ranks which are threatening to burn the country. Let the BBI project cease fomenting intolerance.
Sold by its proponents as a people’s initiative, the BBI project has illegally spent and continues to spend scarce taxpayer’s money. No disclosures are made on what the money has so far been spent and how much more is expected to be splashed in these times of scarcity and a looming food crisis. MCAs countrywide have given the BBI project a nod in exchange for car grants. There has been little or with no public participation and nor has the public been provided with copies of the proposed constitutional amendments.
As citizens, we must not give up. It is time for Kenyans of goodwill to reclaim their voices individually and collectively and speak truth to power. We must refuse to be intimidated or silenced by a political elite and senior civil servants who number less than four thousand while over twenty million Kenyan voters are waiting to be informed and persuaded. All we need is the courage of our convictions to galvanise the country by word of mouth to say no to enslavement through the BBI project.
Let us be reminded that the independence constitution was eroded bit by bit until it became unrecognisable thus necessitating a fresh start. We should be wary of opening the door to a similar cannibalisation of our constitution even before we have implemented it.
To President Uhuru, you have time to stop this. Do not let your legacy be that of the president who destroyed our democratic gains. Live up to your oath of office to uphold and defend the constitution.
This is what is at the heart of the Linda Katiba resistance and defense of the constitution. It matters because it is easier to defend our democratic gains than to lose them and attempt to reclaim them later with no guarantee that it will be possible. A bird in hand is worth two in the bush. Let us all join hands to Linda Katiba.
Burkina Faso: The Age of Revolution Is Back and a Student Movement Is Leading It
Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. Now, a student movement could slowly transform society.
“Nan lara an sara! Nan lara an sara!”: A crowd of roughly 300 students throngs the “freedom square” and chants defiantly, clenched fists in the air. The scene is the campus of Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo, in Ouagadougou. The students are members of Deux Heures pour Nous, Deux Heures pour Kamita (Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita; referred to here as DHK). “Kamita” is an Afrocentric term, designating the continent. The group is a throwback: A radical student organization dedicated to ideology and analysis, that intends to break from the complacency that has taken hold on African campuses in recent years.
As the meeting builds, a young man roars in the middle of the circle, a megaphone in his right hand, his left hand following the rhythm of the crowd: “nan lara!” (if we lie down!). The crowd responds “an sara!” (we are dead!). After several minutes of call and response, the young man opens the meeting. “Comrades, welcome! Thank you for dedicating two hours today for our beloved Kamita. Today, we seek wisdom from one another in addressing the topic before us: the presence of French military on the free and independent land of Burkina Faso.” He proceeds to lay out the agenda of the day, and the modalities for taking the floor.
Meetings like this one, which I attended in August 2019, take place every day, from 1 to 3 pm, on the campus. They have continued even during the COVID-19 pandemic which compelled attendees to wear facemasks; I have kept in touch with members and interviewed leaders as well as occasional attendees. The meetings are arranged in an open space and amplified with loudspeakers. No position is invalid. No topic is taboo. The group emphasizes innovative radical thinking about democracy, social change, and liberation. But weak arguments are booed, while carefully crafted ones are applauded—especially when they are considered ideologically sound, in the tradition of Frantz Fanon or Thomas Sankara.
Student militancy has revived in Burkinabè public universities over the past decade. As older student organizations become ossified and discredited, emerging ones seek credibility by leaning toward pan-African ideologies. The country and its politics offer a particularly fertile scene for the youth to develop ideological and political organizations that aim to transform society. Slogans such as “Plus rien se sera comme avant!” (Nothing will be as before!) and “Nan lara an sara!” signal such a desire for change and willingness to act. DHK represents a new militancy, with power and potential—but also contradictions and challenges.
DHK formed in 2013, a time when social discontent was growing in Burkina Faso. Workers’ strikes paralyzed many sectors, including higher education. Civil society groups and opposition parties were engaged in a power struggle against then-President Blaise Compaoré, who was attempting to pass a constitutional amendment to extend his rule. The academic community was caught in this malaise. It was in this context that students at Joseph Ki-Zerbo University chose to experiment with a new form of participatory democracy by creating a performative venue on campus.
Over the years, DHK has become prominent among the burgeoning youth movements in Burkina Faso. Beyond the boastful, intellectual verbiage and rhetorical skills that its members show, the organization has built a reputation as a leftist movement that focuses on social justice, political emancipation, and environmental stewardship—both at the national and international levels. In February 2019, for instance, the organization sent a delegate to Venezuela “to support the people of Venezuela in their struggle against imperialism,” a post on its Facebook page reads.
Developing and sustaining a pan-African ideology on a campus where student conferences and intellectual exchange outside the curriculum are almost non-existent is a challenging task. Yet DHK has managed to establish a respected forum where uncensored conversations take place every day, gathering up to several hundred attendees. Every week, a series of discussion topics is chosen and published on Facebook. Often, they respond to the news of the day. At other times, the reflection is oriented toward historical events. There are guest speakers, such as Kemi Seba, the Franco-Beninese activist, or Yacouba Sawadogo, a Burkinabe farmer known as “the man who stopped the desert” for successfully bringing to life a 40-hectare forest on a barren land.
The daily gatherings constitute moments of deliberation, healing, strategizing, and planning. On the day that I attended, social media abounded with polemical information about the alleged opening of a new French military base in Djibo, a small northern town 45 kilometers from the border with Mali. The meeting was an opportunity to condemn the base and discuss the role of France’s counterterrorism activities in the region. Participants equated France’s current presence with its 19th-century pacification doctrine that justified colonialism. “We are inviting France to the school of civilization. We invite her to finally learn to be a nation that respects the sovereignty of other nations,” one man said.
Sometimes, the organization brings speakers who do not have formal education, such as farmers and small craft traders, challenging the perception of what constitutes knowledge in a university setting. This initiative is “an uninhibited approach to learning by uninhibited students who have conscience that development is homemade,” Bayala Lianhoue Imhotep, secretary general of DHK, told me. “No one has the monopoly of imagination. Our farmers are an inexhaustible source of knowledge if we cared to listen to them.”
At first, campus authorities rejected DHK for its radical positions concerning the university and student life. They sought to shut it down and push it off campus. Now, civil society movements beyond campus including Balai Citoyen seek them out. They constitute a force that can mobilize adherents, an antidote to the general fatigue among youth following the 2014 popular revolution.
DHK represents in many ways a revival.
Université Joseph Ki-Zerbo has a tradition of being a center of social movements, with student strikes that often led to a general paralysis of the capital city. The roots of Burkinabè student militancy go back to student unions in the 1950s in Dakar and in France, where Burkinabè and other francophone Africans went to study. Those unions were an avant-garde in political mobilization, a breeding ground of activists in the late colonial period and after independence.
In the early post-independence era, student activism aligned ideologically with the emerging political tendencies in the country. In 1966 the Voltaic Student Union supported the popular insurrection that ousted President Maurice Yameogo. The successive military regimes did not favor the emergence of a strong student unionism. However, during the Sankara years (1984-1987), college students mobilized to support the revolution. In the following two decades, student activism became progressively belligerent toward the Compaore regime. In the 1990s when the Structural Adjustment Programs compelled the government to adopt a much more democratic attitude, granting civil liberties, student militancy reclaimed a momentum. While student militancy never ceased to exist, it suffered in its vivacity since internal divisions and state repression weakened toward the end of the 1990s.
Recent renewal of political consciousness among Burkinabè youth took form through events such as the assassination of the investigative journalist Norbert Zongo in 1998, long worker strikes in 2011 and 2015, student protests leading to violent confrontations with police, and the closing of the university for over three months in 2008 and 2011. Other contributing factors were changes in Franco-African political dynamics following French intervention in Côte d’Ivoire in 2010-11 to topple President Laurent Gbagbo, along with a persistent perception that the international community is hypocritical. Along the way, the memory of Thomas Sankara and his political discourse have re-emerged in popular music and activist rallies.
What is the potential of this revival? On one hand, student militancy today has inherited unresolved structural problems and grievances from their predecessors: deficient infrastructures, mismanaged academic calendar, deteriorated social services, etc. On the other hand, however, the ideological foundation behind student militancy is much more profound. Student activists are not only seeking to resolve their immediate needs, but they question the root causes of their predicament. While their struggle is locally rooted, it is open to other currents from the South. They often extrapolate their perception of inequalities at home with the struggles of other peoples elsewhere such as in Palestine, Venezuela, and Taiwan. They adhere to an Afro-centric understanding of history in their attempt to take control of their destinies as young Burkinabè.
For groups such as DHK, the traditional student associations and unions have become irrelevant, not because they lack grievances to address, but because they do not propose any sound ideology to solve them. DHK positions itself as an anti-imperialist movement, but also one that is opened to the struggles of other contemporary Black liberation movements. At the August 2019 meeting where attendees discussed French counterterrorism in the Sahel, some participants pointed out that the French could easily rid the Sahel of its insurgent groups if France really wanted to—peddling some conspiracy theories that were already circulating in the social media.
DHK is a promising unconventional revival activist group that promotes intellectual and democratic debates. Since its creation seven years ago, it has grown in membership and its ability to mobilize for action. At times however, it can be provocative in its ideas and approach when it connects with controversial figures such as Kemi Seba or when it takes side in some global issues without expertise in their historical complexity such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, this revival is taking place under the radar of most scholars and media attention, who often gloss over it as “growing anti-French sentiment.”
In Ouagadougou, university student militancy is the last stronghold of students’ civil discourse. It is one that still grapples with its own issues, but nonetheless is ideologically promising. As foggy and muddy as some of their thoughts and ideas may be, the youth of DHK are informed by their quotidian reality. It is an ideology rooted in a Sankarist ideology that is daring and even risky at times. But this discourse still represents the clearer demarcation line between civil discourse and what is perceived as growing radical or fundamental discourse in Burkina Faso. Unlike the growing non-state armed movements that are terrorizing the country, student ideological militancy is disruptive, but it is still organized within the limits of free speech and freedom of association guaranteed by the constitution.
Today, the days of grand pan-African reveries espoused by the likes of Kwame Nkrumah and Thomas Sankara seem far behind. The dominant neoliberal economic systems that African nations have adopted and the persistence of neocolonial meddling in the post-colony blunted Afrocentric idealism. Even in academic research, we talk about it in the past and we do not envision it in the present. Two Hours for Us, Two Hours for Kamita gives us a compelling case study to rethink that position.
Long Reads2 weeks ago
In the Name of Jesus: How the Church Forced Tanzania to Change its Stance on COVID-19
Politics2 weeks ago
Forest for Thieves: Why Illegal Harvesting of South Sudanese Teak Leaves Nothing for the People
Culture2 weeks ago
The Sussexes’ Plight: Intra-Aristocratic Anglo-American Sibling Rivalry
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
What #LindaKatiba Is, and Why It Matters
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
Burkina Faso: The Age of Revolution Is Back and a Student Movement Is Leading It
Op-Eds2 weeks ago
Manifesto for Human Life
Ideas2 weeks ago
The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa
Satire2 weeks ago
Interview Shatters UK Royal Family Cult as Australia Descends Into Sexual Violence