Sunday, 3 October 2010

The Amazing Race 17, Episode 2

Lenbury, Herts., England (UK) - Accra (Ghana)

Monuments and memory: George Washington and Kwame Nkrumah

Last week’s drive-by photo op on The Amazing Race 17 was the racers’ first stop in England: Stonehenge. This week it was their first stop in Ghana: the Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park in Accra.

But while the racers are given a clue directing them to their destination, the race gives us no clue as to who Kwame Nkrumah was, why this park and monument exists, or what might be inside the museum on the site (which the racers don’t have time to visit).

The most simplistic answer, and the starting point for the official description of the monument provided by Ghana’s current government, is that Nkrumah was the “founding father” of Ghana.

That’s true, in some sense and within the limits of influence of individual leaders. But that doesn’t do justice to Nkrumah’s larger significance or to the reasons why we, and the racers, should take a moment to learn about his legacy before running off to the next stop on our tour.

It’s easy for a foreign visitor to place “monument to founder of the nation” in a standard pigeonhole, and not to ask much more about it. Almost every country honors someone as a “founding father”. Rarely — Eritrea is one of the few exceptions among countries I’ve visited — is there similar recognition of founding mothers or youth, despite their historic prominence in national liberation struggles. Often, as in the USA, the “father of the nation” and first head of government after independence is known primarily as a military leader of the battle against the colonial power, rather than for any enduring ideas.

We’ve grown accustomed to “monuments” that symbolize only the wealth of the governments or corporations that paid to build them. Usually they have little or no other ideological significance, although even the most boring office towers or corporate icons can provide hints to visitors about sectors of the local economy or holders of local wealth and power that might not otherwise be obvious or mentioned in tourist literature.

Government monuments can be equally empty of meaning. What, if anything, does the Washington Monument tell us about Washington the “founding father”? What, if anything, would you tell a foreign visitor about George Washington, other than that he was commander of the Continental Army and then the first President of the USA?

If you found a larger significance in Washington’s legacy, it would perhaps be in his having inspired continued hope in the people of the would-be new country, and belief in their ability to win their freedom through their own actions, during the cold, dark winter of the revolution, when many were tempted to fall prey to the message promoted by the colonial power that resistance is futile. Or in having stood up for (and having taken up the gun for) the then-radical idea that all (land-owning white men) have inalienable human rights including the right to national self-determination — thereby inspiring future generations of revolutionaries in other colonies.

All this could be applied to Nkrumah as well, except that he practiced nonviolent action rather than armed struggle.

In 1776, both inalienable rights and self-determination (neither of them ideas that originated with Washington, but nonetheless ideas of a new government for which he led important parts of the fight and in which he served) were both novel and revolutionary concepts.

In 1957, Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to win its independence from European colonial rule. Today, we may not practice respect for self-determination and human rights, but even their worst violators give them lip service as norms. But in Nkrumah’s time in Africa, it was both as novel and revolutionary as it had been in Washington’s time in America for Nkrumah to tell his fellow Africans — indoctrinated for centuries with colonial lessons of their own inferiority — that not only were they capable of self-rule but they could achieve it through their own (nonviolent) actions, and did not need to rely on the their masters to “grant” them freedom.

Nkrumah was an inspiration and a mentor, “exporting revolution” to many leaders of national liberation movements in other countries in the year’s after Ghana’s independence. Along with Nehru, Nasser, and Sukarno, he was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement and one of the global popularizers of its message.

Just as George Washington was attacked in London for finding allies and aid for America wherever he could, including from England’s super-power rivals in France, so Nkrumah was pilloried by Cold Warriors in the USA for accepting aid and trying to learn from the successes and mistakes of the USSR as well as the USA. Many in the USA welcomed the military coup that deposed Nkrumah in 1966.

But if travel teaches us anything, it teaches us that there are ways we might live our lives, organize our societies, and meet our basic human needs that we could scarcely have imagined, but some of which — once we see them in action — we actually prefer to what we have been accustomed to thinking of as the only ways these things could be done.

In a time when international discourse is dominated by talk of a bipolar “clash of civilizations”, when, “You’re either with us you’re with the terrorists” denies the possibility of any “third way”, openness to alternative ways of organizing our world and our future — one of the essential concepts underlying non-alignment — may be more important than ever.

In Senegal in The Amazing Race 6, the racers were introduced to the “Negritude” of that nation’s founding father, first president, and poet laureate, Leopold Senghor, which might be described as a pan-Africanism of culture and identity. “Negritude” was translated and had some influence even beyond the Francophonie. But Nkrumah’s political and economic pan-Africanism found a wider audience not just across Africa but throughout the African American, Afro-Caribbean, Afro-Brazilian, and Afro-European diaspora.

The influences went in both directions across the Atlantic. Nkrumah himself went to college at Lincoln University — the oldest historically Black college in the USA — and then to graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. Afro-Caribbean writer and leading exponent of pan-Africanism C.L.R. James — possibly even more underappreciated in his intellectual legacy than Nkrumah — was an important influence on Nkrumah’s life and thought. The late African-American pacifist and emigrant to Ghana Bill Sutherland played an influential role in the early years of Nkrumah’s government.

If I’ve piqued your curiosity, Nkrumah himself left an extensive body of writing, including a (somewhat premature) autobiography, although without any single succinct summation of his thought. C.L.R. James’ “Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution” and Bill Sutherland and Matt Meyer’s “Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation” provide sympathetic and personally informed but also critical perspectives on Nkrumah and the larger context and significance of his work and legacy.

Other than libraries (don’t forget to ask about inter-library loans if your local library doesn’t have what you want), the best source of books by and about Nkrumah, either in print or print-on-demand for some key works, is the Africa Book Centre in the UK. Sadly, their shop in the Africa Centre on Covent Garden in central London is currently closed, but they continue to provide an efficient worldwide mail order service. You can also browse the stock at their office in Brighton by appointment — highly recommended if you are in the area and interested in Africa. I always find interesting publications that I hadn’t known existed.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 3 October 2010, 18:23 ( 6:23 PM)

What I admire about George Washington: He was content to leave office after two terms, instead of being President-for-Life. And he was content to be "Mr. President", and not "His Elective Majesty" or any of the other elaborate titles that were proposed in all seriousness. In this he set an important precedent.

Posted by: Kate Y., 11 October 2010, 22:19 (10:19 PM)
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