Sunday, September 21, 2008

Peace Studies and ‘Africa’: International Day of Peace Reflections

When I stumbled upon peace studies as an academic discipline in 2003, I saw the myriad questions I had developed over a life time, some of which I was unaware of, begin to gel into an intelligible, coherent pursuit. I wondered why it had taken me five years into graduate school to learn of the existence of peace studies as a discipline. And had it not been for a dissertation research fellowship, I can not tell whether I would have become acquainted with the discipline, and gone ahead to adopt it as an intellectual and activist framework. What seemed even more peculiar was that it felt so natural and intuitive; I realized I had been using it all along, only I hadn’t called it peace studies. Five years later, I have come to regard it as indispensable for the way I understand the world and our attempts towards solutions to its intractable problems. The tell-tale moment came in 2004, during field work in Malawi, when it occurred to me that it was what uMunthu/uBuntu demanded of us as human beings. I had set out on a sojourn to the global North, in search of truth, and had returned home at the height of that search, only to find that the object of my searching had been lying in plain sight all along. On this day, September 21, International Day of Peace, I would like to reflect on how the discipline of peace and justice studies brings together a host of multidisciplinary approaches to understanding Africa, Pan-Africans, and their place in the work of promoting global peace.

It was whilst I was in the field that I learned how to appropriate peace studies to make sense of the uMunthu/uBuntu imperative which lay at the center of the pursuit for local and global peace. In order to achieve this, I began thinking, it was necessary for peace studies to take Africa and Africans seriously. As yet, this is not the case, an argument made by Marvin Berlowitz (2002), professor of Educational Foundations at the University of Cincinnati. Berlowitz wrote in an issue of the journal Peace Review that the discipline of peace studies was plagued by Eurocentric bias. He said several African American peace leaders and activists were ignored in the scholarship, and his list included one African peace leader, and one Caribbean scholar activist.

Berlowitz’s conclusion was that Eurocentric bias pervaded the field of peace studies, and he attributed the problem to an “ideological split” that represented differing historical experiences between Euro-Americans and African Americans. In explaining why Eurocentrism was a problem in peace studies, Berlowitz listed two main reasons: it distorted our view of peace studies and the peace movement, and it precluded any viable understanding or alliance between African Americans and Euro-Americans. For example, historical events such as the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and anti-colonization were active topics of research and activism in the African American community, while they were paid less attention to in mainstream peace studies.

While Berlowitz’s main concern was the place of African American peace leaders and activists in the peace studies canon, the same questions are relevant regarding the place of African peace leaders and activists. In this quest, a much more comprehensive persuasion for Africans and African contexts in peace studies has been made by Matt Meyer, a founding member of the Peace and Justice Studies Association and co-convener of the World Resisters League, and Bill Sutherland, a co-founder of the Congress for Racial Equality, and a leading thinker and activist of Pan-Africanism. Not only have Matt Meyer and Bill Sutherland asserted the place of African leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda and other African leaders and activists in the study of peace and justice, they have also argued for the place of Pan-Africanism and African independence and anti-colonial movements as legitimate subjects of peace studies.

Bill Sutherland and Matt Meyer’s 2000 book Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation in Africa, accomplishes what no other study that I know of does: merging together Pan-Africanism, African independence and anti-colonial struggles, and Gandhian nonviolence into a coherent exploration of African contexts in the study of peace and justice. The book chronicles detailed accounts and narratives of Africa’s experiments with violence and nonviolence. The narratives are developed through interviews with African leaders and political activists, and personal reflections from Bill Sutherland. Bill Sutherland’s experiences go back to the 1950s when Ghana was fighting for its independence with Kwame Nkrumah as its leader, to the 1990s when Sutherland and Matt Meyer traveled across the continent to personally meet and interview several African leaders and activists. The book thus offers deep insights into the confluence of violence and nonviolence in Africa’s struggles for independence from Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Jerry Rawlings, Kenneth Kaunda, Graca Machel, Sam Nujoma, Nathan Shamuyayira, Emma Mashinini, and Walter Sisulu, among many others.

In his preface to the book, former Archbishop of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, states that Matt Meyer and Bill Sutherland’s work evokes uBuntu ideals. Tutu says Meyer and Sutherland begin to “develop a language that looks at the roots of our humanness beyond our many private contradictions” (p. xi). Tutu says Meyer and Sutherland challenge us to “better understand concepts often seen as opposed to one another—like nonviolence and armed struggle.” In so doing, they “help to focus our attention on the larger struggles we must still wage, united: for economic justice, for true freedom and equality, and for a world of lasting peace” (ibid.). Tutu goes on to inform us that Gandhi’s philosophy of soul force and nonviolence originated in a South African context, and “were based on some concepts he learned in South Africa,” during Gandhi’s stay there (xii).

In Ghana’s struggle for independence, we learn from Sutherland that Kwame Nkrumah, a leading Pan-Africanist and anti-colonial leader and activist of his time, was also a committed nonviolence advocate, and published a pamphlet in the early phase of his leadership of Ghana’s independence movement. The pamphlet was titled What I Mean By Positive Action. Positive Action was Nkrumah’s version of nonviolence, informed by the Ghanaian context of the colonialist and imperialist nature of the oppression Africans were under. Speaking decades later to Matt Meyer and Bill Sutherland, one person who had been one of Nkrumah’s close associates, Komla Agbelo Gbedema, confirmed that Gandhian nonviolence was indeed the model Ghana followed. Sutherland and Meyer quote Gbedema as saying “The Gandhian movement was a our model. Some considered Positive Action a strategy or tactic, others a principle.” But for Gbedema himself, he learned his nonviolence from a Quaker teacher who taught him that violence begot violence. The Ghanaians attributed the success of their struggle to Nkrumah’s brand of nonviolence. They even invited both WEB DuBois and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr to their independence celebrations in 1957. WEB DuBois was unable to go, but Martin Luther King Jr went, and heard Nkrumah shout the words “Free at last! Free at last!” Six years later MLK himself would use those very words to end his famed “I Have Dream” speech.

Another African anti-colonial leader and activist who also believed in nonviolence as an effective approach was the first president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda. Meyer and Sutherland write that Kaunda was an early advocate of nonviolent direct action, and pursued these ideals in the Africa Freedom Action and World Peace Brigade, a precursor to Peace Brigades International. Kaunda wrote a book titled The Riddle of Violence, in which he directly addressed the relevance of Gandhi to Zambia’s struggle for independence. In his life after the presidency, Kaunda told Meyer and Sutherland he had established the Kaunda Institute for Peace and Democracy, where there would be courses in peace studies and democracy.

In their discussions between Meyer and Sutherland and the now deceased first president of Tanzania, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, the problem of achieving true independence still remains a legitimate peace and justice struggle both at the local as well as the global level. Nyerere’s role in this struggle took on a visible Pan-Africanist outlook, as had Nkrumah’s. Both African leaders invited people of African descent from outside Africa to participate in the intellectual life of Tanzanian society. Bill Sutherland was one of these figures. The late Guyanese scholar and activist Walter Rodney was another. Nyerere, like Kaunda, also hosted South African and Zimbabwean political leaders in their struggle against their respective white minority governments.

Amongst African countries, South Africa’s presence in peace studies is much better represented. There is widespread recognition that the anti-apartheid movement garnered support amongst peace activists outside Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been researched and written about extensively in peace research, as has the story of Nelson Mandela and the debates inside the African National Congress about the efficacy and problems associated with nonviolence. What is perhaps not widely acknowledged to the extent that it deserves is the philosophy of uBuntu, of which Archbishop Desmond Tutu is a leading advocate. Whereas Pan-Africanism and the anti-colonial independence movements enter the peace studies discourse by what can be called an activist political project, the uBuntu connection to peace studies can be said to be much more organic and internal. uBuntu, which I like to refer to as uMunthu, in it’s Chichewa version, belongs to the peace and justice studies framework through its ontological definition of the collective bond of humanness, rendering responsibility for one’s neighbors on the planet an inherent core value.

If we accept Berlowitz’s claim that African American peace leaders and activists, with the exception of MLK, are absent from peace studies, African leaders and activists are even more so. If we accept Sutherland and Meyer’s argument that the African leaders they write about in their book provide an African perspective to the global peace and justice movement, then it is fair to use Berlowitz’s questions to ask why African leaders and activists are not given the attention they deserve in the peace studies scholarship. The same goes for the philosophy of uMunthu.

Amongst the texts that constitute the peace studies canon, very few of them treat Africa in a substantive, meaningful way. Matt Meyer and Bill Sutherland’s are the only exception. Meyer has a couple of books on Pan African peace studies forthcoming in the next months, which will add to Guns and Gandhi in a way that ought to begin to change the peace studies landscape. The recent achievements of Kofi Annan in resolving the Kenyan post-election crisis, the fledgling, much-criticized efforts of Thabo Mbeki in Zimbabwe, and the work of the environmentalist and scholar Wangari Maathai, amongst others, ought to add to the canon.

The absence of African contributions to the global peace and justice movement poses two kinds of problems. The first problem is that of language and definition. On the one hand, the language I am most familiar with, Chichewa, does not have definitive terms for peace, violence, or nonviolence. Even in English, the best we can do to offer a response to violence is nonviolence, itself a negative formulation. And when we look at the definitions used in the literature, some of my students have a difficult time understanding why the problem of peace is worthy of their attention in a college classroom. They point to the difficulty of finding universal agreement on what peace entails as evidence that peace can not be achieved, and that therefore the study of peace itself is a futile, empty endeavor.

The second problem, like the first one, also deals with teaching peace studies. On the few occasions that African contexts get mentioned in the texts we use, students see a confirmation of the stereotypes they inherit about Africa as a place of hopelessness, helplessness and despair. There can be no denying that Africa has peculiar problems that defy easy rationalization. Even the African leaders and peace activists that Meyer and Sutherland describe in their book acknowledge this. However the persistence of Eurocentrism in the curriculum, both in Africa and outside Africa, lead to a distortion of the underlying contexts that create the problems Africa and Africans face. Those distortions entail policy prescriptions that over the decades have done little to teach students about difference, interdependence and imperialist exploitation. Even with well-meaning and critically-minded preparation for American students going to do study abroad in African countries, it is still very difficult to orient students to abandon a missionary-savior outlook and adopt an attitude in which Western societies can also learn from Africa in an equal exchange of knowledge production.

It is a reasonable claim that peace and justice studies is well disposed to provide a comprehensive and meaningful understanding of Africa’s problems, but the discipline can not accomplish this when the knowledge of Africa’s contributions to global peace and justice remains as underdeveloped as it currently is. The current crop of university students who feel compelled to study marginalized societies will be much better served by a peace and justice studies approach that does not ignore injustices at home, and that offers an Africa that is an integral part of historical and contemporary efforts to promote global peace.