Silences in African History: Between the syndromes of discovery and abolition By Jacques Depelchin

Publishers: Mkuki Na Nyota Publishers, Dar es Salaam
DISTRIBUTORS: Africa Books Collective PRICE: £20.95 or $34.95

Jacques Depelchin’s book, ‘Silences in African History’ was becoming the victim of a reviewer’s silence. What you are going to read is but an initial reaction to reading this book of many parts, that reminded me of the lyrics ‘coat of many colours that my mama sewed for me’. It is a very engaging book. Many readers may understand and sympathise with me, if I plead to having been very busy; leading to a pile up of must read books, journals and papers.

That’s partly the reason why it took some time to get around to reviewing this book, but the main reason is that Jacques is a complex writer, who writes in the fast disappearing cross-disciplinary radical scholarship. This is from an era when intellectuals had the guts to call imperialism its real name, instead of the understated notion of ‘globalisation’ that is used these days.

Oppressors and exploiters were called their real names instead of the dubious notion of ‘partners in development’ that is foistered on us today. The book may be inaccessible to the faint hearted as it traverses history, philosophy, literature, social sciences, humanities, cultural studies, traditions, spirituality ,religion, economics, history of science and science of history, the historical method, the dialectical method. It is both about the methodology of history and the history of methodology.

In 10 chapters, written with economy of language but full of so much information that betrays the long period of gestation of the book, it is both a critique of received wisdom and contemporary practice not only about the history of Africa but the knowledge of and about Africa. While applauding the pioneering nationalist African historians of the postcolonial period for challenging colonialist constructs and exposing imperialism packaged as knowledge, Depelchin also confronts most scathingly the reversal of the nationalist gains in contemporary times, where the pro/reproduction of knowledge about Africa has again transferred back to the metropolis and predominantly non African scholars who call themselves Africanists. They are largely outside of Africa, in western and predominantly North American universities.

They are also cohabiting with an exponentially increasing number of African scholars from Africa. The contemporary African Diaspora of technicians of knowledge in these countries is beginning to dwarf that of any single African country, including Nigeria. For instance it will be interesting to compare the ratio of African professors per head within 100 kilometres of New York to those in a similar radius of Lagos, Pretoria, Nairobi or Dar Es Salaam. It is not just the big names of our intelligentsia that have emigrated, but several generations after them – and even now future generations are aspiring to jump ship.
Historical silences meet existential silences with the same outcome: transfer of power over our history to extra continental individuals and institutions. We have to wonder what will become of peoples whose cream of intelligentsia are removed from the social base of their knowledge production.
‘Silences’ is such a wonderful cocktail of gems around so many issues and concerns across so many disciplines that one is frustrated that Depelchin has written several books in one without completing any of them. It is the kind of book that a lazy student can struggle to read and get a general grasp of many issues and bamboozle his way around term essays.
But in the hands of an inquisitive and enthusiastic reader it is both humbling and inspiring. It makes one wonder how little one knows but also challenges one to want to read more. But the theme of ‘Silences’ runs through all the chapters and gives it a coherence that its vast spectrum could have denied it. It is about how what we know is shaped by the methodology we deploy, but this methodology itself is not neutral but shaped by class and ideological interests of those in control of our lives and societies.
Intellectuals fancy themselves as being ‘objective’, others even see themselves as being above society, but Depelchin demystifies these fantasies in the Cabralist sense of posing the class interests that inform scholarship and how intellectuals are themselves part of the struggles they are interpreting. As partisans they make choices that determine what they see and what they refuse to see. Sometimes what they did not write about is more important than what they have written.
This book deserves wider reading. It is part of the power dynamics of scholarship about Africa that to be read and be popular, African authors or authors on Africa have to be published outside Africa and mostly in Europe and the USA. The publishers of this book, Mkuki Na Nyota, based in Dar Es Salaam, once a centre for radical scholarship and emancipatorary politics of the nationalist-developmental state, are one of the more veteran core of African publishers determined against all odds to publish about Africa in Africa, creating a space for African intellectual, cultural and political ownership of Africa.
The Director, Walter Bugoya, comes from the nationalist and liberationist tradition that have refused to surrender. If we do not patronise our own institutions and entrepreneurs how do we expect them to develop and compete favourably with the rest of the world? Depelchin has chosen not to be silenced by writing this book and he has also refused to allow African publishing to be silenced by choosing to publish in Dar Es Salaam even though he could have taken the easier option of publishing from the US where he is now based. In life there are always alternatives.
The organic intellectual in Africa or of Africa has to make the choice. The choice is either to continue to perpetuate the silencing of Africa and Africans, by only researching and publishing what is acceptable to the powers that be in academia and the ruling establishments generally or making a choice in favour of liberation scholarship.
Depelchin lays it out starkly: the choice is yours, but there is a price for standing up to tell truth to power even among academics.
* Reviewed by Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem, General-Secretary of the Pan African Movement, Kampala (Uganda) and Co-Director of Justice Africa