Lamming in Nairobi and our challenged link with Diaspora

V. S. Naipaul,

Trinidad and Tobago-born British writer V. S. Naipaul.

Photo credit: Pool

What you need to know:

  • We in Kenya best know George Lamming, who passed away earlier this week, for his semi-autobiographical narrative, In the Castle of My Skin.
  • Lamming was of British and Afro-Caribbean descent, as was Bob Marley, the reggae and Rasta icon.

“Is Rihanna white or black?” I understand that this is one of the most-frequently asked questions, online, about the sensational popstar. A sensible reaction to this should be, “Does it matter? We are talking about an artist and what matters is the quality of her art, not the colour of her skin.”

Unfortunately, in the context of the Caribbean or “West Indies”, where Rihanna comes from, many people are not willing or prepared to be sensible. Despite the centuries of human blending in those islands, such petty concerns of “colour” identity still haunt the minds of shallow racists and bedevil the lives of many Caribbean citizens and communities. Little wonder, then, that “skin” (ngozi in Kiswahili) features prominently in the work of many Caribbean writers.

We in Kenya best know George Lamming, who passed away earlier this week, for his semi-autobiographical narrative, In the Castle of My Skin. Lamming was of British and Afro-Caribbean descent, as was Bob Marley, the reggae and Rasta icon. Another famous Caribbean author, Edgar Mittelholzer, had a blend of Swiss, African, French and British ancestry. In 1965, he sprinkled himself with petrol and set himself on fire, somewhere south of London. Was this a final desperate attempt to free himself from a troublesome identity?

Among the Francophone Caribbean (Antilliais) authors, we may mention Aimé Césaire and Léon Damas, who were Léopold Sédar Senghor’s partners in the Nègritude enterprise of asserting Black identity. Nor can we forget the fiery psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, author of Black Skins White Masks. Do you note the “skin” there?

Mention of the Senghor-Cesaire collaboration, however, brings me to the main point I would like us to ponder today, especially as we remember and celebrate the life and work of George Lamming. Caribbean challenges are many and varied, over and above the rampant racism and “colourism”. But the main challenge for us Africans is how to relate to these relatives of ours in the African Diaspora.

Back to Africa movement

The relationship is not new, since memories of Africa actually remained in the minds of our people who were trapped and enslaved in the so-called New World. The best-known Diasporan movement for engaging Africa was the late 19th and early 20th century “Back to Africa” movement, led by the Jamaican-born activist, Marcus Garvey. The movement did not quite bear the desired fruits, owing to many problems, some of them, like the two world wars, global and beyond the movement’s control.

New interest, and pride, in Africa came with the determined efforts of our founding leaders, like Senghor, Nkrumah and Kenyatta, to struggle for the liberation of Africa from colonial bondage. With the dawn of uhuru and the setting up of African independent states, Africans in the Diaspora began identifying themselves systematically with our continent and even considering a “homecoming”, even if only symbolically. I have proposed elsewhere that there was a link between African independence and the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

In the Caribbean creative community, many of whose members, like George Lamming, had migrated to Britain, during the “Windrush” operation, “Afromania” ran high from the early 1960s and through the 1970s. Do you remember the much-decorated Trinidadian poet, Edward Braithwaite, adopting “Kamau” as a part of his official name? 

Caribbean interest in Africa also translated into many Caribbean artists, intellectuals and professionals coming to Africa, to visit, research and work. That is how some of us in East Africa happened to be students of Caribbean legends, like V. S. Naipaul, later a Nobel laureate, who was the first Senior Fellow in Creative Writing at Makerere in 1965-66. In Dar es Salaam, we were mesmerised by the rhetoric of Walter Rodney, author of the classic historical polemic, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. George Lamming, too, taught in Tanzania, but I do not have the details.

My only meeting with Lamming, however, was in Nairobi in the late 1970s. He was visiting with his close friend, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Ngugi invited us to a meeting with the celebrated author, at the residence of Okot p’Bitek, in the neighbourhood of Adam’s Arcade, off Ngong Road. Ngugi lived out in Kamirithu, in the Limuru area, and I guess he judged, rightly, that it would be easier for us then-students and young colleagues to get to Adam’s Arcade than to trek to Limuru.

Great men and women

Okot was not at home but his family received us with characteristic Acholi hospitality. Ngugi introduced the guest and some of us volunteered views of his writings and asked a few questions, mostly about In the Castle of My Skin. I did not ask any questions, and all I did was to gaze at his trademark shock of white hair and listen to his resonant voice and his hearty laughter as he regaled us with hilarious anecdotes from his writing career.

I believe I told you, long ago, that when Lamming met, somewhere in Europe, with someone who had been with us at that meeting in Nairobi, the great man told my colleague to give me his greetings. My friend told me that Lamming had said that I was a “very intelligent young man.” I do not boast about this, but it taught me the value of saying little and listening intently, and also of focusing one’s gaze on a great man’s face.

Jokes aside, however, I have been wondering why rather few of such great men and women from the Diaspora visit us these days. Could it be that their fascination with us and optimism about African independence has waned in the face of our dubious performance? Ngugi, for example, was detained shortly after that meeting of ours. That probably had nothing to do with Lamming’s visit.

But the many tales of our poor governance, human rights violations, petty conflicts and corruption do little to inspire confidence and pride in those who look up to the “Homeland” as a source of their hope.

The ball is in our court as we mourn and celebrate Africa-loving George Lamming.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and [email protected]

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