LIVING FOR CHANGE
Africa & Detroit: Way Out of No Way
Michigan Citizen, Feb. 6-12, 2011
As we witness the huge demonstrations from Tunis to Egypt which are unraveling Arab North Africa and U.S, policy in the region, Arab North Africa is very much on everyone’s mind, including mine.
Subsaharan Africa is also on my mind because Detroit activists, who were involved in organizing last June’s 2nd USSF, are on their way to the World Social Forum (WSF) taking place this week in Dakar.
I‘ve been in Africa once. In 1968 Jimmy and I spent a week in Conakry, meeting for several hours daily with Ghana’s deposed President, Kwame Nkrumah, who had been living there in exile since his overthrow in 1966.
I met Nkrumah in 1945 when, having graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he stopped in New York on his way back to Africa to struggle for the independence of what was then called the Gold Coast. Over the years we remained in touch, and after he became president of independent Ghana, to my surprise he asked me to marry him. I declined because I couldn’t imagine being a movement activist in another country. Also by then I was married to Jimmy and living in Detroit.
Over the years I have followed African developments quite closely because through my association with C.L.R.James and my friendship with Nkrumah, I became acquainted with other African and West Indian independence leaders of his generation. For example, in the 1950s I created the Kenya Publication Fund to publish Mbiyu Koinange’s little book The People of Kenya speak for themselves to inform Americans that Mau Mau was an independence movement.
Our 1968 talks with Nkrumah were disappointing. His certainty that he would soon be returned to power in Ghana suggested that he had not reflected deeply enough about the reasons for his overthrow. This became even clearer when at our parting discussion, he turned to Jimmy and said, “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but if Grace had married me, we would have united all Africa.”
Reflecting on the experience, it seemed to me that Nkrumah’s weakness was that his views on leading the African freedom struggle had come too much from West Indian radical intellectuals like C.L.R..James and George Padmore, and not enough from the women of Africa who do most of the work of growing food and fetching water and firewood.
This was confirmed when a few years later I heard that women in Kenya were creating hundreds of tree-planting groups to make their work of fetching water and firewood easier and more sustainable. They were doing this as part of the Greenbelt movement founded by Wangari Maathei who, upon returning from study in the U.S., had challenged the sexism of the Kenya leaders. Her leadership only became widely known after she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004.
Since then, for insight into Africa’s future, I have relied a lot on Maatthei who has written three powerful books: Unbowed (2006), The Challenge for Africa (2009) and Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual values for Healing Ourselves and the World (2010).
Another book, which I highly recommend, is Listening to Africa by Pierre Pradervand which describes the hundreds of self-help projects initiated at the grassroots by peasant farmers in Senegal, Mali, Burkina, Faso, Zimbabwe, and Kenya.. These include small dams, group savings schemes, new food storage systems, family planning information, barter exchanges, centers for traditional medicine, indigenous farmers organizations.
I came across Listening to Africa in the late 1980s at the same time that the Gardening Angels in Detroit were pioneering the urban agricultural movement by planting community gardens on the city’s vacant lots.
It was awesome to discover that in pre-industrial Africa, as in post-industrial Detroit, people at the grassroots were not depending on governments, the World Bank or the IMF to develop their economies and communities. They were doing it themselves, from the ground up, “making a way out of no way, ”
MLK called them “beloved communities.” In Blessed Unrest Paul Hawken says there are millions of small groups like these all over the world. In Multitudes Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri call them “singularities” and view them as the form that solidarity is taking in the 21st century.