Not many Kenyans know I was once upon a time named Robert. That’s until I killed him. It’s been several decades since I murdered in cold blood – and without a tinge of remorse – the fellow once known as Robert Mutua. I am making this public confession now because I am tired of keeping it secret in my bosom. I want to free myself of my Catholic guilt. I want to tell my truth – and inspire others to unburden themselves. This is the final act in which I finally and fully reclaim my African identity. It’s closure – and triumph over the demons of imperialism. I want to echo Thabo Mbeki’s 1996 iconic speech – I am an African.
I know – in fact I am sure – not everyone will agree with me. But I don’t care. That’s because too many Africans don’t know who they are, and don’t want to. Too many of our people think history started in 1896 when the British declared a protectorate over what they called Kenya. They made it up following the Berlin Conference of 1885 where Africa was divvied up among European colonialists. Europeans regarded our lands as terra nullius (no man’s land), or lands occupied by sub-humans without the sovereignty of reason. That’s why they believed in their manifest destiny colonise us, convert us to Christianity, to make us “fully human.” This is what thinkers call the White Man’s Burden.
The rape of Africa became the subject of after-dinner jokes among European cartographers and statesmen. In 1890, for example, Lord Salisbury, then British Prime Minister, made a revealing comment at a cocktail in Mansion House.
Europeans had recently agreed on the division of Africa among themselves. He said, “(w)e have been engaged in drawing lines upon maps where no white man’s foot ever trod; we have been giving away mountains and rivers and lakes to each other, only hindered by the small impediment that we never knew exactly where the mountains and rivers and lakes were.” The point isn’t subtle – white men regarded themselves as the “masters of the universe.” The world, and all non-whites in it, were putty in their hands.
Fast-forward to 1974. I was one of African high-schoolers chosen for a student exchange program to America. I was taken to the State of Illinois. One Sunday early in my stay, I was taken to church. At one point, I was asked to stand up and talk about Africa. It was a tall order because Africa isn’t a country. But I was a precocious teenager and plunged right ahead. After my debut in the all-white church, an elderly white parishioner approached me and wanted to know why I was named Robert. The question appeared innocent. He said he didn’t know that Robert was also an African name. I told him it wasn’t. Without hesitation, he quickly agreed with me.
But it was what my white interrogator said next that shook me to my foundations. He asked why I had taken a European name. He wondered whether all African names had been taken – finished – leaving none for me. I was flabbergasted. I replied in the negative. He insisted on an answer. I told him I took the name Robert when I was baptised in the Catholic Church. I told him the Irish priest warned that I had to take a “Christian” name – and all the choices were European. I was told those were the names of saints. Everyone person in the church had a European name – Peter, Susan, Michael, Catherine, David, and so on. My interrogator shook his head and left. I had known when I chose the name Robert that I couldn’t go to Jesus with my African name. I knew something was profoundly wrong with that imposition. But I was powerless to do anything about it. The Catholic Church had murdered my spirit as an African. I contemplated dropping the name Robert before going to Illinois, but didn’t know how – and lacked the courage to do so at that age. It was only after I returned from America that I “killed” Robert and left the church.
The white parishioner’s questions crystallised my resolve. He helped me reclaim my identity. He said this to me – you won’t find too many Americans named Mutua. It was a dagger.
Some of you will ask – what’s in a name? I say everything. A dog doesn’t name its master – the master names his dog. The right of naming belongs to the creator, the holder of the patent, the superior – not the subordinate. The act of naming defines and stamps authority on property. Its intellectual submission by the inferior to the superior. It’s acceptance of the hierarchy of cultures. It’s a proposition that some cultures – and races – are superior to others. That’s why I killed Robert.
- Prof Mutua is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua