Why Museveni is ill-advised to despise Literature

President Yoweri Museveni.

President Yoweri Museveni thinks Literature is about quoting Shakespeare. That it is about getting a high from sounding brilliant.

In a video on social media, the Ugandan leader advises his country that it needs engineers. Ugandan literati, and sundry artistic virtuosos, can cast their sights elsewhere. That country only wants engineers and doctors. The pearl of Africa needs hospitals, bridges and roads. Shakespeare can wait. There is no room for literary witticisms, rhymes and rhythms. Not even the rhyme and rhythm of life. Nor is there space for historical recollection.

GWF Hegel (1770–1831) said Africa had no memory. That we were ahistorical! The racist German philosopher said Africa was one long night of darkness. Darkness is not the kind of stuff history is made of, Hegel stated with finality. Are our leaders endorsing this elision of the African story from the human narrative?

If we don’t need memory, how shall we move forward? To where? How shall we fix our dislocation in this lonely darkness? Are we aware, for example, of Africa’s glorious past in science and technology? 

Robin Walker’s When We Ruled: The Ancient and Medieval History of Black Civilisations is the kind of work Africa knows little about. The continent’s lost glory has been documented by such other scholars as Cheikh Anta Diop (The African Origin of Civilisation), Howard French (Born in Blackness: Africa, Africans & the Making of the Modern World), Martin Meredith (The Fortunes of Africa: A 5,000–Year History of Wealth, Greed and Endeavour), among others. 

The UNESCO Africa History is the ultimate capsule of this story. Alongside other African intellectuals, it brings together such towering minds as East Africa’s Ali Mazrui, Bethwell Ogot and Idha Salim, to tell our story, from antediluvian beginnings to present day challenges. 

They address African historiography, and rescue African precolonial history from the shadows of doom. They integrate the continent’s story into the rest of the human experience. They open us up to seeing where the rains started pounding us. Our contribution to science, mathematics, architecture and design, and to high learning is obvious to the historian. The University of Al-Azhar in Egypt goes back to 970 AD, a century – and more – ahead of Italy’s University of Bologna (1088), the oldest European campus. Alexandria University (1942) began as a centre of higher learning in 280 BC. 

Africa once ruled this world. Two centuries before Christ, our African army, led by General Hannibal of Carthage (modern Tunisia) marched to Europe on elephants. They occupied Italy for two decades. 

Yes, we have ruled. So what went wrong? Forays into history and Literature can help us understand, and even recover. Africa’s challenge is not an absence of doctors, or engineers. Here in Kenya, as in Uganda, we cannot even employ those we have. Our challenge is a deluge of square pegs in round holes of leadership. Plato proposed that philosophers should be kings. In converse, kings should become philosophers.

Philosophers know what leadership is about. It is about harnessing the best in each of us, for the good of all. Humanising us to know that ruling is not about stealing and enriching ourselves and our families. That development is not about brick and mortar, but about the people.

Our African leaders read to us statistics that show how much our countries are developing. We hear of how rich countries have become and how strong economies are growing. The country becomes rich, but the people become poorer. The economy becomes strong, but citizens’ pockets get weaker. The shilling gains tremendously against the dollar. But the citizen does not feel the gain.

It is all because we have been mistaught. We cannot see beyond metallic materialism. In times beyond, we had values that ruled the world. Pushing our brothers and sisters into the slave ship in exchange for whisky was the start of the mess.

The values literature, philosophy and history inculcate sank with the drink. Now we are a man-eat-man continent. Even science can’t help.  

Dr Muluka is a strategic communications adviser