Africans must be proud of their identity – Ntone Edjabe (Founding editor, Chimurenga)
CNN called it Africa’s answer to the New Yorker, the influential and globally acclaimed American magazine started in 1925.
Although Chimurenga, a pan African publication of writing, arts and politics based in Cape Town, South Africa, was founded in March 2002 by Cameroonian writer and journalist, Ntone Edjabe, it has become an award-winning literary magazine that ‘addresses and embraces the continent’s diversity, with a focus on ‘the complexity of life.’
Chimurenga is a Shona word from Zimbabwe which is loosely translated as “revolutionary struggle.”
The journal is published irregularly in print, online and through themed performances called “Chimurenga Sessions.” Other Chimurenga projects include the Chronic – a quarterly pan African gazette; Chimurenga Library – an online archive of pan African, independent periodicals; Pan African Space Station(PASS) – a cyber-spatial exploration of pan-African sounds from ancient techno to future roots; African Cities Reader – a biennial publication of urban life.
It also has a catchy motto, ‘who no know go know’, which was made popular by Afrobeat legend, Fela.
“Chimurenga was like mini literary project before it is firstly just a group of writers getting together to say let’s do something we are not able to publish anywhere else, that there’s no space for anywhere else, let’s create that space for ourselves,” Edjabe told Sam Umukoro Interview.
The Chimurenga project has since grown beyond the continent to have a global audience. In 2011, Edjabe won the Principal Award of the Prince Claus Awards with his Chimurenga platform. It was recognised for its outstanding contribution to culture and development.
In this exclusive interview, Edjabe, who is also a basketball coach, talks about life, Chimurenga and why Africans should be proud of their identity.
SUI: What motivated you to start ‘Chimurenga’?
NTONE EDJABE: There was this quest for home. I did not think it asChimurenga as a long term project or a literary journal. It was an impulsive element. The idea was to publish a book that would bring together critical writing and contemporary culture, and how this culture relates to politics. The culture that I find most translatable, most immediate is music, it’s the one that crosses boarder quickest. So I wanted to publish a collection of writings that was about music and politics, Fela, Thomas Mapfumo, and even artistes that are not necessarily seen generally as political, artistes like Brenda Fassie. The term ‘Chimurenga’ itself was suggested as a title for this collection because it was something that brought the world of music and politics together in the formation of the word itself because it both means liberation from a struggle. It also signifies a popular music in Zimbabwe at a time, so it was a once off project initially. I was working as a journalist in Cape Town, so, at first, Chimurenga was like a mini-literary project and created space for writers who were not able to publish elsewhere.
SUI: You have been awarded the Prince Claus Award for your outstanding contribution to culture and development. How has this assisted you in sustaining Chimurenga?
NTONE EDJABE: It has given us added visibility to the work we’ve been doing. But it was not a question of sustenance because this project had sustained itself for 11 years prior to the award; the audiences in the conversations in the publication and its related projects made it possible. What an international award such as the Prince Claus provides is the kind of visibility that you require when you approach a funder, say you want to take this initiative; they give you a benefit of doubt. But it was very important for us, before and after the award, to be in control of what we want to initiate, to not only work on what the expectation of any audience may be, but what the creators themselves want to do. So, we still publish the stories that we are interested in regardless of the visibility we’ve had since the awards.
SUI: You once said that music cannot be divorced from politics, why do you feel that way?
NTONE EDJABE: It’s not only music, I think this applies to every aspect of life because politics is not only a practice, a profession or even a vocation, in many cases it is also the particular set of rules spoken and unspoken that allow us to exist together in a society or the coexistence. All these are regulated by a set of rules, some are spoken, many are unspoken, and all of that, how to navigate these rules is what is called politics. In this case, music specifically because it is so transferable, but I think every expression of human life has a political quality to it and we can’t divorce ourselves from it. It doesn’t matter if we have the consciousness of it or not, everything that we do or say in some way challenges our environment or sustains it in one way or another.
SUI: In an interview, CNN described Chimurenga as ‘Africa’s answer to the New Yorker’, do you agree?
NTONE EDJABE: Well, I will put that question to the New Yorker. It’s not a description that I will give to the work that we do because I don’t want to be overly aggressive about it. But everything that we do is not necessarily a response to something someone else is doing. I completely understand the logic that publications are compared to other publications, but Chimurenga is a response to our own environment, context, history, dreams and aspirations.
SUI: You also once mentioned that it is important for Africa to develop its own standard of excellence, how do you mean?
NTONE EDJABE: Well, this is the challenge we’ve taken up by initiating and trying to sustain Chimurenga. It’s not to glorify the different difficulties many of us find ourselves in but can we face our reality? And when we face it what language do we use to articulate it or express it, do we always speak of it for instance in terms of lack? For example, when you are in Lagos, a city of over 20 million people, what is the first thing mentioned about it? Is it the lack of constant electricity, certain amenities, or is it the energy you sense from the people who occupy the place? What are the terms of engagement we have with our own society? Until we are able to do that, it’s very difficult to generate our own terms for excellence.
We have always been global citizens and did not even require colonialism to engage with the world. We’ve always engaged with the world, but, for example, I think it requires a specific effort to understand what the Yoruba considers beautiful, because to tap into your own cosmology you have to tap into your own history, and then relate it to the contemporary in a way that the Hindus or Japanese do. Another example, when you are in Kinshasa, people appreciate popular Congolese music, there’s also an appreciation for noise, for distortion and crowdedness.
For example, it is very difficult to find a Congolese band that does not have three to four, sometimes six, lead singers. Now this concept of a music project having six lead singers is so completely opposed to what western pop considers – having a front man (or woman) so to speak who holds the microphone and everybody else is in the background. In Congolese music, there is no such thing as that, there might be a star, like the more sellable person in the group but there are six people in front using the microphone. And in a concert situation you don’t actually know who the real leader is. So, again all these then refer to what Congolese considers beautiful and essential. This is just an example. We are in a global society where you are always taught about the things that you should be pursuing or aspiring for, you could just make the same references that are circulating on the Internet.
SUI: Why do you think it is so important for the West to validate Africa before we accept ourselves?
NTONE EDJABE: I think it’s a sort of imperial reflex because the whole continent was colonised; where you feel like you’ve given life to something, that thing does not exist outside of you. But it’s difficult to speak about this without making generalisation. I guess I’m allowed to make generalisation. If you consider yourself the inventor of an object, and you have given that object its purpose, then clearly you feel that you are the authority in terms of defining what its purpose is and what it should do, how it should be read, how it should speak. So, you cannot overlook the fact that most of our institutions, certainly state institutions, are western construct. It is also difficult to overlook that our sense of the military, our sense of education, or even just learning overall, like how a city or country should be run, the institutions it requires, our sense of mythology, how we should conserve our earth, and so many of the official practices that we are locked into or dealing with at the moment, are our western construct. If we are trying to be like the white man, we are locked into this situation of lack and constantly aspiring to something.
SUI: How does Africa get out of this?
NTONE EDJABE: The answer is in the question itself. It is, why not try to be like yourself and have a sense of self? For example, when I’m in Lagos, I have a sense of, I wouldn’t call it being Nigerian, but I would definitely say a sense of the Yoruba culture. It is not always validated but you cannot deny that it is there, it is there in the way that people stand, how they dress, how they speak with each other. But to now extend this analysis to call it the Nigerian culture is dangerous because we would also be overlooking the power relations within the various ethnic groups, and who is closer to power and so forth. Also, it’s difficult to compare a country like Cameroon, with 278 languages to, say, France. So, this is a project that we are constantly investing in. We put a lot of effort in keeping it going.
SUI: Do you believe Africa can achieve unity in diversity?
NTONE EDJABE: It is not only possible, it has happened before and I think that is where history is important. Even in the post colonial state it has happened but we cannot speak only of Africa as if it begins with colonialism. Africa, as a geographic and cultural space, has been in existence for thousands of years. So, it has experienced a number of civilisation, some of them with an imperial character, whether it is in the western or southern part of Africa.
I don’t think it’s possible for human beings to live without any form of conflict, some of it generates progress, but it is not the colonial master that necessarily taught us how to live together. So, it’s something that we constantly aspire to and constantly work towards, just as much as every other society in the world. In my own opinion, the west today is far more confronted with that question than we would ever be. There is a level of animosity and guardedness in Europe today, that I find the west far less tolerant about different cultures, backgrounds and complexities than anything remotely possible in say, Lagos, where you have 200 nations sharing space in the city.
But the level of racism is visible daily in every single European institution. It is not a matter of colour, the Asian and African feel it, and to some extent the person from the region next door in the same country feels it in Europe. So, the quest for unity in diversity is as problematic as that phrase in itself. Maybe it is not an African problem, if anything, in the 21st century it’s a fundamentally a European problem.
I wouldn’t say it is an African problem at all – rather they should take lessons from us. For example, how on earth did they manage to get 278 identifiable cultures to share a small geographical space like Cameroon, how did they share resources? I’m not suggesting that Cameroon is a success story but if you’re looking at what’s going on in some parts of Europe and the level of intolerance for different religions, different skin shades and languages, you’ll think there might be a few things we’ll be able to teach them about cosmopolitanism at this point. I hope that our engagement has reached a level where western intellectual can recognise this, can look at this and say, hold on; there might be a few things we might be able to learn.
SUI: How do you manage being a journalist, basketball coach, and writer?
NTONE EDJABE: One of the things is that I don’t experience them as many parts, I experience them as a whole. I’m sure we all have so many different interests. I also think one may have different ways of combining interests and working different systems.
SUI: A lot of young Africans are beginning to embrace entrepreneurship. What advice do you have for them considering the various challenges in Africa?
NTONE EDJABE: The advice I have is more towards the generation before them, what are the references? Because to ask of them to recognise references that might be applicable to their system into the context might be unfair. Someone should be guiding them in recognising those references. Recently, at an event in Lagos, Woke Soyinka and Jimi Solanke were present, these are giants not just in the cultural field alone, but in every aspect of life They’ve given us so much and I think I was fortunate actually because it’s easier to go into this kind of, ‘I’m special’ character and to think, ‘oh I’m so smart’ – no, I think I was very fortunate to be surrounded by people who helped me recognise these references. So, how can they recognise the references that are applicable to their context? Some of it requires their own efforts, consciousness, curiosity and investigation, but some of it also requires us to help them to generate the language that will make it possible for them to recognise this.