Philippe Wamba, Kinship, History and Writing: Thoughts and Remembrances
Mukoma Wa Ngugi
“Death is always with us…We are nothing on earth if we are not in the first place the slaves of a cause, the cause of the peoples, the cause of justice and liberty” – Frantz Fanon shortly before he died of Leukemia wrote to a friend.
Death is a word, an abstraction, a sign without what it symbolizes. Words like this need experience; they need to live a little. As a kid I would close my eyes and imagine non-existence. How does being dead feel? It was always a useless exercise. I could not see myself. Once, I opened my eyes into a slit to peer into a pocket mirror held close to my chest, to see my dead face. I knew I was cheating. Death is the end of imagination, the erasure of memory. I could still see myself.
“He had no business dying”
Lewis Nkosi was to say when fellow South African writer, Can Themba, a voice of resistance masked in cynicism self-destructed into a young death. South Africa boasts a large number of martyrs. Creativity was turned inwards by Apartheid and exile consumed many. Here is the irony: starvation is hunger that turns inwards and the body craves its own flesh. A few years, after Can Themba, there was Arthur Nortje.
They were both rage, anger, confusion, genius, courage…Cynicism trying to spell love.
I couldn't reconcile Philippe with death. He did not create his own death. He had no wish to be a martyr. He was too busy confronting life and history. He was building, his death was an accident.
Five years after my mother's death, sitting with my brother in an Atlanta sunrise after walking the sun to its death, I finally broke down and cried. I do not know why it took me so long to mourn; perhaps by waiting so long I had added four years to her life or to my shifting sense of immortality. Mothers are not supposed to die. One does not expect his or her friends to die. Death is anonymous, unforgiving and absolute. It announces itself boldly but we shroud it in mystification: this permanent absence.
I received news of Philippe's death by email. The subject heading simply said Philippe Wamba. I had moved to Madison, Wisconsin from Boston and no one in Boston had my telephone number. As I opened the e-mail, cursing my computer that crawls moodily, I thought perhaps it was news of the work I knew he was doing on youth movements in Africa. I was not expecting any bad news. He had not been sick, he was not old.
It was different with my mother, who was suffering from AIDS before she died. Yet, I did not expect her to die. One summer morning in Ohio, the phone rang. My brother and I stared at the phone and I told him, “We have lost our mother.” On the fifth or sixth ring, his wife picked up the phone and handed it to him. It was Baba on the line needing only to confirm what we already knew. She was gone.
We took a long walk. Months before, these same Oberlin streets were marked with our laughter as we staggered home. My brother cried and I consoled him as he would console me five years later.
But with Philippe there had been no long illness to telegraph his mortality, just this mute dumb email saying that he had died in car accident in Kenya. It is not just prisons that mark a society's well-being as it was once remarked, in Africa it is the very nature of the roads…so many needless deaths as a result of treatable diseases.
I first met Philippe in Boston at a party in 1999. It could have been someone's birthday or a house warming party or any other excuse we use to gather around fun. It was not as we call them, a happening party, it was the kind that is made for conversation. We, the smokers of the world had united at a back stairwell. The other guests, including Philippe joined us for a dose of second hand smoke. I do not remember how we ended up talking about the relationship between Africans and African Americans, but it was a topic that I had spent a lot of time mulling over. Soon, I had my manuscript in hand, excitedly pointing Philippe to passages on the nature of the relationship between the two groups. As it turned, he had just published Kinship, a book chronicling his growth into an African and African American consciousness.
That night was remarkable for it was then that I met a group of Africans with whom we were to spend many weekends trying to start a Pan-African organization. By the time the weekend was over, I was so excited that I wrote to a friend and said that at last I had met a group of Africans with whom I could do work. I meant that I had found a kinship of ideas. I felt, finally that here was a group of people I could work with to start doing right by Africa. And the “waters of Ruaraka”, as a Kenyan political satirist called beer were threatening a flood.
We had a lot in common, this group of Africans at the party. We were politically conscious but cut adrift in and by a world that no longer dreamt of change. We saw ourselves as a generation that suffered from political apathy. Fanon's call: “Every generation must out of relative obscurity find its mission, betray it or fulfill it” was an anathema to many in our generation. We were young, ranging in age between the early twenties and the early thirties. We had a consciousness of ourselves as Africans even as we came from different countries. With the swagger of youth that makes anything within reach, we wanted to step up to history and confront it.
Philippe was doing a reading the following day and it was with a not so slight hangover that I attended. And as soon as he was done I took the train home. After a number of run-ins later, we were talking about starting a Pan-African organization. There was about fifteen of us: Phillipe, Muna (his best friend), Kioko, Marlene, Sheba, Chege, Nebiyu and Wanjiru amongst others. We agreed to meet every week. We tried to hammer a common platform. There was a humor that underlined every heated discussion. We created a charter where every word was debated. Naming the organization took a whole meeting and eventually we settled on Organization of an Africa without Borders (OAWB) with the idea that we could change it within a few months if a name more appropriate presented itself.
The name outlived the group.
As it turned out, we had expected so much of each other, believed so much in our being dynamic that when three or four months rolled by and we had nothing tangible to show, we began to lose interest. We did not have patience. Instead of thrashing out contentious issues, we tried to accommodate every view point; instead of charting a plan guided by Africa's history, we chartered a plan guided by our different understandings of Africa. We did not argue deep enough to destabilize our friendships and in the end, we opted to maintain our friendships as opposed to forming a comradeship.
There is a difference between the two for one is a personal relationship whereas the other is political. In comradeship, the personal is subsumed in the political. In the end, the compromises compromised us. But these fiery discussions were not wasted. They challenged me, and my appreciation of Pan-Africanism and my political consciousness was greatly interrogated during this time.
So be it, for we did grow.
Philippe was always surrounded by dialogue. I have many memories of him: sometimes in heated conversations, sometimes silently observing. Other times he would engage, and then disengage. On his thirtieth birthday I read and gave him a copy of a poem, African Revolutions that I had written a few months before. The last verse is:
A free death belongs to a life lived in roots
and the truth it owned, roots not afraid of growing
where they stand, roots tapped all over the earth
For a tree to grow Comrade it must own its earth
It must first grow on its own earth
This is what I felt Philippe was doing, and this conviction was brought home to me when I finally read Kinship. He was comfortable in his skin and his times. He understood history and his place in it. Rather than deny it, he was going to walk right through it. He was the product of an African and American marriage and without history such a marriage would not have taken place. And it is a history marked with blood, death, chains, whips, struggle, resistance, love and triumphs.
I did not feel that he suffered that from Du Bois' “double consciousness”, a dementia that afflicts Africans and African Americans alike in which the world is seen in half-light. He did not have the rage and confusion that accompanies “children of two worlds”. He was interested in building. And for every border erased a bridge has to be built. For what else is Kinship if not a bridge?
Now, I find I have to make a confession. I did not read Kinship while Philippe was alive. If he had not died, it is possible that I still would not have read it today. I do not know why this is the case. One day, sitting in a pub in Boston - I forget where Philippe was - I told Muna I hadn't read the book. He paused for a second, and then he said, “Neither have I”.
We laughed as people do when they discover that they are in the same conspiracy.
In friendships that span many years, the first privilege accorded is that of taking each other granted. This is not in a negative sense, but as a testament that there is nothing to prove; the other person knows your ideas well. But then I did not know Philippe long enough to claim this privilege. Muna on other hand I am sure had suffered through several drafts of the book and innumerable debates over this or that.
Perhaps all I can say is I did not expect Philippe to die.
But that strikes me as too a weak a defense. Friendships are also a balance of power and mutuality and writers, as James Baldwin once said, are jealous creatures. Perhaps I felt that by acknowledging him in print this balance would come undone? Perhaps it was because I always felt that he was the elder between the two of us even though I did beat him to the starting line by a few months? While he fit in our times, I was barely hanging onto my sanity. I had two unpublished manuscripts in my bag. I was doing my MA in Creative Writing at Boston University. I had fallen into a bad company of artists where interrogation of why we create and for whom were still questions which meant being constantly destabilized…always without a foothold. Philippe I felt had already gone through these growing pains and had already began building.
Or maybe, by not reading his book, I was protecting him from always having to sing the same song by not keeping him trapped between the covers of Kinship. A published book is set in stone. It is immutable, a monument and either the writer is able to rise above it with successive works or remains lesser than the first work. The latter possibility is a tragedy for it simply means that one's best writing has been done. From my experience there is always competition between the writer the work: competition for friendships, audience and even ideas.
Then there is also competition between a new and old work. When my first book was published recently, I was deep into my third manuscript. I was happy that the first was published, but what really mattered was what I was in the process of writing. It has been difficult to speak about the first book while thinking, “How much better it would be if we were talking about what I am working on now?”
Artists tend refer to their works as children. But I think the artist loves most what is still in gestation, followed by the roundness of a full pregnancy. After the birth, the imagination simply orphans the child and moves on.
Whatever the reason for my not having read Kinship maybe, I shall allow myself to hope that I was providing a space where growing ideas could be explored without Philippe feeling that he was straight jacketed between the covers of Kinship. I hope that he would forgive me for what is starting to sound to me like laziness.
One year after Philippe's death, I finally have a copy of Kinship. I wait two weeks before I read it. I get other books from the library and read them to exhaustion.
What am I expecting to find? A ghost? Do I expect to break down as I did one year ago, drunk, wailing and walking in the rain and called Muna late at night? Of all the selfish things I could have done, it was to call Muna that night for if anybody needed to be held together, it would have had to be Muna, or Philippe's fiancée, Marang. The evening before, I had called Philippe's apartment to speak to Muna who was staying there while Philippe was in Africa. Muna was not home. The answering machine picked up. It was Philippe's voice greeting and asking the caller to leave a message.
When Muna called me back, he said that he could not bring himself to erase the greeting. He was still surrounded by Philippe's things. Did this make it easier or harder for him to mourn?
Muna was worried about me. He said that he was surrounded by friends who knew Philippe; but I, having recently moved had no one to commune with. He was right. Each friendship assumes there are no others before it. When I told my friends in Madison about Philippe's death, they could sympathize, but it was an empathy that could not touch or embrace. They could perhaps see my pain but not the person lost. We could not laugh, cry or remember together. Philippe was a stranger to them.
And all the anguish bitterness and rage that came with my mother's death had resurfaced. So I did the next thing possible. I drank. And when that would not contain the pain, I walked home from the bar in the rain, crying all the way, lyrics to a Temptation's song playing in the back of my head stupidly: “sunshine blue skies please go away…how I wish it would rain…cause raindrops will hide my teardrops…”
It was when I got home that I called Muna.
The one wise thing I could think of to share with Muna was that there is no healing; that mourning is pointless except as something to tide you by for a while; that mourning will finally be defeated. Absence is real…a fact that becomes permanent. A war victim learns to function without a limb but dreams of it. But I could not say this at the time.
In the end, with no one to commune with in Madison, my mourning remained delayed. Is why I was so apprehensive about reading Kinship?
When I finally read the book I realized that I should have read it a long time ago, not because I would have known Philippe better, but for the simple reason that it is a useful book. And in my opinion this is the deepest compliment you can give a book. I certainly could have used it to develop my own thinking on the nature of the relationship between the African and African American or on the nature of history. It is the first book by a member of my generation who understands our times, who has immersed him or herself in the hours and minutes without losing sight of the decades and centuries. Kinship is not a memoir in the traditional sense, it is a historical document, showing how we are shaped and produced by history. It speaks to our generation by saying that we cannot and do not exist outside our history.
In Kinship, we have Philippe growing up one foot in an African heritage and the other in an African American heritage. In it there is him and his family; there are the hardships that each family faces as well as the triumphs, there is warmth and love. They also live almost interchangeably in African and American societies. Each society has its claims on them. In the Congo, there is Mobutu and his dictatorship which eventually leads his father to become a ‘rebel' leader. In the United States, there is racism. There is no escaping from history. Philippe, writing of his brother and their confronting boys their age who had hurled racial slurs at them in Boston says, “Remy then around nine or ten, solemnly challenged them to a fight. Remy gave me a pep talk before the fight, explaining the importance, we weren't fighting just for ourselves but for black people everywhere, and weren't going to allow the those white boys to disrespect us like that.” They go on to win the fight. Remy later dies of cancer at a young age.
Kinship is not a simple coming-of-age story, or the first realization of the metaphorical meaning of the sun and rain, the first arching towards art for arts for sake, when nature reveals the secrets of beauty: It's about racialized history and the little practical permutations that come with it. It is a Palestinian kid hurling a rock at an Israeli tank or the children of Soweto marching against apartheid and dying. Remy is right in saying they are fighting for black people for this is not the innocent turf wars between gangs in suburbia but a struggle that defines the very consciousness of every black person in America. Each slight, each incidence of racism, each put down has nothing to do with the individual but with history. There is no innocence. It is this struggle that Philippe, through the randomness of birth, is born into. In Africa colonialism mutates into neocolonialism and indelibly marks his family. Twin heritages: slavery and colonialism, both brought into this world by an insatiable capitalism. Still, Kinship never forgets to be a memoir, there are enclaves of a warmth and love. It is also a story about family.
I did not mourn Philippe while I read the book. I was engrossed in the questions the book asked: How can the relationship between two groups be used, and I say used, for these things have to be useful, towards not a racialized liberation of humanity which in the end only affirms the racism it sought to deny in the first place, but a liberation for us all?
For the African American and the African are at loggerheads.
The African views the African American in much the same way as their white counter part does. The African American views the African in much the same ways as their white counter part does.
We see each other through the eyes of racism. There is a love bred on a common ancestry, and shared skin, but this is not enough for it cannot translate into action. It is nostalgia:
“If only we can become one….”
“If only we can see our common oppression….”
But nostalgia does not understand action, like wet dough it can only point to what it can become. Express the wish, but do not mistake it for reality. We have had a lot of African and African American leaders, who have understood how we have been had, took and hoodwinked, to use the words of Malcom X. They have gone to great pains to solidify the wish, turn it into something tangible and when Malcom X visited Africa it was a visit of solidarity. The two struggles have never been separate, they are inextricably linked.
But there is a difference between leaders and people realizing the “interconnectedness of our struggle”. For a political truth to live, it has to be owned by the people. It has to be in their daily consciousness and underline their quest for liberation. What is needed is not only for our leaders to recognize this interconnectedness for that does not necessarily translate into action, but for the people, the masses of the people in Africa and Diaspora to embrace in their political consciousness the need to act as one. The pitfall of Pan-Africanism has been it tendency to try and unite leaders in the Diaspora as opposed to the people. What is needed is for the African American in the ghetto and the African in the village to speak of this relationship, to understand it, to embrace it and once and for all make the liberation of both parties and indeed for all of the oppressed a part of their consciousness.
The last time I remember meeting Philippe properly (outside the fanfare of events and meetings), was when he met with the director of the African Outreach Program where I also happened to work at the time. After he was done with the meeting we went to the Dug-Out on Commonwealth Avenue, my writing bar, for a few drinks. It was my writing bar because it was always dark no matter the time of the day and there was hardly anyone ever there. And the drinks were cheap. I do not remember how we got to the topic but ended up talking about being in the United States and culture shock. But this was a culture shock with a twist for what we were lamenting about was the absence of real debate over real issues as opposed to the shock of a first winter or the wonderment at the height of New York Skyscrapers.
There is something to be said about growing up in Kenya, debates are heated and meaningful. In my high school we spent endless hours talking about the French Revolution and the meaning of mere “flag independence” whereby people continued living in the same conditions as colonialism ushered in neocolonialism. In the United States, meaningful debate was absent. It is a result of the narcissism that comes from extreme nationalism, where the American has to first locate and center him or herself in the debate before it can have meaning – “we are number one, now what do you have to say for yourself” or some other variance of the same statement. So the debate on lets say the wars on Grenada, Panama or Iraq was the method of intervention (armed or economic) as opposed to whether such an action was justified in the first place.
Philippe asked me to write a short article about this culture shock for Africana.com. It turned out to be a whole manuscript on American politics that I titled – Looking at America: A Malignant History. For a writer, this is the gift of good friendships, the ability to ignite ideas that easily turn into a life's work.
I am done reading Kinship and I do not find Philippe in it, rather I find myself in it and being challenged into action. My memory of him cannot be of him but of me seeing him. Memory is when all is said and done, selfish. Kinship on the other hand is a memory of history. In it, we have history that has existed before our generation and history that will exist after we are gone. All deaths are individual but living is a collective affair. I do not doubt this. I cannot doubt this. Writing is erasing yourself onto the page, the more you write, the more you become distinct from what you are writing and the more what you are writing becomes distinct from you, the more the separation completes. I am not after the mystical or after propagating the myth of the writer but just this cold fact: I can touch my dead friend's book without seeing him.
A month or so after moving to Madison, my lung collapsed and I thought I was going to die. I suppose in any other circumstance I could very well have died or been terribly sick (as one of the doctors put it) had I not been close to a hospital and with university health insurance. Instead, what could have been tragic became comical. After painfully writing out my will (a very brief one at that) as well as I could, I asked my doctor if indeed it was time for me to check out of life. She laughed since it was under these circumstances a routine surgery.
I did not die, and I found no instruction from this experience. I was out of hospital three or four days later not in the best of shape but alive and well on my way to recovery. I have not found any instruction in the deaths of my mother or Philippe other than painfully bringing home the obvious fact of death. I mourned in the best way I knew how and continued living. But it matters that they lived. Not because they touched so many lives, any life invariably touches many. It is about how they touched people and what they demanded of them.
I do not know anything about death except that it must bring with it enormous regret not for the life lived but for what could have been done tomorrow. For if you have decided, as Philippe in Kinship did, that you have something to say about your existence, and that your existence can speak to history, and you have demanded that the world listen, and you still have so much to live for, then that moment when consciousness slips away from you has to be one of regret:...so much work to be done. So much work he could have done.
Perhaps for myself I regret that I and Philippe might have collaborated on something but then again perhaps not. It is pointless to go on like this – what is important is that he lived and that he recorded his thoughts honestly and they are useful.
When somebody close to you dies, there is no sudden realization, no epiphanies: just a constant sorrow, just an amputated limb whose shadow at night becomes real once again in a dream. In my dreams, my mother is always alive. When I wake up, I think of her and miss her - no rage, just a steady almost lazy sorrow. But I do not embrace my friends tighter. When my girlfriend visits, I do not say goodbye to her as if for the last time. And when I do tell her that I love her, it is not because it could be for the last time, it is simply because I do. I do not write each poem as if it is a last testament. I do not walk with a sense of urgency. I just keep knowing what everyone knows, that it is important that each life become useful to the extent that it is in the service of a collective humanity. Philippe was alive and his life was useful.
I am wrong by saying a text is immutable and a monument set on stone for a book does not just exist between the hard covers. Kinship is now being taught in universities, more and more people are talking about the book. Kinship is interacting with our imagination. And as it grows old, the interpretations will vary, it will engage with different aspects of history and generations. It will keep growing.
So this is what I have been trying to say all along. If you are a writer, try to write well and always honestly, and do not forget history for surely it is not done with us. If you love, love deeply, constantly and well. And always be useful.
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