The film conveys the spirit of the period immediately after independence, when Africans at home and in the Diaspora were united by the single purpose of working for socio-political transformation of the African people. The challenge of building pan-African unity and prosperity remains for the present generation.
“Footprints of Pan-Africanism” written and directed by the African American film maker, Shirikiana Gerima is dedicated to the late Kofi Awoonor who’s life was tragically taken during the Westgate shopping mall massacre on 21 September 2013 by Al-Shabaab terrorists in Nairobi, Kenya. The inspiration for the film came when Gerima was in Ghana in the early 1990s. Her first film entitled, “Through the Door of No Return”, came out in 1997 – that is four years after the stirring film, “Sankofa” by her husband, film maker Haile Gerima. Shirikiana Gerima explains that, “Through the Door of No Return looks at slavery and the reasons why Africans were dispersed.”
“Footprints of Pan-Africanism,” she says “addresses the biggest reunion of people in the Diaspora to come together, reconstruct, put back together and undo some of the damage that had been caused by slavery and then colonialism under Kwame Nkrumah, and other people who had this vision for a new solid independent Africa.” She says that both films “are part of a logical process of trying to understand what has happened to us.”
The film narrates through several voices, the perceptions of African Americans, African Caribbeans and includes that of the Ghanaian poet and diplomat, Kofi Awoonor, and Esi Sutherland-Addy on Africa’s iconic Pan-Africanist trail blazer – Kwame Nkrumah, who sought to build an economically strong Ghana in the immediate period of independence.
In 1951 Nkrumah, then “Leader of Government business” in the Gold Coast, visited his alma mater, Lincoln University, Pennsylvania, and invited African Americans to come to Ghana and contribute in building the country as teachers, doctors and artists. Several heeded Nkrumah’s invitation, including dentists Dr Robert and Sara Lee; Curtis Kojo Morrow, a Korean war veteran; Carlos Alston, a former engineer and artist; Jamaican-born writer, Yvonne Sobers; John Ray, a sculptor and academic Cecile Mchardy. All lived in Ghana and contributed in the spheres of health, culture, intellectual ideas and politics.
As Awoonor remarks, Nkrumah was an African leader who fully resonated and identified with the issues and conditions of African Americans. Nkrumah had lived for 12 years in the entrails of imperialist America and Britain and was intimately acquainted with its mores and treatment of people of colour.
Considerable contributions are made by Robert Lee and Kofi Awoonor who give interesting insights into Nkrumah’s Pan-Africanist vision. The former befriended Nkrumah as a student at Lincoln University during the late 1930s along with other African students such as Nnamdi Azikiwe. Lee claims the encounter with the young Nkrumah changed his outlook on life and himself. Lee informs us that in discussions with Nkrumah about the health system for Ghanaians, the two agreed that “health would have to be put on wheels”, that is, health would have to be taken to the villages and adapted for the needs and in the materials realities of Ghana in which a critical mass of human resources and technology was lacking.
Whilst all the contributors are uncritical of Ghana under Nkrumah, they convey the spirit of the time, Nkrumah’s connection with Africans in the Diaspora, as well as the united purpose of Africans – both continental and Diasporan in working for socio-political transformation. For example, Curtis Kojo Morrow conveys his deep disillusion with America and politicisation through reading and listening to the Nation of Islam. He also read Nkrumah’s “I Speak of Freedom” that was published in 1961. On arriving in Ghana he was emotionally overcome.
However, the young Yvonne Sobers who had been brought up to think of herself as thoroughly British, and wholly ill-informed, went to Ghana as a result of falling in love and realised she did not have a “tribe” nor village to connect her with ordinary Ghanaians. However, she narrates that once she became pregnant with twins and became a mother, she was warmly embraced by Ghanaians. Sobers also made the important point that she had to make a decision to either remain as an outsider and align herself with British culture, or accommodate herself to African society.
Nkrumah was certainly a Pan-Africanist icon in the heydays of the 1960s to the extent that other African Americans such as Maya Angelou and W. E. B. Dubois came to live in Ghana, whilst others such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X made short visits. The latter referred to Ghana as “the fountainhead of Pan-Africanism”.
Sobers remarks that “Kwame Nkrumah spoke for all of us” during this era. Moreover, she believes, “There was never a time when it was wonderful to be black and living in Ghana.”
Awoonor places the context of Malcolm X’s visit in 1964 and Malcolm’s experience of being in Ghana as part of the footprints of Pan-Africanism, for Malcolm returned to the US and now insisted on internationalising the problems of African Americans at the level of the UN. He had created the Organisation of Afro-American Unity (OAAU) a year after the founding of the Organisation of African Unity in 1963. Awoonor believes that the OAAU would have become the African American component of the OAU.
Robert Lee comments that Nkrumah regrets he never met Marcus Garvey who deeply inspired Nkrumah. The depths of this inspiration was manifested in Nkrumah walking in the footprints of Garvey with the black star planted in the centre of Ghana’s new national flag, which was designed by Mrs Theodosiah Okoh; and Nkrumah’s government establishing the Black Star Shipping Line in honor of Garvey in the immediate aftermath of independence.
The footage of Nkrumah in the company of world leaders such as Haile Selassie, Julius Nyerere, Chou En Lai, Fidel Castro, Martin Luther King Jr, Sekou Toure, and Adam Clayton Powell sheds light on Nkrumah’s international stature as statesman. Yvonne Sobers makes the point that the three important leaders during the 1960s were President Kennedy, President Khruschev and President Nkrumah whom people listened to.
Cecile McHardy comments that it was during this time that Ghanaians were sent to America and Europe to acquire library skills and return to staff the George Padmore Library in Accra in honour of the African Trinidadian who had been not only mentor to Nkrumah (and other Africans in London in the 1930s) but also appointed Minister of African Affairs by Nkrumah. [Sadly since Nkrumah’s overthrow, no other African leader has followed in his footsteps and appointed competent members of the African Diaspora into positions of government as an embodiment of the implementation of Pan-Africanist convictions].
Esi Sutherland-Addy, former director of the W. E. B. Dubois Memorial Centre for Pan-African Culture, argues in the film that “Pan-Africanism is a tool to help us to return to a sense of self; it will enable us to feel and understand what happened to the present; to understand what the potentials are and most importantly to understand the dangers of taking the easy path.”
There is a sadness and nostalgia in several of the contributors’ recollections of the 24 February 1966 coup that deposed Nkrumah. Cecile McHardy remarks that the clock was turned back for a generation with the overthrow. Awoonor is of the view that Ghana and Africa have yet to recover from that conspiracy. Moreover, he argues that there is a direct link between the assassination of Malcolm X, the murders of Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral, Eduardo Mondlane and the overthrow of Nkrumah. He is of the opinion that they were not by accident but rather “part of a grand design to stop the march” of these individuals and the march of Africa’s history. This point is further emphasized in the film with a list of other equally important events that occurred on the African continent which reinforce the argument that imperialism had to abort the efforts of African people to create Pan-Africanist unity.
Fifty-one years since Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown in Ghana there have been few African leaders who have had the audacity to tread in his footprints. If they have had the courage to do so – such as the controversial Colonel Muammar Gaddafi – they have been vilified and executed by the forces of imperialism and neo-colonial agents. However, the challenge remains for the present generation to continue to walk in such footprints, looking to the past in a similar way to the Sankofa bird in order to create and imagine a better future for all of Africa’s peoples.
“Footprints of Pan-Africanism” recently won first prize at the Luxor African film festival in Egypt. It is scheduled to be screened at the New York film festival at the Lincoln Centre. Individuals and groups interested in screening the film can contact Sankofa book store in Washington DC: 202-234-4755 or email [email protected] for details on how to access the film.
* Dr Ama Biney is a historian and political scientist living in London.
* THE VIEWS OF THE ABOVE ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND DO NOT NECESSARILY REFLECT THE VIEWS OF THE PAMBAZUKA NEWS EDITORIAL TEAM
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