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Drawing on the immortal words of Thomas Sankara, Kingwa Kamencu calls on all those concerned for Africa to ‘dare to invent the future’, in an opening speech at the Oxford University Africa Society ‘Pan-Africanism for a new generation’ conference.

Honoured guests, friends and colleagues,

I’ll begin by quoting Thomas Sankara, former Burkina Faso president and a very notable Pan-African theorist, assassinated at the young age of 38. He said:

‘I would like to leave behind me the conviction that if we maintain a certain amount of caution and organisation we deserve victory. You cannot carry out fundamental change without a certain amount of madness. In this case, it comes from non-conformity, the courage to turn your back on the old formulas, the courage to invent the future. It took the madmen of yesterday for us to be able to act with extreme clarity today. I want to be one of those madmen. We must dare to invent the future.’
–Thomas Sankara (21 December 1949 – 15 October 1987)

I feel deeply privileged to stand here before you on this day, Saturday, the 4th of June 2011, as we take part in the first of what hopes to be a series of inaugural conferences on Pan-Africanism at Oxford. Being here in England far from home is not always an easy thing. The feelings of loneliness and isolation you might sometimes feel as well as the experience of embracing a new culture can be life changing and shape you in interesting ways. And it is not always a bad thing. For a lot of us from Africa for instance, Africa is always at the forefront of our minds – possibly in a way that it would never be were we actually in Africa. I know this to be true from conversations I have had with you, members of the Africa society and African students from other universities. The distance from home does a funny thing, it actually makes you concentrate a lot more on Africa than if you were there. And so to all people from the continent, I salute you; this conference hopes to collate and amalgamate those energies, to bring them together in a way that can have some impact in the continent.

As we meet here, we are joined as well by people from different parts of the world, people from as far as China, the USA, Belgium and the United Kingdom who study Africa, who are interested in Africa, many of whom share the same passion for it and are eager to see the continent achieve its potential. To these wonderful friends of Africa I want to say thank you. Africa needs all the friends it can get at this time, and your interest, your belief and indeed your love for Africa and its people is much appreciated and hence please feel very much at home here.

The idea for this conference was hatched about a year ago as Nelson Oppong, the general secretary of Afrisoc, and I sat thinking about how we could take advantage of our being in England to bring African students together and revive the Pan-African dream. We are absolutely staggered, and indeed extremely excited, that this day actually is coming to pass and we thank all of you here for very bravely responding to the call. I say bravely because this is something Afrisoc has not attempted to do in the past (to the best of my knowledge) and because what you are responding to is something that critics might term a mere ‘mirage’ or a useless dream.

But I want to remind us here that everything, every single great event, happening, creation or work is preceded by a dream. And hence the people that are here have bought into the dream of Africa truthfully and genuinely uniting and giving its citizens a decent standard of living, of enabling its people to arrive at their highest potentials, and indeed, to confidently make its contributions to the world, without exploitation, oppression or injustice weighing it down. Unfortunately, this oppression, injustice, poverty is what the present story about Africa is. Africa is the richest continent in the world, but the divide and rule tactic that still happens, under the thumb of former colonial powers, corporate groups bent on extracting its minerals and companies interested in oil – of course with the collaboration of some of Africa’s own rulers – means that African countries are the poorest in the world and African people have some of the most undignified living standards.

This image of Africa as a depraved, distressed and disturbed continent haunts you everywhere you go. As an African person, the world is not as much your oyster as you’d like it to be. Everywhere you go, you carry the African label, which a lot of the time is still associated with poverty, illegitimacy, something to be suspicious of or pitied. The airport experience is one many might be familiar with – where your passport needs extra scrutiny, where you might be grilled a little longer, where you never can shake off the hint of panic that grabs you every time you get to Heathrow … did you forget your TB X-ray? But it’s not about the indignities the African elite face. It’s the reality of the situation back home that is most harrowing. In this day and age, it is inexcusable that people in Africa die of famine, of curable diseases, of deaths that occur due to lack of health facilities and amenities. We need to make it clear that the everyday manner in which life is cheap in Africa must come to an end. It is over; we have had it. African souls must be taken seriously – by everyone, African people themselves, African leaders and the rest of the world. And we will police this if needs be done. We are discontent with the state of affairs and declare today to be a turning point in the continent’s history.

Friends, I do very much believe that our seeking the answers to the challenges facing Africa gives us an opportunity to examine and interrogate the state of the world today as well. Who runs it, why is it run in this manner, is every soul around the world allowed to attain its full capacity and potential? What are we here for anyway? Of course, these are big questions that I don’t suppose that we will answer today, but I suspect that our resolving some of the challenges facing Africans will force us to look out and seek to give answers to some of these other issues facing the world.

Our conference today is titled ‘Pan-Africanism for a new generation’, a theme Dr Patricia Daley helped us come up with after wrestling with a title for weeks (you wouldn’t believe it!). We had earlier played around with titles such as ‘Arrested development’ and ‘Africa unites’, but this one speaks to our concerns best. As we attempt to come up with answers to our collective predicament, we thought evoking and reaching out to a force that has proven to be of much help to use would be very relevant. It was the Pan-Africanism of the late 19th century that helped end slavery; it was the Pan-Africanism of the 1950s that brought an end to colonial rule. We are hence convinced that it will be Pan-Africanism in this 21st century that will help Africa unite sustainably to face its economic, political and social challenges. It is not about uniting for the sake of being hip or cool, but out of sheer necessity where our own survival is dependent on this – socially, economically and politically.

I must say that Pan-Africanism’s fluidity and flexibility makes it very much useful for our time as well. While in earlier times Pan-Africanism may have been about black African people, the times have a-changed and it now encompasses African people of all colours. Africa, like many parts of the world today, is a rainbow continent. Taking it further – as per Ali Mazrui’s argument – Africa was the birth place of all modern man, and hence all man is descended from Africa. Africa thus has a responsibility to all of mankind, and it is this responsibility that we want to invoke and take up. The joke has been going on for too long in Africa; we its citizens are finally taking responsibility into our hands and engaging in discussions that we hope will enrich the countries’ governance.

Among the challenges we face is the question of how to effectively reach out to the earlier African diaspora – here meaning in the Caribbean and in America. Indeed in some sense this does mean black people of African descent around the world. It is an open secret that black people around the world are among the most badly off financially, socially and politically. In America, black people make up less than 10 per cent of the population yet make up 35 per cent of the jail and prison population. The Afro-Caribbean countries are an island of desolation amidst still growing prosperity of America and Latin America. The Pan-African dream of the 1900s and 1950s thus did not complete its mandate; this is part of the mission our generation ought to take up and fulfil dear conference participants.

As I end, I would like to say a huge thank you to the great and amazing souls that were part of the planning for this conference – the Africa Society Conference Planning Committee. If they could just stand wherever they are and wave their hands, I would like to mention them by name: Toritse Orubu – chair of the committee, Nelson Oppong – secretary general, Nimi Hoffmann – publicity secretary, Rawia Amer – treasurer, Hannah Dawson, Ayokunu Adedokun, Jessica Thorn, John Ganle and Hanneke Baeten. In addition, Moshe Molefe, a crucial part of the organising, was also part of the team but had to leave last week for urgent business in South Africa. This group worked tirelessly to make this event come to pass and were extremely unselfish of their time and energy. They are the madmen and women of today (and of course I say that with the most reverence possible), the madmen and women Thomas Sankara talked about – the ones that dared turn their back on the old formulas of doing things, possessing a faith that moves mountains. I would also like to thank our sponsors to this event, the African Studies Centre under the leadership of Dr David Pratten – the centre has been wonderful. Thanks to them we have this venue; they’ve been crucial in the running of Afrisoc to date and I want to say a big thank you to them. Think Africa Press also came on very helpfully to help sponsor us and we do look forward to working with them some more in future; they are part of the group spreading ideas around the continent, which will be most crucial for its development. I would also very much like to thank Professor Raufu Mustapha, who also funded this event in part, and who has been patron of Afrisoc for a long time, and been helpful with the past years’ committee especially. Thank you! And Patricia Daley as well, and the Tajudeen Abdul-Raheem Committee, among others.

As we usher our keynote speaker here to speak, I would like to encourage all those from outside Oxford to feel very much at home here today. I would also like to encourage everyone to engage openly and not feel restrained to contribute where you feel you would like to. We hope that at the end of this event, we all will be more emboldened to take ownership of Africa at a more personal level and use the opportunity we may have here in England for now to make a difference in the continent. Let’s go crazy in our dreaming and designing the future. Friends, let’s dare to invent the future!


* Kingwa Kamencu is president of the Oxford University Africa Society.
* This article comprises a speech given at the Oxford University Africa Society Pan-Africanism Conference on Saturday 4 June 2011.
* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.