Remembering Walter Rodney: Tanzania was his second home

14Jul 2020
The Guardian
Remembering Walter Rodney: Tanzania was his second home

A NUMBER of commentators in various countries in Africa and the Caribbean in particular have taken time to reflect on the 40 years since the death of iconic historian and avowed radical intellectual, Dr Walter Rodney.

There were commemorative events of his death in the past, for instance in 2006 an international conference was held at the University of Dar es Salaam on that theme, and scores of his old colleagues graced the stage and audience. This time it would have been difficult enough to organize such an event, as the mid-June date was still covered by travel restrictions worldwide arising from Covid-19.

While plenty has been said in relation to his contribution reinterpreting the history of sub-Saharan Africa, these days of Black Lives Matter give a new impetus to his legacy, as to how far the world has come in repudiating this legacy, atoning for wrongs committed in this quest. Monuments have been taken down in various parts of the world, for instance a monument for the great southern Africa colonizer, Cecil Rhodes was taken down in London, while Confederate monuments (defenders of slavery during the US civil war) were being taken down as well. Belgium issued ‘regrets’ for crimes against humanity in DR Congo of old, committed when the vast country was a personal fiefdom of King Leopold II for two decades or so.

This was largely unthinkable until recently, and it needs an anthology of what took place for Europe and the United States to come this far, not just renouncing systematic racism in police violence, but the legacy of colonialism and its atrocities. During his life, on the basis of what reviewers have been saying in their memorial write ups, Dr Rodney remained skeptical that the Western world would ever get beyond its colonial and thus racist legacy in day to day life. Kenyan scholar Prof Ali Mazrui, who was less militant and more optimistic, was convinced that ‘the world would be cured of racism,’ retaining class divisions.

In one of his contributions towards the issue, President Nyerere devoted a speech to an international conference of Maryknoll Sisters in 1970 to explore the theme, ‘The Courage of Reconciliation,’ but undeniably it has been a difficult task in the post-colonial environment. Even after independence those who ruled Africa wished to retain their prerogatives, and given the lack of national cohesion in newly emerging countries, and with abysmal poverty, little remittances to middle level or upper army officers led to a plethora of coups in the first five years of independence. Nyerere said in 1963 after the killing of Togolese president Sylvanus Olympio that ‘there is a devil in Africa.’ Perhaps it is now sort of retreating.

Outside his native country of Guyana, Dr Rodney had Tanzania as a second home, coming to teach at the University of Dar es Salaam after his doctoral thesis devoted to the slave trade, ‘A History of the Upper Guinea Coast.’ In his period here he wrote ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,’ a key book in ‘Development Studies’ since 1974. Dr Rodney raised a cadre of faculty staff who then raised students across decades, thus the vast changes of orientation and political ethics under the fifth phase is also a far flung fruit of Dr Rodney’s legacy at UDSM, as his younger lieutenants carried forward that activism.

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