The most striking quality about Prof Ogot is his absolute love of and commitment to his discipline, History.
- Here is a man who has been nearly everything important in academic and public life, international scholar, Professor, Member of the East African Legislative Assembly.
- Yet, when all is said and done, the production and interpretation of history remain his primary concern.
- His favourite place is, even now at 90, at that desk in his study in the Bethwell Ogot Research Library at his Yala Home, now a facility of national status.
“Those who know not whence they come know not whither they go” (asojua atokako, wa’aendako hajui). Both in English and in my “grandmother tongue”, that sounds like a methali or proverb. But it is actually a saying that I adapted and put in a short umanju that I extemporised for Prof “Japuonj” Bethwell Allan Ogot during the celebrations of his 90th birthday. This was on Saturday, August 3, at his residence in Yala, Gem Location, Siaya County.
The aphorism suggests that a diligent understanding of our past leads to a confident handling of the present and a prudent planning for the future. We grow through careful avoidance of the mistakes of the past and adoption of the positive values that have sustained us and ensured the survival and continuity of our societies. That is how the preeminent professors ponderously pontificate from the rostra and podia of their lecture theatres!
But even for us plain folk, the past goes beyond what happened in the last 24 hours. We mean not just years and decades but also centuries, millennia and even aeons. The longer and clearer our memories are, the stronger and more self-assured our societies will be. Indeed, as Chinua Achebe points out in Morning Yet on Creation Day, one of the tools that our enslavers and colonisers used to devastate our societies was the lie that we had no faith, no philosophy, no aesthetics and no history.
Armed with this falsehood, regarding Africa as one mass of primitive, savage mass of darkness, waiting to be discovered, converted and civilised, the predators moved in with their greedy gods, guns, gadgets and governors to work on the “natives”. The rest, as they say, is history, a deeply depressing history that is still playing out in the African Diaspora and even on our continent.
For, much as we glory in our hard-won independence, there are many areas of our societies where it is “not yet uhuru”, to echo the unforgettable Jaramogi. On the cultural front, for example, there is what Ngugi wa Thiong’o, whom Bethwell Ogot taught History at Makerere, calls “decolonising the mind”, systematically liberating our thought and behaviour patterns from external impositions.
You may compare that to my “deshenzinisation” hypothesis seeking to combat the inferiority complex imposed on us by those who brainwashed us into thinking that we were inherently “shenzi”, and therefore incapable of normal, decent behaviour expected of any human being. Only shenzis steal public funds when given an opportunity to serve. Only shenzis would slap, imprison or kill one another just because of political differences. Only shenzis take advantage of their positions to harass their juniors at work or students at school, or even patients at hospitals.
Are you wondering what all this has to do with history? Well, sages like Bethwell Ogot would tell you that it is everything. Scholars like Walter Rodney may argue convincingly that the main reason why Africa became and remains underdeveloped is that slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism robbed her of her material resources – human, natural and territorial – and continue to do so under various guises.