Mũkoma wa Ngũgi is an assistant professor of English at Cornell University, a novelist, editor, poet, co-founder of the Mabati-Cornell Kiswahili Prize for African Literature and co-director of the Global South Cultural Dialogue Project. He was born in 1971 in Evanston, Illinois, and grew up in Kenya before returning to the United States for his undergraduate and graduate education. He is currently based in Norwalk, Connecticut.

As a scholar of repute, Mũkoma is an important voice in contemporary discourse in and about Africa. Our conversations about the “(un-) making of icons in Africa” took place over e-mail, over a two-week period. We questioned what constitutes an ‘icon’, how the notion has been conceptualised, by whom and why, and whether there is space for rethinking some entrenched, patronising narratives about Africa.

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Mũkoma explores a redefinition of what ‘icon’ means in the African context, the unearthing of names that are all too often forgotten, the invisibility of female icons in our historical narratives, and the nature and role of the diaspora in our cultural, political and economic production. He takes note of the growing racism and the tyranny of anti-immigration policies in the West, which are making African immigrants vulnerable to deportation alongside their Muslim and Latino neighbours. Mũkoma also touches on the changing approaches to social change and resistance, from vanguard revolutions to people-powered and people-led revolutions – as seen in the Rhodes/Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa and the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA. He blasts the growing pestilence of prosperity preachers and televangelists in African cities and calls for participation by all Africans in imagining not only the vocabularies we employ to capture the present moment but also the nature of the future we aspire to inhabit.

Richard Oduor (RO): When you consider the notion of icons in society, what comes to mind?

Mũkoma wa Ngũgi (MN): I think most of the people we consider to be icons would not see themselves as such. They would see themselves as ordinary people who, against difficult odds, as in apartheid, colonialism and dictatorships, spoke up. They were not born icons, circumstances created them. The ‘icon’ is what we choose to remember, and it is often so that we cannot confront the reality of their time. Take Mandela, for instance. The Mandela of truth and reconciliation, the affable old man, quick with a witticism, is what we iconise. The Mandela of armed struggle, the revolutionary, the defiant, unapologetic guerrilla fighter and leader at the 1964 Rivonia trial, that Mandela is not the icon we know of today. That Mandela was a revolutionary who, in his speech at that trial, gave the most incisive diagnosis of apartheid South Africa and the need for an armed struggle against it.

RO:  If a young man, sitting with you in a café, was to ask you to name five memorable cultural pioneers of the older, post-independence generation, from Africa, whose influence has spread to other parts of the world, who would they be?

MN: Aha, why does it have to be a young man asking the question? Why not a woman?

I often think of Ruth First, an anti-apartheid revolutionary assassinated by the apartheid government in 1982 as our very own Rosa Luxemburg, the Polish/German revolutionary assassinated in 1919 in Germany because of her political activism. I would also mention Malcolm X, because why shouldn’t we claim him for Africa? After all, he claimed Africa for black Americans when he sought solidarity with Tanzanians, Kenyans and Ghanaians before his assassination. Or W.E.B Dubois and Sol Plaatje, the pioneers of what would become the radical Pan-Africanism embraced by Kwame Nkrumah.

RO: Comment on the invisibility of female icons in our historical narratives. Why do you think this is so, and what can we do to change it?

MN: Take Kenyan history, for example, and the legacy of the Mau Mau or the Kenyan Land and Freedom Army. The Kenyatta and Moi governments had vested interests in suppressing it in order to loot the country blind while cementing neocolonialism. One could not do the work of recovering the role of women in the anti-colonial struggle without contradicting the dictatorship. For example, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi, the play by Ngugi and Micere Mugo, which showed the centrality of women in the struggle, was banned, Ngugi later detained without trial and both were eventually forced into exile.

Statue of Dedan Kimathi Nairobi. Field Marshal Waciuri (October 31, 1920 – February 18, 1957) was a Kenyan rebel leader who fought against British colonization in Kenya in the 1950s. He was convicted and executed by the British colonial government.

RO: According to the United Nations, 1,2 billion people, or 16% of the world’s population, live in Africa. Predictions show that more than half of the global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to occur in Africa. More than 40% of the population is younger than 15, and more than 50% are younger than 25. In a continent with such a young population, it is conceivable that the new cultural icons are younger and engaged in fields that are more attractive to Africa’s youth today. What has been your observation? Can you name a figure(s) representative of this transition in how we view and understand cultural icons?

MN: By definition, an icon is one that we have abstracted from real, lived history. By definition, icons, as we have known them, actually reified them, are always a lesser sum total than what they were in real lived history. Understanding that they would not want to be called ‘icons’ but rather ‘a generation of revolution’, I think the Rhodes/Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa and the Black Lives Matter movement in the US give us the iconography of our times, rather than individual icons. Rather than the vanguardist movements, led by an enlightenment few who hijacked and ushered us straight into the hands of neocolonialism, I think the new movements are horizontal and understand political energy as the force, as opposed to individual leadership. Their long-lasting impact will be in redefining our approaches to social change and resistance, from vanguard revolutions to people-powered and people-led revolutions.

RO: Do you think the Rhodes/Fees Must Fall movement has the potential f to decolonise, for lack of a better word, the Eurocentric paradigm underlying most pedagogy and scholarship in Africa’s universities?

MN: It certainly can, but it needs the rest of society to be involved. It is not just a student problem but rather symptomatic of neo-apartheid. You cannot have affirmative action for the black majority in South Africa. The end result is repression by the ANC government as workers and students demand economic justice. The Marikana massacre, where the ANC shot dead protesting mineworkers, showed just how entrenched the ANC is in neo-apartheid structures. The Rhodes/Fees Must Fall movement needs engagement with the broader, struggling society.

RO: The African diaspora has become an important part of the new wave of imagining the possibilities of what I would call ‘a new Africa’. New traditions are being fashioned and significant elements of African culture are entering foreign geographies. What essential elements of cultural exports, hybrids, are you witnessing around you?

MN: We have to allow Africa to be many things, to claim old, new and growing cultural and political traditions as its own. Why is it that we do not read early slave narratives as part of African literature; that literature from the diaspora, created by tears, blood and resistance? Why don’t we really claim, as Africans, the Haitian revolution that ushered in the first black nation, as our own? To declare independence, the Haitian revolutionaries, led by Touissant L’Ouverture, defeated the Spanish, French and British armies. They defeated Napoleon! Why isn’t this history part of our collective memory? I am not so sure we can recognise the diaspora without acknowledging the revolutionary diaspora of the past. Having said that, because some of the literature from the diaspora is coming from first-generation Africans in America, the literature will have different thematic concerns than, let’s say, the literature of the Makerere generation, the Achebe generation. For the Makerere generation, return was possible. For the first generation of Africans, the transnational generation, return is not possible.

RO: Why is a return not possible? Is it because the transnational generation has an uneasy or a fractured relationship with the continent?

MN: First-generation Africans in the United States are Americans and Africans. They are born and live in the United States, but they have an immediate connection to Africa. If they are lucky and they can afford it, their parents take them back to their country of origin once a year, where they meet extended relatives. Later, in college, they might travel on their own, take Africa-related courses in college, perhaps even learn an African language. But they are Americans. It is not a contradiction to be both American and African – it is just who they are. And if we understand it that way, then we should be able to think of them as producing their own distinct culture, whether it is music, art or literature. Instead of trying to box it into either African or American categories, we need to see it as different; something unique to them – culture produced by a group of people in unique circumstances.

RO: What do you think is going to happen on the economic front in the future, especially since remittances from the diaspora community has become a significant driver of economic growth back home?

MN: Remittances have been a huge part of the economies of a number of African countries. Certainly, it would be great if there were governmental ministries or offices dedicated to understanding the role of the diaspora in our cultural, political and economic production. But let us also ask the question the other way around: With growing racism and anti-immigration policies in the West, with the rise of white nationalists like Donald Trump, African immigrants are vulnerable. They are being deported alongside their Muslim and Latino neighbours. What are African governments and African people doing to protect their citizens, their brothers and sisters who are facing the tyranny of anti-immigration policies, who are facing forced immigration? It would be great for, let’s say, Kenya to open its doors to US deportees – Africans and non-Africans alike. Imagine all that world knowledge and brain power becoming part of our intellectual heritage!

RO: There is a peculiar phenomenon that I have been observing. A few years ago, Mfonobong Nsehe, a contributor to Forbes magazine, wrote a story titled “Five Richest Nigerian Pastors”. A week later, Paul Adefarasin, a most erudite pastor, no doubt, angry that he did not make the ‘richest pastors of Nigeria’ list, took his grievance to church. “I am a billionaire and there is nothing anybody can do about it,” he boasted. “I have coached many billionaires and, you know, the pastor of billionaires is a billionaire.” I think this marks a significant transition from the kind of religious icon in mainstream, organised religion that we have become accustomed to – the likes of Rev Timothy Njoya in Kenya and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa. Are these tele-vangelists the new religious icons?

MN: These televangelists are prosperity preachers – really, they are the worst kind of capitalists. Jesus drove them out the den of thieves. They are good for nothing. Instead we should be embracing liberation theology – the kind preached by Bob Marley in ‘Get up, Stand up’. The God who stands up for the poor and the exploited, the God on the side of justice. I cannot say it better than Marley did:

We sick an’ tired of-a your ism-schism game –

Dyin’ ‘n’ goin’ to heaven in-a Jesus’ name, Lord.

We know when we understand:

Almighty God is a living man.

You can fool some people sometimes,

But you can’t fool all the people all the time.

So now we see the light (What you gonna do?),

We gonna stand up for our rights! (Yeah, yeah, yeah!)

Photo: bob-marley.es

In other words, let us see all religions – the Torah, the Bible, the Koran, etc – as being in the service of justice, of the exploited and the marginalised. Let us remove theology from the hands of the thieves, the ‘civilising’ colonisers, the do-gooder NGOs, and instead read them as radical texts that speak against injustice.

RO: Of course there have been extremes in this new religious persuasion. It seems that the new religious icon must be a preacher of financial prosperity as a requisite for salvation. Elegant men, in bespoke Italian suits, private jets, Daimlers, BMWs and Porsches, breathtaking mansions, shiny faces and a deep baritone, are recognisable figures on television sets across the continent. God is good if you are an African pastor. All the time. In Kenya, the spectrum is huge. We have the Mighty Prophet of the Lord, Prophet Dr David Owuor, the man who supposedly predicts and stops earthquakes and floods. He ‘resurrected’ a dead woman just a few weeks ago. In South Africa, Prophet Mboro, aka Pastor Paseka Motsoeneng, has, reportedly, been talking to God on the phone. We are now ironing our white robes and are ready for the chariots to heaven, since Pastor Mboro says he visited hell and killed Satan. What do you think about the growing virulence of this kind of religiosity, especially as these figures wield immense financial and political power and are, to some, African icons?

MN: You capture them well here. Reminds me of my father’s novel Devil on the Cross, in which thieves hold international competitions to see who can out-thieve the other. Imagine the prosperity preachers meeting with Donald Trump and other billionaires at one of his gold resorts and you have the globalised devils on the cross.

RO: We live in an era of globalisation, and one of the dominant features is American cultural hegemony. American norms, values and cultural practices are presented as superior. Globalisation has become one of the most effective tools for universalising American cultural norms as the standard culture for shaping global civilisations. Can this change?

MN: The problem is that we have been following the same models set up by the colonisers – this is the essence of neocolonialism. The social, political and economic structures set up by the coloniser continue to govern the newly independent African country. Globalisation is built on

those same structures. Think of the havoc caused by the structural adjustment programmes from the IMF and World Bank in the 1980s. There is a model that we as Africans overlook, and that is the model exemplified by Cuba. Think of Che Guevera in the Congo, where Laurent Kabila’s greed and political blindness made the Cuban mission of solidarity impossible. A little later, Cubans would fight and die in Angola. Indeed, Mandela would say that it was the Cuban intervention that broke apartheid’s back. Cubans, as it has been said, are the only people to come to Africa and leave with nothing besides their dead.

Speaking of icons, shouldn’t Castro and Che be read as part of our fabric? Watch the documentary Cuba: An African Odyssey, for example. Let me put it this way: During the Ebola outbreak, Western countries pulled out their doctors. Cuba sent 400 doctors to Sierra Leone. Let that sink in: 400 Cubans at a time when Western countries had closed their borders and mass hysteria took the place of understanding. This is the model we should be following and asking after. We need to know more about the revolutionary solidarity coming out of the global south.

RO: I want you to comment, specifically, on this: The United States’ position as the dominant maker of global culture, due to its political and economic power, means that many young Africans exposed to mainstream media and the Internet are first introduced to American cultural icons even before they know their own heroes next door. Is there a way in which (national) cultures in Africa could expand the reach of its icons, given the current pervasiveness of American movies, music, TV shows, fast-food restaurants, corporate brands and personalities?

MN: Africans have to be at the centre of their own cultural production. That means we should have thriving movie industries that compete with the best in the world. We need to make our own documentaries and have our equivalents of Motown and Hollywood. Nollywood is doing well in this regard, but we need to consider that we are a continent of close to a billion people in 55 countries. Each of the 55 countries could be a centre of its own cultural production.

RO: When we began conceptualising this interview series, we were disturbed by the fact that global narratives on Africa have always been told from the Western perspective, and this uncontested viewpoint, though a far cry from reality, has become normalised. Those figures who fit the Western imagination are iconised and those that do not are erased. Your responses belie this perspective. You seem to suggest a complete redefinition of, first, who an (African) icon is, and, second, who determines what an African icon is. Give us a brief concluding remark on this.

MN: I am taking issue with the very concept of ‘icon’. For one to become an icon, he or she has to be deracinated, cleaned up and depoliticised for our consumption. Mandela becomes an elderly, affable man, instead of a revolutionary. Martin Luther King Jr becomes an emblem of love across races, forgetting his militant opposition to war and his class-based approach to social change. And those who cannot be cleaned up do not become icons – certainly figures like Malcolm X and Castro, or, closer to home, Thomas Sankara, are not allowed to become icons because their names cannot be abstracted from their radical politics.

I am also taking issue with who, cleaned up or not, becomes an African icon – do they have to be black? Then what do you do with Ruth First, white Jewish anti-apartheid activist killed by a parcel bomb in Mozambique? Do they have to be African? Then what do you do with Randall Robinson, an African American who actively fought against apartheid? Why shouldn’t we celebrate Sojourner Truth or Frederick Douglass for advancing the rights of black men and women? Or Touissant L’Ouverture, who lead the Haitian revolution in the defeat of French and British armies; who defeated Napoleon’s feared army in battle; who lead Haiti to independence, making it the first nation on earth to free all within its borders, regardless of race? If we take all these into consideration, then the notion of icons will always be lesser than the history they created. In fact, there is an argument to be made that icons bury the history they made.


This is part of a series of articles in partnership with Perspectives /Heinrich Böll Foundation, titled The (Un-)Making of Icons in Africa. The other articles can be found below:

Making up our own minds: Reframing Africa’s history and reclaiming our future

Stella Nyanzi: Social Justice and Social Media Icon

South Africa’s Mandela: Icon or aikona?

Africa’s liberation struggle icons and a fading generational consciousness

Making up our own minds: Reframing Africa’s history and reclaiming our future

African Icons and our single story narratives