By Chanda Mwale
The 25th of May is the day when the continent of Africa celebrates Africa Day. Formerly known as Africa Freedom Day. It was on this day in 1963 that the charter of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was signed in Addis Ababa. This agreement was signed by all African states with a clear vision, goal, and promise for a free Africa. The Pan-African dream seemed clear at the time, freedom from colonial rule for all. The promise of a continent no longer stifled by colonial rule but free to decide her own fate.
58 years later, the continent still celebrates this day. Albeit with a limited understanding of what it means. In countries like Zambia, where I’m from it is a public holiday and as a working millennial mum, I am grateful for a break. A chance to have a braai, chill, and maybe visit family. In other parts of the continent, it is just another day. What most millennials across the continent have in common though, is that they are increasingly clueless about their history. Yes, I know I just painted all African millennials with the same brush but as an educated, black woman scientist, my own experience suggests there might be some truth in my statement.
A few weeks ago, the BBC published an article that highlighted Pan-African heroes like Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first President and one of Africa’s biggest independence champions. A week before reading the article, I visited a little museum in Choma, it was there that I discovered pieces of Zambian history that I was unaware of. At 33, I was left slightly embarrassed that I barely know my country’s history, I suspect that several young Africans find themselves in a similar situation.
The little museum in Choma forced me to reflect and it felt like in just 6 short decades my generation has forgotten our history, yet we are still vaguely aware of the likes of Winston Churchill. Most of us can give the exact year when World War II started and explain the role of the Assassination of Prince Franz Ferdinand in the first World War. Ok, maybe the last fact is a stretch, but the point is to illustrate that due to our education system, we seem to have not studied African history with the same rigour we did other continents or the “superpowers”. We can name 5 or 10 American presidents, but might struggle with naming 5 independence African giants.
What does it matter one might ask? Who needs to know Kenneth Kaunda, Kwame Nkurumah, or Joshua Nkomo? I would argue any African who means well for the continent. See, the current generation seems to be one that has lost touch with our history even though we seem to be undergoing some awakening. We are a generation unafraid to speak up for what we believe in, and how we want things done. Yet we are also a generation with high levels of voter apathy and limited involvement in civil matters. Who is to save Africa if not Africans themselves?
The millennial African needs to understand the continent’s history. A healthy appreciation for where we have come from allows us to learn lessons and prepare for a better tomorrow. Africa is free, on paper. But her people are shackled by poverty, a lack of education, no access to healthcare, clean water, basic hygiene, or safe environments. How do we plan on speaking up as a young continent when we do not have an appreciation of where we are coming from?
While in Choma I learnt about an important declaration made in my country that changed Zambia from a multi-party democracy to a one-party state in 1973. As I read the history I wondered about many things. Why certain players brokered this declaration and how they were viewed by their own tribesmen. I considered the betrayal of a nation, a people, but I also saw the need to quieten a potential civil war in Zambia. A tribalism divide that was gaining momentum and needed to be quashed. One might argue that the Choma Declaration saved Zambia from tribal war. 20 years later, Zambia reverted to a multi-party democracy at the demand of its people.
“History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes” — Mark Twain.
It is easy to judge the decisions of those who went before us, with the arrogance of youth and the assumption that we can do it better. But without an understanding of our rich tapestry, our history as a continent, learning lessons and discarding the chaff- we will likely make a few of the same mistakes. The continent of Africa is awakening, the young people of this continent are hungry for change, for agency, and for their voices to be heard. To not be manipulated by social media, propaganda and other means, the youth will have to take it upon themselves to learn about their history and learn from it what they can. We will have to use our phones for more than social media, 15 second videos, likes, and shares for popularity. We will need to get involved in the running of our institutions and work on applying systemic change, while ensuring we make the right allies.
There is a group that is doing just that, learning from history, and applying the good to help create a better tomorrow. The young people at Amani went back into history, dusted off South Africa’s Freedom Charter and are recreating this for today. This group is rebranding Africa one human rights-based voice at a time, with the goal to reach at least 2 million South Africans to capture their voices on the South Africa they want to see. Through their novel Amani Accelerator they are using our rich history and innovating for today. This is the value of history for the millennial, besides allowing oneself to be disengaged in civil and leadership issues, is that it can help repurpose and channel the energy of our generation. We are no doubt, changemakers, but the extent to which we can create positive change will always lie with our roots.
On this Africa Day, I hope you will take some time to learn about your history. How your country got to where it is today and think through what could have been done better and lastly, how can it be applied for a better tomorrow. How will you contribute to creating meaningful Africa Days as we take our beautiful continent to greater heights?