Exile and the prophetic: The bench under the tree outside Nyerere’s house

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page

Sometimes pomp and circumstance get in the way of discovering who you are.  With Air Force One and his traveling entourage what is President Obama learning in Africa?

The slave trade in Senegal and the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa can be two epic learning experiences for the President – if they’re not confined to history and nostalgia.

When confined to history and nostalgia, suffering and struggle are trivialized.  They become a way of distancing ourselves from the present.  It is only when memory becomes subversive of contemporary injustice that remembrance is worthy of those who suffered and struggled in the past.

Is President Obama worthy of remembering?  Are we?

Traveling as he does, President Obama won’t see what I witnessed in 1993 when I visited South Africa as a delegate of the World Council of Churches Committee to Combat Racism.

It wasn’t the meetings we held so much as the extraordinary event that occurred as our plane touched down – the assassination of Chris Hani, the leader of the South African Communist Party and chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress.  Hani was an extremely popular revolutionary fighter who was mostly unknown outside of South Africa.

If President Obama had been at the stadium where Hani was eulogized, he would have seen the real South Africa rather than the elite he spends his time with.  He would have also noticed, as I did then, that when Nelson Mandela was delivering his erudite eulogy and Hani’s body was carried to his burial site outside the stadium, the stadium emptied.   

The people knew Nelson Mandela was important.  The people loved Chris Hani. 

Does President Obama know the real South Africa, the unconstrained, non-Western and raciall- charged masses who have largely been left behind in the new South Africa?  Nelson Mandela may be the father of the new South Africa.  Chris Hani was the people’s favorite son.

Over the next few days, President Obama is meeting with President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania.  Years ago I met with the founding father of the country, Julius Nyerere.  Nyerere was the first President of Tanzania and a major figure in post-colonial African politics and the Non-Aligned Movement during the Cold War. 

It happened like this.  A few years before I went to South Africa, I visited my students from Tanzania.  One of my students was a priest and asked if I would like to meet with Nyerere at his farm in his childhood home village of Butiama in northern Tanzania.  I thought my meeting with Nyerere was highly unlikely.  My friend was certain a meeting would occur.  Nyerere was a devout Catholic and knew my friend through church circles. 

How would we meet Nyerere?  Simple, my friend said.  We drive to his farm and sit outside on a bench by a tree.  An associate will identify who we are.  Then we will be told when the former President will meet with us.

When we entered his home, Nyerere asked us to join him for breakfast.  Nyerere was to fly to Iraq later in the day to speak with Saddam Hussein in a last ditch effort to head off the first Gulf War.  Nonetheless, he was quite interested in my Jewish theology of liberation.  We spoke at length about Jewish theology, the Holocaust, Israel and the Palestinians.  As breakfast he whispered to the server not to offer me bacon with my eggs. 

Few remember today – does President Obama even know of it? – that Nyerere’s project for African socialism, Ujamma, was heavily influenced by the kibbutz model in Israel.  Nyerere spoke of this at breakfast. It was obvious the high esteem he had for the kibbutz movement.  Indeed, his 1962 essay – ‘Ujamma: The Basis of African Socialism’ http://www.juliusnyerere.info/images/uploads/ujamaa_1962.pdf – reads like a revolutionary pamphlet even today.  It is an African version of the kibbutz – socialist, influenced by Marx and other utopian thinkers, though indigenous to African culture, with an emphasis on the person in community. 

When Nyerere spoke to me of Jews and the prophetic, he inquired in a respectful way.  Clearly for Nyerere, Israel had lost its way.  We discussed the possibility of Israel regaining its footing.  When Nyerere spoke of Palestine and Palestinians he was wistful.  Did I have any recommendations for the work of peace and justice he might play in his post-Presidential years?

As President Obama continues to hawk his plan for African self-reliance through integration into the global market place – an integration which has little chance of working and will only mire Africa deeper into a dependence on America, Europe and China – he would do well to step off the beaten track.  There he might find Africa – and himself.

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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