Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Whose Traditions Do I Hand Down?

It is now exactly five years since I enrolled as a PhD student at the University of Birmingham in England. It seems like yesterday. The journey has not been easy, though. Anyhow, Last month as I walked into the Aston Webb Building C to submit my dissertation, I remembered my first day at the campus. It was a cool, breezy September 24, 2004. I had already missed out with the orientation. So, armed with the campus map I promised myself to get the most out of my self-guided tour around the campus. The first thing that caught my attention was the Joseph Chamberlain Memorial tower standing majestically right opposite Aston Webb building. I was later to learn that this tower was designed after the tower of Siena Town hall in Italy, the tallest free standing clock tower in the world. The tower stands some 325 feet and was designed to be seen for miles around as an emblem of the University’s prestige.

As I entered the administration block, I could also not help noticing the statues of Beethoven, Virgil, Michelangelo, Plato, Shakespeare, Newton, Watt, Faraday, and Darwin engraved into the façade of Aston Webb building all looking down as though inviting me into the halls of learning where the future of education lies; but only after the academic traditions of the past (most importantly continuing under the great cultural heritage of European education). With all those figures from the past, one feels a dwarf, especially one who is from Africa. For a moment, I thought the stationary figures from the past casting their knowing looks on me were in fact mocking me.

Once inside the building, as I took in the architectural beauty of Aston Webb Rotunda and its architectural design, I wondered how long it may have taken the builders to bring the long magnificent Aston Webb building into being. Standing in the corridor of C block is the towering white marble statue of King Edward VII with words of his inaugural speech on July 1909 inscribed under the statue’s plinth inviting the young students to “initiate and hand down worthy traditions” to their successors. So as I wandered around I wondered which traditions I was handing down.

It also occurred to me that on 7th July 1909 when the King was officially opening the University, his representative governor was busy curving out the Kenya colony declaring it a White-man’s country. As the natives were coming out of the traditional world of war, magic and indigenous knowledge, the university was opening up avenues for young men and women who would walk the land of my ancestors declaring it the property of his majesty. It would take me five years to try and understand a past that none of my ancestors were kind enough to leave behind or was that memory emasculated? To a great measure, most of that past was obviously decapitated by the King’s young men and women, some of whom may have walked the same hallway I was now walking.

As I await my examiners’ decision whether to bestow to me the power to read (having spent years in the cold archives of Edinburgh, Cambridge, SAOS, London, Birmingham among others) I feel very proud of my accomplishment. I am excited with the research that I have undertaken. On the other hand, however, I feel sad about the very accomplishment. For whom and for what have I so much labored? Though it is difficult to answer this, I dedicate my research to the men and women whom colonialism hoped to perpetually enslave yet their resilience and ability to subvert the colonial order made them the enemy of the very King who graces the hall of the academy where, I will be (hopefully) honored to be called a Doctor of Philosophy.