On May 25, 2020, while the world was already fatigued from anxiety caused by a global pandemic known as Covid-19, another African-American man was murdered by the police in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Thanks to a cellphone recording, the world watched as Officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty six seconds. Chauvin’s fellow officers helped hold him down as the black man called out for his dead mother and told the world that he could not breathe.
This video was terrifying to watch but it wasn’t a new image. American police officers routinely kill African-American men and women every single day. Years ago, a man named Eric Garner in New York City, was killed by an officer’s chokehold and he too, could not breathe. There were hashtags and marches for Garner. Just like there were marches for Mike Brown and hashtags for Trayvon Martin and Sandra Bland. But there was something different about the way the world reacted to George Floyd’s senseless and animalistic murder.
The protests began almost immediately, starting with the city of Minneapolis where Floyd took his last breaths. But before we knew it, the protests became nationwide. With their masks on and their heavy hearts, thousands of African-African men, women and even children took to the streets to demand justice — some were even joined by white allies. Up until this point, the officers who killed Floyd had not been arrested. As I write this article, all four officers have been arrested and charged (Chauvin for second degree murder) and legislation regarding police practices and racial inequality are being reviewed in several American cities. The protests are doing what they are designed to do — calling attention to a serious problem and making visible change.
Floyd’s death, in many ways, was the straw that broke the world’s back. Systemic racism is something that permeates American lives but it’s not something that only belongs to America. Almost every country in the world has a dark history regarding race, be it slavery or colonialism, and we have constant reminders of these atrocious acts against humanity in our everyday lives.
The Mayor of D.C, Muriel Bowser commissioned the words ‘Black Lives Matter’ (a nod to the movement and the mantra of the international protests) to be painted in bright yellow on the road leading to the White House. She also renamed the road Black Lives Matter Plaza. This was a bold statement and it was only the beginning. The Black Lives Matter movement also started to pick up steam overseas with protests happening in Paris, New Zealand and the U.K.
On June 7, all the way in Bristol, England, another bold statement was unexpectedly made. Protesters toppled the statue of Edward Colston, a 17th-century slave trader, and rolled it into the Bristol harbor. Videos of this act circulated the internet and many applauded the protesters for doing what should have been done ages ago. The world was starting to purge itself of the remains of racism. Days after the statue of Colston was rolled into a body of water, a statue of Christopher Columbus, the racist explorer who claimed to ‘discover America’, was beheaded in the city of Boston in the U.S. Columbus has long since been at the centre of debates regarding his contribution to American history and whether or not he deserves the respect that he is given by contemporary Americans, including the special day in his honor (October 12).
With the exception of a few people gathering outside the American embassy in Nairobi in protest and members of Action Aid Nigeria holding a small rally in support of BLM, Africans have been eerily quiet on the subject matter. It is especially disheartening to see our African leaders make no acknowledgement of the atrocities happening to our brothers and sisters across the globe. Docility has become a familiar resting place for us and our silence is deafening. I understand that many Africans feel that we have enough problems of our own to address but in reality, we do not do much about home-grown conflict either. We complain over drinks with friends. We shrug and say ‘that’s just how it is’ and act like nothing affects us. But it does. Racism isn’t an American issue. It’s a global issue. We cannot escape it.
Racism in African countries does not present itself in the same manner that it does in the U.S. It’s embedded in the everyday fabric of our lives but it is also subtle and nuanced. For instance, a lot of young East Africans have been using Twitter as a platform for their grievances regarding customer service as a black African. Whether dining in Dar-es-Salaam, or Nairobi, when it comes to customer service, black Africans seem to always receive the short end of the stick. We are treated as second class citizens in our own countries while our former colonizers receive special attention with expediency. This issue is not to be equated with police brutality (although our police aren’t saints either) but it is a branch off the same racist tree. Colonialism ended in the 60s (for some) and yet here we are, still pandering to white people and placing more value on their comfort and money than our own. It is more than shameful, it is inexcusable. In light of the disruption of the status quo by black people all over the world, I feel we must also ask ourselves, what are Africans doing to make things right on our own continent?
Much like the U.K and the U.S, African countries cannot escape artifacts, monuments and even natural landmarks that remind us of our dark colonial past. This is where I think we can start to examine our deep wounds and start to properly heal. Many of Africa’s beautiful natural attractions are named after our former colonizers — Victoria Falls on the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, Victoria Island in Lagos, Victoria Street in Durban, South Africa, to name but only a few. Our continent is filled with streets, malls, mountains, hills, bodies of water named after European empires that crushed our spirits, economies, independence and stole our humanity as well as our resources.
Tanzania’s very own Mt. Kilimanjaro has an interesting history regardings it’s name. The origin of the name has many theories but it is documented that in 1860, German missionary Johann Ludwig Krapf claimed that Swahili people along the coast of Tanzania often referred to the mountain as Kilimanjaro. In the 1880s, Kilimanjaro became a part of German East Africa and was called Kilima-Ndscharo in German following the Kiswahili name components. On 6 October 1889, Hans Meyer, a German geographer, reached the highest summit on the crater ridge of Kibo. He named it Kaiser-Wilhelm-Spitze or Kaiser Wilhelm peak, after the German Emperor and King of Prussia. That name was used until Tanganyika gained its independence from the British in 1961. The summit was aptly renamed Uhuru Peak, meaning ‘freedom peak’ in Kiswahili.
As we did with Mt. Kilimanjaro, it is time we start reclaiming by renaming our beautiful natural attractions that were once ‘borrowed’ by our colonizers. There is no need to name a whole island after Queen Victoria or visit a place named after Queen Elizabeth. The sun has finally set on the British Empire and thus it should be reflected in our surroundings.
I propose that East Africans start with re-naming Lake Victoria. Lake Victoria is Africa’s largest lake by area, the world’s largest tropical lake, and the world’s second largest fresh water lake by surface area after Lake Superior in North America. In 1858, British explorer John Hanning Speke was the first European to ‘discover’ what was then called Lake Nyanza while on expedition to the find the source of the river Nile. Truth be told, the Lake had no name. The locals referred to it as Nyanza, which translates to ‘lake’ in English. Speke is the reason we call it Lake Victoria.
The lake’s area is divided among three countries: Kenya (6 percent or 4,100 square kilometres or 1,600 square miles), Uganda (45 percent or 31,000 square kilometres or 12,000 square miles), and Tanzania (49 percent or 33,700 square kilometres or 13,000 square miles). It is quite literally, the lake of East Africa. Perhaps all three East African Presidents can agree to change the name to something more suitable. Allow me to suggest a few names; Lake Uhuru (‘freedom’ is a great place to start), Lake Nyerere (after Tanzania’s founding father and a man who was for all East Africans) and Lake Umoja. Umoja is the Swahili word for ‘Unity’ and what a fitting name that would be a for a body of water that unites us all.
For those wondering why the name of a lake should be so important in 2020 — I respond with this — how can one claim to be free if they still respond to a name given to them by a former oppressor? These lakes are ours. These mountains are ours. These streets are ours. Our grandfathers and mothers fought for them with their bare hands and strong will. But their children are so comfortable still calling these lakes, waterfalls and streets by colonial names. Let us not stop with Uhuru Peak on Mt. Kilimanjaro, let’s take it all back. It starts with the names and then we can address the micro-aggressions of the white people who have chosen to call this land their home in 2020 and beyond.
First we take back our things, then we demand our respect. For it is not only our lives but our culture and history matters too.