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"The blacks, those magnificent examples of the African race who have maintained their racial purity thanks to their lack of an affinity with bathing, have seen their territory invaded by a new kind of slave: the Portuguese."
"The black is indolent and a dreamer; spending his meager wage on frivolity or drink; the European has a tradition of work and saving, which has pursued him as far as this corner of America and drives him to advance himself, even independently of his own individual aspirations."
An interesting an offensive revelation from Che Guevara, a man who was a much-loved and respected communist leader not just in Central and South America, but here in Africa too.
However, as the writer of the piece where I came across this text noted says, Guevara had written this during a time where he had had no previous contact with black people (Argentina has a terrible history when it comes to the treatment of black people), not that this excuses his words. Wouldn’t be publishing this post if it wasn’t important for this to be known. But unlike Gandhi, Guevara sought a remedy for his ignorance, and not in a stereotypical “eat, pray love” fashion. The young doctor would later travel his native continent, an enlightening experience for the soon-to-be revolutionary that saw him use his skills as a medical student to help those in need. Guevara also went on to make speeches like this that stood in stark contrast to the above statements, become an outspoken critique of apartheid in South Africa, and eventually find himself being an instrumental component in a complex fight in Congo and other parts of the African continent.
In the same speech delivered at the United Nations in 1964 were he spoke out against colonialism, racism, capitalism, imperialism and apartheid, Guevara said this about the United States and the country’s treatment of the Black population, still relevant today:
"Those who kill their own children and discriminate daily against them because of the color of their skin; those who let the murderers of blacks remain free, protecting them, and furthermore punishing the black population because they demand their legitimate rights as free men—how can those who do this consider themselves guardians of freedom?"
History is, at the very least, incredibly complex. Reiterating Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, we can easily fall prey to the “danger of a single story" if we don’t delve further into the propagated singular narratives, whether romanticized or not. If anything, this is also a firm case of why we should stop referring to Thomas Sankara as the "African Che Guevera”. Although they share many similar influences, the histories of the two men are very different.
Consider the history of borders. Starting with the Berlin Conference of 1884 when seven European countries carved out their stakes on the continent, Africa was gradually broken down into an illogical clutter of nation-states. The borders of these states had no regard for historical groupings and identities, and shifted depending on what was most politically and economically expedient for the colonising country. At different points during the first half of the century, for example, Burkina Faso was part of Côte d’Ivoire, Niger, Mali and Senegal, before eventually coagulating as the Republic of Upper Volta.
In the early 1960s, as more African states gained “independence” and moved towards establishment of the Organisation of African Unity, border blues drove one of the earliest rifts in continental politics. The “Casablanca group” of states led by Kwame Nkrumah advocated a radical approach to African unification, while the “Monrovia group” led by Leopold Senghor called for a more conservative approach, one that held the borders of nation-states in higher esteem.
The Monrovia group won, and one of the first resolutions of the OAU was to endorse colonial borders. Today, there are only a few African countries – Comoros, Madagascar, Mozambique, Rwanda and Seychelles – that allow all Africans either to enter without visas or to obtain visas upon arrival. For the rest, fellow Africans have to jump through hoops whose variations in complexity often reflect larger political dynamics. It seems that what has infiltrated our psyche even deeper than colonial geography is the spirit that inspired the origin of borders: perceptions of superiority and inferiority, the violence of competition for resources, selective openness determined by levels of perceived threat and historical animosity. And questions of historical clarity are chronically present.
Where did the vision of division come from? How does it stay alive? Who teaches you to hate your neighbour? Official classifications along invisible lines were both symptoms and tools of oppression throughout the 20th century. In apartheid South Africa, pass books determined where and when Africans had the right to exist in their own land. In Rwanda, Belgium introduced identity documents with “ethnic” classifications, to nurture divisions in the incubator of rigid bureaucracy. Across the continent, people put arbitrary colonial divisions on paper and called them passports.