Johannesburg – Achille Mbembe says his first experience with France was when French colonial forces killed his uncle, an activist fighting for an independent Cameroon.
Now, after more than three decades dissecting European colonialism as a historian and philosopher, Mbembe is working with French President Emmanuel Macron to help prepare for the 29th annual Africa-France summit.
The Cameroonian author of several books including “Critique of Black Reason” has taken on the controversial role for a different kind of summit, which takes place on Friday in the southern French city of Montpellier.
For the first time, no African heads of state have been invited to the summmit, which will be organised on round tables on the economy, culture and politics, and youngsters, travelling from Africa, will comprise a third of the 3 000 participants.
The format is the fruit of Mbembe’s seven months of deliberations with African civil society groups on future relations between Africa and France – the country that shepherded the enlightenment but whose colonisation left scars that are visible today.
“I’m exhausted,” Mbembe, 64, told AFP.
“I have been a bit like a therapist, sitting around absorbing things that are sometimes ugly,” he said, his hand resting on his forehead.
He drafted a report, which has been submitted to the Elysee Palace and is still confidential, at his house in an upmarket Johannesburg suburb where the scent of fresh water lilies wafts from a bouquet in a vase on a table.
“If in Montpellier we manage to move the debate beyond recrimination and denial, then we will have paved the way for a small cultural revolution,” he said.
Banned from Cameroon
Born in July 1957, Mbembe grew up one of seven children in a nationalist and Christian family on a farm in southern Cameroon. He envisaged himself growing up to be a footballer or working “in the prefecture,” the office for local bigwigs.
But he eventually studied history, which took him to Paris.
In his suitcases were texts by his father, Cameroonian independence fighter Ruben Um Nyobe, who was killed by French troops in 1958.
Even after Cameroon gained independence in 1960, mentioning Um Nyobe’s name was prohibited for decades.
“I have in my head and in my documents people whose existence have been erased. And my struggle is to prevent this,” Mbembe said.
Mbembe’s first book, “Le Probleme national kamerunais” (“The Cameroonian National Problem”, 1985) contained extracts from Nyobe’s prohibited work and resulted in him being banned from his native country for 10 years.
He missed his father’s funeral as a result.
He continued his studies in Paris at the Sorbonne and the prestigious Sciences Po, hardly going out, spending the nights hunched over his typewriter in a small apartment near a metro station.
He recalled attending seminars of philosopher Michel Foucault’s readings, sometimes neglecting his studies.
“I was a bad student,” he said.
Cameroonian philosopher Fabien Eboussi Boulaga was his mentor, while he drew inspiration from Frantz Fanon and Edouard Glissant.
After completing his thesis, Mbembe was poached by American universities. But the US had never been on his “intellectual radar”, and he soon returned to Africa.
‘I had to relearn everything’
In 1996 he took over running the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa in the Senegalese capital Dakar, aiming to turn it into a “competitive” global institute.
“I had never worked in Africa, I had to relearn everything,” he said, referring to the “old school” resistance he encountered.
His friend, Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne, said Mbembe’s “writing was postmodern, not committed enough to Marxism,” which was traditionally associated with independence struggles in Africa at the time.
“It caused clashes,” Diagne said.
Four years later Mbembe resigned and moved to South Africa, which was in the early post-apartheid years.
Married with children, the professor has lived in Johannesburg for 20 years where he now heads the Wits Social and Economic Research at the University of the Witwatersrand.
Hailed as one of the most influential thinkers on post-colonialism — a term he calls “empty and pompous” — Mbembe says he simply “deals with things that interest him”.
Picture: Getty Images