Remembering Wamba dia Wamba

Okot Nyormoi, Editor

It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on June 15, 2020. Though we know that everyone will pass on at some point, it is still hard to accept it when death occurs. A lot of people knew Wamba and many have already written extensively about him. Still, it is an honor for me to share with readers my own experience with Wamba. I will surely miss him.

Wamba pictureI moved to Boston in May 1975, from Bloomington Indiana to undertake postdoctoral research at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Harvard Medical School. My research project was to study Epstein-Barr virus, which was suspected of being the first known virus to cause human cancer, Burkitt’s lymphoma, a type of cancer common in Ugandan children.

Apart from Professor Jack L. Strominger in whose laboratory I was going to work, I did not know anybody else in Boston. I was eager but also apprehensive of relocating to Boston because I did not know how well I would measure up to what I had heard about the intensity and rigor of academic research at Harvard University. I soon learned of a Chinese couple who had also come from Indiana University to do their postdoc in the same place but in a different department. This eased my anxiety considerably.

To give context to the significance of meeting Wamba, a brief review of the situation in the US as well as elsewhere in the world at the time is necessary. In the mid-1970s when I arrived in Boston, the United States was still reeling from a series of assassinations in the 1960s including that of: prominent civil rights leaders, Medgar Wiley Evers on June 12, 1963, Malcolm X on February 21, 1965 and , Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968; President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, and Robert F. Kennedy on June 6, 1968. America was also coming out of the Vietnam War that ended on April 30, 1975 with the North Vietnamese capture of Saigon. During this period, progressives in America were struggling for civil rights, racial and gender equality.

In South and Central America, the US was busy using the domino theory to implement its foreign policies between the 1950s and 1980s. The theory states that if one country in a region fell under communist influence, then the surrounding countries would also fall like dominoes. To prevent the dominoes from falling, the US was supporting dictatorial regimes with military, financial, and intelligence aids. The Chilean military overthrow of a democratically elected left wing Salvador Allende, the prosecution of the Dirty War in Argentina, Nicaragua and other countries were examples of the implementation of the US foreign policies based on the concern for the domino theory.

Africa at that time, was having its own share of trouble. Nigeria had a brutal Biafra war, fascist dictator Idi Amin was running roughshod over the people of Uganda, which sent me packing in 1974. In Zaire, now DRC, General, Mobuto Sese Seko, was another tyrannical strongman. The African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa was battling Apartheid. South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO) was fighting to free itself from Apartheid South Africa. Guinea Bissau, Angola, and Mozambique were waging armed liberation wars against the vicious Portuguese colonialism. Eritrea was fighting to liberate itself from Ethiopia.

Young people from all over the world attending the various universities in the Boston area (Harvard, MIT, Brandeis, etc.) were frequently agitating for ending unjust wars, oppression, and exploitation. Harvard Square, in Cambridge, was the center of activism. Whether Americans agitating for change in their domestic or foreign policies or foreign students agitating for change in their respective countries, they were invariably all interconnected, with the USA and its allies being the focal point.

It was in this environment that I met Wamba, though I don’t now remember the specific occasion. Together with other Africans, we formed a study group called African Student and Workers Association for Liberation (ASWAL). The idea was to form a united front of various national organizations such as the Eritrea Liberation Movement, Uganda Boston Study Group, Congolese study group. Other members came from Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Kenya. Wamba was the Chairman and I was the Secretary. We later contacted African Student organizations in New York city and other American cities to form a larger united front organization. Thanks to Wamba and ASWAL, I fundamentally changed from having an idealist to a materialist world outlook. I came to realize that natural and social sciences are not mutually exclusive. Both are required for a more holistic struggle for democracy and for improving the lives of the oppressed and exploited people. Many members of ASWAL went on to engage in the struggle for democracy in their own respective countries.

When I left Boston in 1978, we kept in touch by mail until we met his family again in 1982 at a friend’s wedding in Dar-es-Salam while he was in detention in the DRC. The last time I saw Wamba was in 1984 at a conference at Makerere University after which he became deeply involved with the struggle for democracy and against western hegemony in the DRC as will be seen in the following article by Yoga Adhola.

Wamba was a serious, thoughtful and a trustworthy person. I admired his tenacity and clarity. He always meant what he said. He was highly committed to the struggle for democracy in Africa. He did not just preach the theory of African liberation. He practiced it to the best of his ability throughout his adult life.

In his struggle for democracy, Wamba employed various approaches including political education, peaceful negotiation, non-violent demonstration, electoral politics, and armed struggle. No doubt, he contributed significantly towards the current relative stability in the DRC and Africa as a whole. Yet, he left the continent still heavily burdened by authoritarianism.

Many people have asked about the way forward when armed struggle, electoral politics and peaceful negotiation have so far brought little qualitative change after 50 years of independence. While nobody has a sure answer, my guess is that Wamba’s answer would be that the struggle for democracy is protracted with many twists and turns. In going forward, the struggle requires constant objective analysis to determine the strategic and tactical goals. Hopefully, the seeds he has planted among his students and his associates will continue the struggle. In the words of Congressman John Lewis, an American Civil Rights icon who also died in the same month as Wamba, we should “never give up” and “keep our eyes on the prize” because according to Sam Cooke's beautiful song, Change is going to come if we keep working on it.

There will be a virtual memorial service for Professor Wamba on Sunday August 23, 2020. To register, click on this link or copy this web address , into your browser to access it.