The African Dream: fragments from a shattered image

John Otim
Poet, novelist, John Otim is the Editor of Nile Journal



In the soft lights of the mighty hall where once dined and wined the heroes of empire, where trophies and memorabilia of empire still enjoyed the place of pride, he listened fascinated by the novelty and the flow of the new dialectics coming from the stage. What would these statesmen now staring down from the walls, covered as they are in medals and regalia, have made of this gathering?

As would be expected the place was filled with the home crowd and empire people. Besides himself he could count little more than two dozen or so African faces; Nigerians, Senegalese, Kenyans, Ethiopians and a few others. But Orientals numbered in the hundreds: Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos and others. It was in the weeks after Tiananmen Square and this was a teach-in. Tempers were running high and emotion was raw on the Dream Campus.

The year before there had been the brutal crackdown on Burmese student protests in Rangoon. Now the successors of Mao Zedong as if to defend a gold medal they had won somewhere, had gone one up. The full story of the tragedy they unleashed was yet to emerge. The world was still insular. Internet, iPods and smart phones were not there.

A Burmese student, whose parents now lived in Thailand after they narrowly escaped Rangoon or Myanmar in today’s terminology, enthused over a border less future, seamless without exiles, when sky trains will link the entire universe and new technologies bring the people together in a festival of peace and love.

He knew about it, in fact he loved John Lennon’s immortal music. Listening to the Burmese girl he felt a stirring deep within. All you need is love, he heard a voice whisper. He pondered for a while about the truth of this but he could not take his eyes away from the Burmese girl. He glared and listened till the pressure within him subsided. Suddenly the sense of something momentous about to happen overtook him. His old dreams were coming back. He was at peace.

He saw again the old Africa he had heard so much about and had fantasized so often about; mixed now in his mind with fragments from Achebe and from Conrad. His long gone forefathers paraded before him. Without a doubt, great sportsmen, folks that once held sway over much of the highland plains and the Great Rift Valley herding their flocks in the beauty and the bounty of nature. Folks now much abused and much derided but whose memories still endure.

Fragments from a piece of poetry from Christendom floated through his brains: While shepherds watched their flock by night all seated on the ground. As by magic he shared now those magic moments with the shepherds, a people whose dreams he believed had come true. Before him rose new nations new peoples cleansed and purified filled with new life. It was the visage of a continent on the move. Africa not rediscovered, but reborn.

As he sat there in the great Hall where once dined and wined the great statesmen of empire, as he sat there amidst the gleaming memorabilia of state and throngs of fellow students, it dawned on him that in a matter of days the school year will be over. His life on the Dream Campus, in the middle of a once great European empire, will become but a memory.

He relished the thought of his imminent departure and homecoming and of the task that lay ahead.

In spite of himself a vision crossed his mind, a dazzling la jejune file, daughter of the royal house of Payira. Fragments from a piece of modern pop found its way and raced through his brains and collided and mingled with fragments of the old dreams of a new Africa. In spite of himself he found himself humming Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s lyrics; wish I was homeward bound. Suddenly some words he knew from somewhere bothered him. You can’t go home again! No, it can't apply to Africa.