Daily Podcast #20 Ali Jimale Ahmed /// Proverbs for Decolonized Consciences



Ali Jimale Ahmed is a Somali poet, cultural critic, short-story writer, and scholar. He is Professor and former chair of Comparative Literature at Queens College of the City University of New York, where he also teaches for the Africana Studies Program and the Department of Classical, Middle Eastern, and Asian Languages and Cultures; he is also on the Comparative Literature faculty at the CUNY Graduate center. His books include The Invention of Somalia (1995), Daybreak Is Near: Literature, Clans, and the Nation-State in Somalia (1996), Fear Is a Cow (2002), Diaspora Blues (2005), The Road Less Traveled: Reflections on the Literatures of the Horn of Africa (2008, coedited with the late Taddesse Adera), When Donkeys Give Birth to Calves: Totems, Wars, Horizons, Diasporas (2012) and Gaso, Ganuun iyo Gasiinin the Africana Studies Program and the Department of Classical, Middle Eastern, and Asian Languages and Cultures; he is also on the Comparative Literature faculty at the CUNY Graduate center. Big thanks to Bhakti Shringarpure for putting us in touch.


As many of us are confined in many places of the world, we wanted to provide you with a daily podcast in partnership with Radio Alhara emitting from Palestine. Our ambition for it is to not add to the saturation of information we are currently experiencing but, rather, to propose a daily extension 15-minute of our political imaginaries.

The concept is very simple. Every day, we ask one person the same question: “what is for you a moment of true decolonization?” The answer can be a historial moment or something they witnessed; something heroic and grandiose, or rather discreet and mundane; a durable blow to the structures of colonialism or a short instant of liberation.

While we are recording this podcast in privileged conditions of confinement, we keep in our thoughts the multitude of people around the world who do not share similar conditions or have no choice but to risk being affected by the pandemic because of criminal policies that have to do with neoliberalism, carceralism, or colonialism

We thank you for listening and wish you and your loved ones the very best wherever you are.

(music by hooksounds originals)

Radio Alhara The Funambulist

NB. The Funambulist daily podcast is also played every day at 3:30PM, Palestine time, on  راديو الحارة Radio Alhara, a new radio produced from locked-down Bethlehem and Ramallah, along with another 15-minute production about worldwide solidarity, created specifically by The Funambulist for the purpose of this show. 



Ali Jimale Ahmed: It’s a very important question really. What I have in mind is my own understanding of decolonization. That is, there is always a before and an after, and that it is always a process. In which case decolonization is connected to human consciousness. Consciousness, in this sense, is a process. A process in which my mind becomes cognisant of something. And once it realizes that something, my mind would be willing to fight for it.

For me, decolonization is also a process that’s connected to one’s consciousness. I will take an example from Hegel’s The Phenomenology Of Mind in which Hegel talks about whenever there are two people looking at each other, confronting. He says, “Each consciousness tries to eliminate the other dialectically.” It doesn’t want to kill. Because if you kill, you’re not really going to get any homage or respect from a dead body. Instead, he says, “They want to eliminate their consciousness, dialectically.” In that sense, this is what he calls the “master slave dialectics.”

In a way, to me at least, colonization always goes through the mind, through one’s consciousness. And decolonization, or liberation, or emancipation and redemption, also goes through one’s consciousness. Yet, no consciousness could totally be eliminated. It’s impossible to eliminate even dialectically one’s consciousness. I will give an example via an anecdote. They say there was this cook who was abused by his master. One day supposedly, the master had an epiphany. He calls his cook, and he says, “You know Cook, from now on, I am not going to abuse you.” The cook looks up at him and says, “Is that true, Sir?” And the Master says, “Yes, that is true.” And then the cook says, “Okay, from now on, I won’t spit in your soup.” This is the cook. Spitting in the master’s soup was and is a form of resistance. So in a way, once we talk about consciousness, in which case, the cook’s consciousness could not totally be eliminated. But that sort of consciousness, individual consciousness, is not really the aim.

In terms of decolonization, the moment you talk about, in terms of the true moment of decolonization, is that consciousness that becomes transitive. In other words, a transformation of an individual’s consciousness must be connected to a transformation of one’s environment, how that consciousness perceives, looks at its own surroundings. There is a Chinese proverb actually, that says something akin to what I’m trying to say, which is “To know, and not to act, is not to know.” In other words, if you claim to know something, then you must really be in a position to act on what you know.

There is an anecdote that comes from the former Zaïre, the now Congo Democratic Republic. There was a lady. Illiterate perhaps, uneducated perhaps but a lady who had what is called “practical consciousness.” So this lady at one point, could not really understand what was going on in her own country – she was really flabbergasted. She said, “When will this independence come to an end?” Because she’s looking at the idea of the flag, of country, of independence and national anthem, which is midwifed by technocratic goons after all. For me, the moment of true decolonization is when that lady says, “When will this independence come to an end?”

In a way the interesting thing about this is that Thomas R. Kanza, who comes from the Congo also, from the Zaïre, wrote a book called Evolution And Revolution In Africa. And the first sentence that he uses is, “Independent Africa, is not yet free.” It’s oxymoronic. It’s paradoxical. But it’s saying something akin to what the lady, the so-called uneducated, illiterate Zairian woman was saying. But here, I want to connect it to a Somali proverb that says something akin to this. The Somalis say, “Ayax teg, eelna reeb.” In other words, “Don’t be fooled by the migration of the locust, they leave their larva behind,” they say. Don’t somehow assume that you are in a moment of a post-colony because the old colonizer must have left behind people to do their bidding. A moment of true decolonization is understanding this. And this comes from Toni Morrison’s book, Beloved. In that book, Toni Morrison says, “To free yourself is one thing. Claiming ownership of that freed self is another thing.” It is akin to something that Nadine Gordimer from South Africa says in her book Burger’s daughter. She says something to the effect of, “Real freedom — that moment of decolonization that you are talking about — is really when you do not recognize yourself, you are a totally different human being. You can’t even really recognize yourself.”

A moment of true decolonization is the combination of all of these things. In which case, it is a realization, an epiphany, where the consciousness, my consciousness, becomes really aware of something important. And once it becomes important, it’s willing to sacrifice itself for that something. And then, of course, as we said before it is a process. There is a before and an after. There is this Somali poet, Farah Seefey, who died in 1959. The sort of poetry that he uses is called shirib in Somali, which is akin to the Japanese Haiku. Two lines, short, pithy, and poetic at the same time. And there was something that he said when he looked at Somalia, on the  cusp of independence, and he said, “Adduunyo uur lahaan arkaa/Umulisaanse loo arkeyn.” He says, “I see a pregnant world for which alas, there is no midwife in sight.” That to me, is a moment of true decolonization. 

I would close it with this poem from Aimé Césaire in which he says, “There is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory.” The moment of decolonization then, is the moment when an oppressor realizes that their freedom, their existence, is tied to that of their perceived or real enemy. As the South Africans say, “A person is a person, only because of other people.” And in that sense, I think what becomes important in the moment of true decolonization, is when the human being could clearly distinguish between a structure and an ideology. The moment that we see that this structure is less harmful than the ideology, because it’s the ideology that sustains and nourishes the structure. 

I’ll give you an example. When I talk about this to my students here in America, we talk about the glass ceiling. Women cannot really go beyond a certain level. For example, if we are talking about 500 important companies in America, there aren’t that many women CEOs. I tell them, that’s not really the problem. You could have women CEOs running the 500 important big companies in this country, and yet the ideology that sustains the structure in the first place, the ideology that says women are inferior [would still prevail]. Unless you deal with that ideology, you will never really be able to do away with the problem.

That sort of realization is a moment of true decolonization. Again, talking about America during the Civil Rights Movement. There was a journalist who went to Alabama, or Mississippi. They met with an African American woman. And they said, “Aren’t you happy, even though you haven’t really got your own civil rights. Aren’t you happy that Ralph Bunche, an African American, is the Deputy Secretary General of the UN.” And the lady, who, like the lady in Zaire was perhaps illiterate, perhaps uneducated, looks at the journalist and says, “I’m happy for him,” she says, “for Ralph Bunche. But the food on his table, she says, will not really fill my stomach.” That, for me, is a moment of true decolonization. It goes beyond race, and understands the dialectics and dynamics of class.