The Enduring Relevance of ‘How Europe underdeveloped Africa’

Karim Hirji makes a systematic case that Rodney’s seminal work retains its singular value for understanding where Africa has come from, where it is going, and charting the path towards genuine development for its people.

The Enduring Relevance of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa

Author: Karim F Hirji

Publ: Daraja Press

Reviewer: Wangui Kimari

In his remarkable book ‘about a book’ that traces the legacies and impact of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (HEUA), Karim Hirji states that,

as with scores of progressive intellectuals and activists of the past, the prevailing ideology functions to relegate Rodney into the deepest, almost unreachable, ravines of memory. A person who once was widely known is now a nonentity, a stranger to the youth in Africa and the Caribbean. And when they encounter him in the classroom, it is through secondary sources that distort both what he actually wrote and his framework of historical analysis.

In dwelling on this powerful statement, I was taken back to the time when as a young undergraduate at the University of Dar es Salaam,  I found out about Rodney’s seminal book, HEUA, quite by accident, despite the impact it had made in that very university. In a related incident, many years later in a graduate history class in Canada, I remember insisting on the power of HEUA and being told by a supposedly progressive professor of African history that Rodney was not a ‘good historian’.

Certainly, the ambiguities, unknowing and aspersions that continue to surround this book and the author make necessary, as Hirji does so eloquently, the need to retrace its arguments and show ‘its contemporary import’ for Africa today. Emphasizing this, Hirji argues that ‘in the ideologically stultifying and trivialising climate of today, the detractors of HEUA are owed a comprehensive response’. The efficacy and strength of Hirji’s response in this monograph is indisputable. He begins by reviewing all of the key ideas within each of the chapters of HEUA, and within subsequent sections maps the global context in which we are living and the significance of HEUA to the material struggles of past and present.

Hirji then traces the experiences of Rodney in Tanzania as a lecturer of history at the University of Dares Salaam, where the latter thrived as a public intellectual par excellence. It was here, against the backdrop of a thriving student movement and ujamaa politics, that HEUA was written. Only a few years after he moved back home to take up a position as a professor of history at the University of Guyana in 1974, this ‘humane revolutionary and radical scholar in the finest and fullest sense of these terms’ was killed in a car bomb on 13 June 1980 by the Guyanese government of Forbes Burnham. This assassination was a direct consequence of his progressive politics both in and outside of the university. Since then, despite the magnitude of his thinking and actions, and the numerous movements and intellectuals who are still inspired by his praxis, Hirji states that Rodney’s interventions have been ‘erased as if the entire effort had been a dream’.

Resisting these attempts to fossilize Rodney and HEUA, Hirji offers a critical examination of this revolutionary’s historiography, theoretical framework and the criticisms it provoked. With particular regard to HEUA, he summarises these criticisms into ten groupings, and  these are: ‘ (i) It converts history into a rigid deterministic process; (ii) it reduces human existence to the material dimension; (iii) it accords the principal, if not the sole, weight to external factors; (iv) it denies agency to the African people; (v) its terminology is too polemical; (vi) it is more like a political propaganda tract than a scholarly work; (vii) it is not a Marxist work because it side lines class relations; (viii) it is an expression of racially biased black nationalism; (ix) it does not depict the role of women in African history; and (x) it is factually inaccurate on many counts.’ The author takes these criticisms to task in Chapter 6 of the book, and contextualizes the breadth of Rodney’s theory and practice to make evident the contradictory nature of many of these “charges”’.

In the next section, the Tanzanian scholar addresses the increasing absence and distortions of Rodney and HEUA in contemporary textbooks on the history of Africa. Here he takes to task scholars such as Molefi Asante, Bill Freund, John Illife and others, and interrogates the ‘hollow talk’ and ‘off the mark’ dismissals of Rodney’s work. In this vein, though in a later section, he later states: ‘I confidently declare that How Europe Underdeveloped Africa was the twentieth century’s most outstanding book on the history of Africa.’

Hirji’s concluding chapter focuses on the continuing relevance of Rodney and his activist practices and scholarship, and in a striking paragraph challenges the interventions of venerated contemporary historians, such as Mazrui and Mamdani, by providing how they have ‘mastered the flowery art of saying the same thing in a creative multiplicity of ways. It gives an impression of profundity and novelty where there is neither’. These ‘flowery’ theorizations are contrasted to Rodney’s life’s work which, he argues, moves beyond vogue discussions of citizenship and corruption and calls us to ‘think in terms of elimination of exploitation and dependency, promoting grass roots democracy, building a society based on equality and social justice, and firm promotion of people-based PanAfricanism’.

As such, it continues to ‘educate us that those who perpetuate the view that “Nowadays African leaders, not the outsiders, are underdeveloping Africa” are telling but one side of the story. The exclusive focus on those who rob by the millions protects the external hegemons who rob by the billions. Such voices are either oblivious of the strategic alliance between the local political and business elites and the imperialists, or they simply seek NGO funds from the masters’.

Without a doubt this book published by Daraja Press makes an important case for the ‘enduring relevance’ of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. It is a brilliant well researched exposition that does not engage in cult personality worship (as its detractors will more than likely accuse it to be involved in), but offers a systematic and grounded analysis of an important historical work and historian—Hirji makes this clear in his provision that Rodney was a giant who stood on the shoulders of other giants. The Enduring Relevance of Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is also we must note, inadvertently, a poetic catalogue of a friendship between Hirji and ‘Walter the man’.

In one of its beautifully expounded sections, Hirji asks in simple and elegiac prose: How do current students of African History encounter Rodney? In view of the importance of HEUA, which Hirji successfully makes the case for in this ‘book about a book’, the foremost task remains for us to make sure that these students actually encounter him.

KSh 1,200.00

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About The Author

Karim F Hirji