“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds. Have no fear for atomic energy. Cause none of them can stop the time” -Bob Marley in “Redemption Song”.
Grindlays Bank, the historic overseas lender established in London in 1828, was known as agent and banker to the British Army and business community in India. Following its acquisition by the National Bank of India in 1949, Grindlays assumed a foothold in British spheres of influence on the fringes of the Indian Ocean, Aden, and Eastern Africa. Even after the operational merger in 1958, management of the bank was traditionally British, and its image was that of a bastion of the Empire.
When National and Grindlays Bank was bought by the government of Kenya in 1970, it was renamed Kenya Commercial Bank but under the terms of the buyout, Grindlays was left with two branches in Nairobi and Mombasa.
Sometime in the 1960s, after independence, National and Grindlays Bank, then the country’s largest bank, reluctantly gave in to pressure to Africanise management. One of the first African beneficiaries narrates how he was recruited at the time as a management trainee. Under the terms of his training, he was required to reside in one of the penthouses above the bank on Kenyatta Avenue. The junior African staff could not believe that he was now the occupant of a penthouse which they had always associated with a white manager, whether in training or in transit.
I joined Grindlays Bank, from National Bank of Kenya, in 1990 as a senior manager. At the time, there were four other African managers, one of whom was a grade higher than me. The terms of my management grade and those above provided, amongst other benefits, overseas air passage for myself, my wife and four children with generous cash leave allowances for each person. When my leave fell due two years later in 1992, I booked myself and my family (wife and four children), through the bank’s travel agent, on a return trip to Johannesburg where we took the Blue Train to Cape Town (I paid for the train from my own resources).
I later learned that my white general manager, Keith Blackie blew his top when the travel agents presented their invoice for payment while I was away, surprised that I had the audacity to enjoy the privilege which was premised on the assumption that no African would achieve management grade. Nonetheless, there was nothing he could do as the benefit was provided for in black and white (pun intended). I made use of this benefit again after two years before I left the bank.
What really surprised me was that none of the other African managers, who had all served in the bank for more than 10 years before me ever dared to claim this benefit even after I had trailblazed the way.
Years of indoctrination had created layer after layer of a mindset that was smeared in white supremacy, self-doubt, contempt, fear, and hatred. The effect was so powerful in the mind of the oppressed that even when the very privileges which were denied them became available, they did not embrace them because they did not believe they were entitled to them. It is the same mindset which glamorised skin-lightening, “thin” lips, and hair straightening in the 1960s.
Bob Marley’s landmark “Redemption Song” was inspired by a speech delivered by Marcus Garvey at St. Phillips African Orthodox Church in Sydney, Nova Scotia, in October 1937.
“We are going to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery because whilst others might free the body, none but ourselves can free the mind. Mind is your only ruler. The man who is not able to develop and use his mind is bound to be the slave of the other man who uses his mind.”
Mindset of contempt
At the time Bob Marley wrote the song in 1979, he had been diagnosed with cancer and he was clearly dealing with his own mortality in the words of his song, so it had a strong emotional appeal.
The mindset of contempt for ourselves as Africans often leads to the false sense of comfort that we should therefore be judged by a lower standard because, after all, that is what is expected of us according to the narrative. I have often heard the phrase “stop being mzungu” when one is trying to aspire to excellence.
In his book Decolonizing the Mind Ngugi wa Thiong’o demonstrated the way western cultural and linguistic superiority were emphasised while African cultures and languages were debased.
Writing in his book Beyond Mental Slavery: A Guide to Breaking Free and Thinking Clearly, Steve Gillman states: “Your progress towards a mind that truly serves your highest purpose will always depend on your willingness to observe yourself. When you do that, you’ll start to see where you are giving away your freedom in bits and pieces to this or that momentary master.”
We must not allow ourselves to believe that we are children of our lesser god. We belong up there, among the very best. Let us practice and live that unalienable truth.