Ernest Wamba dia Wamba (1942 – 15 Jul 2020): A Healer from Within

OBITUARIES, 17 Aug 2020

Jacques Depelchin | Africa Is a Country - TRANSCEND Media Service

We should honor Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba by carrying on his life’s work.

In the early hours of July 15, 2020, at the University Hospital in Kinshasa, a brother, comrade, philosopher, historian, thinker, healer, and dreamer left us physically. But like a star in the firmament, he is still there to help us navigate through the current and future times, assuming we understand what he had been trying to accomplish in his life, and how he understood the senselessness of the managers of a dominant system that presumes it must control and own everything.

From wherever he is, Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba would have welcomed the launching of SENS, on August 3, 2020, in Burkina Faso, a movement aimed at “servir et non se servir,” which translates as “to serve and not to help oneself.” This is counter to the practice of so-called leaders in many African countries, where the state has become the trough. Is it possible to put an end to these kinds of situations? That is one of the questions that dominated Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba’s life.

In his approach to the most urgent problems, Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba always thought and acted as if he were everywhere, seeing things from all possible sides, while being grounded within his native culture of Congo. He knew how to listen with intensity.

In July 2019, he had to go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to renew his passport, letting it be known that he would be back home, in Dar es Salaam, within a month or so. In hindsight, it is not difficult for anyone who has known him to understand that being close to where he was born, and where he grew up, he would take the opportunity to re-visit his birth place, Sundi-Lutete. The political and economic conditions in the DRC are well known even to people outside of the country. It is one of the richest countries on the planet in terms of natural and human resources. Yet, it is also one of the countries with so-called leaders whose single-minded self-interest has been to accumulate wealth, ensuring that the majority of the population remains poor.

Paying tribute to a person from whom one has learned more than one will ever be able to articulate is challenging.  I first heard of Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, in the summer of 1974, through a common friend, when I had just finished my Ph.D. and was on my way to my first job, in Los Angeles.  A few years later, in Mozambique, after four years teaching at the University of Dar es Salaam, I heard from him by way of a critique of a two-part article I had written with Henry Bernstein. He sent me his criticism and I responded to it, mostly agreeing with him.

From then onward, we kept corresponding until we met, face to face, in 1983 when I was invited to be an external examiner for one of the departments at the University of Dar es Salaam. In a world that is dominated by practices of categorization, splitting, and tribalizing, it is impossible to decide where to locate Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba. For some he is a philosopher; others look at him as a political scientist. Marxists and non-Marxists appropriated him.

For many others, the majority, he is seen as a decent human being, someone who could befriend anybody. This kind of ability is rare, especially among those who have achieved a certain level of recognition, through their intellectual and/or scientific trajectory. Speaking of recognition, he was awarded the Prince Claus (from Holland) prize for Culture and Development, in 1997. For his contributions to CODESRIA, he was elected President for the 1992-1995 term. Still, he did not feel superior to others.

The Congo River at sunset, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
Image credit Marie Frechon for UN Photo

For Professor Wamba dia Wamba, the idea that everyone thinks also means that anyone can learn from anyone. In practice, this principle should mean that the hierarchization of knowledge is an anathema. It should mean that a university professor is not necessarily the one who knows best. A university professor must understand that he/she may learn from anybody, regardless of the context and circumstances. Professor Wamba dia Wamba never ceased to remind interlocutors that while history may be written by historians, history will only be changed by the masses.

From his own practices, he observed how individualism is reinforced by the hierarchization of knowledge, not only within the educational system, but also through the imposed culture of the dominant political and economic system.

The construction of a vocabulary, with words and concepts like competition and competitivity, has been one of the most powerful ways in which the culture of white supremacy imposed itself. As pointed out by Ayi Kwei Armah, Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, lamented in his autobiography, the fact that he grew up in a primitive society. When victims of white supremacy become the transmitters of self-destroying historical narratives, the consequences are incalculable.

Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba’s mindset was always rooted in his native culture, which he treated as equal to any other, a constant source of knowledge, wisdom, and inspiration, transmitted through collective and individual processes. In confronting a colonizing culture, the colonized mind must understand itself as equal, if not superior.

It is easy to marvel at Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba’s brilliance as a thinker, who was far ahead of his time; it is more difficult to grasp how he managed to maintain such a vision without being distracted by secondary issues. Although his admiration for Lumumba was unwavering, he nevertheless pointed out that Lumumba himself, hard as he tried, was not able to resolve, in his words, the equation he had faced, as Prime Minister: to transform the colonial state from an instrument of destruction into one that served the interests of all people, especially the ones who have been most exploited.

In his constant search for transforming the country into one that would serve and defend the interests of the people, in the same manner as, for example, Simon Kimbangu did in mobilizing workers and peasants back in the 1920s, Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba took the kind of risks that most academics instinctively avoid. As a result, he landed in one of the most notorious underground prisons of Mobutu from 1980-1982. At the time, the fight to save him from a worse fate pitted two sides: one that argued for doing things quietly and the other that insisted on making as much noise as possible. The latter side won. Mwalimu Nyerere (who knew Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba personally) asked President Mobutu why he was keeping one of his professors in jail. Soon after, Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba was released and eventually returned to Tanzania to continue teaching history at the University of Dar es Salaam.

Photo by Marilyn Langlois from the TRANSCEND Network

When confronted with situations he was unprepared to deal with, as was the case, for example, of the 1998 rebellion against Laurent Désiré Kabila, he managed to re-orient it in such a way that it would operate for the benefit of all, not just for a group interested in seizing power by military means. For the Congolese Rally for Democracy, to which he was elected, the objective was transformed into getting all Congolese to come together and work towards building a nation that would benefit everyone, and not just an instrument for so-called leaders to enrich themselves.  Among the consequences, the movement split into two and then three, reproducing the conditions for the perpetuation of the coup d’état as the way to secure state power.  But following the assassination of Laurent Desire Kabila in January 2001, all parties involved in the war, including the government, agreed to meet in Lusaka to discuss how to organize an inclusive Inter Congolese Dialogue under the neutral facilitation of Sir Ketumile Masire, former president of Botswana.

Even if the Inter Congolese Dialogue, which took place in Sun City, South Africa in 2002, did not end once and for all the wars (at that time 11 of them) that had plagued the country since independence, it demonstrated that peace could exist in the DRC and also between the DRC and its neighboring countries.

It does not matter which part of Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba’s life one looks at, any observer will be struck by the same characteristics or qualities: adherence to an ethics of truth, fidelity to solidarity with those who are the wretched of the earth, regardless of the changing circumstances. These are the characteristics he grew up with long before he was attracted to Western philosophers like Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Alain Badiou, to name a few.

Following the rebellion, members of the Bakongo community accused him of being responsible for the death of innocent people, especially among, but not only, Bakongo people. He went through a ceremony of self-criticism and asking for forgiveness.  Written and oral evidence confirm.

The reason for remembering this singular behavior is connected to what Alain Badiou described as fidelity to the event.  The event in the case of Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba can be directly linked to the emancipatory politics of people like Kimpa Vita, burned at the stake on July 2, 1706 for standing up against the King of Congo’s involvement in slavery, and to Simon Kimbangu’s call, in the 1920s, long before the emergence of Patrice Emery Lumumba’s Mouvement National Congolais.

To capture the life of Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba is the kind of task that will require a major collective effort by the many he touched, inspired, and encouraged to join him in the project toward emancipation and healing from the most destructive system ever invented by humans—capitalism.

He is no longer with us to help make the corrections he would notice ahead of us; but, by learning from the lessons he has left us, in his published and unpublished writings, we should be able to carry on practicing.

Long after most people his age opted for retirement, Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba knew that retirement could not be an option because the DRC was still operating in the same manner as under Mobutu. Emancipatory politics could not possibly be brought about through controlling a structure that had been mostly unchanged since colonial times. He considered that his most important prescription was to keep pushing for changes for the better for the majority of the Congolese people.

Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba’s study of the palaver as a democratic practice for resolving contradictions had nothing to do with “nativism”, but rather with his understanding of the fact that democratic practices did exist in Africa, long before they are said to have started in ancient Greece.

In the same manner, philosophy in Africa was indeed philosophy, not “ethnophilosophy”, or a sort of sub-altern branch of philosophy for “primitive” people.

In his mind, philosophers like Spinoza, Leibniz Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Alain Badiou resonated like modes of thinking he had already heard as he was growing up understanding Congo culture as a source of knowledge equal to any other culture.  In his exchanges with Alain Badiou, Wamba dia Wamba understood himself as a peer working toward achieving the same objectives of complete and total emancipation for all human beings.

In 2012, he joined the collective Shmsw Bak, organized by Ayi Kwei Armah to translate ancient Egyptian texts, and make them accessible to African readers who were not conversant in colonial idioms. Professor Wamba dia Wamba provided the Kikongo line-by-line translation for each of the four texts that have been published: SaNhat, Smi n Skty pn, SKHKHT EA, and Pthh-hhtp, into: SANHAT, An Official of Ancient Kemet, The Story of This Peasant, On Love Sublime, The Instructions of Ptahotep. All of these texts are available from PER ANKH, the African cooperative publisher in Popenguine, Senegal.

As far as he was concerned, a human being could not claim to be a human being if she/he was not a spiritual person. Spirituality is not equivalent to religiosity and/or ideology: from his practice, humans who are single-mindedly focused on acquisition of material goods are bound to annihilate, within themselves, the will or possibility of healing from the cumulative destruction of genocide, industrialized enslavement, colonization, apartheid, and neo-liberalism. This is one of the reasons why he became interested in the work initiated by Ne Muanda Nsemi, the spiritual leader who launched Bundu dia Kongo.

If we, his friends, sisters, brothers, and comrades, understand him and accept the challenge he left us, then we shall be able to live up to the heartfelt condolences we have expressed to the family, and, engage without delay toward carrying on the prescription he assigned to himself: bring about total emancipation of all humans.

Given the levels of destruction inflicted on the collective human consciousness, the task at hand may seem daunting and impossible. In this case, we shall remember him telling us, facing an apparently impossible task, that “to the impossible we must be held to account.”

Dear Ernest, on your way to eternal peace, your heart is weighed against the feather that measures all of the good actions and thoughts of your life. The certainty that you are being warmly welcomed by the ancestors and by your two late sons, Remy Datave Wamba and Philippe Wamba, is small consolation to those you left abruptly: Elaine Wamba, your life companion; your sons Kolo Diakiese Wamba, James-Paul Wamba, and your daughter Cornelia Elaine Brown Wamba; your siblings Céline Kidunga, Martine Luviluka Wamba, Anne-Marie Lukondo Wamba, Julienne Luzolo lua Wamba, and André Mambueni Wamba.  To all of them and members of the extended family, we express our most heartfelt condolences. Nenda salaama Ernest.


Jacques Depelchin is a Congolese historian.

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