Some books have to be written. They must be published not for ego, money and fame – but future generations.
An African Student in Russia – Soviet Union by Dr Onesphor Kyara is that type. Having failed to find a publisher (one of rejection slips hurled back by the mighty Penguin) Dr Kyara decided to self-publish. Thanks to our golden era of internet and information technology self publishing is easy in 2014.
Available on Amazon, E-bay, Apple i- books, as well Burns and Noble/Nook, An African Student in Russia – Soviet Union will soon reach Africa based readers if Dr Kyara’s efforts succeed through Mkuki na Nyota, local bookshops and South Africa’s Kalahari.
These are early days.
It has only been two months…
At the height of Ujamaa policies and the international cold war it was taboo to say certain things. In 1975, the young Onesphor Kyara received a scholarship (of which he is grateful to both governments) to study in Russia. He lived there for six years, married a Russian woman and returned in 1981. The cold war era was a sensitive time. Mouths were sealed; back then, there weren’t the freedoms we have these days. Nowadays, a lecturer of anthropology and sociology in various universities in the US, Dr Kyara explains he released the 300 page publication because very few Tanzanians have written about their experiences overseas, and tell the world “of a system long gone, to inform students of trials and tribulations of studying abroad” and help Russian students. Ever detailed and drawing parallels, Dr Kyara exemplifies the ongoing crisis in Ukraine where “current… opposition seems to fight against a return to the past.”
Throughout these 300 pages, I kept asking a question of the past 100 years. Which works better capitalism or socialism (communism)? Dr Kyara: “Communism does not work anywhere; and capitalism does not work everywhere either, especially with ex-slaves (does he mean diaspora Africans?). Imported religions are causing conflicts across Africa. Bongoism is an alternative to Western and Eastern communist atheism…”
Deep thoughts tell it all; taking off from Dar es Salaam, spending a year learning Russian, struggling with shortages, travelling through Europe for shopping and sightseeing. Major insight into the life of African students who had to engage in black market – buying from “free” West and selling to Russian citizens.
These “illegal” actions assisted their six year survival. Blunt and polemical, “African Student in Russia” reads like an adventure; so detailed that you smell the cigarettes ( how fellow young stressed Wazungu smoked), cockroaches in student quarters and lack of toilet papers (students using newspapers); reminiscent of 1980s Tanzania.
Is our fearful image of Eastern European racism, true?
“Race and racism had hardly been of concern in Tanzania. It was something we associated with Apartheid in South Africa, America, England and other multiracial societies with Anglo-Saxon populations.” (page 72).
With that he narrates shocking incidents like when a Russian youth uttered “chornaya sabaka” (black dog) “as he walked down the street.
The book is littered with negative and positive differences, mostly cultural. I would have personally preferred it to have an index to guide.
On page 56, we are informed how in Russia a single finger is used to point at animals while for humans “one needed to point at least four fingers.” Always giving examples he alleges that Russian is a more logical and easier language to learn than English.
An African Student in Russia- Soviet Union is also, continuous interesting discussion. On at least five occasions the Tanzanian academic proposes a universal idiom created by the United Nations. “I found it disgraceful that the UN in general and UNESCO in particular…had failed to design a Universal Sign Language (USL) by the end of the twentieth century!… an absolute prerequisite toward understanding between cultures and a cornerstone of global peace.” (page 211). Or religion.
“Religion assists mass control, promotes pacifism, and discourages revolutionary actions.” This line of thought, that Christianity and Islam were forced upon us, was also pushed by the late Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. Today’s Africans, Dr Kyara argues, will fight you if you discuss these two religions (“it is in their blood”). Historically: “The pacifist and less militarized cultures, including Africans in later years, were often forced to convert or else!” (page 201). Africans have lagged behind while those who offered us these beliefs continue to develop.
Page 141: “Most youths in the developed nations no longer rely on false hopes offered by religion: they rely on their mental faculties as the quintessential solver of most problems… hopeless Third World still needs religion to provide hope. If the Europeans attempt to take back their religion, they could get hurt!”
When quizzed about his good command of English, Dr Kyara says something worth contributing to current Parliamentary debate regarding which language should be used in our schools (as standards of English and Swahili fall fast!):
“Back then English was emphasized, no English, no Cambridge University Certificate.”
That was Tanzania- 45 years ago!