Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong’o; Pan Africanism and Grassroots Movements Symposium at The Windrush Centre

Laila Benhaida giving talk to audience inside a room with digital screen on the back wall.

By Laila Benhaida

We were recently honoured to be invited to introduce the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre  and its collections to Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong’o; delegate from Kenya and other guests of the Racial Justice Network’s symposium at The Windrush Centre in Manchester (11 October 2023). Community Archivist, Laila, talks about the event here.

The fifth Pan-African National Congress in Manchester, 1945

The Pan-African Congress was a series of meetings, held throughout the world. It was successful in bringing attention to the decolonisation in Africa and in the West Indies. Pan-Africanism seeks to create a sense of solidarity and collaboration among all people of African descent whether they are inside or outside of Africa. It rejects colonialism, anti-African racism and exploitation and celebrates African heritage, culture, and achievement.

Meetings were held at regular intervals from 1900 onwards, bringing together the many people advocating for Pan-Africanism globally. The first formal Congress was called by W.E.B. Du Bois and held in Paris in 1919.

The Fifth Pan-African Congress was held in Manchester between 15–21 October 1945 and represents an extremely significant (though often overlooked) moment in Manchester’s history. This Congress, organised by a number of influential Pan Africanists,­­­ is widely considered to have been the most important Congresses. 90 delegates with 26 from Africa attended and this included many scholars, intellectuals and political activists who would later go on to become influential leaders in various African independence movements and the American civil rights movements. Delegates included American activist and academic W. E. B. Du Bois, Kenyan independence leader Jomo Kenyatta , Kwame Nkrumah of The Gold Coast (modern day Ghana), Hastings Banda, prominent Jamaican barrister Dudley Thompson, and Obafemi Alowolo and Jaja Wachuku from Nigeria.

A group of delegates and guests to the 5th Pan African congress sit and stand in rows with the Mayor of Manchester sat in the centre of image.
GB3228.34/1/2, Pan-African Congress 1945 and related celebratory events 1982-1995, Press photograph of the 1945 Pan-African Congress delegates and [Manchester City Mayor?] (1945).

Exploring the fifth Pan-African National Congress through the archives

The RACE Centre holds two collections that document this significant historic event, the first being GB3228.34 Pan-African Congress 1945 and related celebratory events 1982-1995.  This collection was donated to the Centre by the prominent community leader and activist Kath Locke in the early 2000s.  Kath Locke was one of many local activists and community members who fought hard for this important historical event to be documented and preserved in the archives and beyond.

The collection includes material spanning the dates 1945-1995, and includes leaflets, conference papers, invitations, photographs and press releases.  Most of the material relates to the Pan-African Congress held in Manchester in 1945, with some documenting the commemoration conferences held in Manchester in 1995.

Another collection we hold which documents this history is the GB3228.27 Pan African congress 50 years on. This was a commemorative project by Manchester Metropolitan academics Robin Grinter and Anna Ward to mark 50 years on from the 1945 Pan African Congress.

The collection contains oral history Interviews with the congress delegates, family members and people who lived during the time. Short sound clips of each interview are available to listen on our SoundCloud page and printed transcripts are also available to read in our library.

GB3228.27/4, Pan African Congress 50 years on, excerpt from interview with Raz Finni (18 Jul 1995).

The symposium

The event at the Windrush Centre was one in a series taking place in Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester, and attended by local community members.

We contributed to the symposium with copies of archive materials material which the audience, delegates and Professor Ngugi found interesting. The material evidences the organised activism of many people from colonised countries around the world, fighting for their independence from British rule. 

Delegates from universities in Kenya gave talks, all relating to the damage caused by colonial rule and how 60 years after independence, the effects of neo-colonialism1 in Kenya is very apparent.  In the words of Peninah Wangari-J, Director at the Racial Justice Network “The colonisers left their legacy as the same colonial structures are still adopted by African leaders”.

1 Neo-colonialism is where former colonial rulers maintain their control over former colonies post-independence. They do this through socio-economic, cultural and political means, ensuring that the independent countries remain dependent on them

Professor Ngugi spoke in depth about his lifelong work liberating his country from their colonial legacies.  He talked about his fight to teach African literature to African children in their native languages; his rejection of English as a colonial language (“the language of humiliation”), and how his discovering of African-Caribbean writers at a young age was a major influence on his work. He said, “Knowledge must begin where we are, in Africa”.

Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong'o sat in a chair facing and talking to the audience. Woman with red dress sits in the chair on the left.
Professor Ngugi Wa Thiong’o speaking at The Racial Justice Network’s Decolonial International Symposium (Windrush Centre, 11 Oct 2023)

Laila Benhaida giving talk to audience inside a room with digital screen on the back wall.

RACE Centre, Laila Benhaida, speaking about Pan African Congress archive collections at The Racial Justice Network’s Decolonial International Symposium (Windrush Centre, 11 Oct 2023)

Challenging the legacies of colonialism

The theme that ran through this event, and subsequent talks and workshops in Manchester, was the heavy and enduring impact of colonialism in Kenya and many other formerly colonised countries. Colonialism lives on in the neo-colonial systems and structures in these countries and we need to work hard to reject these systems and to – in the words of Professor Ngugi – decolonise our minds”. 

Preserving the stories and activities of people from Black and Global Majority backgrounds has a role to play here. Archives like those preserved at the RACE Centre capture the histories that have traditionally received no attention or recognition, and in many cases were not seen as valuable enough to preserve.

By working with communities to collect and preserve these histories framed by community members themselves and in their words and languages –  we document our truths. These histories have the potential to counter and challenge dominant Eurocentric perspectives and to disrupt the colonial narratives that still hold strong.

If you’d like to search and access our archives, please refer to this previous blog A Guide to Searching Archive and Library Collections at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre.