Communication of Ideas: Africa and its Influence
Communication of Ideas: Africa and its Influence
The communication of ideas in and from Africa is characterized by enormous changes over time and variations among societies. Historically, as might be expected for such a large and ancient continent—the second largest in the world and the one where humanity originated—African societies have exhibited high levels of cultural diversity, uneven patterns of political and socioeconomic development, and different forms of engagement with other world regions. Africa is home to hundreds of cultural groups and languages that have influenced each other in complex ways. It has given rise to advanced societies, such as the ancient civilizations of Egypt and West Africa, which existed alongside simpler societies. Many parts of the continent in the northern and northeastern subregions, and later the western coastal regions, were integrated into extracontinental cultural and commercial traffic, while some parts in the interior were relatively isolated. It was in the zones of intensive inter-cultural communication that ideas from Africa were transmitted to the outside world and ideas from other regions entered Africa. Needless to say, modern African countries are at different stages of industrialization and development, and unequally integrated into the global circuits of ideas and information.
Understanding these disparities is crucial to analyzing and mapping out the changing processes and patterns in the communication of ideas in and from Africa. For one thing, it underscores the difficulty of, indeed the need to avoid, simple generalizations. The development and connections between the various modes of communication—oral, textual, visual, and performance—have manifested themselves in multiple ways across the continent at different times. Similarly diverse are the institutional forms, and their patterns of growth, through which ideas have been expressed, ranging from educational and religious institutions to civic and professional bodies and mass media outlets. As an interactive process, the communication of ideas has a spatial dynamic that entails not only the travel of the ideas themselves from one place to another through several media, but also their transmission by human agents who move and settle in different places.
In this context, for example, the conquest of Spain by the Moors from northwestern Africa, which they ruled for nearly eight centuries, was crucial to the diffusion of ideas from Africa and other parts of the ancient world to Western Europe. So was the forced migration of enslaved Africans across the Atlantic important for the spread of countless African ideas to the Americas. Likewise, European invasions of Africa, most crucially colonization (both the ancient Roman colonization of North Africa and the nineteenth-century European colonization of the continent as a whole), played a profound role in the spread of ideas from Europe, some of which were, as is true of Christianity, ideas that previous generations of African thinkers, such as the Egyptian Gnostics and St. Augustine from the Maghreb, had contributed to their development, and that the newly converted Africans proceeded to further transform. This back-and-forth process typifies the complex flows of ideas in world history and the dangers of ethnocentric claims of exclusive cultural authorship.
Orality and Performance
Looking at the span of human history in its entirety, orality clearly antedates literacy, so deciphering the origins and development of oral and textual forms of communication in Africa, and their relationships, is not an easy task. Many Africanists used to claim that Africa, by which they often meant "sub-Saharan Africa," was defined by oral modes of expression and communication before the intrusion of European influences from the fifteenth century and especially following colonization in the nineteenth. The contention that Africa was ontologically oral and Europe literary had both positive and negative implications. On the positive side, it led to the valorization of oral sources in reconstructions of African history and of oral narratives—what came to be known as oral literature, or orature—in African literature. On the negative side, it oversimplified both African histories and narrative traditions and reinforced the age-old analytical dichotomies in the conceptualization of African and European phenomena.
Undoubtedly, oral communication and traditions have been important modes of social dialogue and transmitting history in African societies for a long time. Oral traditions include oral narratives (epics, legends, and explanatory tales), poetry (praise poetry, chants, and songs), and epigrams (proverbs, riddles, puns, and tongue twisters). Combined, they served to link the past and the present, construct collective worldviews and identity, educate the youth, express political views, and provide entertainment and aesthetic pleasure. The production of oral traditions often involved performance based on a participatory ethic. In many societies, there were highly trained and esteemed custodians of oral tradition. Among the Mande of West Africa, for example, they were known as griots, a word that acquired popularity in the United States following the 1977 airing of the acclaimed television miniseries Roots, based on the 1976 book in which Haley reputedly traced his African ancestry to a village in the Gambia with the help of a griot.
From Thomas Hale's fascinating history, it is clear that griots had many other functions besides being genealogists. They were historians, advisers to rulers, patrons, and other members of society, spokespersons, diplomats, mediators, interpreters and translators, musicians, composers, teachers, exhorters, warriors, witnesses, praise-singers, and ceremony participants during namings, initiations, courtship, marriages, installations, and funerals. Griots first emerged at least a thousand years ago; since then their role has changed, and so have interpretations of their history in the oral accounts themselves and in written accounts by locals and outsiders. In more recent times, the griots have taken advantage of twentieth-century technologies including radio, television, audiocassettes, and CDs to spread their knowledge to new audiences locally and globally. Also, many griot epics, such as the renowned Epic of Sundiata, about the legendary king of the Mali Empire, have been committed to print. While the literature has mostly discussed male griots, recent scholarship has demonstrated that there were female griots, or griottes, as Hale refers to them.
The case of the griots demonstrates the intricate connections between orality and performance. As a medium for the construction, dissemination, and consumption of ideas, performance in the forms of drama and music and dance were particularly important in African societies. According to Modupe Olaogun, African drama dates back to ancient times and includes pantomimes, dance-drama, mask, shadow, and court theaters, heroic recitations, praise-poetry, and market comedy by itinerant troupes, which use, in various combinations and with different degrees of sophistication, role-playing, dialogue, mime, movement, dance, song, puppetry, costume, and scenic spectacle. In the late eighteenth century, African theater entered a new era as contacts with Europe increased and European theater motifs and practices were introduced, elements of which were creatively appropriated and used to further diversify African theatrical expression. Most important was the incorporation of scripted text and reorganization of theatrical space to separate performers and spectators. In Egypt, Ya'qub Sannu (1839–1912) founded modern Egyptian theater with distinct European influences.
Syncretized performances emerged. For example, the black township music theater of South Africa combined the indigenous dramatic modes of storytelling (the isiZulu's ingoma or the isiXhosa's ntsomi ) with Western choral and vaudeville forms to create a popular theater, which from the 1930s became a powerful vehicle for antiapartheid resistance. In West Africa, where European settler influence was negligible, new theatrical practices were largely developed through educational institutions. In the 1920s, there emerged in countries such as Ghana and Nigeria itinerant indigenous language theater. By the mid-twentieth century, European influences had waned and Africa's vibrant theater could be divided into distinct forms: literary, popular, and theater for development, each with its own styles, aesthetics, themes, messages, languages, and audiences.
Similarly, music as a mode of cultural production and communication underwent significant changes over the centuries. As with theater, different musical forms developed across the continent, depending on the performance contexts of location and audience, the nature of the performers (spontaneous groups, popular musicians, or specialized musicians), the instruments used (ranging from idiophones to membranophones including drums, aerophones, and chordophones), and their functions (whether entertainment, political, religious, and educational, work-related, or mnemonically to recall past events). According to Turino (2003), despite their obvious differences, music in African societies tended to share a participatory ethic rather than a presentational one (except for music specialists at royal courts), and music and dance were conceptualized as part of the same art form and as social processes rather than as set items or products.
Dance not only included music, but was a complex interactive affair involving movement, theater, sculpture, and religion, whose styles and organization served as social metaphors that communicated aesthetic preferences, issues of kinship, gender, status, and age. Different African societies influenced each other, and from the nineteenth century they began to feel European influences, not least missionary attacks against African dance as "lewd" or "lascivious." In the course of the twentieth century, numerous old dances were reconfigured and recontextualized and new ones emerged. In the 1950s and 1960s, formal dance companies and national dance ensembles practicing traditional dance were created in many countries. In the meantime, new dances such as highlife and rhumba had emerged in Africa's rapidly expanding cities. All this demonstrates, argues Oforiwaa, the continent's remarkable cultural flexibility, capability, and creativity.
Many of the new music and dance styles were adapted from the African diaspora in the Americas. Rhumba, for example, was an Afro-Cuban dance genre created by slaves after emancipation in the 1880s. While African music was exported to the Americas during the era of the Atlantic slave trade, where it was further developed and transformed, as cultural contacts between Africa and the African diaspora grew from the late nineteenth-century diasporan music—from jazz, rhumba, and reggae to pop music and hip hop—it was re-exported back to Africa, where it was reappropriated and converted. In the twentieth century, African music and dance became a powerful medium to express Pan-African, cosmopolitan, and nationalist consciousness, in addition to performing gender, class, and religious ideas and identities.
It is quite evident that African "traditional" cultures and modes of communication have demonstrated a capacity to use new communication technologies and, in the process, to transform both themselves and those technologies. This challenges many of the simplistic generalizations and dichotomies about African cultural and intellectual history. Writing specifically about literacy and orality, Eileen Julien is critical of those who regard orality and writing as exclusive domains and successive moments in which the oral represents Africa's authentic expressive form. She argues that there is nothing intrinsically oral about Africa, that orality and writing have continually influenced each other for a long time, as Albert Gérard (1981) and Harold Scheub have shown in their exhaustive studies. This intertextuality can be seen in the works of contemporary African writers who deliberately appropriate oral forms to serve literary artistic ends.
Among the earliest African societies to develop writing as a method of recording and transmitting knowledge and information were Egypt, Nubia (whose Meroitic script [2nd century b.c.e.–5th century c.e.] has yet to be deciphered), and Ethiopia. In these early literary traditions, writing and reading were confined to a tiny religious and political elite. In Egypt, hieroglyphic writing began about 3000 b.c.e. The literature of the Old Kingdom (2650–2152 b.c.e.) was largely didactic, dominated by the "wisdom" genre. Literary genres multiplied during the Middle Kingdom (2040–1640 b.c.e.) to include more intricate literary forms such as novels, satires, and autobiographies, as well as political and social commentaries and philosophical discourses. During the New Kingdom (1539–1069 b.c.e.) a new literary genre emerged—the love poem—and writers began to abandon classical language and to write in the colloquial language of their time. Later, a new literature known as Demotic (meaning "of the people") developed, and, after large numbers of Egyptians had converted to Christianity, a Coptic literature emerged emphasizing religious themes.
Ethiopian writing (in a language called Ge'ez) began in about 500 b.c.e. It grew when the Kingdom of Axum became Christianized (c. 400 c.e.), following the conversion of King Ezana in 330 c.e. The Bible was translated from Greek into Ge'ez and other religious translations were produced. The "golden age" of Ge'ez literature, according to Gérard (1981), was between 1270 and 1520, during which both religious and secular writing flourished. Between 1314 and 1322, the clergy, in support of a new dynasty, wrote the Kabra Nagast (Glory of Kings), reportedly the most venerated book in Ethiopian history. Royal chronicles, in fact, were an important genre of Ethiopian writing until the beginning of the twentieth century. In the fifteenth century, local hagiographies began to appear as nationalist homage to the holy men of the Ethiopian Church. Ge'ez writing waned from the sixteenth century, to be followed three centuries later by the development of writing in Amharic, the commonly spoken language in Ethiopia, which flowered in the twentieth century, incorporating new literary and intellectual trends.
The Arab conquest of North Africa (661–750 c.e.) ushered in a new period in African political, religious, and cultural history. It brought Islam and the Arabic language and script, which altered the modes of communication of ideas and Africa's links to the wider world. Muslim North Africa gave the continent and the world its first universities, the mosque universities of Ez-Zitouna in Tunis (founded in 732), Quaraouiyine in Fez (founded in 859), and Al-Azhar (founded in Cairo in 969). Lulat argues that these universities influenced the development of the modern European university, which acquired five elements from the Muslims: (1) a large corpus of knowledge; (2) rationalism and the secular investigative approach of natural science; (3) division of knowledge into academic subjects; (4) the notion of the university as a community of individual scholars; and (5) the idea of the college. He concludes that "the modern university that was brought to Africa by the colonial powers is as much Western in origin as it is Islamic" (p. 16).
North African intellectuals produced a vast body of scholarship in a wide range of fields, from the natural sciences to poetry and history, and some of the world's most renowned minds including Ibn Batuta of Tangier (1304?–1377?), the traveler who visited numerous countries in Asia, Europe, and Africa and wrote extensively on his explorations, and Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332–1406), the historian who pioneered secular history in his monumental Kitab-al-'Ibar (Universal History) and three-volume Muqaddimah (Introduction to History).
Through trans-Saharan trade, Islam spread from North Africa to West Africa, where it began to make significant inroads in the eleventh century. Centers of Islamic learning emerged, including the mosque university of Tombouctou established in the twelfth century, where numerous works were produced, such as Ta'rikh al-Fattash (Chronicle of the Researcher) and Ta'rikh al-Sudan (History of the Sudan), written by Mahmud Ka'ti (b. 1468) and Abd al-Rahman al-Sa'di (1596–1656), respectively. In addition to writing in Arabic, West African scholars also wrote in African languages using Arabic script, writings that are called Ajami. Examples include the Kano Chronicle and the Gonja Chronicle, produced in modern-day Ghana in the eighteenth century. Arabic and ajami writing flourished in nineteenth-century Hausaland. Usman dan Fodio (1754–1817), the leader of the Islamic reform movement that created the Sokoto Caliphate, the largest state in nineteenth-century West Africa, and his brother and daughter, wrote hundreds of books and treatises on law, theology, politics, finance, history, and poetry. Senegal also produced illustrious scholars and religious leaders, among them the legendary Amadou Bamba (1850–1927), whose works remain popular to this day.
Arabic and ajami writing also spread to the east African coast and Madagascar. Malagasy ajami writing was well established by the time the first Europeans arrived in the early seventeenth century, although it did not achieve the status it did in West Africa or among the Swahili along the east African coast. Ajami was gradually supplanted by Roman script from the 1820s as part of the Merina kingdom's (1787–1896) ambitious modernization drive. Swahili writing, whose origins have been dated to the thirteenth century (if not earlier), produced a vigorous literature, mostly poetry and historical chronicles, such as the sixteenth-century Kilwa Chronicle. Classical Swahili literature entered its golden age between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries, during which the work of several writers stands out: Saiyid Abdallah b. Nassar (1720–1820), Muyaka bin Haji al-Ghassaniy (1776–1840), Muhyi 'l-Din (1789–1869), and Umar b. Amin (1798–1870), who wrote religious and epic poetry. From the second half of the nineteenth century, Swahili writing was confronted with a new challenge in the form of European imperialism.
The vast corpus of African writings in Arabic and ajami (much of the latter is scattered in private holdings) across the continent contains important records of African contributions to human knowledge in general and Islamic scholarship in particular. As with early and contemporary Christianity, Africans have made significant contributions to Islamic thought almost from its emergence in the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century.
The coming of Europeans in the fifteenth century, during the infamous Atlantic slave trade, crystallizing into colonization from the mid-nineteenth century, marked yet another watershed in the development of African writing and in the technologies of the communication of ideas. European Christianity was especially critical in the introduction of new cultural practices and writing to many languages that had previously had no written tradition. In Southern Africa, for example, the written literature of the Zulu and Xhosa dates to the early nineteenth century, and most of the works were initially religious in tone, including translations of the Bible and books such as Pilgrim's Progress. Later, a more secular and anticolonial literature emerged, especially in journals and newspapers. Dictionaries and historical works were also produced. A vibrant local language literature also developed in West Africa, especially in Ghana and Nigeria. Particularly impressive was writing in Yoruba, consisting mostly of fiction, drama, poetry, journalism, and historical works, such as Samuel Johnson's (1846–1901) landmark History of the Yorubas (1921).
The nineteenth century also witnessed the development of new African scripts, especially in West Africa, the most famous being the Vai script invented by Duwalu Bukele (1810–1850). Even more consequential in the long run was the development of African writing in the European languages, especially English and French, a subject that is exhaustively discussed in the edited collections by Albert Gérard (1986) and Oyekan Owomoyela (1993), among others. Initially, African writings in the European languages concentrated on autobiographies such as Olaudah Equiano's (1745–1797) The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or, Gustavus Vassa, the African (1789). In the nineteenth century, scholarly works began to be produced by such intellectuals as Edward William Blyden (1832–1912), author of tomes like A Vindication of the African Race (1857) and Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race (1887), which had a permanent influence on African thought.
In the twentieth century, as colonialism became entrenched, European language writing and communication spread to all aspects of African cultural and social life and became a definitive part of African literature, scholarship, education, and public discourse. The use of European languages continued after independence, a period that saw an explosion in education at all levels. For example, the number of universities increased from forty-two in 1960 (many of which were in North Africa and in South Africa) to more than four hundred, enrolling about five million students, by the beginning of the new century. Although a vast improvement compared to the colonial era, this still represented a relatively low enrollment ratio of less than 5 percent.
The mastery of the European languages by Africans can be seen in the fact that several have won the Nobel Prize for Literature and other prestigious international awards, and many African academics are among the leading figures in their respective fields. In fact, claim the authors of Africa and the Disciplines, "research in Africa has shaped the disciplines and thereby shaped our convictions as to what may be universally true" (Bates, Mudimbe, and O'Barr, p. xiv). Some see the European languages as a force for cultural unification, national integration, administrative efficiency, modernization, and globalization, while others contend that the dominance of these languages erodes Africa's linguistic and epistemic autonomy and its ability to define itself, pursue development, and entrench democratic rights in a situation where the languages of tuition, government, and business are not indigenous and spoken by the masses in daily life.
The Development of Modern Media
Besides educational institutions and religious institutions, the modern media have been critical channels for spreading ideas. The modern printed press dates to the turn of the nineteenth century. The first newspapers, in both African and European languages, appeared in Egypt in 1798, in South Africa in 1800, in Sierra Leone in 1801, in Ghana in 1822, in Liberia in 1826, and in Nigeria in 1859. The most important Egyptian paper in the first half of the nineteenth century was al-Waqa'ie Al-Misriyya (Egyptian events), founded in 1828, and from the second half of the nineteenth century until the twentieth century it was al-Ahram (The pyramids), founded in 1875. After the British occupation of 1882, Egyptian newspapers became vehicles of nationalist protest. Between 1900 and 1914, 250 newspapers appeared, although many did not survive. The Egyptian press entered its "golden age" after independence in 1922, and by 1937, according to Amy Ayalon, there were 250 Arabic and 65 foreign-language papers.
In West Africa, members of the Western educated elite established newspapers as vehicles to express incipient nationalism in the face of European colonial encroachment. Among the most influential papers were the Accra Herald, later renamed the West Africa Herald, established by Charles Bannerman in 1858, and the Iwe Ihorin, founded in 1859 by African missionaries in Abeokuta, Nigeria, and written in Yoruba. During the first half of the twentieth century, when colonialism was firmly entrenched, a host of private newspapers were established by African businessmen and nationalists, from Herbert Macaulay (1864–1946), who founded the Lagos Daily News in 1925, to Nnandi Azikiwe (b. 1904), the first president of independent Nigeria, who founded West African Pilot in 1937, and whose party, the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons, came to control ten newspapers by the 1950s.
In the French colonies, the first African-run papers did not emerge until the 1920s, although before 1900 Senegal had three settler papers. The press expanded rapidly after World War II: some 365 newspapers were established between 1945 and 1960, when the French colonies attained their independence. In Southern, Central, and Eastern Africa, the press was largely a European creation to serve the information, education, and entertainment needs of the European settler communities, leaving the African readership in search of alternative channels of communication. After World War II some nationalists founded their own papers—for example, Muigwithamia (Work and play) and Nyanza Times, established by Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga, who later became independent Kenya's first president and vice president, respectively.
After independence the print media faced new opportunities and challenges. The growth of education and literacy levels expanded their readership base, but the emergence of authoritarian one-party states and military regimes undermined press freedom and led to the closure or imprisonment and harassment of many journalists. National news agencies were established and many of the new governments either bought existing papers or established new ones. A few governments were more concerned about the role of foreign ownership and tried to encourage local private media ownership, as was the case, for example, in Nigeria, where Moshood Abiola (1955–1998), later elected president in the annulled elections of 1992, and the Ibru Group established vast media empires. Concerns about the role of the international media—its excessive control of global news flows and misrepresentations of events in the global South—soon translated into international demands in the 1970s by African, Asian, and Latin American countries for the establishment of a New World Information Order (NWIO).
The demands for NWIO were not heeded. In any case, the prodemocracy movement that arose across Africa in the mid-1980s soon transformed Africa's media landscape. These movements were fueled by, and in turn facilitated, the rapid growth of newspapers, so that countries that had a handful of tightly controlled papers suddenly had several dozen vociferous tabloids. Another development was the creation of the Internet, which opened new possibilities for the African press to reach new audiences at home and abroad. By 2000, all African countries had access to the Internet and hundreds of African newspapers were available online.
The Internet is the latest in a long line of telecommunication technologies to be appropriated by African countries. Previously there had been the telegraph, then telephony, cinema, radio, and television, all of which, except radio, grew relatively slowly during the colonial period. The transistor radio played a major role as a vehicle of nationalist mobilization during the struggle for independence. But many countries did not have direct telephone connections with each other and it often took years to get a phone installation, a situation that persisted well after independence. Colonial Africa was generally excluded from the international agencies that regulate global telecommunications, a situation that changed as independent governments joined these organizations, such as the International Telecommunication Union and the International Telecommunications Satellite Organization, and tried to make up for lost time.
The emergence of the so-called information society and knowledge economies, fueled by the forces of global market integration and the emergence and convergence of new information technologies—what came to be known collectively as "globalization"—compelled African governments to accelerate the pace of telecommunications infrastructure development and to liberalize that sector. In pursuit of this agenda, attempts were made to forge more effective government policies, create regional telecommunication initiatives, and leapfrog old technologies by acquiring the latest technologies such as cell phones and satellites. The use of cell phones across the continent skyrocketed. In 1998, the Afristar satellite was launched, the first of its kind in the world designed to broadcast directly to consumer radio receivers.
These initiatives have borne some fruit. Numerous African institutions from governments to universities use Internet services and Africa is more connected to the rest of the world than it has ever been. Yet, many challenges remain. While the number of Internet users on the continent more than quadrupled in the 1990s, reaching 3.1 million by the beginning of 2001, this represented less than 1 percent of worldwide users, which then numbered 407.1 million. The challenge is not only to close the digital divides—within Africa and between Africa and the developed world—but also for Africa to increase its production of the technologies themselves and the content of information on the global information highway.
Thus, by the beginning of the twenty-first century, Africa's postcolonial mediascape was a dynamic and multifaceted blend of traditions, influences, and technologies. The most modern forms of communications technologies coexisted with the indigenous media, electronic outlets lived side by side with street information and rumor mills, known under various names in different regions such as radio trottoir in Francophone Africa, radio boca a boca in Lusophone (Portguese-speaking) Africa, and bush telegraph, or pavement radio, in Anglophone Africa.
Africa and Its Influence
Through the various modes of communication identified above, ideas have been and continue to be transmitted within, from, and into Africa—ideas about religion, culture, politics, and the arts, as well as ideologies, iconographies, and images, not to mention academic theories, concepts, and methodologies. Discourses on African influences tend to be dominated by the tropes of origination, contestation, recipiency, hybridity, and agency. Origination emphasizes Africa's authenticity and as the source of Western civilization associated with the work of Cheikh Anta Diop and the Afrocentricists. Contestation refers to Ali Mazrui's notion of counterpenetration or counterconquest, celebrating Africa's capacities to contest other civilizations at home and abroad (2002).
Recipiency portrays Africa largely as a recipient of external influences, whether negatively, as in Walter Rodney's How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, or positively as in the numerous works that discuss the benefits of external interventions for Africa from colonialism and Christianity to foreign aid and globalization. Hybridity is inspired by postcolonial theory and, as in Kwame Anthony Appiah's In My Father's House, dismisses any African essence and sees Africa as a constellation of hybrid cultures and identities. The agency paradigm is beloved by nationalist and radical historians who seek to show how Africans have actively fashioned their material, mental, and moral lives from the complex ebbs and flows of internal and external forces and influences.
In reality, Africa has not been constituted only from within but also from without. Indeed, it is fair to say that Africa has been constituted by the world as much as it has constituted the world in all its ramifications—historical, demographic, cultural, economic, political, and discursive.
See also African-American Ideas ; Afrocentricity ; Arts: Africa ; Colonialism: Africa ; Diasporas: African Diaspora ; Diffusion, Cultural ; Humanism: Africa ; Humanity: African Thought ; Literature: African Literature ; Modernity: Africa ; Mysticism: Mysticism in African Thought ; Negritude ; Orientalism: African and Black Orientalism ; Pan-Africanism ; Personhood in African Thought ; Philosophies: African ; Philosophy, Moral: Africa ; Realism, Africa ; Sociability in African Thought ; University: Postcolonial ; Westernization: Africa ; Women's History: Africa .
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Paul Tiyambe Zeleza