By Mpuga Rukidi
Ozymandias. Yes, that poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. My first encounter with it was in Junior High School, as part of my English language lessons. My teacher, a tall, skinny soul, with sight so unadmirable, was labouring to tell us that it was an outstanding piece of literature. The poem had a wine-like influence on me: the older our acquaintance became, the more I loved it, the sweeter it became. It was inspired by a statute of the most celebrated and most powerful ruler of Egypt -Ramesses II- Pharaoh between [1303-1213] BC. Ozymandias is what the Greeks called him. The fame and grandeur of this king inspired a statue so gigantic many Europeans, most notable among them Napoleon, tried to take it away but failed with -spectacular success. It was not until 1816 that the British succeeded and took it home, with the help of an Italian; a one Giovanni Belzoni. The message in Ozymandias, is, in short, that leaders are short lived and however successful their reigns, there is, inevitably an end.
Education, through which I was introduced to Ozymandias, had also earlier introduced me to the notion that nearly all the good and remarkable things about Africa were foreign, or had something foreign about them. Nearly all the food species in my East Africa were introduced by Europeans: maize, yams, pineapples, cassava, millet and more, were all brought by our European friends – the likes of Vasco da Gama. The conclusion from this could only be that our forefathers, before the arrival of Europeans, were either starved, or were not strange to miracles as they must have lived without food! The lakes of my native Uganda with European names then came to mind: Victoria, Albert, Edward, George. Again, following what my education had suggested, the lakes must have formed on realizing that Europeans were in the area, or if they didn't, they were another form of miracles altogether. This can be the only explanation, for these lakes, like many other natural features, were 'discovered' by Europeans, who were themselves guided by the local people to see them!
The current wave of change in Arab Africa brings back the thought of Ozymandias and the great Ramesses. The poem Ramesses' colossal statute inspired sure had, like the other great things about Africa, something foreign -it was penned by a European. However, while it cannot be said that the 'European' lakes in my homeland were made by Africans, it cannot, at the same time, be denied that the statue of Ramesses was built by Africans, and was indeed, in memory of an African. But trust us, or is it our leaders, we cannot, save for the tall, skinny High School teacher, read a poem inspired by a statue of our very own, or reading it, heed its message. It is sometimes said of us, usually not without justification, that the easiest way to hide something from us is to put it into writing. May be that needs to be amended with 'our leaders' replacing 'us'.
The changes that are taking place now, with a dose of Ozymandias in them, in the very land that Ramessess reigned over, are several. In Carthage just a few months ago, one vegetable seller, tired of living a life of a sub human, torched himself to death. The reaction forced the latter day Ramesses to quit, a quitting that could have been more dignified had the ruler learnt anything from the poem inspired by his great predecessor, or had Ben Ali's quitting been early. But he could not look on the works of his forefather and learn.
In January, another latter day Pharaoh, whose daily trip to the seat of power should have reminded him of the ancient great ruler of the land that he called his, was forced out by people armed with no less than a few angry words. He has since vanished, literally. For what do you call lying on a bed inside a cage, thanks to the power of people who, just a few months back, would have pinched themselves in disbelief if told that the great man was nothing less than superhuman?
The latest reincarnation of the great Ramesses to exit would have, no doubt – if not in life, at least in death – inspired an Ozymandias-like poem. Reigning for nearly half a century, with a big soft spot for ostentation, grandeur and opulence, the former hunter has now turned hunted, fallen from grace to grass -if he ever had the former, that is – and acquired a new name: fugitive. This name could with time change to captive, convict or condemned. Possessing arrogance in quantities near overdose, he, the great king of kings, felt he could rule forever, and found it fitting that people should be put in their place. Thus, when his subjects tried to protest, it was only proper to call them such admirable names: vermin, hounds. Really admirable these names, considering that their owners now run the show. Only heaven knows why he could not see the winds of change, why he could not look at Ramesses and despair! But the winds of change can sweep really fast and with determination. Ruling for close to half a century could have gotten to his head. The reincarnation did not even think it wise to wait for a statue of him to be erected posthumously; he did it himself. In what has become a symbol of his downfall, a young fighter is seen standing on the reincarnation's statue, which still defiantly holds a fighter jet. Images of him in his trademark designer sunglasses that reflected the world as he saw it, refuse to leave my mind.
The voice of Ramesses in Ozymandias still speaks to the rulers of today, telling them they will go anyway, and their going may not be terribly pleasant. But the rulers choose not listen, thinking in their naiveté that they are mightier than he that preceded them. We are yet to see more of them bid us adieu in less than admirable fashion. In the end, two things please me the most: change is here; and that change is from the voice of Ozymandias – our very own Ramesses, who was African. Perhaps education lied; there are things, things good, things African, after all.
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