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We Won’t Budge

Part autobiographical, part social commentary, this is a powerful and insightful look at the situation of border intellectuals at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

In this searing memoir, Manthia Diawara revisits his early years as an emigrant in love with Swedish girls and Western rock and roll music, taking us from the nightclubs of his hometown Bamako to the cafes of Boulevard Montparnasse and the black neighbourhoods of 1970s Washington DC, USA.

This book is about the developed world – that is the former colonisers of the African continent now busy slamming shut its doors to African and Arab immigrants.

It is also about human rights violations and racism against people of colour. Diawara writes that he wanted to give a human face to African immigration in today’s global world. He describes the reasons why many Africans leave the continent – such as poverty, persecution and lack of opportunities – and writes sometimes angrily and sometimes very movingly, about their predicament in Europe and the US, where they are caught between their traditions and the West’s vacuous modernity.

“With humour and the intimacy of a conversatonal tone, Diawara writes of the ‘global’ African as a nomad at the mercy of whirlwinds of economic and political dislocation at home and racism and intolerance abroad. He is not at home in his country; he is not at home abroad. But the nomad refuses to bow down to those whirlwinds, to let evil turn him around, and against all the odds becomes an active contributor to the multiculture of the globe. This is the story of a diasporic soul that finds home in its own resilience and in so may ways it is all our story.” – Ngugi wa Thiong’o (Author of A Grain of Wheat et al)

“We Won’t Budge is destined to become a classic – it is one of the most insightful, layered and moving accounts of the modern African Diaspora.” – Patricia Williams (Author of The Alchemy of Race & Rights et al)

Reviewed in ‘The Independent’ By Margaret Busby Published: 10 March 2006

What a joy to read a book by an academic free of self-regarding jargon! Manthia Diawara, a Mali-born professor at New York University, embarked on a sabbatical year in Paris to write a book on decolonisation. He experienced a couple of disturbing encounters with the authorities that made him instead plan an exposé of French racism. Coincidentally, he was laid low by malaria, legacy of a visit to Bamako and it was through the fever that he revisited the experiences he and his friends had shared a quarter-century earlier, as well as exploring the present predicament of sans-papiers African immigrants. He has come up with what is, by turns, insightful memoir and provocative social commentary – a very readable antidote to many stereotypes.

Diawara’s own story is partially told. We learn that he had left Mali in 1972 on a well-worn student path to Paris. Enrolled at Vincennes, he also became a factory worker. Assuming a third identity, that of enigmatic writer, he haunted cafés and bookstores, acquired a Swedish girlfriend and had a landmark meeting with African-American poet Ted Jonas, who advised, “Don’t stay here unless you want to end up like all those Africans you meet in bars, running after women on Saint-Germain… They can’t get a job here, and they can’t go home… They like Africans better in the States than they do black Americans.” He adds, “That’s why I am here. I can’t stand it there. Go there, and you’ll have a chance of succeeding.” The book abounds with such conundrums.

Diawara took heed. Based in Washington DC as a student, he and his Malian mates share an apartment, supporting themselves with illegal jobs. One day he is caught in a raid by immigration officers. Others try to flee and are rounded up; the poignant story of Johnny, expelled from America, haunts the book. Diawara freezes with terror, miraculously escaping deportation, as a letter from his uncle in Bamako echoes in his mind: “Remember our proverb: ‘No matter how long a piece of wood stays in the river, it will not change into a crocodile.’ So remember that you will always remain a Soninké from Mali. When you are successful in America, you belong to Mali. But when you also fail, you will still belong to your fatherland.”

We Won’t Budge, its title a tribute to Salif Keita’s anthemic protest song “Nou Pas Bouger,” could have been about a certain fix on identity. Yet Diawara’s is a tale of confounding expectations and not in an ironic “post-black” sort of way – about belonging and exile, assimilation, integration and isolation and not least about music, a constant thread. He outs himself as a youthful rocker with a penchant for Led Zeppelin. He is honest enough to admit to retaining surprising tastes, describing astonished stares from white Parisians as he and a Bamako homeboy listen at traffic-stopping volume to such “kitschy white boys” as Rod Stewart, when Miles Davis or Salif Keita might have been more predictable.

We Won’t Budge takes as its starting-point the violent killing of Amadou Diallo by New York City police in 1999, but delivers a personal and nuanced exploration of “African immigration in today’s global world.” It highlights the reasons that lead many Africans to leave the continent and admirably achieves its aim of making visible their predicament in Europe and America, “caught between tradition and modernity.” Anyone who was taken by surprise by last year’s riots in Paris, which exposed such deep race and class faultlines, would be well advised to read this book.

Margaret Busby edited Daughters of Africa (Ballantine).

Weight 0.500 kg




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Manthia Diawara


Ayebia Clarke Publishing


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