Tribute: author, editor, activist Philippe Wamba, 1971-2002.
"Philippe lived on no man's hyphen," Henry Louis Gates said of him at his October memorial service in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Born June 3, 1971, in Pomona, California, Philippe was the second son of Professor Ernest Wamba dia Wamba, a Congolese political economist, and his wife Elaine Brown, a teacher. Philippe's parents met at Western Michigan University in the mid-1960s, and soon married, forming a family very much at the heart not only of Kinship (the book's subtitle is "A Family's Journey in Africa and America") but central to all of Philippe's later endeavors.
Just 31 when he died, Philippe had already accomplished a great deal. A 1993 graduate of Harvard, he received a master's in journalism from Columbia University, and worked in book publishing (at one point editing Frommer's travel guides) while writing Kinship. His work appeared in Transition and Common Quest magazines, newspapers in London and Tanzania, and the anthologies Half and Half: Writers on Growing up Biracial and Bicultural and Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers. He was a contributing editor to The Dictionary of Global Culture and an early consultant on the Encarta Africana CD-ROM. Both projects were initiated by Gates, a professor of Philippe's at Harvard who, when he founded Africana.com in 1999, knew exactly where to look for the site's first editor in chief.
Then living in Harlem, and the subject of a New York Times Sunday magazine profile--written by Times staffer Randy Kennedy, who would later write his obituary-Philippe had to be cajoled into returning to Cambridge, not that he didn't like it, but his heart was elsewhere. Specifically, he was eager to return to Africa. Though he'd spent his first seven years living stateside, mostly in the Boston area while his father taught at Brandeis University, at age eight Philippe moved with his family to Tanzania. Living on the campus of the University of Dar es Salaam, swimming its famously beautiful beaches and exploring the city with his brothers and friends, Philippe quickly claimed his identity as an African.
"As I began to learn the subtleties of Kiswahili," Philippe wrote, "I began to internalize aspects of Swahili culture, and soon developed a new way of looking at the world. Mine was not a wholly American or a wholly Tanzanian perspective; rather it reflected the influence of different traditions."
Those of us who shared a cramped Harvard Square office with Philippe during the website's first years grew familiar with the sound of Philippe on the phone with his brothers Kolo and James, or other friends from East Africa: a rapid-fire switching between English and Kiswahili and back again, punctuated by frequent laughter. In an interview with the Boston Globe magazine, Philippe said that he would dream one night in Swahili, the next in English, and perhaps it was this sense of comfort in two cultures that made him so open to the cultures of others.
As an editor, Philippe was exquisitely careful not to disrupt the unique voices of his writers, no matter how idiosyncratic their work may have sounded to American ears. He delighted in language, as all writers should, and his playful flexibility in conversation often led to sentences comprising English, Swahili and Spanish, or dead-on affectionate mimicry of Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela or Maya Angelou. That humor, sweetness and sense of play are what sometimes fail to translate, even in the flood of respectful and deeply felt obituaries. He was a natural leader, whose calmness, fairness and goodness won everyone's trust and affection. He spent many long hours writing letters, meeting with diplomats and policy analysts, to try and help his father, who had become leader of a Congo rebel movement, bring peace and democracy to his homeland.
But Philippe was also silly, fun loving and full of life. And even beyond his commanding talents as a writer, editor and activist, perhaps Philippe's greatest gift was that of friendship. From his childhood in Dar to his days at Armand Hammer United World College, an international prep school in New Mexico, to his Harvard days and beyond, Philippe gathered an enduring crew of friends. He always said Americans put too much effort into work, not enough into enjoying life. Somehow, he managed to honor both. As Kevin Young, the poet who was Philippe's good friend at Harvard, said at his Cambridge memorial, "I never knew him to leave a party early, or call it a night--it is strange and sad now to have him leave us so early."
The news that Philippe had left us came to his Africana colleagues early in the morning of September 12. An email from a sometime contributor, a journalist in Nairobi, reported that there had been an accident on the road to Mombasa. Soon after, Philippe's cousin Richard Bazangoula, who is our editorial assistant, called to confirm the terrible truth that Philippe had died in the crash, another victim of East Africa's notoriously bad roads. It's not enough to say that his colleagues here miss him--we had already grown used to missing him, having seen him off for his long-anticipated return to Africa in April. Philippe had won the prestigious Alicia Patterson Foundation fellowship to write a series of articles, which he planned to craft into his second book, on the state of Africa's youth.
It was a subject that married his love of the continent and its people with his deep interest in young people, in the future, and in proposing a new vision to replace the "Afro-pessimism" so persistently lodged in the conventional wisdom about Africa and Africans. And it was a project that allowed him to return to the place he loved, and to the woman he loved--Marang Setshwaelo, who lives in South Africa, a longtime friend who had become Philippe's fiancee earlier this year. For many of his American friends, our sadness at no longer having Philippe in our daily lives was balanced by the sure knowledge that he was where he wanted to be, doing what he loved to do.
Longtime Mend and Transition magazine editor Mike Vazquez reports that the essays Philippe was working on in the months before his death showed a writer growing in confidence, daring to explore more personal subjects, tackling powerful new themes. As rich a legacy as he left in Kinship, it is heartbreaking to think of what his death has taken away from us. But Philippe would not have wanted broken hearts. He would have liked the fact that a new prize is being established in his name at Harvard's Du Bols Institute, which is to be given to the student whose work best exemplifies the qualities Philippe so amply embodied.
One of those qualities is always knowing just the right word. "I learned to savor what I saw as the peculiarly Tanzanian sensibility of certain Kiswahili words and expressions," Philippe wrote in Kinship, "especially those that to me reflected the importance of community and personal relationships in Swahili culture.... Tumefiwa (`We have been bereaved') was a succinctly powerful way to say, `A member of our family has died' ..."
The temptation is to go on and on--there are so many things to say about Philippe. But one word will suffice: Tumefiwa.
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|Publication:||Black Issues Book Review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2003|
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