Freedom Now

Full Program Description

Freedom Now
Colonial rule is overthrown in Asia and Africa
Original broadcast: Monday, July 6 at 9pm
(check local listings for re-broadcast dates)

Picture: Mohandas Gandhi At the dawn of the twentieth century, much of the world lived under colonial rule: Britain, Belgium, France, Portugal -- all had considerable holdings abroad. But in the 1930s, European control in Asia and Africa would first be challenged by one man backed by millions -- Mohandas K. Gandhi. Gandhi's message of hope spurred a struggle for freedom that, in 1947, would lead to the birth of a nation -- and inspire the fight for independence on another continent half-a-world away.

Freedom Now talks to the people who witnessed and participated in the fight for freedom in India and Africa. What emerges is a story of struggle, exhilaration -- and, more than occasionally, civil war.

Until the 1940s, England controlled the whole Indian subcontinent. Most of India's 300 million people were resigned to live their lives in rural poverty, under British masters. Imperial rule was the natural order. That would change with Gandhi's massive campaigns of civil disobedience. After World War II, the British no longer had the power or will to hold on.

Birenda Kaur was a schoolgirl at the dawn of Indian Independence: "I cannot describe to you how heady that feeling was. It was as though everything was new, the whole world was new, you know, the trees were greener..., it was just too fantastic.... You felt you could do anything now that we were free."

Picture: People pointing. Farmer Satpal Saini also remembers Independence Day: "The atmosphere was very, very happy. People were shouting slogans in praise of Gandhi. People would try to touch Gandhi's feet in respect, but he never allowed that. He said 'Don't bow before another person or another nation.'" It would be the start of a shift in power that continued for more than thirty years, as the peoples of Asia and Africa fought to take control of their destinies.

The achievement of Indian independence was to have a far-reaching influence across the globe. African troops from the Gold Coast had fought valiantly for their British commanders against the Japanese in the Second World War. Their journey home included a stop-over in Bombay. Geoffrey Aduamah, like many veterans, returned to Africa with a new perspective: "Indians were very, very political. We had conversations with some of them. They said, 'Why are you fighting for Britain?' We said, 'We're fighting for freedom.' So they asked, 'Are you yourself free?' We said, 'No'. They said, 'Well, fight for your freedom first.'"

The African struggle for self-rule would begin in Aduamah's own Gold Coast, where 5,000 Britons governed over two million Africans. Like Gandhi, Kwame Nkrumah preached civil disobedience, calling on the masses to demand freedom for the nation they called Ghana. Nkrumah -- in the British view, a dangerous firebrand under communist influence -- was imprisoned.

Komla Gbedema, Vice Chairman of Nkrumah's People's Party, led the struggle in his absence: "I had to organize the party around the country -- at the same time as keeping the machinery of the party going.... Nkrumah's body is in jail, but his spirit is going on."

In 1951, in the face of growing unrest, the British acceded to demands for free elections and a national assembly. Nkrumah's party won a landslide victory. It was the beginning of the end of British rule in Africa. In 1957, the people of the Gold Coast became the first black Africans to achieve complete freedom. Ghana was born. Freedom Now also travels to Kenya of the 1950s. Unlike Ghana, Kenya's fertile soil and comfortable climate had wooed many thousands of European settlers during the first half of the century. They made themselves welcome -- and rich -- seizing more than four million acres of land from the Kikuyu, Kenya's largest native tribe, and turning tribespeople into servants and laborers. Jomo Kenyatta led a non-violent campaign for self-rule and restoration of lands. When the British refused to yield, some Kikuyu formed a secret resistance movement -- the "land and freedom army," or Mau Mau. Waihwa Theuri joined their fight in 1953: "I joined Mau Mau because of the hardship. The main problem was that our land had been taken by the white man. Then there was education: The schools we used to go to were closed down and destroyed. So we all came together into groups and took an oath. The African was your brother. When you see a white man, you should know he is your enemy."

To Africans, the Mau Mau were freedom fighters; to the Europeans, they were terrorists. By the late 1950s, it was becoming increasingly evident to British officials that they could hardly continue to protect their one percent of the population in the face of escalating African demands.

Across the continent, Africans soon got what they'd been fighting for -- faster than anyone expected. As the British, French, and Belgians scrambled out, twenty-five countries -- Algeria, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, Nigeria, Zaire, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Somalia among them -- celebrated. And in 1963, seven years after the Mau Mau uprisings, Kenya, too, finally won its independence.

But there would be new problems: Unity was difficult in new countries whose boundaries had been drawn to suit European convenience. Many tribes were forced to live on the wrong side of new borders -- in hostile territory. And few of the new nations were left with any semblance of infrastructure.

In the rush for development, Ghanaians soon fell victim to bad advice and greed. In the decade since Ghana had won self-rule, Nkrumah's "scientific socialism" had become a unmerciful autocracy. Beatrice Quatley remembers those years: "People were afraid to speak their minds. You were spied on. Anything you said against Nkrumah could be written down and they'd come and arrest you. If they arrested you, they didn't ask you about what you'd said, they just sent you to prison. If you were there and you died, you died." In 1966, Nkrumah was deposed by his own army.

In Mozambique, Xadreque Sarea fought for Frelimo Guerrillas: "It wasn't a matter of fighting men because of their color. The problem was the system which was enforced. This system imposed on us condoned slavery. [It] treated people like animals and forced them to work on plantations. It allowed people to be beaten and it limited our rights." By 1975, their struggle paid off. Mozambique had their moment of triumph -- though civil war followed as Marxist regimes faced off against Western-financed insurgencies.

Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Uganda: Takeover followed takeover. Most of the new governments were cruel and corrupt -- and for many Africans, one kind of repression was replaced by another. Cocoa farmer Anim Assiful: "The soldiers neglected us -- they neglected us completely. All they did was look after themselves. We were afraid to go and confront them or complain because they had the guns. You could be arrested and shot. We just had to watch and keep quiet as they were getting richer. And we were getting poorer and poorer."

For most of Africa, the colonial legacy was a bitter one. New nations still had to convert their new autonomy into freedoms they'd hoped for, but had yet to win: freedom from hunger, poverty, political oppression.

Freedom Now is produced and directed by Jennifer Clayton; the narrator is Alfre Woodard. People's Century is a co-production of WGBH and the BBC -- filmed around the world and shaped in Boston and London. Executive producer for WGBH is Zvi Dor-Ner; senior producer is David Espar. Peter Pagnamenta is executive producer for the BBC. National corporate sponsorship for the series is provided by Conseco, Inc. Major funding is provided by public television viewers and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding is provided by the Richard Saltonstall Charitable Foundation and The Lowell Institute.

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