getting out of my league…

The other day a friend ambushed me with a somewhat interesting question. Presenting me with two options – Negritude or Fanonian “New Africanism” – he asked me to pick one that best describes my view of how the process of societal change should pan out on the Continent. I usually don’t like caging myself with labels but on this occasion I decided to put myself in the Fanon camp. My objections to Negritude, at least as formulated by Senghor and Cesaire, are best captured by the following quote from Bodunrin:

A way of life which made it possible for our ancestors to be subjugated by a handful of Europeans cannot be described as totally glorious.”

My sympathies towards Fanonian arguments derive from Fanon’s idea of the creation of a new society in the post-colonial period. Realizing the traumatic impact that colonization had on the African psyche, Fanon advocated for a renewal that did not hearken to the African past – unlike Senghor and Cesaire – for two reasons:

Firstly, in the post-contact period there was virtually no way of defining this pure and glorious African past that proponents of Negritude were beholden to. The African and his past had come to be defined in relation to and in juxtaposition to the European colonizer. Africa was essentialized as anti-Europe. Indeed even people like Senghor and Cesaire had come to learn of this past through the European lens – in the racialist works in anthropology and German-inspired pseudo-sciences of the time.

Secondly, the post-colonial state faced a new challenge of creating a nation-state composed of different ethnic groups with different histories and world-views (which particular African cultural identity did Negritude have in mind? Hausa, Zulu, Bemba, Kamba, Dinka….???). Fanon understood that the creation of strong and functional nation-states was critical to the realization of the fruits of independence. This he contrasted with the risk of decline into tribal quasi-states if sub-national forces gained prominence – as sadly came to pass. Notice that Fanon did not advocate for the eradication of tribal or ethnic identities. All he advocated for was the internalization of the fact that allegiance to the state should dominate any allegiance to sub-national identities. The Fanonian view allowed particular African cultural practices to flourish, but only to the extent that they did not threaten the state. In other words, the object of the state was not to advance any particular worldview, African or not.

Additionally, implicit in Negritude was the rather hollow notion of African epistemological exceptionalism (that whole thing about passion and reason. See Cesaire’s work on this) – a factor that, according to Fanon, would have only served to alleniate the African from the global community. Also, Negritude taken to its logical conclusion was racist in the sense that it sought to prove that the African (from pre-contact era) was more virtuous than the brutal European colonizer. Fanon did not want to continue living in the native-colonizer dialectic paradigm.

That is how I read Fanon on the subject of post-colonial nation-building. His provocative views on the virtues of violence and the psychology of being Black in the post-contact paradigm are not relevant to the arguments advanced here. Just to be clear, below is a sketch of why I think Fanon and not Senghor or Cesaire had the right idea.

I am passionate about economic development. I believe that all humans, regardless of culture, should be provided with opportunities and allowed to make autonomous choices about their individual destinies (roughly in the sense postulated by Amartya Sen). Contextualizing this on the Continent, I am of the view that the provision of public goods like education, healthcare and proper housing etc etc should never be subordinated to backward cultural mores inherited from centuries ago.  I understand that the designation of cultural mores as backward is problematic. However, we can sidestep arguments about this by simply stating that the objective of the state should be to create conditions in which individuals live as long as they can and have the most opportunities as they can in order to realize their potential. Any practices or worldview that go against this simple requirement, in my opinion, can be termed backward.

In other words, our objective should not be to abolish the way of life of the Luo, Kikuyu, Zulu, Hausa, Ashanti etc or espouse any of them as superior. Instead, our objective should be to educate sons and daughters of the Continent and afterward avail these options to them. Only then can we truly be promoting the best of cultures by allowing all of them to compete in the market place of ideas.

That is my peni nane answer to my friend. And I must admit that I am out of my league here. My dabbling should however remind us that there is a need to provide a logic for the existence of the African state. It just might be the case that the reason we are yet to reach the political kingdom called for by Nkrumah more than fifty years ago is because we never quite described what this kingdom was.

A critique of african culture

“A way of life which made it possible for our ancestors to be subjugated by a handful of Europeans cannot be described as totally glorious.”  Professor Peter Bodunrin

I am no Western apologist. I am a proud son of the soil (as Wahome Mutahi of the Whispers fame used to say) and a believer in the fundamentals of African socio-economic organization – a way of organizing society in which I am because we are. But I am no blanket African apologist either. And that is why I particularly like the candor of Bodurin. I am sick and tired of hearing Afrocentric thinkers prattle about how the life of the Afircan is serene. How it is untouched by modern greed and desires for material wealth. How it still embodies the true spirit of humanity.

I am tired because this kind of talk reminds me of Rousseau’s critique of arts and sciences in his first discourse – in which he talks about “uncivilized” peoples being noble savages and portraying this as the true nature of man that we should all aspire to. This is bull. It is bull because when you go hungry. When you cannot read or write. When your children die of simple treatable illnesses. When your entire life is lived in a dystopia that has lasted generations. You are not noble, savage or not. You are subordinate to nature and all its mysteries.

A little reality check will establish that there is almost nothing noble about the life of the African at this point in history. We are the laughing-stock of the world. Images of starving children and scary deranged men in war zones are what define us to the rest of the world. It therefore disturbs me quite a bit when I hear our leaders talk about “African culture” and the need to preserve it.

What culture is it that these men are talking about? Is it the culture that keeps millions upon millions hungry and illiterate? Is it the culture that allows them to marry five wives and oppress them as they so wish? Is it the culture that makes us apathetic politically and allows them to steal from us? If this is the culture they are talking about and that they want us to preserve then I am against it. I am against it because it burdens us with a docile and meek morality that is blindly accepting of hierarchy and ideologically impoverished authoritarianism.

I am no sociologist but I know that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we have come to organize our societies in the post-European-contact era. All our social institutions have come to be either European or in reaction to Europe. I say that it is time we went back to true Africanness. True Africanness means caring for one another. It means providing for the hungry and only indulging in excesses after everyone has what they need to live a decent life. It means an appreciation of nature in a way that only Eastern traditions come close. It means being passionate about life and its blessings – I believe it is Senghor who said that Africans are a people of passion and not reason. I want to go further and say that we are a people who are passionate about all that we do (including our use of reason).

The African is alive. We are not like the Westerner who is chained by “norms” or the Easterner who blindly denies his humanity as he strives for higher rewards. We are alive! We embrace humanity with vigor and rhythm. We are as diverse as diverse can get. And we care for one another – valuing human life like no other human society does. (Do not let the wars delude you. I am yet to meet a people who have as much a reverence for human life as does the African. This is one of the foundations of African Philosphy – that life is cyclical, the living, the dead and the unborn all participate and so all life is revered. Just look at African burial ceremonies and mourning rituals if you are in doubt.)

It is time we returned to the fundamentals. We should be careful not to confuse true African culture with practices that came out of poverty or contact with Europe and in some instances Arabia. When we return to these fundamentals, we will find that African culture is not at all incompatible with modernity. We can stop being nomads when it is not economical to do so. We can stop having a thousand children per household. We can stop wife-inheritance. We can stop wife-beating. We can stop female genital mutilation and all evils against our mothers and sisters. All these practices are not African. They are human, and temporal. We should see them as habits from an era gone by. And we can change them.

What makes us African is in our social relations. Not in the environment or our economic condition. We will only return to that greatness when we restructure our social organizations and carefully remove all foreign practices that have tainted the Spirit of Africa.