We all know that something big happened in Kenya in 2013: instead of all government power being concentrated in Nairobi, 47 new governments came into existence. They all have certain powers guaranteed by the Constitution, and certain resources from the national government, as well as money they raise themselves.
But what does this mean for women?
Article 174 of the Constitution gives important clues to why this system, called devolution, or county governments, was created. Key words and phrases include diversity, people making decisions affecting them, public participation, social and economic development, service delivery, equitable sharing, interests and rights of minorities and marginalised communities, and accountability.
Some people would argue that feminism and devolution share a concern for diversity: feminism insists not only that the equality of women is respected but that the special nature, needs and contribution of women must be recognised. Devolution is a system of government that in theory allows for greater diversity because different governments within the country can have policies and laws that suit themselves but which may not suit others.
For women, there are two sides to the devolution coin. First, we must ask if devolution makes it easier for women to be involved in government and in the decisions that affect their lives. Second, we must ask if the system delivers better results for women. Logically, if the answer to the first question is Yes, then this should automatically lead to better outcomes for women. But is this always so?
Can women be more involved?
It is well-known that being an MP is hard for women. Even in societies with much less resistance to public roles for women than we see in Kenya, it is hard. Crude and hostile language has been experienced by women legislators in many countries, including Australia and Sweden. Women often bear the greater burden of raising children, which makes it harder for them to be in a distant capital city. And though Kenya is passing a law about women being able to breastfeed or use express milk at work, it is doubtful whether this will apply to the Kenyan parliament.
For women, there are two sides to the devolution coin. First, we must ask if devolution makes it easier for women to be involved in government and in the decisions that affect their lives. Second, we must ask if the system delivers better results for women.
Being a member of a county assembly presents less difficulty for women as the assembly is likely to be closer to where the member lives. Children will be closer and family members may be less resistant.
And, of course, the Constitution does provide that women must comprise one-third of every county assembly. In county assemblies women face several challenges. Most of them are not elected to represent wards but come into the assembly through party lists to make up the gender numbers. Only 82 women were elected for wards in 2013, while nearly 700 were taken from party lists. There is thus a tendency to not view them as “real” members; many have even been insulted and referred to as “Bonga points”. Their role is often unclear— perhaps even to them.
However, having so many women will make some difference. In India, there is a system of quotas (one-third) for women in local government. A million women serve as elected members of local authorities. The assessment of the impact of the quota system is mixed. Some women seem to be the mouthpieces of their husbands. Others face tremendous hostility and harassment. But many are growing in their understanding of public affairs, and are making a positive impact. It is perhaps easier for them because they do represent geographical areas (like our wards), so are not easily dismissed as a different or inferior type of member.
One of the possible risks of devolution is apparent in Nigeria. There, women have faced problems because of the concept of indigenousness. This results from a distorted application of the constitutional concept of “the federal character of Nigeria”. People who do not come from a particular state (even if they were born there, they may not be of a community “indigenous” to the state) can be at a disadvantage there. They may be excluded from education. They may also be unacceptable as elected representatives – something that is more likely to affect women because women are likely to live where their husbands belong, which may not necessarily be where they themselves are “indigenes”. This scenario, however, is less likely to arise in Kenya, as a woman is likely to be identified with her own ethnic group rather than that of her husband. However, there have been cases where women are seen as not “belonging” to their home area if they are married to someone from outside that area – and they do not belong to their husbands’ area either. Devolution may not make this worse – or better!
What decisions are women involved in as members of county assemblies or as members of a county executive—where women must also make up at least one-third of the membership? This depends on the powers of the counties. However, it is important to note that counties have few powers, especially in relation to legislation. Counties can’t make laws about crime (except for creating offences in connection with their powers to regulate many local activities). They have no power to affect the law on rape, for example, or domestic violence. They have no power to make laws about marriage or divorce, adoption of children or care of neglected children or children in trouble with the law. Counties have no power over the law about labour relations, including maternity leave. They cannot pass laws about land rights. And they cannot run most types of school or make laws about education, except early childhood education and village polytechnics.
Only 82 women were elected for wards in 2013, while nearly 700 were taken from party lists. There is thus a tendency to not view them as “real” members; many have even been insulted and referred to as “Bonga points”.
Compared to many countries that have more than one level of government, Kenya’s counties have limited powers. This is partly because they are much smaller than lower level governments in most countries. Besides, it can be both confusing and undesirable if each county has its own criminal law, or divorce law, or banking law, for example.
So what impact can women have at the county level?
Can counties produce better outcomes for women?
Counties can, in fact, do a good number of important things, many of which are potentially very important to women. The first in the list of powers (you will find the list in the Fourth Schedule (or annex) of the Constitution, Part 2 of the list of powers) is agriculture. The World Bank has estimated that 80% of Kenya’s farmers are women (a fact that Machakos County may have been thinking of when it created an Agricultural Development Fund Board that included a female farmer (Machakos County Agricultural Development Fund Act, 2014). Similarly, Nairobi County has passed an Urban Agriculture Promotion and Regulation Act (2015) that may benefit female farmers.
The national government can make overall policy, but counties can do a good deal to support farmers, though laws and regulations, financial support, education and so on. A women-sensitive approach could make a great difference—and women members of county assemblies could, and should, influence the development of such an approach.
The next big area is health: county clinics and hospitals, ambulance services, promotion of primary health care, licensing and control of businesses selling food to the public (many of which are run by women), and rubbish collection and disposal, are some of the areas that women members can influence. Again, the national government makes policy, but the day-to-day running of a public health service is the responsibility of county governments. An international and national priority is achieving major reductions in mother and child deaths and illnesses. The national government’s commitment to free maternity care and the First Lady’s Beyond Zero campaign attract attention but the real work has to be done at the county level. And improvements are being achieved.
While counties’ powers over education are limited, early childhood education—now recognised as being very important for the development of the child—must be of great concern to women. And the very fact of it being a county responsibility seems to have generated great interest in the subject.
Other county powers of particular interest and importance to women are housing, water and sanitation services, control of drugs, pollution, markets and fair trade practices (preventing cheating by market dealers would be an example). Many of these were functions of the now defunct local authorities, and were often ineffectively performed. But improved financing for counties and the powers of county assemblies should make it possible for these services to be delivered much better. In 2015, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation said that on a visit to Kenya, she had observed that “in three counties county-level government officials are closer to local communities and are better aware of the actual challenges and barriers to access to sanitation and water for all”. Devolution can marry this sort of awareness with the ability to do something, ensuring that county services are more effective.
Urban planning—also a county function—has important gender dimensions that are often overlooked. What would a woman-friendly town look like? Possible elements include good public transport: few women own cars so safe cycle lanes might increase women’s options and safe public transport might include women-only sections in buses. Other possibilities are good street lighting—widely believed to make women feel safer and to widen their options, including being able to work or socialise in the evening or at night. Urban planning could include not driving people’s homes out of the city, but making it possible for work and home to be closer, thereby making it easier for women to work, and for working men to spend more time with their families. Family-friendly public spaces and footpaths are also issues that the counties have legal power to create or influence.
Compared to many countries that have more than one level of government, Kenya’s counties have limited powers. This is partly because they are much smaller than lower level governments in most countries.
Counties can benefit women.in the way they exercise their various powers— even if those powers do not have obvious special relevance to women. The Constitution requires affirmative action programmes and policies to benefit previously disadvantaged groups. So it is constitutional to make special efforts to assist women where they have been disadvantaged. Some counties have passed laws providing that women, as well as youth and people with disabilities, receive special treatment when it comes to securing county government contracts (e.g. Elgeyo Marakwet County Equitable Development Act –2015).
Every county is supposed to have no more than two-thirds of either gender in its executive committee. What responsibilities do governors give their women executive members? Of course, every county executive committee member has a basket of responsibilities, but some may have more power than others to affect the lives of women. It is interesting to see that in Nandi, the executive member for agriculture was a woman; in Migori the same was true of the executive member for lands and housing. The county assembly must approve county executive committee appointments, and women members of the assembly should watch out to ensure that women are given enough responsibility.
The Constitution stresses culture and tradition; giving more power to a local area may strengthen its sense of traditional values. This might sometimes not be favourable to women, and could increase the risk of women being discriminated against in a devolved system of government. However, in Kenya the laws that most affect women (like divorce and land laws) are passed by the national parliament, not by the counties, so women are less likely to face legal obstacles emanating from specific local traditions. This partly depends on how effective women —and their male supporters—are at the national government level.
Take, for example, issues like the Marriage Act 2014. Some women regretted that this Act recognised polygamy in customary and Islamic marriages. More regret that it does not require the consent of the first wife before a man can marry a second wife. A provision that would have required consent was deleted from the Bill, with the support of many male MPs. Women MPs were reported to be furious, but could not prevail against the larger male numbers. Women might ask themselves whether a marriage law passed in their own county would have been different (better or worse).
Human rights are guaranteed in the Constitution, and custom is clearly subject to human rights, because the human right commissions are national bodies; and because courts are national, women’s rights should be protected.
But vigilance is needed. Customary attitudes, if not the law, may affect a county’s employment practices and bureaucratic decisions on matters affecting women. Women need to understand the remedies, such as the Ombudsman (Commission on Administrative Justice), as well as the National Gender and Equality Commission and the National Commission on Human Rights (which should extend their networks of local offices).
They should also realise that it is the national government that engages with the international community. It may be that the national government is more easily influenced by international human rights bodies or conventions. For example, the national government must report regularly to monitoring bodies for both United Nations and the African Union human rights treaties—such as on the rights of the child, or of women or of persons with disabilities—and must report on what is happening at both the national and county levels. These bodies make comments relevant to both national and county governments.
Other county powers of particular interest and importance to women are housing, water and sanitation services, control of drugs, pollution, markets and fair trade practices (preventing cheating by market dealers would be an example). Many of these were functions of the now defunct local authorities, and were often ineffectively performed.
For example, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child said in its 2016 observations on Kenya’s report, “Pregnant girls face discrimination in accessing maternity health care due to its cost as well as to the negative attitude of health-care workers against them, and the lack of quality health-care services tailored to them.” It will require public pressure for such comments to have an impact on government. And women’s groups need to be conscious of the opportunity to participate in preparing unofficial reports to these monitoring bodies.
The national government may also be able to affect the behaviour of county governments. For example, the national government can give counties financial grants that have strings attached—and those strings might be to implement the rights of women or other policies that are beneficial to women. The equalisation grant—from national revenue, but intended to benefit marginalised areas—may be spent by the national government itself, or through the counties. One of the factors considered by the Commission on Revenue Authority in developing criteria for identifying marginalised areas was gender disparity – the differences in the situations of men and women.
There are various reasons for having more than one level of government. One is that counties can compete to attract business and to provide good services, and so on. Voters can compare the performance of neighbouring county governments and decide whether their own is doing a good job. This should be an incentive to county governments to do well. Health services, efficient agriculture support services and well-run markets might be areas in which they compete. If women in a county are active and vocal they may be able to persuade county governments to improve services for women, and for families.
However, there are possible downsides to competition. There is the risk of what is sometimes called the “race to the bottom”. For instance, counties may compete to attract business by lowering taxes, yet low taxes are likely to mean poorer and fewer services. This might be bad for women.
Urban planning—also a county function—has important gender dimensions that are often overlooked. What would a woman-friendly town look like? Possible elements include good public transport: few women own cars so safe cycle lanes might increase women’s options and safe public transport might include women-only sections in buses.
One underlying reason is that while the people can “vote with their feet” (move from an area that is offering poor services and opportunities to one that offers better services and opportunities), for women, that may be harder than for men, since the tradition of women accompanying their spouses—rather than the reverse— still tends to apply.
Smaller stages for women?
However, some women have complained that stressing supposed “women’s issues” somehow diminishes women’s sense of national citizenship, and assumes that women are narrowly, and locally, focused. Women are assumed to be primarily concerned about things at the local level, like health, and community matters—“women’s subjects”. “Men’s subjects” – like war and peace and foreign affairs and aviation and perhaps big business – are the affair of the national government.
This need not be the case. Experience in public life at the county level may help equip women for office at the national level, for example.
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Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.
In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.
Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.
Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.
But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.
When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.
Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.
For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”
The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.
Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.
In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.
Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.
The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”
Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.
Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.
Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”
Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.
When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?
Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.
It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.
And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.
Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.
So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.
Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.
And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?
Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.
The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.
And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.
Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.
This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.
Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement
The greatest achievement of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu was to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained.
Ask ten people what decolonization means, and you will get ten different answers. The term’s incoherent resurgence has sparked an understandable backlash, with complaints directed mainly against its liberal and or neoliberal defanging. When attempts to pin down decolonization’s meaning pit “real” material work against mere theory, staking out a position feels easy enough. Things are harder to parse where the object of concern is knowledge itself.
What exactly counts as “decolonizing” in the resolutely immaterial domains of concept, culture, or moral life? Because this question must be hard to answer, the certainties with which it is often answered fall short. It is typical of our moment that Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s death this year was met with much-unqualified praise of his “decolonial” status, with that descriptor confirming countless more specific—and discordant—views.
In Wiredu’s agile hands, the decolonization of knowledge was a distinctive method: it entailed clear analytic steps as well as safeguards against cultural romanticization. This means that it can be learned, given the time and commitment, and indeed must be learned regardless of one’s cultural starting point. In this sense, Wiredu was a staunchly disciplinary thinker even as his political ideals have far-reaching resonance. Trained at Oxford mainly by philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle, Wiredu’s writing is marked by what Sanya Osha recently described as “a matter-of-fact fastidiousness and tone.” The difference between Wiredu’s disarmingly lucid philosophy and the more abstract, even poetic modes of decolonial thought now in broader circulation is the difference between grandiose calls for the world’s “unmaking” or “delinking” and the painstaking disaggregation of cultural wholes into constituent parts. Wiredu’s hallmark move was to break down “culture” into particular traditions, beliefs, and phrases, which could then be evaluated on their own merits. He was a master of “showing his work,” and the sheer amount of labor he expended to do so in print makes his work unsuited to an age of easy excerpts and virtual point scoring.
Wiredu’s method is most fully worked out in two books, Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars (1997), but many of his essays have also stood the test of decades. One of the most memorable examples of how he takes his native Akan (and specifically, Asante) heritage apart to assert its philosophical importance appears in a 1998 article titled, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” Wiredu here wields insights into the nature of Twi syntax to present the Akan God as an architect rather than an ex nihilo creator.
Whereas the Christian God is linked to a Western metaphysics of being that can, in principle, be unmoored from context, Wiredu argues that the nature of the verb “to be” in Twi or Fante—expressed as either wo ho or ye—necessitates some kind of pre-given situation. (I cannot, in Fante, state simply “I am,” or “she is.”) Whereas the Christian God can thus be imagined to have made the world from nothing, the Akan counterpart is assumed to have worked with pre-given materials in its construction. By extension, whereas the Christian tradition prioritizes miraculousness, the Akan tradition puts more weight on design and ingenuity. Neither one is right or wrong, intrinsically better or worse. Wiredu’s agenda is to make clear the level of conceptual distinction and follow-through required to place them in an equal-footed conversation.
This penchant for linking fine points to grand plans is also on full display in a late-career, 2009 essay called, “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Here, Wiredu turns to the Akan tradition of talking drums to refute simplistic ideas of cultural uniformity. Using a well-known drum text rife with metaphysical implications, Wiredu concludes that the drums’ theology is in fact opposed to the broader Akan belief system. (The drum text is in his view pantheistic, while Akan religion is theistic as he describes it in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.”) His reading yields a few important insights, including into the formative role of intra-cultural disagreement in what might later appear to be shared oral traditions.
The main thing to emphasize, however, is that Wiredu’s deep dive into Akan knowledge results in its destabilization. This does not mean that Akan culture, such as it may be said to exist, is somehow “not real” by virtue of being complexly constructed; this is true of all cultures, everywhere. It means, instead, that it is robust enough to withstand real pressure on pieces of it in order to think seriously about the whole. While acknowledging the colonial odds historically stacked against African knowledge traditions, Wiredu’s philosophical approach to Akan concepts insists that intellectual work can and must do more than reflect this injustice.
Kwasi Wiredu’s lasting decolonial achievement—and that which must be widely memorialized—is to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained. He refused to treat it as fragile, even as he stared down the many ways it has been sidelined and subjugated. To be “decolonized,” for Wiredu, is to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction. Worship traditionally or as a Christian, he wrote, but in either case really know why. Getting there on his model is daunting, but at the end of the exertion is moral and cultural reciprocity that cannot be claimed lightly. Or, as Wiredu once put it, it yields “the golden rule that gives us the basis … to consider every person as one.”
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