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Conceptual Decolonisation: Kwasi Wiredu’s Disruption of Philosophy

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The disruption caused by Wiredu’s insertion of an African presence in philosophy foreshadows a crucial logical progression, one that demands that philosophy must turn against itself in order to be representative of an African cosmology.

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Conceptual Decolonisation: Kwasi Wiredu’s Disruption of Philosophy
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In conceptual terms, decolonisation is very important to previously colonised peoples because they seek to establish a fresh historical continuum, thereby fostering a sense of collective dignity, restoring forms of blemished consciousness and then equipping themselves with the necessary tools to face the future with renewed vigour.

Kwasi Wiredu, a Ghanaian philosopher, is an important voice in the discussions on decolonisation in Africa. The tenor of Wiredu’s project of conceptual decolonisation is by and large pragmatic – he interrogates the divide between tradition and modernity in African contexts.

Colonialism, in spite of its various modernist aspirations, was often pursued with incredible degrees of violence largely inflicted upon the colonised. Therefore, decolonisation had to incorporate a therapeutic component in healing broken selves and indeed broader forms of consciousness.

Kwasi Wiredu, a Ghanaian philosopher, is an important voice in the discussions on decolonisation in Africa. The tenor of Wiredu’s project of conceptual decolonisation is by and large pragmatic – he interrogates the divide between tradition and modernity in African contexts. Here, this pragmatism comes to the fore. Wiredu does not unduly romanticise the supposed beauty of ancient African cultures and traditions; instead he is selective in accepting parts of them that he finds useful and repudiating others that impede Africa’s development. For instance, Wiredu is not uncritical of aspects of Akan traditional culture that he deems to be counter-productive, nor is he eulogistic in relation to unhelpful or unnecessary Western methods. What he attempts, instead, is a sort of cultural synthesis between Euromodernity and a traditional African culture. This conceptual approach has been very influential in most of Anglophone Africa, particularly in West Africa and East Africa.

Undoubtedly, his significance has been restricted to largely philosophical and academic circles. This development is somewhat curious. It appears that philosophy is, in many cases as well as regions, quite distant from everyday concerns. Philosophy is a significantly metaphilosophical discipline that reflects reality from a safe Platonic contemplative distance. The Athenian origins of Western philosophy obviously do not address the urgencies of African existential dilemmas and this is probably one of the reasons that African philosophy sometimes appears not to be in the forefront of the social processes of decolonisation in Africa.

African philosophy, as such, seems removed from the hotbed of decolonisation even when Wiredu’s project of conceptual decolonisation provides an undoubtedly important approach to the topic. For philosophy to obtain relevance to the practices of everyday life in Africa, it has to be embedded in and defined by everyday struggles and experiences. However, not all philosophical trends in Africa are seemingly removed from everyday realities. For instance, the Southern African concept of ubuntu is constantly bandied about in the public realm as opposed to being limited to the discourses circulating only within ivory towers.

Afrocentricity

Afrocentricity is another African(ist) orientation in philosophy that seeks to embed itself within everyday African consciousness in a more or less direct way. Wiredu has not engaged with this trend in African contemporary thought and practice. As such there has been a – for want of a better term – schism between academic philosophy and non-academic intellectual practice, a trend that mirrors what exists in black America where academic luminaries based within the academy are hardly known outside it whilst Afrocentric thinkers become, in the eyes of the public, learned folk heroes precisely because they engage constantly with their communities on a wide range of burning issues. Thought, as it were, has to be imbued with a measure of social activism and transformational potential otherwise the divide between the ivory tower and the community remains unmediated.

Wiredu’s entire corpus unearths, albeit unwittingly, the distance between Western philosophical traditions and African systems of thought. And this distance can be quite enormous depending on the historical approach one adopts.

Wiredu is aware of the other traditions of African contemporary thought that seek to bridge the divide between academic philosophy and folk thought, as exemplified by the contributions of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere and Leopold Sedar Senghor, who were termed philosopher-kings by the Anglophone school of African philosophy. All the aforementioned African freedom fighters-turned-political leaders combined the conceptual and practical aspects of decolonisation under one overarching imperative to forge an existential vision for the decolonised African.

Wiredu’s entire corpus unearths, albeit unwittingly, the distance between Western philosophical traditions and African systems of thought. And this distance can be quite enormous depending on the historical approach one adopts. Afrocentricity encourages a robust engagement with the African historical past in order to discover the true meaning of philosophy, which in Afrocentric terms can only be located in ancient Egypt. Such an Afrocentric conception of philosophy exceeds the ordinary boundaries of Western philosophy. Wiredu’s understanding of philosophy is clearly not Afrocentric in the usual sense of the term but in spite of its Western analytic framework it attempts a recuperation of the African subject as a central object of discourse. Here, the African subject suddenly finds him/herself within a Western – and often alien – canon of rationality. The mere incongruity of this presence disrupts the “normal” dynamic of analytic philosophy and then announces the frightening possibility for a multiculturalism that is fundamentally alien within that philosophic equation.

These layers of disruption within a supposedly “pure” canon of Western philosophy is what Wiredu accomplishes with his work. By daring to introduce an African presence into a lily-white canon, a discomfort arises, one that preempts other conceptual possibilities that ultimately question the meaning and limits of philosophy. The African subject thus finds him/herself entrapped within a Western philosophical vocabulary that necessarily constrains his/her discursive agency, notwithstanding the realities of being ensconced within an ostensibly African voice, in this case, Wiredu’s own voice.

One is compelled to return to the immense possibilities of Afrocentricity, which seeks to recover the purity of the African voice. Wiredu’s work, which represents the introduction of an African voice into a Western philosophical canon, in this sense, constitutes a conceptual revolt. Afrocentricity, on the other hand, promises a total revolution, a liberation from the traumas and limitations of conceptual schizophrenia, whereby an African subject is forever reduced to agonising over the discomfort and ambiguities of a superimposed philosophical lexicon.

Afrocentricity is all about a complete ethical and conceptual transformation, with the African subject being the nucleus of such a transformation. In this way, the transformation exceeds being merely a disruption; it is essentially an alteration of consciousness and cosmology, and the recovery of a pure – or lost – conceptual voice.

By interrogating the overarching tradition/modernity dialectic, Wiredu has announced cultural synthesis as a pragmatic approach. But it seems the benefits of this conceptual approach would have been better realised in the fields of cultural studies, and other related discourses. African philosophy seems to have lost a considerable amount of momentum. Even though the African presence constitutes a disruption within the Western philosophical canon in the manner in which Wiredu announces it, this disruption, as pointed out earlier, does not entail a complete transformation of the philosophical tradition that hosts it.

Afrocentricity is all about a complete ethical and conceptual transformation, with the African subject being the nucleus of such a transformation. In this way, the transformation exceeds being merely a disruption; it is essentially an alteration of consciousness and cosmology, and the recovery of a pure – or lost – conceptual voice.

These remarks about the outcome of Wiredu’s work are based on observations that stem from “post-colonial” African life. Such a context is never predictable as the nightmares and astonishing potentials being witnessed in contemporary Africa must be far removed from the dreams the likes of Nkrumah, Senghor, Nyerere and Ngugi wa Thiongo had for the continent.

In the African continent, as states fail constantly, ethnic strife erupts and millions are displaced through wars, migrations, disease and famine. Thus an all-too-familiar picture of the beleaguered continent is further lodged in our minds, one that panders to convenient and uncritical stereotype. But within this seemingly unsalvageable scenario we see instances of astounding resilience, colour, strength and creativity, such that outstrip our conceptual vocabularies. Cultural synthesis as understood by normal philosophical diction does not quite capture the forms of life in constant transition that the inhabitants of Africa battle with daily.

These supposed random and chaotic fragments of African existence are paradoxically a liberation of the African voice, a dervish of presence which colonialism had done everything to deny, suppress and ultimately, destroy. Such a presence constitutes a grave existential antithesis to philosophical equilibrium, and therefore, decorum. In reality it ought to be more than just a disruption in order to realise its true potential; it had to be, in an Afrocentric sense, a complete transformation of concept and consciousness in a manner that repudiates all existing philosophical discourses, except those discovered (and recovered) through a largely Afrocentric project.

An African cosmology

In identifying frames of reference that suit the decolonised African subject, discourses, such as cultural or ethnic and race studies, appear to be better positioned than philosophy. One of the reasons for philosophy’s limitations is its innate reluctance to question and undermine the basis of its attitudes in relation to the African subject. In other words, the African subject is compelled, with little or no voice, to find its locus of muteness within an invariably Western philosophical canon. Within this philosophical straight jacket, its potential for manouverability is significantly curtailed. If indeed it is able to acquire a voice, it is one that is mangled, lacking in confidence and ultimately unrepresentative and self-defeating.

But all around us within the continent, there are cacophonies of voices, unruly regimes of representation, disclosure and iconicity, clashing, jarring, refusing to be curtailed and silenced, bursting forth in variegated hues and displays until the senses experience multiple stages of sensory overload. It becomes evident that we have no vocabulary to describe this state of affairs that constantly threaten to overwhelm our abilities to cope with, classify and assess phenomena. Instead of philosophy and normal theoretical language, we find succour in constant eruptions of music, dance, and the ever-revolving institutions of the “palaver” and in other forms of conviviality that may emerge suddenly and then disappear only to reappear is somewhat altered conditions in ever-mobile cyclicity, and shifting bases of transformation.

In these constantly moving and evolving forms are to be found our rough and ready conceptual implements that would make academic philosophers wince, recoil and depart for more stable social conditions where they are able to find comfort in jaded vocabularies.

It is tempting to state that philosophy loses its powers in Africa unless it resorts to the language of pathology, that is, at least, a certain understanding of philosophy, which paradoxically, Wiredu is able to employ in his project of conceptual decolonisation. However, what I have pointed out are the limitations of acquiring and maintaining a liberated voice within that fraught conceptual milieu. At best, that constrained voice constitutes a disruption within “normal” universal philosophical momentum. But essentially, what we require more than ever is a complete transformation of the conceptual apparatus so that we are able to embrace more fully our essential realities rather than being alienated and stymied by them at a fundamental conceptual level.

The disruption caused by Wiredu’s insertion of an African presence in philosophy foreshadows a crucial logical progression, one that demands that philosophy must turn against itself in order to be representative of an African cosmology. There has got to be a more inspiring way to capture myriad sounds, languages, voices, dialects and tropical colours that characterise African existence. Instead, under the structures of analytical philosophy (and other similar traditions), what we see is a retreat by philosophy from this reality. By doing so, it disqualifies itself as a medium of expression for non-Western experiences and instead launches an offensive by labeling everything African as barbaric, or at best, unformed, non-descript and unnameable. Being a philosopher of the proper sense of word, Wiredu obviously despaired of the possibility in effecting a negation of philosophy. What isn’t clear is whether he read philosophy’s limitations in the manner described in this brief article. But even if he senses its fundamental limitations, he never quite attempts to transcend them in a radical manner.

Afrocentricity, on the other hand, attempts a total re-fabrication of the entire conceptual apparatus dealing with the African subject as an experiential and philosophical being. This wide-ranging operation works at many levels in the following ways: a re-consideration of the question of African historiography; a re-evaluation of the place of the African subject in history; a thorough-going re-positioning and realignment of the discipline of philosophy incorporating its pre-Athenian locus and orientation in order to transcend the bounds of philosophy itself in its contemporary form.

Essentially, this kind of operation constitutes a considerable advancement on Wiredu’s project of conceptual decolonisation. In this manner, the haunting occasioned by deep loss, collective psychic disequilibrium and severance, and a psychological misalignment with a superimposed cultural order are downplayed for more vigorous engagement with the internal momentum of pre-colonial African history. The point, is, how do we deal with traumas of loss without the usual recourse to collective amnesia? Afrocentricity suggests that this is wholly possible. Wiredu’s project of conceptual decolonisation appears to be lacking the psychological resources to cope with the traumas of loss and the unremitting despair caused by the diminution or even erasure of identity, and so in establishing a conversation between tradition and modernity, the African subject still has to avail him/herself of lush means to deal with chronic agonies of cultural disconnect that are in turn provided by Afrocentricity and its multi-pronged approaches to cultural reconstruction on a massive scale.

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Sanya Osha is the author of several books including Postethnophilosophy (2011), African Postcolonial Modernity: Informal Subjectivities and the Democratic Consensus (2014), Dani Nabudere’s Afrikology: A Quest for African Holism (2018), and Ken Saro-Wiwa’s Shadow: Politics, Nationalism and the Ogoni Protest Movement (Expanded Edition) (2021) among other publications. He works at the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA), University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Ideas

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.

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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.

This post is from a partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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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