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The Contribution of African Philosophy to Conceptual Decolonisation: A Reply to Sanya Osha

14 min read. Kwasi Wiredu’s contribution to philosophy not only pushed philosophical discourse forward but has been instrumental towards the decolonization process in Africa.

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The Contribution of African Philosophy to Conceptual Decolonisation: A Reply to Sanya Osha
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In “Conceptual Decolonisation: Kwasi Wiredu’s Disruption of Philosophy”, published in The Elephant on 25th April 2019, Sanya Osha argues that while the celebrated Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu, has disrupted Western philosophy, his efforts at conceptual decolonisation within the framework of analytic philosophy are not radical enough because, allegedly, they remain captive to the Western philosophical canon. Osha has pursued the same line of argument in his article on Wiredu in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

It is appropriate to remind ourselves early in this article that since colonisation denotes foreign invasion and occupation that robs its victims of their political autonomy, material resources, and their attendant right to cultural expression in its diverse manifestations, conceptual decolonisation necessarily implies the victims’ initiative to evict foreign ideas that occupy and dominate their way of thinking, and to assert their right to think and act as they choose. Scholars have frequently observed that colonisation had a three-pronged approach: military action to physically subdue the armed resistance of its victims, religion to weaken their resolve for armed resistance, and formal education to superimpose on them a Western worldview with its “white” supremacist orientation. Conceptual colonisation mainly functions at the level of religion and formal education, and so its deconstruction must operate along the same lines.

Not bound to Ancient Athens

Osha asserts that “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. … the African subject is compelled, with little or no voice, to find its locus of muteness within an invariably Western philosophical canon.” He seems to be implying that all African scholars of philosophy only feel accomplished in the discipline if they can expound the thoughts of the ancient Greek philosophers such as Thales, Pythagoras and Anaxagoras, Socrates himself, and his myriad academic descendants such as Plato, Aristotle, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, David Hume and Immanuel Kant, among others. However, Osha’s view, which implies that philosophy is essentially a Western discipline, risks creating the false impression that non-Western cultures in Africa, Asia, Central America, South America, New Zealand and Australia do not undertake philosophical reflection, thereby reinforcing the conceptual colonisation that he and Wiredu are agreed ought to be uprooted.

For centuries the West debated the question as to whether Africans had the ability to philosophise, to which Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the introduction to his Philosophy of History, gave a definite answer in the negative, insisting that Africa was a dark continent without logic, and therefore without history and civilisation. Underlying this question was the widespread belief in the West that Europe’s culture is characterised by reason and non-European ones by emotion, superstition, or whatever else, but certainly not reason. Thus the renowned Kenyan philosopher D.A. Masolo, in African Philosophy in Search of Identity, observed that at the centre of the debate on African philosophy is “the concept of reason, a value which is believed to stand as the great divide between the civilised and the uncivilised, the logical and the mystical.”

However, as Jennifer Lisa Vest correctly observed in “Perverse and Necessary Dialogues in African Philosophy”, “To engage in academic dialogues implicitly or explicitly guided by a request or a felt need to justify and defend the very possibility of African philosophy or African rationality is to engage in perverse and unnecessary dialogues” – perverse because they question the very humanity and attendant rationality of Africans, and unnecessary because such humanity and its attendant rationality need no demonstration.

For centuries the West debated the question as to whether Africans had the ability to philosophise, to which Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the introduction to his Philosophy of History, gave a definite answer in the negative, insisting that Africa was a dark continent without logic, and therefore without history and civilisation.

The publication of the English translation of Placide Tempels’ La Philosophie Bantoue as Bantu Philosophy in 1952, with a second better known edition in 1959, was a classical enactment of the adage that one ought to refrain from judging a book by its cover, for it ironically argued that Africans are incapable of individualised, rational, philosophical reflection, reinforcing the belief that Africans are outsiders to the kind of philosophical reflection undertaken in Europe. For Tempels, “African philosophy” simply meant a purported monolithic African worldview. Indeed, Tempels was convinced that Africans could not articulate their own “philosophy”, so that it rested on Europeans to explicate it: “It is we [Europeans] who will be able to tell them [Africans], in precise terms what their inmost concept of being is. They will recognise themselves in our words.”

Regrettably, John S. Mbiti’s celebrated African Religions and Philosophy, first published in 1969, adopted Tempels’ theoretical framework, with Mbiti sparing only one chapter for what he called “African philosophy”. Notice that the title of Mbiti’s book suggests that there are many African religions, but a single African philosophy.

It is also regretable that Mbiti’s book got to be much better known than The Mind of Africa, written seven years earlier, in 1962, by the Ghanaian philosopher William E. Abraham. Abraham’s book was a philosophical masterpiece that grappled with various issues regarding the direction that newly independent African states were bound to face. In his preface, Abraham wrote: “I have not merely tried to describe and isolate the forces at work in Africa, and to describe the people among whom the forces are unleashed. I have sought the fundamental framework within which these forces are set, that framework which reveals the people of Africa in their human condition in society. Every society has an ideology. It is the ideology of a society which yields those principles in the light of which significant events are judged to be significant.”

Since Abraham’s seminal work, philosophers too many to count, from different countries in Africa, have penned down their thoughts on various subjects, not least that of conceptual decolonisation. These include, but are certainly not limited to, Ghana’s Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye, Benin’s Paulin J. Hountondji, Senegal’s Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Cameroon’s Jean-Godefroy Bidima, Nigeria’s Olu´ Fe´mi Ta´ I´wo` and Nkiru Nzegwu, Malawi’s Didier Njirayamanda Kaphagawani, Ethiopia’s Bekele Gutema Jebessa, Eritrea’s Tsenay Serequeberhan, and Kenya’s H. Odera Oruka and D.A. Masolo.

Wiredu in touch with the people’s struggles

Wrote Osha: “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.” This is precisely what Wiredu does in a good number of his works.

In his 1967 “African Traditional Thought and Western Science”, Robin Horton asserted that Africans are incapable of a detached evaluation of their systems of thought in terms of truth and falsity. More specifically, Horton asserted that African religious systems of thought were “closed”, by which he meant that they did not envisage alternatives to the established systems of thought.

However, in “How Not to Compare African Traditional Thought with Western Thought”, published as a chapter in his Philosophy and an African Culture, Wiredu points out that Horton ought to have compared African religion with Western religion, and African scientific thought with Western scientific thought. While for Osha this is a mere attempt at disrupting the Western philosophical canon through a synthesis of African and Western philosophy, Wiredu’s rejoinder served the crucial role of slowing down the spread of one more Western myth presented as objective analysis of African realities.

Conceptual Decolonisation: Kwasi Wiredu’s Disruption of Philosophy

Read also: Conceptual Decolonisation: Kwasi Wiredu’s Disruption of Philosophy

An important issue in philosophical discourses by African scholars is the role of language: how much independence can such scholars really assert in their intellectual productions if they continue to be beholden to the languages of their erstwhile colonisers? In Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Ngugi wa Thiong’o famously highlighted the fact that there is no escape from mental subjugation to Western imperialism as long as creative writers in Africa continue to use such languages. Osha is aware of the fettering effect of language, but charges Wiredu with perpetuating it: “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.”

An important issue in philosophical discourses by African scholars is the role of language: how much independence can such scholars really assert in their intellectual productions if they continue to be beholden to the languages of their erstwhile colonisers?

However, Wiredu has consistently called attention to the challenges of undertaking philosophical reflection in Western languages on the basis that they are carriers of Western worldviews that necessarily colour the cogitations of the African philosopher. He presents some of his thoughts on this issue in his “Formulating Modern Thought in African Languages: Some Theoretical Considerations”, which appeared in The Surreptitious Speech: Presence Africaine and the Politics of Otherness 1947-1987 edited by V. Y. Mudimbe.

Furthermore, in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion”, Wiredu is emphatic that African philosophy will go a long way on the road to decolonisation when African scholars utilise their indigenous languages in their philosophical works, and points out that many other people think philosophically in their indigenous languages as a matter of course. To illustrate his point, he takes up Placide Tempels’ claim, in Bantu Philosophy, that for the Bantu, “Being is force and force is being”, and points out that the very sentence cannot be translated into his Akan language, which, he tells us, does not have the existential verb “to be”. From this he infers that what Tempels claims about the Bantu in this regard cannot be attributed to the non-Bantu Akan, and that this is particularly significant because Tempels often gives the impression that what he purportedly found among the Bantu is applicable to all Africans.

Wiredu further points out that the late Alexis Kagame, himself from the Bantu, reported that Tempels’ sentence is also incapable of translation into Bantu languages. Wiredu goes on to observe that “If Kagame is right, then whatever it was that Tempels noticed about Bantu thought was radically mis-stated by the use of an inapplicable Western category of thought, namely, the concept of being as existentially construed. It is a concept that was obviously deeply ingrained in Tempels’ own manner of thinking, and he very well may have thought it universal to all human thinking.” Consequently, Wiredu points out that “it is fair to say that any Africans who go about disseminating Tempels’ claim without confronting the conceptual issue are simply advertising their colonial mentality for all who have eyes to see.”

What is more, Wiredu has led by example, in that he has contributed a chapter written in his Akan language to Listening to Ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy, a ground-breaking volume edited by Agnes B. Curry and Anne Waters, with a foreword, most appropriately, by Ngugi wa Thiong’o. The other six contributors to the anthology – every scholar writing an essay in his or her own language, with accompanying English translations undertaken by scholars who are native speakers of the respective tongues – are Souleymane Bachir Diagne (Wolof), Messay Kebede (Amharic), D.A. Masolo (Dholuo), Fred Ochieng’-Odhiambo (Dholuo), Betty Wambui (Gikuyu), and the late Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (Igbo). The editors indicate that Wiredu’s calls for conceptual decolonisation played a large part in inspiring the anthology.

Moreover, while Osha seems to imply that Wiredu’s philosophy is purely analytic (the kind undertaken in the British Isles and North America), D.A. Masolo noted in “Narrative and Experience of Community as Philosophy of Culture” that one implication of the communalistic and narrativistic approach of African philosophy is that the dichotomy between analytic and continental philosophy, so characteristic of Western philosophy, is not applicable to it.

Besides, contrary to the impression that Osha creates that Wiredu’s philosophy is strictly analytic, Wiredu also delves into contractarian philosophy, so closely associated with continental philosophy, when in Cultural Universals and Particulars: An African Perspective, he questions the almost hegemonic confidence in the Western liberal majoritarian multiparty systems of governance in post-colonial African states, and appeals for the adoption of no-party ones characterised by consensus-based decision-making in their place, on the grounds that many pre-colonial African communities effectively governed themselves through such systems. He asserts that “When representatives are not constrained by considerations regarding the fortunes of power-driven parties they will be more inclined in council to reason more objectively and listen more open-mindedly. And in any deliberative body in which sensitivity to the merits of ideas is a driving force, circumstances are unlikely to select any one group for consistent marginalisation in the process of decision-making. Apart from anything else, such marginalisation would be an affront to the fundamental human rights of decisional representation.” Wiredu is emphatic that while unanimity might be the perfection of consensus, quite often it will be enough to ensure that all views are adequately articulated in the course of decision-making to secure the goodwill of those whose wishes are not adopted for implementation.

Wiredu will also go down in the annals of African philosophy for having curated and edited A Companion to African Philosophy, a forty-seven chapter volume bringing together the contributions of philosophers from around Africa and a number from other parts of the world. His inclusion of non-African scholars is appropriate for at least two reasons. First, it confirms that African philosophers have made contributions that have been noticed and responded to by academics beyond the continent. Indeed, several philosophers of European descent, working in Western universities, have now thrown in their lot, not with the enslaving approach to African philosophy championed by Placide Tempels and John S. Mbiti after him, but rather with the emancipatory approach to it championed by a host of contemporary African philosophers. Second, Wiredu’s inclusion of non-African philosophers in A Companion to African Philosophy highlights the fact that African philosophy is taking its rightful place in the emerging discourses on world philosophies, thereby further whittling down the hegemony of the Western philosophical canon that Osha seems to think is invincible.

Diverse schools of African philosophy

Osha talks of “the Anglophone school of African philosophy”, suggesting that he holds the view that the schools of philosophy in Africa are organised along the Western imperialist mapping of Africa into Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) – a view that perpetuates Western imperialism by legitimising the criminal partition of Africa in Berlin towards the close of the nineteenth century.

However, there is no single Anglophone school of philosophy, but rather a number of schools of philosophy in the so-called Anglophone Africa. For example, the late Kenyan philosophy professor, H. Odera Oruka, identified six such schools: ethnophilosophy (which, led by Placide Tempels, treats African philosophy as collective wisdom or a shared worldview); nationalist/ideological school (comprising works of political leaders such as Julius K. Nyerere, Kwame Nkrumah, and Leopold Sedar Senghor); professional philosophy (practised by academically trained individuals teaching and writing in universities); sage philosophy (the thoughts of men and women rooted in their indigenous African cultures); hermeneutical school (borrowing from the insights of the phenomenological and existentialist movements in Continental European philosophy); and the literary school (comprising the philosophical thoughts of African novelists, poets, playwrights and other creative writers).

Preserving the identity of African philosophy

Osha’s pessimism regarding the potential of African philosophy to contribute to conceptual decolonisation is perhaps most striking when he writes: “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.” Osha’s proposal is in line with positivism – the view, popularised by Auguste Comte, that only what can be apprehended using the five senses is worth scholarly inquiry. This line of thought is at the core of the incessant attacks on the humanities, with their focus on introspective inquiry.

Osha talks of “the Anglophone school of African philosophy”, suggesting that he holds the view that the schools of philosophy in Africa are organised along the Western imperialist mapping of Africa into Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) – a view that perpetuates Western imperialism by legitimising the criminal partition of Africa in Berlin towards the close of the nineteenth century.

In A Short History of African Philosophy, Barry Hallen notes that in the mid-twentieth century, both religious studies and social anthropology challenged the autonomy of African philosophy by popularising the view that all African thought was “traditional”. This approach is evident in Mbiti’s flagship book, African Religions and Philosophy, in which he unapologetically apportions a much lower status to philosophy than to religion: “We speak of African traditional religions in the plural because there are about one thousand African peoples (…), and each has its own religious system…Religion is the strongest element in traditional background, and exerts probably the greatest influence upon the thinking and living of the people concerned.” He further alleges that “While religion can be discerned in terms of beliefs, ceremonies, rituals and religious officiants, philosophy is not so easily distinguishable.”

Furthermore, during a public lecture at the University of Nairobi on 27th March, 2015, Prof. Mbiti related how he participated in establishing the Department of Religious Studies and Philosophy at Makerere University, Uganda, in the 1960s. Notice that the name of the department followed the pattern of his book title – African Religions and Philosophy. A look at the Table of Contents of Mbiti’s work reveals his unapologetic subjugation of philosophy to religious studies: of the twenty chapters in the book, fifteen have an explicitly religious focus, while the remaining five (Chapters 1, 2, 17, 18 and 20) are marginally philosophical. It is also noteworthy that several scholars of religious studies have insisted that there is no essential difference between philosophy and religious studies, to which many African philosophers have replied that religious studies investigates dogma, while philosophy focuses on the clarification of terms, verification of the truth of claims, and the logical connection between claims and evidence provided for them. Indeed, an attempt at integrating philosophy and religious studies would produce a monstrosity which would be neither philosophy nor religious studies, for it would incurably distort the distinct methodological approaches of the two disciplines.

On its part, social anthropology, which professes to inquire into the entire range of cultures and societies in the world, originally concentrated on non-Western so-called primitive societies, with sociology reserved for modern Western societies. Ethnology is generally regarded as one of the major sub-branches of social anthropology, and as Paulin J. Hountondji aptly illustrated in his African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, the original racist orientation of social anthropology  certainly influenced Placide Tempels’ paternalistic approach to African philosophy in his Bantu Philosophy; this is what led Hountondji to refer to Tempels’ approach as “ethnophilosophical”.

As for cultural studies, which Osha prefers to African philosophy, it professes to be an interdisciplinary field concerned with the role of social institutions in the shaping of culture. Britanica.com informs us that among the central concerns of cultural studies are the place of race or ethnicity, class, and gender in the production of cultural knowledge. Cultural studies emerged, not in Africa, but rather in Britain in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Consequently, one wonders what the basis for his optimism towards it is in contradistinction to his pessimism towards philosophy.

Furthermore, for almost three decades now, neoliberalism has been vigorously questioning the value of the humanities and social sciences, with buzz phrases such as “market-driven courses” being used in reference to applied sciences such as medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and engineering, and governments resolving to allocate greater funding to them. Nevertheless, the social sciences have managed to convince those who hold the purse strings of their contribution to the economy, leaving the humanities, under which philosophy falls, grossly under-funded. As a result, some scholars of African philosophy are now trying to prepare research proposals that pander to the demands of funding agencies. This situation prompted me to write “Research Methodology in Philosophy within an Interdisciplinary and Commercialised African Context”, in which I argued that in view of the limited number of natural and social phenomena available for scholarly inquiry, there will always be intersections in the subject matter of various disciplines. As such, the only way for a discipline to preserve its identity and to contribute meaningfully to inter-disciplinary inquiry is to stay true to its methodology.

African philosophy Transforming the conceptual apparatus

Osha went on to write: “… 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.” Although Osha thinks that African philosophy is an obstacle to the attainment of this noble aspiration, philosophers all over Africa are engaged in innovative projects aimed at conceptual decolonisation. We have already cited three such innovations by Kwasi Wiredu, but a few more examples would be helpful.

Scholarship has been inundated by the Western liberal concept of personhood, with its emphasis on the atomic individual who pursues his or her personal interests without any consideration of the common good except as it directly promotes his or her personal good.

The late Prof. H. Odera Oruka, from his base at the University of Nairobi, launched the Sage Philosophy Project in 1974, with the aim of collecting the individual, reflective and didactic thought of indigenous thinkers among various ethnic groups in Kenya, and this culminated in his Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy. D.A. Masolo, in a chapter in Sagacious Reasoning: Henry Odera Oruka in Memoriam, edited by Anke Graness and Kai Kresse, aptly referred to Oruka’s Sage Philosophy Project as an instance of “Decentering the Academy”. Besides, in “The Philosophy of Foreign Aid: A Question of the Right to a Human Minimum” in his Practical Philosophy: In Search of an Ethical Minimum, Oruka wrote on the politics of foreign aid, responding to Garrett Hardin’s “Lifeboat Ethics: The Case against Helping the Poor”.

Scholarship has been inundated by the Western liberal concept of personhood, with its emphasis on the atomic individual who pursues his or her personal interests without any consideration of the common good except as it directly promotes his or her personal good. However, Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye edited Person and Community, and D.A. Masolo authored Self and Community in a Changing World, both of which question Western liberalism and present incisive reflections on African communalism. Similarly, while in the post-Cold War world Francis Fukuyama announced the victory of liberalism in The End of History and the Last Man, Ademola Kazeem Fayemi, in “Towards an African Theory of Democracy”, aptly noted that Fukuyama’s liberal democracy cannot be the end of human history simply because we are not at the end of human intelligence.

Nkiru Nzegwu’s “Feminism and Africa: Impact and Limits of the Metaphysics of Gender” in A Companion to African Philosophy edited by Kwasi Wiredu, and her Family Matters: Feminist Concepts in African Philosophy of Culture, among others, are valuable contributions to the current discourses on gender equity.

The sum of the matter is that contrary to Sanya Osha’s diagnosis, African philosophy is making its robust contribution to conceptual decolonisation alongside other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. What is of crucial importance is that African and Africanist scholars indefatigably aim for academic excellence grounded in an ideology that is resolutely on the side of the African masses. There is wide room for inter-disciplinary co-operation between African philosophy and other disciplines. For example, collaboration between African philosophy and critical discourse analysis (CDA) would enrich African philosophy by placing at its disposal the thoroughgoing methodology and the avowedly pro-people ideological orientation of CDA, thereby yielding abundant fruit for conceptual decolonisation.

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Dr. Reginald M.J. Oduor is Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Nairobi. He is the first person with total visual disability to be appointed to a substantive teaching position in a public university in Kenya. He was the founding Editor-in-Chief of the New Series of Thought and Practice: A Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya from 2009 to 2015. With Drs. Oriare Nyarwath and Francis E.A. Owakah, he edited OderaOruka in the Twenty-First Century. He is also Co-founder and current Chair of the Society of Professionals with Visual Disabilities (SOPVID). Email: rmjoduor@gmail.com. Blog: http://kenyancrossroads.blogspot.co.ke

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Nairobi: The City That Was Never Meant to Be

7 min read. OWAAHH and JOHN KAMAU explore Nairobi’s evolution from its humble beginnings as a railway depot to its present status as the nation’s capital.

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Nairobi: The City That Was Never Meant to Be
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More than a century ago, a brash and mostly racist decision created a small tin shack town in the middle of a swamp. Then the town became unstoppable.

The first men and women who landed in Nairobi probably considered the brackish swamp land perfect. The area was picturesque, with hills in the horizon and rivers crisscrossing the plains. While the swampy land was not suitable for farming, and certainly not for settlement, it was perfect for grazing.

For the Maasai and the Kikuyu, the plain was also a meeting ground, cutting between the highland farming community in Central Kenya and the nomadic community in the Rift. For the Kamba and other traders and adventurers, it was the easier part of the journey. The Maasai called it Enkare Nyorobi, ‘the land of cool waters’; other names for the land seems to have evaded history books.

The colony’s vanguard also saw it as one of the easy stretches of a long, much more arduous journey to the Western parts of what would become Kenya. The treeless plain was also curiously empty, particularly on the lush parts towards Central Kenya. They wrote of ‘Nyrobe’ in their letters home, a name which, in a short time, would become the name of the capital of a new country.

It was not empty or deserted though; it was occupied, just not permanently. And even less at that point because smallpox and a few other epidemics had cut down the populations of many Kenyan communities.

In 1896, builders of the Lunatic Line set up a small supply depot and a camp on the plains. The original boundaries of what is now Nairobi were for “the area within a radius of one and a half miles from the offices of the sub-commissioner of the Ukambani Province.” There was no plan beyond that, and Nairobi was merely one in a chain of such supply depots. The railhead reached Nairobi, the small supply depot between Mombasa and Kampala, in 1899.

With it, a new future began.

A cultural melting pot

The railway management picked Nairobi to be their railway headquarters. But this seemingly arbitrary decision that would put the builders at loggerheads with the colonial government did not involve any proper assessment of the site. Public health would be the key issue in those early years, with the lack of proper drainage making the new town the perfect breeding grounds for epidemics.

But the railway engineers did not see Nairobi as becoming anything more than an Indian township which, they argued, could “prosper in spite of unsanitary conditions and chronic plague.”

As more people settled on what had become the railway headquarters, a pattern emerged. Europeans settled to the West, Asians to the Parklands side, and Africans to the East. But segregation laws would not become codified until 1908, after yet another bout of the plague. Within the first five years, what had been a sparsely occupied swampy plain was now home to 10,000 people. After Mombasa, Nairobi was now the cultural melting pot of the young British colony.

The railway management picked Nairobi to be their railway headquarters. But this seemingly arbitrary decision that would put the builders at loggerheads with the colonial government did not involve any proper assessment of the site.

With government funding and rich entrepreneurs like AM Jeevanjee, who had made a fortune supplying material and labour to build the railway, a town sprouted from the swamp. The richest man in Kenya at the start of the 20th century, Jeevanjee would later go on an investment spree, building the first law courts, the original Nairobi Club, the first building that housed the National Museum, and many other buildings.

Before the railhead reached Nairobi, the central economic activity for the young town had been big game hunting. By 1900, the town was a single street, driven by commerce as Asian railway builders settled in tin shacks on the plain. Beyond that street “lay the swamp where frogs lived every night at dusk they used to bark out their vibrant chorus and spread a cloak of deep, incessant sound over the little township” as Elspeth Huxley writes in White Man’s Country. The frogs formed part of the ecosystem, providing a rhythmic croaking during the calm nights of a budding young town. It was free music, if not poetry, but it freaked out public health officials.

A public health hazard

Doctors were particularly concerned about the hazards the soggy grounds carried. At 1,750 metres above sea level, colonialists thought Nairobi’s temperate climate would limit the development of malaria-carrying mosquitos (an oft-repeated myth, most notably in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth). It didn’t, and not just because the soggy grounds allowed pools of stagnant water to collect. Malaria would thrive in the new town, with 14,000 new malaria cases reported in Nairobi in 1913 alone. But malaria was just one of many health concerns that made doctors want the small town moved to higher ground.

In 1902, the small town faced its first major public health problem. An epidemic of the dreaded bubonic plague erupted along Indian Bazaar. With no sanitation or municipal plans, the main street at the time had played host to rodents, and the animals had in turn brought in the plague, killing several people. The plague was diagnosed by the enigmatic zebra-riding Dr. Rosendo Ribiero. The Medical Officer, Dr. Alfred Spurrier, ordered the entire street burnt. Everyone was evacuated, and Nairobi’s first CBD was torched.

This was probably the point in history when the situation could have been salvaged and the young town moved, but that didn’t happen. Instead, lethargy and bureaucracy resulted in a status quo.

At 1,750 metres above sea level, colonialists thought Nairobi’s temperate climate would limit the development of malaria-carrying mosquitos…It didn’t, and not just because the soggy grounds allowed pools of stagnant water to collect.

In May 1903, Dr. Moffat, a principal medical officer of the East Africa and Uganda Protectorate, called Nairobi dangerous and defective. After another plague in 1904, he recommended relocating residents to modern-day Kikuyu Township. But Moffat left in April 1904, and his successors held the costs of relocation too high.

On 18 May 1906, Sir James Sadler, commissioner for the Protectorate, wrote to Winston Churchill, Undersecretary of State for the Colonies, complaining about the emergence of Kenya’s capital: “…at the commencement of the 1902 plague…the then-commissioner, Sir Charles Elliot, was strongly of the opinion that the site, which had been selected three years before by the manager of the Uganda Railway without consulting medical or sanitary authorities, was, with its inadequate drainage, unsuitable for a large and growing population. [It is a] depression with a very thin layer of soil or rock. The soil was water-logged during the greater part of the year.”

The letter further reminds Churchill of the 1902 recommendation to move the city “to some point on the hills.” Sadler told Churchill this was a critical point in Nairobi’s history; that his predecessor had said: “…when the rainy season commenced, the whole town is practically transformed into a swamp.”

But the Board running the city decided instead to try drain the swampy bazaar area.

Six years before, in 1898, a 25-year-old man called John Ainsworth had disembarked from a ship at the Port of Mombasa. He was an employee of the colonising company called the Imperial British East African Company, and was ambitious to make a career for himself. Before that year ended, he travelled from Mombasa up to Machakos, and into the tin shack town called Nyrobe. He built his house at Museum Hill to found the colonial administration, much to the chagrin of influential railway builders. Eager to make the swampy plains work, he planted Eucalyptus trees on the swamp to drain the water. Ainsworth’s legacy remains to date, with most of his efforts being the only reason why more and more parts of the swamp could be occupied.

Nairobi continued to develop quickly and Sadler finally threw in the towel: “It is, I admit, too late to consider the question of moving the town from the plains to the higher position along the line some miles to the north. We had a chance in 1902, and I think it was a pity that we did not do so then as advocated by Sir Charles Elliot.”

But even Sadler did not anticipate the growth – eightfold since 1969, from 500,000 people to 4.4 million today. He said Nairobi would never become “a city like Johannesburg or a large commercial centre, for if there is a rapid development of industries or minerals in any of the new districts, the centres would spring up around them.”

Churchill accepted this idea and made the final decision: “It is now too late to change, and thus lack of foresight and of a comprehensive view leaves its permanent imprint upon the countenance of a new country.”

The colonists had given up, and the town they had once thought would only be occupied by Indians became the centre of the new colony. It would take another six years for the Nairobi Sanitary Commission to be appointed, by which time the city was home to thousands of people. The swampy grounds would pose challenges for builders, medical officers, and town planners.

From tin shack town to city

Settlers like Ewart Grogan believed that the Europeans should have occupied the area from Chiromo up towards and past Westlands. They could then leave the lower plains and its tin shacks to Asians and Kenyan natives. The plan never came to be as the influence of the railway builders carried the day, and by the time it became clear the city would grow, it was too late to move it.

In 1919, Nairobi Township became Nairobi Municipal Council and the boundaries were extended. It would be extended nine years later to cover 30 square miles. Seven years after that, Jim Jameson presented a town planning report with great plans to plant Jacaranda trees. The tin shack town was well on its way to becoming a city, and the future generations of city fathers would have to find a way to deal with the thin layer of soil.

It hired a consultant in the mid-1920s, by which time the town’s economic importance made it a fait accompli. One colonial officer wrote that the new plan was ambitious, but until it bore fruit, “Nairobi must remain what she was then, a slatternly creature, unfit to queen it over so lovely a country.”

More than three decades later, when it became the official capital of a new country, Nairobi still did not have a blueprint.

The initial stubborness of the railway engineers trumped those of the colonial government and its health officials. For that, the latter would pay dearly, facing many epidemics and having to dedicate finances to further drain the swamp. Most of the swamp has now been replaced with skyscrapers and road networks, with insufficient footpaths, drainage and leadership.

The colonists had given up, and the town they had once thought would only be occupied by Indians became the centre of the new colony.

More than a century after its unlikely birth, Nairobi is home to more than 4 million people. The city still reminds that it was once a swamp where rivers criss-crossed at will. One pending idea, which has been revived in the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) Taskforce report, is to grant the city special status as a capital city. It would mean Nairobi will not have a governor, but the report hopes that it would not “impede the rights of the Kenyan people to representation at the ward and parliamentary levels.”

In this scenario, only a special status would allow the central government “the means to provide the services and facilitation necessary to maintaining as a capital city and as a diplomatic hub.” Whether that’s likely is a toss-up, but whoever runs it will always face the same problems as its first city fathers. Indeed, the city that was never meant to be, and probably should never have been, is now the epicentre of the Kenyan economy and society.

Perhaps the time is ripe to ask ourselves whether Nairobi should be the epicentre of Kenya, because today, amidst the floods raging in the city, poor drainage and the chaotic streets, Nairobi leaves much to be desired as a capital city and is still an unfit slatternly creature to queen over the country, despite what the BBI report claims.

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I Transact, Therefore I Am: A Case for the Humble Marketplace

13 min read. OBY OBYERODHYAMBO explains why ordinary markets, which sell innovative products derived from our cottage industries, also act as purveyors of our culture while presenting a unique solution to the economic, health and environmental challenges facing us.

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I Transact, Therefore I Am: A Case for the Humble Marketplace
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At the risk of bringing the wrath of philosophers upon me, I wish to borrow from the famous maxim cogito ergo sum by French philosopher Rene Descartes – which translates to I think, therefore I am – to define present humankind: I transact, therefore I am. This is no way a reification of consumerism, or a deification of capitalism, and how the market has become definitive of our era; it comes from a deep observation of the single thing that defines us humans today: markets and trade transactions.

Modern civilization is premised on structures and systems that make trading and legal transaction possible. There is no community that does not have markets and that does not have market systems for legal transactions. All communities frown upon any exchange that is not transactional; that is simply called theft.

Though humans have preferred to distinguish themselves from other animals on the basis of their rationality, what really defines us is interdependence – the realisation that we need each other in order to survive, and that we basically cannot do without one another. This common human need for the other transcends the individual to communities and embraces entire nations. Even the most individualistic eccentric, with delusions of self-sufficiency, quickly realises the mutual need humans have for each other, and the primacy of structures for transaction. Nations maintain diplomatic relationships on this principle, and despite the dominance nature of the global powers, forums, such as the United Nations General Assembly, are ideally supposed to be an equitable marketplace of ideas where both the powerful and the not so powerful, the wealthy and the financial minions exchange and interact. The most basic transactional platform is the marketplace.

A while ago, while pondering this piece, I sought opinions from several professionals. I needled them to reflect on the state of markets in Kenya. Each one, without exception, responded by focusing on the financial, stock and commodities markets. My interlocutors were not all economists or engaged in the financial sector; in fact few were, and this is the poignant point.

In the psyche of most people, the “market” is conflated to mean local and international stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets. Few think outside this frame and the managers of our economy are guiltiest on this score. It is not surprising that there was a look of utter surprise when I revealed that the market I was interested in was the kawaida or ordinary market – the soko, chiro, ndunyu that is the massive open air market teeming with kawaida people in Karatina, Kongowea, Gikomba, Muthurwa, Toi, Kapsoit, Luanda, Kibuye and many other places. The livestock markets in Suswa, Koriema, Lubao and Kibokoni that specialise in cattle, goats, dogs and fish, respectively, and the MwembeTayari, SokoMjinga, SokoMoi, Marigiti, Mbero and Rongai markets that have acres and acres of farm produce strewn all over, usually displaying the most unhygienic handling. Even Village Market, Maasai Market, or Kariakor that specialise in curios or material culture, but which are basically outlets for tourists to purchase memorabilia and trinkets, and which hardly provide a forum for engagement with our rich material culture.

Once the surprise faded off their faces, each one was challenged to ponder why it is that the kawaida (ordinary) markets were rendered invisible in discourses around GDP, economic performance and human resource deployment, whereas there were millions of individuals directly or indirectly engaged in markets as traders, service providers and clients. Why is the ordinary market, with the potential to provide the impetus for innovation that would provide much-needed employment for the youth, totally ignored?

In the psyche of most people, the “market” is conflated to mean local and international stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets. Few think outside this frame and the managers of our economy are guiltiest on this score.

The challenge extended to questioning why the resilience of the kawaida markets to sustain the social and economic well-being of communities is not factored in our economic growth models. Why is it that though the monies that circulate within kawaida markets is significant there does not seem to be a fair estimation of it in our economic projections?

I was also most intrigued by the human interaction and the resultant social and cultural dynamics evolving around markets, but found scanty studies on the phenomenon. I further pushed my respondents to think of the reasons that led to the waning in prominence of markets that in the past were important meeting points for communities and their commodities. Today these markets have become totally eclipsed by virtual markets that serve the interests of a minority. Corollary to this is what is lost when these interactions fizzle out. Markets must have created social cohesion premised on co-dependence. Language and common practices evolved to ensure the harmony upon which markets thrived. The intercultural interactions gave rise to multicultural creative and expressive forms.

Angela Ka-yee Leung et.al, in a study published in American Psychologist, empirically demonstrate that exposure to multiple cultures in and of itself enhances creativity. They argue that the extensiveness of multicultural experiences greatly enhances creative performance, as well as the creativity supporting cognitive processes that make an individual more creatively versatile. Cross-cultural exposure, such as what kawaida markets provided, increased the capacity for creativity, invention and innovation.

A confluence of needs and cultures

The centrality of markets in African life can be appreciated from the mention of markets in African literature and even in songs. Activities on designated market day, and at the market are pointers to such significance as proverbs like “Every marketplace has its own madman” denote. Any authentic work of African fiction invariably has a market scene. The marketplace facilitated more than simple economic engagement; it allowed people from diverse communities to interact and exchange. In exogamous communities, market day was an opportunity to forge future romantic relationships. It could be argued that the marketplace was the dating sites that pre-dated the digital era.

Actual markets, in contrast to virtual ones, are physical spaces that evolve to enable transactions between buyers and sellers. There is a confluence of needs: the needs of a seller with commodities to dispose of, and the needs of a buyer who lacks the commodity on sale. Each is driven to the market by their needs. The existence of markets underscores a reality that no individual, community or region is self-sufficient and therefore must transact. A description of the evolution of Dagoretti in Nairobi as a significant meeting point between Kikuyu farmers and the pastoralist Maasai shows how markets fostered both co-existence and rivalry: “19th century Dagoretti was part of the rich food- producing Kikuyu country and was populated with Maasai and Kikuyu people as it lay on the edge of Maasai country. Kikuyu farmed sugarcane and banana among other crops, while Maasai kept cattle. The two groups cohabited and their lives together ebbed between trade and raid.”

“Ebbed between trade and raid” meant that even as they had a transactional relationship, there were times when they would raid each other. This notwithstanding, there was still a strong relationship between the two communities that allowed for social interaction and cross-cultural mingling.

Kisumu, the third-largest city in Kenya, evolved from a marketplace as the Kisuma name suggests. Sumo is a food security strategy practiced by the Luo where regions that have not enjoyed a good harvest would visit relatives in food-secure regions to borrow grain. In subsequent seasons, the favour would be returned.

The knowledge that those with bumper harvests today might face hardship in the next season entrenched the interdependence. What is today Kisumu was a central place that allowed for transactions between different communities around Winam Gulf all the way to the hills of Nyangóri to Nandi Hills and the present day Kericho. Many towns in Kenya have evolved from such humble transactional markets.

On market days, communities were brought together and even hostile neighbours managed a truce to allow for transaction. An important aspect of these transactions is that there arose between the traders an in-between population and language. Languages of commerce also emerged and these elements of culture ensured that there was social cohesion, if not total harmony.

Kisumu, the third-largest city in Kenya, evolved from a marketplace as the Kisuma name suggests. Sumo is a food security strategy practiced by the Luo where regions that have not enjoyed a good harvest would visit relatives in food-secure regions to borrow grain. In subsequent seasons, the favour would be returned.

The para-linguistic nature of the communication between neighbouring communities would be a fascinating area of intercultural studies. Picture a conversation at the Lubao market in Western Kenya between a dog seller and a dog buyer. What attributes of the canine would the seller extoll in order to secure a deal? Each context is unique. For instance, a goat seller in Koriema in Baringo or Kiamaiko in Nairobi, or a cow seller in Suswa, or even a fishmonger and the buyer at Jubilee Market in Kisumu wishing to purchase a specific species of fish develop their own transactional language.

In many Kenyan livestock markets, there is a distinct bargaining method used to arrive at consensus on a price. The seller and the buyer shake hands while mentioning a price and as long as the price is not agreed upon, the hand is let go. This is repeated several times as the two parties haggle to reach a middle point, and once the negotiated price is mutually arrived at, the handshake is held; a deal has been arrived at. Only after this does money and the livestock change hands.

What is demonstrated by this shared common culture and the rules of engagement are two subtle messages: that the parties are equal and that the transaction is negotiated to the satisfaction of both parties. No one leaves the deal feeling like they have been shafted. This is important because social cohesion must be maintained even after the deal is done. This is a far cry from the skulduggery that defines trade outside of the kawaida market where kickbacks, price-fixing, price variation and other unscrupulous practices are the nature of the transactions.

The existence of markets underscores the centrality of equality between the two transacting parties. Both parties must be willing to acknowledge a “deficiency” – something they lack which the other party has. The transaction only works because the buyer has something of value which they offer to the seller in exchange for the desired product. The transaction is only successful if there is a mutual agreement on the equivalence in value of the transacted items. There is an inherent danger if the parties have no consensus on the value of the transacted items.

Another factor of the market is that the interaction between the parties must be premised on a malleability – a willingness to evolve new identities, characteristics and behaviours. No one leaves a market in the same state as they entered it. Since it is a platform for exchange, markets therefore exist on the principle of fairness – both parties in the transaction must agree that the exchange satisfies their notion of equivalent value. In order to arrive at this mutuality and symbiotic co-existence there must be ways in which cooperation and understanding is built and maintained between the two parties. There are shared values that arise from the familiarity between the sellers and the buyers. This cordial relationship promote an ethic of quality products and honest exchange.

Markets are, therefore, an indicator of whether an economy is productive, or has been rendered purely consumer-oriented and parasitic. Whereas the stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets might not reveal the underlying inequalities, the kawaida markets cannot hide the extent of symbiotic co-existence between parties.

Goods available on the market is indicative of what a region produces and consumes, and this balance or imbalance immediately exposes the power dynamics between these communities, nations or regions. The kawaida market is the platform where local contextual everyday problems find solutions. Whether the challenges emerge from energy, water, food security, health or climate, the solutions can only be invented, innovated and made available at the local kawaida market. The local stock exchange will not be able to reflect and respond if a community is facing an energy crisis and the locals cannot boil their githeri or fry their mbuta. Neither will the forex market respond to a water crisis where women have to travel miles to get the precious liquid for their families. Nor can the bond market respond to the food security that might threaten a region when army worms have invaded their maize farms. The securities market cannot respond the to the health challenges caused by malaria. The need to develop innovative solutions actually rests in the kawaida market.

Kawaida markets as hubs for innovation

William Kamkwamba’s story has been immortalised in a film titled The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. In 2001, Malawi, his home country, was facing a terrible drought, and the subsequent famine was made worse by abject poverty. Imported maize from Tanzania was highly-priced and the desperate locals could not afford their staple nsima. Disaster was imminent.

William, 14 years old at that point, was meant to transition to high school, but his family could not afford school fees and he had to drop out of school. The farming community he hailed from faced a series of combined problems: poverty, food insecurity, unpredictable climate and erratic rain patterns, poor educational infrastructure and unsustainable eco-unfriendly energy.

Markets are, therefore, an indicator of whether an economy is productive, or has been rendered purely consumer-oriented and parasitic. Whereas the stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets might not reveal the underlying inequalities, the kawaida markets cannot hide the extent of symbiotic co-existence between parties.

Driven by the desire to solve his community’s problems, William, inspired by diagrams in a Physics textbook in the local library where he sought refuge after dropping out of school, sought to build a windmill that could generate electricity that could be used for pumping water for irrigation of their farms and also provide lighting and charge mobile phones that a few in their community-owned. Once he built his windmill from discarded scraps from a junkyard, and managed to generate enough electricity to power his family’s radio and a few light bulbs, it can be said, the rest is history. His innovation was scaled up and a water pumping windmill was built that could enable irrigation as well as light up the village, the local school and provide a model for others to copy throughout Malawi. William went on to recruit many other young Malawians into building windmills to solve the problem of lack of sustainable energy, reliance on rain-fed agriculture and resultant poverty.

A few years ago, at the height of the Hyacinth menace in Lake Victoria, Kisumu Innovation Centre (KICK) came into the picture by innovatively using hyacinth to produce paper, ropes and other materials with the weed. The moment of glory for their innovations came during the memorial service for the late Nobel laureate Prof. Wangari Maathai when it was revealed that the unique casket in which her body lay was manufactured by KICK from hyacinth. It is in this eco-friendly casket that she was cremated. The young men and women at KICK responded to the local problems of youth unemployment, environmental degradation, and poor garbage disposal by promoting the recycling and re-use of waste to create environmental sustainability.

Prof. Wangari’s decision to opt for cremation, and to cap it off in a hyacinth casket, showcased two levels of innovative thinking: it made the point that trees need not be cut down to build coffins, and it also challenged people to adopt more environmentally-friendly body disposal methods using eco-friendly solutions. When one thinks of the number of trees felled just to build caskets, which are used just for a short while before ending up being buried in concrete vaults, the hyacinth casket is nothing short of genius.

There are 4.4 million disabled people in Kenya and 67 per cent of these are unemployed and living in poverty. For those who cannot afford basic wheelchairs, their movement is restricted and some end up wasting away. A young Lincoln Wamae decided to tackle this challenge by making electric wheelchairs. He collects most of the parts from junkyards and assembles the motorable wheelchairs. He says that he began his innovations as a hobby and it has now evolved into a thriving business. He obtains the batteries from old discarded laptops and by so doing is actually contributing to solving the problem of e-waste.   His lithium-iron powered wheelchairs have made these life-changing gadgets available to those who would only have dreamt of them.

Prof. Wangari’s decision to opt for cremation, and to cap it off in a hyacinth casket, showcased two levels of innovative thinking: it made the point that trees need not be cut down to build coffins, and it also challenged people to adopt more environmentally-friendly body disposal methods using eco-friendly solutions.

The same can be said of Simon Karumbo who has made a 100 per cent solar-powered vehicle. He responded to the challenge of youth unemployment as well as climate change and energy challenge by innovating on energy-saving solutions. He controversially went ahead to invent a bed that generates energy when animated activity is performed on it.

Innovation is not only in technology-based solutions. Every market in Kenya has a section where the vibrant trade in second-hand clothes happens. There are usually heaps of clothes neatly segregated by type to allow for easier picking. There is even some level of specialisation: shirts, trousers, ladies’ clothes, children’s attire and shoes.

The mitumba traders traverse the county with bales of clothes worth millions of shillings. They hire thousands of youth as clothes sellers. Young men and women sell second-hand clothes in a well harmonised promotional sing-song, urging buyers to explore the displayed wares. “Ni ya leo, ni ya leo, akina baba, akina mama, ni ya leo ni ya leo.” This translates to: It’s today’s fashion, for men and women. It’s today’s item.

The youthful traders have innovated marketing strategies based on an intimate knowledge of their clients’ needs. The youthful sellers, aware of the desire of their clients to purchase the latest fashion trends, use their singing to reassure buyers of the contemporariness of the fashions. At a certain point they tease the buyers by telling them, “Chagualeo, chaguasasa, kuonanakushikashikani bure, kubebandiopesa”, which translates to: Look and touch [items on sale] is free and one only pays if they wish to carry an item away [buy].

The sing-song promotion is picked up by the hundreds of sellers and engulfs the entire market in a well-choreographed performance. At its peak, it’s reminiscent of a pantomime and the sellers even wear some of the clothes on sale to add colour; cross-dressing is common. It reminds one of a Bollywood film segment. In an environment where marketers are competing with multiple sellers, the innovative, attention-grabbing pantomime works more effectively than giant billboards or loud-hailers.

Potential for a thriving cottage industry

Innovation by the youth has demonstrated that there is a great potential for a thriving cottage industry-based economic growth model that will also provide thousands of jobs. A cottage industry is a small-scale, decentralised manufacturing business often operated out of a non-designated industrial complex or purpose-built factory. Cottage industries often focus on production of high-skill, labour-intensive goods as opposed to mass-market items.

Today cottage industries seek to serve a market looking for original hand-crafted products as opposed to mass-produced, name brand products.  In the past, items that found their way to the kawaida market were products from cottage industries. The clay pots, the wicker baskets, leather bags and other household items had a long supply chain that ensured employment for those who dug up clay, kneaded it, moulded pots, fired them and those who transported them. The supply chain of a papyrus mat standing at a market is even longer and includes people harvesting papyrus in boats on floating islands.

Beyond that, the cottage industries maintain a link to traditional artisanal skills passed on from one generation to the next. Cottage industries are responsive to emerging challenges. I recently witnessed some young artisans in Holo Market in Seme repairing handles of pangas and knives using discarded plastic. Anyone who has bought the mass-produced Chinese farming implements know how vexing the short life of their handles are. The youth who once worked in metal foundries, collect the plastic, and then melt and mould it into a handle that will probably outlast the implement.

In many markets today you will encounter young men and women pressing (using innovatively made blenders) and selling fresh sugarcane juice blended with ginger, lemon and mint. Every seller has arrived at a unique recipe and this nameless cocktail is drunk more than the mainstream juices or carbonated drinks. There are those who blend vegetable juices and even groundnut juice laced with omugombera. Mondiawhytei an indigenous tree that acts as an appetiser, breath freshener and is rumoured to be an aphrodisiac. There are refreshing juices made from a combination of all manner of fruits and vegetables.

Innovation by the youth has demonstrated that there is a great potential for a thriving cottage industry-based economic growth model that will also provide thousands of jobs.

In parts of the coastal region, there are the signature cassava crisps, the sweet potato cakes and biscuits from Kabondo. There is a young entrepreneur in Kisumu who is rearing and promoting edible crickets that are added into wheat dough to make highly nutritious biscuits. There are many more innovations in the kawaida markets that are solving local problems, as well as providing solutions to global challenges, such as environmental degradation and climate warming.

There is a colonial hangover in the way that modern African economies perceive markets that is constantly receiving push-back from the innovators. The fixation with stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets while ignoring the markets where a majority of the citizens have developed innovative approaches and ingenious solutions to local as well as global problems is counter-intuitive, counterproductive and inimical to development.

Kawaida markets, which sell the innovative products derived from our cottage industries, also act as purveyors of our culture while presenting a unique solution to the economic as well as the health and environmental challenges facing us. The stock, bond, securities, forex and derivatives markets are important because these open us up to a global economic system, but the space in which we transact our livelihoods is the kawaida market where the traders and buyers meet.

A thriving innovative hub connected to local markets provide platforms for creative solutions to the world’s needs while offering the youth a livelihood. Communality and social cohesion is built premised on the mutual need for one another and fairness is the ethic that guides transactions in kawaida markets. What defines us humans is that we transact: we do so in recognition of mutual needs and inter-dependence, and we negotiate seeking a fair exchange from each other. We transact, therefore we are.

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‘This land is broken.’ Reflections on Changing Perceptions of Morality in Capitalist Societies

8 min read. To claim that society is in moral decline is a misnomer, argues JORG WIEGRATZ. Instead, we need to note that the moral structure and moral grammar in society is in fact changing under the weight of capitalistic forces shaping society.

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‘This land is broken.’ Reflections on Changing Perceptions of Morality in Capitalist Societies
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“We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.” Karl Marx, Letter from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher to Ruge (1843).

The state of morals in contemporary society, especially regarding money and business matters – i.e. issues to do with earning a living, hustling, putting food on the table, surviving, making profit, hunting riches, acquiring wealth – is a popular topic in public columns in Uganda, Kenya and elsewhere. As highlighted in an earlier blog, a number of analysts’ diagnoses is that we are living in times of moral decline and crisis, as evidenced by widespread and institutionalised economic fraud and other malfeasances in the economy.

Here, I want to argue for a shift in analytical perspective. I want to analytically treat phenomena that are declared to be examples of moral decline (or alternatively, moral bankruptcy and immorality) as instances of something else – an ongoing and profound moral transformation in societies undergoing a comprehensive capitalist restructuring of their polity, economy and culture.

This analytical move implies that we forget for a moment the prognosis of a decrease, thinning out, or dwindling of morals and instead focus on changes of morals in the economy, shifts in society concerning what is regarded as acceptable and unacceptable economic practice, in particular, in the economic sectors, locations (markets, factories, banks, etc.), professions, and so on. And to be more precise, not just shifts regarding notions of acceptable/unacceptable, but also regarding what constitutes legitimate/illegitimate, right/wrong, good/bad, praiseworthy/blameworthy, proper/improper, or desirable/undesirable practice. Of course, you can replace practice with economic order, ‘economic relationship, economic processes, economic outcomes and so on in order to track moral changes in these matters too, but for practical purposes let us focus our analytical eyes on practice.

Daniel Kalinaki, a leading newspaper columnist in Uganda whose insightful analysis I eagerly read every week, recently wrote something to the effect that empathy is on the decline in daily life in contemporary Uganda. His column was titled “At what point does a society lose all sense of empathy? Are we there yet?” There are passages in it, such as, “An entire generation [of young Ugandans] has grown up parentless, valueless and mannerless.” The text ends with: “We are no longer raised by the village but by wolves. This land is broken. This society needs healing. Urgently.”

Arguably, Kalinaki (like other authors that run this line of analysis) writes as if there is indeed an end point concerning cultural decline, as if “all sense of empathy” can indeed ever be lost in a society of nearly 40 million people, as if people really grow up totally valueless, as if a society can really be broken, and, as if it is clear to the analyst when a society has reached rock bottom after which there is no further cultural decline i.e. the absolute end of empathy.

Arguably Kalinaki does not discuss moral decline as such but moral change i.e. a change concerning under what conditions, for what reason, how, to whom, and regarding what people show empathy in today’s Uganda. He, like columnist Yusuf Serunkuma, myself and others, is in fact an analyst of moral change in a rapidly changing country. A significant change in the moral climate in society intrigues us and we try to nail down the nature and causes of that change. In sum, we try to understand what it is that is changing, how, why, and to what effect. Perhaps, above all, we try to figure out how we got here.

Capitalism and its discontents

The spread and intensification of capitalism, as writers ranging from Karl Marx to Edward P. Thompson emphasised, brings cultural-economic change i.e. shifts in dominant norms and values, notions of acceptable practice, boundaries of what is doable, permissible, normal, taken for granted and so on. These processes are conflictual; some actors want the status quo to remain, others want change. Put simply, capitalism, over time, makes the previously unacceptable practice acceptable, at least acceptable to the extent needed to spread, normalise, and routinise the practice. It alters what was previously regarded morally wrong, immoral, and abnormal into right, moral, normal. The unthinkable and outrageous becomes everyday reality and taken for granted moral taboos weaken and dissolve.

In short, capitalism forever alters the moral structure and moral grammar in society, especially with regards to the economy. Importantly, it doesn’t dissolve moral order altogether (“All that is solid melts into air…” as says the Communist Manifesto) but creates new moral new order(s), new orders of right/wrong, good/bad, acceptable/unacceptable, etc. That is why, analytically speaking, the moral decline/bankruptcy assumption is so restrictive; it does not allow us to identify, track and explain this ever-evolving order. It presumes that there is indeed a clear end point concerning the moral regression of humanity, whereas in reality the story of moral change is of moral order alterations on the planet that continue till we have arrived at the figurative “last man standing” moment.

The spread and intensification of capitalism, as writers ranging from Karl Marx to Edward P. Thompson emphasised, brings cultural-economic change i.e. shifts in dominant norms and values, notions of acceptable practice, boundaries of what is doable, permissible, normal, taken for granted and so on.

That said, many people – both professional and non-professional analysts – notice and comment on moral shifts on what is regarded normal and acceptable. For instance, some people, especially older generations who have witnessed and lived under somewhat different moral orders, say that the current norms (culture and moral order more broadly) are upside down. This is arguably a commentary on the large-scale socio-cultural processes that are unfolding in large cities such as Kampala and Nairobi. Of course, these shifts in moral order are generally highly complex processes, not necessarily linear, with various components and sub-components.

This includes changes in how people relate to one another, how they assess their own economic action and that of others, their relationship with money and wealth, and how they define ideas such as individualism, freedom, success, and power. This requires an (re-)assessment and de-/attachment vis-a-vis various social values such as achievement/personal success, enjoyment/pleasure, and self-direction (that serve individual interests) as well as group security, conformity to social expectations, concern for others’ welfare (that serve rather collective interests), and so on.

How did we get here?

Interestingly, in the 19th century Marx had already noted a point or trend that Kalinaki observes in 21st century Uganda. Marx wrote that only “bourgeois society, the society of free competition … [is characterised/constituted by networks of] individuals who remain indifferent to one another”. In other words, we are dealing with a change process that seems inherent to/characteristic of capitalist transformation, driven by larger, historical forces encompassing vast time-space zones.

The United States, the leading example of today’s capitalist market society, is usually a good ground to search for the latest (and sometimes most shocking) moral shifts in global capitalist civilisation and market culture. Just check out what goes on in terms of commercialisation of childhood there: the competitive beauty contests for young girls, the commercial shows, the business models around childhood. Children and teenagers are now on social media channels like YouTube and Instagram – not seldom, supported and cheered on by their parents – to market products and earn significant amounts of money.

The most cutting edge examples, the latest pushing of moral boundaries, is not just coming out of the US. It is only a matter of time, in my view, until the same marketing strategies (i.e. modern day child labour) will be used on Ugandan and Kenyan children. Ugandan artist Fresh Kid might well be the first Ugandan child to become an academic case study of that sort of commercialisation of childhood years down the road; the Ruparelia group, linked to tycoon Sudhir Ruparelia, has just started its relationship with the child (giving him a scholarship of the Ruparelia Foundation to start with).

Again, one key question for this and any case of moral-economic change under capitalism is: how did we get here? When did we start selling stuff to kids, making them (and their parents) objects of profit-oriented business strategies, and targets of relentless marketing campaigns? When, how, and why did we start selling kids unhealthy, health-endangering food that makes them addicted and obese?

When did we start telling people, and the poorest in particular, that taking a loan (i.e. being indebted) is a good, desirable thing? When did we start putting up commercial betting businesses and gambling shops in the poorest neighbourhoods? When did these practices become part of common sense i.e. morally acceptable? What changes in culture, politics and economy were required for these practices – and the underlying business models and ways of thinking and feeling – to become widespread and seen as normal (instead of abnormal and demanding outrage and protest)?

Again, one key question for this and any case of moral-economic change under capitalism is: how did we get here? When did we start selling stuff to kids, making them (and their parents) objects of profit-oriented business strategies, and targets of relentless marketing campaigns?

How did matters of economic and political power (i.e. specific class interests) drive this change? How did public disagreement, criticism, struggle and resistance of some groups shape and later change (but not entirely stop) these processes? When, how and why did we (or rather they – the powerful actors) make all the other unsettling, weird, dubious, shocking practices in the capitalist economy sufficiently acceptable and normal to become taken-for-granted routine practice? To ask these questions about moral change is to focus on the major enabling conditions, factors and actors that can trace and explain these major change trajectories?

The “sugar daddy” phenomenon

Against the above, let’s go to an illustrative example from the region – a recent report about sugar daddies in Kenya. In an exemplary fashion, it highlights the moral change process I am talking about here: “[In] Kenya, and in some other African countries, ‘sugar’ relationships seem to have become both more common and more visible: what once was hidden is now out in the open – on campuses, in bars, and all over Instagram…[We] have arrived at a point where having a ‘sponsor’ or a ‘blesser’ – the terms that millennials usually apply to their benefactors – has for many young people become an accepted, and even a glamorous lifestyle choice. Estimates suggest that about 20-25% of female students nowadays have a sponsor/transactional sexual relationship with an older man.”

Arguably, this “sugar daddy” phenomenon and related practices and underpinning morals did not exist in this particular way even three decades ago. Of course, this practice and related morals are contested and some observers will declare it all as immoral, a reflection of moral decline. But it is highly instructive to start seeing and studying these phenomena from a moral-economic change perspective, thus, identifying the drivers, the enabling conditions, and so on.

Importantly, note that this phenomenon has grown in other countries too, including in the UK and other “developed” countries (see here for an overview of sugar daddy websites and their instructive titles – e.g. Whats Your Price’, Established Men, Find Rich Guys’ Rich Meet Beautiful, Miss Travel).

One of these agency website notes: “In 2017, 100,000 U.K. students registered on Seeking Arrangement, which represented a 72 percent increase from the previous year, in order to find some relief from tuition, student loan debt, and other college-related costs. The presence of a monthly allowance and a financial arrangement adds to the allure of the lifestyle. Finding the right Sugar Daddy can help a Sugar Baby stay ahead of the game and get the education they need without the burden of a mountain of student loan debt.”

These days we even have websites that have “virginity for sale” to the highest bidder (google sugar daddy virginity sale for more details). Again, how and why did we get here?

When did we start telling people, and the poorest in particular, that taking a loan (i.e. being indebted) is a good, desirable thing? When did we start putting up commercial betting businesses and gambling shops in the poorest neighbourhoods? When did these practices become part of common sense i.e. morally acceptable?

The above phenomena reflect the dynamics of – and different takes on – the changing notions of morality with regards to earning a living, surviving, hustling, escaping poverty, making fast and easy money, striking riches, climbing the social ladder, managing economic pressures, and living different lifestyles in a world that is quite morally fragmented anyway.

In that regard, always keep in mind that what one observer might assess as a world or society with regressive morals, one that is in moral decline or crisis, another might assess that society as one experiencing moral progress (“We never had it better”, Things are improving”, “Let’s have fun”.)

Moral views these days are in some ways highly individualistic and personal, depending, amongst others, on one’s position, perceptions and experiences in economic life (and thus in economic hierarchy, class structure etc.).

Note that the above mentioned report about sugar daddies ends with a protagonist asking: “What is wrong about sex anyway?…People just make it sound wrong. But sometimes, it ain’t wrong at all.”’ There you go…

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