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

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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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Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship

By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past. One outcome of this has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs. In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs.

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Moving Beyond Africapitalists and Economic Messiahs: Redefining African Entrepreneurship
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In the last three decades, scholarly interest on entrepreneurship has exploded outside the traditional quantitative disciplines of economics and business studies. This is traceable to the global ascent of neoliberal capitalism, which has drawn remote corners of the world into global webs of capital and substituted self-help entrepreneurship with state-directed ameliorative economic projects. Humanists and qualitative social scientists have brought much-needed critical perspectives to bear on the study of entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship.

One of the legacies of this humanisation of entrepreneurship studies is the extension of the observational and analytical lens to the Global South, a region of the world simultaneously regarded as a place dominated by a poverty-incubating pre-capitalist economic ethos and as a fertile ground for recruiting new entrepreneurs. The emphasis on producing indigenous entrepreneurs emanates from an assumption that Africa lacks capitalism and capitalist relations of production, an assumption that Horman Chitonge debunks. There is also a need to deconstruct paradigmatic understandings of not just capitalism but also of entrepreneurship, the supposed means to capitalism in Africa.

Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty. The escalation of poverty in Africa from the 1980s, itself partly a product of neoliberal reforms, ironically opened the door to the neoliberal veneration of entrepreneurship as a remedy for mass poverty. Many anti-poverty interventions in Africa today seek to remake Africans into rural and urban entrepreneurs through instruments such as microfinance, revolving credit, and cooperative lending.

Economic messiahs

The proliferation of entrepreneurial projects in Africa in the neoliberal moment inspired unprecedented Africanist scholarly interest in entrepreneurship, enterprise, innovation, African capitalism (or Africapitalism) and the culture of self-help. As new groups of entrepreneurs emerged on the continent and engaged in a variety of capitalist, wealth-creating activities, Africanist scholars from a variety of fields began to develop new vocabularies and concepts to explain this entrepreneurial wave. This scholarly corpus has been illuminating, but it has also been plagued by conceptual imprecision and confusion.

Africa has been at the centre of two cross-cutting processes: one focused on the alleged prevalence of pre-capitalist or socialistic poverty, the other on producing entrepreneurs to combat that poverty.

The problem, as I want to show in this reflection, was that the Africanist entrepreneurial perspective that emerged had blind spots imposed by dominant formulations developed to understand entrepreneurial cultures in Euro-American contexts. There are two other inter-related problems. One is a failure to develop an analytical toolkit that accommodates the capacious and amorphous entrepreneurial lives of Africans who were pigeonholed into the new neoliberal category of the entrepreneur. The second is a failure to adequately critique the exuberant, self-assured discourse of entrepreneurs as economic messiahs and replacements for the economic responsibilities of the dysfunctional African state.

The first problem turns on the deployment of notions and definitions derived from the dominant Schumpeterian perspective on entrepreneurship. Joseph Schumpeter’s major contribution to the study of entrepreneurship lies in going beyond understanding the entrepreneur as one who had the skill to “combine the factors of production” and situating the entrepreneur in a more ambitious project of disrupting the process of value-creation. Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not just in personal terms but also in terms of corporate agency, of the aggregate transformative impact of multiple, simultaneous, or successive entrepreneurial initiatives. Unlike other theorists, Schumpeter saw the entrepreneur not as a manager but as a catalyst, an innovator. Clearly, the empirical setting of Schumpeter’s theorisation is a European industrial one, giving his postulations a decidedly Eurocentric flavour.

The Schumpeterian paradigm applies to the innovatively disruptive capacities of some contemporary African industrial entrepreneurs. However, this explanatory model is problematic when called upon to illuminate the activities and priorities of other African entrepreneurs outside the capitalist industrial matrix. The Schumpeterian explanation does not know what to do with Africans whose enterprise consists not of the familiar portfolios of our modern capitalist imagination but rather of an eclectic corpus of holdings embracing the social, political, artisanal, and economic realms.

In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result. Our love of neat, hard categories and vocational identifiers have stifled our ability to appreciate the full range of African entrepreneurship. As a historian, my frame of reference is the African past and that is where I’d like to go to develop this contention.

Entrepreneurship in precolonial Africa

In precolonial Africa, entrepreneurship was not a narrow, bounded vocation. Instead, entrepreneurship manifested in particular ways of doing things, and in any organised activity that promised personal or communal rewards. In this capacious definitional universe, enterprising warriors were entrepreneurs. They transformed the art of warfare from a regimented, sporadic activity to one with its own routines and protocols. Historian Uyilawa Usualele’s chapter in my edited volume, Entrepreneurship in Africa, rightly argues for a recognition of the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Benin warlords, spiritual consultants, priests, and religious purveyors whose repertoire included the professionalisation and deft organisation of multiple social vocations. Their sophisticated endeavour, as Uyilawa demonstrates, entailed the adoption of business management principles that we today associate with entrepreneurs.

In trying to understand African entrepreneurs in all their diversity, we have hamstrung our own conceptual liberty and boxed ourselves into an analytical corner. The effort to comprehend African entrepreneurial modalities has suffered as a result.

Warrior guilds, whether in precolonial Ibadan, Asante, Dahomey, Buganda or Zulu, were sites of entrepreneurship. When systematised and conceptualised as a professional business venture, as it was in many precolonial African kingdoms, warring involved planning, management, delegation, tasks, goals, deliverables, compensation, the creation of value in the form of war spoils, the distribution of dividends, and reinvestment in processes that improved war making.

War making entailed post-operational accounting, the calculation of profits, and periodic stocktaking — in other words, elaborate formal and informal bookkeeping. It was a business, and the guilds, warrior cults, and military training programmes of precolonial African kingdoms were business schools of sorts. Many of today’s warlords are also conflict entrepreneurs, leveraging war as opportunities for profit.

I have chosen this unlikely example to illustrate my point that in Africa entrepreneurial pursuits were not and are still not wholly shaped by the narrow permutations of combining the forces of production — capital, labour, and knowledge — to produce a profit. The profit motive is not always central to entrepreneurial pursuits in the African context, although profit is an expected outcome of entrepreneurial acts. Furthermore, where present and clearly discernible as the primary catalyst in an enterprise, profit is articulated in less narrow terms than is posited in the economistic definitions of classical and neoliberal economic thought.

Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.

Given this reality of multiple entrepreneurial trajectories and entwinements, it is perhaps more productive to speak of “entrepreneurial Africans” than of “African entrepreneurs”, a formulation at odds with the restrictive definitional criteria in normative capitalist thought. The term African entrepreneurs assumes a consistent, permanent occupational identity of people whose lives were consumed and defined solely by their entrepreneurial engagements. Entrepreneurial Africans advances a premise of entrepreneurial possibilities in multiple endeavours and professions.

Historically, African entrepreneurs occupied multiple positions and professions in society; entrepreneurship was only one of several elements that defined them. Moreover, their entrepreneurial lives often existed in symbiosis with the demands, responsibilities, and ethics of the wider culture.

This complex picture is further compounded by the existence of several “non-capitalist” systems of production, as well as the prevalence of hybrid practices in which self-interested capitalist rationalities coexisted with an ethos of value and reward. If the Schumpeterian model and its derivatives are applied uncritically to African entrepreneurial formations, they raise the question of whether, for instance, entrepreneurs could emerge and thrive outside capitalist relations in a communal African economic setting and, if so, whether the relationship between capitalism and entrepreneurship, which we have long taken for granted, can be sustained in the African context. This question is important because it alerts Africanist scholars of personal and group economies to what they might lose, what analytical opportunities they might miss, and what complexities and realities they might occlude or misread when they accord overarching analytical finality to concepts developed in other places and circumstances and deployed to explain African conditions. Elisio Macamo insightfully makes a similar argument in regard to the concept of capitalism and its conceptual work in African social science scholarship.

The entrepreneurial independence that, even if only rhetorically, marked the evolution of capitalism in Europe, defined the Euro-American industrial experience, and catalysed the emergence of a distinct entrepreneurial class in that context contrasts with the African entrepreneurial historical landscape. In precolonial times, African entrepreneurs operated at the intersection of profit and power, commerce and culture. Profitmaking was coextensive with social obligations. Entrepreneurs were mindful of societal expectations on them. Society, in turn, recognised that entrepreneurs had special gifts that had to be nurtured and liberated from the sociopolitical routines of daily life. Entrepreneurial pursuits were for-profit endeavours for the most part but profits and service to society were coterminous, as chapters by Gloria ChukuMarta MussoMartin Shanguhyia, and Chambi Chachage in the aforementioned Entrepreneurship in Africa volume demonstrate.

Political power holders cultivated entrepreneurs and were entrepreneurs in their own right. Entrepreneurs, on their part, accessed the protective, logistical, and spiritual resources deposited in the political realm. Ultimately, the idea that individual profitmaking could and should coexist with the provision of societal benefit and that entrepreneurial projects should catalyse society’s economic potentials was an unwritten but well understood rule of commerce. Entrepreneurship, which was mobile and malleable, was the defining character of precolonial African political economy.

To speak of a political economy of entrepreneurship or an entrepreneurial political economy is to signal a uniquely African iteration of entrepreneurship in which the political and mercantile realms were and are in conversation and cooperation. The case of the precolonial Wangara mercantile network in West Africa is an example of the entwinement of value creation and political power. There is clearly a contemporary continuity to this reality. The most consequential and successful African entrepreneurs of today, such as Aliko Dangote, Strive Masiyiwa, Patrice Motsepe, Tony Elumelu, and others have direct or indirect tentacles in the realm of power and politics. Their business empires relate with host governments and political formations in ways that would offend contrived, self-righteous, and hypocritical business sensibilities in the West. Text-bookish neoliberal Western formulations proclaim the autonomies of the business and political spheres, but these autonomous zones do not exist in the West, as many corporate and political corruption scandals have revealed. Although open to perversion and corruption, in their most productive manifestations, African entrepreneurial cultures that recognise the field of play between economics and politics stand in distinction from the neoliberal obsession with the idea of separating business and politics or protecting entrepreneurs from the alleged meddling and market distortions of political actors.

African scholars, businesspeople, and policymakers in search of an African business ethos will do well to consider this African historical partnership between profit and people.

Globalised capital that empowers and privileges

My second point concerns the limit of entrepreneurship, which needs to be stressed to counterbalance the narrative of multipurpose amelioration that has developed around African entrepreneurship. We live in a neoliberal moment in which entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs are celebrated as potent economic agents and catalysts for poverty reduction and economic growth. Whether entrepreneurs deserve this outsized reputation in our interconnected and interdependent economic ecosystem is a legitimate question. When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others. We are ignoring the ways that global capitalist configurations undercut and complicate entrepreneurial possibilities and opportunities in Africa.

The conceptual impact of Africa’s long encounter with neoliberalism on discourses of African entrepreneurship is profound. The nexus of neoliberalism and entrepreneurship is not far-fetched. The neoliberal economic regime imposed on African economies by the Bretton Woods institutions in the 1980s and 1990s dictated an economic paradigm shift for African countries, one that redefined the relationships, obligations, and responsibilities between states and their citizens. One of the most remarkable outcomes of this shift has been the increasing dominance of the figure of the entrepreneur. A corollary development has been the substitution of entrepreneurial self-help for redistributive, reconstructive, and structural economic reforms.

When we talk glibly, and with scholarly certitude, about the capacity of entrepreneurship to lift Africans out of poverty, we are ignoring the structural elements of globalised capital that empower and privilege some while impoverishing and dispossessing others.

This lionisation of the entrepreneur is a symptom of a deeper rhetorical, philosophical, and policy gesture in the direction of producing citizen-entrepreneurs who pursue thrift and profits, creatively take charge of their own welfare, innovatively add value to the economy, and thus relieving the state of financial obligations. Neoliberal attempts to engineer into existence ideal entrepreneurial citizens that are self-reliant and removed from the nodes of state obligation were authorised by a new fetish of personal economic responsibility. These interventions absolved the African state of its developmental responsibilities, demanding that poor Africans pull themselves out of poverty by their own entrepreneurial bootstraps.

Neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship

By seeking to transform postcolonial Africans into entrepreneurs, neoliberal economic interventions misread Africa’s past as one in which Africans were pampered by states and as a result ceased to create value through entrepreneurial activity. In truth, there was never such a cessation of entrepreneurial ingenuity in African communities. Nor did states, despite their paternalistic rhetoric and claims, provide robust welfare protections to citizens. Neoliberal entrepreneurial initiatives were cast against a foundational ignorance of the fact that value creation in most African societies is an organic social endeavor and not the intensely individualised enterprise intelligible to neoclassical and neoliberal frames of analysis. Birthed in this original misunderstanding of Africa, the political economy of neoliberalism has entrenched the entrepreneurial figure venerated by International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank policy documents as the discursive referent in studies of African economic revival. One outcome has been a profound transformation in the very vocabulary we use to designate some Africans as entrepreneurs and to withhold that designation from others.

The damage done by the neoliberal fetishisation of African entrepreneurship is both discursive and practical. Important as entrepreneurs are to the present and future of Africa, all Africans cannot become entrepreneurs, at least not in the neoliberal sense of the word. This sober recognition, which is missing from most external economic reform prescriptions, ought to be a serious preoccupation of Africanist scholars of entrepreneurship. It is the task of Africanists who study capitalism, business, and entrepreneurship in Africa to modulate and critique the exaggerated instrumentalities of African entrepreneurship. This task is necessary to balance the analytical books because we have created a zero sum analytical calculus in which talking more about entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial catalysts results in less talk about structural inequalities inherent in the global capitalist system into which Africans, to varying degrees, have long been integrated.

I want to conclude this reflection with a proposal wrapped in a critique. There is a need to develop a new mode of African scholarship on business and enterprise. This proposed new field of qualitative African business and entrepreneurial studies must necessarily adopt a relaxed analytical framework capable of exploring complex economic lives in ways that traditional scholarship in African economic history – with its neat dichotomies between worker and merchant, king and commoner, bourgeoisie and peasant – is incapable of doing. This kind of study should be able to analyse African entrepreneurial lives that cross class divides and socioeconomic categories.

Traditional debates in the field of African economic history have rarely acknowledged, let alone theorised, the entrepreneurial ingenuity of Africans in a sustained way and in terms independent of other categories of analysis. This erasure is particularly common in the field of colonial economic history. Neoclassical and neoliberal scholars of modern African economic history overstate the instrumental agency of African entrepreneurs. On the opposite side, neo-Marxist and dependency theorists shun or dismiss entrepreneurs as a petit bourgeoisie class undermining the revolutionary struggles of workers and peasants. By lionising or diminishing the figure of the African entrepreneur, the dominant schools of African economic history orphaned the African entrepreneur into a strange category where s/he is either overburdened with the task of saving dysfunctional economies or tossed aside as an economic saboteur.

In the end, the innovative ingenuity of Africans in many entrepreneurial fields is either denied or sensationalised by those who purport to speak for and about African entrepreneurs. What is lacking are stories of African entrepreneurship told by entrepreneurs themselves. We need African entrepreneurial stories curated by the entrepreneurs themselves or at least informed by their perspectives, their self-representation, and their understanding of their own struggles, aspirations, and visions. These stories have to go beyond “How I Made It” memoirs and autobiographies of entrepreneurial success and hagiographic scholarly narratives of problem-solving, self-redeeming African entrepreneurs.

Finally, the question of how we are telling the African entrepreneurship story is as important as who is telling it. The current triumphalist and hyperbolic tone of the conversation has produced a restrictive exercise in navel-gazing. It has also led to an explosion of self-validating, self-fulfilling rhetoric, in which the concept of entrepreneurship is not only advanced as a fail-safe substitute for the idea of the African developmental state posited compellingly by the late Thandika Mkandawire and others but is also used as a stand-in for more substantive debates about external and internal structural constraints on African development.

This article was first published by Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE).

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The Shape of Our Post-COVID Future

The Kenyan government’s sledgehammer response to the coronavirus pandemic has exposed a kind of schizophrenia in the country’s governance that our precarious economy cannot sustain. We might not have to wait until the next election to discover the elastic limit of the people’s tolerance of impunity.

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The Shape of Our Post-COVID Future
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When illustrating my graphic novel, Art of Unlearning, in 2017, I found two images especially useful in understanding and communicating how our responses to crises shape us, both personally and collectively. The two images that represented two distinct styles of social organisation cutting across diverse cultures and belief systems are fractal structures and pyramid structures. These structures are visible even in this most formidable of crises.

Illustrations
Fractals are patterns that are characterised by self-similarity at every scale of observation. Every individual member of a fractal pattern is harmonious with the pattern as a whole. Fractals are the most common patterns in the natural world and can be found in the self-replicating growth patterns of romanesco broccoli, spider webs, schools of fish, swarms of birds, galaxies, lightning bolts, rivers, veins, trees, lungs and, of course, viruses. These patterns seek harmony. Leaders, such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, reflected such a pattern when she recognised the healthcare crisis and mobilised the trust and informed cooperation of citizens to prevent the spread of coronavirus without violating human rights.

Pyramids, on the other hand, are artificial shapes made of three straight lines and rarely occur in nature without human intervention. Favoured for their stability relative to gravity, they are some of the largest and oldest surviving human structures all around the globe, but are nevertheless young when compared to the estimated five billion years that life has existed on our planet. Pyramids are a fitting symbol of mankind’s recent destructive hegemony over planet Earth. In responding to the coronavirus pandemic, a pyramid formation concentrates decision making power in a few hands because it cannot rely on the voluntary participation of the affected population at the bottom of the pyramid. An example is the Kenyan government’s sledgehammer response to the coronavirus pandemic that has predictably resulted in gross human rights violations.

Exposing a pyramid scheme

A colourless summary of Kenya’s history is that it is the story of a people struggling to wake up from the brutal nightmare of pyramids imposed by foreign conquerors, but all too often succeeding only in repopulating the same stable structure with an even more mendacious elite until – finally – tiny rays of hope emerge, such as a new constitution and devolution of governance from an autocratic centre. These rays of hope have introduced marginalised parts of the country to a government they had only heard of, but rarely seen.

Over the last seven years, reactionary forces in favour of reconsolidating executive power have captured the state and even subsumed opposition leadership. But where both protests and elections have failed to loosen the chokehold of Jubilee’s centralised kleptocracy, a mindless pathogen has offered the most formidable challenge to its narrative. Compared with HIV/AIDS (which was a disease saddled with moralistic baggage and stigma) the relative “innocence” of coronavirus transmission through ephemeral contact between strangers has made it a much less corruptible stress test of Kenya’s public health systems.

Without a public healthcare system to support the estimated 83 per cent of Kenyans subsisting on daily earnings as informal traders or workers, and with no defence against a virus that is unforgiving of poor sanitation, the absence of a massive outbreak in Kenya to date is a miracle. Kenya has one of the steepest pyramids in the world, and this architecture is the root cause of the corruption and inequality that is only half-heartedly tinkered with.

A good faith redress of these deficiencies has been rendered impossible by a conspiracy between Kenya’s mainstream media and primitive elites (PEs) – as Darius Okolla aptly calls them – that suffocate public discourse with an eternal soap opera that is divorced from the lives of ordinary Kenyans. The coronavirus is a temporary short circuit to this deluge of distraction force fed to the public in the name of news. The stunning impact of this short circuit remains unmistakable, even as the media defaults to its diet of superficial tribalised trivia about Jubilee in-fighting.

Kenya has one of the steepest pyramids in the world, and this architecture is the root cause of the corruption and inequality that is only half-heartedly tinkered with.

What the virus has exposed is a kind of schizophrenia in Kenya’s governance that is not academic. On one end of the schizophrenic spectrum is a warm veneer of civility conveyed in the PR savvy personality of Health CS Mutahi Kagwe. On the other extreme, is the cold state machinery behind the PR that ended the life of 13-year-old Yassin Hussein Moyo in his own home with a stray bullet, and brutalised commuters in Likoni, risking further spread of coronavirus. One might be forgiven for asking whether we are trying to heal the patient or pull the plug. Inured to criticism, the Jubilee administration has proceeded to transform what began as a healthcare crisis into a militarised feeding frenzy. Ensconced in private luxury, which until recently included trips abroad for medical treatment, the PEs have been hitherto insulated from the pain of a disemboweled public health system. No more.

Now that commercial airlines are a deadly escape route, a sober movement that recognises the urgency of reform must force an uncompromising demand for accountability that is not distracted by the public relations of an illegitimate regime. If truth is the first casualty of war, as Aeschylus said, then the “war” against coronavirus is unlike any other traditional war we have fought. It is a war that requires less tear gas and more ventilators; less policemen and more nurses; less misinformation and censorship and more transparency and science. All of these are disciplines that are alien to any autocratic kleptocracy. Misinformation, such as Donald Trump’s disinfectant prescriptions, or the insistence of for-profit evangelical churches on large gatherings, or the Chinese government’s censorship in the weeks following the outbreak, have all proved lethal. There ought to be no need for Kenya to conduct any further experiments in misinformation without learning from these fatal errors.

The Kenyatta pyramid scheme, and the quasi-religious political tribalism that has fueled it, is obsolete for even this most rudimentary task of sustaining human life and dignity.

The virus is a fractal

The most striking feature of the global response to the coronavirus pandemic is how much it has depended on global solidarity across artificial national boundaries despite continual territorial confrontations. It is quite likely that if any one nation develops a vaccine against the coronavirus in the future, even its enemies’ desire to keep their own citizens alive will overshadow any prejudices. This open exchange of knowledge is most apparent in the medical and scientific communities, an example being Cuban and Chinese doctors coming to the aid of Italy long before many of Italy’s own neighbours moved into action. The insular reaction of the great pyramid of the United States now stands as a cautionary tale.

Like all natural forces, such as earthquakes and tsunamis, viruses are blind to our cherished social pyramids as they spread, yet our resilience to the economic shocks that result from this disruption are not. There has been a stark class divide in the degree of disruption to livelihoods, education, negotiating power and law enforcement. We are in the process of discovering the extreme asymmetry between the advancement of biomedical understanding of the coronavirus pandemic versus governments’ willingness to do what is necessary to match this challenge with the most fractal response available.

Closing the gaping chasm between hard-won scientific understanding on the one hand, and the intractability of our political institutions on the other, is the central challenge of the pandemic in Kenya. This means integrating deep cultural understanding of our diverse communities with lessons from the most proactive responses to the pandemic around the world. Our standard Anglo-Saxon benchmarks will not be available this time around.

We are in the process of discovering the extreme asymmetry between the advancement of biomedical understanding of the coronavirus pandemic versus governments’ willingness to do what is necessary to match this challenge with the most fractal response available.

Fortunately, for those who are willing to learn, this is the first time in human history that we know so much about a pandemic. During the Black Death of the fourteenth century, the biggest cause of death was a basic ignorance of its origin in rat fleas, which led to the burning of poor old women who were described as witches and the scapegoating of Jews. Similarly, when the Spanish flu emerged just a century ago, the influenza virus that felled tens of millions of people could not be identified in time to “flatten the curve”. In contrast, within just two weeks of the coronavirus outbreak, scientists were able to identify the correct virus genome and share it online, enabling the development of tests as well as the search for a vaccine. For laypeople like me, this boiled down to basic preventative information that features diagrams of a funny looking tentacled ball – hardly the face of an existential enemy of humanity.

Although the efficacy of tests is still being improved, and the development of a vaccine may be over a year away, these are still remarkable feats of human understanding only made possible by unprecedented knowledge sharing in a fractal pattern. Human beings are phenomenally creative when they share knowledge and engage distributed decision making. It is within our power to resolve this crisis if we channel resources to public health in particular, and public goods in general, using the kind of fractal distribution that has been made possible by the 2010 Constitution.

This will necessarily include a robust public education system that would cultivate the next generation of healthcare workers and creative thinkers who do not require coercion to respond collectively to any crisis. Education, you will notice, is absent from President Uhuru Kenyatta’s so-called Big 4 Agenda. With less than 10,000 doctors, Kenya is nowhere near the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation of one doctor for every 1,000 people. And of the few doctors that we do have, many are siloed in foreign research entities with narrow mandates, unable to share data that might be useful in the war against coronavirus.

The existence of information silos that are blind to one another is typical of pyramids and is a feature not only of the healthcare system, but of all knowledge creation in both the arts and sciences within Kenya’s neoliberal administration. Silos are perfect for running a police state where a paranoid dictator does not want his left hand knowing what the right hand is doing privately. But well into the 21st century, where both viruses and information spread at an exponential rate, it is hard to imagine a worse way of managing our shared knowledge.

The war of the future

If you had a hundred dollars for every person in the world infected with COVID-19, you would still not have the amount of money that Kenyan taxpayers have lost to corruption during the tenure of the Jubilee administration. Let that sink in. The billions blend into quantum gibberish in the brains of all but the most tenacious economists such as David Ndii.

If the war against coronavirus becomes yet another fundraiser, as early indications suggest, it will be especially demoralising to public health workers risking their lives to serve Kenyans in the midst of chronic underfunding. Kenya is less a poor country than it is a country with poorly allocated wealth. No one knows how much longer the long suffering Kenyan people will accept abuse, but as Chairman Mao once wrote, “A single spark can light a prairie fire”.

If you had a hundred dollars for every person in the world infected with COVID-19, you would still not have the amount of money that Kenyan taxpayers have lost to corruption during the tenure of the Jubilee administration. Let that sink in.

Our precarious economy cannot sustain lockdowns and curfews forever, and we might not have to wait until the next election to discover the elastic limit of the people’s tolerance of impunity. In the words of the Kisii based musician Smallz Lethal, aka Omoisiomobe, following his release from arrest as well as the release of a new song I’m Offended:

Sisi kama mayouth tunasimama as one voice. This time round, hatuendi kuyamaza. Mayouthman wamebonga na wamesema kila mse ako offended, and that is a fact. Si hata mayouth pekee yake. Ni watu in general… Lazima [hawa] wakuwe accountable. We sio superstar. We sio msanii. People are pocketing millions, why are you arresting me? Mimi mnanipatia 1600 shillings after six months kama county. Alafu unakuja kuniarrest unaexpect nitoe wapi pesa za kulipa bond? Ju ni mapesa tu makarao wanataka. Mayouthman wasimame. There’s no other time to do this apart from this time! Now that we are speaking, and now that people are hearing. The voice is louder!

Smallz has thrown down the gauntlet. In the meantime, as a thinking human being and as a creator, I have the same job that I have always had: to create learning tools and experiences for a new generation of fractal thinkers so that they might see beyond the mediocrity that leeches on our potential as a nation. In them, I see a fractal community that fuses critical thinking with the ethical use of technology to build alternative realities.

Our health and our imagination is our greatest resource, not buildings. Even in our darkest hour, we are not without the power to imagine together, and it is the existence of this shared imagination that repudiates the world that they try shamelessly to pull over our open eyes. We, the inheritors of history, are seeing for the first time the clear peak of Mount Kilimanjaro from the windows of a city in lockdown, and beginning to wonder what it would be like to rise to those heights.

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Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition

PAUL GOLDSMITH reviews a selection of vantage points from pandemic literature and attempts to make sense of the partially understood coronavirus and its world-warping spread.

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Plagues and the Prose Informing Our Shared Condition
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I did a deep read in search of the virus and found out it is us.

Plagues and epidemics of yore were simple affairs, manifestations of evil caused by angry gods, hidden forces, or bad air. Death and survival were karmic outcomes. The pandemics of the information age are considerably more complicated. They kill relatively few but infect millions with angst and paranoia. They spawn feedback across a spectrum bookended by scientific rigour on one side and inventive conspiracy on the other. We are updated in real time with wave after wave of imperfect statistics, breaking science, experiential perspectives, and ideology-driven commentaries.

For much of the world, quarantine time is being spent on social media, watching journalists morph into screeching owls on CNN, and catching up on films and TV series – a format that now appears custom-made for lockdowns. But some of us have also used the time to study the phenomena that are sweeping away the cadences of life as we knew it, and to process its stories and tropes.

Situational analyses and political narratives

Thomas Puelo is a one-man “coronology” resource. He posted an analysis on Medium that almost overnight was translated into 37 languages. His March 19th follow-up, “The Hammer and the Dance”, made the case to immediately enforce total lockdowns (the hammer). This comprehensive call to arms beat all the university departments, institutes, and the World Health Organization (WHO) to the punch: “The world has never had to learn about anything so fast. The hammer is the best response for buying time for the fightback (the dance).”

The curves of the nations most affected created a baseline for three options: 1) do nothing; 2) mitigation; and 3) suppression. His analysis covered detailed projections of infections and fatalities, the prospects for virus mutation, political barriers to hammer implementation, and many related sectoral ramifications. Up to now the hammer and dance in the countries most affected has encompassed variations on these three strategies, influenced to different degrees by the Chinese lockdown of Hubei Province.

Puelo’s projected numbers for infections in the United States under option 1 (do nothing) are 25 million. Implementing option 3 (suppression), after the initial wave, reduces this estimate to tens of thousands. The role of the states complicates the US numbers, but taken as a whole, the million-plus currently recorded infections approximate the rate expected under the option 2 mitigation strategy. Most of the world is on the same pathway with areas of high infection rates under lockdown, with a number of countries edging into dance mode.

In addition to hosting Puelo’s updates and other in-depth posts, Medium is one of the more useful sources of information on the pandemic. Their business model generates an algorithm-driven selection of punchy short reads. Articles like the gazillion-hit “The Hammer and the Dance” are outliers in an eclectic sample dominated by personal development and the gig economy. The elite publications of the English-speaking world are still the primary source of high clout policy pieces and opinion shaping analyses.

The New Yorker’sIts Not Too Late To Go on the Offense Against the Corona Virus” is one example. After reviewing his international civil servant CV, the author, the former World Bank boss, Jim Yong Kim, tells us, in the Bank’s typical take-your-medicine tradition, “I’ve been fighting pandemics for most of my adult life.” I almost stopped reading what turned out to be a compact overview of the five weapons that need to be deployed to defeat the enemy: social distancing; contact tracing; testing; isolation; and treatment. It is a parsimonious argument based on the collective experience of front line coronavirus warriors – all of which are wealthy industrialised nations.

But the experience of recent pandemic responses does not augur well for such glib technocratic solutions in many regions. In “The Politics of Disease Epidemics: a Comparative Analysis of the Sars, Zika, and Ebola Outbreaks”, Lydia Kapiripiri and Alison Ross show why. The authors use four categories to unpack the literature published in peer-reviewed journals: attribution of infectious disease sources; responsibility for their socioeconomic distribution; credibility of evidence informing response pathways; and the decision-making informing research and development. Their findings converge on the observation that “the narratives accompanying these events contrasted power and privilege with the disproportionate impact of the epidemics on the economically disadvantaged”.

Attribution often reduced multiple causal factors to the role of ethnic minority groups, even though socioeconomic distributions for the diseases implicate poor nutrition, cramped unhygienic living conditions, and inadequate health services. During the Ebola crisis, the evidence informing interventions tended to support short-term response horizons, tracing responsibility for the outbreak to bush meat and traditional funereal customs. Here, and in other cases, this diverted attention from long-term issues, such as poor public health infrastructure.

Although poverty is the greatest risk factor in epidemics, decision-making processes instead highlight institutional policy biases prevailing in global centres of power. Kapiripiri and Ross concede that the neoliberal roots of policy biases appear to be too deep to uproot. They state that to re-balance the equation, “It is critical that narratives of those most vulnerable are represented in mainstream narratives.”

During the Ebola crisis, the evidence informing interventions tended to support short-term response horizons, tracing responsibility for the outbreak to bush meat and traditional funereal customs. Here, and in other cases, this diverted attention from long-term issues, such as poor public health infrastructure.

Global coronavirus narratives are flipping these categories. Attribution is now a focal point in the larger info war being waged by China and the United States. The response hammer has benefited from a socioeconomic distribution highlighting the array of high profile and celebrity first wave infections. Evidence and developmental decision-making processes have focused on the shared methods contributing to individual nations’ dance strategies.

This choreography is generating the diverse natural experiments underway across the world. Besides showing different pathways to recovery, before it is over, the dance is going to reveal how variations on political leadership impact on the contrasting national curves. We can also expect it to cut a path through the jungle of viral conspiracies and sweep away some of the ideological myths being propagated in its wake. For now, however, the fightback is proceeding in a world of noise and fuzzy information.

A sense of shared peril checked the forces opposed to the multilateral world order, for a while. The controversy over WHO provided an entry point for the populist insurgency to fight back. By contesting the scientific guidance behind the lockdowns, the antics of American alt-right experts have distinguished themselves from the consensus guiding the vast majority of the world’s population. But this is a sideshow.

In the N+1 journal article, “Chinese Virus, World Market”, Andrew Liu explains how China’s new elites’ pursuit of exotic food displays as a marker of wealth and status created the conditions for the emergence of the corona viruses. Wuhan, a city far from the areas of traditional wildlife consumption, became the epicentre. COVID-19 is the first capitalist-created virus to directly attack capitalism.

The Pandemic is Just Getting Started”, but we are not on new ground. The system-changing function of infectious disease is a well-documented phenomenon, and the latest chapter is being written before our eyes.

Big picture social science

The 1975 publication, Plagues and People, by William H. McNeill marked a major pivot away from the great civilizations and influential actors focus of historical scholarship. McNeill concluded that epidemics will continue to be one of the fundamental determinants of human history. Forget Bill Gates, over five decades ago, McNeill predicted that the next system shock will come from a rapidly mutating form of the influenza virus.

Jared Diamond’s first book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, originated with a simple question in 1972 proffered by a local friend in New Guinea: “Why do you people have most of the cargo and the rest of us do not?” Diamond’s answer came after two decades of research, and was published in 1994. Subtitled A Short History of Everybody for the Last 13,000 Years, the book underscored how Europeans’ conquest of the world originated with their long history of settled farming. High population densities catalysed a process of agriculture intensification and technological innovation. Generations of close contact with domestic livestock conferred the disease immunity that proved to be a decisive factor when they came into contact with new populations.

Diamond is master storyteller. The popularity of this book made him a popular purveyor of big picture social science. His books are displayed in all the world’s airports; his arguments have burrowed their way into introductory anthropology courses. He brings massive detail to bear on his subject. The “germs” chapter serves up an excellent overview on how the evolutionary dynamics of contagion favoured Eurasia over most of the planet’s other regions.

But there are problems beyond the undiluted environmental determinism highlighted by his critics. Guns, Germs, and Steel conveys a linear, mechanistic version of history. And, as one anthropologist remarked: “So when Europeans ‘succeed’ at colonialism, that was not their doing, nor their fault. When other societies falter, that was their choice to fail.” He who gets the head start wins the power to distribute smallpox-infected blankets.

McNeill disagreed. In a 1997 exchange in the New York Review of Books, he accused Diamond of overlooking the importance of human “cultural autonomy” in determining human development. Diamond replied that the large time-scale of his analysis necessarily smoothed out such factors.

Although this reductionism worked well when demolishing racial and cultural assumptions about the world’s vast developmental differentials, Diamond’s method shares the problems of other single matrix analyses. Small variations in initial conditions that drop out of view in Diamond’s big picture approach underpin the cultural and socioeconomic complexity of contrasting regional trajectories. Despite the weight of factual information, in the chapter on Africa, the book’s focus on linguistics, plants, and agriculture shortchanges distinctive features of the continent’s historical processes.

In “Ecology Control and Economic Development in East African History”, Helge Kjekshus works within the same environmental history paradigm Diamond champions, but the research reinforces McNeill’s emphasis on cultural syntheses as one of the primary forces driving historical adaptation. Kjekshus documents in great detail the efficacy of the region’s indigenous knowledge traditions and how inter-ethnic social networks worked well to contain the scourges of Brazilian sand fleas, yaws, tsetse flies, malaria, and dengue fever, and to limit the damage from smallpox and other disease vectors.

Rinderpest, however, proved to be the exception, conforming to Diamond’s “Lethal Gift of Livestock” thesis. The rinderpest epidemic devastating the herds of the Maasai and other warrior pastoralists opened the door for colonial occupation. Monkeys, bats and pangolins are still small-time players compared to the disease-incubating contribution of cows and pigs to human history. But Homo sapiens trump the mammal crowd on the global level of analysis.

The epidemiology in Plagues and People highlighted the constantly evolving relationship between micro-parasites (e.g. bacteria, viruses) and macro-parasites like rats, livestock, and humans. This led McNeill to theorise that humankind itself is a type of disease, a parasite on its host, Earth – and warned that it could self-destruct if humans continue to over-stress their host.

Long the province of science fiction, the cultural industry now generates a constant feed of dystopian futures and zombie apocalypses. The rise of artificial intelligence is the latest source of plots based on McNeill’s hypothesis. In The Matrix, Agent Smith tells Keanu Reeves, “Humans are a virus.” In the current season of Westworld, the “Man” played by Ed Harris declares humanity to be a bacteria consuming the planet.

The epidemiology in Plagues and People highlighted the constantly evolving relationship between micro-parasites (e.g. bacteria, viruses) and macro-parasites like rats, livestock, and humans. This led McNeill to theorise that humankind itself is a type of disease, a parasite on its host, Earth…

The coronavirus pandemic, the latest example of fiction predicting reality, is also reinvigorating real world science linking the environmental costs of unbridled capitalism to the prospects of societal collapse.

Narratives of collapse and anti-climax

Jem Bendell is a professor of sustainable business practices who argues that the time for incremental responses to climate change has passed. He sums this up in a 2018 paper that proved too disturbing for publication in a peer-reviewed journal he once edited. Pandemics are a second order effect of climate change that, among other things, is bringing us into direct contact with the new ecologies we have created for bats and other wildlife species. Such narratives have become both truth and truism.

Disaster is now a common theme in Western culture. The real-life world of new viruses Richard Preston described in Crisis in the Hot Zone is actually more frightening than most of Hollywood’s monetised virus-infected zombies, including the movie version of his book. Fictionalisation is arguably one of the reasons not much has changed despite the very real prospects of ecological cataclysm. COVID-19 is the latest omen.

These second-order emergencies have sustained a curious dualism. Our universities and institutes figure out the problem, develop palliatives, and advocate sensible policies. Our governments lag behind, and citizens resist preventative measures until they are in the crosshairs of the next scourge. Epidemics trigger multinational responses only to revert, as Kapiripiri and Ross concluded, to the standard narrative.

The history of cholera is the classical example of partial response in the presence of full knowledge. Coronavirus is more contagious than cholera. The author of this Guardian long read regretted the fact that the corona story will play out the same way if we allow global health to be funded and governed by the same unredeemed colonial logic.

This is why, as Bendell stated in a recent interview, “Returning to business as usual is a “fantasy. Policy makers and business leaders must recognize that climate change will be even more disruptive than the coronavirus.” But restating these warnings at a time when a more proximate enemy threatens us can have the opposite result in a world inured to disaster inflation.

The negative implications for the long game cues up the third book in Diamond’s trilogy, Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change. Diamond builds his discussion around examples of wars, coups, and military dictatorships; natural disasters, pandemics, and famines do not feature. Plagues, as the historical record shows, disrupt and redirect more than they destroy the societies they attack.

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War is both enlightened historiography and great literature. The author provides the earliest written account of a plague and its impact on political events. The war was a response to decades of Athenian dominance, and for the first time Sparta had Athens on the defensive. The Athenians retreat behind the city walls, creating the crowded and unhygienic conditions contributing to the outbreak of a highly contagious disease in 229 BC.

The first wave of the epidemic killed 100,000 Athenians, but it also saved the city. When the Spartans saw the smoke of thousands of funeral pyres, they abandoned their siege and fled. The anomie that followed was yet more unexpected. Thucydides remarked, “The catastrophe was so overwhelming that men, not knowing what would happen next to them, became indifferent to every rule of religion or law.”

Both the wealthy and the nouveau riche elevated by inheriting dead relatives’ property spent recklessly, assuming that death may strike any time. The social value of virtue and reputation plummeted. Non-Athenians were scapegoated and their rights abrogated. The gods did not fare much better; they were demoted. Refugees and the dying camped out at their temples. Athenians accused Apollo, the god of disease and medicine, of siding with the enemy.

The disease returned twice over the next fifteen years. Athens did not collapse, nor did it recover its former influence and glory. But different pandemics create different trajectories.

Both the wealthy and the nouveau riche elevated by inheriting dead relatives’ property spent recklessly, assuming that death may strike any time. The social value of virtue and reputation plummeted.

The Black Death wiped out almost half of Europe at the end of the fourteenth century and continued to wreak havoc across the continent over the next 400 years. The dirge composed by English satirist Thomas Nashe, A Litany in the Time of Plague, conveys the sense of resignation when the plague reappeared in Shakespeare’s London.

“Sing me some doleful ditty to the lute,” he requests the poet, “That may complaine my neere approaching death.” The bard responds:

Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life’s lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.  

Rich men, trust not wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
Lord, have mercy on us.

By breaking up the feudal order, the bubonic plague both slowed down and set the stage for European expansion. Around the same time that Nashe was composing his ditty, the diseases Hernando Cortez imported into central Mexico were killing 80 per cent of the population. The Aztec empire disintegrated.

But collapse, as defined by the case studies in Joseph A. Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, is not to be confused with invasions like the one that caused the slow-moving genocide reducing 24 million indigenous Mexicans to 1 million survivors a century after the conquistadores’ arrival. The book traces collapse to the point when solutions for the problems facing a society become too complicated and costly to implement.

Other archeologists studying ancient societies attribute collapse to an abrupt political change, reduction in social complexity, and their knock-on effects throughout society. Biomedical progress minimises the probability of fast-moving epidemics turning into a mass Athenian death sentence or the poet’s toxic darts. Their impact can, however, signal the directionality of processes that either result in transition to a new order or to system-deadening entropy.

Modern plagues have exacerbated global inequality, and so far this one is doing the same. It is collapsing some economic sectors and accelerating change in others. The economic damage is enormous, and based on past experience, the recovery period will be long, with serious ramifications for labour and capital. Surveillance of bodies is on the rise. The Davos elite and Xi Jinping’s cohorts will still hoard most of the cargo.

At the same time, the pandemic’s shock factor should not be underestimated. Historically, jolts like the one we are experiencing open new windows for human agency. There are promising background developments. The Lancet has called for a reformed social contract, and methodologies promoting collective intelligence are gaining ground. The carbon energy endgame is underway; the passing of the post-9/11 forever war is in sight. Women in leadership are showing the way.

Watching how the new corona-capitalism will play out is the most fascinating aspect of the pandemic. Is the coronavirus a tipping point? Will we dance our way to collective adaptation? Can a million burning pyres save the planet?

The novel and the dance

The species is at war with an invisible enemy, and the War on the Rocks experts tell us the best way to prepare for it is to read fiction:

Novels hone powers of observation and insight. They increase mental flexibility and help policymakers anticipate situations. They illuminate other mindsets, cultures, places, and times. The best ones induce a sense of empathy in their readers, and they help render policy approaches more effective and more humane.

This advice marks a radical departure from the gospel of the war on terrorism. Although 9/11 did initiate a new learning cycle, for the most part it centred on a narrow “with us or against us’” assessment of the others’ mindsets, cultures, and places. Policy approaches to the problem ended up midwifing a new generation of Islamist extremists. They created new breeding grounds for the virus. Maybe reading fiction can help us figure out some new moves.

The Plague by Albert Camus does not feature at the top of the 80 titles listed in the Goodreads selection of popular pandemic books. But its understated portrayal of a society suddenly trapped in an atmosphere permeated by dread and the absence of normality has made it the most cited work of fiction in the stream of coronavirus commentaries.

The story, published in 1947 and immediately translated into nine languages, revolves around a cast of everyday characters. The story centres on Doctor Rieux, who copes with the city’s inert bureaucracy while retaining his minimalist but positive view of humanity, the priest who blames the sins of his congregation for the calamity, the smuggler who wants the quarantine to continue, the self-pitying journalist obsessed with escape, the indifferent public officials who go through the motions and the lowly municipal clerk who tries to do what they will not, the Spanish invalid who spends his days counting peas from one bowl into another.

Literature and the domain of myth are the repositories where society’s collective knowledge and experience is stored. Camus scores high in both. He redefined heroism as ordinary people doing extraordinary things out of simple decency. For most of humanity, the moral responsibility of choosing to not be part of the problem is heroic enough. All but one of the city’s misanthropic characters eventually come around to empathising with the public’s suffering.

Watching how the new corona-capitalism will play out is the most fascinating aspect of the pandemic. Is the coronavirus a tipping point? Will we dance our way to collective adaptation? Can a million burning pyres save the planet?

If the “best novels” induce a sense of empathy in their readers, “leading to more humane and effective policies”, it is clear that Kenya’s decision-makers are reading from their own script. The government’s violent implementation and cynical exploitation of low friction policies that are working elsewhere has resulted in empty hospitals and the public’s refusal to be tested. Dauti Kahura’s reportage of a Kenyan doctor thrown out on the street in Wuhan reveals the brutal callousness of both the Chinese and Kenyan governments.

Midway through Camus’s account, the narrator takes stock: “The plague had swallowed up everything and everyone. No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny made by the plague and the emotions shared by all.”

This is where we all stand right now. Athenian democrats are waging a defensive battle against Steve Bannon’s Spartans. All the numbers and models and deep insights notwithstanding, we still do not know where the coronavirus will lead us.

When I first read The Plague as a high school student, I understood it as an existential parable set in a small North African city. I was drawn to the story as metaphor of resistance to the Nazi occupation when I picked it up again at a university. By coincidence, I read Le Peste again six weeks before the Wuhan coronavirus story broke, and realised that is a universal allegory that could be set in any city anywhere at any point in time.

I believe if enough ordinary people listen to the right music, the dance will take us to a better place. But the narrator of The Plague, now revealed to be Dr. Riuex, ends on a cautionary note. The quarantine is over, the doctor and Grand, the redeemed municipal clerk, view the people celebrating in the streets. As they watch the townspeople’s dance of deliverance and newborn freedom, Grand remarks: “But they’re just the same as ever, really.”

As crises pass and give way to a new normalcy, amnesia soon sets in. The Nazis are restless, the virus will never go away. Great literature helps us remember, and stay awake.

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