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Free the Weed: A Short History of Marijuana

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Debates around whether or not to make cannabis legal often fail to recognise that this herb has been used for centuries in many parts of the world.

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For generations now in most of the world, cannabis has been a prohibited substance, one often vilified as a noxious bringer of addiction. Yet change is coming fast. Several states have already amended statute books to soften laws relating to cannabis (whether through allowing its medicinal use, decriminalising its possession and use, or full-blown legalisation), and many others are considering amendments. Age-old consensus on the substance has cracked, although many remain deeply opposed to any push to “free the weed”.

In Kenya, debate has grown strong too, driven by, among others, the late Ken Okoth, the MP for Kibra, who pushed for a bill legalising and regulating the substance before his sad passing. This article traces the history of this controversial substance and policy towards it, with a particular focus on Africa, and looks at the likely impact – good and bad – as a botanical outlaw is increasingly rehabilitated.

Beginnings

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, has long been used by humans as medicine, food (its seeds are highly nutritious, as is the oil derived from them), and importantly as fibre. Long before most Europeans were even aware of the psychoactive properties of this plant, cannabis was the major source of fibre used to make the rope and rigging that powered navies in the era of European imperial expansion.

Rather than bringing to mind this marine history, however, for most people around the world, the name cannabis conjures up images of a haze of psychoactive smoke emanating from the mouths of such legendary “stoners” as Bob Marley, Bob Dylan and Fela Kuti. It also conjures up the characteristic leaves of the cannabis plant – odd-numbered combinations of serrated spears that have become symbolic not just of cannabis culture but a much wider culture of defiance.

Even the taxonomy of the plant is controversial, as researcher Chris Duvall (author of a new book, The African Roots of Marijuana) has shown. An orthodox theory holds that there is one species – Cannabis sativa – that has been cultivated and used in different ways: for fibre, for food and for its psychoactivity. Such a theory has suggested a racialised view of cannabis usage – that industrious Europeans built great seafaring empires out of hemp, while other people used it to get high.

Cannabis, also known as marijuana, has long been used by humans as medicine, food, and importantly as fibre. Long before most Europeans were even aware of the psychoactive properties of this plant, cannabis was the major source of fibre used to make the rope and rigging that powered navies in the era of European imperial expansion.

However, a two-species theory – that there is Cannabis sativa more suited to producing fibre, and Cannabis indica more capable of psychoactivity – gives a more accurate botanical view of why cannabis is valued in different regions for different purposes: sativa and indica varieties simply grew in different climates, the latter more at home in warmer regions.

Whatever the taxonomic truth, cannabis originated in Eurasia, and palaeobotanical evidence suggests that people were already making use of cannabis as far as East Asia 12,000 years ago, though in what ways is now impossible to discern. It seems likely that cannabis was being farmed in East Asia 6,000 years ago, while Koreans appear to have been making fabric from it around 5,000 years ago.

But people have also long been aware of the psychoactive qualities of cannabis, and a burial site 2,700 years old in northwestern China has preserved a large cache of potent cannabis, possibly for ceremonial or shamanic use. In South Asia, there is also a long history of cannabis usage for fabric and for intoxication, a distinction emerging in Sanskrit between sana and bhanga, the former a source of plant fibre, the latter a source of intoxication and medicine. Bhang, of course, is now a widely dispersed term (in East Africa too) used for intoxicating cannabis.

This plant and its usage then took many different routes around the world. These routes owed much to a number of maritime and overland trade networks that have transported cannabis and its cultures of use. Around 5,000 years ago, cannabis was projected westwards as far as Egypt through overland trade linking India to Mesopotamia and beyond, while Indian Ocean trade networks brought cannabis to East Africa’s coastline, where it has had a presence for at least a thousand years. From there it spread inland and into many different African cultures of consumption, the use of the term bhang in much of the region suggestive of its Indian Ocean network origins, although many local terms suggest possible multiple routes of entry.

The Atlantic slave trade was another vector of its spread; slaves departing from the Angolan coast sometimes carrying cannabis seeds, which led to its spread in Brazil. Another vector in its spread has been war, its popularity in West Africa owing much to the return of soldiers who had been fighting in Asia during World War II and were exposed to its consumption there. In Europe, the use of cannabis for intoxication purposes was initially an elite pursuit of Bohemians in the nineteenth century, the likes of Baudelaire popularising experimentation with the drug in an age of intense European intellectual interest in “exotic” mind-altering substances that also included opium.

While cannabis has many different cultures of consumption, there has been something of a globalisation of its appeal over the twentieth century, especially through its link to various types of music. Long associated with jazz in the US, cannabis’ popularity was also boosted by musicians such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. For Fela Kuti, cannabis had much symbolism as a symptom of defiance against authority, and this has long been a core part of the herb’s appeal for many consumers within various countercultures.

Much of this aura of defiant cool derives from the fact that for over a century cannabis has itself been an outlaw, as both internationally and nationally many jurisdictions have prohibited the production, trade and use of this controversial plant. Yet these prohibitions are now under threat as never before, as even countries that have long fought and promoted the “war on drugs”, such as the United States, are experimenting with various forms of decriminalisation and legalisation, while other countries still try and hold firm against calls for legislative change.

Regulating the herb

For as long as mind-altering substances have been used by humans, attempts to regulate their use have likely been used. Whether alcohol, opium or cannabis, the psychoactive qualities of such substances mean that they are usually viewed with great ambivalence – substances that can ease worries and bring pleasure, yet also bring harm and danger. Such ambivalence has spurred efforts to restrict access to those seen as able to use them responsibly, or to forbid their use completely.

While cannabis has many different cultures of consumption, there has been something of a globalisation of its appeal over the twentieth century, especially through its link to various types of music. Long associated with jazz in the US, cannabis’ popularity was also boosted by musicians such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti.

The widespread claim that historically East African societies restricted access to alcoholic beverages and khat to elders reflects concerns over youthful drinking and chewing. It also suggests that similar types of restrictions and regulations might have been in place for cannabis in East Africa and elsewhere.

However, the formal prohibition of cannabis is mostly a twentieth-century story, albeit with a number of precursors, including the Merina king Andrianampoinimerina prohibiting it in the late eighteenth century in Madagascar on the grounds that it made his subjects “half-witted”. Its prohibition story links to that of opium, and the growing international calls for its regulation and prohibition that grew strong after the nineteenth-century Opium Wars where the British compelled China, through force, to accept imports of opium from India in the interests of their Imperial economy.

Unease with the free trade in opiates led to the International Opium Commission conference in 1909 in Shanghai, and later the International Opium Convention that called for controls and restrictions of the trade in opiates and cocaine was signed in 1912. This marked the start of the internationalisation of drug control. Cannabis was not added to these conventions until 1925 when, at the request of Egypt, cannabis was added to the conventions and its exports restricted. Subsequent conventions (including the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs) further globalised attempts to suppress a growing range of psychoactive substances, including cannabis.

This international story of drug conventions and cannabis prohibition played out differently in various countries, the US history of marijuana prohibition and its link to characters such as Harry Anslinger of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics being the most familiar. Historians such as Isaac Campos and Jim Mills have also analysed the equally fascinating history of cannabis policy in Mexico, India and the UK.

In African countries, most state laws and policies proscribing the use, trade and production of cannabis, opiates and cocaine first emerged during the colonial period, particularly in the 1920s, though in some colonial states, these laws were put on the statute books even earlier. The major mind-altering substances of interest to African and colonial officials before then had been alcoholic drinks, as well as kola nuts and khat. The lucrative kola trade had been regulated and taxed since the end of the eighteenth century by states administering foreign trade, such as the Asante Kingdom in today’s Ghana. Alcohol use had been prohibited in many of Africa’s Muslim societies for long and became the subject of intense international debates and domestic control at the end of the nineteenth century. In particular, the trade and production of distilled spirits became the target of state regulation at that time.

African control efforts on cannabis, opiates and cocaine generally commenced only after the national and international debates on distilled spirits had become quiet. In 1927 the first Nigerian Dangerous Drugs Ordinance restricted the use and trade of cannabis, opium and coca products to medical and scientific purposes and put them under the supervisory powers of the chief medical officer of the colony. The law made the unlicensed use and trade in these drugs a crime.

In African countries, most state laws and policies proscribing the use, trade and production of cannabis, opiates and cocaine first emerged during the colonial period, particularly in the 1920s, though in some colonial states, these laws were put on the statute books even earlier.

In Kenya there is an earlier history. An Opium Regulations Ordinance was put in place in 1902. This was intended to restrict the import and production of opiates to permit holders, and sales were restricted to the discretion of medical officers. “Opium” included a wider range of substances, including “bhang”, the main term used in East Africa then and now for cannabis. This ordinance had little teeth, and pressure grew from colonial officers in western Kenya (where much cannabis was grown and consumed) for possession to be outlawed too and harsher penalties introduced for those producing or trading such substances without permits. This pressure in part led to the Abuse of Opiate Ordinance in 1913 that attempted to eradicate illicit consumption of not just opium, but a range of opiates, as well as cocaine and cannabis.

The Kenya colony and its opiate ordinances apart, drug ordinances did not usually grow out of colonial anxieties about these drugs’ threats to health or a paternalistic concern to “protect Africans” from foreign substances, as had been the case with distilled spirits. In South Africa, debates on the use and control of opium were also closely tied to the growing gold mining industry in the Transvaal as it was feared to decrease the productivity of South Africa’s workforce. In 1923 the South African government even urged the League of Nations to classify cannabis as a dangerous substance requiring international control.

In effect, most African drug laws were based on colonial blueprints, such as the Hong Kong Drug Ordinance, which was circulated among British colonial governments in the 1920s. These laws often preceded local concern with cannabis, opiates and cocaine and served more to satisfy the legal obligations of governments under new international laws, such as the 1925 and 1931 Geneva Opium Conventions. In the course of the first half of the twentieth century, most African colonies were therefore signed up to a range of international treaties on drug control, without there being much of a local concern or debate about the laws transposed into domestic legal codes, except for the case of Kenya and South Africa.

This situation changed somewhat by the late 1950s and early 1960s, when most African countries gained political independence. This period coincided with the wider use and growing public concern about cannabis and saw the first effective government policies on cannabis. In West Africa, concern was driven by medical professionals who encountered cannabis-smoking ex-soldiers among their patients. Doctors, such as Thomas Adeoye Lambo, Africa’s first Western-trained psychiatrist, started exploring Africa’s new drug and addiction problems in their research and public speeches.

Cannabis addiction also became a key discussion point at the newly founded Pan-African Psychiatric Congress and its African Journal on Psychiatry (Lambo 1965; Lewis 1975). This new medical and also media interest in cannabis led to important policy changes in some countries, such as Ghana and Nigeria. In the latter, a coup d’état brought a group of reform-minded soldiers to power who aimed to address cannabis use with the draconian Indian Hemp Decree of 1966 shortly before the country slid into a civil war.

Cannabis thus became firmly embedded in the statute books of most African nations. However, this legal uniformity belied continuing ambivalence towards the substance. Legality or illegality, of course, rarely perfectly matches societal attitudes, and many continued to view the substance positively in various ways, including as a traditional medicine, and as a recreational substance associated with popular figures such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. Furthermore, its illegality only further increased its reputation as a symbol of defiance against authority. For many, cannabis law has little legitimacy – or power, given the lack of state capacity to police it effectively – and it has grown to be a vital part of the rural and urban economy in much of Africa. On the other hand, many, for social, cultural or religious reasons, have bought into the idea of cannabis as socially and medically harmful and something that should be restricted.

African debates

In such a cultural climate, legalisation or decriminalisation campaigns were unlikely to take root beyond the margins. Indeed, in an earlier book we suggested that debate on drug policy had yet to take off in most African countries (2012). Yet things appear to be changing, as the impact of policy change even in parts of the USA – long the leader in the “War on Drugs” – has global repercussions.

On a more regional level, the activities of organisations like the West African Drugs Commission have also expanded the narrative away from a simple focus on repressive supply-side policy in relation to drugs of all types. In East Africa too there are moves towards alternative “harm reduction” policies, especially in regard to heroin use in cities like Dar es Salaam and Mombasa, and more recently also in Nairobi. In Africa, as elsewhere, the international consensus around drug policy is fracturing, especially in regard to cannabis.

Since 2011 in Cape Town an annual cannabis march has been held that has increased markedly in popularity, symbolising the seismic changes occurring in cannabis legislation in South Africa, perhaps the African country with the strongest drug counter-culture. As with parts of the USA, permitting medical use of cannabis appears the first step in this process, and South Africa is developing provision in this regard. In addition to this, a recent court case in the Western Cape has raised hopes further that legalisation is around the corner. Several activists (including those from the “Dagga Party”, dagga being the common South African term for cannabis) brought a case “seeking a declaration that the legislative provision against the use of cannabis and the possession, purchase and cultivation of cannabis for personal or communal consumption is invalid”.

In March 2017, the court ruled that there should be a stay of prosecutions for possession of small quantities of cannabis and use of cannabis in private settings, and gave the government 24 months to amend the law in this regard. On 18 September 2018, South Africa’s Constitutional Court confirmed this judgement and thus made the growing and use of cannabis for private use legal with immediate effect, although the exact implementation of the decision is yet unclear. While there are no doubt many more hurdles to overcome for the campaigners (most prominent of whom are a white couple known as the Dagga Couple), many are already eyeing a potential legal market for cannabis in South Africa, leading some to fear the predation of corporate interests.

Since 2011 in Cape Town an annual cannabis march has been held that has increased markedly in popularity, symbolising the seismic changes occurring in cannabis legislation in South Africa…

Elsewhere too, there are increasing signs of shifting policy. Linked to the change in South Africa, Lesotho, a major supplier of illegal cannabis to the South African market, has recently given a licence to a South African firm to cultivate medical cannabis. Malawi, another major cultivation country of illegal cannabis, is also moving towards a legal hemp industry. While hemp consists of non-psychoactive varieties of the cannabis plant, even this move required overcoming resistance in Malawi’s National Assembly to an initiative based around so infamous a plant. Ghana, ranked the country with the highest rates of cannabis consumption in Africa, is also seeing rising debate on cannabis policy, and even calls for a cannabis industry to be established to take advantage of legal opportunities around the world. Debate seems more muted in Nigeria, a country with some of Africa’s harshest drug laws, although the debate is gaining ground there too.

In East Africa, debate is also increasingly conspicuous in news reports and in the wider media, especially in Kenya. There, calls for full legalisation have recently been made, including by Ken Okoth, and by political analyst Gwada Ogot, who took a petition for legalisation to the Kenyan senate. Okoth argued for Kenya to benefit economically from an export market for cannabis, suggesting that the “government should stop wasting money on sugarcane farming and legalise marijuana instead”. Ogot focused more strongly on the medicinal benefits of cannabis, and sought in his petition to have cannabis removed from the list of scheduled substances, and for the establishment of a regulatory body to oversee a legal market. He argued that: “The plant is God’s gift to mankind just as the many minerals he has put in store for Kenyans. The banning was purely for commercial interests with pharmaceutical firms seeking to control the medical industry during the first and second world wars.”

This petition was debated in the Senate, Kenya’s upper house of Parliament, in February 2017, where it garnered much interest in the media. While the debate in the Kenyan Senate was somewhat inconclusive, and decriminalisation is unlikely, at least in the near future, that such a petition was heard at all marks a shift. Debating the issue confers at least some legitimacy on a topic that many Kenyans recently would either have found shocking or comical.

What all these debates and apparent moves to different policy suggest is that the issue is a live one in African countries. However, it seems likely that the debate will gain more traction in some countries than in others and we should be cautious in generalising across such a diverse continent. In many countries there are so many other more pressing issues than cannabis, that it is unlikely to garner sufficient attention. Indeed, pushing through legislative change will require much energy and resources. For this reason, some might see legalisation as fine for rich countries like the USA with greater capacity to cope with the consequences, but hardly sensible in countries with so many other challenges.

As we have seen, economic reasoning appears to be underlying some of the push to liberalised policy, with some eyeing lucrative futures based around a cannabis industry. Economic interests have, of course, long been important in policy debates around psychoactive substances, with governments often balancing tax and other forms of revenue against medical and social harms with substances like tobacco and alcohol. And historians and anthropologists alike have emphasised the importance of analysing drugs as commodities.This has certainly been true in the case of alcohol, but also in the case of khat. Like cannabis, khat’s harm potential is ambiguous, allowing governments to justify both restricting it and developing a market for it. In the case of khat, producer countries like Ethiopia and Kenya have long resisted making the substance illegal, even if governments have been suspicious of the substance.

In relation to cannabis, we can see how in countries like Lesotho and Malawi, where the cannabis industry forms a major proportion of the national economy, the temptation to make the crop legitimate and boost national coffers might be attractive. A country like Kenya, on the other hand, cultivates cannabis, but not to the same scale. It forms only a minor part of the economy, and is unlikely to garner a strong export market anyway.

It seems possible that where economic logic is not an especially pressing factor, the political will to change cannabis policy is less likely to materialise. In countries like Kenya, concern with the harmful effects of cannabis, as well as the cultural conservatism of many in government and in the general population, will form a substantial roadblock in the way of reform. In fact, Kenya has recently banned shisha smoking on health grounds, suggesting that in terms of policy the predominant logic is still one of restricting rather than liberalising. Yet change in relation to cannabis law is coming thick and fast, and given growing support amongst the political class, change cannot be ruled out in countries like Kenya. Indeed, the sad passing of Okoth has encouraged others to follow his example in calling for such change.

That change to cannabis law in Kenya is now being considered might prove a strong legacy to the memory of Okoth. Stronger yet would be taking seriously too his calls for a properly regulated market, one that would offer protections to the vulnerable, and ideally protect against predation from corporate interests.

Cannabis has provided many smallholder farmers with livelihoods – albeit illicit ones – throughout much of Africa and elsewhere in the world. As Chris Duvall argues, African cannabis farmers have done much innovation in its cultivation even under the cover of illegality. It would be a shame if legality means that powerful interests move in to seize the fruits of this innovation.

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Neil Carrier is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Bristol, UK. Gernot Klantschnig is Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Crime at the University of York, UK.

Ideas

Re-Reading History Without the Color Line: When Egypt Was Black

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living Egyptians today with ancient pharaohs, emerged partly as an alternative to colonial British efforts to racialize Egyptians as people of color.

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In his monumental 1996 book Race: The History of an Idea in the West, Ivan Hannaford attempted to write the first comprehensive history of the meanings of race. After surveying 2,500 years’ worth of writing, his conclusion was that race, in the sense in which it is commonly understood today, is a relatively new concept denoting the idea that humans are naturally organized into social groups. Membership in these groups is indicated by certain physical characteristics, which reproduce themselves biologically from generation to generation.

Hannaford argues that where scholars have identified this biological essentialist approach to race in their readings of ancient texts, they have projected contemporary racism back in time. Instead of racial classifications, Hannaford insists that the Ancient Greeks, for example, used a political schema that ordered the world into citizens and barbarians, while the medieval period was underwritten by a categorization based on religious faith (Jews, Christians, and Muslims). It was not until the 19th century that these ideas became concretely conceptualized; according to Hannaford, the period from 1870 to 1914 was the “high point” of the idea of race.

Part of my research on the history of British colonial Egypt focuses on how the concept of a unique Egyptian race took shape at this time. By 1870, Egypt was firmly within the Ottoman fold. The notion of a “Pan-Islamic” coalition between the British and the Ottomans had been advanced for a generation at this point: between the two empires, they were thought to rule over the majority of the world’s Muslims.

But British race science also began to take shape around this time, in conversation with shifts in policy throughout the British empire. The mutiny of Bengali troops in the late 1850s had provoked a sense of disappointment in earlier attempts to “civilize” British India. As a result, racial disdain toward non-European people was reinforced. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s works, these attitudes became overlaid with a veneer of popular science.

When a series of high-profile acts of violence involving Christian communities became a cause célèbre in the European press, the Ottomans became associated with a unique form of Muslim “fanaticism” in the eyes of the British public. The notion of Muslim fanaticism was articulated in the scientific idioms of the time, culminating in what historian Cemil Aydin calls “the racialization of Muslims.” As part of this process, the British moved away from their alliance with the Ottomans: they looked the other way when Russians supported Balkan Christian nationalists in the 1870s and allied with their longtime rivals in Europe to encroach on the financial prerogatives of the Ottoman government in Egypt.

Intellectuals in Egypt were aware of these shifts, and they countered by insisting they were part of an “Islamic civilization” that, while essentially different from white Christians, did not deserve to be grouped with “savages.” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was one of the most prominent voices speaking against the denigration of Muslims at the time. His essays, however, were ironically influenced by the same social Darwinism he sought to critique.

For example, in “Racism in the Islamic Religion,” an 1884 article from the famous Islamic modernist publication al-Urwa al-Wuthqa (The Indissoluble Bond), Afghani argued that humans were forced, after a long period of struggle, “to join up on the basis of descent in varying degrees until they formed races and dispersed themselves into nations … so that each group of them, through the conjoined power of its individual members, could protect its own interests from the attacks of other groups.”

The word that I have translated as “nation” here is the Arabic term umma. In the Qur’an, umma means a group of people to whom God has sent a prophet. The umma Muhammadiyya, in this sense, transcended social differences like tribe and clan. But the term is used by al-Afghani in this essay to refer to other racial or national groupings like the Indians, English, Russians, and Turks.

Coming at a time when British imperial officials were thinking about Muslims as a race, the term umma took on new meanings and indexed a popular slippage between older notions of community based on faith and modern ideas about race science. Al-Afghani’s hybrid approach to thinking about human social groups would go on to influence a rising generation of intellectuals and activists in Egypt—but the locus of their effort would shift from the umma of Muslims to an umma of Egyptians.

In my book, The Egyptian Labor Corps: Race, Space, and Place in the First World War, I show how the period from 1914 to 1918 was a major turning point in this process. At the outbreak of the war, British authorities were hesitant to fight the Ottoman sultan, who called himself the caliph, because their understanding of Muslims as a race meant that they would naturally have to contend with internal revolts in Egypt and India. However, once war was formally declared on the Ottomans and the sultan/caliph’s call for jihad went largely unanswered, British authorities changed the way they thought about Egyptians.

Over the course of the war, British authorities would increasingly look at Egyptians just as they did other racialized subjects of their empire. Egypt was officially declared a protectorate, Egyptians were recruited into the so-called “Coloured Labour Corps,” and tens of thousands of white troops came to Egypt and lived in segregated conditions.

The war had brought the global color line—long recognized by African Americans like W.E.B. Du Bois—into the backyard of Egyptian nationalists. But rather than develop this insight into solidarity, as Du Bois did in his June 1919 article on the pan-Africanist dimensions of the Egyptian revolution for NAACP journal The Crisis, Egyptian nationalists criticized the British for a perceived mis-racialization of Egyptians as “men of color.”

Pharaonism, a mode of national identification linking people living in Egypt today with the ancient pharaohs, emerged in this context as a kind of alternative to British efforts at racializing Egyptians as people of color. Focusing on rural Egyptians as a kind of pure, untouched group that could be studied anthropologically to glean information about an essential kind of “Egyptianness,” Pharaonism positioned rural-to-urban migrants in the professional middle classes as “real Egyptians” who were biological heirs to an ancient civilization, superior to Black Africans and not deserving of political subordination to white supremacy.

Understanding Pharaonism as a type of racial nationalism may help explain recent controversies that have erupted in Egypt over efforts by African Americans to appropriate pharaonic symbols and discourse in their own political movements. This is visible in minor social media controversies, such as when Beyoncé was called out for “cultural appropriation” for twerking on stage in a costume depicting the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. But sometimes, social media can spill over into more mainstream forms of Egyptian culture, such as when the conversation around the racist #StopAfrocentricConference hashtag—an online campaign to cancel “One Africa: Returning to the Source,” a conference organized by African Americans in Aswan, Egypt—received coverage on the popular TV channel CBC. While these moral panics pale in comparison to American efforts to eradicate critical race theory, for example, they still point to a significant undercurrent animating Egyptian political and social life.

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

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Ideas

Writing the Human: A Person Is a Person Through Other People

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

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“Are we fighting to end colonialism, a worthy cause, or are we thinking about what we will do after the last white policeman leaves?”

Several decades after he wrote these words, these sentiments from Frantz Fanon remain an urgent challenge for postcolonial societies. In 2022, austerity measures implemented by multilateral organisations are back in countries like Kenya which are arguably still recovering from the devastation of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the 1980s. Echoing colonisation, extractive economics framed as development and investment is everywhere, from natural resources to digital platforms. Black people are once again on sale as domestic and construction workers in countries that refuse to provide them basic human rights protections, and recently as potential conscripts in wars that have nothing to do with them. Nearly eighty years after Fanon articulated the demands of independence from colonisation, countries of the global south are still struggling to extricate themselves from the deeply unequal global dynamics. History is repeating itself.

When does the “post” in “postcolonial” begin? When do we get free?

Somewhere on the journey to the postcolony, the freedom dreams of so many societies in the world seem to have lost their way. To borrow from Fanon, it is evident that several societies did not give enough room to articulate and nurture freedom dreams beyond the desire to watch the last white policeman leave. Many of our revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Amilcar Cabral and Steve Biko were assassinated because the size and scope of their dreams was a threat to the global hegemons. Others, like Winnie Mandela and Andree Blouin, suffered intense personal attacks, and exile and isolation from the sites of their work. And others like Robert Mugabe became consumed with the idea of power at all costs, trading freedom and the greater good for personal accumulation and military power, refusing to cede even an inch of power to anyone. The freedom dreams atrophied in the shadow of these losses, and today the map to the “post” remains buried in the sand.

It’s difficult in this day and age to write an essay about freedom when the word has been co-opted by so many people who use a bastardised definition of the word to advance the destruction of others. In Western countries, right-wing movements routinely use the word to refer to selfish ambitions to protect wealth and exclude others. Freedom has unfortunately become synonymous with selfishness in too many places around the world, with extremists using it to justify laws and policies that destroy social protections for the poor and marginalised. Tragically, the word needs some qualification and contextualisation before it can be used sincerely to engage with the realities unfolding around us.

And yet freedom remains a deeply necessary project. The desire for freedom is what transforms individual desires or ambitions into social projects. Freedom is a lot like being in love. It’s difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t yet experienced it but once you’ve experienced it even once you feel its absence keenly. It’s the peace of knowing that you are in a community that is working towards something greater than just survival, but is instead imagining and building a world in which everyone thrives. It is mutual support and solidarity. It is care and concern. It is an obsession with justice and inequality not just for those who have access to the levers of power but for everyone. It is more than meaningless numbers and empty promises of development. Freedom is truth telling and accountability, but also connection and restoration. Freedom is living in a society that recognises your personhood and that wants to make room for everyone to live fully, audaciously and joyfully. Freedom is a social concern that cannot be achieved as an individual. Human beings are social creatures. You are not free because you live outside the constraints of a society: you are free because you live in a society that values your existence and allows you to maintain meaningful connection with others.

Freedom dreams are a crucial part of attaining the “post” in postcoloniality. The desire for freedom is what pushes people to coordinate around lofty ambitions and develop a programme of action for achieving them. The desire for freedom pushes us into deliberation and debate about what our societies can represent, but they also push us into introspection about our personal role  in achieving those goals. Freedom dreams are more than just flights of fancy. They are invitations to coordinate and participate in social life. Freedom dreams are like a compass. They give a collective perspective on what we need to do in order to build the kind of society in which we can all thrive.

So, the increasing absence of freedom dreams in the way our ideas of progress or development are articulated is more than rhetorical loss. It’s not simply sad that today we talk about GDP and economic growth as measures of progress, and not welfare and inclusivity. It is a loss of orientation. It is what makes it possible for people to use money as a shorthand for all the things that we need to make social life make sense. Instead of universal health, people try to get wealthy enough to opt out of poorly funded public health systems. Instead of facing the calamity of climate change together, wealthy people build bunkers to allow them to survive in the apocalypse. Instead of thinking about conflict as a collective tragedy, wealthy countries see it as an opportunity to make money. And instead of seeing a global pandemic as an opportunity to reset and reinforce social systems that have for too long excluded the needs of the chronically ill and disabled, the elderly, and even children, we double down on the misguided idea that an advanced species is one in which the most vulnerable are allowed to die. All of these outcomes are united by the underlying fallacy that securing money can ever be a shorthand for the freedom dreams of living in a just society.

Within the postcolony, there has probably never been a greater need for freedom dreams than now. In Africa, the absence of a broad unifying orientation means we might quite literally become fodder for other people’s projects. Right now, young men and women are being enticed to fight for both Russia and Ukraine, neither of which has expressed particular concern for the wellbeing of Africans in the past. Russian mercenaries are wreaking havoc in several African countries; Ukraine is one of the biggest arms providers to African conflicts. Young Africans continue to die unnecessary deaths on the Mediterranean Sea because of unfounded fears of invasion, even as the West opens up its doors to tens of thousands more Ukrainian refugees. As Western countries try to wean themselves off Russian oil and gas, Africa is once again on the menu as an alternative source for these raw materials. There is an unspoken expectation that countries of the global south must stoically bear the burden of these inequalities because the freedom dreams of others are somehow more valuable than ours.

And in the absence of governments that care about our own freedom dreams, it is unclear what we will look like at the end of this period of global uncertainty (if there is one — climate change is still an omnipotent threat). Our freedom dreams are being bartered for trinkets by leaders who wrongly believe that wealth and proximity to power in another part of the world will ever be as meaningful or taste as sweet as building freedom where you are rooted. Are we entering another period in which authoritarians will double down on violence against us and remain unchallenged because they say the right things to different parties to the conflict? Watching leaders of India, Uganda, Sudan and more line up behind Russia certainly does not bode well. Will this season birth another era of Pinochets, Mengistus, and Mobutus? Will we watch once again as our freedom dreams are subsumed in global conflicts from which only the most greedy and violent will profit?

Our freedom dreams remind us that we have work to do that is bigger than this historical moment. The work is not to build the wealthiest country or the biggest army. The work is to build societies in which money isn’t a gatekeeper to living a decent life. The work is resetting our relationship with the natural environment so that the measure of our lives is not simply reduced to our unchecked ability to consume. Angela Davis reminds us that our freedom dreams cannot be constrained to our own lifetime but must be anchored in a desire to leave behind a world worth living in for future generations. We need our freedom dreams.

The freedom dreams of those who resisted and rejected colonisation seem a world away from the meagre ambitions of many of today’s leaders. Whereas previous generations fought for dignity and holistic defence of human life, today our dreams are organised around depoliticised ambitions like development or gender equality. The radical demands of rejecting systemic racialised violence and institutionalised exclusion have been deescalated into calls for scraps from the table.

And yet, looking around at the trajectory the world is on, freedom dreams have never been more urgent or important. It is tempting to resist the urge to deliberate and deconstruct, because it is labour. In a world that increasingly wants to turn everything – including our leisure time – into labour, the desire to disengage is deeply seductive. But freedom dreams cannot be defined in isolation.

Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu. Mtu ni mtu kwa sababu ya watu. A person is a person through other people. And so we rest when we must, and then we get back to our work.

This essay is part of the “Futures of Freedom” collection of Progressive International’s Blueprint pillar.

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Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement

The greatest achievement of Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu was to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained.

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Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement
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Ask ten people what decolonization means, and you will get ten different answers. The term’s incoherent resurgence has sparked an understandable backlash, with complaints directed mainly against its liberal and or neoliberal defanging. When attempts to pin down decolonization’s meaning pit “real” material work against mere theory, staking out a position feels easy enough. Things are harder to parse where the object of concern is knowledge itself.

What exactly counts as “decolonizing” in the resolutely immaterial domains of concept, culture, or moral life? Because this question must be hard to answer, the certainties with which it is often answered fall short. It is typical of our moment that Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu’s death this year was met with much-unqualified praise of his “decolonial” status, with that descriptor confirming countless more specific—and discordant—views.

In Wiredu’s agile hands, the decolonization of knowledge was a distinctive method: it entailed clear analytic steps as well as safeguards against cultural romanticization. This means that it can be learned, given the time and commitment, and indeed must be learned regardless of one’s cultural starting point. In this sense, Wiredu was a staunchly disciplinary thinker even as his political ideals have far-reaching resonance. Trained at Oxford mainly by philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle, Wiredu’s writing is marked by what Sanya Osha recently described as “a matter-of-fact fastidiousness and tone.” The difference between Wiredu’s disarmingly lucid philosophy and the more abstract, even poetic modes of decolonial thought now in broader circulation is the difference between grandiose calls for the world’s “unmaking” or “delinking” and the painstaking disaggregation of cultural wholes into constituent parts. Wiredu’s hallmark move was to break down “culture” into particular traditions, beliefs, and phrases, which could then be evaluated on their own merits. He was a master of “showing his work,” and the sheer amount of labor he expended to do so in print makes his work unsuited to an age of easy excerpts and virtual point scoring.

Wiredu’s method is most fully worked out in two books, Philosophy and an African Culture (1980) and Cultural Universals and Particulars (1997), but many of his essays have also stood the test of decades. One of the most memorable examples of how he takes his native Akan (and specifically, Asante) heritage apart to assert its philosophical importance appears in a 1998 article titled, “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.” Wiredu here wields insights into the nature of Twi syntax to present the Akan God as an architect rather than an ex nihilo creator.

Whereas the Christian God is linked to a Western metaphysics of being that can, in principle, be unmoored from context, Wiredu argues that the nature of the verb “to be” in Twi or Fante—expressed as either wo ho or ye—necessitates some kind of pre-given situation. (I cannot, in Fante, state simply “I am,” or “she is.”) Whereas the Christian God can thus be imagined to have made the world from nothing, the Akan counterpart is assumed to have worked with pre-given materials in its construction. By extension, whereas the Christian tradition prioritizes miraculousness, the Akan tradition puts more weight on design and ingenuity. Neither one is right or wrong, intrinsically better or worse. Wiredu’s agenda is to make clear the level of conceptual distinction and follow-through required to place them in an equal-footed conversation.

This penchant for linking fine points to grand plans is also on full display in a late-career, 2009 essay called, “An Oral Philosophy of Personhood: Comments on Philosophy and Orality.” Here, Wiredu turns to the Akan tradition of talking drums to refute simplistic ideas of cultural uniformity. Using a well-known drum text rife with metaphysical implications, Wiredu concludes that the drums’ theology is in fact opposed to the broader Akan belief system. (The drum text is in his view pantheistic, while Akan religion is theistic as he describes it in “Toward Decolonizing African Philosophy and Religion.”) His reading yields a few important insights, including into the formative role of intra-cultural disagreement in what might later appear to be shared oral traditions.

The main thing to emphasize, however, is that Wiredu’s deep dive into Akan knowledge results in its destabilization. This does not mean that Akan culture, such as it may be said to exist, is somehow “not real” by virtue of being complexly constructed; this is true of all cultures, everywhere. It means, instead, that it is robust enough to withstand real pressure on pieces of it in order to think seriously about the whole. While acknowledging the colonial odds historically stacked against African knowledge traditions, Wiredu’s philosophical approach to Akan concepts insists that intellectual work can and must do more than reflect this injustice.

Kwasi Wiredu’s lasting decolonial achievement—and that which must be widely memorialized—is to recast African knowledge from something lost to something gained. He refused to treat it as fragile, even as he stared down the many ways it has been sidelined and subjugated. To be “decolonized,” for Wiredu, is to think with extreme care about each and every practice and position, equally open to radical change and renewed conviction. Worship traditionally or as a Christian, he wrote, but in either case really know why. Getting there on his model is daunting, but at the end of the exertion is moral and cultural reciprocity that cannot be claimed lightly. Or, as Wiredu once put it, it yields “the golden rule that gives us the basis … to consider every person as one.”

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