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Agency, Possibilities, and Imagination: Countering Myths about Africa’s Past

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Tracing African pasts through the interlinked lenses of agency, possibility and imagination allows us to counter-narratives of Africa as a blank slate, and to debunk myths about Africa as a place that did not innovate or create.

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Agency, Possibilities, and Imagination: Countering Myths about Africa’s Past
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“We die thirsting for knowledge, yet it is all around us.”Saki Mafundikwa

In Crazy Normal, Trevor Noah makes a joke about South Africa that I think applies to all of Africa. In his sketch, Africa responds to the world moving in one direction with, “Okay…we’re going to go that way,” pointing in a different direction. The ‘rest-of-the-world’ is perplexed and Africa reassures, “No, don’t worry, we’ll find you there.”

What Trevor Noah illuminates is the ‘elsewhere-ness’ of Africa. Africa has impressive political, economic, social-ecological and cultural diversity – a diversity that is often un-understood for its defiance to being mappable by narrow Euro-American standards and statistics. So much so that Africa is today more often described in negatives than in anything else: lack, poverty, failed, corrupt and crisis being some of them.

But being elsewhere is not being nowhere. Studying Africa’s history is sense-making of this reality and truth, especially for Africans who have grown up in colonially inherited institutions, and are therefore at risk of reproducing an inherited scarcity mentality and inferiority complex. Engaging with precolonial and colonial African history is to remove inherited glasses, whose field of vision limits the scope of where and how ‘being’ is possible.

I discuss here three interlinked reasons for historical study of Africa: agency, possibility and imagination. Recognising Africans’ agency allows recognition of the worlds Africans create/d and opens up imagination for the continued creation of African worlds. At a time of ecological, political, and socio-economic crisis, this is not just about reclaiming identity, but also about regaining footing to create and determine the new worlds coming.

Agency

Africa’s history has been human history for the 200,000 years that homo sapiens have been in existence. This makes African history the longest history of all the world. Precolonial African history makes up about 99.8 per cent of African history for the earliest colonised African entities, Madeira and Canary Islands (1420 and 1496, respectively), Kongo (1472) and South Africa (1652). Indeed, the term ‘pre-colonial history’ is a shorthand that centres European colonialism as Africa’s defining feature, rather than the 99.8 per cent of history preceding it.

Locating Africans’ agency through history counters the erroneous idea propagated by Western scholars that Africans had no history prior to Europeans. Interrogating multiple archives, including documents, environments, materials, practices, language, oral history and more shows Africans in their full range of humanity, a beginning point from which one can ask questions about what happened in the past rather than making assumptions.

Reflecting on the history curriculum I learnt in high school, I noticed that there were gaps. Kenyan history was taught separately from ‘world history’, and in it, we learnt about some ethnic communities’ cultural institutions; the Indian Ocean Trade emphasising Arab and Portuguese influence; and colonial encounters. Following the discussion of the local emergence of the homo species, history quickly propelled to a ‘world’ stage, represented by various linearly progressive revolutions: Neolithic-Agrarian-Industrial. These were described in a manner as to make one aspire to the ladder of progress they represented, but not to see what they left out – the gender and class stratifications and colonialism and slavery, and their ripple effects on injustice in the world today.

The curriculum only returned to focus on the local when there were particular interactions with foreign entities, such as with Portuguese influence on the East African coast in the 15th century, and with the later European colonisation of the African continent in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Between species evolution in East Africa hundreds of thousands to millions of years ago, and present-day Kenya, the only significant events taught had foreigners as the main characters: Arabs, Portuguese, British. Indigenous history was limited to an ahistorical view of some ethnic groups’ customs.

Such gaps make significant processes, events, and local agents invisible in the history of what would later become Kenya, thus creating an incorrect view that only foreigners were and can be agents of Kenyan history. This negatively biases students’ view of their own agency in affecting history, making it appear as though Africans ‘froze’ while history was happening elsewhere, and only re-entered history upon contact with foreigners.

This experience speaks to a larger institutionalisation of silences and misrepresentations. The bias is evident in policies and popular media that undermine communities’ indigenous livelihood strategies and knowledge, depicting them as destructive and in need of reform in the interests of ‘development’ and ‘conservation’ agendas, both of which are largely driven by foreigners and benefit a minority elite while harming a majority. These policies and narratives do not engage with indigenous histories to show the many ways in which Africans have been agents in engaging with and changing their environments with a variety of impacts, and not simply as passive responders.

They also don’t engage with colonial history that would show how Africans’ agency was hidden, diminished or skewed, and thus entrench denigrating and dangerous received wisdoms. For example, in learning about the Perkerra Irrigation Scheme in school, no mention was made of it being inspired by an indigenous irrigation system by ilChamus peoples, nor was there a discussion of the reasons why ilChamus practised irrigation, how they managed to produce significant surpluses, and how and why they turned to other livelihood strategies, and with what effects. There was also no mention of the subsequent exclusion of ilChamus peoples from the ‘modern’ irrigation scheme when it was started.

Breaking the silence around indigenous Africans’ agency through integrating precolonial history into institutions, such as schools and the media, in ways that do not fall into either essentialising or negative stereotyping would counter damaging racist bias that Africa was a blank slate awaiting discovery and awakening by Europeans, or a ‘wrong’ place awaiting correction by the same.

Possibilities

In 2017, I studied permaculture, an environmental design-with-nature system articulated by the Australian Bill Mollison. The techniques and system, for which I was paying $400 to learn, I later found out, are part of a repertoire of indigenous agro-ecological techniques and social ethics developed and practised in various parts of Africa and elsewhere. These origins were not acknowledged in the teaching, and fellow students, myself included, were enthused by the ‘new’ knowledge we were gaining.

In my exploration of ecological, economic and social restorative technologies, I encounter a number of these systems articulated by Westerners drawing on often unacknowledged and/or unrematriated indigenous knowledges and practices, including those from this continent. Permaculture, as already mentioned, holistic rangeland management, a reformulation of pastoralists’ ways of working with livestock, family constellation therapy drawn from Zulu family healing techniques, bodywork techniques in process-oriented psychology, some drawn from unnamed Giriama healers, and restorative justice circles celebrate their often white, often male ‘inventors’ and have courses you can pay good sums for to learn these technologies.

Colonisation infused with ‘scientific racism’ placed Africans at the bottom of a ladder of humanity. It was unthinkable that Africans accomplished anything remarkable or constructive. This ladder perpetuated the myth that Africans don’t know and must be taught. Our knowledge and technologies are repackaged elsewhere and sold back to us at a premium, and we don’t recognise them. A permaculture practitioner I met in Tanzania, for example, confidently told a room of American undergraduates that there were no sustainable indigenous African food growing techniques except in her Chagga community. As Saki Mafundikwa comments, “We die thirsting for knowledge, yet it is all around us.”

By bringing agency and possibilities together, studying African history can reclaim our humanity and world-making over 200,000 years of living. Tracing past creativity, innovation, technologies, and their lifeworlds re-presents innumerable possibilities of being and doing. Importantly, it helps Africans step outside of disadvantageous psychological, economic and technological dependency.

Histories of indigenous food provision illuminate the variety of technological skills, and knowledge-based practices in use in different parts of Africa, how these developed, and where they were curtailed by colonial officers, thus hampering their efficacy. Looking only at agriculture, indigenous irrigation technologies, such as dams and irrigation canals, were/are in use in Marakwet, Pokot, Baringo, and at Engaruka in East Africa for many decades if not centuries.

Other forms of water management, including mulching, cover cropping, pit planting, terracing and weather manipulation, were in use across the continent, as were fertility technologies to manipulate soil chemistry, such as burning and tilling in of weeds and crop residues, creating areas of high fertility dark earths, using animal manure, and managing insects such as termites. Practices such as mobility, fallowing, and cultivating or encouraging a diverse range of plants and plant varieties harnessed land and climate variability. The latter also selected plants for taste, maturation, ritual suitability, colour, drought and pest tolerance, effectively making indigenous African farmers crop scientists par excellence.

Social-ecological innovations, like building partnerships across livelihoods to harness symbiotic benefits, were also food provision innovations. There are several examples of pastoralist-cultivators-forager partnerships, such as between the Maa-Agikuyu and Mukogodo-Maa peoples in East Africa, and Bambara-Fula and Bambara-Maure peoples in West Africa. Interrogating the development, context, and practice of these and more food provision technologies would illuminate useful knowledge for continued innovation. Histories of food provision would also include pastoralism and foraging, which are marginalised in popular and political discourse, perhaps because they are less easily dominated by capitalist commercialisation for export and state benefit.

Archaeological research indicates the depth of indigenous sciences knowledge in various parts of Africa. The bronze sculptures of Igbo-Ukwu that were created using the lost-wax technique and dating prior to 1000 AC (after Christ) are unique for their age, fine pattern detailing and technological skill. Similarly, Africans independently developed a wide range of iron smelting techniques (more diverse than anywhere else in the world) – including some unique in the temperatures they achieved – invented in central Africa at least 4,000 years ago. That indigenous African technologies, such as pyramid building in Kemet and Nubia, are yet to be deciphered, are a testament to their depth of skill and innovation. The presence of such sciences counters the received wisdoms that there is nothing to show for Africa in terms of indigenous innovation.

Remarkable rock art is found in many African countries. These art forms were created using a variety of techniques and intents. Rock art also informs historical understanding of human movements. Saharan rock art from a wetter period than the present indicates the likelihood that Kemet (Ancient Egypt) was formed from people migrating from a drying Sahara. Rock paintings and a 100,000-year-old paint laboratory in southern Africa demonstrate the manipulation of various materials (including ochre, blood, egg yolk, shells, bone marrow and fats) to create different coloured paints, and the development of varied painting techniques, including fine line brush paintings, finger, and hand paintings, and the use of art to depict and enact complex cosmologies and healing arts.

The diverse ways in which Africans made worlds are openings for diverse ways of being and for understanding Africa’s technological legacy. They are also a basis for the imagination of alternatives to the present moment.

Imagination

Africa’s colonisation ushered in a period of global homogeneity that solidified a global political (the nation-state) and economic (capitalism) template that has so dominated the global imaginary of the following 150 years that it seems nearly impossible to imagine alternatives to it. This has come with grave consequences, including the climate crisis we in Africa are increasingly going to bear the brunt of. Pre-independence African history is a key to breaking the totalising nature and lure of the present moment.

Studying pre-colonial and colonial history enables understanding of how the world’s narrative came to occlude Africa’s abilities and possibilities, and how this continues into the present. Looking at this history by focusing on agency and possibilities makes one realise that Africa’s pasts are not ‘less than’ but a resource to be built on.

Formal schooling, which focuses mainly on Africa’s post-independence history, can lead to feelings of impotence and resignation that make one believe that that is how things are in the present are how they will forever be. Engaging the 99.8 per of African history to know that things can be different – that as an African one is an agent, and that there is no dearth of examples of knowledge and skills from Africa – allows one to imagine something else in the present, and to “dare to invent the future”, as Thomas Sankara challenged.

Breaking the lure of the present moment involves countering the notion of African timelessness through attending to change in our pasts. For example, though we are often presented with African traditions as though they have been static, we know that practices are fashioned to respond to the goals of a group of people, and that both goals and practices can change. For example, many Bantu communities moving into eastern and southern parts of the continent did not practise circumcision as part of their rites of passage for young people coming of age. Circumcision was added onto pre-existing practices that varyingly included seclusion, adorning the body with clay and other emollients, ancestral and nature rituals, instruction from family, clan or community elders on new life responsibilities in adulthood, and the celebration of successful passage. Circumcision was added to pre-existing rites often as a result of mixing with non-Bantu communities who practised this, possibly due to, or to enable, intermarriages. Using analysis of divergences in words and ideas, historians show how even this inclusion waxed and waned with increasing and decreasing contacts with other communities.  

Indigenous history provides an arena to destabilise European Enlightenment divides such as nature-culture, mind-body disciplines, and anthropocentric notions of agency, all colonial inheritances that continue to define the present and contribute to the ongoing crisis. The practice of acknowledging those who came first, including land and forest spirits, is common in various African communities. When Anlo-Ewe peoples migrated into lagoon areas in West Africa, they incorporated ritual knowledge and the sea deities of neighbouring peoples, thus enabling them to develop a maritime fishing tradition, which was previously non-existent amongst them.

African symbologies, syllabaries and alphabets, such as Adinkra, Nsibidi, Chokwe veves, and Ge’ez scripts, illuminate communities’ values as well as the design and communication principles used to communicate them. These carriers of peoples’ aesthetic thought and principles can be used today both as reminders and harbingers of alternative futures, as Saki Mafundikwa, a graphic designer, and Nnedi Okorafor, a science fiction author, are doing.

Breaking the lure of the present moment also entails complexifying grand narratives through attending to histories of the particular and of change. For example, Sundiata Keita is famed as a great ruler of the Mali Empire. A charter he pronounced upon ascending the throne is celebrated as one of the first ‘constitutions’ in the world, contemporaneous with the Magna Carta, and lauded for its humaneness because it instructed that slaves should get one day off a week and own the property of their bags. Sundiata, in fact, reinstated slavery, which the guild of hunters had abolished a few years earlier in a charter they delivered. This history points to the fact that life, and therefore history, is processual and encourages a shift from linear progression and teleological thinking.

Indigenous African polities demonstrate heterarchy as a form of societal organisation in which power is diffuse and vested in multiple spheres and people, none more important than the other, thus entrenching checks and balances. One person could belong to their family or clan lineage, an age-set group, a secret society, a knowledge or crafts guild, a deliberative body (e.g. council of elders), and a spiritual practice (e.g. a spirit medium or devotee) at the same time. Each of these institutions performed activities necessary for the health of the whole community rather than for the importance of single individuals, be they chiefs or kings. Amongst the Nanumba and others, chiefs were farmers like any other community member. Equally, deposition of leaders when they did not meet the reciprocal obligation to work for the health of the community was practised, as were migrations to start new communities in new areas.

Among the Alur, the power of the central polity increased rather than decreased as groups separated and left to start their own political formations. The hunter’s charter and ‘egalitarian/stateless societies’ like the Igbo of West Africa also provide examples of alternative political models. These different ways of organising the political can open up a discursive and praxis imaginary of the political that goes beyond the nation-state.

In many indigenous African societies, people, relationships and the knowledge embedded in them were more valued than material goods. The global capital system, however, has steadily devalued people, especially knowledgeable Africans who are placed at the bottom of a hierarchy, even while the system profits off the knowledge they hold in agriculture, medicine, knowledge production, and various other domains. In Equatorial Africa how much knowledge one had, understood as skilful generative action (not information) was highly valued. At present, however, extractive control over people, and the Earth, not the ownership of knowledge (productive skilful action) is what is more highly valued. A reframing of wealth using indigenous concepts of knowledge and skill might change how we organise our economies and societies, re-appreciating both the time and knowledge inherent in agroecological food production, craftwork, and forms of artistic production. It can also provide pathways out of global capitalism.

Statistics about Africa’s rapid urbanisation abound. Valuing and integrating indigenous forms of urbanism might hold answers to the challenges this presents. For example, urban agriculture was an integral part of several indigenous urban centres. Encouraging and supporting urban agriculture in African cities today might allow us to create cities that feed themselves. The floating city of Makoko in Lagos lagoon was settled 200 years ago. Today the ingenuity of design, construction, and socio-economic life in Makoko is under threat of demolition for ‘development’. A historical understanding of living in Makoko, coupled with an appreciation of the layers of knowledge and skill represented might allow imagination of indigenous urban development. Indeed, the residents of Makoko have been innovating it for 200 years already.

Conclusion

Tracing African pasts through the interlinked lenses of agency, possibility and imagination allows us to counter-narratives of Africa as a blank slate, to challenge the privileging of whiteness and Europeanness, and to debunk myths about Africans as people who are destructive or unchanging. It allows us to illuminate diverse possibilities of human living to build on against the hegemony of a present moment that unsees and devalues us. For Africans, studying African history is an opportunity to trace the stream of African living for the last 200, 000 years.

Unseeing was a colonial predicament. There is no reason why we must continue with these glasses on.

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Wangũi wa Kamonji is an independent researcher, dancer, writer and facilitator of regenerative presents and futures rooted in African lifeways. She is hearth keeper for the collective Afrika hai that researches, reconnects to and reimagines indigenous Afrikan knowledge and practices for regeneration. She is based in Ongata Rongai and blogs at wangui.org.

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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