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

11 min read.

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

Boda Boda Justice

Local and national institutions should move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders and instead leverage their capacity to contribute towards grassroots processes of protection and justice.

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Boda Boda Justice
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We are all familiar with the idea that we, as people, plan, but those plans can be quickly altered by the animate and ever-moving process of life. On October 5th, I had a pretty straightforward plan for the day, and having an accident that could have taken my life was certainly not part of it. I was jogging along my regular route when, ahead of me, I saw a car turning into a wide driveway at great speed. I instinctively slowed down to allow the car to turn, only to be hit from behind by a motorcycle that had veered off the road.

Thrown into a ditch but fully conscious, I touched my head and felt it to be completely drenched. Before I looked at my hand, I readied myself for the eventuality that it was blood I was feeling, and that this could be my last day alive. To my relief, it was just mud. I slowly moved each part of my body, to find that I had no severe injuries. I picked up my glasses, stood up, and processed that I was, indeed, alive. A crowd quickly grew around me, with people asking me who to call, or whether I wanted go to hospital immediately. Through tears, full of adrenaline and in a state of shock, I insisted that I wanted to go home; I hadn’t jogged far. I got onto one of the many boda bodas that had gathered at the scene, and home I went.

Some 20 minutes later, as I was getting into a car with a family friend to be taken to the hospital, still in a state of shock and disarray, a boda boda rider approached me. He is a rider in the local area, so we were familiar with each other. He happened to have seen me leave for my jog before the accident, and was at the same place as I was being brought back, covered in mud and crying, some ten minutes later. He explained that he had been told what had happened, that he knew who had hit me and that he was willing to participate in a justice process. I won’t go into what I went through both physically and emotional here except to say that I had avoided a neck fracture and wore a brace for a few days to allow a slight injury at the back of my neck to heal. The shock took a few days to wear off, and I remain very aware of the fact that October 5th could have gone very differently.

However, what I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level, which the local boda boda rider wanted deployed. The episode highlighted the social, political and economic consequences of the way in which this working-class community is perceived by the wider society, and how Kenyan society could change for the better if these broad-brush and often negative societal perspectives were abandoned.

Several months before the incident, a group of boda boda riders had been recorded violently physically and sexually assaulting a woman whose car had hit one of them along Forest Road. The ensuing aggressive and outraged discourse across social media targeted the boda boda community and its collective culture. Given the nature of the injustice faced by that woman—an incident that I can only imagine would leave a person emotionally impacted long after the assault itself—the uproar, indignation, and anger of Kenyans was not misplaced.

What I learned from this experience is that there is an organized structure within the boda boda community that has the capacity to administer justice at the grassroots level

However, even with my limited experience of the country, I felt uneasy about the state’s knee-jerk reaction which was to take all boda bodas off the road in response to the incident. Firstly, I think that the culture of women being subjected to sexual violence as a result of men, or society in general, experiencing emotions like anger towards who they are and what they do has less to do with who boda boda riders are as people, and more to do with what patriarchy has normalized regarding how women should suffer the consequences when men get emotional.

Secondly, the dogmatic nature of the car drivers vs boda boda riders conversation on Twitter felt unfair. Months before the Forest Road incident, I had been part of a small group of people that had spent hours trying to help a boda boda rider that had been hit and badly injured by a car that had then fled the scene. Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.

Thirdly, I just couldn’t see where the post-Forest Road social media discourse was going and I was nervous to wade in with what, in the face of the national outrage, felt like a fickle personal opinion of a guest in the country naively suggesting “not all boda boda riders are…” I kept quietly to myself the thought that this just wasn’t who I had experienced the boda boda community to be. Not being a Swahili speaker, one of the ways in which I navigate new parts of Nairobi, and the country generally, is by locating the nearest boda boda stage if I need to ask for directions or for any other help. I have come to know boda boda riders in a way that the capitalist culture doesn’t allow you to get to know the service providers you engage with on a daily basis. But it would have seemed tone-deaf to contribute this experiences to the discourse at the time, although I was reminded of them again following of the October 5th accident.

Bystanders at the scene supported the boda boda riders pursuing the car in question, even though they were aware that he might be subjected to violence if caught.

Victor* the boda boda rider that approached me on my way to the hospital, is the security officer of the local boda boda riders committee. This is why, when he saw that I had been injured and learned that it was as a result of being hit by a boda boda rider, he made it his personal responsibility to advocate for me in a dialogue involving the police, the owner of the bike, the local boda boda community and the person who had hit me. This process lasted a week before I decided to stop pursuing the case because of the intimidation that Victor was facing from boda boda riders in the area. As the week unfolded, I was not only struck by Victor’s commitment to ensure that I obtained justice, but I was struck by his belief in the system that he was a part of and within which he was a leader, a system that I think many Kenyans don’t know exists, or if they do, aren’t sure of its purpose or its effectiveness. Even though in my case the effectiveness of this system was compromised because of the power relations between the owner of the bike and others in the local area, it has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.

A few days after we stopped pursuing the case, Victor and I sat down for an interview. Victor, who is 26 years old, has been a rider in the area for just over two years. Prior to that, Victor had been working in personal and housing security. In his words, it’s because of that experience that he was encouraged to take on the role of security officer and was elected by an overwhelming majority. “First of all, you have to understand, when you see a boda boda rider, you need to know that he is not only standing there for the money. We are keeping an eye on our surroundings in order to keep it secure,” was how Victor began his response to my question about the specifics of his role as a security officer. He went on to explain that “When anything happens regarding boda bodas, a security officer is the first person that is asked, ‘What happened?’ It doesn’t matter if it is 1 am or 3 am in the morning; if there is an incident, I have to wake up and attend to the situation, to understand what happened, who was involved, and what process is required moving forward. If you consider my area, it is part of my job to know every corner of it and be aware of every person operating in my constituency.” Victor explains that each boda boda committee that exists per constituency has a chairperson, security officer, treasurer, and secretary. “As committees, we are known by the NTSA [National Transport and Safety Authority], local police, and local community elders,” he says. People can serve in these positions until they move on, there is no term limit, and, he adds, one does not earn more for taking a leadership position. Sometimes, a person who has received help from a boda boda rider or from the committee will offer compensation in the form of materials such as boots or jackets, or cash. “We also support people financially. If a driver needs to repair his bike because of a hit, or if he needs to pay for damages caused and can’t afford it, we can organize amongst ourselves to support the person affected and be repaid slowly,” Victor explains.

It has inspired me, time and time again, to see Victor organize and mobilize a grassroots system that he has played a role in creating, for the cause of community-based justice.

I asked Victor whether the level of organization that he was describing was present before the Forest Road incident. “After [that incident], measures got much stricter when it comes to registering with the NTSA. It used to be easy. You could talk to someone at any stage and you can start driving. Now it’s much more organized. There was the president’s order that this is the case, but even us, it is something that we took very seriously. You know, it causes you shame when someone from your community harms others.” When I asked Victor why he does this work, and why he pursued my case so vigorously, he shared the following moving reflections: “I didn’t study security or go past Form 2, but this comes from inside of me. I feel very good when I know that everybody in my surroundings is safe and secure. The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.” Interestingly, towards the end of our discussion, Victor also described a brief encounter he had had with the recently elected Governor of Nairobi, Johnson Sakaja. “I told him that we need to know each other; he needs to know us guys and we need to know them.”

As an Oromo who is actively engaged in the liberation struggle going on in Ethiopia today, I cannot help but feel a connection between the way Oromo grassroots cultural and political processes and institutions interested in the administration of justice have been misrepresented by the political and economic elites (of all ethnicities), and the way the reality of the boda boda community’s collective life has been similarly unjustly misinterpreted. If local and national institutions could move beyond perpetuating harmful narratives about boda boda riders in order to keep them at the margins of society and use them as political scapegoats when convenient, they could play a productive role in empowering and resourcing this community’s capacity to organise for grassroots justice and projection.

“The only reason that I do this is because I care about justice and fairness.”

Speaking off the record (but giving permission to use this information on the record), Victor told me about a domestic violence dispute that he was able to safely intervene in because of the work he does as a security officer. The victim in question was over 30kms away from Victor’s station, but because he could identify her as a member of his local community whose safety he feels personally responsible for, he took effective action to protect the woman. Even if—like in any institution where power and people are involved—the security institution within the boda boda community is not perfect, it is one of the many ways through which grassroots processes of protection and justice can have a transformative impact where more formalized institutional processes fall short. There is great scope for the latter to be empowered by the former in order to achieve that which I think we all want: to live safely and freely.

*Name has been changed to protect the rider

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Ideas

Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy

In his book Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience Kai Kresse examines the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya and the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.

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Swahili Muslim Practices and Sage Philosophy
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Indisputably, the Kenyan intellectual tradition is rich, varied and influential. Furthermore, much more is known about its modern intellectual practices than its ancient discursive traditions. Perhaps this is due to the widespread popularity of its contemporary literary artists and public intellectuals. Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Kenya’s foremost novelist and public intellectual exerts an arresting presence over most issues deemed distinctly Kenyan. And this is understandably so, given his remarkable productivity, range and resilience as an author. Ultimately, perhaps much less can be said of his late compatriot, Binyavanga Wainaina, who was an equally influential essayist, unconventional journalist and famed memoirist. Wainaina’s lauded memoir, One day I will write about this place is a lambent, often lushly written but also arguably frustrating personal account of modern-day Kenya. Wainaina was concerned with the transitional or even fragmented phases of the contemporary moment and his confessional role as a self-appointed spokesman on the larger national canvas. He wrote enticingly about the Kenyan urban lingo intriguingly called Sheng but failed to explore momentous historical events such as the anti-colonial Mau Mau rebellion or paradigmatic precolonial life worlds suppressed by the colonial intrusion.

Wainaina also implicitly advanced the view that the contemporary moment was all that counts, that all we needed to know about an undoubtedly complex nation such as Kenya was enshrined in the present. But of course, Kenya has far more to offer intellectually and culturally and this is why accounts such as Kai Kresse’s Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience (2019) paint a deeper and more nuanced picture of the Kenyan intellectual tradition. Kresse, a German, ZMO Berlin-based anthropologist specializing in East African intellectual and philosophical traditions employs self-reflexive discursive strategies to complicate his positionality and the overall project of anthropology as a discipline. This makes his writings unusually refreshing and intellectually stimulating.

Kresse’s research into Kenyan intellectual formations spans three decades beginning with a work on sage philosophy published in 1997 and continuing to a monograph on philosophizing in Mombasa. In addition, his training as an anthropologist grants him perspectives and insights an ordinary philosopher would not only miss but perhaps would also not fully appreciate.

Kresse’s book is not just a close and intimate examination of the dynamics of Islamic subjectivity in postcolonial Kenya but also speaks to the myriad issues relating to the hybridized nature of postcoloniality itself in Africa.

The Kenyan coastals, marginalized by centuries of external rule either by the Portuguese, the British or by Kenyan upcountry domination, classify their current status as “double periphery”. The coastals claim they are marginalized within the broader Kenyan nation space and also within the specific Muslim configuration of their geographic location.

As such, they are forced to endure a form of silence. This silence and the accompanying encroaching sense of marginality speak volumes when compared, for instance, with the political dominance of the northern Islamic elites in Nigeria, or in the cases of Senegal and Somalia.

In Nigeria, the Hausa/Fulani oligarchy has dominated the country since independence and its overbearing presence is often considered an inevitability or a fait accompli. Minorities such as the Ogoni, Ijaw, Tiv, Nupe and so many other ethnic groups in both southern and northern Nigeria have had to contend with Hausa/Fulani hegemony. From a Nigerian and Senegalese point of view, it is difficult to imagine an Islamic minority in an African context agitating for its own political expression or survival when Islam is considered to be the religious faith of political and military elites. Unfortunately, in Kenya, Muslims constitute a minority and once again, such sociopolitical complexities attest to the hybridized dynamics of postcoloniality in contemporary Africa.

In Kenya, works advocating self-determination such as Regionalism: True Freedom to Save the Coastal People, penned and self-published by an anonymous former education officer, bring to mind the plight of the Ogoni under the inspiring leadership of Ken Saro-Wiwa or the Igbo under Chukwuemeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu during the Biafran/Nigerian crisis between 1967 and 1970.  The sometimes violent contestations between ethnic minorities and majorities to gain political freedom or control are also inflected by a religious coloration. The shifts and eruptions caused by political power are never exactly definitive but move instead like swings of a pendulum according to the imperatives of circumstance and history.

Kresse argues that Swahili Muslim intellectual culture in Kenya is rather well developed. Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.

The concept and broad understanding of humanness are key to fostering relations of mutuality, therefore affirming the essence and significance of the human. The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance. Rather than being an isolated being, or even more radically, a frank social fact, the human, in fact, is a being-in-social process, reinforced and re-enacted in a continuum of social acts and affirmations that lead to mutual recognition, validation and reinforcement. Thus the ultimate goal of the human in existence and by extension, within the community, is to seek the good within oneself, re-living it in everyday life and tangibly creating sociality through a continual implementation of its values.

Kresse eloquently explores the philosophical basis of Swahili Muslim understanding of the human and then delves into the specificities of the intellectual culture  it produced which turns out to be intricate, well-developed and ultimately, profoundly humanizing. It is a pity that continentally or globally, very little is known about this astounding intellectual culture. This culture also bears elements of political subversion, social discontent and self-determination which are expressed in narratives and counter-narratives of poetry (utendi) and radical political commentary.

The human, just as in the Southern African concept of ubuntu, is realized in continual social acts of mutual recognition and acceptance.

Kresse’s latest book, Rethinking Sage Philosophy: Interdisciplinary perspectives on and beyond H. Odera Oruka, co-edited with Oriare Nyarwath (2022), continues his focused exploration of Kenyan historic intellectual formations, this time, the discourse of sage philosophy, a form of re-configured folk philosophy popularized by the late pivotal modern-day Kenyan philosopher,  Henry Odera Oruka. Under the philosophical school known as sage philosophy, a presumably western trained philosopher identifies the invariably illiterate elders of a rural, ethnic community and attempts to collate the folk wisdom and critical reflections of that community regarding life, knowledge and metaphysics, which are then translated and rendered in a metropolitan medium. Perhaps what needs to be tracked are the conceptual and linguistic transitions inherent in these renditions and how they might be contributing to the (un)making of a new philosophical language. Gathering an impressive pool of Kenyan and international scholars, the Kresse co-edited book places sage philosophy at the centre of postcolonial philosophical thought while seeking to eschew the essentializing and frequently polarizing overtones of coloniality.

Once again, a tripartite epistemological structure becomes evident. Ali Mazrui had argued that Africa, and Kenya in particular, is defined by a triple heritage comprising an indigenous African tradition, a Muslim/Mediterranean influence and a Christian/western inheritance. In Kresse’s work, so far, another kind of tripartite discursive formation reveals itself; one marked by an Islamic intellectual history, an indigenous/endogenous philosophical system known as sage philosophy and then a western philosophical idiom and canon through which a folk system of thought is articulated and elaborated. Either consciously or unwittingly, Kresse’s project traces the contours of Kenyan social thought as they unfold within the often overlapping matrixes of Islam, indigeneity and westernity with evident conceptual continuity and singularity.

Exclusively Muslim and Swahili communities often overlap, cross-fertilizing intellectual and cultural patterns and crisscrossing one another in a mutually reinforcing way.

The current trajectory of Kresse’s work tends to shadow contemporary European thinkers such as the late German philosopher, Heinz Kimmerle and Dutch anthropologist/philosopher, Wim van Binsbergen who interrogate questions of interculturality, otherness and marginality—often from a multiplicity of positionalities and perspectives—while also seeking to unbundle the inheritances of their North Atlantic intellectual pedigree.

Kresse’s interest in the philosophical and intellectual traditions of Muslims in Kenya, has succeeded in unearthing systems of thought, social activism and instances of political resistance that complicate Kenya’s supposedly unitary Christian construct of itself.  And then his earlier work on sage philosophy, a largely Kenyan-spawned modern—perhaps Christian-based—philosophy tradition further complicates an already multi-layered national intellectual history and identity.

At the political level, there are also real existential entanglements to consider. Kenya, like any other colonial creation, ought to be viewed as a political and geographical aberration formed on the basis of a largely irrational colonial diktat. But like other postcolonial territorial anomalies-turned-miracles in Africa, it has managed to finesse its numerous irreconcilable differences into the improbable semblance of a nation.

The universe presented in Swahili Muslim Publics and the Postcolonial Experience invariably yields a philosophical and intellectual tradition that has been virtually ignored in current African philosophical discourse. And then, in investigating the ramifications of sage philosophy, Kresse’s work further highlights the significance and impact of a dominant Kenyan philosophical formation. Arguably, Kresse’s attempt to bridge a fundamental epistemological schism by amalgamating a minority Muslim discourse (Swahili intellectual practices) with sage philosophy is certainly a kind of epistemic project a Kenyan would ordinarily find impossible to execute. This is due to the ingrained and perhaps often insurmountable separations caused by fractious internal politics and differences. There is also an implicit epistemic holism in this project of intellectual reconstruction. But how much it serves Kenyans from a practical point of view is another matter entirely.

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa

An interview with former South African president Thabo Mbeki on 19 June 2022 presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid.

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Thabo Mbeki and the Quest for an Independent and Prosperous Africa
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The quest for an independent and prosperous Africa spans several generations, continents, and themes. Notably, from the eighteenth century, people of African descent in Europe, America, the West Indies, and on the continent have been engaged in different variations of the liberation struggle to uphold their humanity, independence, and right to self-determination. After the triumph of the abolitionist movements over the menace of institutionalized slavery, Africa was again saddled with the task of dislodging an imperialist regime that wanted to perpetuate itself on the continent by every means available.

In most of Africa, colonialism produced various forms and levels of exploitation, deprivation, and shame—segregation. This prevalent atmosphere of injustice was to inform the establishment of resistance movements manifested in Pan-African coalitions and nationalist organizations focused on uniting Africans in a movement against the shackles of European imperialism. However, due to the varied nature of the colonial establishment around the continent, the successes of these liberation movements were also not to be attained uniformly. With the collapse of the South African apartheid regime in 1994 representing a close in the chapter of colonial oppression in Africa, the struggle for independence was drawn out in colonies like South Africa, Algeria, and to a lesser degree, Zimbabwe and Namibia, which had substantial settler populations.

After liberation came the task of nation-building. The process of post-independence nation-building has been arduous for most of Africa, a situation emphasized by the frequent occurrence of violent conflicts on the continent. Many of the challenges—such as international sabotage, corruption, marginalization, unemployment, conflict and diseases—identified as impeding growth and development on the continent can be tied to the problem of national cohesion around Africa’s “nation-states”. In the absence of a powerful overriding national sentiment, an array of competing ethnic/sub-national interests within Africa’s national boundaries—a by-product of Africa’s colonial past—has made it difficult for African states to present a united front against threats to their (individual and collective) socio-political and economic wellbeing. Hence, territorialism, ethnicity, racialism, corruption, and nepotism thrive and continue to undermine African efforts at political and economic independence and prosperity.

Former South African president Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki has been an avid campaigner for an independent, united, and prosperous Africa for over half a century. Born in South Africa to activist parents, Thabo Mbeki was inclined to join the struggle against the oppressive white minority government in 1955 at the young age of 13. With a passion uncommon among youths of his era (during colonialism), young Thabo became an active member of the youth wing of the African National Congress (ANC), the leading organization protesting the oppressive apartheid regime in South Africa. During his activism years in the ANC, Thabo’s diplomatic skills and commitment to the organization’s objectives gained him some recognition and provided an opportunity for him to serve in very important capacities.

In December 1994, after South Africa’s first elections under universal suffrage, Thabo Mbeki was elected unopposed as the ANC’s deputy president, a position that saw him serving under the nation’s first democratically elected president, Nelson Mandela. As a long-standing member of the ANC who served with and succeeded Nelson Mandela as the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki’s role in South Africa’s emergence as a continental model transcends the era of nationalist struggle to include the critical years of reconciliation, recovery, and reconstruction. Even after his tenure as South Africa’s president, Thabo Mbeki has maintained his commitment to the unity and development of Africa, for which he has continued to serve in different diplomatic capacities. Hence, an interview with Thambo Mbeki presented an opportunity for Africans within and outside the intellectual community to ask questions and raise issues around particular developments in South Africa and the continent following the end of apartheid (liberation). Leading with the questions was a select panel that included the duo of Prof. Paul Zeleza, the former Vice-Chancellor of the United States International University Africa, Kenya, and Naledi Moleo, a media practitioner.

While discussing the lessons the ANC learned from the liberation struggle and the challenges encountered in building a post-apartheid nation, Mbeki conceded that creating a new nation, especially after coming out of colonial oppression, was indeed an important challenge. According to him, the first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy. This decision was particularly critical owing to a substantial settler population in South Africa and the high expectations held by an erstwhile oppressed majority. On its part, the government approached the task with two notable convictions. One, that there were no set ways to build a democracy. Two, that there were not going to be any quick fixes. Hence, in attending to the business of nation-building, the leadership made the informed decision to engage the people by communicating its policy decisions with them regularly and honestly so that they do not become disillusioned by the pace of development and withdraw their support.

The first political challenge confronting the new government was determining what kind of society it wanted to build, whether a one-party state or a multi-party democracy.

On the question of his proudest achievement at the age of 80, Mbeki spoke about the sense of fulfilment that came with being part of a successful liberation struggle against colonial oppression. He also explained that the South African struggle provided Africans, home and abroad, with a reason to unite under the belief that a free South Africa would further stimulate development processes on the continent. Mbeki added that South Africa has, within its capacity, made some contributions to Africa’s development challenge. However, he lamented that Africa had lost the respect it had from the rest of the world, which resulted from the agreement between Africa and the G8 countries in which the latter agreed to meet Africa’s development needs at its recommendation.

Reacting to the popular question of youth participation in leadership, and specifically whether there was any plan within the ANC to hand over the reins to a younger generation, Mbeki recalled his progressive rise within the party from a place of relative insignificance to subsequent positions of responsibility and authority. According to Mbeki, his emergence within the party was not the result of a “handing over” but a natural progression in rank. As young party members, their continued commitment to the struggle ensured they became the ideal candidates to fill vacancies when they arose. Thus, he advised that young people should develop strong youth organizations to address the challenges of poverty and unemployment in their communities. This way, they gain the necessary leadership experience and from their role as youth leaders gradually rise to become national leaders.

Mbeki spoke of the pressure of meeting the high expectations of people within and outside the country concerning the key challenges encountered while in office. Another source of anxiety for the new post-apartheid government, he said, was the fear of possible counter-revolutionary action by disgruntled elements within South Africa’s large settler population who did not believe in a new South Africa. The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies that could manifest either in the assassination of key ANC leaders or as attacks on critical infrastructure. Therefore, for political and economic expedience, they decided on a measured approach in implementing political and economic reconstruction programmes as symbolized by the party’s famed reconciliatory post-apartheid political stance, the systematic introduction of a wealth tax, and the gradual extension of social welfare packages like the child grants to otherwise excluded Black populations.

Speaking on the impact of the reform programmes implemented by the Mandela administration during which he served as vice-president, Mbeki drew attention to the challenges the government inherited from the old apartheid government, particularly the huge debts incurred in a final attempt to buy dissenting voices. Given this financial deficit, the government decided to implement policies to bring the population to a level of development sufficient to generate wealth for the country. Towards that end, the budget structure was changed to cut down on foreign debt while directing the bulk of the generated revenues towards human development programmes instead of debt servicing. Mbeki alluded that these changes induced some economic expansion based on an expanded workforce that generated the wealth required to maintain a certain level of spending on social benefits. The resulting economic growth recorded was maintained for some period until the disruption brought about by the 2007/2008 financial crisis which was caused by the collapse of US banks and from which the economy never fully recovered.

The ANC government decided that a special political approach was necessary to guard against counter-revolutionary tendencies.

Addressing the matter of the constitutional issues faced while in office, particularly what Naledi Moleo described as a sharp decrease in the popularity of the constitution, Mbeki pointed out that this was mostly a result of the disappointment that followed the government’s decision to follow the path of reconciliation instead of the expected retaliation for centuries of alien oppression. He went further to explain that the ANC government’s decision to adopt a constitution that provided for the rights of everyone living in South Africa (Black or white) was more than an immediate reaction to political exigencies—a peaceful and mutually beneficial coexistence had always been part of the party’s ideology. Moreover, this decision was thought to be best for the state’s progress and to prove wrong those detractors who doubted the (Black) government’s capacity to operate a non-racial and non-sexist system while addressing the imbalances of the past; Mbeki said these people believed South Africans were incapable of that level of sophistication. He also discussed ideas of pride in an African identity and African self-esteem, which had come under severe attack from colonial oppression, and of the systematic alterations made to the African person (identity), beginning with his name and progressing to other aspects of his being (culture), all in an attempt to create a subservient subject/population. Mbeki said these were factored into the liberation agenda, informing important elements within the drafted constitution aimed at rejecting the colonial legacy and recovering the people’s self-esteem.

Concerning the socio-political challenges encountered while in office, Mbeki explained that, with regards to HIV/AIDS, the government opted to come at the challenge from the angle of correcting the South African population’s immune deficiency to boost resistance to the virus. As for COVID-19, the biggest challenge was overcrowding, which made respecting safety guidelines difficult, and the inability of Africa to produce its own vaccines. Hence, while acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa to counter such crises in the future.

Coming around to the subject of xenophobic attacks, Mbeki explained that South Africa’s Black population was very accommodating and that these attacks were orchestrated by the enemies of the state who wanted to see it fail. He insisted that the organizers of these attacks played on the economic insecurities of the average South African to achieve particular political goals, including attempts to destabilize the country and to influence election outcomes in Zimbabwe by terrorizing its migrant population in South Africa. He emphasized that these saboteurs must be identified and stopped as a matter of political urgency because they continue to threaten stability in South Africa. According to Mbeki, these people want South Africa to fail because it communicates a particular political message.

While acknowledging that the government did relatively well in responding to these crises, he also conceded that more needs to be done in the area of medical research in Africa.

Lastly, on the question of conflicts and the challenge of political instability on the continent, which also formed a bulk of the questions from the audience, Mbeki related this to a sharp decline in the sense of Pan-Africanism among Africans. In his view, this dwindling commitment to a pan-African ideal has also negatively impacted the capacity of the African Union (AU) to carry out the duties for which it was established. As it is, the AU boasts of mechanisms for early detection of conflicts, but how effective have these been in conflict prevention? How well has the continental body fared in its conflict resolution attempts? For these reasons, Mbeki called for a greater commitment to the pan-African ideal, hence the need for an African renaissance. For this renaissance movement to achieve the goals of development (modernization) and prosperity in Africa, it must have the backing of a committed and well-organized youth with the passion to see such a vision come to fruition.

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