Nanjala Nyabola, author of Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics, points out that Kenya’s first digital election in 2017 was the most expensive election in world history, at $28 per capita, more than four times higher than that of India’s $6. (That was on the first round alone.) This gargantuan deployment of resources can be attributed to the evolution of elections into a massive transnational profit-making industry that is amoral in its misappropriation of digital assets, data mining and brokerage. Thus the irony that Jubilee’s 2013 campaign strategy to frame the International Criminal Court (ICC) process as a foreign attack on Kenyan sovereignty was in fact the brainchild of a foreign corporation – the Anglo-American political consultancy Cambridge Analytica – that was based on a covert survey of 47,000 Kenyans.
Misinformation has always been critical to the survival of the colonial state. No economic caste system in the world has ever survived without the tacit approval of the majority of its serfs because from the perspective of power, it is much more costly to impose rule over an overwhelmingly antagonistic population than over one that participates willingly in its own exploitation. So it is not surprising that Kenya’s ruling oligarchy would engage firms that specialise in misinformation for profit. Their product is a personalised fiction tailored to the emotional vulnerabilities of unsuspecting citizens.
Unlike broadcast media, digital media allows private messaging below the radar of law enforcement or opposition monitors, thus making it a favourite medium for hate speech. This threat of unfettered Western capital influencing elections has no borders. Digital colonialism, as this business model has come to be known, was incubated in Kenya where “nobody was paying attention” and has since been repatriated to effectively disrupt referenda and elections around the world, including most flamboyantly in the election of Donald Trump in the United States.
Nyabola’s book begs the urgent question: If information, rather than misinformation, was our goal, how else might we have invested a hundred and forty billion shillings?
A wonderful usage of $28 per capita would be to cultivate a new identity that subverts the destructive logic of tribal politics in a way that benefits the majority of Kenyan citizens. There happens to be a “tribe” to which all of us must belong for a time, and that is the tribe of young people. Africa is the youngest continent in the world, but her colonial states are ill-suited to harness the potential of their most productive citizens, leaving thousands to decay as economic migrants in Libyan slave markets or at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. While African bodies are denied free movement, African capital and resources move freely out of the continent in the form of debt interest repayment, Chinese infrastructure payments, and most significantly, the massive misallocation of capital through corruption.
Kenyans under the age of 35 years are the most vulnerable to the shocks of systemic corruption, unemployment, lack of maternity care, ecological destruction, forced migration and the education gap. If Kenyans under the age of 35 comprised a single “tribe”, they would be 77% of the population. Using the logic of adherents of the tyranny of numbers doctrine of tribal supremacy, the 77% should currently be dictating government policy as a democratic imperative.
If the 77% were to become politically self-aware, its representation in the cabinet would be so overwhelming that it would be taken for granted. An absurd institution, such as the Ministry of ICT, Innovation and Youth Affairs, would not exist because no president would be allowed to get away with insulting the 77% by giving them half a ministry. More than an insult, it would be considered profoundly undemocratic to reduce the ecological, economic and political concerns of this majority to their utility in the ICT sector. What a politically self-aware 77% would demand instead is representation at the heart of decision-making institutions in every single arm of government – regardless of whether or not ICT is involved.
Kenyans under the age of 35 years are the most vulnerable to the shocks of systemic corruption, unemployment, lack of maternity care, ecological destruction, forced migration and the education gap.
Technology and innovation are no doubt important to the 77%, but so is defending our constitution and our environment from wanton abuse of power. The 77% would resoundingly assert, “We do not wish to become Dubai or Singapore, however much you dynastic dinosaurs would wish to bribe us with that fantasy. We are a constitutional democracy and we will never trade democracy for the sake of your so-called ‘development’.”
The goal of this thought experiment is not in any way to endorse our normalised tribalism as a legitimate mode of governance, but rather to push the limits of our collective imagination. This in my estimation would do infinitely more to strengthen our public institutions without expensive bridges to nowhere. If our public policy was informed by the interests of the 77%, there would be no need for private initiatives between boardroom brothers.
Yet because private bedroom initiatives are the favourite ruling format of Kenya’s fraudulent elite, the primary function of the billions in campaign spending is to make sure that the 77% never ever becomes politically self-aware by splintering it into toothless sub-categories. Only through such fragmentation is it possible for thinking human beings to willfully vote against their own economic interests and uphold a system that concentrates power and wealth in the hands of a fraction of a percentage of the population. This is the enduring triumph of colonialism that has proved far more insidious and resilient than the freedom fighters could have ever anticipated. It has proved much harder to remove the crony capitalist ideology brought by the coloniser than it was to remove his flags because his ideology now speaks our language – very fluently.
For the tyranny of numbers ideology to function in practice, it requires more than simply state violence, plentiful though that is. It requires the erosion of public institutions supported by a massive cultural project of misinformation and fraud that turns the 77% into either slack-jawed consumers of propaganda, or alienated and apathetic gamblers. Only through this social engineering does systemic abuse of power not trigger the sort of rage that could bring our house of cards raining down.
This social engineering includes the imposition of punitive fines and defamation laws against the media, and the narrowing of the spectrum of ideas that can be freely expressed with the aim of reducing journalists to stenographers. A good example of this is how over the past month critical questions of rule of law, human rights and citizenship were effectively trivialised into a binary question of whether or not we approve of Miguna Miguna’s manners – as if our rights are contingent on good manners.
But perhaps the most crucial lever of social engineering is an education policy that eliminates creative education from its curricula with the aim of graduating a docile workforce that does not ask those in power critical questions. For the few creative professionals that do survive the education system, they still have to contend with a philistine environment that has driven many promising young artists to suicide.
As numerous contemporary educators, including myself, have pointed out, eliminating creative education is a disastrous misstep for Kenya at a time when creative thinkers are needed more than ever before. The tyranny of numbers fundamentalists have no response to our most pressing contemporary challenges – ecological destruction, systemic corruption, a debt crisis and technological unemployment – except to warn us of a repeat of the 2007/8 violence if we do not give them what they want. That is, state jobs, chase cars and overpriced initiatives, ostensibly for our sake.
For the tyranny of numbers ideology to function in practice, it requires more than simply state violence…It requires the erosion of public institutions supported by a massive cultural project of misinformation and fraud that turns the 77% into either slack-jawed consumers of propaganda, or alienated and apathetic gamblers.
As the 77% hangs onto dignity by its fingernails, a confrontation with these dynastic dinosaurs that rule Kenya is inevitable. Under the weight of economic mismanagement, fissures of discontent are beginning to crack our social fabric. As young workers struggle to support their elderly relatives, business-as-usual politicians will spend billions on divisive campaigns to preserve their cherished tyranny of numbers doctrine, adding the risk of unrest to our already mounting challenges. Kenya’s rulers have already demonstrated a willingness to encourage violence among a splintered 77% for the sake of power. The only way to avoid the grave that they are digging for us with the aid of mercenary capital is for the 77% to become politically self-conscious.
Our minds are the battleground for the survival of the dream that is Kenya. With our labour, will we pay the price for the largest debt accumulation this country has ever seen. If we are to avert catastrophe, we have no choice but to wake up from our millennial slumber and own our power. Democracy is strong when the powerful fear the citizens and not when the citizens fear the powerful. This is a form of tribalism to which I will happily subscribe long after my membership inevitably expires.
As the most dynamic segment of the population, young people are the most capable of adapting to change if only their education facilitates this innate ability. As one of the youngest countries on earth, Kenya should be reaping huge rewards from its youth bulge. Instead, we are squandering our precious resources on everything except young people and undercutting what little support they have. Where public playgrounds once sat, huge private hotels and apartments are illegally erected, complete with barbed wire fences and NO IDLING signs. Whereas once children were encouraged to love learning, now they receive the relentless message from the state that the arts and humanities in general are economically useless and therefore not worth pursuing. The thinking (or lack of) behind scrapping humanities such as art, history and literature from our public school curricula is that in our quest to become rich like Dubai or Singapore, we must prioritise science, technology and mathematics (STEM) at the expense of all other fields.
This worldview assumes that Kenya in 2020 can follow the same industrialisation path of Singapore in 1950 by making Kenya an attractive destination for labour-intensive industries that can absorb its millions of unemployed youth. That is a dangerous assumption to make in 2020 and is woefully uninformed by recent trends in digital technology, which are more likely to generate jobless “growth” and enrich a tiny fraction of our population, as is already occurring.
Our minds are the battleground for the survival of the dream that is Kenya. With our labour, will we pay the price for the largest debt accumulation this country has ever seen. If we are to avert catastrophe, we have no choice but to wake up from our millennial slumber and own our power.
In this decade, numbers such as GDP that purport to describe our lives are completely divorced from the reality of ordinary Kenyans. Capitalism powered by exponential technology has finally evolved to the point where a handful of individuals can own billions worth of shares in decentralised autonomous organizations (DAOs) that operate without human supervision.
Without a creative lens with which to evaluate our current reality, our education system will continue to lock the minds of the 77% into a hapless cycle of reactivity to the changes happening around us rather than proactively harnessing the winds change for the benefit of society at large, including our elders who depend on us for support. Moreover, the STEM prescription is rarely applied to the wealthy politicians who can afford to take their children to private schools that offer art and literature. Rather, the evidence suggests that the STEM prescription is motivated by the desire to standardise and commodify public education for the benefit of a few foreign edutech corporations marketing “scalable” solutions. Educators have tried in vain to warn against selling out the 77% to these corporations, but their money talks louder than Kenyan teachers.
Creative education, on the other hand, shows us that unlike digital information, we humans inhabit an analog planet which we must learn to see, sense and cultivate if we are to survive in it. Our growing population and finite resources such as freshwater cannot sustain the same exponential rate of growth as capital accumulation. This is an irreconcilable difference between the natural world and the digital world.
A digital sound recording can only approximate the totality of information contained in a sound wave from an actual musical instrument or a singer’s vocal chords. A digital image, no matter how dense its pixels per inch, still remains constrained by the eyesight of the viewer. No matter how much content we can upload to video platforms such as YouTube, the amount of attention we have available to spend remains constrained by our competing need for sleep. Only by appreciating the richness of the living systems that sustain human life can we hope to become architects of a digital layer that improves our wellbeing rather than harming us.
Creative education works by combining our innate passion to an external learning goal to create motivated learning. Motivated learning is the difference between studying physics in the middle of the night so that you can realise your childhood dream of building a computer game, versus studying physics in the middle of the night so that you can pass an exam in the hope of someday finding a job. In this example, the learning goal is the same – to learn physics – but the outcomes are vastly different.
Motivated learning leads to mastery and meaning, whereas coercive learning yields disengagement and alienation. Furthermore, from a social perspective, most people prefer to work with motivated peers rather than with uninspired peers, regardless of their skill level. If we are sincere in our Singaporean ambitions, creative education should become our number one priority.
Unleashing a cultural renaissance
When I was a little boy, I recall shuddering at the mention of the word “culture”. It was often spoken with an ominous air of religious obligation that conjured in my mind images of strict discipline and painful circumcision. If we wanted to find “culture”, the place we were instructed to look was in the past. The more distant that past, the better.
It was not until fairly recently that I began to develop a much more nuanced understanding of what Culture – with a big C – is. Culture is not a frozen relic of the past that we can display neatly in a rectangular museum. Culture is an evolving system of ideas, language and technologies that set the parameters for our interaction with the world. Most importantly, I learned that we have agency in setting these parameters. Most of our agrarian ancestors lived in a relatively unchanging geographic and technological context where most of their relatives lived within two days on camel-back. In this context, the most important reservoirs of knowledge were those who had lived the longest.
The same is not true today. Understanding the most culturally transformative technologies of our age is now the province of teenagers. This does not mean rewriting cherished norms, such as respect for elders, but it does, however, demand that we develop a relationship of mutual respect with our youngest citizens.
After the president congratulated himself on his “inclusivity” after appointing two twenty-something-year-olds to his cabinet this month, he urged them to “learn from your more experienced elders”. What he failed to make clear was exactly what these youth are expected to learn from elders who have presided over the worst economic mismanagement in our history and reversed our progress towards democracy.
Brothers and sisters of the 77%, if we have any self-respect, we must refuse such tokens of false friendship and instead advise the “elder” to learn from us. Until this president and his boardroom brothers are subject to the same law that is inflicted on the young people selling chapatis on the wrong side of the road, we can only be doubtful of his claims of solidarity with us. Our survival demands that we bring about a cultural renaissance. It is a collective project that no one individual can bring about alone, but one that all of us can influence by abstaining from consuming the idiocy that is sold to us in the name of “culture”. Let us create our own culture by tearing down the walls of the silos that were erected around our minds.
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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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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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