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Colonial Frameworks: Networks of Political and Economic Order

6 min read.

Christoph Vogel writes that the university is a site where colonial frames survive – whether in financial, linguistic, architectural, political or mental spheres. These frameworks are cross-cutting and create, shape and legitimise knowledge. He argues that Western raised and educated academics are trapped in self-made intellectual snares, complicating attempts to make sense of politics in most parts of the world.

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If we keep seeing incessant calls for decolonizing knowledgeresearch and teaching, that’s owed to stubborn imperfections in the political architecture of the Ivory Tower. The university is a site where colonial frames survive in the material and immaterial features of academia – whether in financial, linguistic, architectural, political or mental spheres. While these frames are cross-cutting, as the writings of Edward SaidAngela Davisbell hooks or Aimé Césaire and others taught us, this essay focuses on epistemics, that is – in a nutshell – the ways in which we create, shape and legitimise knowledge. Inspired by Spivak and others, the starting point here is the observation that colonial imaginations keep questioning whether the subaltern can speak, leading – in academia and beyond – to longstanding trajectories of epistemic violencemarginalisation and exclusion.

Colonial frames are constructed to systemically preserve political, moral and economic authority of the people and nations that gained from exploiting others, or, for the very least, from imposing their worldviews. Some of it, however, is rooted in the pre-determined shaping of our thinking, the ways in which Western mindsets and mental frames are conditioned by a reproduction of in-group thought and truism in socialisation and education. This follows established colonial trajectories, but – going back to the opening line – it most virulently plays out where scientific capital is most powerful. This place is the Western university, flanked by an oligopoly of academic publishers and – crumbling but still unparalleled – funding schemes for research. Scores of writers, theorists and commentators regularly remind us of these issues. They point out how, despite the momentum to mobilise decolonial struggle, in academia and beyond, progress is slow. Like a turtle, colonial structures and institutions prove enormously resilient in defending an exclusive ‘permission to narrate.’

But what if Western thought itself is a victim of its own (neo-)colonial attitude? Admittedly, we’re entering a semantic minefield here, since nothing justifies colonialism by any acceptable notion of values, let alone reverse victimhood. But, for the sake of an experiment, this piece will discuss how colonial frames also harm the quality of individual and collective scholarship on the side of the privileged. Colonial socialisation and education do that by cutting to size our epistemologies as if we would be looking in the mirror when theorizing out of the window. As academics, Western-raised, Western-educated or both, we are trapped in our very own, self-made intellectual snares, complicating attempts to make sense of politics in most parts of the world. The writing process of a piece I recently wrote for ROAPE was good initial antidote, although I remain puzzled if it addressed only symptoms or actual root causes of my own incomplete mental decolonization process.

Dominant social theory is based on thought, conceptualisation and definitions developed by mostly Western scholars in their own lifeworlds. Hence, even if so-called fieldwork is done, analysis is usually done back home. It is therefore, knowledge situated out of context, with all its limitations. Human thought is dependent on language as a technique for both framing and transmission. Yet, concepts come into being through passive and active speaker competence, so it is rather difficult for someone who does not speak Yoruba, Arabic or Bengali to express the meaning of something in its context. Of course, we can translate, and sometimes chance helps making things fit, but more often, it results in erasure as specific type of epistemic violence. Forming precise equivalents of complex, situated social reality and abstraction into concepts faces problems of what Feyerabend  and Kuhn called incommensurability – the lack of shared language across scientific concepts and those discussing them – or Derrida’s idea of ‘untranslatability,’ the lack of exact equivalent across languages. Epistemic decolonisation hence requires linguistic emancipation on all sides of the table. We all use definitions, most of which are based on wording we are familiar with. Hence, even the most engaged and immersed ethnographers face multiple risks of imprecision, such as taking correlation for causation, as fans of econometric analysis do. For several reasons, hence, such as the refusal to engage in collaborative research, intellectual laziness, linguistic diversity, academic conventions, and forms of structural violence – just to name a few – we as social scientists are thus collectively racing into our very own epistemic surrender.

These shortcomings are particularly visible is the study of conflict dynamics and contentious politics in most parts of the world. To employ one of the few truisms I’d subscribe to, there surely is a correlation between the degree to which social phenomena are complex and contested and to which we need detailed context and information to avoid shortcuts, errors and misinterpretations. This exponentially peaks whenever translation issues come on top. But social theory is clever. Generations of scientists and researchers have been working on frames to both boil down complexity and to transfer social reality from where it plays out into spheres from where we target understanding and explanation. That’s legit to some extent because otherwise both case study research and generalisations would be worthless and obsolete. Yet, it is also not legit to posit such as generally and genuinely infallible or true. Dynamics of conflict, violence and politics tend to be mired by competing narratives anywhere in the world. Before and even into the era of alternative facts and fake news, this leads us to point at Otherness, to use diverging discursive construction to describe things that perhaps are not that different.

What we call ‘corruption’ in Africa is often referred to as ‘nepotism’ when we talk about Europe. What we subsume under ‘terrorism’ in the Middle East are the ‘individual cases’ of white people killing scores of people with assault rifles in the US, owing to ‘mental health issues.’ What we call mindless and savage violence in the Congo, are joint efforts in migration policy by the European Union. Intriguingly, the concomitant result is humans killed and public money embezzled in all cases. Of course, and luckily, lots of good social research is far beyond such crude Manichean clichés and tropes, but down the ladder of gravity we find similarly constructed problems.

As means of illustration, I will sketch two examples of epistemic challenges I have been facing. One is the ROAPE essay and another related one refers to an article Josaphat Musamba and I have been writing. In both, we have tried to investigate the “real governance” of conflict-affected mineral markets in the eastern Congo, a place where myths and stereotypes all too often clash with facts and analysis. In the course of the Congo wars around the millennium, the notion of conflict minerals arose to conceptualise the role of natural resources in a broader context of insecurity. Akin to existing – and problematic – assumptions on the economics of and in civil wars, this paradigm not only led to significant transnational policy but also framed an image of mineral trade and livelihoods as profoundly characterised by greed and violence. In consequence, a language of illegality and fraud came to dominate analyses on the matter. This however, shrouded our collective understanding of what mineral markets in eastern Congo actually look like, and why they work in the ways they work.

Instead, the conceptual arsenal of Western-dominated social science offered a number of theorizations ranging from neopatrimonialism, racketeering and greed to describe and analyse the personae of traders, business heavyweights and other participants of eastern Congo’s mineral markets. This is where we got stuck.

In our piece on the intermediary traders that oil cogwheels of domestic business – that is, before mineral goods are exported – we therefore had to look for solutions to name our protagonists. In French, the Congo’s colonially-inherited official language, these people are known as négociants – ‘negotiators.’ Now, negotiating is universal human activity and as such there is little chance of distorting the meaning of what these people do. Yet, it is insufficient to paint a fuller conceptual picture of their action and role. In this case, we did not find any further ‘emic’ (that means, arising from its very own, situated context) conceptualisation that would provide enough clarity. We thus began defining them as brokers of crisis. We did so because in the Congo, the notion of la crise is a ubiquitous reference and in literatures unsuspicious of too much colonial penchant, crisis is defined as “permanent or conditional category” or “ordinary and banal phenomenon.” Moreover, the notion of a broker, compared to that of a smuggler, is a functional term not a value judgment. In its broadest sense, it simply describes human connection for the sake to social, economic or political transactions.

The ROAPE article was a similar challenge, as it focused on another pivotal category of stakeholders in Congo’s political economy for which I borrowed the term incontournables. These are the people neopatrimonialism theory would call patrons, and Paul Collier would call them greedy. The incontournables are those, as the term suggests, that are hard or impossible to avoid due to their position and clout in a given context. Another emic solution, this term is French but while it comes out of a colonial language, it is used abundantly by Congolese. However, and most importantly, it is used in France itself with a positive connotation. There, for instance, extraordinary wines or outstanding literary works are incontournable. This is important, because while engaged scholarship is eminently political, we ought not to be blind as to the consequences of our epistemic choices. Hence, there is no issue with calling a corrupt person ‘corrupt’, but it is imprecise and prone to error to call entire groups ‘corrupt.’ Worse even, if we either use certain flattering (Western) language for ourselves, and pejorative (also Western) terms for the Other. Or if we simply decline to seek for emic, embedded meaning and explanation as we try to understand a context. All of that is amplified by a strong unidirectionality of scientific conceptualisation from the Global North to the South.

If these short examples are illustrative of the epistemic problems complicating social theory, they are not end points but mere entry doors into broader reflection. While decolonial scholars upped the game with works of enormous relevance – Kimberlé CrenshawAudre LordeWalter Mignolo and Boaventura de Sousa Santos to name a few – this debate also addresses our own issues, Western epistemic surrender. This means two things – the problem itself and a potential solution. The problem is that Western social theory has since long committed epistemic surrender, surrender as in abandoning this epistemic struggle. However, this surrender – as a conscious objective – can also mean to actively work towards surrendering our frames of thought and more actively embracing and applying epistemics not inherently ours, on the African continent and elsewhere so that, as Achille Mbembe suggested, ‘we will no longer have a university. We will have a pluriversity.’

This article was first published in the Review of African Political Economy Journal.

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Christoph Vogel is the Research Director of the Insecure Livelihoods project at Conflict Research Group, Ghent University, and a Senior Fellow at Congo Research Group, New York University.

Ideas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kwasi Wiredu’s Lasting Decolonial Achievement

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

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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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