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Decolonising Accidental Kenya or How to Transition to a GameB Society

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Decolonisation will involve adopting a forward-looking orientation transcending the accidental circumstances of our individual and collective upbringing.

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The Berlin Conference of 1886 set the forces responsible for creating the map of modern Africa in motion. This demarcation of the continent by colonial interests resulting in the consolidation of spaces on a map into countries was for the most part an arbitrary exercise. It resulted in the formation of a wide-ranging set of artificial nation states. Kenya and most other African nations are, by this definition, historical accidents.

The colonial cookie cutter changed everything, rerouting resources and labour into new avenues with new beneficiaries, rewiring the system of production and exchange in fundamental ways. All of this had massive consequences for populations falling within their borders, and beyond. Ironically, imposing a Eurocentric version of the central state turned out to be even more disruptive for what were arguably the Greater Horn of Africa’s more organically constituted units like Somalia, the intra-lacustrine region, and the former Kingdoms in Rwanda and Burundi.

Africa’s colonial reorganisation, by the standards of historical conquest and exploitation, was short-lived. In some pockets, it acted as an accelerator where its benefits have outlived its negative impacts, for the most part. In others, the disruption and confusion engendered still appear to be a permanent condition. In all cases, colonialism provided the context for the problems that came afterwards, diverting blame for the continent’s issues to external forces and actors when convenient.

This is one way of looking at Africa’s state at this point in time. But what if we look closer, and dig deeper? We are now in the territory of complex systems science, which has demonstrated the influence of initial conditions on any given system’s pathway over time. Colonialism articulated within other parameters such as the natural contours of geography, spatial factors, demographic conditions, and other variables that account for the region’s long-term historical trajectories.

Maybe the accident is not so accidental. A certain regression back to the African mean has been observable over the past several decades, giving rise to the counter-factual hypothesis that a different historical trajectory sans colonial intervention would have likely produced a similar configuration of political units, marked by the same initial conditions in the form of demographic, environmental, and technological parameters.

The localised nature of political organisation and the isolation of many areas of the continent would still have ended up acting as an entry point for outside interference and domination by invaders speaking different languages and representing other civilisations. Computer simulations modelled on the same system parameters would no doubt inscribe developmental pathways not so different from the one now prevailing. The end result would still be the rise of an economic and political elite, albeit perhaps not the product of formal education based on the Western mindset, because the emergence of state organisation is in any case an eventuality that has been occurring in Africa according to its own historical patterning since pharaonic times.

This is one point. The other is that countries sharing a given region or sector tend to converge once during periods of transition. The influence of initial conditions becomes more pronounced during these episodes, which by definition appear chaotic because they involve the break-up and reconfiguration of the system’s units and linkages. This has been occurring in clear sight during the current shift from an agrarian to a diversified, multi-sectoral economy in Kenya.

The process of change is accelerating apace at this juncture, telescoping internal changes that occurred over several centuries in other parts of the world and within several generations in Africa. The significance of Kenya’s transition transcends its borders because, due to whatever accidents of the past hundred years, its transformation will influence developments elevating the synergies of the larger region.

According to this thought experiment, the conventional analyses and the assumptions they are based on are no longer as compelling as they were during the heyday of radical political economy praxis. Despite the revival of the colonialism argument by millennial commentators who are trying to make sense of the economic cul-de-sac they find themselves in, the decolonisation narrative is not an issue for most of the region’s economically active population.

Decolonisation and reorganisation

We can nevertheless carry Franz Fanon’s diagnosis forward with a view towards anticipating the emergence of a new Africa more aligned with the region’s initial conditions, and hosting a distinctively African capitalism. We are actually witnessing these processes occur before our eyes. The turbulence erupting across the Horn will hopefully prove to be a necessary part of the larger transformational dynamic at work.

The process is sufficiently advanced to make some of us believe that countries like Kenya and others on the global periphery are positioned to make a vital contribution to the planet’s salvation. But sorting out the nation’s internal order is a prerequisite for achieving this station, and progress towards this point is in danger of stalling.

During the past two decades, Accidental Kenya has entered the territory of the release phase, as detailed in analyses about the Moi transition and the reorganisation taking form in its wake. The analyses were based on a developmental cycle comprising four phases: exploitation, consolidation, release, and reorganisation leading to a new cycle. There is no guarantee societies undergoing such phase transitions will complete the process. They can retreat to the previous state and stagnate, break-up, or even collapse—as was the fate of previous African civilisations.

After decades of hard-fought effort to decentralise decision-making and redistribute institutional governance, the executive branches of government in this part of the world are doing everything they can to reconcentrate decision-making power in the centre. Rwanda has already become an exemplar of the elite-controlled surveillance state.

The benefits of political decolonisation are typically usurped by other actors, and its role replaced by new forces. The decision to build a railway to the source of the Nile to protect the shipping route to India set in motion a chain of reactions that continues up to the present. A deeper form of decolonisation than self-rule will be needed to initiate a new cycle.

The big fix deception

“If it’s broken, just get under the hood and fix it.” So went the rallying cry for billionaire Ross Perot’s 1992 presidential candidacy (“hood” refers to the bonnet of an automobile). It helped make his on-and-off campaign the most successful third party run in the United States since 1912. More significantly, the notion of “just fixing” the “broken” political system became a meme that has resonated ever since, providing a gaping entry point for the politics of restoration championed by the likes of Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, and Donald Trump.

Systems of governance can be repaired, but can politicians fix them? It seems the more we depend upon them, the bigger the problem. In Kenya, for example, a submission to the recent court of appeal deliberations on the latest scheme to fix Accidental Kenya described our politicians as “job seekers who stand for nothing”. The description, strictly speaking, is not accurate: those often capricious Kenyan “job seekers” actually represent the entrenched tradition of pursuing personal accumulation by any means available.

Rwanda has already become an exemplar of the elite-controlled surveillance state.

This goes to the beating heart of Kenya’s colonial legacy, which endorsed the exploitation of Accidental Kenya by a numerically small elite committed to the creation of a capitalist political order. Small cliques of individuals have been in the business of applying fixes ever since the country’s creation. During the formative period, the administration established this by passing a comprehensive set of statutes limiting preferential access to land and markets for agricultural production.

After independence, Jomo Kenyatta endorsed the primacy of opportunistic accumulation when he castigated former Mau Mau fighter Bildad Kaggia for not grabbing the fruits of political independence like Paul Ngei and many of his other colleagues in the fight for independence. The unbalanced relationship between accumulation and the public good has persisted because the great majority of Kenyans endorsed the unbounded quest for private wealth in both principle and practice.

Independence in 1963 allowed Kenyans to participate in the economy established by colonial exploitation, the accumulation and resulting growth resulting in the consolidation of its accidental formation.  The release phase highlighted the breakdown of the colonial-designed, state-centric economic order, and was accompanied by an unprecedented feeding frenzy triggered by World Bank and IMF-mandated privatisation of public land and other resources.

The trauma eventually led to the comprehensive reforms demanded by a mobilised and increasingly militant cross-section of the nation’s citizens. This opened the way for the long and tortuous process of public participation and political deal-making culminating in the 2010 Constitution. Anointed with the blood of citizens, the new charter signalled the onset of a fundamental reorganisation of Kenyan society and an economy attuned to the challenges facing future generations. It opened the door for the nation to seek its real post-colonial destiny.

A bridge too far

Kenyan political power relations being what they are, it only took one electoral cycle for the job seekers to decide they needed to “get under the hood and fix it” once again.  Renewal got sidetracked into the Building Bridges Initiative, launched with the full resources of the government behind it. BBI in turn gave rise to the noise unleashed by the Uthamaki-Hustler narrative, which obscured the fact that the fix was actually a top-heavy Chinese political model clothed in the language of magical developmental thinking.

The circus accompanying these developments attempted to conjure up the illusion that BBI and its quasi-legitimisation by county legislatures were post-reform steps forward needed to resolve, once and for all, the nation’s most fundamental divisions that fall beyond the scope of the new Constitution.

The gambit to fix what is regarded as one of the most well-thought-out constitutions of the contemporary era became the source of one of those dangerous month-of-August Kenyan moments. Once again, a few gallant individuals came to the rescue. The judgements delivered by Kenya’s High Court and Court of Appeal, and Judge Kiage’s critique of executive bad faith rescued another generation from being trapped inside Accidental Kenya.

Small cliques of individuals have been in the business of applying fixes ever since the country’s creation.

Judge Kiage’s deconstruction of the BBI juggernaut bundled together the wisdom of Western jurisprudence with key historical interpretations of society and governance. His robust application of these sources to expose the bad faith characterising Kenya’s top-down fixology was perhaps the most powerful defence of democracy the world has witnessed since the rise of Trumpism.

The Court of Appeal secured the integrity of the 2010 Constitution for the time being, but there is no reason to expect the leadership at the top here and in neighbouring countries to change course in regard to their usual transactional goals and their quest to remain in power.

The nation-state in its current form has proven poorly adapted to the distinctive features of sub-Sahara Africa, and the political class will continue to enjoy the relative autonomy conferred by the state due to its position in the international system of nation states, its relationship to the Western military intelligence networks, and the temporary largesse of Xi Jinping’s Chinese chequebook—for the time being.

The quest for autonomy

The international order based on nation-states is not going away, even though its civilisational operating system has clearly reached its limits with respect to ensuring the planet’s survival over the longue durée. The majority of people on Planet Earth will nevertheless continue to follow their social media, the news fed to them by the usual suspects, and their appetites for material consumption while the signs and omens of the changing climate and its ramifications manifest around them.

The African state may look the same at the top, but it is part of a larger, complex system that has been evolving in the presence of systemic stressors. The sequence of developments over the post-independence period that appears indicative of dysfunction and incapacity and incoherence from without camouflages massive shifts occurring within.

This is the backdrop to Judge Kiage’s reminder that a constitution is “not a mechanical statute but the mirror of a nation’s soul.”

Kenya has progressed through a series of calamities including economic shocks, an attempted military coup, droughts and famines, unprecedented population growth, the politics of secession, ethnic insurgencies, terrorist attacks, grand corruption, devastating El Nino rains, desert locust invasions, privatisation from above and other inappropriate policies, and the HIV and coronavirus pandemics.

The gambit to fix what is regarded as one of the most well-thought-out constitutions of the contemporary era became the source of one of those dangerous month-of-August Kenyan moments.

We all come of age doped up on something. Then we pick up all kinds of baggage as we move on. Decolonisation in this context, involves adopting a forward-looking orientation transcending the accidental circumstances of our individual and collective upbringing.

This form of decolonisation synchs with the growing movement across the world striving to combine our scientific, technological, anthropological, ecological and other knowledge traditions with our direct experience of the sacred in order to transcend the accidents that create a new civilisational operating system. The advocates of this movement in my homeland refer to it as GameB. The content of GameB deserves its own discussion, but for the time being we can note that Kenyan society is already a player in this movement.

The Muslim poet and mystic Rumi said, “In the beginning I wanted to change the world, but then I realised the only thing I can do is change is myself.”

This is where we are right now. Nation-building in Kenya begins with creating a community of diverse communities. Wandia Njoya set the ball rolling in her insightful essay on Kenya’s twisted educational system by telling us we can start “by learning to love our children.”

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Dr. Goldsmith is an American researcher and writer who has lived in Kenya for over 40 years.

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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