Interview

A while back I was interviewed on colonialism and African philosophy. Gere is an excerpt:

‘Westerlingen verlangen iets van de Afrikaanse filosofie dat ze kunnen toepassen in hun eigen leven. Wijze inzichten die helpen om het eigen leven comfortabeler te maken of een nieuwe dimensie te geven. Dat is oppervlakkig en op een bepaalde manier koloniaal. De serieuze leer wordt eruit gehaald, een kant-en-klaar-recept voor iedereen die wil ontsnappen uit het dagelijks bestaan. The School of Life stuurde de volgende dag een mail uit met als titel ‘Sophie zegt sorry’. Ze verontschuldigden zich voor haar ingewikkelde accent. Blijkbaar hadden veel aanwezigen zich gestoord aan haar West-Afrikaanse tongval. Alleen dat al. Er ligt ook een verantwoordelijkheid bij jezelf, zoals de moeite nemen om een accent dat je niet kent, proberen te verstaan in plaats van direct weglopen. Sophie Oluwole voldeed niet aan de verwachtingen. Ze wilden een wijze exotische vrouw, geen intellectueel. Maar van een westerse filosoof verwacht je ook een doorwrocht verhaal. Geen prediker die je in hapklare brokken verlossing probeert te geven.’

For the full interview you can click on the following link:

‘Ze wilden een wijze exotische vrouw, geen intellectueel’

Why Intersectionality?

[A Translation of my column ‘Waarom Intersectionaliteit?’]

Many of us are familiar with the stereotypes and stigmas that are placed on working women, and the expectations that are imposed upon them.

We know for example that they often receive comments about their appearance, and that they are more often self-conscious about their appearance. We are aware of the fact that they receive comments such as “You look cute”. Or that they are seen as ruthless and unpleasant when they are ambitious, like Miranda Priestley, the character played by Meryl Streep in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’.

But there are also women who are faced with additional stereotypes that don’t exist for other women, on whom stigmas are placed upon that aren’t placed upon other women. Certain expectations are held about these women that aren’t being held about other women.

In these women’s cases it isn’t just the men that are guilty of this, but also the women that don’t’ share the same characteristics as them.

I would now like to talk to you about one such woman.

Sophie Olúwolé

Last week Nigerian philosopher Sophie Olúwolé was in the Netherlands. Her book about Orunmila and Socrates has recently been translated into Dutch and she came here to promote her book. She has a remarkable story; she was born in 1935, during the colonial era. She was the first in Sub-Saharan Africa to earn a PhD in philosophy and she was the only female philosophy student at the faculty of philosophy in Nigeria. She is currently one of the most important philosophers in Africa, she has done groundbreaking work by studying the Yoruba language and the ideas that are contained in it. I wrote my Master Thesis on African Philosophy, and had studied her work for it. So for me it was a great pleasure and a great honor to meet her. I also organized a Masterclass and public lecture about her work in collaboration with NiNsee (The National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy), where she came to talk about her latest book.

She talked about her research, notions of gender in Yoruba thought, the differences in Western and African thought, the stigma that is placed on African philosophy. But she also told fun stories about her childhood and how she got the name Sophie. One of my favorite statements of her she made that day was about the difference she noticed between Western and African marriages. There is no polygamy in the West, like there is in many African cultures. But as she said “In the West you marry 1 wife, divorce 10 times”. She called it ‘Progressive polygamy’. It was a successful event that was frequented by a diverse audience.

White/Hipster Privilege

The night before had gone very differently. A certain philosophical institute, that portrays itself as a life school, co-founded by a popular British philosopher, with franchises in various places around the world, had organized a class with Sophie during which they interviewed her about her book.

In the announcement for the event this institute stated that Africa has a rich philosophical tradition that can make the West look at itself in a different wat. African philosophy can help people in the West to dwell on what they’re feeling and what the people around them are feeling. The feeling and emotion is what Africa can enrich the West with, and its Olúwolé task to bring this knowledge.

It quickly became clear to me that Olúwolé had not been invited as an equally-valued Academic colleague, but as a ‘wise’ woman from Africa. She and the class that had been organized about her book functioned as an ‘exotic outing’ for a group of urban, high-educated young people.

This announcement made me think of an essay by African-American author and activist Bell Hooks, who in her essay ‘Eating the other’ said the following: “The contemporary crises of identity in the west, especially as experienced by white youth, are eased when the “primitive” is recouped via a focus on diversity and pluralism which suggests the Other can provide life-sustaining alternatives” and […] “Within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture”(Hooks 2015:25).

On this night the audience was much less diverse, with significantly fewer people that looked like her. The interview started, this was done by Ikenna Aziuke, who is of British and Nigerian descent. They talked about her work, but also about Nigeria’s colonial past and the consequences of it. What was remarkable was that, not even 30 minutes into the program, people started walking out. I looked around me in a state of bewilderment. These people had paid €42.50 for a ticket and didn’t even bother to sit out a 2-hour program. It was shameful. During the course of the evening more people started to leave prematurely.

In the midst of the program a question round was done. A young white woman asked Olúwolé a question; she asked if the interview could go back to African philosophy, because that is what she came here for. They had now often talked about colonialism, about white and black people, but that is not what she came here for. Could they please go back to just talking about African philosophy. It now became awkward.

Was this young woman acting as her ally, her partner in ‘sisterhood’? Why did this young woman think she could learn from Olúwolé’s philosophical ideas without being confronted with the harsh and painful reality from which they originated; the setting of the reason why African philosophy has been systematically ignored and why Olúwolé’s work is being ignored?

Did she want to withdraw the perks of these ideas, or at least aspects of these ideas, to obtain some sort of wisdom from them without knowing their roots? Apparently to her it was not important to know these ideas in their context. It is as Bell Hooks said: “White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure” (Hooks 2015:158). Or another great quote by Bell Hooks: “When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure, the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders, sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other”

Unfortunately this painful evening had an aftermath. The following day I received an email from the philosophical institute titles “Sophie says sorry”. In this email they apologize, on behalf of Olúwolé, for the evening that had not gone as planned. They knew Olúwolé had a ‘complicated’ accent (Nigerian), and this was the reason why they had asked host Ikenna Azuike to do the interview. Participants of the event were offered a free class with a drink included to soften the blow of the disappointment.

I learned afterwards, through her publisher, that Olúwolé was not aware of this so-called apology.

 

Why intersectionality?

So why Intersectionality? So that female African academics such as Sophie Olúwolé will be considered as equally-values peers, and not as ‘wise African women’.

So that what they have to say, their ideas, will be appreciated and acknowledged in their entirety, instead of merely extracting a supposed essence from them.

Grâce Ndjako

Sources:

Hooks, Belle (2015) “Black Looks”

The Idea of An African Philosophy

Based on a lecture given in the Singelkerk on 24/05/2017

The idea of an African philosophy is still controversial with many within Academia denying its existence and/or its possibility to exist. The debate surrounding its existence is, as stated by Kenyan philosopher Masolo, defined by Western discourse on Africa and the African response (Masolo 1994).

Many have denied the existence of an African philosophy, starting with Hegel. Hegel calls Africa the land of childhood and adds “In Negro life the characteristic point is the fact that consciousness has not yet attained to the realization of any substantial objective existence. […] The African is natural man in his completely wild and untamed state”. This means that Africa is ahistorical, outside of history, and doesn’t have morality, religion or political institutions. The Eurocentrism in his thinking consists of a refusal to attribute a developed consciousness to ‘the other’, in this case Africans.

This thinking of Hegel concerning African philosophy is still present, even among Africans themselves. So the problem also arises from within. As the idea is that the Western type of philosophy is a human universal, this idea has affected many African thinkers.  So that modern African thought has focused not on difference from the West but on sameness with the West.  As the Nigerian sociologist Oyeronke Oyewumi notes “The problem is that many African writers have assumed Western manifestations of the human condition to be the human condition itself “(Oyewumi 1997).

And thus the question arises as to which conditions an authentic African thought can arise which will incorporate African discourses. As Congolese philosopher Valentin-Yves Mudime asserts, to fully escape, fully decolonize, from the West, we need to know what it means to detach ourselves from it, to know till where, how far the West has reached us.

“’Echapper réellement à l’Occident suppose d’apprécier exactement ce qu’il en coûte de se détacher de lui ; cela suppose de savoir jusqu’où l’Occident, insidieusement peut-être, s’est approché de nous (Mudimbe 1982).

Can Africans liberate themselves? It seems that the West is indispensable, essential. Europe seems to be a mediator in every African philosophical endeavor. Africa seems to be locked in an embrace with the West. According to Nigerian sociologist Oyewumi, the challenge lies in how to extricate ourselves and how much one needs to do so. This problem is fundamental because without this loosening we will continue to mistake the West for the Self and Africans will therefore continue to see themselves as the Other. However this has proven to be difficult as multiple attempts have been made to achieve an authentic African philosophy, and yet each time it was proven how big an impact the West has had on African culture and thought.

Négritude

There was the Négritude movement, developed during the 1930’s, which sought to fight the alienation that had occurred during colonial rule. It’s a regaining of consciousness of African culture. “A concrete rather than an abstract coming to consciousness” as Aimé Césaire, one of the founders, put it. Negritude can be further characterized as “the affirmation of the distinctiveness of African cultural values, the confirmation of the being of the African”(Gbadegesin 1991).

But the movement has its origin in surrealism and existentialism. They interpreted surrealism as a disalienation and applied it to their particular situation (Césaire 2000). They were also heavily influenced by Husserl’s phenomenology and Heidegger’s existentialism. Furthermore, they rejected rationalism and claimed that the African has an intuitive reason and emotive capacity, which is a claim proposed by European colonist.

Fanon : One needs to reinvent oneself

“Il faut faire peau neuve, développer une pensée neuve”, is what Frantz Fanon wrote in ‘Les damnés de la terre’. One needs to reinvent oneself, develop a new way of thinking. He thought that a complete tabula rasa was necessary. Former colonies should not aspire to become a copy of Europe, in that case one could have let them rule the continent. Which is why he states that Africa should reinvent itself, develop a new thinking. One could describe Fanon as an existentialist as he draws a large part of his philosophical thought from the concreteness and applicability of personal experience. Also he was heavily influenced by Sartre, notably his ‘reflections on the Jewish question’. The freedom he describes, is a freedom in the Sartrean sense, in which man creates himself, freedom is the basic presupposition of authentic expression and action (Masolo 1994).

 Ethnophilosophers are thinkers such as Alexis Kagame, John Mbiti, Placide Tempels and one might also include Léopold Senghor. They view African Philosophy as the philosophical thought of traditional Africans (Gbadegesin 1991). These thinkers are criticized for merely exposing a worldview. Kagame in particular is criticized for being too Aristotelian, he rests his exposition on the assumption of similarities in thinking between the ancient Greek philosophers and the Bantu people. He uses Aristotelian metaphysical categories and imposes them on Bantu languages. His work can thus be seen as Western philosophy examining the African situation.

Mudimbe : Social reality is a construct

The question Valentin-Yves Mudimbe asks in his work is: “Does this mean that African Weltanschauungen and African traditional systems of thought are unthinkable and cannot be made explicit within the framework of their own rationality?” ( Mudimbe 1988). He noted that it was important for African thinkers to not just be African but also that their works are based on African sources and themes.

But in his own work Foucault is present everywhere, notably his idea that social reality is a construct and his ‘archaelogy of knowledge’. He also relies on Levi-Strauss and his notion of the ‘savage mind’.

So at each time we see that Europe seems to be a condition to the development of an authentic form of thought, even though the goal was to distance oneself from Europe.

‘Professional philosophers’

And so other philosophers, such as Wiredu, Towa and Houtondji have tried to deny the existence of an authentic African philosophy and have claimed that African philosophy needs to be rooted in the European tradition. Wiredu states that:

“Philosophy must have the same meaning in all cultures although the subjects that receive priority, may be dictated by cultural biases” (Bodunrin 1981).

As such African philosophy will just be the philosophical work of any African philosopher, even if they study Plato. Wiredu upholds that African philosophers have no choice but to conduct their philosophical inquiries in relation to the philosophical writings of Western philosophers as they have no heritage of philosophical writings. Furthermore he claims that it is in the West that modern developments in human knowledge have gone farthest and where philosophy is in closest touch with conditions of the modernization (Wiredu 1980).

Their position is Eurocentric as Europe is uphold as a measure and is seen as the center of reason, true humanity and objectivity.

According to Oyewùmí Modern African thought has focused not on difference from the West but on sameness with the West. It is precisely because African intellectuals accept and identify so much with European thinking that they have created African versions of Western things. They seem to think that the European mind-set is universal and that therefore, since Europeans have discovered the way the world works and have laid the foundations of thought, all that Africans need to do is to ad their own ‘burnt’ bricks on top of the foundation. (Oyewumi 1997).

“Western theories become tools of hegemony as they are applied universally, on the assumption that Western experiences define the human” (Oyewumi 1997).

 The issue of Language

What makes researching African thought so difficult is that many researchers have difficulty writing in and understanding indigenous languages. One cannot easily separate culture from language.  Culture reflects the world in images, and through those images conditions a person to see the world in a certain way. Colonial education replaced African traditional principles with foreign ones and it cut their intellectuals from their base (Oluwole 1997).

The writers of the Négritude all expressed themselves in the French language, as do, Fanon and Mudimbe. And the thinkers from the former English colonies express themselves in English. And so the conceptual frameworks embedded in foreign philosophical traditions have been assimilated by these thinkers.

 Gyekye

Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Gyekye pays attention to the problem of language in African thought. It is the job of the African philosopher to explicit, reflect on and interpret the concepts in African thought. Language suggests a philosophical perspective. Modern African philosophy needs to have its roots in African experience, cultural values and thought categories and reflect it. Only then can it be called African philosophy.

“If a philosophy produced by a modern African has no basis in the culture and experience of African peoples, then it cannot appropriately claim to be an African philosophy, even though it was created by an African philosopher” (Gyekye 1995).

As such he disagrees with Hountondji and Wiredu when they say that African philosophy is any philosophical work produced by an African. If an African philosopher researches a Western philosophy, he contributes to our understanding of Western philosophy and not to a better understanding of African thought.

As a philosopher he wants to establish the conceptual scheme of African peoples, in his case the Akan, by analyzing and reflecting on proverbs. Though the question one could ask is whether or not African philosophy needs to be systematic or if this is influenced by Western ideas on philosophy and modeled after their philosophical systems.

Intellectual culture – Oluwole

So wherein lies the possible solution? Nigerian philosopher Sophie Oluwole highlights the importance of the intellectual culture. African philosophy depends on the existence of an African intellectual culture, these are the basic principles that underlie thought. Being intellectually cultured means one is rationally and factually enlightened in thought. And as she asserts

“while philosophy as a discipline does not necessarily coincide with the principles of a people’s intellectual culture, it does pay homage to the latter. This is so since an intellectual culture necessarily underlies every rational endeavor carried out under its influence” (Oluwole 1997).

The search for an intellectual culture and philosophy should not mean a revisiting of old values and perceptions. Rather the argument is that we will never have valid grounds for comparing African thoughts with Western thoughts alternatives if we fail to grasp the basic principles under whose guidance African intellectuals operated (Oluwole 1997).Those fundamental principles can be found in old values, proverbs and perceptions. As such this means  that the task lies in identifying the basic assumption of African conceptual frameworks.

 

© Grâce Ndjako

 

Sources:

  • Césaire, Aimé (2000) « Discourse On Colonialism »,
  • Fanon, Frantz. (2002) “Les Damnés de la terre »
  • Gbadegesin, Segun. (1991) « African Philosophy »
  • Gyekye, Kwame. (1995) “African Philosophical Thought”
  • Hegel, Georg. (1956) “The Philosophy of History”
  • Masolo, D.A. (1994) “African philosophy, in search of identity”,
  • Mudimbe, Valentin-Yves. (1982) “L’odeur du Père”
  • Mudimbe, Valentin-Yves. (1988) “The Invention of Africa”
  • Oyewumi, Oyeronke. (1997) “The Invention of Women”
  • Wiredu, Kwasi. (1980) “Philosophy and an African culture”