What Center holds for Contemporary African Intellectuals?
I didn’t expect Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire’s Open Letter to Contemporary African Intellectuals to go viral. I thought it would simply be dismissed as a recycling of exhausted critiques and criticisms. Yet I shared it online enthusiastically.
The letter hardly generated a debate in a listserv that boasts a number of African intellectuals, moderated by none other than the celebrated Nigerian Professor, Toyin Falola. It is as if these seasoned debaters felt they had been there before. In Wanazuoni, once promoting itself as a listserv of young Tanzania’s intellectuals, the letter almost passed unnoticed. Yet some responded to Mwesigire’s and he has now issued a rejoinder.
One thing in particular has raised my eyebrows. He writes: “The relevant intellectual centres contemporary Africa in their thinking.” For him, “the contemporaneous intellectual considers Africa’s contemporary needs and centres their ideas around satisfying these.” His definition is centered on contrasting this so-called contemporary intellectual with the “Afrocentric intellectual”, who allegedly “holds up the bygone African as the ideal”, and the “mimic intellectual” who apparently “exalts European modernism as the ideal, the developed.”
In this regard Mwesigire’s “contemporaneous intellectual is keen to consider the current African reality independent of fantasies of Europe and the African past.” He/She is not only into solving his/her (African) problems, but also into defining them in their own (African) right. “Contemporaneousness”, in his terms, “has no room for authenticity as a static idea, nor modernity as a Europe-manufactured product” for the “African has the agency to solve their problems while centring their needs, and not by the standards set by Euro-America modernity or ancient African ancestors.”
By way of digressing it is interesting to note that Mwesigire’s compatriot, Mahmood Mamdani, has been busy teaching students of Africa about defining a problem before solving it. This is how he puts in one context: “How you define the problem shapes the solution. So ‘definition’ is crucial. ‘Definition’ tells you what the problem is…. Every doctor knows that diagnosis is at the heart of medicine; not prescription. Wrong diagnosis, wrong prescription, and the patient will die. The heart of medicine lies in the analysis.”
In another context Mamdani puts it this way: “Consultants presume that research is all about finding answers to problems defined by a client. They think of research as finding answers, not as formulating a problem…. The old model looked for answers outside the problem. It was utopian because it imposed externally formulated answers. A new model must look for answers within the parameters of the problem. This is why the starting point must go beyond an understanding of the problem, to identifying initiatives that seek to cope with the problem…One, key to research is the formulation of the problem of research. Two, the definition of the research problem should stem from a dual engagement: on the one hand, a critical engagement with the society at large and, on the other, a critical grasp of disciplinary literature, world-wide, so as to identify key debates within the literature and locate specific queries within those debates.”
However, as we all know, most of these problems did not start today. Many of them hardly started yesterday. It is thus myopic to ignore the centrality of what Mwesigire refers to “Ancient African ancestors” and the “standards” they set. I, for one, am not a fan of “Afrocentric romanticism.” Like Frantz Fanon, I am wary of “tom-toms”. Yet I appreciate applicable attempts to show why it is important to center ancient Africa in our contemporary reality and daily analysis.
Recently Ernest Wamba dia Wamba aptly explained such centrality in his public lectures, which should be published and circulated far and wide in the African world, this way: “When you read any scientific book, by the Western scientists especially, terms used to name certain objects or elements refer to ancient Latin or Greek; the Indian scientists sometime refer their concepts to ancient Sanskrit. Those who studied some African languages found that many basic words have ancient KMTian [Kemet-ian] roots. For purpose of unity in the African research, through African languages, why not make the study of the Ancient Egyptian necessary?”
Wamba thus responds to that rhetorical question: “This would also enhance the development of African languages. We saw that in terms of social philosophy, solidarity is the mark of African traditional cultures. Despite the pressure of peripheral capitalism on societies, the extended family is not disappearing. Expectations for social happiness, for a sacred leadership above corruption, above the desire to accumulate and promotes sharing, which is against lies and mediocrity are still alive in our societies. One has just to go through the African proverbs to be convinced of this. To some extent, we may say that there are still remnants of the KMT social paradigm. Why not formalize this as part of the basic compass in our African societies?”
He also remind us that: “The foundation of African scientific research is still based on a philosophy of returning to the Western sources, not having our own sources and borrowing and learning from other sources as well as other people do. Did Plato go to Greece to look for data and go to Egypt to write his thesis? He studied and learned what he could and went back home and wrote in his language. We find it difficult to do the same because we have neglected our languages and have adopted other people’s languages and call them ‘languages of culture’ as if ours are culturally barren.”
To prove that he is not simply romanticizing the African past, Wamba thus shares his own experience: “I have been involved in the translation of Ancient Egyptian texts into African languages and I have been finding those texts very enlightening and awakening. Some of them touch on crucial issues we have been struggling with: spirituality, morality, leadership, unity, solidarity, etc.”
As if he is directly speaking to Mwesigire, Wamba adds this disclaimer: “We are not advocating a return to the KMT sources, we are advocating a recourse to those sources as a basis of our education system.”
Then comes my favorite passage from Wamba: “I was at Harvard University when the Chinese President spoke there explaining why China decided to open again to the outside world. It was a historical speech, summarizing a history of more than one thousand years, explaining when China closed to itself and why and when it opened to the outside world and why. It was very instructive. I wondered then whether an African president could have spoken basing his/her speech on one thousand years. What we often hear does not even go as far as the colonial period! And this is due to the kind of education system we have—the one left by colonialists with some patches of modernity.”
While the scramblers of Africa are busy defining themselves in terms of what they consider to be their celebrated past that stretches to the distant past, in general we are busy truncating our history to the ‘postcolony’. No wonder Wamba’s erstwhile colleague, Mamdani made this related poignant observation: “The principal contestants for Africa’s resources – China and the US – are busy defining Africa’s problem from their vantage point. Each would like to provide the solution to Africa’s problems.”
Mamdani also raises these important questions and recommendations: “These days we do not get tired talking of the need for ‘African solutions to African problems.’ What do we mean by this? Is this mantra meant to justify the same militarized solutions so long as these are implemented by Africans? Or is it a call for cultivating an independent mindset, one that is African because it is shaped by African experiences. Our primary need, I suggest, is to formulate a narrative that will make sense of our experience.”
The ancient past is contemporarily present. Hence path dependency continues to shape Africa’s trajectory. African intellectuals can make sense of our experiences and formulate sensible narratives and practical solutions to our problems by looking back and forth.
Things don’t have to fall apart. Our African center can indeed hold. Pan-Africanism.