Wednesday, April 27, 2016

A quest for African ontologies and epistemologies


With reference to the ongoing discussions (in Wanazuoni) on African universities and diaspora academics, African academy and policy-oriented research, African scholarship, African education systems, the 'need' for innovation in African universities and 'innovation universities' in Africa and to what others think the need to Africa to have its own methods of evaluating things (Rev. Kishoka), I have been thinking about African ways of engaging with ontological and epistemological questions. To make it clearer, I'm talking about African ways of questioning about existence, reality and its nature, and knowledge/truth and the relationship between an observer and what can be observed and how? This implies the need for African philosophies, philosophers and metaphysical thinkers. But, one may ask, is there a need to have African ontologies and epistemologies? What have been the implications on African development planning and policies, and African academia in general?

Whether being a positivist/realist, or a constructivist/deconstructivist, critical realist/pragmatist etc. we have all been influenced by non-African ways of engaging with the ontological and epistemological questions. From Achille Mbembe, Kwame Appiah, Mogobe Ramose to Wole Soyinka, they have all been influenced by non-African philosophy. Michel Foucault has significantly influenced Mbembe's 'necropolitics' and other writings. I'm not sure about Soyinka's influence, but it is certain that Hegel influenced Appiah (at least for how I read his writings and thinking).

I have heard of African 'philosophies' such as Ubuntu etc., but there are almost no sustained academic engagements with such philosophies, especially in terms of deciphering complex and not-easy-to-understand concepts, and make use of them for African scholarship and development at large. At least Mogobe Ramose has written extensively on Ubuntu, check his book, African philosophy through Ubuntu. On the other hand, I know with heterogeneous African societies and cultures, it is unrealistic to have universal African ontologies and epistemologies i.e. to have universal African forms of knowing and truth/reality. But, I wish for more engagements with Ubuntu and other unknown African philosophies.
As someone with interest in conservation and development (both at theory and practice levels), I sometimes wish I could engage more with the discussions from African ontological and epistemological viewpoints. I find that necessary especially in today's complex, place-based and dynamic environmental problems and challenges. I wish for a 'movement' against hegemonic scientific orientations/frameworks for understanding socio-economic and socio-ecological processes in Africa, and Tanzania in particular, and coming up with local-specific ways of dealing with the problems. I wish for African ontological and epistemological paradigms in contrast to the Western ones. Do we have African thinkers cum philosophers who have written about ontologies and epistemologies without being influenced by non-African philosophers? Thinkers who have written on African metaphysics, ontologies and epistemologies before colonisation? 

I might be wrong, but this is how I see it so far.

What do you think?
Ndugu Bukhi's contribution to the discussion on the African 'wasomi' and 'wanazuoni' needs to be taken very seriously and critically. I have italicized the words 'seriously' and 'critically' on purpose. Many of us are not yet intellectually conscious enough to realize the gravity of the 'African problem'. For that reason they do not take critical thinking seriously. The problem with the 'African problem' is about the African meaning of meaning. It is about what and how an African makes sense of the fundamental common sense. The fundamental common sense is the meaning that a critical thinker discovers intellectually and conceptually to be what existentially drives human beings commonly.

That paragraph above, I know, has already raised some questions to anyone who is reading this! If that has happened, I am glad to say that we are moving in the right direction. The thing is: very unfortunately our higher learning institutions are so intellectually and cognitively lazy that they do not teach or give instructions on what I call 'critical thinking about thinking'. For me this 'critical thinking about thinking' is what the Western people have called 'philosophy', although the Greek etymological meaning of the word 'philosophy' is 'the love of wisdom'. Philosophy per se is not an academic discipline! It is part of being a rational human person! It is the effort to seek answers, solutions and responses to questions, problems and challenges respectively about the meaning of human existence. Since Africans are human beings, they must have their own way of seeking such answers, solutions and responses.

I do not want here to start a discussion within a discussion on the issue of the definition of philosophy. However, we African intellectuals need to raise critical questions such as: Is “philosophy”, in the way it was brought to Africa and taught to Africans by the West, a scholarly methodology for examining logical truth? Or is it a coherent set of beliefs about the nature of the world and the place of human beings in that world? If it is a methodology and/or a set of beliefs, then what we have is a Western methodology and/or a Western set of beliefs about the universe and humanity. If this is so, then what I have said before, i.e. the problem with the 'African problem' is the African meaning of meaning, needs to be followed up. In other words, we need to follow up this question: What meaning do we Africans give to Western philosophical methodologies and their philosophical beliefs? Is what is meaningful to a European or a Western man/woman meaningful as well to an African man and woman?

One way of following up this effort to search for answers, solutions and responses, is posing the questions: How do we Africans identify ourselves intellectually? What do we Africans make sense of our historical existence? What kind of thinking is behind our systems, structures, beliefs and ideologies which support our efforts in education, politics, economy, development, etc? What sense do we Africans make of what is beyond the sensible, the physical, the measurable, the empirical? But in making such sense, how do we know that this answer, solution or response makes sense to an African? What African criteria or theory do we have to justify or explain that such knowing is African?


Just one comment: how come there is no mention to people like Cheikh Anta Diop, ThĂ©ophile Obenga, Ernest Wamba dia Wamba? 


I am so delighted going through your thoughts and your view of Afrikan approaches on matters of Philosophy and thoughts. Your thoughts seek to understand Ontological and Epistemological approach of Afrika in various questions.

If I was to be seen in your thoughts I would have advised that for you to understand better this question hereby in thoughts I would have asked you to engage in "HOW KNOWLEDGE HAS BEEN PRODUCED AND DISSEMINATED IN VARIOUS SOCIETY AND THE WORLD AT LARGE" this would give you a right approach of ontological and epistemological usage in various! It isn't that Afrika does not engage in Ontological and Epistemological analysis but rather there is a one sided side of the story about knowledge Production and Philosophies!

Asking yourself why you are not seeing such approaches and Afrikan Philosophies, Afrikan Philosophers and thinkers apart of the mentioned in the usage of non Afrikan ways other than Ubuntu, is the step towards recognizing that you have been all time through trading on only one sided of the story of knowledge and philosophical approaches!
For more than 10 years, under the Directorship of the late Prof. Dan Wadada Nabudere, the Marcus Garvey Pan Afrikan Institute, now Marcus Garvey University in Mbale Uganda, reviewed a very similar question but in a manner that is concerned with re tracing the source of knowledge, how it is produced and disseminated basing on Afrikan Cosmology! A new approach was devised named “AFRIKOLOGY, TRANSDICIPLINARITY AND WHOLENESS”.  A paper was also published in the Journal of African Renaissance Studies, Pretoria by Nabudere, D. W[2005] titled 'Towards an Afrikology of knowledge production and African Regeneration'.

This new approach being a science of knowledge production that maximizes Afrikan cosmology aimed at explaining scientifically knowledge production that has roots in African Cosmology. This due to uncertainty and acrimony in the way we understand the world and the way human beings understand each other as manifested in the way knowledge is being organised and managed today.

“It becomes so important to trace the role the ancient Africans played in laying the ground for the institutions of knowledge creation and its application to human needs. In this way, we shall then be able to see how Afrikology as an all-inclusive epistemology based on the cosmologies emanating from the Cradle of Humankind, can play in rejuvenating the Universal knowledge, which our ancestors first put in place in their growing spread around the world.” Nabudere D. W [2007]

Its role is to retrace this humanistic tradition in order to rid our world of those hierarchies of life that Greek philosophers, especially Plato, introduced from their one-sided understanding of knowledge from the Cradle of Humankind, which has increasingly created the kind of fragmentation in our consciousness that imperils our very existence as a civilised human society.
“We are confronted with an ever more urgent need to find a new morality: a new means of humanising man in society, a new civilisation, or else shake ourselves finally to pieces” [Davidson, 1969:67]. 

I am certain if you go through Afrikology you will definitely understand that it has been a fact in all these philosophies you are trading with but it has been not the truth for far too long. The earlier you discover this in your heart the better you will be able to fit in this world of deception when it comes to knowledge transfer, curriculum development and a sense of human living. 

The truth is that there Afrika has been cut off from many issues that describe black and white of Knowledge and how the world has benefited from the Afrikan cosmologies! You have heard of the saying “know thyself” go read the Pharaoh of Afrikan Antiquity (Cheik Anta Diop) Diop, C. A [1974]: African Origins of Civilization: Myths and Reality, Lawrence Hill Chicago, Diop, C. A [1980]: Civilization or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology, Lawrence Hill Books, Chicago you will understand that even that saying was not from Plato as many believe and know! Anyway remember there is a saying which is not so famous; wisdom is not acquired by reading of books but of men!


Today I returned to this mail and its subject, not with answers, but as part of a contemplation of the environment within which the 'quest' for the African onthologies and epistemologies might take place.
I am sure you are aware of current incidents in which African academics are making headlines (for the wrong reasons). There is the Stella Nyanzi-Mahmood Mamdani 'performance' at Makerere, of which I can only ponder how any academic dispute could arrive where it did...

The other that I note is sparked by a mail I received via you, about another Professor, Ibrahim Abdullah at Fourah Bay College (FBC) in Sierra Leone. The case which the petition highlighted, from my understanding, seems to raise some big question about the state of institutions of 'higher' learning and knowledge, and if they really can facilitate any real quest. 

Again, my understanding, there is a war against academic freedom, but the battle lines are so infantile and superficial, it is ridiculous. At FBC it seems, Ibrahim Abdullah has pissed off many, maybe by his personality, but more it seems, because he challenges or is challenging how history should be taught and/or understood. In a country where there are less than thirty professors, and as one report reminds, '... Nearly all departments at FBC have lacked running academic journals for several years now...'; where are the grounds for a dispute based on what has been call 'envious hostility'?

Whether or not this is an accurate term, is left to be judged. However, the academic dispute wrapped up in this situation seems to be at its core, about 'attitudes and epistemology about African' ( In my understanding, Ibrahim Abdullah seems to be saying (among other things) that there is no such thing as colonial and post-colonial history. There is instead Temne/Thaimne and other Sierra Leone ethnic histories. This of course, and 'the question of ethnicity within the context of Sierra Leone historiography' (, has political resonances (in a country recovering from an atrocious civil war), even as the academic potential is lost in the mist....

So returning to the contemplation of the envisaged 'quest', not only is there the question of the facilitating environment, but equally, in service of what is this quest suppose to pursued? Maybe, at least in the Sierra Leone case, it not simply that 'Nationalism should Trump Ethnicity' (C. Magbaily Fyle in Research in Sierra Leone Studies (RISLS): Weave Vol 1 No 2, 2013), but that a dynamic Pan-African agenda is needed to take academic inquiry away from a need for 'positive spin', towards a more open and critically engaged debate. Here hopefully the need to sack and lock out would not be part of resource bank.

As you can see, I have referred to a few papers. These require more serious critical attention, but I have used them as a backdrop to consider the meaning of the situation indicated by the two incidents (Sierra Leone and Uganda) which suggest bad news in the prevailing state of academic affairs.


Good thread and good ideas but indeed complex ones. I cannot offer any solace but we must bear in mind that we live in the global world even before the term globalization was created. So we cannot take a purist/nativist position of finding something purely African in the sense that it has not been contaminated by other ideas. Mamdani asks how long does someone or something need to stay in Africa to be African?

But I think, we can start from African archives and libraries--in Mudimbe's sense--to find some of the epistemological and theoretical paradigms to address todays complex issues. If I may suggest, one way to start to take very seriously the life, experience and actions of fellow Africans not simply as data but explanatory models about our social and empirical worlds. 
One book that I would like to recommend, it is an anthropological text on the Kaguru Modes of Thought, I found this text illuminating and charting a way for us to take African ideas seriously as useful analytical and theoretical concepts. I think, it will be great if we start employing middle level theories and concepts developed from our own experiences and testing them out to see how they hold in comparison with other theoretical ideas such as derive from Foucault or Hegel etc. I am will be watching out for your reactions and further reflections.


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