Humanism: Africa

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Humanism: Africa

A common misconception of African humanism is that it is a set of values brought into, instead of emerging from, communities on the African continent. This prejudice is due primarily to the influence of modern European humanism, which is premised upon a secular naturalism as the only model of humanism. The modern European humanist tradition, which treats Christianity as the model of all religion, is critical of Christianity because it claims that Christianity discourages human beings from focusing on the value of human action on Earth beyond concerns for redemption from original sin in an afterlife. If we define humanism as a value system that places priority on the welfare, worth, and dignity of human beings, we should also consider those traditions in which human beings do not seek redemption in an afterlife because, for them, punishment or redemption exists only on Earth. Consequently, their tendency is to place great weight on human action and human subjects. The focus on earthly actions is a key feature of many African religions and, consequently, African humanism.

Indigenous Foundations

Despite the presence of many indigenous ethnic groups in Africa, there is much similarity in the cosmologies that ground their religious practices, especially those of people south of the Sahara. A major reason for this commonality is that many of them are descended from a set of communities along the ancient lakes and plains of the Sahara-Sahelian region of northern Africa that subsequently dried up, becoming desert. The cosmologies of these groups tend to have a concomitant ontology, or conception of being, and a system of values, in which greater reality and value are afforded to things of the past. Thus, the Creator, being first, has the greatest ontological weight, and whoever is brought into being closer in time to the moment of the origin of the world is afforded greater weight. This view gives one's ancestors greater ontological weight and value than their descendants. Also, one's past actions are of greater ontological weight than one's present actions. (One's future actions are of no ontological weight since they have not yet occurred.) Indigenous African systems affirm that human beings negotiate their affairs with the understanding that they cannot change the past (although they can be informed by it, especially through ancestors), are entirely responsible for the present, and must take responsibility for their future. This form of humanism does not require the rejection of religion, but may exist alongside it. As Kwame Gyekye observed in his classic study of Akan humanism among the Asante of Ghana, for example:

In Akan religious thought the Supreme Being is not conceived as a terrible being who ought to be feared because he can cast one into eternal hellfire. (The Supreme Being is believed to punish evildoers only in this world.) Again, in spite of Akan belief in immortality, their conception of the hereafter does not include hopes of a happier, more blessed life beyond the grave. Western humanism sees religion as impeding the concentration of human energies on building the good society. In Akan thought this tension between supernaturalism and humanism does not appear; for the Akan, religion is not seen as hindering the pursuit of one's interests in this world Akan humanism is the consequence not only of a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being and other supernatural entities, but, more importantly I think, of a desire to utilize the munificence and powers of such entities for the promotion of human welfare and happiness. (pp. 144145)

Muslim Humanism in North Africa

Ibn Rushd (11261198), known by his Latin name Averroës, was a North African philosopher whose work came to prominence in Cordoba, Spain. He was a pioneer in African Muslim thought, and his influence includes commentaries on Aristotle that affected European scholasticism and the struggles to transform it. Rushd argued for the secularization of political life and the dominance of reason. For this position, he was widely rejected in the Muslim world, save for a small set of followers. The debate over these ideas, however, continued in the question of the role of modernity in the Muslim world. Among the many scholars who took up this issue was the Egyptian-born Imam Muhammad Abdou (18491905), who argued for freeing thought from convention and who presented a political theory of citizen rights for social justice, rather than blind obedience to the religious state. Zaki Naguib Mahmoud (19051993) defended the dominance of reason through logical positivism in science and based his form of humanism on secular naturalism. Abdel-Rahman Badawi (19172002), also Egyptian born, presented his atheistic existential philosophy as a more radical humanism for the Muslim world by comparing it with Sufism. In both Sufism and his philosophy, he argued, the human subject is prioritized. The writings of the Algerian novelist and historian Assia Djebar (1936) has brought a new dimension to the question of subjectivity and the impact of physical and historical limits. In her historical work, Djebar examines the emergence of women revolutionaries under extraordinary repressive circumstances and, in her novels, how reclamation of their voices and bodies exemplify liberation for women.

"Modern" African Humanism

Beyond the indigenous models of humanism there has arisen what may be called modern African humanism, which emerged from African responses to conquest, colonization, and the various slave trades along the African coasts. These forms usually involve engagements with Christian, liberal, and republican (domination-free) values, or with values that emerged as a result of engagement with various Muslim empires in the Middle Ages, whose impact continues to be felt today. We should bear in mind that much of eastern Africa is also populated by Semitic peoples, and that their Coptic and Abyssinian (or Ethiopian) Christianity has left a legacy that is as old as its European, Roman, and Greek counterparts.

Many modern African humanists address a problem raised in early medieval African Christian philosophy in the thought of St. Augustine of Hippo (354430): the problem of theodicy, which involves accounting for the presence of evil in a universe ruled by an omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent god or God. It is a problem also found in the thought of the Ethiopian Christian philosopher Zara Yacob (15991696). St. Augustine argued that human beings are responsible for evil because such actions are a necessary possibility of freedom. He also argued that human beings have limited knowledge of God's ultimate will or God's justicethe literal meaning of theodicy, theo (god) and dikē (justice). The modern African faced the same problem when he or she looked at such evils as the slave trade and colonialism. Wilhelm Amo (17031756) and Ottobah Cugoano (b. c. 1757), both from Ghana, wrote treatises calling for the abolition of the slave trade. These authors argued that human beings are responsible for their actions, and that Europeans faced the negative moral consequences of the slave trade. Although couched in a Christian context, their work included reflections on the humanity of African peoples that have become a feature of modern African humanistic thoughtnamely, its concern with philosophical anthropology.

Secular Humanism in Africa

In the twentieth century, a form of secular humanism emerged in Africa primarily through the efforts of the Senegalese intellectuals Cheikh Anta Diop (19231986) and Léopold Sédar Senghor (19062001). Diop advocated a strong historicist humanism that focused on the achievements of ancient Africans as the first Homo sapiens, arguing that they laid the groundwork for the cultural life of the species. Although secular, the familiar theme of ancestral value is echoed in his work. Senghor is best known as a co-founder, with the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire (b. 1913) of the negritude movement, which focused on the creative potential of black consciousness. Whereas Diop represented the historicist tradition of African secular humanism, Senghor is the father of the poeticizing tradition. He defended the humanity of black Africans primarily through literature, although his thought also included reflections on music. Senghor argued that African value systems were more properly humanistic than European ones because the African models affirmed that the passionate or emotional side of a person carries the same value and legitimacy as the rational, analytic side. In Ghana, the secular humanist tradition also took hold through the thought of Kwame Nkrumah (19091972), who in 1946 offered what he called consciencism, or critical material consciousness. For Nkrumah, African humanism was a call for explicitly political responses to social problems.

The most famous formulation of secular humanism to emerge on the African continent came, however, by way of the thought of Frantz Fanon (19251961), a Martinican expatriate in Algeria. Fanon diagnosed a sick modern world premised upon human actions, wherein the tasks faced by contemporary Africans must be to build up their material infrastructure (based on national consciousness) and thereby transform negative cultural symbols into positive ones that could set humanity aright. The secular humanist tradition continued along historicist and poeticizing lines, and with political allegiances of the Marxist (and, occasionally, liberal) variety through such writers and political leaders as Almicar Cabral and Julius Nyerye until the emergence of leaders in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa took center stage.

The two most influential formulations of secular humanism to emerge focused on the question of consciousness. The first was Stephen Bantu Biko (19461977), who developed a theory of black consciousness that drew upon the political dimension of racial oppression. Black, for Biko, designated a form of oppression that could be faced by an East Indian, an East Asian, or a colored (in Africa, a person of mixed race, for example of indigenous and Afrikaaner parents) as well as an indigenous African. The second was Noël C. Manganyi, advisor to the vice-chancellor and principal of the University of Pretoria. Manganyi is a psychologist whose writings during the apartheid years were of an existential phenomenological variety, with many similarities to Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre. There have, however, also been highly political Christian humanist responses in the South African context that should be considered, the most noted representative of which is the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu, whose leadership in forming South Africa's Peace and Reconciliation Commission exemplifies what might be called the Christian liberal tradition.

Recent African Humanisms

The last quarter of the twentieth century was marked by the emergence of African academic intellectuals as chief spokespersons for secular African humanism. Many of these writers present their case from the disciplinary perspectives of philosophy, political theory, and political economy (especially as critics of development studies), and many of them, save, for example, Kwame Gyekye (Ghana), Manganyi (South Africa), Mbogo P. More (South Africa), and Samir Amin (Senegal), are expatriates living in North America and Europe. They include, among others, V. Y. Mudimbe (Congo/Zaire), Ato Sekyi-Otu (Ghana), Kwasi Wiredu (Ghana), K. Anthony Appiah (United Kingdom/Ghana), Nkiru Nzegwu (Nigeria), Oyeronke Oyewumi (Nigeria), D. A. Masolo (Kenya), Tsenay Serequeberhan (Eritrea), Teodros Kiros (Ethiopia), Albert Mosley (Senegal), Souleyman Bachir Diagne (Senegal), Elias Bongmba (Cameroon), and Samuel Imbo (Kenya). To this academic group can be added East Indian and white Africans such as Mahmood Mandani (Uganda), John and Jean Comaroff, David Theo Goldberg, and Neil Lazarus (all from South Africa). This stage of African secular humanism is marked by such themes as postmodern skeptical humanism, liberal cosmopolitanism, New Left Marxism, and African feminism.

The poeticist-humanist tradition has continued through many novelists and dramatists such as Wole Soyinka (Nigeria), Chinua Achebe (Nigeria), Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya), Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana), Ayi Kwei Armah (Ghana), and white authors, the best known of whom are the South African Nobel laureates Nadine Gordimer and John Coetzee. There is also the emergence of a form of musical poeticist humanism that has been part of the rise of "world music," whose artists come from all parts of Africa and represent nearly all its traditions. They serve as critical commentators on Africa's contemporary condition. Perhaps the most famous of such artists was the Nigerian Fela Anikulapo-Kuti (19381997).

See also Africa, Idea of ; African-American Ideas ; Black Consciousness ; Humanity: African Thought ; Negritude ; Philosophies: African .


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Lewis R. Gordon