African Personality: An Anthropological Perspective for Leadership Development in Africa.

Author:Manobo, Blazio M.


The study of African leadership in its attempt to promote the sanctity of life against moral evils like wars, conflicts, human trafficking, abortions and rape will be incomplete without a thorough understanding of the concept of personality in the African context. Literature on African personality barely exists outside the discourses on African philosophy where attempts are made to justify the existence of African history and philosophies against the Western classical philosophies. The existing literature on African personality testifies to the fluidity of the concept depending on whether one is defining it from a cultural, sociological, psychological, political or anthropological standpoint.

Luminary thinkers on African philosophy, religion and culture have testified to the complexity of the idea of Africa personality. Mbiti (1969: 269) stated that there is complete lack of knowledge about what the concept means, what to do with it and what to do about it in the current literature. Nkrumah (1964) remarked that African personality lacks clarity of meaning or distinctness of conceptualisation. Kaunda (1971), speaking on African humanism, defended African personality from the misconceptions of Western writers who fail to appreciate that, for the African, personality should have an intrinsic value of its own and the needs of every person should be taken as the criteria to measure progress.

This paper takes an anthropological position that African personality can best be understood from the African ontology which, according to Mbiti (1969: 50), is expressed in five leadership categories of God, the spirits, human beings, animals and plants, and phenomena and objects without biological life. It denies the bio-ethical arguments that make a distinction between a human being and a human person. It views personality as a way of conceptualising the identity and existential reality of the African person. It answers the question: Who am I as an African and how do I relate to other human beings and the created reality? This quest for identity is at the centre of ubuntu (unhu), where the individual worthiness of a person is not measured by his/her contributions but by the fact that one is a member of the tribe (Kaunda, 1971).

It is the contention of this paper that the study of African personality has a strong bearing on our understanding of leadership within the African context. African personality studies will inform the values that leaders put into their leadership. It will shape the qualities of African leaders and can lead to a deeper appreciation of the dignity of human beings and respect for individual rights. It is a quest for identity and the foundation of our cultural values. Further, his paper takes a pragmatic approach that classifies all actions that militate against the well-being of people as moral evils. These evils include tribal and ethnic conflicts that are prevalent in Africa which have caused deaths, suffering and poverty. It also includes criminal activities like murder, rape, torture, political violence, human trafficking, lack of respect for human rights, abortions and discrimination - all of which undermine the dignity of the human person.

The paper attempts to locate the soul of African personality without claiming to provide answers the complexities of the debate. It acknowledges the historical forces that have influenced the understanding of African personality, but tries to relate the core values to the modern debate on human dignity. A field analysis was undertaken to understand the current generation of African people view of African personality and its relevance to integral development.

Understanding Personality

According to Okemwa (1997: 62-63), the term 'person' comes from the Latin 'persona' whose Greek version is 'prosopon' and has a double meaning. The first meaning is that of a mask used to be won by actors in Greek and Roman drama. The second meaning is that of face, visage, role, character or part that is presented by an actor in a drama. Person, which in this sense, is compatible with Okemwa's analysis, is a character in a play or story. The Random House College Dictionary (1988) defines mask as a 'disguise' or to 'conceal'. This implies that in personality, a certain reality is or stands under what is seen or noticed and that acting is properly characteristic of a person (Okemwa, 1997). This reality that stands underneath what we notice is what Nkemnkia (1999) calls the dynamic vital force in African personality.

In psychology, personality sometimes signifies the basic constituent elements of the ego like body and soul. It is defined as an individual's distinct and relatively enduring pattern of thoughts, feelings, motives and behaviours. In social and cultural anthropology, personality is often taken to designate the characteristics of an individual or group of individuals, especially as a result of learning or education. In social sciences, 'person' sometimes designated one who is capable of possessing rights or obligations (Nyamiti, 1990).

Khoapa (1980: 9) makes a distinction between the Western liberal concepts of man with African as the basis for understanding African personality. He asserts that:

The African's conception of man sees biological life and spiritual life meeting in the human being and neither the one nor the other being present alone. The essence of human life is the unity of both principles. Man shares biological life (natural life) with the animal, but spiritual life divides him from the animal and gives him his personality. This spiritual dimension of an African is best understood from a cultural perspective. The relationship between culture and personality stems from the fact that personality is mostly shaped by environmental factors and to a lesser extent by genetic influence. However, chief among the environmental factors that impact on personality are cultural influences (Benet-Martinez & Oishi, 2006). According to Triandis (1996). Culture consists of shared meaning systems that form the basis for perceiving, believing, evaluating, communicating, and acting among members who share a common language, a historic period, and a geographic location. A number of studies have established that culture is a key determinant of personality or what it means to be a person (Church, 2000; Markus & Kitayama, 1998; Triandis & Suh, 2002).

In order to understand the cultural constituents of African personality, this paper examines some fundamental cultural aspects of the human person. These aspects confer upon a person, rights, obligations, dignity and worth. The four essential aspects identified are: the vitalistic dimension, sacred dimension, relationality, and freedom and responsibility which have been identified as constituting the core elements of African personality discourse.

The Conception of African Personality

African people do not conceive of personal identity apart from life in its totality, that is, where they come from, what they do, whom they associate with, their relations and their beliefs. This life is not considered abstractly, but is experienced in concrete existence, accompanied by vital functions and the good things of life like food, drink, wealth, honour (Nyamiti, 1990: 30). Loss of such elements is a diminution and extinction of life and personal dignity. A person is, therefore, one who has life in its fullness. This personal life is not a static reality, but a dynamic process realised through different stages of growth.

Nkemnkia (1999: 165) further maintains that African thought has a unified vision of reality in which there is no room for irreducible dichotomies between matter and spirit, religious tension and daily life, and between soul and body. The principle behind this unified vision is what he called the 'Vital Force'. The supreme vital force, the source of life and life-giver, according to African culture, is God, who is the 'person' par excellence and He is the one who gives existence and increase of life and power to all other persons. Hence, the priority of life over entity forms the basis of African personality.

The Sacred Dimension of Personality

Personality, in the African context, is conferred to an individual by means of sacred initiation rituals, since the intrinsic vital dynamism of a person is sacred. In this perspective, sacred rituals which for most African people begins during the time of parental courting, affirm the personality of even unborn children. Once a person is born, one can only change the state and place of being, but cannot be annihilated, due to the vital union with God.

African Personality as Relational

Personality for the African can only be achieved through vital contact or communication with fellow human beings. The 'I' is not the point of departure, but the 'we', the collectively of the community and the tribe (Nkemnkia, 1999: 171).

The individual exists, therefore, the collectivity exists. When one member of a family or clan is honoured, the whole group shares in the glory...

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