African cosmology and the duality of Western hegemony: the search for an African identity.

Author:Viriri, Advice


The long time colonial relationship between Europe and Africa saw the dehumanization that gave birth to the enslavement of the African people for the sole reason of economic exploitation and the perpetuation of racial and cultural stereotypes. This rendered Africans an epitome of barbarism, morons, primitives, and sexual perverts among other binary oppositions. Africa was not only viewed as a dark continent but also seen as "a land of despotic civilizations with no legacy of those democratic principles that have been so clear to the West's self image" (Mengara, 2001:1). This colonial encounter has led to what Mudimbe calls the "invention of Africa" as opposed to the Africans' Africa, with the negative characterization based on the Aristotelian paradigms of a chain of binary oppositions that seek to affirm the duality of Western hegemony. Aristotelian categorization of Africa has what Daniel Mengara (Ibid: 2) calls "the systematic and systemic manufacturing of a continent" labeling it on the basis of "superiority versus inferiority, civilized versus uncivilized, pre-logical versus logical, mythical versus scientific among other epithets". Such philosophical prejudices against Africans have continued to be circulated and recycled by many other European scholars in this modern day without stopping to check the facts.

The concept of color as a distinctive criterion of racial classification was more pronounced within the Western universe. Mengara (Ibid) thinks that, the rain started to beat Africa on the Berlin conference of 1885 that signaled the "scramble" for territorial ownership of Africa for the following predictable scenarios of:

* "the European empire's long attested desire to own portions of the world as a way of signifyingtheir hegemonic grandeur.

* the transfer of their secular European rivalries onto virgin grounds where imperial wars could be indirectly fought; and

* a capitalist fervour that the colonial 'discoveries" of rich lands in Africa and America, the slave trade and the development of commerce with the Eastern and middle Eastern worlds had helped to trigger".

For the process of colonization to appear to be a noble undertaking to the European's perception, it needed justification by expropriating the Africans' being by turning their minds into western objects. This resulted into the invention of a European-made Africa. It was out of Europe's explorations and expropriations that it embarked on a mission to re-map, re-shape, re-name Africa according to how it viewed the world. In the expropriation process, African as judged by indigenous African standards was replaced by a single monolithic African identity as was specifically reworked by the European empires. Names of towns, streets and institutions bore foreign designations and nature was not spared either as shall be discussed later. It is not fair that Africa was forced to imbibe and accept values and cultures of her conqueror at her own peril. The world tends to lose much when we forget that Africa remembers that, in the words of Patrice Lumumba's famous speech during a Congolese independence ceremony:

We were insulted; we had to suffer beatings, morning, noon and evening because we were niggers. Who is going to forget that a black person would be addressed tu, not of course, because that is how one addresses a friend but rather because the respectful vous was reserved to Whites only. African Cosmology

In its most general and widely used sense the term cosmology refers to a people's worldview hence one can speak of the Shona cosmology, the Dogon cosmology or as in this case the African cosmology. However as with so many other issues about Africa it is important, as Ikuenobe (1999) noted, to remind readers that while there are many cultures in Africa it is almost acceptable in the philosophical literature that whenever a 'thought' or 'tradition' is predicated of Africa it does not connote homogeneity of cultures, but reference is only being made to dominant themes, in the sense of common generative themes in African cultures. It is with this sense that this section talks of African cosmology. In articulating the forces that denigrates African creativity, Ngwabi Bhebe (2000: 7-8) blames colonialism as a hindrance to the advancement of African science and technology:

Before the European conquest of Africa, Africans had built up a pool of knowledge and technology which they used to sustain agriculture, human and animal health, industrial production involving food processing, metallurgy, leather tanning, timber seasoning, fermentation of beverages, making of dyes, mining and architectural engineering. But political subjugation by Europe so traumatized Africans that many of them lost confidence in and looked down upon their own culture, forcing some of them to view and embrace Christianity and Islam as a progressive move but without totally losing their old cosmology or basic beliefs.

The above corollary is enough justification that the African indigenous system and other human civilizations that were condemned as backward and relegated as irrational are still viable for human existence in present day Africa. As a result of the colonial misfortune much of what constitutes contemporary Africa both metaphysically and epistemologically is, though arguably, to a large extent a product of the European gaze. As the gazing subject the European enjoyed the privilege of seeing its 'Other', the African, without being seen for some time and in the process took this opportunity to define the African as its negative Other. As a result much of what goes into defining African cosmology is what was developed from the privileged position of the outsider. This representation, or call it misrepresentation of the African at various levels did not only end with the Westerners but a few African protegees in the mould of mostly the first crop of African Christian scholars such as John Mbiti bought into these misrepresentations about their own people. It is with this in mind that a number of philosophers and other Afrocentric scholars such as Ramose (1998), Makgoba (1997), Crossman (2004) among others are calling for the Africanisation of knowledge. Africanisation of knowledge is basically a call to place the African worldview at the centre of analysis and recognition that there are different pyramids for the construction of knowledge none of which should be regarded as inferior for knowledge is basically a cultural construct and hence boasts of its own cultural regalia. When one culture considers another as the product of its analysis, it would always be 'one cultural perspective' since culture is the window through which every man makes sense of the world. If this is anything to go by, then it is not difficult to realize that when the Europeans write about Africa, their perspective is always a product of their culture. And for this reason:

* The conceptual framework within which they define linguistics as a field of study is non-African.

* The concepts with which they work are not contextualized within African cultural traditions.

* Western academic perspectives determine their definition of what constitutes a linguistic problem.

* The language and linguistics of Africa are not centralized, with most of their illustrative material coming from outside Africa.

* The language and language-related problems typical of this comprehensive and complex multilingualism of Africa are not dealt with substantially.

* The background knowledge assumed in certain textbooks are Western in nature, and the information they provide and the skills they develop are not specifically directed at African conditions, and finally,

* Very little reference is made to the work of African linguistics. (Webb-Sure, 2000: ix)

In view of the above set of inferences one may begin to realize the importance of what Outlaw (1991) defines as the inevitable challenge of deconstruction and reconstruction that faces any African philosopher. The whole search for an African identity entails in large part the deconstruction of the existing texts and the concomitant reconstruction to produce an authentic African position. Africa has linguistic problems that are peculiar to its own language situations, as an example. These problems require African-oriented solutions, in form of knowledge, insights, theories and skills that are relevant to Africa. For Ngugi wa Thiongo (1999: no pagination), it is such challenges as "the question of language that goes to the heart of the very being and existence of the African or for that...

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