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African Intellectuals – a rejoinder

In October, TIA published an open letter to contemporary African intellectuals by Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire. Shaun Matsheza’s response was published a few weeks later. Bwesigye now writes a rejoinder in which he expounds on the meaning of African contemporaneity.



The Open Letter to contemporary African intellectuals was meant to provoke a discussion on the intended and unintended consequences of surrendering the sphere of thinking to Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism by African intellectuals. To an extent, this conversation has started. Two responses to the letter stand out. Shaun Matsheza’s and Prof. Edward Kissi’s. There are more responses that stand out, but I pick these two, for they enable me explain contemporaneity and the relevance issue better. In Mr. Matsheza and Prof. Kissi’s perceptions of the argument in the original letter, are many justifications for the need for African Contemporaneity. Intellectuals, policy-makers, journalists, analysts, writers, politicians etc. need a contemporaneous approach in considering the many geographical, cultural, political and other societies now referred to in general as Africa, outside the frame of Eurocentric orientalism and Afrocentric romanticism.

Who is an intellectual?

Both Mr. Matsheza and Prof. Kissi question what they assume is my definition of an intellectual and give their own. Prof. Kissi says:

… all “intellectuals”, wherever and whoever they are, are required to do the same thing: think and solve problems. That regardless of the racial or regional label that we may slap on them, an intellectual is required, in Africa or outside of Africa, to be:
(a) an informed person.
(b) a thinker
(c) a persuasive analyst, and
(d) a problem-solver.

Agreeing with the Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of South Florida and Fellow of the International Institute for Advanced Studies, Accra, Ghana is easy. But let us look at the particulars in the generalities of his definition. When he says the intellectual needs to be informed, what information is he referring to? Information on what? From where? About what? When he says that the intellectual needs to think and solve problems, whose problems does he mean? Problems, from whose perspective? Is it possible that what the West for example thinks is a problem in Africa, may not be considered thus by Africans living on the continent? Does this then affect the solution? In this case, a solution that is not needed because the people allegedly facing the problem do not consider it one! The intellectual that he says, I lambasted in the original letter in my view easily passes the test he has outlined because s/he is well informed as regards Western problems, needs and indeed solutions, often using Africa as a footnote than the centre of the production of knowledge and solutions to what are considered problems in the West, thus Western problems. This makes him/her a Western intellectual, even though they may operate in Africa. Mr. Mashetza does well to provide us an Ndebele proverb that illustrates the need for relevance. He writes, ‘eat the grain, and throw away the chaff.’

Let me clarify. Are all African needs similar to Western needs? Even within the geographical, cultural, political sphere we are calling the West are smaller entities all with their differences. Let us consider African societies in their geographical, cultural, political, social and historical totalities and complexities. A woman living on the slopes of the mountainous Kigezi area has particular problems, and opportunities that inform her worldview that a man living in the flatlands of Nkore may not have. Indeed, when describing world phenomena, these two may describe the same thing, but in light of their problems, opportunities, history and worldview may end up with different theories about the same thing. The African intellectual who centres their thinking on the West thus differs from their counterpart who centres Africa in their thinking.

Some of the problems facing the world today are similar. Universal. But some are not. There is no winter in Nyanja. You can’t blame us for not making winter-jackets. If the people of England do not eat grasshoppers (nsenene in the language of those who eat them), it is erroneous to expect English intellectuals to innovate a faster means for us to optimise our grasshopper harvests during the nsenene season. The mimic intellectual will however blame the whole nsenene phenomenon as under-developed simply because it does not exist in England. It will be a problem to solve. And will be named by Foreign Policy, the World Economic Forum and other Western institutions as a leading African intellectual for finding a way for us to leave our nsenene eating habits! Which really was not a problem for us in the first place. As Matsheza says, “Western knowledge is Western only in that it was curated by the criteria of its relevance and utility for the demands of said society.” The argument is that contemporary African intellectuals become relevant when they focus on the utility of whatever knowledge, African, Asian, European, American, etc. to the contemporary African condition. Can contemporary African intellectuals thus produce African knowledge than Western knowledge?

The Contemporaneous Intellectual

The question of the relevance of an intellectual has nothing to do with the age-old debate on mimicry and authenticity. African contemporaneity is neither of these two. The relevant intellectual centres contemporary Africa in their thinking. There is no community/culture that exists in isolation. All societies indeed borrow, adapt and domesticate theories, technologies and other things from other societies to suit their needs (see 5 Strategies for de-westernising Globalisation by Ali Mazrui). As Matsheza writes in his response, African societies have indeed given the world so much intellectual input. Afrocentric scholars such as Cheikh Anta Diop have proved that Egyptian civilisation provided the base for Greek and other Western civilisations. In adapting Egyptian civilisation, the Greeks sought that which suited their needs.

I will give an example of the drum as a cultural item, using P’Bitek’s illustration of the idea of functionality in his collection of essays, Artist, The Ruler. The Afrocentric intellectual, who is interested in the preservation of an authentic African culture and indeed in the recreation of an African past (the romanticist) may consider the drum as the instrument made of cow-hide and some wood, and makes a particular sound. If you hold a jerrycan, that makes the same sound and use it as a drum, the Afrocentric will accuse you of diluting authentic African culture.

The mimic on the other hand considers the drum to be what the European band (think of the Boys Brigade or military-type band) hold, and judges what the Afrocentric considers the authentic drum as inferior and in need of development, modernisation into the Boy’s Brigade band-type. The contemporaneous intellectual in my view considers functionality as the key factor in the definition of a drum. If the jerrycan, whether made in Brazil, or China, or Nigeria, or Mauritius, or England, or Botswana can serve the purpose of drumming, it is a drum. If the European-type drum is available and serves the purpose, it is also a drum. Similarly, the cowhide drum becomes a drum because it serves the purpose of drumming, not because it is authentic. What is essential here is the purpose, the problem being solved. The Afrocentric intellectual holds up the bygone African as the ideal, the mimic intellectual exalts European modernism as the ideal, the developed, but the contemporaneous intellectual considers Africa’s contemporary needs and centres their ideas around satisfying these.

If the jerrycan, whether made in Brazil, or China, or Nigeria, or Mauritious, or England, or Botswana can serve the purpose of drumming, it is a drum, even if it looks nothing like something you might find in an European band

If the jerrycan, whether made in Brazil, or China, or Nigeria, or Mauritious, or England, or Botswana can serve the purpose of drumming, it is a drum, even if it looks nothing like something you might find in an European band

Contemporaneous consciousness

Mimic African intellectuals, who look at Euro-America as the model of human perfection find problematic every single thing that does not reflect their European fantasy. They can be based on the continent or in the West. Afrocentric intellectuals blame everything on Africa’s loss of authenticity. These also can be based on the continent or in the West. The contemporaneous intellectual is keen to consider the current African reality independent of fantasies of Europe and the African past. As Achille Mbembe has written in On the Postcolony:

In Africa today the subject who accomplishes the age and validates it, who lives and espouses his/her contemporaneousness—that is, what is “distinctive” or “particular” to his/her present real world—is first a subject who has an experience of “living in the concrete world.” She/he is a subject of experience and a validating subject, not only in the sense that she/he is a conscious existence or has a perceptive consciousness of things, but to the extent that his/her “living in the concrete world” involves, and is evaluated by, his/her eyes, ears, mouth—in short, his/her flesh, his/her body.

To use the example Prof. Kissi uses in questioning what I mean by an “African development reality”, the argument is not that his people should continue to pound fufu as their ancestors did, but they should not abandon their need to eat fufu because no European inventor has yet found them a better way to pound it (probably no one will, if it does not serve Western needs). The role of the contemporaneous Akan intellectual is to bring their consciousness to relevance for the Akan people. To find a solution to this Akan fufu-pounding problem that may not exist in Norway, or Canada. To think.

To the contemporaneous intellectual it does not matter if this is not how Europeans ride bicycles, nor if this is not what the inventor of the bicycle intended it for

To the contemporaneous intellectual it does not matter if this is not how Europeans ride bicycles, nor if this is not what the inventor of the bicycle intended it for

When the people living around the Kenya-Uganda border realised there was a problem in the long no-man’s-land distance between the two border-points, they did not wait for Europe to send them a train-system. They did not tell themselves that the inventor of the bicycle did not intend it to be a border-to-border transport device. They did not stop themselves from using it because their ancestors never used it. They called the bicycle used for commercial border-to-border crossing the boda boda, and whether you the African scholar, or are the inventor of the bicycle and you use the metro system, you can’t take away the intellectual contribution, the ingenuity of the contemporaneousness in their thinking. And now, we have motorcycle boda-bodas. The mimic intellectuals claim these should be banned because they are not part of the European modernity frame, that only trains and now cable cars can solve the problem! This is the point when one says, African intellectuals, Shine Your Eyes.

Contemporaneity is, to use Kissi’s words, “what works for people and what improves their lives in the time in which they live” not what Euro-America has invented for the world, or what African ancestors invented for the world. Contemporaneousness has no room for authenticity as a static idea, nor modernity as a Europe-manufactured product. 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. The debate on dictatorship and democracy subjected to this African contemporaneous test may actually produce interesting results. Besides democracy being a hallmark of Western political philosophy, can we shine our eyes on other political systems, some of which may be better for us than Western democracy? We should by now know that not everything that is European is gold. And this is not to defend systems the West has defined as dictatorships, but it is possible that the West’s recommendation of multi-party democracy is a solution to Western problems, not our own.

Sidenote: I could not help my desire to decry the essentialist racist undertones of Matsheza’s interpretation of the point that some foods (organic foods, common in rural-Uganda) produce more dense residue compared to the foods consumed by urban-type Asians and Europeans (who sought to remain culturally separate from ‘natives’, including on matters of feeding). Can we deny that this essentialist worldview is a result of too much Eurocentric orientalist literature and philosophy? It is about the food, not race, my brother.