Thinking with Africa, making the world

How could thinking with Africa help us fulfill our humanity? And might thinking with Africa open up a possibility for world-making?

Saving Mali's manuscripts. Image credit Marco Dormino via UN Photo Flickr (CC).

At their origin, African studies—ethnology and anthropology in particular—were colonial exercises intended to think about Africa and to say what it was; to define it in order to better dominate it, and to be able to adjust colonial techniques of domination and exploitation. It was in no way a matter of thinking with Africa. Contrary to this perspective, in a decolonial approach, we would like to think with Africa as world-making; to think with Africa and make world, make worlds, in order to make the world. But what should be understood by world-making?

World-making is building, producing the world. It’s building the link from the in-common to the present time, in order to re-member ourselves. It is building a link between generations, with the past and with the future. But it is also to think of humanity in taking into account its link, its relationship to life and to the world in which we live, that is to say to the planet that we occupy. To make world is therefore also to think the cosmos.

A lot of formerly colonizing nations such as France maintain a colonial relation towards its Afro-descendant population, and do not manage to treat it fairly and to fully recognize it as part of its history and identity. How can afro-descendants realize themselves when they are nowhere to be found in the collective memory? When their past has been erased, and they are considered alien to their own national community even as they help to form it? When the link to their own history was broken the moment that, for example, their ancestors were ripped from their native land to be deported to another continent? How to deal with this experience of a double-absent memory (the absent memory of their heritage and the absence of afro-descendant memory within the national narrative)? And how to handle this experience of transgenerational memory that can transmit an experience of submission, self-hatred, denial, or resilience and resistance? In the same society, transgenerational memory transmits a different kind of lived experience to another section of the population; one of dominance, arrogance, racism, violence, and a feeling of superiority. For white citizens of formerly colonizing countries, there is the question of their responsibility in the perpetuation of a singular system of domination.

This past that we have in common compels us to work towards an understanding of what makes a community and its members, whom we have to connect. How to integrate those who have been excluded into the founding narrative of our society, without the destructive violence of assimilation that asks them to destroy their own memory, and with it their history, their culture and their language? We have to think about what memory can and should be in and for a community and individuals in this community.

In the context of a partial remembrance, to make memory is to undertake the task of mourning—whose therapeutic dimension is essential for re-possession of the self—especially by reconnecting with what has been unjustly depreciated, devalued and expunged. Heritage must therefore be subject to inventory. To remember is to give value to one’s story and to master the discourse that surrounds you. This is part of the process of identity. Memory is one of the sites in which I am able to choose my own trajectory, one that bears meaning for me and, from a collective point of view, for my people.

There is an urgent need to learn to live together. Thus, let us be reminded that the social cogito that is Ubuntu teaches us that community is not a sum of scattered individuals; it is the group, through the links that it creates and nourishes, that nurtures the power to act. This praxis rests on an in-common that must be built. This implies developing an ethics of participation and solidarity. Ubuntu, which could be translated as “I am because we are,” invites us to privilege the common interest over that of our individuality in all circumstances, and to strive always to identify with others, even with their feelings of hostility, in order to regulate one’s own life. This social cogito suggests respect for another’s humanity, insofar as it poses the irreducible value of human life. And it infers an ethics that rests on the pre-eminence of reparation and on understanding over punishment. Which, very concretely, supposes the continuous search for conciliation and the “refusal of revenge” in the management of conflict.

We find this idea in different forms of traditional African justice such as the gacaca in Rwanda. In the aftermath of the genocide, discussion played a central role. It was a matter of recreating foundations for a peaceful society, without erasing the crimes that had been committed from memory, or abandoning the cause for truth; and rather by developing the conditions for an active citizenship unburdened, as far as possible, of vengeful feelings; and which is necessary for the construction of a true democracy.

This is what the Cameroonian philosopher Jean-Godefroy Bidima proposes in his essay, “La Palabre: the legal authority of speech,” in which he explains that, in palabre, the rights of the community do not supplant those of the individual, even if justice bears a cathartic function that comprises the healing of the collective and the individual. It seeks to rehabilitate the other, be they the victim or the guilty party, and to recognize them, as such, as a full member of society.

In this perspective, world-making is to build together a memory of the in-common which supplements our own – and does not replace it. Memories are not exclusive: one can add to one’s own memory that of the in-common, which should surely lead us to forge a memory that is reconciliatory and peaceful; the only thing capable of permitting each one of us to deploy our full potentiality and to realize what we are. This does not mean always being in agreement with others or seeking consensus at all costs. But to think about how we can use tension in order to create a positive, and not necessarily destructive, force. To see how, in certain situations, dissensus can be beneficial, in particular for avoiding any move that would tend towards transforming the “different” into the “same.” We must also ask ourselves how memory can bring together the various and the multiple without diluting them in a unity understood as one. How can that which makes dissensus contribute to the construction of the in-common?

Therefore, a world-memory would be a memory that allows us “re-member”. This task of “re-membering” is a work of both remembrance and consolidation. To build community is to re-member, or to re-group, ourselves; to gather scattered members and to build a body around the values, goods, and history that we have chosen to share.

World-making is above all making a place livable, habitable. But what makes our world so, in the strictest sense, is not, contrary to what we would like to think, so much man and his activities as plants and the process of photosynthesis that transforms solar energy into living matter (Emanuele Coccia). We do not belong just to humanity, but to life. We do not inhabit the Earth so much as the atmosphere, which is this cosmic flow that we produce in interaction with plants.

We have forgotten our planetary condition, that we are inscribed into a cosmos and that the Earth could not exist outside of it. A process of withdrawal from the cosmos, from a philosophical point of view, was developed in the West during the period of so-called Modernity. But astrophysicists have proven to us that we are all stardust, that we are the children of stars that have exploded and during this process, produced the chemical elements that we are made up of and which also make up our world. We have to understand that all world-memory is a cosmic one. This is not a metaphor. We all share the same genealogy. Everything that lives on the Earth is astral in nature. There is material and ontological continuity between the Earth and the rest of the Universe. This planet that is our home is a celestial body. Let us move out of the night in which we are enclosed and think about light, the sun, the moon, the stars. There is no autonomous Earth.

Our cosmic reality calls for an understanding that we can only make world by conceiving of human community in its intimate link to the rest of the world, animal, vegetal, mineral, with the invisible, our ancestors and those to come, with our universe as well as the other universes, the multiverses of astrophysicists. World-making means understanding that human rights cannot be separated from the right to a healthy environment, and therefore from the rights of nature, nor from engaging in transformations of our social and political organizations in order to broaden the beneficiaries of rights to include Nature. This has already happened in Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico and New Zealand, as well as thirty-something cities in the USA; we must also broaden our conception of democracy to include future generations, as well as our forebears.

In this way, the West has much to learn from African civilizations that have fostered a bio-centric philosophical vision, judging it better to under-use the nutritional potential of nature because the planet is for all living things. In this way, it would be invited to go beyond the anthropocentrism of its humanism. In the second half of the 20th century, African philosophy built and defined itself in opposition to African cosmologies, to animism, and yet, it could prove extremely fertile to explore these traditional philosophies in that, according to Felwine Sarr in Afrotopia,

the conception of the Universe that is visible in a wide variety of African knowledge and practices is that of a cosmos thought of as a great living thing. It is a whole of which Man is an emanation, one living being amongst others. […] Man is considered as a symbolic operator linking heaven and Earth. […] the ritual of repairing the Earth constitutes one of the most significant symbolic acts in a realisation of this responsibility (115).

They could certainly provide us with a rich source of material that we need to offer to post-humanist thought which, and this is not a paradox, would allow us to accomplish our humanity in that becoming human or being more human would bring us back to helping life, and every life force, grow. To succeed in making a world is to achieve one’s humanization, not only for humanity, but for everything living, and to inscribe oneself into a cosmology of emergence. This vitalist ontology insists on an ethics of action. We must act according to everything that reinforces vital force. Evil is the lessening of life force. It is thus a question of privileging the relation which allows to be related without being tied together, which emancipates and does not stifle.

Further Reading

Africa In The New Century

Originally presented in a lecture series and later compiled in The Philosophy of History (Germany, 1837), Hegel adds: “The Negro … exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state. We must lay …