Philosophy in Africa

During my recent trip to Kenya to teach an intensive course on contemporary philosophy at Strathmore University I was told about a sign on the wall in the Johannesburg airport that quoted this wise African proverb:

If you want to go fast, go alone.
If you want to go far, go together.

This aphorism impressed me greatly, because it really expresses well the option that so go fast go faroften presents itself in our personal lives and in the organization of our society. This is the radical option between individualism —the search for success or personal satisfaction— and communitarianism, that is, the commitment to attention and service to others as the key to growth and development.

In his third encyclical Benedict XVI wrote that it was necessary to transform the economic logic of contractual exchange into the logic of gift: “the logic of gift does not exclude justice, nor does it merely sit alongside it as a second element added from without; on the other hand, economic, social and political development, if it is to be authentically human, needs to make room for the principle of gratuitousness as an expression of fraternity.” (Caritas in veritate , n. 34). There are those that hold that the motor of colonialism in Africa was capitalism, and that its consequence, which we see in the stage following decolonization, is the notorious deterioration in the ability to live together that the continent has experienced: genocides, wars and all kinds of violence. One can say that in broad regions of the African continent, rather than experiencing progress, there is instead a regression to the jungle or the desert, but this time through the use of the latest generation of arms and technological resources.

On the internet I discovered that both Al Gore and Stanford’s Hydra project have both adopted this African proverb as their mottos. I thought this was wonderful, although it is perhaps more difficult to put it into practice. If you want to go far, go with others. I was reminded of the comment that Hemingway noted down after an infelicitous car trip through France with John Dos Passos: “Never to go on trips with anyone you do not love”. The key to going far—I believe—is not just going with others, but going with others that you care about. “Better to be alone than in bad company”, in the words of the Spanish proverb, apparently in contrast to the African proverb, but possibly with a certain wise analogy.

I enjoy doing things with others, from research projects and well thought out scientific tuskerarticles to having a beer, such as the excellent Kenyan Tusker, which I had the opportunity to savor on top of Mount Longonot. And indeed this beer’s motto is precisely ‘together forever’. Longonot is the marvelous extinct volcano that makes its appearance in Out of Africa and which, at 2,560 meters high, dominates a longonotwide area of the Rift Valley. To get an idea of its grandeur, think about the fact that the ring around its crater has a perimeter of more than 7 km.

Gerald J. Wanjohi, the African philosopher, gave me one of his books on African proverbs, and I read it with great interest on my trip back to Spain. In particular, I wasjaime and philosopher drawn to one that says “What you do freely, you do better”. It occurred to me that in order to construct a country —Kenya is going to celebrate its 50th anniversary in December of 2013— it is necessary that people, and in this country, tribes, wish to live together in fruitful coexistence. The general elections are coming up and it is easy to note the anxiety that has arisen about its results. After the elections of 2007 more than 1,200 people died and 200,000 persons were displaced because they were living in a zone that belonged to another tribe than their own. In fact, I was struck by how frequently the press, and people in normal conversations, used the word “chaos” to refer to the political situation and its attendant ongoing risks.

On the street —as we say in Spain— the truly chaotic thing is the traffic. The condition of the streets is horrendous, many of them unpaved, with crater-sized potholes, suffering a never-ending stream of vehicles in various states of coming apart. Thousands of matatus matatu—the local microbuses— with a young person hanging from the sliding door, half his body outside the cab as he looks for new passengers. On the way to the airport a policeman stopped us at a routine checkpoint. When I told him that I was returning to Spain after having taught some classes, the officer stamped our pass with a broad smile, while saying in a loud voice: “Cesc Fàbregas!”. He was obviously a big fan of Arsenal.

Can such a country make progress? In the medium term I think so, thanks to initiatives such as those of Strathmore University, which are collaborating in the transformation of the country and —according to an expert I spoke with— thanks to a new generation of young businessmen and women who have not succumbed to the corruption of traditional politicians. And this is why I always say yes to invitations to teach in Nairobi. I believe that the seed of transformation and progress can be found in its universities. In face, after I leave, I always think that I have learned more than I taught.

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2 thoughts on “Philosophy in Africa

  1. Thanks professor for giving us an external view of ourselves, as well as an invitation to think…A return to virtue has always been and now seems even more imperative. We absolutely need to think more deeply about where we want to go and how we will get there; Together; Willingly.

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