Socrates once said “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” Western philosophy has always been motivated by wonder at the world around us and our quest to know it using our minds, our reason, and our experiences. The focus on reason used in a perfect “pursuit of happiness”, our joyful quest to embrace the wondrous world around us has given the west a philosophical tradition that has been the glory of the world. The west with its deeply examined life has churned out so much unique thought in this area that it is impossible to read all of it much less digest it; as each man seeks to add a bright spot to the ever-expanding constellation of human experience and understanding.
Meanwhile, other civilizations struggle to find meaning and articulate it.
So too Africa. I have lived in Africa for ten years; off-and-on since 1999. I have visited the seats of her ancient civilizations: Timbuktu, a lost Islamic city known for its university and its books. The ancient Buganda parliaments of Uganda renowned for their order. Zanzibar, spices and the opulence product of trade. Great kings seated atop thrones of ivory. Africa’s experience with empire and civilization in the feudal sense is unrivaled. But her addition to philosophical thought pales when juxtaposed against the west.
I have often wondered why this is. It has been said that the reason might be that African philosophy has been founded on frustration. As Jonathan O. Chimakonam from University of Pretoria has said, “That African philosophy began with frustration and not with wonder as it is in Western tradition is a radical statement with far-reaching implications”.
While the west’s existentialism was dominated by Sartre and Camus as a joyful exploration of wonder even in a world without meaning, “…it was frustration that spurred African philosophy, with the emergence of radically Afrocentric nationalist philosophers such as Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire and Kwame Nkrumah who saw in philosophy an ideological weapon for attacking those who sought to denigrate and subjugate Africans culturally and politically.” Instead of arriving at Nietzsche nihilism after a long and fulfilling journey, African philosophy started there.
I myself write about this in my 4th novel “I, Charles, From the Camps”; coming my own extensive experiences in African frustration. “We have had children, my wife and I. (…) I teach them not to hope, not to struggle, not to dream. I teach them to focus on little things that are achievable—a few liters of banana wine sold at market, several kilos of potatoes from a good harvest. Flirtations with a local girl who knows the camps and does not expect more. I teach them that ambition only brings a greater darkness—that we as shadow people must accept that we are such because the gods do not forgive attempts at triumph.”
But things are on the move. Thought never remains stagnant; especially when minds come together to try and find a path forward in our eternal quest for joy. I was recently reading an article about a new African philosophy by a young Nigerian philosopher named Ada Agada. He was writing of his attempts to synthesize Africa’s philosophy of frustration with the West’s ideas of wonder. He calls it “consolation philosophy”, stemming from old African ideas of conversationalism and emotion (he calls it mood) building an African existentialism which is able to break itself from the sadness, “While the goal of existence (perfection) is unrealisable, there is meaning (consolation) in existence that is realisable.”
Africa needs more of this. The world sometimes gives us “genius clusters” when we need them the most, to help us through trying times. Jefferson and Madison and Franklin to start our great American experiment. Reagan and Thatcher and Solzhenitsyn and John Paul to free us from communism. Socrates with his two greatest students setting the table for the west’s amazingly rich feast of philosophical thought. It will come as no surprise to you who frequent my musings that I think the world is headed for a rough time; and we are well in need of some great minds who can begin to synthesize again the trends and the knowledge as we build out our new philosophies. Maybe its Africa’s turn to finally break out of its long “Age of Frustration” into something new, something that it also can offer to the rest of us as we struggle to make sense of our arriving ordeal.