Hunhu/ubuntu and African philosophy


DID the Greeks appropriate the legacy of African philosophy and called it their own?
The term ‘Greek Philosophy’ has for centuries been understood to imply the Greeks gave the world its philosophy!
Did we not have an indigenous African philosophy?
Due to the fact that much of our history and philosophy was unwritten, but in the realm of orature and practice, Western-tutored philosophers from Europe in the 1920s began to refer to it as Ethno-philosophy.
Historical events, such as slavery, colonialism and racism throughout Africa generated frustration in African people whose culture, under colonialism, was further tainted and rendered almost extinct by European colonial philosophy.
Under colonial rule, Africans suffered severe abuse and loss of identity; Africa had been stripped of its identity, language, culture and heritage.
The result was the creation of an erroneous world opinion that Africa has made no contribution to civilisation, because her people are primitive, backward and low in intelligence and uncultured.
The question which lurked in every enlightened African mind was: ‘Who are we?’
This colonial racist caricature of Africans as ‘culturally naïve, intellectually docile and rationally inept’ was created by European scholars and philosophers such as Kant and Hegel who wrote, “Africans had no high cultures and had made no contributions to world history and civilisation. The need for a written African philosophy emerges.”
The definitions of ‘us’ from a Western perspective that we, Africans, were ‘savage, primitive, less than human’; removed our self-esteem and tainted our origins, which led to the post-colonial search for our African identity.
The question of who we are under the sun has been at the forefront of African philosophical thinking.
During colonial times, the African’s socio-political and cultural identity, including Zimbabwe, was Western-oriented. The coloniser imposed his thought systems, standards and even his perceptions of us upon indigenous African minds structured by the colonial phantom that loomed towering behind the white facade.
Was it easy for the indigenous African to position himself within these Western cultural trappings, even though they had no bond or association with his ‘true’ being?
George James, in his work Stolen Legacy, published in 1954, touched by the insincerity and cold-heartedness of the colonialists, proved that, ‘ …the Egyptians were the true authors of Western philosophy; that Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle plagiarised from the Egyptians; that the authorship of the individual doctrines of Greek philosophers is a mere speculation perpetuated chiefly by Aristotle and executed by his school; and that the African continent gave civilisation knowledge, arts and sciences, religion and philosophy, a fact that is destined to produce a change in the mentality both of the European and African peoples’.
Indeed, African philosophy is as old as mankind; a sufficiently proficient oratorical, philosophical tradition existed in Africa since ancient times, of abundant intellectual sophistication to warrant serious analysis. Africans are the actual authors of ancient wisdom; the arts, architecture, sciences, religion and philosophy.
In actual fact, when one studies Greek philosophy, one comes across startling similarities with Shona wisdom and philosophical concepts, such as ngozi in the Greek tragedies which are decidedly African; many examples are also found in Egyptian lore that attest to the fact that Greek philosophers appropriated the legacy of philosophy from the African continent and called it their own.
African philosophy however, is more superior and sophisticated than Western philosophy.
Sadly, it was only in the late 1920s that a written scholarly system emerged, in the criteria of schools, movements and periods in African-centred philosophy.
It was thus incumbent upon post-colonial African scholars, leaders and philosophers to search for and restore African roots.
Early in the 1960s, many indigenous Africans, especially artists, musicians, writers, historians and politicians, began to question their existence and identity under colonial rule. They created literary and artistic works that were designed to reclaim our stolen identity of Africanness and hunhu/ubuntu.
The existence of the concept of hunhu/ubuntu thus offered a justifiable rock-solid idea of African philosophy. Thus began the history of rational written African thought, with the likes of Aimer Cesaire, Leopold Senghor, Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, John Mbiti and other well-known Africanist thinkers who unleashed their scholarly writings on Africanhood and hunhu/ubuntu that opened the pages to a unique African philosophy.
In their works, they wrote a discourse which sought to prove and establish the unique basis of African philosophical identity in the history of mankind, at the same time seeking to chart a route to trace Africa’s true identity through socio-political, cultural and economic ideologies in the later-day politics of Africa.
Indeed, indigenous African philosophy and beliefs have deeper inferences that highlight sensitive issues such as the identity of the African people, their place in history and their cultural as well as scientific contributions to civilisation.
In his seminal work, Stolen Legacy, George James postulates that Africa had a robust philosophy and the so-called Western philosophy, the very bastion of European identity, was stolen from the ‘Bantu’ people of southern Africa.
The racist orientation of the West, which paints Africa as a continent of semi-human savages has long been recorded in the text books of history.
In antique geographical art maps of Africa, ‘Barbaria’ was the name given by ancient colonial cartographers to the territory of Munhumutapa (Zimbabwe), even in spite of the evidence of our rich civilisation and architecture boldly manifest at the Great Zimbabwe.
The post-colonial African philosophers of the early period set out in search of Africa’s lost identity. African Independence heralded the emergence of a new era in African philosophy in which the ideals of traditional and universal philosophy were integrated.
However, in the global matrix of today, it is shameful and denigrating for the African citizen, scholar — or academic to continue to identify himself/herself within the European colonialist milieu; a social trait which began soon after regaining their respective autonomy.
The ominous colonial phantom which was militarily exorcised from African countries and the white ghost of colonialism,’chipoko’, continues to reside in the minds of many African people today.
Now that we have repossessed our God-given patria, it is important to understand this mode of thinking in Zimbabwe today.
How do we as Zimbabweans pass on the knowledge of ourselves to our progeny?
Our unwritten code of philosophical theory in Zimbabwe and other neighbouring sub-Saharan states does not detract from the existence and meaning of our indigenous philosophies, but merely stands to prove the resilience and the power of oral cultural transmission inherent in hunhu/ubuntu.
In Zimbabwe the philosophy of hunhu/ubuntu is part of the traditional body of our indigenous African philosophy, even if it falls within the oral, pre-literate or the pre-systematic era.
We have to pick up the scattered granite stones from the ruins of our civilised past of Munhumutapa at Great Zimbabwe and recast and reconstruct our house of African philosophy hunhu/ubuntu; for Madzimbahwe is literally a philosophy writ in stone.
Zimbabwe’s true identity is found within the African philosophical concept of hunhu/ubuntu.
Zimbabwe can boast a rational humanistic template of African philosophy as the logical foundation of their culture, thoughts, world-view, religion, afterlife and creation as well as political thought, among others.
African philosophy, including Zimbabwe’s hunhu/ubuntu, derives its inspiration from an African cultural background, language, culture, religion and systems of thought.
Hunhu/ubuntu has universal applicability projected from the vantage point of African systems of being. Its identity is communal and not individualistic; I am, because we are — ‘munhu, munhu pamusaka pe vanhu’.
Can African philosophy emerge from the scared womb of colonialism through a grounded Zimbabwean education system?
The onus is on us.
Dr Tony Monda holds a PhD in Art Theory and Philosophy and a DBA (Doctorate in Business Administration) and Post-Colonial Heritage Studies. He is a writer, lecturer, musician, art critic, practising artist and corporate image consultant. He is also a specialist art consultant, Post-Colonial scholar, Zimbabwean Socio-Economic analyst and researcher.
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