Institute of African Studies - Columbia University

IAS Projects at the Global Center in Nairobi

In fall 2017, under the auspices of the President’s Global Innovation Fund “Africa Global Seminar” project, the Institute launched an African Philosophy Working Group for students and faculty interested in close readings of African philosophical works. The group met once a month throughout the fall and spring semesters. It was steered by Professor Kai Kresse and attended by MESAAS graduate students and faculty from both Columbia and surrounding universities (CUNY, Teachers College). Its theme for the year was Sage Philosophy, and readings centered around the works of African philosophers influenced by the writings and research of Kenyan Philosopher Henry Odera Oruka – best remembered for seeking out local thinkers recognized as "wise" within their own communities, and documenting discussions with them so as to create an archive of Kenyan “Sage Philosophers” outside of academia.


The Africa-based partners for this project were Dr. Murugi Ndirangu of the Columbia Global Center in Nairobi, as well as former students of Oruka’s, who had partly been engaged in the sage philosophy project themselves and were now faculty members in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Nairobi. With their particular research and teaching profiles, as academics of a younger generation who had been studying with Oruka (and conducting research under his supervision), who had been teaching his work and writing research papers on it, and who had just edited a new volume on “Henry Odera Oruka in the 21st Century” (published in 2018, by the influential Washington D.C. based Research Council for Philosophy and Values), Dr. Oriare Nyarwath, Dr. Reginald Oduor and Dr. Francis Owakah were ideal collaborators for this project on the Kenya side. Kai Kresse, who has worked and published on Oruka’s works since early on in his career, had known them already since his encounters with Oruka in 1993 and 1995. On the basis of long-standing personal interactions, both sides agreed on the basic terms of collaboration. And thus in both New York and Nairobi, the guiding interest here, of re-visiting, re-thinking, and possibly reviving sage philosophy research initiatives (in adapted and strengthened forms), as part of a critical and dialogical trans-regional collaborative engagement, was a major leitmotif to invest and participate in the project.

The ongoing Sage Philosophy working group at the Institute of African Studies formed the backdrop for a series of African Philosophy lectures open to students, faculty, and the wider community throughout the academic year. In the fall, these included “In Search of a Human Minimum”: Introducing the Philosophy of Henry Odera Oruka by Michael Mburu of Duquesne University, and African Sage Philosophy by Gail Presbey of the University of Detroit Mercy. In addition, as part of the Africa Global Seminar project, the Institute hosted renowned cultural anthropologist Karin Barber of the University of Birmingham for a lecture entitled Local Intellectuals in Nigeria: Notes from the Field, which drew a particularly large and engaged audience. In December, the Institute welcomed the Swahili poet and Kenyan political activist and philosopher Abdilatif Abdalla for an afternoon of poetry readings and political discussion together with Kenyan author Mukoma wa Ngugi. The event, entitled Kenya, Twendapi?/Kenya, Where are we Headed? garnered an audience not only from Columbia, CUNY, and NYU, but also from Princeton and as far away as Ithaca and the University of Wisconsin.

The fall semester concluded with a daylong workshop entitled Sage Philosophy and Intellectual Culture in African Studies. The workshop featured three guest lecturers from the the project's primary Kenyan partners, Reginald Oduor, Oriare Nyarwath, and Francis Owakah. Panels and presenters covered a wide array of topics, ranging from mathematical sages in the Sahel, to philosophical poetry in the African diaspora, to the politics of social spaces in West Africa, to philosophy in Kenyan politics. The workshop drew a robust audience of about forty people from both Columbia and the surrounding community.

In the spring, the Sage Philosophy Working Group continued its regular meetings, and the Institute hosted four more lectures within the African Philosophy Series. In February, Bruce Janz of the University of Central Florida spoke on Events in African Philosophy. In April, Severine Kodjo Grandvaux of the Le Monde newspaper gave lecture on engaging with African philosophers entitled Thinking with Africa, Making the World. Later in the spring, the Institute hosted two Swahili-focused philosophy events: a lecture by Nathalie Arnold of Hampshire College entitled Subi Ate the Drum, on power and mystical uses of language in colonial Zanzibar; and Responsibility and the Social Good: Toward a Reading of Shaaban Robert by Kenyan philosopher and translator, D. A. Masolo of the University of Louisville.

Programming at the Columbia Global Center in Nairobi

Between May 20th and May 25th the Institute of African Studies, the Columbia Global Center in Nairobi, the Goethe Insitute of Nairobi, and the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Nairobi partnered to host a week-long workshop in the Kenyan capital. 

The workshop offered an opportunity to actively experience encounters and interviews with Kenyan ‘sages’. Two days of the workshop were used for small group encounters with such selected individuals, and another whole day was then spent on the critical reflection of these experiences. In this way, the participants developed a critical and sensitive consciousness of the strengths and weaknesses (or limits) of Oruka’s approach, but also, furthermore, of their own research approach in relation to it.

Another valuable asset during the extensive discussions of the Nairobi workshop was the direct interaction with East-Africa based researchers (in Nairobi; Dar es Salaam; and Kampala) who had either been trained or directly involved in Oruka’s sage philosophy research between the 1970s and 1990s in Kenya, or who were pursuing related fieldwork-based and knowledge-focused research of their own. Former students and research assistants of Oruka’s (active or retired staff at Kenyan universities; or engaged as consultants on development and poverty related projects for the UN and other bodies) attended the plenum discussion meetings on Monday and Friday, and were available for further discussions in small group interviews. The engagement with both of these kinds of perspectives from East Africa made comparative and contextualizing discussions very rich for the members of the visiting Columbia group.

The workshop also included a day-long conference open to the public under the title Re-Thinking Sage Philosophy. From 9am till 5pm, there were at least 40 and up to 80 members of the public attending. These included university faculty and students from Nairobi and the surrounding area (e.g. faculty and students from St. Paul University in Limuru; the Technical University of Kenya; and the Vice-Chancellor, faculty and students from RAF University, outside Nairobi), members of the Oruka family, professionals engaged in the NGO sector, and others.