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.

One Columbia Graduate Student Reflects on the Lessons of the African Philosophy Working Group

In the Fall 2017 semester at Columbia University, I was part of a reading group on sage philosophy along with my colleagues here Jealool, Selina, Alexis and Jared. Others also took part who unfortunately, are not able to join us this week at our theory and method workshop. The reading group was organized Kai, began in September 2017, and culminated in a day-long conference on December 8, 2017 at our department at Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies. The reading group met once a month and ran in tandem with a program of three related African philosophy seminars. These seminars featured presentations by Michael Mburu, Karin Barber and Gail Presby, speaking on Henry Odera Oruka, on the idea of ‘local intellectuals’ as new conceptual frame for sage philosophy, and on the parallels between the work of Henry Oruka and his contemporary, C.S. Momoh, as well as the place of women prophets in the sage philosophy concept. The themes of these seminars became also interwoven with the discussions of our reading group.
The reading group’s first set of discussions in September 2017 focused around Henry Oruka’s own writings. We read excerpts from Sage philosophy as well as his articles on the relationship between philosophy, humanism and mythology. This led to a discussion about the historical difference between us as readers and Oruka, as well as the context in which he was writing. One of our most insightful discussions I think, was when we talked about the impact of racism and its fictions about African philosophy, which created the need for postcolonial intellectuals to respond with fictions of their own, particularly concerning the definition of philosophy for example, as the study of Man, Nature, and God – a definition which was in many ways reductive of the Western tradition itself. We discussed how, due to the political weight of the term ‘philosophy’ and its racialized and gendered distortions, academic researchers and intellectuals needed to be conscious of the politics of deciding who was wise or a ‘true’ philosopher. In what way can one be an intellectual? And what are the politics of recognition? We talked about the need to have a sociology of knowledge and to think critically about who is deemed wise and why. One hierarchy that sage philosophy wanted to transcend was the academic-institutional one, but there remained hierarchies of race, gender and class.
By Eextending Oruka’s comparisons between myth and philosophy in one of our sessions, we made useful comparisons between the platonic philosophic tradition and sage philosophy. In our session in October for example, we asked ourselves questions such as: Can myth function as allegory? Can myth be a method of arguing towards second-order truth or knowledge? Can a syllogism evade the researcher? This analytical move can be seen as being reflected in Plato’s methodology of interviewing sages for example. Or this kind of argument has also been made by Peruvian scholar Fernando Santos-Granero’s call for the need for “native exegesis” in his book Power of Love (1991). Sages may be critical of their own myths and may in fact be using myths strategically. This was in fact also C.S. Momoh’s argument. Recently this year in February, we spent some time discussing C.S. Momoh’s essay on African Philosophy, in which he discussed ethnophilosophy and the criticism of it by scholars like Paul Houtoundji, whom he called neo-logical positivists. Reading Momoh helped us identify that the problem of elitism and the presence of teleology in arguments about Africa’s so-called ‘lag’ in the development of its philosophy as an academic discipline was part of “both sides” of the argument, that is those against ethno-philosophy, and those in favor of recouping the philosophical value of ethnically based traditions. This was also a key topic we discussed, the difference between the historical existence of African philosophy (both textual and oral) and its articulation, or institutionalization as an academic discipline.
This also brought us to the key theme of the under-theorized role of the researcher. Researchers must be wary of reproducing gender, class and race dynamics in the engagement with, and representation of, sages. Researchers must also make explicit their own positionality, and frameworks of organizing knowledge. We noted, for instance, that Oruka excises his own religious experiences out of his work. This key theme also led to a discussion of the need understand the discursive field in which sages are operating, to be interlocutors, so-to-speak rather than agents of data-extraction, of collecting information for an academic market. This means that in fact, before the conversation, there must have been a pre-existing foray into the already-existing philosophical topics, and an identification on which intellectuals one is speaking to, and from which standpoint. 
Another key theme in our discussion concerned that of genre – what constituted a text, what kinds of genres are inherent to oral tradition itself, and so forth. From this point of engagement, we were able to include our own research, and my colleagues will give presentations on this on Friday – mathematics, poetry and music being among them. Understanding genre is also part of the work of understanding the discursive field in which sages are situated, and also important in understanding how it has been historically constituted. This allows for example, for the acknowledgement of how the researchers are also constituted within the historically discursive field that is academia, which shapes their thinking, and which may be at odds with that of the African sage, or healer, or prophet or mathematician. One of my colleagues works on Islamic hagiographic texts and I work on the history of healing in Congo for example, both of which are topics which do not fit neatly into academic disciplinary categories. This therefore makes the value of interdisciplinarity in the sage philosophy project more central. African philosophy is a rich field that encompasses the textual, the sonic, the cosmological, and the mathematical. For us at Columbia University in New York, sage philosophy an academic discussion, has been a fruitful source of theorization against the dominance of Eurocentric epistemology and its limitations within strict disciplinary boundaries.
The conference that was held on Friday December 8th 2017, called “Revisiting Sage Philosophy,” brought together scholars who were trying to re-think African philosophy through many angles. For example, Prof. Reginald Oduor talked about contemporary Kenyan politics, considering how globalization, urbanization and environmental change in Luo communities are once again forcing us to re-think the ‘traditional’ as an ever-changing dynamic field, and not as an immutable pre-colonial past. Similarly, we had Prof. Bruce Janz revisit the concept of African philosophy itself, arguing that we should not see it as a static canon of texts, or ‘body of thought,’ but as a space which is also in movement, in which new events, and shifts of ideas can occur. Dr. Michael Mburu and Jeremiah Arowosegbe brought our attention to ethics. They talked about philosophy as a commitment to humanism and to embracing our global responsibility towards the ecology and its destruction by capitalist exploitation. They talked about the need for a continued critique of the geopolitics of research which relegates African social scientists to a subordinate position.
The cumulative effect of this long-term engagement with sage philosophy has been a broadening of our own thinking, a fostering of inter-collegial collaboration and a vibrant space for new ideas and engagements. It is very exciting to see its realization as a transnational project as well, and I look forward to the rest of the workshop this week.

Yayra Sumah
Africa Editor, Borderlines
Ph.D Candidate, MESAAS
Columbia University