BY LUKE MBEFO, C.S.Sp
On making a difference
This academic year reached its climax with the graduation ceremony of the final year students at the Spiritan Missionary Seminary, Njiro at the weekend. The seminary is a school of philosophy affiliated to the Catholic University of Eastern Africa with its main campus located in Nairobi. Pomp and pageantry, music and colour animated the day’s academic festival. There was gorgeous weather to boot. With the graduating students coming from various countries of the East African seaboard, a cacophony of languages graced the opening liturgy. Pentecost’s gift of tongues is not an event in the past; it is a daily phenomenon in this philosophical institute.
The Irish homilist charged the graduating students to make their philosophical formation productive. They have been exposed to the concerted and cumulative wisdom of humanity. From the ancient Greek philosophers to post-modernism, they now have an overview of the ideals and ideas that have shaped human history. They are heirs of the reflective legacy of the movers and shakers of intellectual wing of humanity. They have thus been equipped with reflective awareness to transform not only their way of life but above all to make a difference in the society where they may find themselves. Political discourse could benefit from their contribution as counter-point to the dominant sophism, the apparent wisdom canvassed among the political class. Socrates spent his life sanitizing public discourse in Athens. He injected the ethical dimension into the public forum. In the Crito, he argues: we need to consider one question only when we act. Shall we be acting rightly or wrongly, justly or unjustly, honorably or dishonorably, as a good man or as a bad man? The only really important thing, he is convinced of, is not to live but to live well. But what makes the man: intelligence or morality? The fresh-baked graduates could continue this service of being the gadflies to society by lifting the quality of public discuss through the postulation of the categorical imperative. They would be betraying their intellectual formation by keeping quiet when action would be demanded. Maintaining the status-quo is not a viable philosophical option. Not to make a choice is itself making a choice.
The guest of honour was the District Commissioner of Arusha. He appreciated the function philosophy performs for society and complained about the ivory-tower isolation and abstruse theories normally associated with philosophers. But after watching the play and dance executed by the students he confessed that students of the institute were extraordinarily normal guys. He was reminded of the fact that dance and theatrical arts were not part of the core curriculum. A sound mind in a sound body continues to be a guiding principle in a wholesome education policy. At least alumni of this institute will not be counted among extremists or militant fanatics of any description. They have learnt to weigh their actions and they do not arrive at a judgment except on the basis of satisfactory evidence. They appreciate an opponent’s point of view even when they may not share the other’s vision. Instead of throwing bombs or using force to decide issues, they invite to a public debate. Such was the tradition of medieval philosophers whose open disputations, the famed quaestiones disputatae smear extant medieval tomes. Martin Luther maintained that tradition when he posted his 95 theses on the portals of the Wittenberg cathedral. Perhaps one could suggest that, given the religious and political turmoil currently agitating the country, public debates could be organized on television and on public halls to thrash out positions and counter-positions. When people neglect reason, they behave like barbarians and beasts. Hence philosophy has a function in people’s culture; its exercise humanizes cultures.
The focus of attention in philosophical instruction on the continent of Africa is certainly to uncover the unwritten philosophy of the ancestors. By over-concentration on Western philosophy and philosophers, Africans are continuing the colonisation of their minds and mentalities initiated in the imperial period of its history. Africans can never hope to find their own voice until they have exhumed and appropriated the vision of reality current on the continent before European intervention. Pre-Socratic philosophy was essentially unwritten philosophy. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle could not have attained their leading positions as pivotal thinkers except on the foundations of the mythological legacy they inherited. The course on African philosophy is strong on re-appropriating this African heritage. That students of philosophy feel more at home with courses on African philosophy is evident. There is immediate identification with its premises, a certain con-naturality. Given the option they invariably choose a question on African philosophy over against those on Western epistemology or metaphysics. An Igbo proverb urges it: Nkem akonam namely, may I not lack what is my own. The new graduates thus are adding to the swelling number of those who have learnt to treasure traditional African heritage. It is hoped that not in the not-far-distant future they will be vociferous in representing the hitherto missing African voice on the world forum in those issues that affect the destiny of our human race.