* Homer (c.700 BC): "Ethiopia [or Africa] is a remote place at the extreme of the universe where the people worshipped and sacrificed to the gods."
* Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679): "Africa is a timeless place in which there are no art, letters or social organisation, but instead, only fear and violent death."
* Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831): "Africa is an ahistoric continent even though it has a geographical location. The people live in a condition of mindlessness barbering without laws and morality."
* Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778): "The black people are unable to think in any reflexive manner. Their engagement in arts is, therefore, a thoughtless activity which is the antithesis of the intellect."
* Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) third president of the USA who coined the phrase "All men are created equal", yet wrote in his one and only published book, Notes on Virginia: "It would be impossible for a black person to understand the mathematical formula in Euclid's famous book, The Elements." This, to Jefferson, is proof of the intellectual inferiority of black people.
* John Hanning Speke, British explorer, in a speech delivered in the 1860s, described the African thus: "As his father did, so does he. He works his wife, sells his children, enslaves all he can lay his hands upon, and unless fighting for the lands of others, contents himself with drinking, singing, and dancing like a baboon, to drive dull care away."
* Comte Joseph-Arthur Gobineau (1816-1882): "Africans are people who lack the sophisticated linguistic skills, the scientific and political faculties of the European and are best suited to dancing, dressing up and singing."
* Henry Maurier: "Do we have an African Philosophy? The answer must be: No! Not yet."
If the tired old cliches above are bad enough, wait and see what some Western-trained Africans have said about their own people and continent:
* Leopold Sedar Senghor (1806-2001): "The vital force of the African negro, that is, his surrender to the other, is thus inspired by reason. But reason is not, in this case, the visualising reason of the European white, but a kind of embracing reason which has more in common with logos than with ratio ... The reason of classical Europe is analytic through utilisation, the reason of the African Negro, intuitive through participation."
* Bolaji Idowu: "The religion of the Yoruba permeates their lives so much that it expresses itself in multifarious ways. It forms the theme of songs, makes topics more minstrelsy, finds vehicles in myths, folktales, proverbs and sayings; and is the basis of philosophy." (Idowu, 1962: p5)
* John Mbiti: "African ideas of time concern mainly the present and the past, and have little to say about the future, which in any case is expected to go on without end." (Mbiti, 1975: p34)
* Kwasi Wiredu: "Our traditional mode of understanding, utilising and controlling external nature and of interpreting the place of man within it, [a] mode common to the African race ... is intuitive; essentially ... unscientific mode. [This] unanalytical, unscientific attitude of mind (is) probably the most basic and pervasive anachronism affecting our society." (Wiredu, 1976: p11)
* Paulin J. Hountondji: "The absence of a transcription certainly does not intrinsically devalue a philosophical discourse, but it prevents it from integrating itself into a collective theoretical tradition ... So thousands of philosophers without written work could never have given birth to an African philosophy. African philosophy can exist only in the same mode as European philosophy, ie, through what is called literature. It is difficult to imagine a scientific civilisation that is not based on writing." (Hountondji, 1983: p101)
* Akin Makinde: "This is so because our language is not yet developed to the extent that its vocabularies and logical syntax can handle abstract philosophical discourse ... I do not know what purpose will be served by calling mathematics isiro when the latter simply means addition."
The real Africa
Some of the above ideas are just fiction and not based on the facts of African expressions while others are heresies because they are a disqualification made on the basis of false or irrelevant canons.
For instance, it is fictional to claim that the Yoruba believe in the existence of 201/401 gods since they do not have the idea of "small gods" but believe in only one God. It is heretical to identify and/or characterise African thought from definitions derived from Western concepts and traditions of thought.
My own approach is that what we need is a discovery of ancient African thought which invariably must have been expressed in various indigenous African languages.
In other words, to discover African thought and philosophy, we must study texts that exist in the authenticity of Bantu, Edo, Hausa, Igbo, Swahili, Wollof, Yoruba, and other African languages. The reason is simply obvious: Socrates' thought was expressed in Greek and he wrote nothing. Hume wrote in English, Kant in German, and Rousseau in French. There is, therefore, no doubt in my mind that each group in African and in Nigeria has a body of thought that exists in oral tradition.
Since the only Nigerian language I can speak, read and write is Yoruba, I will give you a few of the intellectual pieces I have discovered in their oral tradition:
The relativity of knowledge
* Ogbon odun ni, were eemi i (Wisdom this year is folly next time).
* Nkan t' o k'oju si'ni, ehin l'o ko s'elomi i (What has its face to one person has its back to another).
* Enikan ki i nikan gbon tan (Nobody is the custodian of knowledge). Compare Akan (Ghana): Nyansa nni onipa baako ti mu (Wisdom is not in the head of one person). Igbo: (If one thing stands, another thing stands by it).
The limits of reason
* Bi a ba na gongo ogbon si nnkan ti o to, ki a fi were die ti's (When reason is stretched to the limit, folly becomes inevitable).
* Omilengbe o l'akamoye, iyerundu ko lomukaka. Mo gbon tan, mo mo tan, ara re nikan l'o tanje. Aiforoloni, awo ilu awon were. (Just as it is impossible to count water and powdery stuff, so are the faces of truth uncountable. A self-conceited person who refuses to consult others is a wise person only among a universe of fools).
The laws of logic
* Ki ebi o ma pa' die, k' a sarinako ire fun adie, ki a se akoya ibi fun aayan. Ewe egeji ki I je l'ona meji. (That the chicken may not starve, we make the medicine for good luck for it. But we also make the medicine for avoidance of bad luck for the cockroach. No single medicine can bring into existence two contradictory states of affairs at the same time and place).
Respect for women
* Atomodun l'Erin ti nrin, Erin o f'ara k'asa, atosumosu l'Efon ti nrin, beni ko tese bo poolo. Eniyan ti o moni l'eni, ti o mo eniyan ni eniyan. Eniyan ti o ba ko ede de'le, ni i pe t'obinrin o si l'aye. (Great people who have gone through life with minimal difficulties are those who recognise the importance of women. Only those with little knowledge would fail to appreciate the relevance of women in society).
Justice and equality before the Law
* Bi aja ba wo agbada ina, ti amotekun w'ewu eje, ti ologinni wo'so ekisa, apanije ni gbogbo won. (The dog may wear a fiery dresses while the leopard dresses in red blood. The cat may appear in a tattered dress. They are all carnivores).
My challenge to the young people of Africa (I am 70 and enjoying it) is that they must rediscover themselves. They must take seriously Philip Emeagwali's charge that Africans will never occupy their rightful place in the intellectual world until we write our own stories, instead of allowing others to falsify our intellectual heritage.
I encourage you all to join me in this crusade to rediscover, revive, criticise, amend, and promote indigenous African knowledge and technology, and so lay an authentic basis for moving Africa forward.
My joy will be fuller when as Africans and as Nigerians, we can hold up our heads, beat our chests and say: "I am a Nigerian, an African, proud of my intellectual heritage."
(Sophie B. Oluwole is a retired professor of philosophy and now director of the Centre for African Culture and Development, Lagos, Nigeria. She presented this paper entitled "African Philosophy in Yoruba Language" at a celebration of her 70th birthday last year).…