African Culture and the Quest for Truth

By Nnoruka, Sylvanus Ifeanyi | Philosophy Today, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

African Culture and the Quest for Truth


Nnoruka, Sylvanus Ifeanyi, Philosophy Today


Aristotle begins his Metaphysics with the classical statement, "all men by nature desire to know." The quest to know is the quest for truth. The African as well desires to know and he persistently searches for the truth. He analyses the reality as it presents itself before him. However, the basic question is: what is peculiar about the African quest for truth? Any objective answer to this question must take cognizance of the fact that Africa is not a homogeneous entity. There are at least fifty-five countries in Africa.1 The countries are made up of about one thousand ethnic groups each with its own specific culture.2 Hence in as much as there can be similarities between one African culture and another, there can also be differences. This is precisely what professor B. Okolo calls the problematic in African philosophy. It is the known fact that Africans are diverse peoples with different cultures. However, the diversity of peoples and difference of cultures does not mean that philosophical activity is not possible among the African people.3 Indeed philosophical activity takes place in Africa. There is no generalization of truth and truth is not relative to each tribe. On the contrary, the diversity of cultures and consequently languages enriches philosophical activity in Africa.

Let us begin by examining the word truth in some African languages. In Igbo, it is eziokwu. Ezi-Okwu is a combination of two words: ezi meaning, correct, right or good; and okwu meaning word or speech. Literally, eziokwu means the right word, the correct sentence, the appropriate statement. In other words it is the correct response to a question, the appropriate intervention in an argument. In Igbo culture, when one wants the interlocutor to say the truth, he demands of him, kwue ezi okwu. This means that the interlocutor should say the truth as he knows it or heard it or saw it. In this context, truth is correspondence between a statement or a fact or a concrete thing. Also among the Igbo, truth could be obtained by analyzing what a person says. If the analysis reveals that the statement coheres with a set of accepted facts or beliefs then it is true; otherwise it is false. Among the Akans of Ghana, truth is rendered as nokwara or nea ete saa. Nokwara like eziokwu is a combination of two words: ano which means mouth and koro meaning word. Careful analyses of the two words would reveal that truth for the Akans denotes singularity or oneness. It is that which admits of no alteration. A group of people could be asked to give their opinion about a particular thing or situation. What they say is true and, therefore, acceptable if they say the same thing. If an individual person is asked to do the same thing, what he says is true if his statements are consistent. One judges whether the statements are consistent through a critical analysis. Wiredu further points out that the best word for truth is nea ete saa meaning a proposition, which is so.

This is similar to Aristotle's assertion that to say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, is true. Truth in this sense is that which is necessarily so. The implication is that for the Akans truth is a statement that must correspond with the thing or situation being discussed or described. Any deviation from describing it as it is takes it away from being so or saa. So, it is clear that in the Akan culture, there is a clear distinction between truth and falsehood. When one deviates from the paradigm in the Akan theory of truth, he crosses from saa (so) to nkontompo meaning falsehood. Also, among the Efiks of southern Nigeria, truth is called akpaniko. Again, it is coined from two words: akpa meaning the first thing that comes out of a person's mouth; and iko-words. In a literal sense, akpaniko means "the first word." In this context, the criteria for determining whether the statement is true or false can be either correspondence or consistency. …

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