Pan-African Linguistic and Cultural Unity

A Basis For pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance

in Theoria

Abstract

Contrary to the view that Africa is populated by many ethnic groups whose cultures and languages have no relation to one another, scientific research, as opposed to impressionistic arguments, points to the fact that African languages are connected, and by extension, demonstrate African cultural connectivity and unity. By making reference to both African and European scholars, this article demonstrates pan-African linguistic and cultural unity, and echoes pan-Africanist scholars’ call for African linguistic and cultural unity as a basis for pan-Africanism and the African Renaissance.

One of the greatest sons of Europe, historian Basil Davidson (1970: 11), once remarked that whenever anything remarkable or inexplicable turned up in Africa ‘a whole galaxy of non-African (or at any rate non-black)’ peoples were dragged in to explain it. The achievements of the Zimbabweans and the Ancient Egyptians would be, in the process, attributed somewhere else. Davidson (1994: 319), against a hostile reception from fellow Europeans, would go on to affirm the black African origin of Ancient Egyptian civilisation. Courageously he took on the German philosopher, Hegel, who ‘knows nothing of Africa, has never been there, is oblivious to all the older sources of African knowledge that were extant then as now’, yet had the audacity, in 1830, to claim that Africa was no historical part of the world.

Another British scholar, Martin Bernal (1991: 2), who argued that Greek culture borrowed heavily from Ancient Egypt, a fact that was normal until the intervention of 18th and 19th century racist European scholarship, observes that for the denialists ‘it was simply intolerable for Greece, which was seen not merely as the epitome of Europe but also as its pure childhood, to have the result of the mixture of native Europeans and colonizing Africans and Semites’ (ibid). The agonising dilemma for the racists was how to reconcile their sub-alternisation of the Africans with the fact that Ancient Egypt, ‘inconveniently placed on the African continent’, could now be the black mother of civilisation (Bernal 1987: 241). The racists’ answer was, firstly, to deny that Ancient Egyptians were black; secondly, to deny that Ancient Egyptians had created a true civilisation; and thirdly, to make doubly sure by denying both (ibid). This exercise was aimed at reinforcing the idea – in spite of the opposite obvious – that Africans had no history, no civilisation, no philosophy and no culture. Great efforts have been made to rectify the misrepresentations of the African continent’s image, but despite such, resilience and resistance to such rectifications of history is relentless.

One assiduous insistence that refuses to go away, as Ghanaian philosopher, Kwame Gyekye (1995: xiii) points out, is that despite Africans’ insistence on their cultural unity, ‘the denial of any cultural unity in Africa is maintained to the hilt by a number of scholars’. African-American scholar, Chancellor Williams (1987: 21) notes that aiding and perpetuating the denial of African cultural unity has been the white Africanist scholarship that always con –centrates on ‘ethnic differences’, ‘tribal antagonisms’, ‘hopeless language barriers’ and ‘cultural varieties’ (Williams 1987: 21). Williams (ibid) attributes this emphasis on African differences on the shrewdness of colonialist scholarship which rightly sees that recognition of African cultural unity would empower Africans and reduce the ill-gotten white power and its domination of the earth.

While on the one hand the overall aim of colonialist scholarship was to alienate Africans from one another, on the other hand, as Ghanaian literature academic, Ayi Kwei Armah, (2006: 46) accurately observes, it sought to ‘socialize generations of African children in such a way that they would identify with European values, in the practical sense of seeing philosophy as European philosophy, history as European history, literature as European literature’. The history textbooks of first secondary school year required the African children of Armah’s time in Ghana to say that ‘before the arrival of Europeans, there was no history but tribal chaos’ and that ‘Britain was the geographical center of the world’ (Armah 2006: 46). The objective was to instill ethnic, and destroy African, consciousness among Africans. Showing up Africans as nothing more than ethic groups different from one another, having no cultural unity, served the purpose of dividing and rendering them powerless in the face of European colonialism.

The quest of pan-Africanism, a political ideology advancing African unity for African liberation, is the destruction of cultural imperialism and replacement with cultural reclamation, otherwise known as the African renaissance. Pan-Africanist scholars such as Senegal’s Cheikh Anta Diop, Ghana’s Kwesi Kwaa Prah and Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiong’o argue that pan-Africanism and African renaissance projects cannot be complete without centralising African languages. Diop (1987: 7) argues that ‘African languages constitute one linguistic family, as homogeneous as that of the Indo-European languages’. Further noting that ‘[l]ingustic unity dominates all national life’, Diop (1987: 8) argues that without linguistic unity ‘national cultural unity is but fragile and illusory’.

This article argues and seeks to demonstrate that contrary to the insistence that there is no African linguistic and cultural unity, such a thing does exist. This article supports the arguments outlined below that advance the notion that those pursuing pan-Africanist and African renaissance projects must pay attention to the power of African linguistic and cultural unity as a firm foundation for building and developing pan-Africanism and the African renaissance. In advancing this argument, I first demonstrate the history of African linguistic unity, show how this was undermined, how and why, and argue how it must be rebuilt in the spirit of pan-Africanism and the African renaissance. Next, I present African scholars from different African countries in their own voices attesting to the existence of African cultural unity with reference to certain specifics.

African Linguistic Unity

In pre-historic times, Africans were concentrated in the Great Lakes region (Diop 1987a: 3). Some moved to the Nile valley and built the Ancient Egyptian civilisation (ibid). Later, others migrated to the West and the South of Africa, building the civilisations of Ghana, Nok-Ifé, Zimbabwe and others (ibid). This common origin of the African people serves as a basis for the argument of a ‘common linguistic background’ or ‘one linguistic family’ (Diop 1987a: 7). Africans in West Africa had common languages, despite the existence of local dialects that were used as languages of trade and government (ibid). But with the arrival of European colonialism, African official languages were replaced with those of European languages (ibid). When this took place, local dialects surfaced and competed with national cultural languages. Consequently, linguistic unity was undermined, more especially as the ‘demands of daily life required learning the European languages’ (ibid).

In a quest to ‘bring out the profound [African] cultural unity still alive beneath the deceptive appearance of cultural heterogeneity’, Diop’s (1989: 1) research on pre-colonial Africa, ‘a study in African historical sociology’, gave him the confidence that his research would enable Africans to ‘sense deep within ourselves a true reinforcement of our feeling of cultural oneness’. His act of ‘revivifying the African past’, was done, as he points out, ‘while remaining strictly within the realm of science’ (1987b: xi). In approaching scholarship, Diop (in van Sertima 1986: 326) insisted that ‘[a]ll the scientists of the world must be united around the idea of finding the scientific truth and nothing else!’ This insistence was informed by the realisation that ‘[i]deological facts have done a great deal of harm to the work of science’ (Diop in van Sertima 1986: 323).

One of the harms inflicted by ideological scientists, as Diop (in van Sertima 1986: 289) observes, is racist European scholarship’s effort to ‘prove that the average European brain is larger than that of the average African’. This false sense of European society has had tragic and long-lasting cultural consequences. It is as Hallen (2009: 12) points out that for a long time ‘Africans had to suffer both cultural and intellectual humiliation at the hands of a Western imperialism whose scholars presumed to understand more about Africans and their cultures than Africans themselves’. So, instead of using conjecture about the unity of African culture and the blackness of Egypt, Diop employed scientific research, and was transparent about his methodology. In proving the blackness or Africanness of Ancient Egypt, Diop (1991: 379) employed a linguistic approach. His study revealed existence of common words between Wolof, a Senegalese language, and the Ancient Egyptian language. Later, Armah (2006: 194), would find words in his Akan language that were not only pronounced the same way but had the same meaning as in the Ancient Egyptian language. Lending his support for the African cultural unity thesis, Davidson (1994: 69) notes there are ‘profound unities which seem to underlie the cultures of the greater part of the continent’, basing his position on linguistic studies by other scholars.

This similarity was not by chance. There is a scientific explanation for it, that being that it had to do with migrations of Ancient Egyptians to Senegal and old Ghana, hence the similarity, on one hand, of words between Senegal’s language, Wolof, and that of the Ancient Egyptians, and, on the other hand, the similarity between Akan, a Ghanaian language and that of Ancient Egypt (Armah 2006: 193). The efforts of linking Ancient Egyptians to the rest of other Africans had to be made to disprove prejudiced and racist European scholarship which attempted ‘to prove at any price that the Egyptians were Whites’ Diop (1989: 27).

An interesting study on the life of the late Tanzanian president, Kambarage Julius Nyerere, indicates that ‘a group came from Egypt, through Sudan, and when they arrived in what became known as Tanganyika they divided, one group going to Ukerewe, another to Urange (after which they migrated to Busegwe), and a third group went to Sukuma. The Sukuma group left and came to occupy Uzanaki’ (Molony 2014: 24). Nyerere was of the Zanaki people whose roots are traced to the Ancient Egyptian people.

With reference to people speaking ‘East Nyanza Bantu languages’ a study suggests that as they lived among people speaking other languages, ‘they diversified over time as they separated’ (Molony 2014: 24). The study further reveals that ‘[a]lthough local convention recognises each of the western Serengeti languages as a separate language today […] they are all closely related and thus, linguistically, represent one group of people with a common heritage of the past’ (Molony 2014: 24). The recognition of Africans’ common heritage by Africans was and continues to be diminished by attempts to undermine African languages.

Attempts to Destroy African Languages and the Implications Thereof

Wa Thiong’o (1986: 13,15) has observed that ‘any language, has a dual character: it is both a means of communication and a carrier of culture’ and that ‘[l]anguage as culture is the collective memory bank of a people’s experience in history’. If language is a memory bank of a people’s history, then suppressing and degrading the languages of the colonised ‘meant also marginalizing the memory they carried and elevating to universality the memory carried by the language of the conqueror’ (wa Thiong’o 2016: 69). This observation vindicates Diop’s research and arguments in favour of Africans’ common linguistic heritage as a basis for pan-Africanism.

In illustrating how European colonialists sought to destroy Africans’ memory through an attempt to destroy African languages, wa Thiong’o (1993: 33) tells of a story in colonial Kenya where African children in school were punished for speaking their African languages. African children were caned and made to carry plaques inscribed with the words ‘I am stupid’ or ‘I am an ass’. In some cases, African children’s mouths were stuffed with pieces of paper picked up from the wastepaper basket, ‘which were then passed from one mouth to that of the latest offender’. It is for this reason that wa Thiong’o (1986: 9) is correct in observing that in Africa while the bullet served as a means of ‘physical subjugation’, language served as a means of ‘spiritual subjugation’. It is for this reason that wa Thiong’o (1986: 5) argues that it is wrong for African writers, especially the radical and pro-Africa type, to take it ‘as axiomatic that the renaissance of African cultures lay in the languages of Europe’:

What is the difference between a politician who says Africa cannot do without imperialism and the writer who says Africa cannot do without European languages? (wa Thiong’o 1986: 26)

While I am fully supportive of wa Thiong’o’s encouragement to African writers to write in African languages in order, firstly, to communicate with the masses of the African people who cannot speak European languages, and, secondly, to develop African languages, I am not in agreement with him when he disowns literature written by Africans in European languages – whether English, French, Spanish or Portuguese. Such an approach is not sympathetic to the descendants of Africans who were uprooted from the African continent and taken as slaves to foreign lands where they were forced, firstly, to abandon their African languages, and, secondly, to write in and speak in European languages. Referring to ‘literature written by Africans in European languages’ wa Thiong’o (1986: 26, 27) argues that this is not African literature but ‘Afro-European literature’.
Wa Thiong’o is not alone in holding this position. For Prah (2017: 24), reference to literature written by Africans in European languages is not only a ‘gross anomaly’ but ‘one of the most eminent problems for the decolonization project in African education to resolve’. Unlike wa Thiong’o, Prah does not even accommodate this type of literature as ‘Afro-European literature’:

What these literatures present is in fact English, French, Spanish and Portuguese literatures […] To suggest that African literature is in English, French and Portuguese is to deny a cultural/linguistic identity for African. It is to say that Africans are first and foremost creatures of their erstwhile colonial overlords (ibid).

However, neither wa Thiong’o nor Prah is the first to raise this objection. As early as 1948, Diop (1996: 34) argued that

every literary work necessarily belongs to the language in which it is written: works written by Africans in foreign languages thus belong first and foremost in those foreign literatures and cannot justifiably be considered as monuments of an African literature.

While wa Thiong’o (1986: 29) encourages African creative writers to write in African languages, he cautions that writing in African languages per se is not an end in itself:

But writing in our language per se – although a necessary first step in the correct direction – will not in itself bring about the renaissance in African cultures if that literature does not carry the content of our people’s anti-imperialist struggles to liberate their productive forces from foreign control; the content of the need for unity among the workers and peasants of all the nationalities in their struggle to control the wealth they produce and to free it from internal and external parasites.

The quest for communication in African languages is not merely sentimental but is informed by crucial and practical developmental needs. Considering that 90 per cent of the population in Africa speaks indigenous African languages, it makes logical sense that all types of knowledge must be delivered in African languages, failing which the people who constitute the majority in Africa will be marginalised (Prah 2017: 24, 55). Continued use of our former colonial masters, Diop (1987: 10) correctly observes, is a ‘convenient way to avoid facing the true complaints of the population, who may be illiterate but are not without good sense’.

But how will the development of many different African languages help to build a spirit of pan-Africanism considering that many Africans do not speak one another’s languages, and therefore cannot communicate? The answer to this is the expressed need for one African continental language that will be used for official purposes for the entire continent (Diop 1987: 11). Kiswahili, a language spoken in Eastern, Central, and Southern Africa, has not only been proposed as an African continental language but a world language (wa Thiong’o 1993: 41).

While the call for an African continental language is both revolutionary and noble, the fear of linguistic domination of one ethnic group by another should not be underestimated. In a recent informal conversation (2017) with a Ghanaian diplomat who works for the African Union, an organisation tasked with the project of African Unity, this anxiety came out strongly. This anxiety was similarly expressed in another informal conversation (2017) with a fellow African in Juba, South Sudan. Diop (1996: 124) is sensitive to this fear on the part of Africans who have noted that ‘one group will always end up imposing its language on another’ and if that were to be the case ‘why not keep European languages which are already in use and make everybody speak them?’ Both the Ghanaian and South Sudanese citizens made this strong argument.

Next we present African scholars, in their own voices, examining African cultural that are pan-African, in that they are not only found in one ethnic group. Interestingly and ironically, it is by studying ethnic cultural values that exposes the existence of African cultural unity.

African Cultural Unity

A scientific study of African culture reveals that, one, ‘ancestor reverence’ and, two, Africans’ attitude to land, among many common features, are pan-African cultural values. In support of this argument, wa Thiong’o (1997: 138) observes that ‘[t]he dead as part of the living and of the unborn is the one common thread in African thought and experience’. This belief in life after death, in the ancestor-spirits, was a strong feature in Ancient Egyptian society, leading British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, to point out that ancient Egyptians were obsessed with death (2004: 16). Yet, this preoccupation with death was in fact a preoccupation with life after death, death being a constant reminder that life in this world was transient. It was this consciousness that contributed to the philosophical unity of those who had passed on, those who are alive, and those yet to be born. This outlook taught the living to honour the departed through upholding good deeds and eschewing selfishness, so that those yet to come would inherit a hospitable world.

With beautiful eloquence, wa Thiong’o (1997:139) explains this pan-African notion of the dead, the living and those yet to be born thus: ‘the past becomes the source of inspiration; the present, the arena of perspiration; and the future, our collective aspiration’. That is why, coming to the second cultural factor, Gyekye (1997: 146) notes that ‘[m]any writers have recognized that land was a communal property in all traditional African societies’. Emphatically, Nigerian sociologist, Oyèrónke Oyěwùmí (1997: 142), observes that in the 19th century, in ‘Yorùbáland, as in most parts of Africa, land was not a commodity to be individually owned, bought and sold’. Africans anticipated that if the land were bought and sold, the rich, as it is the case in the modern world, would buy and own everything, whilst the poor own nothing.

Ghanaian philosopher, Kwasi Wiredu (1980: 6) justifying his reference to ‘Ghanaian culture’ notes that he does not ‘wish to pretend that the whole of Ghana (or, even more incredibly, the whole of Africa) has one homogeneous traditional culture’. Conceding that there are in Ghana a variety of ethnic groups with traditional cultures that differ in some respects, he argues that nevertheless, ‘there are deep underlying affinities running through these cultures which justify speaking of a Ghanaian traditional culture’ (Wiredu 1980: 6–7). By the same logic, Wiredu (1980: 7) argues that ‘one might speak of the traditional culture of Africa, though with a more attenuation of content’. Gyekye (1997: xii) similarly observes that even in the ‘light of the multiplicity of African cultures and diversities among them’, it is, however also ‘true that in many instances the different cultural forms or practices can be said to be essentially variations on the same theme’.

Conclusion

This article has sought to argue that Africans are related and connected to one another culturally, and that their African languages reflect this reality. This being the case, in their quest to find one another and unite for the purpose of their total liberation on the basis of pan-Africanism and the African renaissance, their languages and culture should form the basis for the realisation of these objectives. However, in advancing these arguments one is not oblivious to the painful reality that centuries of colonial rule and Eurocentric education have alienated Africans from themselves and one another. While the cause of African unity (pan-Africanism) and the quest for an African cultural reclamation (African renaissance) are highly desirable, the declared desire will remain just that, a desire, unless a conscious Afrocentric education is employed to bring back African self-consciousness without which no African renaissance is possible.

It is the preponderance of ethnic self-consciousness and the absence of African self-consciousness that makes Africans comfortable with being united by European languages but afraid of the possibility of being united by an African language. Such a fear is real and genuine, kept alive and burning by some African leaders who, driven by destructive tribalism, have misused their power to privilege their own ethnic groups at the expense of others. It is leaders who in word and practice, demonstrate commitment to the entire African people who will be able to bring to the consciousness of African people that genuine liberation and development is dependent on pan-Africanism and African renaissance ideas, and that these ideals will be realised only when the ordinary African woman and man is actively engaged in the realisation of African freedom.

References

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Contributor Notes

Simphiwe Sesanti is an Associate Professor at the University of South Africa’s (UNISA) Institute for African Renaissance Studies (IARS). He is also the Deputy Editor of the International Journal of African Renaissance Studies (IJARS). His research interests include the African Renaissance, African Philosophy, Gender, the Media and Pan-Africanism. E-mail: sesanso@unisa.ac.za

Theoria

A Journal of Social and Political Theory

  • ArmahA.K. 2006. The Eloquence of the Scribes: a memoir on the sources and resources of african literature. Popenguine: Per Ankh.

  • AsanteM.K. 2015. The History of Africa: The Quest for Eternal Harmony. 2nd Edition. New York and London: Routledge.

  • BernalM. 1991. Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization. London: Vintage.

  • DavidsonB. 1970.The Lost Cities of Africa. Revised Edition. Boston/Toronto: Little, Brown and Company and The Atlantic Monthly Press.

  • DavidsonB. 1994. The Search For Africa: A History in the Making. London: James Currey.

  • DiopC.A. 1974. The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality. Ed. and trans. M. Cook. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.

  • DiopC.A. 1986. The Beginnings of Man and Civilization in I. Van Sertima and L.O. Williams (eds) Great African Thinkers. New Jersey: Transaction Books322353.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DiopC.A. 1987a. Black Africa: The Economic and Cultural Basis for a ederated State. Expanded Edition trans. H. Salemson. Chicago and Trenton: Lawrence Hill Books and Africa World Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DiopC.A. 1987b. Precolonial Black Africa trans. H. Salemson. New York: Lawrence Hill Books.

  • DiopC.A. 1989. The Cultural Unity of Black Africa: The Domains of Matriarchy & Patriarchy in Classical Antiquity. London: Karnak House.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DiopC.A. 1991. Civilization Or Barbarism: An Authentic Anthropology trans. Yaa-LengiMeema Ngemi. Ed. Harold J. Salemson and Marjolijn de Jager. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • DiopC.A. 1996. Towards the African Renaissance: Essays in Culture & Development. London: Karnak House.

  • FletcherJ. 2016. The Story of Egypt. London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.

  • GykyeK. 1995. An Essay on African Philosophical Thought: The Akan Conceptual Scheme. Revised Edition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GyekyeK. 1997. Tradition and Modernity: Philosophical Reflections On The African Experience. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HallenB. 2009. A Short History of African Philosophy. Second Edition. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

  • OyěwùmíO. 1997. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • PrahK.K. 2017. Creating Knowledge in Africa. School of Humanities and Social Sciences Annual Lectures, University of Venda. 18th–20th May2016. University of Venda & CASAS Publication.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • RussellB. 2004. History of Western Philosophy. London and New York. Routledge.

  • Wa Thiong’oN. 1986. Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature. Oxford, Nairobi, Portsmouth: James Currey, EAEP, Heinemann.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wa Thiong’oN. 1993. Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms. Oxford, Nairobi, Portsmouth: James Currey, EAEP, Heinemann.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wa Thiong’oN. 1997. Writers in Politics: A Re-Engagement With Issue of Literature & Society. Oxford, Nairobi, Portsmouth: James Currey, EAEP, Heinemann.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wa Thiong’oN. 2016. Secure the Base. London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books.

  • WilliamsC. 1987. The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of a Race from 4500 B.C. To 2000 A.D. Chicago: Third World Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • WireduK. 1980. Philosophy and an African culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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