Henry Odera Oruka’s Africa Sagacity: Are There Any Left?
By Neo Sithole
Philosophy is a relatively interesting topic, more so when localised to the African continent. Philosophy, as a concept, has two rather general definitions, the first is ‘the study of the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence’ and the second understands philosophy as ‘ a theory or attitude that acts as a guiding principle for behaviour’. While at times one definition of philosophy is used it is extremely important that when attempting to understand African philosophy that both sides of the coin be applied. Why is that?
Operating at several levels’ philosophy was used as an imperialistic tool and a site of struggle, this is because being able to undermine local forms of knowledge and then dictate knowledge ownership is one of the building blocks of the colonial project. Philosophy is often used as an identifier from civilisations, a sort of “We were here, and to prove it we have a form of thought that governs how we understand the world through our existence”, in order to undermine native forms of thinking it is vital to undermine natives existence through the erasing of any and identifiers, the most important being native thinking informed by native philosophies.
A huge part of the enduring decolonial purge is restoring African philosophies not as an antithesis to European philosophies nor as a means to justify our existence, it isn’t a
“We were also here, and to show it we too have a form of thought that governs how we understand the world through our existence”
response. The rationale behind of restoration of African philosophies, for me, has a number of key points however towards the top of the pile of reasons is quite simply the re-centring of Africa as an bot the owner and producer of an authentically African form knowledge joined to the reinstalling indigenous attitudes and theories that act as guiding principles.
I should also quickly note that while calling for the reinstalling of African philosophies are a form of the social blueprint; I also firmly believe that each philosophy should be thoroughly scrutinized and to whatever extent needed refined to better suit our rapidly changing society.
There have been many who have contributed and continue to contribute the corpus of African philosophy and the work it intends to do, here I will focus on the late Kenyan philosopher Henry, Odera Oruka.
Henry Odera Oruka (1 June 1944, Nyanza Province – 9 December 1995, Nairobi) was a Kenyan philosopher who is best known for "Sage Philosophy". It was a project started in the 1970s to preserve the knowledge of the indigenous thinkers in traditional African communities.
Outlined in its most base form African sage philosophy is a reflective evaluation of thought by an African elder who is a repository of wisdom, knowledge and rigorous critical thinking. Sound familiar? It should because the working principle of Sage philosophy is one that historically has been a linchpin of communities, that principle being the reliance on an elderly individual as a fountain of wisdom. Clichés like talking to the old man person in the community for guidance or advice are born from this idea of the elderly being a living library.
The goal of sage philosophy is to try and articulate the thoughts, ideas and views of individual African reputed for exceptional wisdom, independent thinking, historical experiences and cardinal beliefs and values of their communities, presenting them as an authentic African philosophy. An important aspect of sage philosophy is that it hinges on articulating the reflected wisdom of what is essentially an entire community through one person as on singular African philosophy, allowing for the existence of several African philosophies.
In an article on Oruka’s Four Trends in African Philosophy Hapaenyengwi-Chemhuru states that African Sagacity ‘started as a reaction to a position which Europeans had adopted about Africa, that Africans are not capable of philosophy’. In Oruka’s creation of African sagacity, two things are done, the first is that Oruka displays that African’s understand the nature of knowledge, reality and existence but more importantly Oruka highlights a more fluid type of philosophy. More importantly, what Oruka does is eliminate the colonial condition that for philosophy to be philosophy it needs to be either scientific, systematic and written. Critical thinking and in this case Philosophical reflection and exposition have no need for literacy as pre-condition, this brings into light individuals who not only thought independently but lived by what reason dictated and was also capable of critical dialectical inquiry.
So, who exactly is a Sage according to Oruka? Well, a is usually an opinion leader, who is frequently consulted by people, because they are versed in the wisdom and traditions of their people and are wise within the conventional and historical confines of their culture. Thus, a sage is a custodian of the traditions of their people. Philosophic sagacity is a reflection of a person who is both a sage and a critical thinker because a person can be a sage and not a critical thinker (this would be an ordinary sage), while the one who is both a sage and a critical thinker is a philosophic sage. Oruka then makes an elucidatory distinction between an ordinary sage, who he calls a “culture philosopher”, and a philosophic sage
Being a sage,
“does not necessarily make a philosopher, some of the sages are simply moralists and the disciplined, die-hard faithful to a tradition. Others are merely historians and good interpreters of the history and customs of their people”
Ordinary sages are spokesmen of their people, but they do not rise beyond the sphere of ordinary wisdom. This is precisely why according to Oruka they are “culture philosophers”. They are sagacious, but not philosophic. Consequently, they are not able to cope with any foreign innovations that encroach on their culture. The sages here, we are told, are usually poets, herbalists, medicine men, musicians, fortune-tellers, etc.
On the other hand, a “philosophic sage” is not only wise but also capable of being rational and critical in understanding or solving the inconsistencies of their culture and coping with foreign encroachments on it.
“As thinkers, they opt for or recommend only those aspects of the belief and wisdom which satisfy their rational scrutiny. In this respect, they are potentially or contemporarily in a clash with the die-hard adherents of the prevailing common beliefs”
(Oruka 1991, 178).
Such sages that have risen from the realm of mere sagacity to philosophic heights “are also capable of conceiving and rationally recommending ideas offering alternatives to the commonly-accepted opinions and practices. They transcend communal wisdom. Their reflections serve as a source of reform to their people and offer insightful solutions to issues, questions and fundamental problems. Therefore, using the power of reason rather than the celebrated beliefs of the communal consensus and explanation, the philosophic sage is said to produce a system within a system and order within an order.
Why is African Sagacity important? In an era where philosophies are no longer bound by regions nor are their followings and with constantly shifting mind views it is interesting to consider the importance of African sagacity in modern society.
The concept of an African sagacity as a philosophy at this point must be noted to perform two functions. One is the rejection of the overplayed misconception of there being a holistic African philosophy with continental reach (looking at you, Ubuntu). In attempting to display African’s ability to think critically and take part in philosophy what happens is a reduction of the amounts of philosophy’s, established and otherwise, that exist to the select few most known almost all of which have to either with a shared identity or communal participation to realize the full human experience.
A large portion of the continuous decolonial push is uncovering African traditional/historical aspects of African societies and cultures and have them be the centre of Africa going forward. However that is difficult to do precisely because as they stand many of them cannot be used to associate the African experience in modern life, which is why the need for individuals who are aware of traditional/historic African principles and able to critically rethink and reshape them to have them reintroduced in a contemporary form that goes hand in hand with the fast-changing fabric of African societies is so dire.
Function two is that it brings us to ask who are our sages? If we agree with Oruka with who a sage is then we need to be begun to look around us to see if we can identify people who fit the criteria. This is vital is because in the information age there seems to be global regression in the willingness to engage with concepts and critically think. It's especially important because continentally cultural values enforce the face value reliance on the elderly as authoritative figures on a host of topics WITHOUT intensively probing the critical thinking capabilities that the individual or considering a possible sway into dogmatic thinking backed by staunch fundamentalism. While the need for historians in the form of sages who record accurately the happening of a community and still being able to replay it to connect it to current happens exists, we cannot accept sages alone.
It is important to understand that although Oruka identifies a philosophic sage as an elderly that most likely forms the Sage part, if we are to reduce African sagacity to its simplest outline, what is required is in fact any individual who is aware of a communities history/cultural values and is capable to critically think as well as factor in foreign ideas to ultimately present ideas that are evolving and able to consistently yet authentically assist with African problems, if that makes sense. By this, we then see that African Sagacity persuades for a step away from the elderly if they are unable to do what is required.
I mention this because as a result of unquestioned traditional social hierarchy there is sweeping normalcy that finds vital positions of powers being held primarily by the elderly. Of course, several other factors influence why the elderly have quick access to power, tribalism, factionalism, the use of struggle credentials, but one part that cannot be refuted is that the moral and social authority ascribed to the elderly in Africa is misused as a rational. It has been seen, on many occasions that the people holding vital positions are not philosophers, many are not even sages, so not only do they lack the critical thinking needed to actively begin to introduce long-lasting solutions but they do not hold the most basic or fundamental reflective capabilities of the communities they serve. In the cases where impeccable memory of histories is present, it is not presented holistically or truthfully.
African sages are in no shortage; however, they are often overlooked because the individuals who possess what Oruka defines as the capacities needed to qualify as a philosophical sage are often young individuals who are side-lined.
Still, in realising that African sages who can philosophise exist we then fall into an even deeper well of inquiry. While swimming in the well I would like to encourage these philosophers to continue to write and critically think, so that when people come to the well to drink, and at some point, I hope they would, the works you churn out will not only quench thirsts but also redirect others to your reservoir of knowledge.