Mɛ san aba: Returning to an African Future
Akosua Adomako Ampofo
University of Ghana
We all have visions of the futures we want. While our energies may not be consumed daily with the struggles for a better world, practising our trade as sociologists means that, inevitably, we engage with questions of the possibilities of an improved version of the current world. For Africanists such as myself, that improved world includes a continent, and her Diaspora, re-imagined in very particular ways within global geopolitics. Some have referred to this as the “rising” Africa phenomenon (see Time Magazine, December 2012 and a Special issue of the Economist, March 2013). There is even an “official” Africa Rising video that includes a collection of artistes from the continent.
Despite critiques of the notion of “Africa Rising” (including, prominently, on the blog Africa is a country), the concept retains popularity, exuding visions of the “Afropolitan” generation—another interesting concept(1)—armed with smart phones, who wake up in Accra, Lagos or Nairobi and lay down their over-productive heads in Beijing, London or Washington.(2) These are the quintessential global citizens. Nonetheless, even though they may spend a lot of time outside the continent, they are at the same time committed to invigorating the continent’s future by introducing innovations in science and technology, the arts, business and even politics.(3)
Yet today many African youth, have developed what Howard (2012), writing about Jamaicans, refers to as a “schizophrenic” relationship with their countries. Disillusionment with “failed” states” (for example Trauschweizer and Miner 2014) coexists with celebratory narratives of cultural revivals and “new” identities. At the same time so-called orthodox development discourse continues to hold sway, setting up African cultures in a binary opposition to “development”, while itself failing to address the politics of inequalities. Take for example the very notion of a “failed state” when applied to African nations. Some scholars argue that democracy, as constructed, is alien to “African cultures”, that it is an instrument of continuous exploitation by the west (Owolabi, 1999; Morrow, 1998), and that perhaps we should have an “indigenous” African democracy (Ademola, 2009; Oyekan, 2009) which might, for example, be built on the consensus-building model. Asumah makes a case for what he refers to as multicultural and relational democracy—transcending the procedural, where the people’s “engagement and connection with their representatives are primordial, constant and continuing” (2014:407).
Read in this context, one wonders whether the current sexiness of “Afro futures” is a case of a “back to the futures” move, as ancient philosophies and practices are “rediscovered” when in fact they were never lost to the majority of the population.
Sidestep: The movie “Back to the futures” celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2015. Two sequels were produced in 1989 and 1990. In the original film a young man, Marty, is thrown back to 1955 and meets his parents in high school. However, his mother Lorraine becomes infatuated with (her future son) Marty, rather than with his father George (her future husband). Marty has to restore the relationship between his parents otherwise, of course, if they don’t reunite he will never be born. How he achieves this, with the help of an eccentric scientist, Dr. (Doc) Emmett Brown, is the story of the film. What is particularly instructive for us is the conclusion of the film, which includes an invitation from Doc to Marty and his girlfriend, Jennifer, to follow Doc into the future to sort out a problem with their own (Marty and Jennifer’s) future children. We can actually fix our future now.
So What is an African Future?
Despite the large body of work by African Thinkers, within the academy “philosophy” is still constructed largely in western terms. Further, popular rhetoric, including its transformational counter-discourses, remains confined to at best, the realm of wise musings, at worst, a kind of sour-grapes collective tantrum. Although global popular culture has long appropriated African art forms, ranging from art and architecture, through music and dance, to food and fashion, knowledge production has insufficiently acknowledged or benefitted from the contributions of African Thinkers. One might be forgiven for imagining Fanon was a most unique individual given the liberal doses of Fanon I have heard among diverse scholars. However, “Africa” has produced uncountable individuals to match or rival Fanon. I know I am foolhardy to even attempt to mention any, but I shall anyhow. We can think, for example of individuals such as Anton Amu (circa 1703-1709) of Axim in present day Ghana, who became a renowned philosopher and professor at the universities of Halle and Jena in Germany; James Emman Kwegyir Aggrey (circa 1875 –1927) of Anomabo in present day Ghana, foremost intellectual and educator; independence leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Mable Dove Danquah, Mwalimu Nyerere; Everlyn Amarteifio, Sekou Toure, Léopold Senghor, Jomo Kenyatta, and Nnamdi Azikiwe; and contemporary women thought-leaders such as Ife Amadiume, Mercy Amba Oduyoye or Filomena Steady. Too often we sit—I sit—in lofty chambers and hear magnificent theories ascribed to individuals and I think to myself, “but of course, so and so theorized this long ago”. Or, even more interesting, “but my grandmother knew this!”
Mɛ san aba, literally, “I will return” or, “I will be back”, is the title of a hiplife(4) song by a duo Akyeame, plural of Ɔkyeame, the Akan title for the advisor and spokesperson of the king.(5) By calling themselves Akyeame the duo speak to the notion that young people can be (wise) advisors. Further the title and lyrics of the song articulate the idea that Ghanaians (Africans) can revive a cultural project that speaks to their identities and needs, including a shared humanity. The song, and the hiplife style that uses traditional overtures, and mixtures of Ghanaian languages and English, speaks to this eclectic mix that forms the identities of today’s youth. “Mɛ san aba” can also be read as the threats, “just you wait, I’ll be back to deal with you” that inform much of civil society’s language as it engages with the state’s failure to deliver on the promises of “development”.
So, by way of a place of ending for this essay, but by no means a conclusion, an “African future”(6) will comprise some practice of Sankofa, literally “return and get it”. Sankofa is epitomised by the Asante Adinkra symbol of the bird with its beak reaching backwards to pick an egg off its back. It is often associated with the proverb, which, translated means something to the effect that “nothing is lost if you go back and fetch what you have forgotten or left behind”. While often used for cultural revivalism, we can think of Sankofa as the important project of seeking, understanding, revitalizing and acknowledging knowledge that built us up. The “African future” must also of necessity prioritize engagement with the youth for the sake of knowledge building and sustenance. More than any other global community, I think, our relevance can only be sustained as we re-birth our intellectual DNA and humanity in the next generation of thinkers. And many of these thinkers, as of old, ply their trade and share their knowledge outside the walls of the academy and often in the spaces of popular culture.
(1) The term was popularized through a widely disseminated 2005 essay, “Bye-Bye, Babar (Or: What is an Afropolitan?)”, The LIP Magazine, by Taiye Selasi .
(2) Indeed according to Wikipedia, Selasi describes herself as a “local” of Accra, Berlin, New York and Rome (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taiye_Selasi).
(3) Saint Kwam, featured in the banner for this essay, for example, is one of many young Ghanaian artists, born and raised in Ghana, educated in Ghana and abroad (in this case the US) who live and make music both in Ghana and abroad.
(4) Hiplife is a combination of hiphop, rap and traditional Ghanaian highlife music.
(5) Ɔkyeame has often been inappropriately translated into English as “linguist”.
(6) Africa is not a country and we must be careful not to be reductionist in this project even as we recognize the many ties that bind us—slavery, the colonial enterprise, contemporary geo-politics.
Ademola, K. F. (2009). “Towards an African Theory of Democracy”. Journal of the Philosophical Association of Kenya.Vol.1 (1); pp.101-126.
Asumah, Seth and Mechthild Nagel. (2014). Diversity, Social Justice, and Inclusive Excellence: Transdisciplinary and Global Perspectives. Albany: SUNY Press.
Howard, Dennis. (2012). Rantin From the Inside the Dancehall. Kingston, Jahmento Publishing.
Morrow, J. (1998) History of Political Thought: A Thematic Introduction. London, Macmillan Press.
Owolabi, K. (1999) The Quest for Democracy in Africa: A Theoretical Explanation. Lagos: O.O.P.
Oyekan, A. O. (2009). Democracy and Africa’s Search for Development. Journal of Pan African Studies, vol.3 (1); pp. 214-226.
Trauschweizer, Ingo and Steven M. Miner. (Eds.) (2014). Failed States and Fragile Societies: A new World Disorder? Athens, Ohio University Press.
Akosua Adomako Ampofo is a Professor of African and Gender Studies at the University of Ghana, and is currently a Visiting Senior Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence at Concordia University, Irvine. She has been a Research Fellow of the Institute of African Studies, University of Ghana, Legon, since 1989, and until July 2015 was its Director. Adomako Ampofo considers herself an activist scholar and was also the founding Director of the Centre for Gender Studies and Advocacy, CEGENSA, at the University of Ghana (2005-2009). Her teaching, research and advocacy address issues of African Knowledge systems; Higher education; Identity Politics; Gender-based Violence; Women’s work; Masculinities; and Gender Representations in Popular Culture (music and religion). Adomako Ampofo is co-editor, with Cheryl Rodriguez Cheryl and Dzodzi Tsikata, of Transatlantic Feminisms: Women’s and Gender Studies in Africa and the Diaspora (2015) Lanham, MD, Lexington Books, and with Kwasi Ampene, Albert Awedoba and Godwin K. Adjei, of A Festschrift in Honour of Emeritus Professor J.H Kwabena Nketia (2015) Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. She is a member of CODESRIA, the (US) African Studies Association, Co-President of the Research Committee on Women and Society of the International Sociological Association, https://www.isa-sociology.org/rc32.htm; Founding Vice-president of the African Studies Association of Africa (ASAA), https://www.as-aa.org; Co-Editor, Critical Investigations into Humanitarianism in Africa blog, www.cihablog.com. She tweets at @adomakoampofo
Banner Photo: Saint Kwam, photo credit: Akosua Asamoabea Ampofo (2016).