Residual radical ‘Lawinoism’ in African intellectual expression

Madagascar's President Andry Rajoelina drinks a sample of the "Covid Organics" or CVO remedy at a launch ceremony in Antananarivo on April 20, 2020.

Photo credit: AFP

What you need to know:

  • Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino is the literary codification of this cultural-nationalist philosophy.
  • Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino is the literary codification of this cultural-nationalist philosophy.

Austin Bukenya’s column – ‘Out of Madagascar: All the bitter medicines and the sweet memories’ – (Saturday Nation, June 13, 2020) discusses the politics of Covid-19 Organic, the so-called Madagascan cure for Covid-19. Unfortunately, the article exemplifies the continuing influence of nationalism on African intellectual expression.

Nationalism had two dimensions to it. The first was a political dimension which mobilised the populace around the principle of self-determination. The second was a cultural-nationalist philosophy that justified pre-colonial modes of thought and practice. Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino is the literary codification of this cultural-nationalist philosophy. In the book, the character of Lawino justifies traditional knowledge, practices and theology. “The pumpkin in the old homestead,” she keeps repeating ominously to her ‘Westernised” husband, “must not be uprooted”.

Lawino’s worldview is fundamentally flawed. She mistakes the difference between two modes of thought – scientific and traditional – as a difference between European and African cultures.

In much the same way that negritude scholars such as Sedar Senghor argued that Europeans used reason to make sense of the world while Africans made sense of it by emotion, Lawino views traditional ways as African and the scientific method as European.

 This fundamentally flawed conceptual framework is a product of nationalism and has framed African intellectual and ideological thought for over half a century. This same worldview frames Austin Bukenya’s discussion of Covid-19 Organic.

Traditional knowledge

The central theme of Bukenya’s article is that the attitude of what he calls the “Eurocentric health establishment” to Covid-19 Organic stemmed from prejudice against African “traditional knowledge and wisdom”. He then lectured Africans schooled in the scientific method not to be “too cavalier, contemptuous and dismissive of traditional indigenous knowledge and wisdom”.

He writes, with a tinge of self-righteous anger: “We were and continue to be brainwashed with the colonial, Eurocentric and supremacist propaganda that everything African is primitive, pagan and backward.”

This emotive nationalist rhetoric is misleading. The cautious attitude towards Covid-19 Organic by African scientists and what Bukenya contemptuously refers to as the “health establishment” such as WHO was simply because the “cure” was not subjected to the rigorous methods which medicine and vaccines must undergo in order to establish their efficacy and safety.

This process involves painstakingly studying the active ingredients, how they work, the dosage, short and long-term effects, and lengthy periods of clinical trials. Covid-19 Organic simply did not follow this route. Therefore, urging caution is neither an indication of colonial hangover or colonial brainwashing.

Scientific community

WHO and the scientific community cannot, unlike Austin Bukenya, approve medicine because of the “infectious persuasiveness of President Andry Rajoelina in sonorous French”. Neither can they approve medicine as a way of advancing a nationalist agenda.

The only method of persuasion in the context of science is scientific observation and experimentation. The scientific method, whether applied by a Japanese, American or African, is not beholden to nationalist or other considerations. Ironically, Bukenya recognises this principle.

After accusing the ‘Eurocentric health establishment’ of displaying colonialist prejudice for urging caution over Covid-19 Organic, the professor, without batting an ironical eyelash, writes: “The sensible approach is to analyse it systematically and objectively, examine its historical record and assess its efficacy.” Well, Professor, that is exactly what WHO and others were saying!

And yet some African countries spent millions of their taxpayers’ money to import Covid-19 Organic without scientific proof of its efficacy or safety. They are the ones who, by ordering a concoction without going through even basic evaluation of its efficacy and safety, showed a “cavalier, contemptuous and dismissive” attitude towards the welfare of their impoverished citizens.

Binary opposition

Cultural nationalism has outlived its usefulness. Its binary opposition, pitting science and European on one side and traditional and African on the other, is fallacious and fatalistic. Science is the heritage of modern society and Africans have as much claim to it and its method as everyone else. What I call the “Lawino Complex”, which is engendered by cultural nationalism, is the belief – to borrow Abiola Irele’s words – that it was only within our traditional world that we were closest to our essential selves. First, this belief is ahistorical.

Every society, some more readily than others, has had to reinvent itself to face new historical realities or in order to advance. This reinvention necessarily involves letting go of some traditional beliefs and customs. Second, this belief is disabling.

It discourages criticism of traditional habits of thought and detrimental cultural practices. For instance, there are many who view female genital mutilation activists as being “brainwashed with the colonial, Eurocentric and supremacist propaganda that everything African is primitive, pagan and backward.”

Third, this belief is often manipulated by African politicians to excuse corrupt and inept governance.

Jacob Zuma, when criticised about his attitude towards women or his serial marriages on government time and at government expense, would hit back at the colonial attitude of his detractors. And dictators in Africa often refer to those calling for democracy and accountability as being ‘brainwashed’ by foreign ideologies.

When we begin applying the same nationalist argument in matters such as medicine, then crafting a post-cultural nationalist conceptual framework becomes literally a matter of life and death


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