Towards a Global Congress of World Religions 1979 - Edited by Warren Lewis

A Case for an African Institute for the Study of Humanistic Values -- Dr. Francis Botchway

Thank you very much, Warren. My duty this afternoon is not to engage in a theological discourse, but to sell you an idea. I'm going to try to do just that. Following Ali Mazrui helps me do what I want to do. Ali spoke about the triadic experience of the Africans, the traditional African experience based on the autochthonous religions and indigenized religions of Africa -- that is, the indigenized Euro-Christian and Islamic experience of Africa. At the Barrytown conference in May of this year I presented a paper on this particular issue. With reference to the triadic experience of the African, I argued in that paper that:

The way out for the modern African is not to engage in a futile attempt to recreate the past which cannot be resurrected. The only choice is to move forward to a higher reconciled form of society in which the quintessence of the human purposes of traditional African society reasserts itself in a modern context. The inevitability of this progressive forward march must be felt by all Africans. The real basis for African society must be to elevate the African idea of the original value of man, which stands refreshingly opposed to the traditional Christian idea of the original sin and degradation of man. It must also accommodate the positive contributions of Euro-Christian and Islamic civilizations. The synthesizing process must be undertaken by the present generation of African scholars. Confronted by this triadic experience, we must develop a philosophical frame of reference which would make possible the theoretic basis for an ideology whose substance shall contain the three fundamental experiences of the African1.

What is called for as the first step, I argued, is a body of connected thought which will determine the general nature of our action in unifying the society which we have inherited. This unification is to take account at all times of the integrated ideas underlying traditional African society. The ultimate synthesis of this triadic experience is an even greater imperative, for it will point beyond Africa and indeed beyond history. This will be Africa's contribution to the modern world: this will be the new historical affirmation. And I'm happy to say that Ali Mazrui also sees this point in terms of the Afro-Asianism of Islam and Afro-Westernism of Christianity. Coming to my purpose today, I am here to argue the case for an African Institute for the Study of Humanistic Values.

Let me take this opportunity to thank Warren Lewis who called to ask if I would like to present a case for the establishment of this Institute in Africa. I immediately agreed to do so, because I knew that at this conference I would be talking to people whose concerns are fundamentally humanistic. I would also like to mention here one of my colleagues, Dr. Kwame Gyekye, from the University of Ghana's department of philosophy with whom I have dialogued about African religion and religiosity. I am relaxed here because there are so many distinguished scholars in this room whom I know personally: Dr. Karifa Smart from Sierra Leone, and my very good colleague of the past six or seven years, Dr. Guerin Montilus from Haiti and Wayne State University in Detroit.

Our concern is this: we need a center for the study of humanistic values in Africa. Why do we need this center? For the past four years, as a result of contact with the International Cultural Foundation, with whose aims we are impressed, Or. Gyekye and I have been engaged in serious intellectual discussions about the whole question of absolute values. We have been disappointed and appalled by the near universal emphasis on national values and parochial values at the expense of what we believe should be the sharing of values which concern and transcend cultures and geographic boundaries. There is no doubt in our minds that there are values which are absolute, values which know no national, geographic, cultural or racial frontiers. But in the course of this philosophical discourse, we came to the conclusion that instead of using reason to seek the universal, man sinks into skepticism and into withdrawal from the future. In essence, man has become the proverbial ostrich. Our search for the absolute, then, or universal synthesis, is not a search for a mysterious essence nor a search for an esoteric body of knowledge. It is a search for transcendent values common to mankind. At the proposed African Institute for the Study of Humanistic Values we want to conduct protracted dialogues with scholars interested in the search for absolute values scholars who are interested in a systematic reflection on man's absolute values.

What, therefore, are the aims of the Institute which we propose to establish in Africa? The main aim of this Institute, in general is to engage a group of African and non-African scholars and intellectuals in the comprehensive search for understanding and promotion of human values. Specifically, we are interested in focusing attention on such things as science, technology and moral values in the contemporary African scene. We want to search for a standard of value which can guide scientific and other intellectual pursuits in Africa. We are interested in focusing on the possibility of the existence of absolute human values. We are interested in developing a system or paradigm which would serve as the focal point for the integration and unification not just of African but of all values common to mankind. We also want to look at African religion and religiosity. Further, we want to take a look at the nature of African society, because quite often the majority of African scholars tend to look at traditional African societies and institutions through Western philosophic paradigms. We want to take a look at our own institutions and raise questions about the nature of these institutions: how they worked in the past and if there is the possibility of extrapolating out of these experiences something which we can use to guide us in the evolution of our nation-state systems.

We also want to look at the moral and spiritual values of Africans and the family structures of African societies. We want to ask fundamental questions about the gradual disappearance of the traditional African family structure and its consequences in the nation-building process. So far, our societies at the moment do not have the institutions which would actually help us in meeting the needs and demands of our people. We also want to make contributions to African traditional philosophy. We want to begin to study the ontology, the epistemology, and the cosmology of traditional African people on a systematic basis and to catalogue our findings in a systematic manner so that future generations of Africans will have access to this knowledge.

We are also interested in comparative studies in the cultures and philosophies of other regions of the world: Western Europe the Americas, India, Japan and China. We want to look seriously at some of the values in Islam, in traditional African society, and those we have acquired from the Euro-Christian experience. We may be able to develop something which we believe would be much superior to what we have inherited. It would be the aim of the Institute to enlighten the public through a series of public lectures, seminars, symposiums, and conferences to which scholars throughout the continent of Africa would be invited to pool our many resources, out of which will grow periodical and monographic literature to be distributed all over Africa. In time we hope to establish a library in which would be housed books specifically dealing with the cultures, religions and philosophies of the various peoples of Africa. This is extremely important because we do not have anywhere in Africa a center independent of governmental control where African scholars from the continent of Africa can meet, research dialogue and write. Most of the institutions in Africa are almost 100% subsidized by the various governments. Even though one can argue that there is academic freedom in most universities there is still a need for an independent think-tank where the fundamental problems that confront us in Africa can be addressed. It's much easier for those of us living outside Africa to raise these questions and to discuss these issues in forums outside Africa. But why not on the continent of Africa itself? We want these questions to be raised by African scholars and other scholars on the continent of Africa. It is important to do so. Why? Because we want to leave a legacy of intellectual independence for succeeding generations of Africans. If Ali Mazrui would allow me, I want to cite a passage from one of his works, Violence and Thought (1969) which is really an excellent analysis of some of the problems which confront us in Africa. I wish and hope that African scholars in African universities, in centers of learning in Africa, would be raising these kinds of issues, and passing on the data they have acquired to their various governments and publics in Africa. Whether or not those governments use the information is not the question. Ali writes:

Equipped with the printed word, the present generation of East Africans [I'll drop the word 'East' Africans. and just use the general terminology 'Africans') stands at the beginning of an entirely new intellectual tradition in the history of... Africa. We could bequeath to future... Africans a work of poetry, novels of drama of philosophical and speculative writings. They, in turn could add to it and pass it on to their descendants.

As the literature builds up, it would be divided into periods according to the dominant trends at a particular age. Historians of literature might speak of a romantic period of... African literature or a new pragmatic period of... African philosophy, distinguishable from other great periods in the same cumulative... African intellectual tradition. And this tradition would be diffused to different levels of the population through the popularizing tendencies of a vigorous press, relatively free. It follows, then, that at this particular moment of its history,... Africa should momentarily move away from ancestral worship to posterity worship. She should look to the future and decide what she would like to bequeath to her descendants. From this door of independence a whole new epoch of African creativity could unfold, and our gift of the intellect to the next generation of... Africans might at the same time become a boon of nationhood.

My job then, is to appeal to the conscience of the scholars in this room to help us realize this dream. This dream is important not because Gyekeye and I or Ali Mazrui or anyone of us in self-imposed exile wants a little corner of the world where he can do his own thing. That's neither the point nor our aspiration. What we want to do is to bequeath to succeeding generations of Africans something which they can call their own.

Where is the literature that deals with African philosophical ideas? Where is the literature that deals with the ontology of Africa? Where is the literature that deals with the cosmology of African people? All of us know Western philosophy, and we can quote the philosophers. We know Kant and Hegel and we can quote Plato, Socrates, Cicero, etc. We know all of these writers. But when it comes to traditional African values and systems of thought, quite often it is very hard for us to quote anyone or any writing. As Ali was suggesting a while ago, if you see African high energy physicists from Nigeria and Kenya, the two of them cannot carry on their very sophisticated intellectual conversation in an African language. They would turn to English, French or German. There is a need for us to begin to study linguistically languages such as Swahili and see how best we can use the languages as tools which would enable us to transmit knowledge to succeeding generations of Africans.

Therefore we appeal to you. We need your assistance. We need the assistance of the International Cultural Foundation. We need the assistance of Reverend Moon and all those who are interested in the humanistic possibilities of mankind. Thank you. (Applause)


Warren Lewis: You notice on the program there are to be closing remarks. Surely it comes both as a surprise and relief to you to know that you are the ones to make the closing remarks.

Kasim Gulek: I'd like to congratulate heartily Ali Mazrui for his excellent discussion of Islam and Christianity as African-Asian and African-European. It's an original way of presenting it. Extremely well done! Islam in Africa has historical roots that go to the Arabs but also to the Turks. The Turkish rule in Africa lasted several centuries over almost all of Africa north of the Sahara and the eastern part of Africa down to Mozambique. During this period, the Ottoman Turks contributed to the development of Islam, Islamic culture, Islamic art. The Ottoman Turks also contributed to the expansion of Islam in Europe. The Turks carried the banner of Islam up to the doors of Vienna. They went there not only as Turks but also as Muslims. In those days the difference was very vague and it was the banner of Islam that the Turks took to Vienna. Their contribution has been significant during several centuries, not only from a religious point of view but also from a scientific and artistic point of view. I'd like to have seen this contribution at least mentioned. In Ali Mazrui's study of the degeneration and backwardness which started some time ago in Islam, he mentioned the Ottoman Turks as emphasizing military science rather than others. The contributions of the Turks to Islam, Islamic science and Islamic art have been so great, I was unfavorably touched by this remark, which, I hope, he realizes I'm right in mentioning.

Ali Mazrui: I agree with much of what you said. The Turkish role with regard to Islam in Europe is incontestable. That is the most distinctive Turkish contribution. Though by the time the Turks were doing it, Europe's capacity to resist further Islamization was already considerable. The Turkish role of Islam in North Africa lay in providing a kind of infrastructure of authority through a number of generations. But Islam in sub-Saharan Africa, I would venture to suggest, spread so much on the basis of trade and informal structures that even when Arab North Africa was under Turkish rule, Islam in sub-Saharan Africa tended to be under Arab auspices. On balance I'm not in disagreement about the considerable contribution of the Ottoman Empire to Islam and its defense of Islam for so long. On the issue of the military factor, perhaps there was a shift in preoccupation from science much more broadly defined to interest in technology for military purposes. I was simply suggesting that was one of the factors which distorted growth in the history of science in Islam. We are nearer in our interpretation than we may sound. Thank you.

Kasim Gulek: Ali Mazrui spoke of the Ottoman Empire. May I make a further remark? It was not an empire in the European sense. Within the Ottoman state, all the elements comprising that state had the same possibilities and privileges as the Turkish element. There were Arab prime ministers, Albanian prime ministers, and Arab ministers. It was a different kind of state, more in the line of a commonwealth than an empire, in the sense that Europeans established their empires. In no European empire do you see any of the ruled people become ministerial prime ministers. In the Turkish state, in the Ottoman state, the opportunity existed and was taken.

Guerin Montilus: I will be very brief this time. It is against our African tradition to be brief. I am an anthropologist and, at the same time, a theologian. I was working in Africa doing my research five years among the Aja in West Africa and also among the Oba. I gathered 5,000 to 6,000 slides. I kept them as long as I could in Africa, and after that I had to bring them to the United States. I would have been very happy to leave the duplicates from these in Africa, but where? And with whom? I never erased any tape recording I did for five years. I have twenty to thirty small tapes and perhaps thirty cassettes. I would like to leave the duplicates someplace, because people would like to use this documentation. But where and with whom? Many colleagues I know are doing research in Africa, but do not leave anything in Africa. Warren Lewis was proposing to us some days ago to collect a canon of texts for African religions. Yes, but now our problem is: where to find this canon? As I told you, these texts exist. They are in the background, in the womb of African religion. But we really need some place. So I join my voice to this plea for an African Institute. As a son of slaves sold in the Caribbean, I think it would be great to have some place to study our traditions and African values. Swansea and I support you between 900 and 1000 percent and I hope you succeed.

Myrtle Langley: Francis Botchway, I support you whole· heartedly, but I have one question: where?

Francis Botchway: We don't know where. We do feel, however, that we have to have someone who shares the same vision to carry on the work of the Institute. My colleague from the University of Ghana's department of philosophy, with whom I have been discussing this over the years, has agreed to work on it in Africa. I suspect the person most familiar, most sympathetic to the idea, would assume the responsibility of actually laying the initial foundation. In this instance, I hope and pray that Kwame Gyekye will assume that responsibility because I'm still in the African diaspora.

Karifa Smart: My name is Karifa Smart from Sierra Leone. I would like to say how very pleased I am that my African colleagues have been working several years on this idea. It is essential, particularly as an instrument toward developing the kind of generation in the future of Africa that will feel free to make a contribution based on Africa to world thought, as you have indicated, on an equal basis. I speak with feeling on this particular subject, especially seeing that both colleagues who have spoken tonight have a Muslim background. I myself come from a Christian family, but, as happens in Africa perhaps better than anywhere else in the world it is a family in which the Muslim component, the Christian component and the indigenous African component live together with no kind of struggle or contention such as religious affiliations have caused in other parts of the world. I come from a country where the balance of faiths is almost equal: Sierra Leone has about one-third indigenous population, one-third Islamic, one-third Christian.

Unidentified Speaker: I am from Jordan. I would like to invite Francis Botchway and Ali Mazrui to make the center in Jordan. We would be very, very pleased and very honored indeed. We are neighbors, and have always been good friends. I do not suggest this merely as a grand gesture; I mean it, although I realize the difficulties. How deeply moved I was and how proud I was to listen to two brothers from Africa speaking for an African cause so eloquently, and so movingly and so magnificently. I was pleased with the level of scholarship and with their sincerity. I support this idea, for whatever my support is worth. I'm only a professor but, with all sincerity, if you will make a drive, I would like to contribute to that drive as generously as is humanly possible. And I would like to suggest that the gentleman who would be the founder of this magnificent venture make a tour of Arab countries. May I assure you that, at least in Jordan he will receive a generous contribution. I really mean that. That is for the financial and for the organizational aspects. As for the intellectual aspect, I just want to add one thing. Africa is clean; it is a new baby and as such, I think it has a lot to offer in terms of values. We in the Mid-East, in the Levantine, have been molested for so long (though I don't want to introduce any political arguments or any backbiting), so badly that I don't think we offer very much right now. We have become almost morally, not corrupt, but decrepit, because of centuries of struggle, some of it being terribly bitter. This remark I would like to emphasize because I want to add my organizational and financial contributions and also intellectual contributions. I really support the idea that Africa can be and is an excellent candidate as a moral well from which other people and other continents may draw. Africa itself has also suffered, perhaps in a worse way. As my colleague has just said, he is the son of a slave. That's something to be terribly proud of, when one can say it with his head raised so high. I thank you.

A. J. Ohin: I am from Togo, West Africa. Before going into the speech by my colleague from Africa, I would like to make a short remark on the statement by the last speaker when he says Africa is a small baby. The first human beings are supposed to have come from Tanzania. That's what we're told by anthropologists. Now, as to the statement by my African colleague, I want to thank Ali Mazrui for his speech. I'm very glad to see that he points out that we have in Africa a certain degree of broadmindedness to the religious in our ranks. He mentions Senghor (President of Senegal), who was almost a priest. And what happened in Kampala? I was in Kampala when the archbishop was killed. He was killed not because he was a priest, but because those who were killed were Langi and Acholi. I was in Zanzibar, in East Africa, as a publisher's consultant. I was impressed that in Zanzibar some or most of the signs in the corridors in the hospitals were in Swahili. Then J started practicing Swahili. To my surprise, not any Swahili books were written by an African -all those I came across were written by English. I know a bit of Hausa and I think Nigeria is a bigger nation and occupies a central part of Africa. I'm very glad that Francis Botchway has the idea of organizing something for West Africa, because it seems to me that the Africans of West Africa are religiously lost. Right now, if you go to Accra, every day, every week, about ten to fifteen new religious groups start. I really don't know what they are doing. Maybe what you would do will help. Thank you.

Kwame Gyekye: I am from the University of Ghana. Francis Botchway and I prepared this document. I just want to say one or two things regarding the reasons for the necessity of establishing this Institute for the Study of Humanistic Values in Africa. As Francis said, and as we have it here in our document, we have been highly impressed by the ideals and objectives of the International Cultural Foundation. This is my fourth time to attend the Science Conference. We thought it would certainly be a good idea if we could bring the idea and the objectives of the ICF to other scholars in Africa. We thought one way of doing this would be establishing the Institute for the Study of Humanistic Values. This Institute could also be used when we organize conferences like the one we are proposing. It is this Institute which will help in organizing the Global Congress in Africa. We plan to contact priests and other religious men in Africa, go to shrines, and so on. It is our belief that this Institute will undertake to do the groundwork.

K. L. Seshagiri Rao: I just want to say this African Institute has relevance not only for Africa but for a much wider scope. As all of us know, nearly 20% of the U.S. has black African roots. So I suggest this Institute should not only receive support from Africa but also be understood as another platform of the black American. A second point I want to make is this: although mention has been made of Christian Africa, Islamic Africa, and the native religions of Africa, there has been considerable influence from the various Eastern countries on the peoples of Africa as well. Some of these people are quite a lively group. This aspect should not be forgotten. Thank you very much.

Osborne Scott: I'm from the City College of New York, speaking as an Afro-American. I'm sure that this project would be exciting to Afro-Americans. I want to congratulate my colleagues from Africa and from America on this project. I will transmit this idea to colleagues of mine in the black American denominations. I am sure you will receive support. (Applause)

Jack Waardenburg: I am from Utrecht. The idea that in Africa itself there should be a center for documentation about Africa is very good. At present, you have to go to London to Paris, to Leiden and to other places. It is very strange, but we receive Africans in Holland who come to study Africa. This is such an abnormal situation. Apart from all the human aspects, it is an absolute scholarly necessity that there be a center of study in Africa itself with good means, where scholars coming from both Africa and from the outside can study together. I'm morally very much supporting the establishing of the Institute. Thank you.

Warren Lewis: Now we have to terminate comments from the audience. Francis Botchway has asked for the absolute last word, so I give it to him.

Francis Botchway: I want to emphasize what Karifa Smart said about Sierra Leone: one third being Christian, one third being Islamized, and the other third being traditional autochthonous African religion, and all in the harmonious balance of the equilibrium of society. I come from a Catholic family-my uncle is the Archbishop of Togo. I am Muslim. My uncle is a traditional priest. The triadic experience of the African is something I experience on a daily basis. There is that harmonious balance, equilibrium in the family and in the society as well.


1 Towards a Global Congress of World Religions, ed. Warren Lewis, Barrytown, N.Y.. Distributed by The Rose of Sharon Press, 1978, pp. 145-146. 

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