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  • Writer's pictureJonathan Egid

Philosophy in… Dholuo

Updated: Apr 4, 2022

"The philosophic sage, using the power of reason, produces a system within a system, an order within an order

In this interview Professor Ochieng’-Odhiambo discusses his decades of work in the tradition of ‘sage philosophy’, an approach which centres interviews of individual thinkers ‘sages’, embedded in traditional systems of education and thought in the original languages, in this case, Dholuo. He ranges widely over the methodology of philosophy in Africa, the political-cultural uses and abuses of African languages, and the nature of communal thought in Luo societies. After the main body of the interview, there is a wordlist of Dholuo philosophical terms, and suggestions for further reading.

I – Sage Philosophy

What is sage philosophy?

Sage philosophy as an approach initiated in academic circles by H. Odera Oruka, who defined sage philosophy as consisting of expressed thoughts of wise persons in any given community. He further declared that it is a way of thinking and explaining the world that fluctuates between popular wisdom (well-known communal maxims, aphorisms and general common sense truths) and didactic wisdom (an expounded wisdom and a rational thought of some given individuals within a community). Whilst popular wisdom is often conformist, didactic wisdom is at times critical of the communal set-up and popular wisdom.[1] Sage philosophy, therefore, has two components: popular or folk sagacity on the one hand, and didactic or philosophic sagacity on the other.

It is important to underscore these two components of sage philosophy because some scholars have often failed to recognize the distinction, resulting in using the terms sage philosophy and philosophic sagacity as if they were synonyms. Another way we might make this distinction is by saying that there are two types of sages: a ‘folk’ or ‘mere’ sage and a ‘didactic’ or ‘philosophic’ sage. In general, a sage is defined as one who is well versed in the wisdoms and traditions of his or her community, and is capable of faithfully reciting them. This sage simply mirrors his or her community’s wisdoms and traditions. A philosophic sage, on the other hand, is one who has gone beyond folk or mere sagacity and attained a philosophic capacity. As a sage, he or she is versed in the beliefs and wisdoms of his or her people, but as a philosopher he or she is rationally critical and recommends only those aspects of the beliefs and wisdoms that satisfy his or her rational scrutiny.[2]

Philosophic sagacity is accordingly not only a product of, but a reflective re-evaluation of the beliefs and traditions of a given society. It is a critical assessment of culture and its underlying beliefs. The philosophic sage, using the power of reason produces a system within a system, and order within an order. While the folk or mere sage operates at the first order level of recounting what the customs and beliefs are, the philosophic or didactic sage operates at a second order level, which is critically reflective of the first order culture philosophy. Whilst the folk sage in his or her first order operation glorifies communal conformity, the second order operation of the philosophic sage is generally open-minded and rationalistic.

What were the intellectual and cultural motivations that led to the establishment of sage philosophy? What were the problems that this approach sought to resolve?

In a paper on “The Tripartite in Philosophic Sagacity,” I outlined three main objectives of philosophic sagacity: (i) the academic; (ii) the cultural-nationalist; and (iii) the epistemic. The academic function of philosophic sagacity is meant to disprove the impression shared by both ethnophilosophers and professional philosophers alike, that traditional Africa was a place that was “free from philosophic, rational discourse and personalized philosophical activity.”[3] The cultural-nationalist function is concerned with the fact that, after gaining political independence, most African nation-states were faced with the problem of national unity instituted during the colonial era. Cultural diversity compounded the problem and continues to hamper national unity in African nation-states even today. The aim of philosophic sagacity in this regard is to unearth and explicate the underlying philosophical principles of the various customs within African nation-states. Philosophic sages would harmonize contradictory aspects, and a national culture would be constructed on the basis of these harmonisations. Odera Oruka argued that this function of philosophic sagacity should be part of the national programme in every African nation-state.[4]

The epistemic function recognizes philosophic sagacity as a source and storehouse of indigenous knowledge. Today, Africa finds itself at a crossroads in its invasion by foreign cultural values. One way of tackling this invasion or infiltration is for the people of Africa to develop and articulate the philosophies underlying their customs and cultures. In this way, when the foreign cultural values invade, they would have to contend with clearly articulated local ideas. But in the absence of articulated ideas, when the foreign ideas invade they would find a vacuum and therefore entrench themselves easily. The epistemic function is therefore interested in retention of relevant African traditions lest African societies end up getting swallowed up as undignified appendages of Western culture.[5]

Sage philosophy is often seen as an approach to African philosophy that sits diametrically opposed to what Paulin Houtoundji has called ‘ethnophilosophy’, which is to say an approach to African philosophy that locates the locus of thought in the group rather than the individual, such that we can speak of 'Bantu ontology' or the 'Akan theory of truth'. How does sage philosophy differ from ethnophilosophy?

Placide Tempels’ 1945 publication, Bantu Philosophy, played a seminal role in discussions regarding the existence or non-existence of African philosophy. In the text Tempels not only negated Western (mis)representations of African mentality and civilization, but also became the first person to document African philosophy. The publication of the text gave birth to serious philosophical discussions with respect to the nature of African philosophy. With the publication of Tempels’ text, the question was no longer one of whether or not African philosophy existed, but it took a more serious and philosophically interesting turn of examining and discussing African philosophy. After Tempels’ publication, several African and Africanist scholars engaged in the same activity of recording African philosophy and building upon his ideas. This is what later evolved into the school of thought of ethnophilosophy. Some critics of Tempels challenged him to identify at least one African philosopher so as to strengthen what they referred to as his hypothesis regarding the existence of African philosophy. Philosophic sagacity can be conceptualized as giving some grounding to Tempels’ alleged hypothesis regarding the existence of African philosophy.

Some critics of ethnophilosophy argue that the trend holds the view that African philosophy is identified with the totality of customs and common beliefs of a people. They contend that African philosophy is impersonal in that it is not identified with any particular individual(s). African philosophy is, therefore, the philosophy of everybody in the community in that it is understood and accepted by everyone in the community. So, in some sense African philosophy is a philosophy without philosophers. Communality is taken to be the essential attribute of African philosophy as opposed to European philosophy which is considered to be individualistic, that is, consisting of a body of thoughts produced or formulated by various individual thinkers. In a nutshell, the critics thought that ethnophilosophy had falsely presented the view that traditional Africa was a place of philosophical unanimity and that African traditions encouraged unanimity regarding beliefs and values.

How was sage philosophy intended to respond to these concerns? And how does the ‘ethnophilosophical’ emphasis on the group or community as the vehicle for philosophical ideas relate to the notion that "communality is the essential attribute of African philosophy"?

The academic function of philosophic sagacity was meant to address the unanimity claim of African thought implied by the ethnophilosophical approach to African philosophy. The task of the academic function of philosophic sagacity was to grapple with the following question: “was traditional Africa a place where no persons had the room or mind to think independently and at times even critically of the communal consensus?”[6] Philosophic sagacity is an expression of the view that among the various African communities, individuals exist who, despite the fact that they have not had the benefit of modern education, are nevertheless “…critical independent thinkers who guide their thought and judgement by the power of reason and inborn insight rather than by the authority of communal consensus.”[7]

However, it is important to underscore the fact that Odera Oruka did not reject ethnophilosophy as such. He actually considered it to be one of the six ways in which one could approach the study of African philosophy.[8] In contrast, some professional African philosophers argued that ethnophilosophy presented mere worldviews undeserving of the label ‘philosophy’, lacked proper philosophical requirements. Justus Mbae, for instance, argued that several scholars in African philosophy were in fact simply documenting and synchronising the various African worldviews. He goes on to warn ethno-philosophers that their works “…do not rise to the level of philosophy… [that] their works may be of interest to students of sociology, comparative religion or theology but they have no place in philosophy.”[9]

Henry Odera Oruka (1944-1995)

Paulin Hountondji, on his part, opines that the methodology employed in the approach resembles the kind that is ordinarily used in cultural anthropology, also known as ethnology, in order to get to the underlying and basic principles of reality and behaviour of Africans, which they then describe in philosophical language. The end product is therefore a combination of the ethnological method and philosophical language, hence in short ethno-philosophy. According to Hountondji, therefore, “they are ethnological works with philosophical pretensions, or more simply, works of ethnophilosophy.”[10] Hountondji went on to argue for the destruction of the usage of the term ‘philosophy’ by proponents of ethnophilosophy.

Unlike Hountondji and Mbae, who advocated for a clear separation of ethnophilosophy and African philosophy and removal of the former from the subject of philosophy, Odera Oruka’s position is quite different. He sees ethnophilosophy as having an important role to play in African philosophy. In fact, in his later essays, he surmises that the distinction between ethnophilosophy and the folk or popular aspect of sage philosophy is very thin. He, for instance, refers to the thoughts of Marcel Griaule’s Ogotemmêli, and the works of Claude Sumner on Ethiopian philosophy, as well as the co-authored work of John O. Sodipo and Barry Hallen titled Knowledge, Belief and Witchcraft as constituting sage philosophy, or more specifically folk or popular sagacity.[11]

Another distinction between the Hountondjian professional approach to African philosophy and philosophic sagacity is that, while both the professional school and philosophic sagacity (unlike the ethnophilosophical school) grant the existence of African philosophy in the second-order, technical sense, they differ with respect to traditional Africa. The professional school apparently limits itself to modern Africa, giving the distinct impression that traditional Africa is incapable of technical philosophy. And this, according to the school, is not only because of the domineering communal emphasis in traditional Africa, but also because of its oral tradition. For Hountondji, for example, writing is a prerequisite for philosophy in general and African philosophy in particular, and since the tradition of writing is lacking in traditional Africa, traditional Africa cannot be philosophical. He cautions that; “we Africans can probably today recover philosophical fragments from our oral literature, but we must bear in mind that so far as authentic philosophy goes, everything begins at the precise moment of transcription.”[12] In contrast, philosophic sagacity holds the position that philosophy in the proper sense of the word exists in traditional Africa; that even in traditional Africa there exist individuals who are capable of critical, coherent and independent thinking.

So against the ethnophilosopher who views philosophical authorship as communal, both Odera Oruka and Houtondji agree that we must locate philosophy in the individual author, but where Odera Oruka departs from Houtondji is on the question of whether we find this individual philosophical author in traditional African societies, asserting that we can find individual philosophers in non-literate societies, namely the sages he interviewed.Why is interviewing individual thinkers so important for sage philosophy?

In an effort to rebut the “philosophy without philosophers” supposition or the “philosophical unanimity” conjecture implied by ethnophilosophy, philosophic sagacity resorted to identifying individuals who were capable of critical independent thinking. That was the best way of invalidating the claim that traditional African people were innocent of logical and critical thinking. Sage philosophy maintains that African philosophy even in its pure form does not begin and end in folk thought or consensus; that Africans even without the outside influences are not innocent of logical and dialectical mode of inquiry.

How would the interviews actually take place? Was there a strict method for preparing question, and for selecting, then interviewing the sages?

The interlocutor who is usually a philosopher would ask the sage questions. Though the interlocutor would have the questions already thought out and written down in advance, the interlocutor need not stick religiously to the questions the way it would normally happen in a survey or statistical study where the questions are cast in stone. In sage philosophy interviews, the questions that the interlocutor has written down would normally be broad open-ended questions not envisaging a specific answer. This is because in the encounter with the sage, the aim is to provoke the sage into high-level thinking. The questions should not be narrow and closed-ended soliciting a specific answer or a “yes” or “no” answer. The interlocutor’s role in the interview is that of a provocateur. He or she should ask probing questions but make sure to take a back-seat and allow the sage to take over the initiative in the encounter.

One of the objections that Peter Bodunrin raised against philosophic sagacity was that, unlike the philosophical ideas and views usually attributed to philosophers, the product of the dialogue between the trained philosopher and the sage is a joint effort of both, and not the sole responsibility of the sage.[13] In an unpredicted and intriguing response to the objection, Odera Oruka acknowledged that the outcome of the dialogue may be termed a joint creation of the two and not the sole responsibility of the sage. He then went on to note that as a matter of historical fact, nearly all philosophers, including even the professional ones such as Moore and Russell, developed their philosophies as joint efforts with those philosophers who initially inspired or provoked them. Odera Oruka does not therefore see why the same should not apply in the case of philosophic sagacity.[14]

The motivation of sage philosophy… is to prove the existence of genuine African philosophy, and it does so by engaging the sages in discourses in their vernacular languages

Though Odera Oruka’s response is sensible, one would have expected him to outline the methodology used in sage philosophy interviews as stated above. The basic aim of that methodology is to minimize any possible influence that the interlocutor might have over the sage’s thoughts during the encounter. Odera Oruka in his response should have highlighted the fact that the encounter between the interlocutor and the sage is quite different from that between Moore or Russell and the views of the philosophers or philosophies that inspired or provoked them. Given the direct person-to-person encounter in philosophic sagacity, the interlocutor if not properly grounded in the required methodology, may frame the questions in such a way that they determine the answers. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates successfully employs this method. In order to overcome or minimize this problem in philosophic sagacity, the interlocutor has to abstain from asking leading or closed-ended questions, and as much as possible should play a passive role during the dialogue. D. A. Masolo acknowledges the objection raised by Bodunrin and cautions that: “While this kind of interview [employed in philosophic sagacity] may be closer to a philosophical dialogue and be able to bring out the individual thoughts of the sages interviewed, we need to be aware of the dangers involved, for the outcome may not always be successful.”[15]

Why is it so important to have the interviews conducted in the languages of the sages?

In the initial stages of the debate, in the 70s, regarding the nature of African philosophy, there were basically two dominant positions or schools of thought. These were, ethnophilosophy and professional philosophy. As already stated above, the major criticism that was levelled against ethnophilosophy was that it not only portrayed African philosophy as fundamentally distinct from Western philosophy, but in doing so assigned it an implicit pejorative connotation. On the other hand, the school of professional philosophy granted the existence of African philosophy in the proper usage of the term philosophy, but was criticized for being Western, making African philosophy is not purely African. The reason being that the proponents of the school having basically studied Western philosophy and hardly anything about African philosophy treat African philosophy from a typically Western standpoint. They employ Western logic and principles to criticise and create what they like to call African philosophy.[16] The end-result of what the professional philosophers refer to as African philosophy is a scholarly exercise rooted in the West, not Africa. It is therefore not appropriate to call it African philosophy.

From the two criticisms outlined above, the implication was that whereas ethnophilosophy portrayed genuinely African thought, it was not philosophical. On the other hand, the professional school portrayed authentically philosophical thought that was not African. It is against this background that philosophic sagacity emerges. It sought to merge the strengths of ethnophilosophy and the professional school by coming up with thoughts that were both genuinely African (ethnophilosophy) and truly philosophical (professional school). Philosophic sagacity, therefore, retains the basic tenets of the professional school. However, unlike the professional school it is an exposition of the wisdoms and beliefs of individuals who have not been schooled in the formal educational system. More cautiously, it consists of wisdoms and views of those who are not professionally trained, that is, neither classroom taught nor self-taught. Philosophic sagacity is, hence, an expression of the view that amongst the various African communities, there exist individuals who are philosophical, notwithstanding the fact that they have not had contact with the so-called Western philosophy.

Jaduong’ Naftali Ong’alo

Most persons in traditional Africa who fit the bill were those who had not gone through the formal educational system. Even those who might have had some benefit of formal education, it would have been for just a year or two. It follows therefore that most of the persons who were interviewed could not speak English. The interviews had to be conducted in their vernacular languages. But more importantly, as already indicated above, given the criticism that had been levelled against the professional school, it made lots of sense to engage those who were not influenced by Western philosophy, at least not directly. That therefore explains why the interviews were conducted in vernacular languages.

Did you find many problems with translating their ideas into English? Are there plans to translate interviews into other Kenyan languages?

So far the translations are normally from the Kenyan languages into English. Though we are yet to get to the stage where translations are taking place across the Kenyan languages, it is our hope that translations across the Kenyan languages will take place.

When conducting the interviews, we would normally use a voice recording device in order to allow for a smooth flow of the conversation. The interlocutor would later transcribe the conversation verbatim, and finally, it is translated into English, with the translation part normally proving the most challenging, owing in part to various cultural and conceptual differences. As words often reflect the culture and the society that use them, some words that are able to describe very specific things or emotions might not exist in other languages. Further, though some words could be taken to be equivalent, they may carry different connotations or different denotations. Take for instance the English phrase “thank you.” It is an expression acknowledging a good deed that one has performed, it is an expression of gratitude. The Luo language translation of “thank you” is “ero kamano.” However, there is an interesting difference between “thank you” and “ero kamano.” The literal translation of “ero kamano” is ‘that is how it is supposed to be’ or, better still, ‘that is how it ought to be’. The Luo phrase should be understood in relation to the communalistic attitude of traditional Africa which finds expression in ‘I am because we are; and since we are, therefore I am’. An individual is, hence, expected to engage in acts that are consistent with the general wellbeing of persons. Consequently, when one engages in or performs such acts then one has performed what one ought to have done. The individual has done the right thing and to such an individual Jaluo (a Luo person) will say “ero kamano.” Ero kamano is therefore uttered not so much as an expression of gratitude but an acknowledgement that one has done what one ought to have done.

An interlocutor is required to be vigilant when translating the transcript into English, in order to remain as faithful as possible to the thoughts of the sages themselves. It is for this reason that the sage philosophy project insisted that the interlocutor has a genuine grasp of the grammatical differences of both the languages—both English and the vernacular. With such knowledge, one would be in the position to alter and rearrange words and phrases to capture the intended meaning in the target language.

Could you tell us about some of the ideas of sages you interviewed that were particularly interesting or important?

I have interviewed sages on a wide range of issues that revolve around aspects of Luo culture: the communal spirit in traditional Luo communities, the nature of God, the problem of evil, the question of life after death, equality of sexes, the question of change and permanence, the history of the Luo people, and the nature of Luo marriages and families. Amongst these, it is the communal spirit in traditional Luo communities that has unquestionably intrigued me the most. I have learnt a lot from the sages on that topic and have come to realize that it constitutes the grounds upon which traditional Luo beliefs, attitudes, thinking, and way of life are constructed. Importantly, it is what basically punctuates the distinction between the traditional and the modern. To illustrate the point I will briefly explicate the thoughts of two sages, Jaduong’ Naftali Ong’alo[17] and Mikayi Rose Odhiambo[18].

In explicating the basic difference in behaviour between traditional and modern societies, Naftali Ong’alo stated that in traditional Luo communities, the lifestyle is communal and therefore harmonious. The emphasis on individuality found in modern life is a peripheral feature. land, for example, is not viewed as a commodity to be owned by individuals in traditional Luo communities: it is communally owned. In traditional Luo communities, therefore, everyone is both a landlord and landless: a landlord in the sense that land is communally owned and everyone is part of the community; and landless in that no one can own land as an individual. So, in a real sense the distinction between a landlord and a renter (or landless) is non-existent. In a Luo village, people readily come to their kin’s assistance whenever he or she has problems. Jaduong’ Ong’alo goes on to assert that in traditional Luo societies, there are no individual problems as such. No one would want to benefit materially or otherwise at the expense of his or her folk. If calamity struck, everyone in the society would be affected .

Even marriage, which in the modern world is so personal and private, is a communal affair in which every member of the community participates. Jaduong’ Ong’alo goes on to contend that the conception of the family as a nuclear system is a fairly recent phenomenon among Joluo. In traditional Luo communities, the family is conceptualized in extended terms. Everyone views those belonging to his or her age group as brothers and sisters, and those belonging to his father’s or mother’s age group as fathers and mothers.

[the] individual is not a singular, personal, and impenetrable entity, living in isolation. The individual is a relational being. His or her existence becomes meaningful because of the relational attributes.

Mikayi Rose Odhiambo, on her part, uses the institution of marriage to privilege the communal spirit over individualism. She notes that in traditional Luo communities, marriage is a communal affair where the whole clan gets involved. Marriage is not simply an affair between the bride and the bridegroom: in a significant sense, one marries or gets married into a family or clan. To state it differently, it is the two families or clans that get married. In a traditional Luo marriage, several people have various role to play, several people have to be consulted and the two families or clans must exchange gifts before one could even “dream” of getting married. On the wedding day, every clan member is expected to attend the ceremony. But people do not arrive empty-handed. Besides the gifts for the bridal couple, they bring liquor and food to add to the celebration. In a typical traditional Luo marriage and wedding, the financial and material input of the bride and the bridegroom is often very limited. The clan more-or-less takes care of the financial and material requirements. Mikayi Rose Odhiambo goes on to argue that the communal emphasis of marriage in Luo communities is one of the main reasons why divorce is almost non-existent in those communities. Dissolution of marriage is not a matter left solely in the hands of the husband and wife, the two families or clans have a say in it since they are also part and parcel of the marriage. And for the two clans to settle for a divorce, the implication would be that the differences between the two clans are insurmountable; the problems would have to be beyond the conflict-resolving capabilities of the two clans.[19]

It always seemed interesting to me that sage philosophy was initiated as an approach to African philosophy at around the same time that another Kenyan thinker, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was telling young Kenyans and Africans about the importance of writing in their own languages – was there a similar motivation behind sage philosophy, in allowing individual sages to express their own ideas in their own languages?

Well, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o famously said that if one can speak all languages in the world, but can’t speak his or her mother tongue, that is called enslavement. On the other hand, if one can speak his or her mother tongue and goes on to learn all the languages of the world, that is called empowerment. He also argued that the reason why some Kenyans shun their own languages can be traced to the colonial era, when the colonial government argued that using vernacular languages in schools would promote ethnic identity, something which in their view was divisive and therefore negative. The government therefore endeavoured to make Kenyans ashamed of the own languages in favour of English. English was promoted not only as the lingua franca, but as innately superior language . It was defined as the language of power, rationality, and intelligence. According to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, during the colonial situation, African languages were weaponized against Africans. Hence, his emphasising on the use of vernacular languages in writing was his solution to address the weaponization. So, when in the late 1970s he started telling young Kenyans and Africans about the importance of writing in their own languages, his objective was to counter the colonial narrative. He made this point himself by authoring his first publication in Gĩkũyũ in 1977, a play entitled Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want) co-authored with Ngugi wa Mirii. The performance of the play led to his detention without trial for a year by the Kenyan government.

The agenda of sage philosophy was somewhat different. One of the major objectives of sage philosophy, as already stated, was to address the question of whether traditional Africa was a place where persons were incapable of thinking independently. It happened that at that point in time in traditional Africa, most of the sages had not had the benefit of formal education. The few who had the benefit, had it at a very basic level; a level that could not enable them engage in sustained discourses as we might recognise them today. Today, however, there are several sages in traditional Africa who have had reasonable levels of formal education and could engage in serious discourses in English language. The truth though is that even so, a good number of sages in traditional Africa still feel comfortable using their vernacular language rather than English when it comes to serious discourse. It is only a handful of sages who were born and brought up in urban areas who even after settling in the villages in their later years still find it more comfortable expressing themselves in English language rather than their vernacular.

Though Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and sage philosophy share something in common in that they both privilege vernacular languages as a response to the debasing perception of Africa by the West, their specific motivations are different. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’ very categorically urges Africans to be proud of their languages and use them as a response to the weaponization of African languages by the colonial governments. The motivation of sage philosophy, on the other hand, is to prove the existence of genuine African philosophy, and it does so by engaging the sages in discourses in their vernacular languages. Whereas the specific motivation of sage philosophy was different from that of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, it should not be construed as opposed to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s concern in any way. Both are significantly addressing themselves to a position advanced by the Western world; a position that discredits Africa.

II - Philosophy in the Dholuo language

What do contemporary philosophers have to learn from Dholuo language philosophy? And what are the challenges facing philosophers who seek to philosophise in Dholuo?

In 2013, a publication edited by Chike Jeffers entitled Listening to Ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy was launched. This was indeed a unique publication. The text was described as “a ground-breaking contribution to the discipline of philosophy.” The text consists of a collection of philosophical essays written in indigenous African languages by professional African philosophers with English translations on the facing pages. The languages are Wolof (Senegal), Amharic (Ethiopia), Luo (Kenya), Gĩkũyũ (Kenya), Igbo (Nigeria), and Akan (Ghana). The essays address a range of topics, including the nature of truth, different ways of conceiving time, the linguistic status of proverbs, how naming practices work, gender equality and inequality in traditional society, the relationship between language and thought, and the extent to which morality is universal or culturally variable. What might have motivated Jeffers to come up with the book could have been to demonstrate that African vernacular languages were not inferior to the so-called world languages of the colonizers.

As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o often asserts, the first thing colonialists do is to impose their language as the language of power, glorifying their language whilst demonizing the language of the colonized. The language of the colonialists becomes the language of education, the language of intellectual exploration and discourse. The languages of the colonized are portrayed as the exact opposite; they are not languages of education and are inadequate for expressing ideas. As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o succinctly puts it “English becomes the language of glory, African languages become the languages of gory.” I believe that Jeffers’ efforts were geared towards debunking this colonial myth and prove that African languages could also be used to express philosophical ideas.

However, it is worth noting that as things stand currently, it is very difficult to get published in African languages. If one wants to get published, it is easier to get an English language publisher. There are hardly any publishers for African writing. Even now, the policies of African governments are against African languages. They have English or French as official languages while African languages are relegated in the periphery. The colonial languages remain the lingua franca in African countries. They are the languages used in schools, in parliaments, in government offices. Anyone without knowledge of the colonial language or cannot speak it fluently is seen in negative light. Such a person is considered to be backward and retrogressive.

African languages have thus not been given visibility and attention in educational institutions in Africa. Depending on the colonial legacy, languages of instruction in African schools and universities include English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Afrikaans. In some countries, African languages are used as the language of instruction but only at the very elementary school level. It could be argued that because of this, African students find themselves somehow disadvantaged compared to European students within formal education sector. In my case this was quite evident. The English students I was in class with during my secondary schooling seem to have an advantage over the African students. I believe that it boiled down to the question of language. Each language has its peculiarities which somebody from another language would have to learn to be grounded in that language.

Could you explain how this might work for specific words and terms in Dholuo?

Take, for instance, words that indicate the relationship between persons, words such as wuon, min, ner, way, owadwa, and nyamin, do not have the same extension as their English translations namely father, mother, uncle, aunt, brother, and sister, respectively. In other words, the extensional or denotative meanings of the Luo words and their English translations are not exactly the same. Min, for instance, is not restricted to the female who gives birth to a baby/child. Besides the female who gives birth to a child, min includes one’s step mother(s) in the case of polygynous marriages as well as sisters of one’s biological mother. It also includes the wives of one’s father’s brothers as well as the wives of one’s biological mother’s brothers. So, min in the Luo worldview is not a biological concept as such but more of a social concept. The same applies to the concept of wuon. Besides a man who causes a pregnancy resulting into the birth of a child, it includes all the brothers of the man in relation to the child. It also includes the husbands of one’s mother’s sisters. Included also are the husbands of the sisters of one’s biological father.

Mikayi Rose Odhiambo

There is also the distinction between house and home. In English language a house is defined as a building meant for human habitation, especially one that is lived in by a family, whereas a home is defined as the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. From the definitions of the two words, it is clear that the definienses share something in common; both have to do with where people live. Consequently, people often use the words home and house interchangeably thinking that they mean the same thing. This assumption is, however, not correct. House refers to the physical building whereas the term home is broader, it is the place where a family resides. The distinction between house and home in the Western worldview is not as wide or the distinction between ot (house) and dala (home) in Dholuo. For Joluo, dala is where one has been blessed by his father to build it. In other words, dala is the location where one has the blessings of his kinspersons to construct a dwelling for his family. So, the keywords are location and blessings. Ot, on the other hand, is a building constructed for the purpose of living in. In my case, for instance, what I have in Barbados is oda (my house) and not dalana (my home). Dalana (my home) is in my village in Kenya. So, when I am talking to a clansman in Barbados, I cannot tell that person that adhi e dala (I am going home) when I mean adhi e ot because the person would understand that to mean that I am going to the village in Kenya. Similarly, I cannot tell that person that adhi e ot when I mean adhi e dala for person would understand that to mean that I am going to my dwelling place in Barbados.[20] In Dholuo, there is a world of difference between ot and dala, a difference not shared in the same magnitude in English language.

In a talk you gave at the University of Oxford on ‘the communal spirit in African society’, you spoke about the importance of naming conventions for understanding some pertinent differences in the conception of the social in Africa and ‘Western’ societies. What are some examples – what’s in a name?

I have often expressed the view that one outstanding differences between African and Western cultures is that while the former stresses human community, the latter emphasizes the individual as the most important. This basic difference can be used to demonstrate the different ontologies in the two cultures, their different epistemologies, their different anthropologies, different ethics, different aesthetics, and, to some, their different modes of thought. Scholars such as John Mbiti, Ifeanyi Menkiti, Polycarp Ikuenobe, Okot p’Bitek, and Léopold Senghor have in their various writings validated this view. In the talk that I delivered at the University of Oxford, I was also substantiating the position but using the naming system among Joluo of Kenya. The conclusion of my talk was that even the naming system in Luo land is a reflection of the communal spirit.

Among Joluo the notion of personhood is necessarily linked to that of community, that it is the community which defines the person as a person. Personhood, for Joluo, is not some isolated fixed quality of rationality, will, or memory as underscored in Western thought. The conception of personhood in the Luo worldview is basically normative, whereas in the West the conception is essentially descriptive (or metaphysical). The conception of personhood in the West basically seeks to analyse the ontological make-up of a person. It examines whether a person is material or immaterial, whether a person is made up of one or two essential natures, whether a person must have a soul, rationality, will, or memory, etc. Among Joluo, on the other hand, personhood is something at which individuals could fail, at which they could be competent or ineffective, better or worse depending on the extent to which one has assimilated the values and mores of the community. The Zulu phrase "Umuntu Ngumuntu Ngabantu", which literally means that a person is a person through other persons captures the essence of African personhood. One affirms one’s humanity when that person acknowledges the humanity of others.

The Luo naming system itself, I argue, lends itself to this conception. I then outlined three categories which influence Joluo in giving themselves names. These are: (a) Names given to infants; (b) Names from dreams or ancestral names and; (c) Names depicting kinship and homeland.

Regarding the first category, children are mostly given names according to:

  1. When they are born. Here the position of the sun at birth could determine the name (whether it is morning, midday, evening, and such like); the time of birth at night could also be a determinant (whether early night, midnight). For instance, Ochieng’ is a name given to a male child born at midday but Achieng’ if the child were female.

  2. How they were born could also determine the name (whether born facing down, entangled by the umbilical cord, covered in amniotic membrane, etc.). For instance, Owino is a name given to a boy child born entangled by the umbilical cord but Awino if the child were female.

  3. Where they are born could also influence the name (whether born under the eaves of a house, behind a house, in a field, under a tree, under a cactus, by the path/ road, etc.). For instance, Oyoo is a name given to a male child born on the roadside—normally the mother would have gone out not expecting the child to come—but Ayoo if the child were female.

  4. The prevailing situation in the land or quirky circumstances could also determine the name given to a child. Prevailing agricultural activity, for example, could influence the name (whether during the planting season, weeding, harvesting, sowing, etc.). Significant historical happenings in the land could also be a factor (locust invasion, famine, overcast day, time of war, time of floods, grasshopper invasion, etc.). For instance, Okeyo is a name given to a male child born during the harvesting season but Akeyo if the child were female. Ochola is a name given to a male child born after the death of the biological father, sired by a surrogate husband through a sort of levirate but Achola if the child were female.

What do these naming choices reveal about an underlying philosophical attitude towards identity and individuality? How does this demonstrate the distinction you mentioned between individualism and communalism?

The significance of “the when,” “the how,” “the where” and “the prevailing situation/quirky circumstances” in the naming system among Joluo is in a broader sense a reflection of the communal spirit among them or, more specifically, a reflection of their emphasis on the interconnectedness of things within the universe. It is a reflection of the perception that an individual is not a singular, personal, and impenetrable entity, living in isolation. The individual is a relational being. His or her existence (being) becomes meaningful because of the relational attributes. Individuality far from being an island is therefore part of the physical and sociocultural environment as well. The identity of the individual is also entangled with the surroundings.

Regarding the second category of names from dreams or ancestral names, parents would name their children after one of them has had an encounter with a living-dead in a dream. In other words, a living-dead relative of the child’s father or child’s mother may appear to either of the parents in a dream requesting the parent that the child be named after him or her (the living-dead). Joluo attach great importance to naming children after the living dead because they believe that some of the character traits and mannerisms of the living-dead manifest in the children named after them. Additionally, they believe that a living-dead is not simply the “guardian angel” to the child named after him or her but is a kinship guardian as well. Just like the previous category, this category of names from dreams and ancestral names is a reflection of Luo belief in communalism where one’s identity, personhood, and well-being cannot be separated from those of others since “a person is a person through other persons.”

Individuality, far from being an island is therefore part of the physical and sociocultural environment as well. The identity of the individual is also entangled with the surroundings.

The third category is of names depicting kinship and homeland. Names in this category reflect the relation between two individuals—the name bearer and the relative by whose name the person is called. The difference between this category of names and that of names from dreams (ancestral names) is that while the latter are names of the living-dead and ancestors, the former consist of names of relatives who are still alive. Since living relatives are not only numerous but physically present, Jaluo would have several names emanating from this category. One could be called by the name of one’s father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, uncle, aunt, son, daughter, brother, sister, spouse, etc. For instance, if one’s father is Odhiambo, that person would be called son of Odhiambo (wuod Odhiambo), if his uncle is Onyango, that person is called nephew of Onyango (okew Onyango), if his grandmother is Abila, that person is called grandchild of Abila (nyakwar Abila), etc. In this category of naming, it is worth emphasising that the nature of the relationship between the name bearer and the relative should be explicitly stated since this naming category is principally relational. This naming category, just like the other categories, lends itself to the Luo communal belief that no one is an island entire of itself with the capability of living in glorious seclusion. It reflects the view that an individual’s identity is derived from and cannot be separated from those of other persons.

The category of names depicting kinship is also tied to one’s physical space (homeland). An individual’s character is not only connected to the character of the kindred in the community, but also to the physical territory where one’s kindred grew up. In other words, the connection between an individual and the community goes beyond the moral and spiritual aspects; there is the physical space connection as well. The connection is therefore holistic. It is for this reason that names depicting kinship besides referring to one’s clan sometimes also refer to the physical location where one’s kinspersons live. Therefore, besides calling one on the basis of his or her clan, for instance Jakondiek (person from Kondiek) or wuod Kaugagi (son of or man from Kaugagi), one could be called by referring to the physical location from where the kindred come from, for instance, nyar Ukwala (daughter of or lady from Ukwala), wuod Oremo (son of or a man from Oremo), wuod nam (son of or a man from the lake), etc. Names in this category not only indicate where one is from, but more importantly, they signify that a person is not only the son or daughter of their parents, but also the son or daughter of the community.

Among Joluo a name is not simply something which the name holder responds to when it is called out, nor is it something merely used to single out individuals. Names, among Joluo, have spiritual, existential significance. Names are a reflection of the Luo belief in communalism—that an individual is part and parcel of his or her community. The underpinning in the relation between a name and the name holder among Joluo is that one acquires one’s identity and being from one’s sociocultural as well as physical environment. [21]

Professor Ochieng'-Odhiambo, ero kamano, many thanks for your time.

Frederick Ochieng’-Odhiambo is Professor of African Philosophic Sagacity at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados and the author of a number of works on African philosophy, ethics, and philosophical methodology.

III - Dholuo Philosophical Wordlist

Truth – Adiera
Mind – Paro

also “think”, “thought”, “idea” or even “worry”

Reason – Gimaomiyo
Appearance – Ok adiera

lit. “not true” or “not real”

or kido

lit. “picture”, “image”, also “character”

Reality – Gima adiera

lit. “something true”, “something real”

Eternity, Infinity – Nyaka chieng’
God – Nyasaye, Were, or Ruoth

also “king”, “chief”

Good – Ber (abstract noun) or maber (adjective)
Evil – Richo (abstract noun) or marach (adjective)
Beauty – Ber (abstract noun) or maber (adjective)
Society – Oganda, bura, chokruok, or piny.

lit. “a group of people”

Philosopher – Ngire or jarieko

lit. “one full of wisdom”

IV - Endnotes and Further Reading [1] H. Odera Oruka, ed., Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1990), 33. [2] Odera Oruka, ed. Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy, 48. [3] Odera Oruka, ed., Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy, 47. [4] H. Odera Oruka, “The Philosophical Roots of Culture in Kenya.” (Unpublished research proposal presented to the Ministry of Culture and Social Services, Government of Kenya, 1976), 8. [5] For a detailed discussion of the three main functions of philosophic sagacity, see F. Ochieng’-Odhiambo, “The Tripartite in Philosophic Sagacity” Philosophia Africana, vol. 9, no. 1 (March 2006): 17-34. [6] Odera Oruka, ed., Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy, 17. [7] H. Odera Oruka, “Four Trends in Current African Philosophy”, in Philosophy in the Present Situation of Africa, ed. Alwin Deimer (Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1981), 3-4. [8] See Odera Oruka, ed., Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy, 5. [9] Justus G. Mbae, “From Myth to Reason: The Story of the Origins of Philosophy and its Relevance for the African Situation,” African Christian Studies: The Journal of the Catholic University of Eastern Africa, vol. 7, no. 4 (1986): 32. [10] Paulin Hountondji, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, second ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 34. [11] See H. Odera Oruka, “The Basic Questions about Sage-Philosophy in Africa” in Trends in Contemporary African Philosophy, ed. H. Odera Oruka (Nairobi: Shirikon Publishers, 1990), 52, 68. [12] Hountondji, African Philosophy: Myth and Reality, 106. [13] Peter O. Bodunrin, “The Question of African Philosophy,” Philosophy: The Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, vol. 56, no. 216 (April 1981): 169. [14] See Odera Oruka, ed., Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy, 51. [15] D. A. Masolo, African Philosophy in Search of Identity (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 240. [16] See Odera Oruka, “Four Trends in Current African Philosophy”, 6. [17] Naftali Ong’alo (1921–2006) was born in North Ugenya Location, Siaya District, Kenya. He had no formal education but learnt how to read and write in adulthood. As a teenager, he learnt tailoring and started his own tailoring business. Later in life, he switched to public house business. [18] Rose Odhiambo was born in 1944 in Bonde village, in South Ugenya Location, Siaya District, Kenya. She dropped out of primary school due to lack of school fees. However, upon marriage and after giving birth to four children, she resumed her primary education. In 1966 she sat and passed Certificate of Primary Education Examination. In 1970, she sat and passed the Secondary “O” Level Examination after which she was recruited into Kenya’s civil service. She retired in 1999. [19] See F. Ochieng’-Odhiambo, The Significance of Philosophic Sagacity in African Philosophy, 274-278. [20] See also H. Odera Oruka, ed., Sage Philosophy: Indigenous Thinkers and Modern Debate on African Philosophy, 75-76. [21] For a detailed discussion on the communal aspect of the naming structure among Joluo, see F. Ochieng’-Odhiambo, “Communalism in African Cultures and the Naming System among the Luo of Kenya,” Philosophia Africana: Analysis of Philosophy and Issues in Africa and the Black Diaspora, vol. 19, no. 2, (2020): 154-175.

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