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Africa: Making the case for a sea change in thinking



There is a problem in Africa and is a problem of the mind, a problem of how mental faculties are exercised. The issue is not that Africans do not think. They do. It is not that Africans do not have or exercise their intellectual capacities. The problem is not whether Africans are intelligent or not. The crux of the matter is in how Africans think, how they exercise their intelligence, and how their intellect relates to their social, economic and political relationships. The issue is not that there is a particular way that African people think or express their intellect. No, a variety of thinking formulations exist. Multiple ways of reasoning abound. The problem is in the kind of thinking that is pervasive; the form of reasoning that is privileged, incentivised, rewarded or celebrated. It is pertinent to explore how Africans can change their thinking behaviours in order to foster African emancipation and emergence. African societies cannot continue to privilege particular thinking behaviours and expect a different course of development. Too often the emphasis is placed on challenging the way that westerners or easterners present Africa and Africans. No doubt, this is important. But enough attention has not been paid to examining and prescribing changes to the ways Africans present and represent themselves. A change in thinking behaviours of Africans has become a necessity.

Africa’s fundamental malaise can be traced to its thinking culture, to the reasoning habits that dominate, drive and define everyday life and dealings. The manner in which certain thinking behaviours came to dominate discourses on Africa may be quite problematic, but the influence of thinking processes is evident in happenings and reactions to events across the region, in African politics and economy. Thus the way Africans mentally represent Africa and how they relate to others thinking about Africa and Africans deserves scrutiny. This is because if Africa must experience a radical transformation in this century, African modes of representation must undergo a sea change. There has to be a drastic shift, an overhauling of how Africans think about Africa, about anything African, indeed about anybody or anything at all. Or better, Africans must begin to challenge the dominant way(s) of thinking and reasoning formations in the region. Africans need to indulge in a rethinking and a reimagining of the world and the structures therein. They need to reexamine the idea of development, aids, international relations, foreign investment, trade, democracy, tourism, governance, education, Christianity, Islam, science, religion and philosophy. These narratives and structures are culturally embedded. They come with some social and political undertones. Sometimes these formations contain ideas and impressions that are not always consistent with a balanced or an informed view of Africa and the African. Sometimes, they embody demeaning, degrading and exotic images of Africa or anything African. These notions constitute mechanisms that are used to legitimise and perpetuate stereotypic views of Africa and Africans.

So a change in thinking has become an imperative. And change requires a cultivation anew of thinking behaviours, intellectual habits that radically depart from what currently applies. These innovative and adventurous cognitive skills need to be stressed and emphasised in all areas of human endeavour so that they could yield the desired transformative effects. These thinking skills are critical, creative and productive. They have been categorised this way, not because thinking is such a compartmentalised operation but in order to underscore certain elements in thinking processes. Actually, these competencies are not exhaustive of the cognitive prerequisites for a sea change in the African thinking culture. Rather they are indicative of the direction that this important process could take.

Critical reasoning and finding gaps
A change in African thinking culture requires critical competencies. An examination of claims and propositions is needed because it is in pursuant to such a critique that mistaken and erroneous representations of Africa and Africans can be exposed. Foreign missionaries, traders, military personnel and scholars wrote much of African history and defined the region and its people on their own terms. These definitions embody their knowledge but also their prejudice, ignorance, and bias. Critical inquiry is needed to highlight the cognitive limitations in these representations. Narratives of racial and cultural superiority underlie western and eastern representations of Africa, of African religion and politics. And too often Africans accept and embrace these narratives without question including the prejudices therein. These structures need to be revisited and reviewed and their epistemological foundations and presuppositions have to be reexamined. Africans need to question beliefs, doctrines, policies, rules and regulations. They need to take a critical look at treaties and conventions that have been signed; policies and laws that have been enacted to guide international relations, secular and religious ideologies that are often framed as civilising missions. These mechanisms are often used to conceal and foist foreign interests on African societies. They embody unwholesome impressions and images of Africa and Africans. A critical examination is necessary to expose these gaps and inadequacies and get these instruments to work for and not against Africa and Africa.

Furthermore, critical thinking is needed to highlight what is missing in existing inventions and innovations, in the available goods and services. Critical thinking skills are needed to draw attention to the limitations in all artefacts showing what is wrong with them, what is not working, or not working so well, what could be improved upon. For instance, critical reasoning skills can be deployed to identify what manufacturers and marketers missed, omitted or overlooked in the course of production or sales. While exerting ones intellect to find faults and locate gaps is important, these faults need to be rectified. A thinking behaviour is needed to fill the gaps.

Creative thinking and generation of new ideas
Africans need intellectual skills that emphasise the generation of new ideas including new ways of thinking, imagining, explaining, presenting, representing and doing things. It is not enough to express discontent or dissatisfaction regarding the state of art or to register objections to the way things are. It does not suffice to point out faults and gaps in existing knowledge or artefacts, in the representations of issues. It is important to speculate and try to imagine new and other possibilities, to envisage things as they should be. Africans must tap into their creative ingenuity and deploy their brainstorming competencies in order to supply or at least attempt to supply what is missing. Africans must task themselves and strive to highlight what has been overlooked, bring to light perspectives and insights that have been ignored. For instance, the representation of Africa or of Africans in the media or in existing studies may be heavily biased, mistaken, or one-sided. Beyond stating this fact, it is vital to propose what the other side of the story is. Apart from finding faults and raising objections to mistaken ideas and impressions, Africans need to come up with ways of correcting them, of providing what is missing in terms of knowledge and understanding of Africa and its people. People of Africa need to task their imagination and intellect and come up with fresh insights into how things should be done. Meanwhile, ideas worth little if they are left solely at the abstract, as mere speculation and wishful thinking. For ideas to actually add value to life, to existing goods and services, another thinking skill is required.

Productive thinking: Turning ideas into goods
This is thinking at the level of praxis. It is a practical form of reasoning. Or put in a business term, it is an entrepreneurial way of thinking. Cognitive skills are applied to step ideas down from the world of dreams and imagination to the world of reality, from the world of fiction and fantasy to the world of fact. This is a thinking trait that turns possibilities into packages. The intellect is exerted to concretise ideas and translate those vague and wild thoughts into actual products, into goods that serve particular needs, into insights that fill particular gaps in existing knowledge, into techniques that help solve specific problems and improve the management of affairs. One may have so many ideas of how to alleviate poverty, reduce unemployment, or eradicate diseases, improve energy efficiency. But not all ideas may work at the end of the day. Not all ideas are practical or realisable at a particular time and context. Not all imagined solutions end up as actual answers to existential problems. This thinking character is pragmatic and is exercised to achieve real results, demonstrate actual cures to diseases, and advance real solutions to life’s troubles.

So, at a time that many countries in Africa are plagued with numerous socioeconomic and political problems such as wars and conflicts, poverty, drought and unemployment, the continent requires radical thinking and ideas. African needs transformative intellectual habits. Africans must re-think their thinking behaviours. They need to deploy their critical, creative and entrepreneurial competencies to recreate and renew the continent. Africans need to fault existing structures and representations that have been used to hold the continent hostage and undermine its emergence. African people need to generate innovative, reformative and revolutionary ideas and unconventional insights, and then translate these elements into effective answers and appropriate solutions to existing problems.

In this article:
AfricaLeo Igwe

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