"Where Are the African Intellectuals?"

By Tarty Teh

The Perspective

October 17, 2001

Not long ago, someone asked the question, "Where are the African intellectuals?" The question did prick my interest, but after some mature reflection, I am not in a hurry to find out - at least not before we have settled some very basic questions about the way we think generally. I say this because it appears to me that a strain of ignorance has survived some of our best academic regimentation, which is why we continue to grope for precepts parallel to tested facts that form the basis of mankind’s growing knowledge about the physical and organic universe.

I am not talking about naked ignorance as might be found in an isolated tribe that may not know, for instance, the approximate distance of the earth from the sun, or the moon from the earth. I am, instead, questioning the thinking among educated Africans, thinking which ignores the effects predicated on the known forces of nature that were the subjects of our basic, formal, and elementary education.

Beliefs may be different from culture to culture, but knowledge is what mankind has in common. To that end nearly every culture has contributed to the body of knowledge that has made possible some scientific achievements by which we have eased our physical burden while at the same time multiplying our productive output. All this was made possible by knowledge we found haphazardly, systematically, and accidentally over the course of our human existence. The ability to write - another thing we found along the way - makes it possible to store the knowledge so that it can be used without the sweat that went into finding it.

Yet, it seems to me that we Africans have a knack for taking a laborious and often useless detour from the beaten path to established facts about the universe. The sad thing is that it is often not for want of schooling that we spend so much time thinking in ways that are countered to established knowledge. For instance, we have African Ph.Ds from Western academies who believe in something they call "African Science."

Although I mentioned that an isolated African tribe might be among the best candidates for any form of ignorance, that, in fact, is not the rule. The most intelligent man I’ve ever known was Dweh Wlajlo Teh, my father. He was an uneducated tribal person. Lacking the ability to tap into the pool of knowledge that was in existence, he rediscovered many phenomena and sought to put them to some practical use. More than what he discovered, it was the way he thought that impressed me the most. His thinking influenced me even before I started modern schooling at age 12.

My father reached many wrong conclusions, but his deductive methods could be ranked with those of many of the early scientists who laid the foundation for modern science.

We continue our search for knowledge, but further exploration must take into account what we already know and what we don’t know. What we know so far has enabled us, for instance, to conquer the burden of gravity to place instruments into orbit around the earth. Before that happened, we tried to take stock of what the physical universe is made of. We have determined that there are a number of elements that form all of existing matter – a rock, a tree, a person, distant stars and galaxies are all made of these things in some combinations.

Some primordial permutations of the elements produced the life form that has given us intellectual awareness as humans. We as humans claim that we are the highest form of life, at least on earth. For that we are aware of substances of biochemical nature, molecular agitations that produce chemical changes. We have knowledge enough to predict, produce, and harness some of the changes to protect ourselves and our environment.

Outside of the palpable matter, we have other phenomena like light, electricity, magnetic fields, sound and radio waves, etc. We have found ways to use these elements and forces to channel or propagate and receive sound and vision. Some other things, like the weather, we do not yet have control over, but we have some abilities in, for instance, predicting the weather so that we may get out of its way when necessary.

At the very least this is where the rest of the world is. Where are we Africans?

The languages we speak give some clues about the evolutionary distance we have traveled to arrive at the knowledge we have accumulated so far. From studying languages, we can tell that our first impressions about the physical world were almost always wrong. That’s understandable.

One good example is that, in many African languages, the mind, as an abstract of brain functions, at first chose the heart as the organ for hosting the thinking faculty. For instance, in my native Grebo language, "I forgot it," is roughly translated, "It fell off my heart." A brave man has a thick heart, and to love is to hurt in the heart for someone. However, if you have a big heart, you are greedy.

Even after English penetrated the interior of my native Liberia, the notion that thinking could be done in the head was strange for some time among tribal people who were learning to think in English. But I was surprised to discover that what I thought was peculiar to my native language was in fact much more universal in Africa.

For instance, when, in 1967, Dr. Christian Barnard of South Africa performed the first successful human-to-human heart transplant, some of the letters he received from some African listeners of some South African radio stations asked Dr. Barnard, "Can you give me a brave heart?" That got me thinking that a person with a new heart might very well not remember his own past, if the theory that the heart is the host organ for thinking should hold.

That was then. Now we have cell phones and the Internet; we have jetliners that exceed the speed of sound; we have luxury ocean liners built like cities, etc. These achievements are the direct result of knowledge acquired through the collective ingenuity of humanity. So why are we Africans still haunted by ghosts, witches, and other paranormal agents after we have acquired the best education available in the industrialized world?

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