Organisation - July 2, 2020

An African perspective on African problems


The new African Philosophy course given by Birgit Boogaard has won the WUR excellent education prize in the ‘specialized courses’ category. Resource talked to her about this unusual discipline.

Text Tessa Louwerens Illustration Birgit Boogaard

‘It is a tremendous gesture of recognition for this relatively new discipline at WUR, Boogaard tells me on Skype. Behind her hangs a cloth with an African print on it from Mozambique. ‘I usually use that in lectures, but now it is handy for keeping stuff in.’

Boogaard has spent a lot of time in Africa herself, including two years living in Mozambique, where she did her postdoc. She takes her experience of Africa into the classroom with her. ‘It is important to realize that we think and see the world from a European perspective.’ For many students, that is an eye-opener. ‘I tell my students about our project in Mozambique, and get them thinking about it. In what ways was my thinking there Eurocentric?’

In Mozambique, Boogaard worked on a development project for goat farmers. ‘We helped them increase their production and generate more income. We got goat farmers involved and asked what their priorities were.’ But Boogaards didn’t ask the crucial question: what does development mean to these people? Is it only economic development?  ‘The concept “development” incorporates the assumption that Africa is backward and that people there need help to get to our Western level.’ This Eurocentric thinking is problematic, says Boogaards, without judging anyone. ‘This is how we have been brought up and educated. We do things with the ‘best of intentions’, often in ignorance. The thing is to become aware of it.’

World view
Boogaard wants her course to open up another world view. ‘When I was a student, I would have loved to have had this awareness before I went to Africa. I had very open discussions with goat farmers but I still felt I was missing something. When I got back to the Netherlands I happened to get talking to intercultural philosopher Heinz Kimmerle (1930-2016), who has written a lot about Eurocentrism in philosophy. It was from him that I first heard about African philosophy. That’s when the penny dropped.’

18-Afrikaanse filosofie Birgit Boogaard.JPG

In Mozambique, Boogaard did research on the role of goats in the community. ‘People talked about their ancestors, and I understood that they played an important role, but couldn’t exactly put my finger on it.’ Through African philosophy, she learned that an African community consists not only of the living but also of the living dead – usually called ancestors – and the yet unborn.

‘This invisible world is often hard to understand from a Western perspective, and was wrongly seen by colonialists as inferior and primitive. But a better understanding of it gives us deeper insight into things like people’s relationship with nature and the sustainable use of natural resources. You thank your ancestors for leaving you the land, and you make sure you leave it in good condition for the generations that come after you. That is something we in the West could learn from, instead of saying these farmers are not commercially minded enough and we will help them increase production.’

This was how Boogaard hit upon the idea of launching an elective course on African Philosophy at WUR in 2018. ‘We need this perspective. Especially in the international context WUR is working in. It teaches you to look through a different lens at the big issues surrounding WUR topics such as the food supply, nature conservation and the environment.’

Boogaard emphasizes that the course is an introduction to African philosophy. ‘Africa is vast and diverse, and that applies to philosophy there as well. We touch on a few subjects, such as Ubuntu, an important philosophy that has spread all over Africa. One saying in Ubuntu philosophy is Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu in Zulu. Roughly translated, it means: A person is a person thanks to other people, or: I am because we are. Boogaard: ‘It assumes that your humanity is confirmed in relationship with other people.’  She seeks to create that sense of relationship in her classroom as well. ‘We don’t just study the philosophy: I want the students to experience it too. The basis for a respectful dialogue is listen without judgement.’ To practise that, the students interviewed each other about their points of view. ‘They practise with the aim of not just understanding what the other person is saying rationally, but also really seeing the other with their hearts.’ Boogaard is impressed by her students. ‘It amazes me how good they are at looking at themselves critically, and how they have the courage to do so. Especially at their young age.’

The concept “development” implies the assumption that Africa is backward

The course covers a number of African philosophers, and Boogaard sees herself primarily as a facilitator. ‘I grew up in a Western environment myself, with a Western education and culture. What I teach now is based on the input of African philosophers. That way, the students get an African perspective on African problems.’ Boogaard hopes the prize will lead to the course becoming a systematic part of the curriculum. ‘The fact that students appreciate this course so much, shows that it meets a need.’

Re:actions 2

  • Olatunji Oyeshile

    This is an invaluable contribution to intercultural philosophy through the framework of African philosophy. Dr. Birgit Boogaard has been passionate about African philosophy and its application to contemporary epoch.

  • Wilfred Lajul

    That is great Birgit. I completely agree with you and know that if you need any help, I am right there before you. I value having known you.
    Wilfred Lajul.


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  • Chris Maas Geesteranus

    Niet zo lang geleden heb ik het boek 'Ubuntu en Nelson Mandela' van Henk Haenen gelezen: een groot pleidooi om anders met elkaar om te gaan dan in onze nog erg individualistische maatschappij. Aan te raden voor studenten, juist omdat ook in dat boek weer verschillende discutabele aannamen - vanuit ons Westerse standpunt - worden gedaan. En dus goed voor discussie.

  • Elyn

    Goed initiatief! Zo belangrijk om zaken van meerdere kanten te kunnen bekijken.

  • Toon van Eijk

    Good initiative!
    Perhaps the following two subchapters of my PhD thesis might be of interest in this context:
    8.2: Basic attitudes towards nature and ecological spirituality.
    10.5: Cosmovisions.

    Van Eijk, T. (1998). Farming Systems Research and Spirituality. An analysis of the foundations of professionalism in developing sustainable farming systems. PhD thesis, Wageningen Agricultural University, The Netherlands.

    Best regards,
    Toon van Eijk

  • Birgit

    Beste K. Haverkamp,

    Dank voor je opmerkzaamheid! Ik zie dat die zin in ook zo opgevat kan worden. Dat is echter een heel andere betekenis. Het moet zijn ""In plaats van te zeggen 'deze boeren niet commercieel genoeg zijn en we gaan ze helpen de productie te verhogen'." Het is juist niet de bedoeling om Westerse waarden aan Afrika op te leggen.

    Hartelijke groet,

    • Redactie Resource

      Deze zin was in de eindredactie al aangepast in het magazine, maar dat is op het web niet doorgekomen. Bij deze is het nu ook online ook aangepast.

  • K. Haverkamp

    "In plaats van te zeggen dat deze boeren niet commercieel genoeg zijn, gaan we ze helpen de productie te verhogen."

    Kortom, hoe kun je Afrikaanse filosofie gebruiken om je westerse waarden van meer en meer productie toch aan de man/vrouw te brengen in Afrika...

  • Lara

    Wat ontzettend goed dat dit vak gegeven wordt, hopelijk op den duur inderdaad als structureel onderdeel. Ik werk in natuurbeheer/CBNRM in Namibië en zou het heel interessant vinden om dit vak online te volgen...

  • Allon

    Interesting! I fully agree that implicit assumptions hinder us to broaden our views. Listening without judgement is so relevant.
    It would be interesting to study the boundaries between philosophy and religion in the course material. Soon we may conclude that such boundaries are gradual.

    A quote from "Volgens Louw (1998) is Ubuntu een religieus concept ..."

    This university has banned religious expressions from PhD thesis. This is remarkable, as it implies that the promotor has the instruments to see those boundaries between science and religion.

    Students of this course are invited to experience African philosophy. I guess that philosophy is something to be understood and debated. Religion is something to be experienced. As said before, the boundaries are soft. Is it possible to take this course and remain at sufficient distance to reflect on course contents, and processes that students engage in.