Bwesigye bwa Mwesigire is a Ugandan writer, academic, lawyer, and founder of the Center for African Cultural Excellence (CACE). The center runs Writivism, a festival that seeks to identify, mentor, and promote the continent’s emerging writers. He is also the author of “Fables out of Nyanja” and “Finding Foot as an International Court; The Prospects and Challenges of the East African Court of Justice.” He is an assistant lecturer of Human Rights at Makerere University, a research convener and moots coordinator at St. Augustine International University. Ayiba’s Edem Torkornoo spoke with Bwesigye via Facebook on the ideas of African philosophy, leadership, and storytelling.
What piqued your interest in philosophy?
As long as one is interested in life, I think they are also interested in its essence. In what it means. Isn’t this philosophy already? To me, philosophy are the ideas that inform and help us understand reality. Why are things done this way, not that way? All this is important for societies to better themselves.
Is there such a thing as African philosophy? And if so, is there a collective ideology with respect to African philosophy or does it differ from country to country?
If we agree that there are a people called Africans, then it follows that there is African philosophy. The people called Africans of course reflect on, shape, and define reality. So yes, there must be African philosophy. Does it vary from country to country? Wait. At what point in history do present day African countries emerge? Have these borders created long-lasting identities for us to talk of country philosophies? What of the communities that predate the Berlin borders that created present day countries? Some bundled together forcefully, others cut through?
Of course a hundred years of living together (by force or not) create a culture, cultures even. But the similarities of this colonial condition in some way lead to the uniform reflection on these societies, without taking away the diverse societies within the larger identity you may call Africa. So yes, African philosophy exists in the same way African philosophies do.
Do you think there is a connection between the continent’s development process and philosophical ideas/culture?
What is development? The new colonialists say it is important, but what is it? Why do we need to develop the so-called third world? To develop something means it’s un-developed. But is Africa undeveloped? Is it possible that various societies can understand development differently? What I hear defined as development strikes me as Eurocentrism. Surely, such uniformity is not development. There are other ideas in the world. Other ‘developments’ if you like. Being different isn’t under-development.
Is there a meeting point for philosophy and culture? Do these two concepts have anything in common or are they totally different things?
Philosophy and culture. Chicken and egg. What comes first? Chicken or egg?
Some may say that the current state of the continent can be traced to colonization. Is this a valid argument? Or is the attribution of problems to colonization a lazy excuse?
We could sit and blame colonization for twenty years. But fifty? At some point we need to take responsibility. That said, imperialism and neo-colonialism are not dead but the presence of an enemy is not justification for failure to attempt to decide for ourselves.
I have a friend who used to say that Ghana, and by extension many African nations, needs a benevolent dictator to progress. Do you agree with this?
Who defines what dictatorship is and is not? For what reason? Can we call the ‘social democracies’ of northern Europe forms of benevolent dictatorships? Why do we describe various systems in terms of good versus bad. Democracy, dictatorship. What about just a different democracy?
And can democracy itself be bad? I think Kwasi Wiredu’s idea of a non-party democracy makes sense for some African communities. In Uganda we had what we originally called the umbrella system under our past President Lukongwa Binaisa, but it evolved into a ‘Movement’ system. It worked well, was popular and efficient. Then Museveni decided he needed Western approval to stay in power till death and so switched to a multi-party system. But this operates only at various levels. The old umbrella Movement (Wiredu’s idea of non-partyism) informs the political organization of the society’s core. I would not define such an idea as dictatorship.
If you were appointed as the chief advisor to Uganda’s president, what issue would you advise him to tackle first?
By Ugandan President, if you mean Mr. Museveni, I’d advise him to retire from political service and test retirement life. If you mean the office of the presidency, I’d talk of the relevance of the state to the people. The need to build the state on community-held ideas and decolonize its foundation. To return to the people-oriented, umbrella-Movement-Wireduish system.
Do you think Africans in the Diaspora have any role to play in the continent’s development?
I keep asking myself, despite the different circumstances, do we have a European diaspora, Asian diaspora, and American diaspora about which such questions are asked? Each diaspora has its own challenges, its own unique set of circumstances, hence we no longer call some diasporas. At what point therefore do we start to give individuals (ourselves) the option to choose and struggle to belong wherever? When one chooses to be American, at what point do we respect that choice?
When one chooses to be African, despite living in Europe, at what point do we get civil about it and respect their citizenship rights? And one who chooses to belong to everywhere, when do we respect that? The concept of African diaspora and its role I think is one that individuals who form this group called the diaspora need to address at their individual levels. They should have that freedom to choose.
What do you enjoy about teaching?
The need to keep thinking and reflecting is always refreshing.
Who are our African philosophers?
I do not know enough of this biggest continent on planet earth to say who our philosophers are. And in some cases, I think it’s not easy singling out who is a philosopher and who is not. But then you have university teachers of philosophy. They say they are philosophers and they are Africans. I am a fan of art, of stories, and I believe storytellers reflect and observe a lot about life.
What motivated you to start the CACE?
The overwhelming dominance of other cultures and their philosophies no doubt made me feel there was a need to blow the horn of Africa’s own contributions to culture and philosophy. We do this trumpeting of African culture and arts through promoting contemporary African literature and at some point will be doing some film-work. More will follow.
What has been your biggest success story with CACE so far?
Writivism is a decent success story. Writivism seeks to identify, mentor, and promote the continent’s emerging writers. It’s also aimed at strengthening the production and consumption of African literature on the continent.
What impact will you say Writivism has had in and outside of Uganda?
It’s hard to measure the impact now. But it’s no mean feat building a network of over 150 writers in just two years of holding workshops, a mentoring program, publishing two anthologies, holding a two-year-old festival and publishing fiction in newspapers, among other things like running a fiction prize.
You are a writer. What is your definition of storytelling and why do you think it’s so important to us as a people?
Stories are important because besides recording our history, they challenge us to reflect on our existence. Stories remind us of our humanity, and, of course, they entertain. They also are a big form of our society’s soft power.
You can have five African public figures—dead or alive—at a dinner table. Who will they be?
1. Ngugi wa Thiong’o
2. Queen Muhumuza of the Nyabingyi movement
3. Ayi Kwei Armah
4. Professor Sylvia Tamale
5. Okot P’Bitek
Now let’s play a game of favourites. Name your favourite African:
city: the Kampala that Musisi is yet to destroy
president (past or present): Thomas Sankara
author: “NoViolet Bulawayo”