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In Praise of Complexity

by Martin Kimani 


Adéwálé Àjàdí
Bookcraft, 2012.

Adéwálé Àjàdí is a contrary brother striving to live based on social codes that persist and remain useful despite being displaced, suppressed, ignored and undermined. His book is a loving gift to this continent of brothers and sisters indoctrinated away from selflove and toward heartbreaking mimicry of most anything upheld in wintry lands. This love is not redrose romantic; it is maddening, challenging.

A pointed provocation to get by and thrive in a pitiless world, Omoluwabi 2.0 uncovers how we continue to live in complex, changing environments with unconscious genius. Yet, at the same time, how we persist in hiding from our own models and values in traps of imported social and economic codes.

Omoluwabi is ‘character’, Àjàdí writes. It is located at the intersection of personality, disposition, orientation and identity. He asks us to shape our individual, communal and organisational character on the principles of Moo’lo: usability, fitness for purpose, application of ideas and knowledge to live better. And that to Àjàdí is privileging forms of organisation that exist today as part of the informal and indigenous, outside the formal state-corporate sector. Because they work, like open air markets and their guilds and associations, which are shaped for purpose rather than by a central master plan.

The 2.0 part of the title echoes Web 2.0, digital wisdom of the crowd; online architectures built on the belief that information wants to be free. How else, than through consciously lived values, through character, can we negotiate the bewildering complexity of the world – a world where there is opacity in cause and effect, where the only way to drive change is to embrace the unpredictable and avoid the linear models so beloved of church elders, school teachers and generally colonised-without-knowing-it folk?

Àjàdí breaks it down. You resist. You listen to him and feel attacked. Mostly because you ARE being attacked, grabbed by the scruff of the neck and led kicking and screaming to a well of knowledge that contends that all those customs and ways are living TECHNOLOGIES. You feel fired on by inspired Yoruba blaze. Who else talks about CHARACTER other than American right-wingers or your mama and papa?

But it’s always been about that, especially because non-Western social codes and the worldviews that they express have been under brutal attack for centuries. The need for black bodies to work plantations, build that primitive capitalism, and then its colonial and neo-colonial versions – each more sophisticated than the other – has meant that our ways must continually be reduced to ashes. In doing so it was first necessary to convince us of the uselessness of our codes. It was necessary, in other words, to mess with our minds. Nowhere was this illustrated more clearly, devastatingly so, than the assault on black kichwas during the Transatlantic slave trade.

If Àjàdí had lived a few decades ago, he would have run for a minute with Cheikh Anta Diop, whose Evolution of the Negro World shouted from the rooftops that racism governed mzungu tellings of history. He would have hung with those Negritude brothers, Léopold Sédar Senghor, Aimé Césaire, and Léon Damas – intellectuals who hooked up with Harlem Renaissance experimenters and Hispanic Negrismo artists to take Black folks ways, their speech, their CONDITION into their works. To rebuild.

Derek Walcott, like many rebuilders, suggests that ‘the children of slaves must sear their memory with a torch. The actor must break up his body and feed it as ruminatively as ancestral story-tellers fed twigs to the fire. Those who look from their darkness into the tribal fire must be bold enough to cross it.’ How to work through the destruction to greater completeness and harmony? To Moo’lu?

Reclamation: in 1885, Anténor Firmin, a Haitian anthropologist, wrote The Equality of the Human Races to take down Arthur Comte de Gobineau’s vile An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races. Césaire spoke of the Haitian revolution as the voice of Negritude. He said this in Europe. The entire movement was positioned vis-à-vis Europe. It was arguing that we are human, shouting for a re-entry into the ‘human family’ – in quotes because that little phrase is like a gate you must have someone open for you. See? Head games.

There have always been black folks trying to find a way for the African to be at equal footing with the mzungu. All with different recipes of how to rebuild the shattered civilisations whose descendants are staggering about today: Marcus Garvey bought ships and said all black people in the Americas had to return to Africa; Edward Blyden, who gave a shout out to the ‘African personality’ as making a ‘Great race – great in its vitality, in its power of endurance and its prospect of perpetuity’; and Molefi Asante, who threw down 70 books and 400 articles asking us to take back ancient Egyptian civilisation from British and French white-race-built-everything archaeologists so that we could see the world with the African at its centre. All of these were necessary reactions, strategies and tactics to push back the centuries of seasoning.

But it is not that easy; the world is full of tricks. Nicolas Sarkozy said in Dakar: ‘Africa’s challenge is to enter to a greater extent into history; to take from it the energy, the force, the desire, the willingness to listen and to espouse its own history.’ This is The Gate: the passageway Africans have been made to feel they must pass to be accepted into the human family. Its minders are the Sarkozys, which is why the whole rebuilder project of Answering the Man has such fragile foundations. It is too dependent for its respect and respectability on the very structures that is assails.

This is where Àjàdí comes in. Omoluwabi 2.0: A Code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria should have been subtitled A Code of Transformation for Africa. Àjàdí parts ways with most of the rebuilders who almost to a man looked toward a kind of centralised virtue, for instance the Talented Tenth of WEB Dubois – often Western trained and oriented no matter its politics – to guide the masses to promised lands. Àjàdí has as a starting point that Africa is complex. By that he does not mean that it is complicated like the parts of a working watch which, though intricate, operate on set patterns and relationships with one another. Rather it is the complexity of millions of parts all moving and responding to one another in infinite crazy ways. Ultimately they cannot be managed from above, nor governed by the Big Plan. No hope in the Talented Tenth, the Oxbridge boys riding to the rescue.

Noting the growing complexity, as population and access to information increases exponentially, Àjàdí questions the relevance of authority and hierarchy, and how much we prize stability and equilibrium when there is precious little of each to be had. When did you last run across a seeming traditionalist who is against top-down order? That is Àjàdí.

Our Quixotic search of order delivers Africans right into the hands of the Sarkozys in making us perceive our adaptability and bottom-up organisations to be perversities. For instance, in one stirring passage, he shows how the perceptions of Lagos as ‘a place of chaos and danger’ actually mask that:

“The city operates as a living organism with constant organic activities that place decay side by side with renewal. In a traffic jam in Lagos, a market springs up in seconds with sufficient goods to stock up an average sized department store.”

The planner – the power in City Hall – can rarely grasp what to do with this other than to try and order it, to try and make Lagos be like Copenhagen. Omoluwabi 2.0 argues that we can and must evolve codes that allow this constant making and unmaking of our complexity to benefit us as individuals and nations. One of the examples of how this can be done involves harking back to the cosmopolitan Ibadan of pre-colonial days – in the 1830s. The city was built on homesteads, agbo ile, organised along military lines, yet it managed to transform into a far more civic form of organisation in response to external pressures; and to hold onto the principles of excellence in leading oneself and others through the change.

Àjàdí continues in this vein, with plentiful examples of how these tried codes are relevant to our challenges today. For instance, how western Nigeria was able to be a globally competitive cocoa producer through small-holder farmers, whose networks of trust relationships effectively allowed them to beat big plantations and mechanised production. This is all to say, simply, that the values of the individual are the building blocks of society and vice versa, and that in our past, and often in our present, are codes that can enable us to successfully cross over into the Africa we dream of.

Omoluwabi 2.0 is reminding us that we live in an Africa that is the most diverse place on the planet, not only in geography but also in language, histories of government and the genes that we have. Lagos is more genetically rich than the whole of the west of the world outside Africa combined – just Lagos alone. Our views are so different; there are so many different social and religious practices. They have been flattened and suppressed. Like that ugly word, Animism, which takes a thousand religions, a thousand different ways of thinking about the world and divinity – and not just thinking about divinity but also how we live together – and collapses them into a single word. Here is the poignancy of Omoluwabi 2.0: that even as it celebrates these codes, the dynamic changes around us to our demoralised selves mean most of us are part of a vast conspiracy to rid the world of them. Are they recoverable by us seasoned types?

Omoluwabi 2.0 (will there be later versions?) dares us to imagine that old but mutable African codes can be harnessed by us all. It is a rebuilder’s project, fighting seasonings; a gift to Nigerians and Africans on how to embrace ourselves, how to locate ourselves in the centre of our own worlds, and from this forge powerful adaptive tools which are ready to not only transform our individual lives, but also our work, our collective goals. To raise our place in the world to the heights. Àjàdí’s gift is that too rare intellectual effort, which insists on the transformative power of what appears to others and, most sadly, to us as chaos and pathology, when in fact it is adaptability and the complex use of social capital.



Martin Kimani is a diplomat based in Nairobi.

This review first appeared in print in the Chronic (April 2013), available here

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