Intellectual Forum

26 09 2009

September 26, 2009

Technology, nostalgia and anticipation

Prof. Ali A. Mazrui

According to some influential thinking, African universities are expected to play a pivotal role in delivering goals of strategic national plans. Towards this end, public and private universities are encouraged to expand enrollment with an emphasis on science and technology courses. My own university, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, is actively devoted to the proposition of competitive quality education, training and research in support of Kenya’s Vision 2030.

Cultures differ in their temporal orientation, in their attitudes to the march of time. Cultures of nostalgia tend to glorify the past, and to seek guidance from long established traditions. Cultures of ‘presentism’ are obsessed with the here-and-now, saluting the present as paramount. Cultures of anticipation put a special premium on planning for the future, and seek to protect even Planet Earth itself from the ravages of unrestrained presentism.

Our own indigenous tribal cultures used to score high on tradition and nostalgia. What was customary given great value, and the wisdom of the ancestors was often regarded as pre-eminent.

Certain schools of Islamic thought are also heavily nostalgic. Some Muslim thinkers take understandable pride in the glories of Islamic civilisation in the past, when Muslims invented algebra, bequeathed to the world the numerals we use today in mathematics, numbers which are still referred to as Arabic numerals. When you graduate as an engineer, and are asked “Is there anything Arabic which accompanies you in your scientific work everyday of the week?” Your answer must surely be “Yes, the numbers I use in all my mathematical calculations, the Arabic numerals.” Additionally, Muslims led the way in philosophy, architecture, and scholarship.

Today, radicalised Islam is often a culture of nostalgia, seeking to revive and restore the ancient glories of Islamic civilization. But too much pre-occupation with the past can stifle present-day progress. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, most of Africa and the Muslim world were colonised by Western Europe. And under capitalism, Western culture became obsessed with presentism, with the pursuit of profit and maximisation of returns. Western technology became ultimately triumphant, but was for a long time insensitive to the pollution of mankind’s lakes and rivers, the toxication of the atmosphere, and the reckless depletion of resources. Planet Earth itself faced the dangers of climate change and global warming.

Colonialism and Western culture were successful in passing their preoccupation with the present to colonized Africans. While pre-colonial Africa was excessively guided by nostalgia and the traditions of the ancestors, colonised Africa became excessively driven by appetites of presentism and greed. We have polluted Lake Victoria recklessly, melted the snow on top of Mt. Kenya and Mt. Kilimanjaro, depleted our heritage of wild animals, and sometimes accelerated the desertification of our once fertile soil. Our elites have been disproportionately converted to the capitalist ethos of presentism.

And now, as new institutions of higher learning have come into being, one of the anxieties has been whether their graduates would join the forces of presentism, utilising technology without protecting the ecology. Or would they inaugurate a new era of a culture of anticipation, producing agronomists and engineers who plan for the future as well as engage the present? The thinking in contemporary Kenya seems to start from the premise that our future is plannable, and our development can be based on anticipated goals, as well as current needs.

Relevant to this is the question of feeding Africa. In spite of the fertile land available in the continent, food insecurity has become a threat to the existence of most states. In a recent statement, food experts in East Africa acknowledged that there was a shortfall in the strategic grain reserves. East African universities and other universities in Africa will be looked upon to provide the strategies for reversing the trends. This is indeed the culture of anticipation in action.

Prof. Mazrui teaches political science and African studies at State University, New York

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