Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain, and I’d like to welcome you to the eighteenth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post here on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
My guest today is Elvis Imafidon, who is currently a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Ambrose Alli University in Nigeria. Elvis has research interests in both ontology and ethics and aims to show how an understanding of these areas can enable us to deal with issues such as disability, gender bias, corruption, and biomedical issues. He is especially interested in exploring how the ontology of African traditions can be used to understand how Africans view these issues. Beyond scholarship, Elvis really enjoys cooking, is in the habit of dragging the kitchen with his wife Sandra, and has a great time with his two beautiful daughters, Evelyn and Ellen.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Elvis! Please tell us about your background and what led you to become a professional philosopher.
Shelley, I’d like to begin by saying that I am very excited to appear in this series. Thank you for making this interview possible.
I was born an infant with white skin to black parents in a densely-black-populated town in Nigeria on August 17, 1984. As the last of seven kids, and the only one with albinism, growing up wasn’t the very best experience because my visible difference repeatedly confronted me at school, on the road, and in other public places. This difference is compounded by the health challenges faced by persons with albinism (PWAs) in Africa—such as the difficulties that arise due to living in a very sunny and hot environment like Nigeria and low vision. Having educated parents and a loving, caring family has been a big source of encouragement and support. My experiences demonstrate the importance of education, orientation, and enlightenment in living with disability.
When I was growing up and had just left college, my eldest sister Rita graduated in Economics from the university. Somehow, she influenced me and I picked up the university application form for the Program in Economics. At that point in my life, I had all sorts of “why” questions to which I couldn’t find any satisfactory comments or answers.
Somehow, for some reason, I wasn’t selected for the B.Sc. Program in Economics, which was a blessing in disguise. I was given the opportunity to pick any other course in the university that I was qualified for and my parents chose philosophy, a decision that, I think, was influenced by the fact that my dad had a combined honours first degree in philosophy and history from the University of Lagos.
Truthfully, at the time, I knew absolutely nothing about philosophy; but, by the end of the first year of study, I had become fascinated with the topics and history of philosophy. I started finding answers to many of my unanswered questions. And from that moment, philosophy became for me not just a discipline in a university, but also a way of life. So, I did my first, second, and third degrees in philosophy with a firm determination to pursue no other career than teaching, writing, and doing philosophy. I see in philosophy the key to unravelling and dealing with the elements of the human condition as they truly are, rather than as they often seem or as they are misrepresented under the veil of false ideologies in human cultures.
Your research and writing focus on questions about the meaning and nature of being and the implications of ontology for African epistemological and ethical perspectives. In 2013, for instance, you co-edited the anthology Ontologized Ethics: New Essays in African Meta-Ethics, with John Bewaji. Please describe your research and teaching on these questions and why you regard them as distinct from dominant Western approaches to the questions.
Ontology, or the study of being, is, for me, the ground of all philosophical inquiry. You see, the simple word being is all-encompassing and serves as an umbrella that covers all other spheres of discourse. Understanding how being is conceived within a space or a place is essential to understanding the views on morality, knowledge, law, beauty, gender roles, and so on that are held within that space or place. By implication, for instance, I have insisted in my works that there is a link between “is” and “ought.” This insistence goes against mainstream discourse in Western philosophy that strives to maintain a gap between the is and the ought. Hume (with his guillotine), Moore (with his naturalistic fallacy), and their friends will surely not be very happy with me.
Hume, the pioneer of the is-ought gap, maintained in his A Treatise of Human Nature that deriving prescriptive or normative statements—such as those in the realm of ethics—from descriptive statements about being is not logically possible. If it is an ontological fact that we are beings-with-others, that is, if no one can exist completely in isolation from other beings, then, we can conclude that we ought to protect each other’s interests, that we ought to promote togetherness and solidarity. This conclusion amounts to deriving an ethical statement from a factual statement. As commonsensical as this move may sound, Hume believed that it is logically incoherent to do so, a conclusion which, of course, is in line with his empiricist philosophy. By implication, Hume completely severed ontology from ethics, the same way that many defend a fact-value gap. If Hume were completely in the right, we would have problems validating, analysing, and making sense of ethical concepts and principles pursued in the realm of meta-ethics.
Hume’s problem in understanding how one derives an ought from an is stems, for me, from his conception of facts as completely severed or separate from values. You see, our being is a composition of facts and values that are connected and interwoven. Any attempt to separate one from the other shrinks our being and reduces its meaningfulness.
The question of the possibility of the ought being derived from the is doesn’t even arise once we understand that the is and the ought are, by their very nature, interrelated, interwoven, and correlate with each other. Dorothy Walsh (1936) aptly explained this point in her article “Ethics and Metaphysics” when she said “no ethical theory can be adequate without the explicit statements of its metaphysical beliefs.” She further explained that if ethics is intrinsically concerned with a moral agent’s action, one cannot explain such action completely devoid of the moral agent’s ontological status and metaphysical realities. In other words, the is and the ought are not separate; they are fused together.
As I said earlier, I am particularly interested in how all of this plays out in African traditions. You won’t blame me for this; we all have to philosophize from a milieu. If in doubt about this, you may need to ask someone as old as Thales or as young as Nietzsche. There are two main reasons why I am interested in and conduct research in this area:
First, Africa’s traditions—by which I mean African ways of life prior to colonialism and other Western influences—thrive on a conception of being, of reality. Africa’s beliefs, ideologies, and practice stem from, and are often legitimated by means of, her ontological perspective. That is what the chapters in the volume Ontologized Ethics try to show or to refute. For instance, in “The Ontological Foundation of a Social Ethic in African Traditions,” my contribution to the collection, I argue that African ethics, generally conceived as the ethics of solidarity and togetherness, correlates with an all-inclusive notion of being in African traditions and, furthermore, African traditional ontological theory serves as a basis for understanding and explaining African traditional moral theory. The attempt by traditional Africans to sustain the equilibrium and harmony among beings in existence necessitates a communalistic ethos.
Today, Africa is confronted with many issues, some peculiarly African, some globally-shared experiences. They include corruption, stigmatization of persons with disability, sexist treatment of women, terrorism, the problem of individual autonomy in authoritarian societies, bioethical issues, and so on. I see many scholars, particularly scholars with a Western orientation, confront these issues just at their surface level.
I feel strongly that these issues will not be properly understood or resolved without examination of the ontological structure that supports them. For instance, in the presentation that I gave in Johannesburg in June at the 6th Ethics, Human Rights, and Medical Law Conference organized by the African Health Congress, I argued that communalism and gratification are ideas about being in Africa that encourage the continuation of corrupt practices.
Communalism, for instance, is the idea that the African community has ontological priority over the individual, since it is only through the community that individual survival is guaranteed and individual interests achieved. The individual therefore has the obligation to sustain the community that guarantees his/her survival. The meaningfulness of life comes mainly from the individual’s ability to do this. By implication, many African persons are more obliged and loyal to their communities of origin and their immediate kin than to the state. They believe that the former guarantees their survival and identity more than the latter.
Hence, when such persons occupy positions of authority, they put the interests of their communities ahead of the interests of the state. There is a deep-seated conviction in such individuals that their community has ontological priority not just over them, but also over the state: that their identity, their ego is lost without their allegiance to their community. Hence, resources meant for the development of a larger human society are often diverted to the development of a few communities from which those at the helm of affairs originate. Now, until this conviction and other deep roots of the problem are tackled and people become better educated and reoriented, no policy geared to the elimination of corruption in Africa will work.
The second reason why I am more preoccupied with the philosophical interrogation of African traditions than with mainstream Western philosophy stems from the fact that philosophy is a human—not Western, nor African, nor Asian, etc.—experience. The attitude of philosophizing is a universal attitude that any rational human being can cultivate: it consists of reflection on, criticism of, and reconstruction of the ideas that we live by in every facet of our being. But the ideas we reflect on, criticize, interrogate, and reconstruct are formulated within a space of dwelling with its own history, peculiarities, challenges, environment, and intricacies.
Philosophy as an activity is a universal experience applied to specific contexts. Human cultures, whether African or Western, have rich philosophical traditions developed by reflective men and women in time past, some known by name, some unknown. These rich philosophical traditions result from the interrogation and analysis of contextually-specific ideas, history, and experiences of critically-minded people in particular places.
Now, we have our hands full with interrogating such rich philosophical traditions in our spaces of dwelling, revealing their strengths and limitations, and proposing new perspectives and theories for present and future generations. And this is what I have tried to do in my scholarship. In the past decade and a half, I have learned and taught the methods and tools of philosophy. I feel that I have a mandate, just as every philosopher does, to use universal methods, tools of reflection, and criticism to examine subjective ideas, belief systems, and first-hand experiences within my space of dwelling.
I do not intend here to downplay the fact that philosophy is also concerned with global issues, issues that transcend borders and spaces of dwelling. Modernity confronts us with many such issues that we cannot shy away from. But even when we are confronted with such global issues, our first-hand experience of them within a particular context cannot be ignored. Philosophy is, therefore, in some ways, always contextualized.
At present, critical analyses of disability are largely left out of the work on global ethics and global justice that Euro-American philosophers produce. In fact, some Euro-American philosophers who specialize in global ethics and global justice believe that disability falls outside of the purview of these areas of inquiry. However, much of your work in African ethics and social and political philosophy has revolved around the social, cultural, and economic conditions of disabled Africans with albinism. Elvis, please tell our readers and listeners about your research in these areas and why you think philosophers who work on global ethics and global justice should address these issues.
Well, Shelley, claiming that disability is outside the scope of discourse on global ethics and justice will be a very difficult position for any committed global ethicist to sustain. It’s like creating an excuse to run from one’s own job. You see, disability studies covers a very broad spectrum. From the philosophical angle alone, we talk about the ontology of, the epistemology of, and the ethics of disability. We talk about disability and feminism, the aesthetics of disability, and so on. In the ethics of disability, for instance, there is the recognition that although disability may have peculiarities in particular contexts and spaces, it is a global experience that requires certain basic universal ethical principles that can guide the manner in which persons with disability are treated anywhere. There are issues with respect to human rights and justice for persons with disability. What more could qualify a topic to be within the purview of global ethics and justice?
In researching albinism in Africa, I have not only been concerned with critically exploring the ontological basis and moral issues surrounding the beliefs about, and attitude toward, PWAs on the African continent, but also about questions of human rights and justice for PWAs in general. Shelley, PWAs go through hell in many African communities. We are hunted and killed, discriminated against, refused jobs, denied a normal life, treated as non-human and, in some cases, abandoned by family members and care-givers. Now, if scholars, including global ethicists, do not rise up against these actions by doing what they know how to do best—changing the world with novel ideas— the status quo will be maintained.
I don’t know which Euro-American philosophers you are referring to here, but I know for sure that as unfortunate as it may be, the attempt to exclude disability from discussions in global ethics and justice is real.
For instance, I still wonder why the U.N. and the W.H.O. do so little about albinism in Africa. Shelley, would you believe that the U.N. had its first ever forum on albinism in Africa in June of this year, that is, in 2016? That’s after decades of horrific crimes against us. The forum was called “Action on Albinism in Africa” and its theme was “equality, dignity and justice,” which is, of course, a recurring theme in global ethics. The goal of the forum was to develop a four-agenda action plan: preventative measures, protection measures, accountability measures, and anti-discrimination measures. This is surely a good step in the right direction. But my question is: why did it take so long? Could it be that the U.N. did not see albinism as a global issue until very recently? Well, it is heartwarming to know that they do so now.
The Global Health Ethics Units of the W.H.O. tend to look away from issues concerning disability. This isn’t good enough. Central to disability issues are issues of dignity, humanness, fairness and justice, care, and rights. Global ethicists should definitely be interested in disability studies. To be fair, the W.H.O. have conducted a series of research studies and provided reports about the nature and intricacies of many disabilities including albinism in Africa.
But, I guess that I feel more ought to have been done by these agencies with a global reach to help make albinism in Africa a global issue that gets global attention. To this day, for instance, there are no special units in hospitals or special centres in Africa with trained personnel to deal with the health challenges for PWAs. Many PWAs in Africa die because they lack the knowledge that they need to survive with our condition.
What connections do you make between your research on questions of ontology and being, ideologies of Otherness, and albinism?
Ah! Shelley, this kind of question makes me want to speak for hours. As tempted as I am, I will endeavour to make this brief. Let me begin by talking about disability and otherness. Disability studies is primarily the study of otherness, of difference, of alterity. Difference or otherness is more like the illocutionary force of the locutionary utterance of disability. Now, when human societies are accustomed to a structure and category of being, whatever falls outside that ontology is regarded as being different, an other, and well-formulated theories and beliefs are erected throughout societies, in the form of ideologies, in order to put a seal on how the other is regarded within them.
Traditional African ontology consists of a conception of what it means to be a person but, unfortunately, according to this conception of being, PWAs do not satisfy these requirements. So, PWAs are non-human beings. A PWA is, according to the African traditional conception of being, a different being, an other.
African traditions go further to solidify this difference through ideologies of otherness, ideas, and beliefs about the other that have been driven down into the consciousness of Africans, even though they constitute false consciousness. For example, the four-year-old kid in Tanzania or Zimbabwe can confidently, with great fear, point to a PWA and scream: “A ghost is coming”. That is what has become part of the child’s consciousness: the false belief that PWAs are ghosts, passed down from generation to generation.
Other common ideologies of otherness about PWAs include the following: we are witches; our body parts can cure diseases and can be used for money rituals; and having sex with a virgin female with albinism can cure HIV/AIDS. These are just a few of the beliefs in the consciousness of many Africans about PWA. I was stunned recently when, while I was researching online for some materials on albinism in Africa, I discovered that one of the most frequently asked questions about PWAs in Africa is this: Do albinos die? Shelley, isn’t that amazingly absurd? But it tells us a lot about ideologies of otherness of albinism in the consciousness of many Africans.
Thus, there is always a connection between ontological perspectives and ideologies of otherness in any space or dwelling. The latter is a necessary consequence of the former. Ontology wraps up and neatly packages the beings that exist in a context. And, as you know, not everything can go into the “box of existent.” There are always some things left outside of the box because they just don’t fit in. Consider, for a moment, the Judeo-Christian ontology. Within that structure and hierarchy of beings, God, angels, Jesus Christ, Satan and his demons, heaven and earth fit well into the package. However, the African ancestral cult, the belief in transmigration, and the belief in female gods in many cultures of the world do not fit into that box of existence. Judeo-Christianity is thus necessarily compelled to formulate certain ideologies of otherness to justify its ontology. And the most common of such Christian ideologies of otherness built into the consciousness of the faithful are paganism, heresy, and apostasy.
The goal of my research has been to critically interrogate deep-seated ideologies in African traditions, including the ideology of albinism as an other. I subject these beliefs to rigorous scrutiny and analysis in terms of, for instance, how consistent they are with other beliefs and ideologies held within the same traditions. To take an example that I’ve discussed, scholars have long theorized and lauded the communalistic spirit present in African indigenous communities, particularly when compared with the fast-growing rate of individualistic lifestyles globally.
In fact, Africans—both scholars and the ordinary person on the street—pride themselves on possessing the spirit of Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a widely-discussed concept, and although it is variously interpreted, Ubuntu surely recognizes our dependence on one another and stands for the most essential virtues of humanity: compassion, kindness and hospitality. But the manner in which we treat the other—whether it be a PWA, someone with an illness, and so on—the manner in which we protect our community of beings, even when it results in xenophobic feelings against our own ancestral brothers and sisters (as was recently experienced in South Africa), and the manner in which we quickly forget our similarities and focus on our differences, tend to call into question our commitment as Africans to Ubuntu and also confirm that there is a large gap between theory and praxis, one yet to be bridged properly.
Hospitality and kindness is best felt and more meaningful when extended to a stranger. Its primary aim is not to change the stranger or the other and compel him or her to become us. It is to create a space for the other to flourish and to be happy. If Africans pride themselves on their hospitality and humaneness, and yet are unable to extend these virtues to one that they consider an other, then, there is an obvious inconsistency in the set of beliefs that they hold. I think researchers, scholars, and other critically-minded persons have an important role to play in unfolding aspects of traditions and cultures that are anachronistic, authoritarian, and irrational, and thus, need revision in line with the dynamism of culture.
Which articles, books, or other resources on the topics that we’ve discussed in our interview do you want to highlight, Elvis?
I would usually refer anyone who wishes to know more about the facts of albinism as disability and its peculiarities in Africa to the comprehensive database Albinism in Africa website, especially the publication section of the website. The database is graciously provided by the Albinism in Africa Project Team, a group of scholars, PWAs, NGOs, artists, and writers who met at a conference on albinism in Lancaster University in 2013. There are hundreds of scholarly journal articles, news links, web links, and reports on albinism on the website. However, there are very few works available on the discourse of albinism in Africa from a philosophical perspective, either on the website or anywhere else, compared to the amount of literature on the site about human/legal rights, culture, demography, genetics, and medicine.
My article entitled “Dealing with the Other, between the Moral and the Ethical: Inhibitions to Medical Research on Albinism on the African Continent” will be out in a few months in the next special issue of Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics: Philosophy of Medical Research and Practice.
I recently began working on a six-chapter book entitled Albinism in Africa: Philosophical Perspectives that deals with topics such as the ontological grounding of albinism in Africa, the epistemological issues surrounding albinism in Africa, the ethics of albinism in Africa, and issues concerning feminism and aesthetics. The book aims to present a comprehensive analysis of existential issues faced by PWAs in Africa, such as fear and dread, suicide, socially-infused bad faith, and the general challenges of disability in the African context. I hope this book will be out late next year, depending on how quickly I can lay my hands on some grants to fast-track the gathering of information from many places in Africa. But I am working on it without let-up. So, please look forward to these works from me.
For some good books on African communalistic tradition, I recommend Benezet Bujo’s two classic works, “The Ethical Dimension of Community: The African Model and the Dialogue between North and South” (1998) and Foundation of an African Ethic: Beyond the Universal Claims of Western Morality (2003); Kwame Gyekye’s Tradition and Modernity (1997) and African Cultural Values: An Introduction (1996); Polycarp Ikuenobe’s Philosophical Perspectives on Communalism and Morality in African Traditions (2006); and Thaddeus Metz’s article “Toward an African Moral Theory” (2007).
Once again, thank you, Shelley, for the opportunity to speak on these matters in this well-respected public sphere of discourse.
Elvis, thank you very much for your immensely informative and provocative remarks throughout this interview. I’m sure that many of your colleagues outside of Africa have learned a great deal from them.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Elvis Imafidon’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, October 19th at 8 a.m. EST for the nineteenth installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.