Human freedom is always perceived to be a universal phenomenon whose principal landscape is globally acceptable and applied. Although this premise is somewhat accurate, it poses the risk of masking how freedom is understood and responded to within a specific setting that might take the shape of a region, an indigenous community, a country or a family.
The consideration of context specifically places Africa’s framework of freedom into perspective. It prescribes that existing, contested, eroded and denied human freedoms should be regarded as an import and currency of a specific culture.
While human freedoms, as detailed in human right documents such as Bills of Rights and Constitutions, have been transcendental they have all individually manifested in response to different climacterics in history. That accounts for why freedom from discrimination, for example, although universally recognized would animate different communities differently. The amount of weight attached to freedom from discrimination in Rwanda, against a backdrop of a troubled genocide history, would be distinctly different from how South Africans regard the same freedom within the context of the experiences of apartheid. Each freedom in each community is not just an affirmation of rights. It is a folktale that chronicles the experiences African communities have journeyed through to have their dignity recognized as inalienable and inviolable.
To understand these phenomena deeply, a critical point of reflection is what freedom means. For example, I think freedom is simply the freedom to be and the freedom to do. This simple definition though raises some complex questions. Freedom from what? Freedom to be what? Freedom to be who? Freedom to be where? Freedom to do what? All these questions can only be answered by an individual rather than collective basis through consideration of the context (political, social, cultural, economic or otherwise) that shapes one’s understanding or quest for freedom. This is the logical foundation that makes me amplify that when considering the essence of freedom, there is need to slightly deviate from the emphasis that is placed on universalism, collectivism, and standardization.
Having articulated the cultural context that informs and shapes freedoms, there is need to delve into the subject of how human nature fits into this narrative. Scholars like Jean Sartre in their philosophical seminal works argue that human nature is driven by an incessant quest for freedom. Notably, this quest is embedded in the principle that “we become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made us.” An interpretation of Sartre’s thought paints a picture of a world where there will always be a manifestation of radicalism or a struggle for a certain kind of freedom regardless of how just or democratic a society may be.
Contrary to popular belief, I argue that even democratic systems are organized in such a way that they demand a specific form of identity and humans inherently are resistant to any system of organization that shapes them into something specific. This occurrence may be attributable to humanity’s exposure to systemic oppressions that have been experienced through traumatic waves of colonialism, imperialism, the slave trade, genocides and post-colonial militarism. Such exposure has inculcated an unquenchable desire to strive for not just the realization of denied freedoms but the perfection of freedoms that are already existential. This quest is also inspired by the sense of duty we have towards our generation and the need to define what freedom means to each generation. This assertion is rightly validated by Correta Scott King who opined that “Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won, you earn it and win it in every generation.” Bluntly, humanity is driven by struggle rather than enjoyment, acknowledgment, and appreciation of existential freedoms. That essentially is not just the nature of humanity but that of human freedom too.
Concomitantly, there is another dimension I struggle to comprehend. It is this realization that sometimes an exercise of freedom or free will leads to bondage. The world is structured in such a way that our identity is responsive to specific schools of thought. Every moment we are faced with this perception that the peak of the exercise of our freedom is the ability to choose camps that we want to belong and subscribe to. These camps range from feminism, liberalism, idealism, conservatism etc. We seem to be blind to the reality that subscription to these schools of thoughts brings with it specific absolute principles that we constantly need to live up to. What is freedom or free-will then if its exercise makes us confined to pre-prescribed rigid principles that dictate how we ought to behave? What is freedom then if our exercise of the “refusal of that which others have made us” has an inevitable end result that makes us subscribe to values that make us who we are by virtue of what others have made us?
Written by Lisa Sidambe, a batch 1, 2017 intern at WYA Africa regional office.