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JBSXXX10.1177/0021934717729503Journal of Black StudiesDensu

Journal of Black Studies
2018, Vol. 49(1) 29­–52
Omenala: Toward © The Author(s) 2017
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an African-Centered
DOI: 10.1177/0021934717729503
Ecophilosophy and

Political Ecology

Kwasi Densu1

This article seeks to contribute to the reconstruction of an African-
centered ecophilosophy and political ecology. Employing Cheikh Anta
Diop’s theory of African cultural unity, it considers the Ndi Igbo philosophy
Omenala, its paradigmatic implications for Africana studies, and its capacity
to demonstrate the continuity of indigenous African socioecological praxis
cross culturally. In addition, it explores the relevance of Omenala to the
development of an authentic social history of African people and as a theory
to analyze contemporary problems in the African world. Three key issues
are addressed. First, the article accounts for the absence of ecological theory
within Africana studies. Second, it explicates the cultural and philosophical
basis for an African-centered ecophilosophy and political ecology. Third, it
envisions new approaches and areas of inquiry within Africana studies.

African-centered, political ecology, ecophilosophy, environmental justice,
land reform

1Florida A&M University, Tallahassee, FL, USA

Corresponding Author:
Kwasi Densu, Assistant Professor, Department of History, Political Science and African
American Studies, Florida A&M University, Tucker Hall Room #320, Tallahassee, FL 32307,
30 Journal of Black Studies 49(1)

All philosophies contain preconceived notions of what it means to be a human
being and, by extension, what constitutes human development. They “pos-
sess a set of attributes, an overt or implicit set of empirical and normative
views, which are goal oriented about (1) human nature, (2) the process of
history and (3) the nature of socioeconomic and political arrangements”
(Eatwell & Wright, 1999, p. 14). Historically speaking, philosophies under-
girding the discipline of Africana studies have been, for the most part, anthro-
pocentric in their orientation. Africana studies paradigms have attempted to
engage the problems of African people principally by addressing social con-
ditions, without considering that human life and development cannot be
extricated from the earth’s history and its predetermined ecological processes.
This discussion seeks to demonstrate how an African-centered ecophiloso-
phy and political ecology can help to expand and clarify critical theory within
the discipline of Africana studies. By employing Cheikh Anta Diop’s theo-
retical framework of African cultural unity, we will consider the Ndi Igbo
philosophy Omenala, its paradigmatic implications for Africana studies, and
its ability to contribute to the development of an authentic social history of
African people. In light of contemporary concerns over environmental rac-
ism, global warming, species extinction, food insecurity, global economic
instability, and their impact on the African world, we will analyze the effects
of European cultural hegemony and modernity through an African-centered,
environmental lens. This discussion will unfold in three stages. First, we will
account for the absence of ecological theory within Africana studies. Second,
we will explicate the cultural and philosophical basis for an African-centered
ecophilosophy and political ecology. Third, we will consider new approaches
and areas of inquiry within Africana studies.

Culture, Ecology, and the Problem of Urban

Centered Africana Studies
Literature Review
Within existing academic texts in the field of Africana studies, ecophilosophy
and environmental problems are scantly addressed or altogether ignored.
Typically, the lens of radical Western political economy informs how the
field approaches the issues. This ideal is most often labeled the land question,
which primarily focuses on the notion that land is the basis for economic
justice, national liberation, and independence. This perspective argues that
the unresolved question of land reform remains at the heart of socioeconomic
Densu 31

problems facing African people. Maulana Karenga’s Introduction to Black

Studies explores the historical problem of land reform as a matter of concern
for African Americans during reconstruction (Karenga, 2002). Manning
Marable’s The New Black Renaissance: The Souls Anthology of Critical
African-American Studies follows this same trend devoting a chapter, by
Jeffrey R. Kerr-Ritchie, to the origins of the term 40 acres and a mule
(Marable, 2005). Abdul Akalimat’s Introduction to Afro-American Studies: A
College Primer approaches the land question in a similar fashion allotting a
chapter to the political economy of rural African American communities and
their role in “the emergence of an African-American nationality” (Akalimat,
1986). In Molefi Kete Asante and Maulana Karenga’s edited volume,
Handbook of Black Studies, Africana ecophilosophy appears briefly in a
three-page article by Elisa Larkin-Nascimento titled “Kilombismo: An
African Brazillian Orientation to Africology” (Asante & Karenga, 2006).
Larkin-Nascimento argues Kilombismo’s stance is strongly ecological based
upon its foundations in the “profoundly environmentalist philosophy of
African religious culture in Brazil, in particular Cadomble” (Asante &
Karenga, 2006, pp. 301-303). Kilombismo

opposes environmental pollution and favors all forms of environmental

improvement that can ensure healthy life for children, women, men, animals,
marine life, plants, forests, rock and stone, and all manifestations of nature.
(Asante & Karenga, 2006, pp. 301-303)

Tallmadge Anderson and James Stewart’s Introduction to African-American

Studies: Transdisciplinary Approaches and Implications only devotes two
and a half pages to environmental justice and racism as an extension of the
subfield of science, technology, and African Americans (Anderson & Stewart,
2007). Nathaniel Norment’s African-American Studies Reader, Jeanette
Davidson’s African-American Studies, Serie McDougal’s Research Methods
in Africana Studies, Joyce A. Joyce’s Black Studies as Human Studies, and
James Conyers’s Qualitative Methods in Africana Studies are examples that
completely ignore the relevance of ecophilosophy and political ecology to
the discipline of Africana studies.
The absence of ecophilosophy and political ecology within Africana stud-
ies is largely linked to the sociohistorical and geographical context in which it
developed as an academic discipline. As an outgrowth of the Black Freedom
Movement (Williams, 2016), Africana studies emerged as a proactive strategy
to institutionalize the intellectual demands of the struggle. It sought to rede-
fine the meaning and function of educational institutions for predominantly
urban African American communities, while challenging prevailing political
32 Journal of Black Studies 49(1)

and economic arrangements. Simultaneously, socioeconomic forces within

the United States would have a profound impact on the praxis of the Black
Freedom Movement, more specifically urbanization. Urbanization, in the con-
text of Western modernity, is characterized by (a) an anthropocentric, secular
perception of nature; (b) the hegemony of mass consumption and industrial-
ization; (c) the devaluation of indigenous, rural knowledge; (d) mass rural to
urban migration; and (e) the concentration of political and economic power
within urban centers. Most often, critiques of urbanization within the Black
Freedom Movement and Africana studies are shaped by the assumptions of
radical Western political economy, that is, the unequal distribution of wealth
and power is its primary focus. Black radicalism, for instance, perceives
racialized capitalism as the fundamental contradiction affecting African-
descendant communities. Although it occasionally uses culture as a tool of
analysis, it is normally limited to an examination of the internal dimensions of
African community development. Political economy and culture are typically
perceived as separate and distinct methodologies. Sundiata Cha-Jua’s (2000)
Black Studies in the New Millennium and Cedric Robinson’s (2000) seminal
work Black Marxism are notable examples. Black Feminism, as another
example, argues for methods that focus on the intersections that exist between
race, class, and gender oppression. Similarly, capitalism is perceived as prob-
lematic, yet critiques are limited to standard approaches to radical Western
political economy coupled with emphases on the feminization and racializa-
tion of inequality, hence the importance of intersectionality. Patricia Hill
Collins’s (2000) Gender, Black Feminism and Black Political Economy and
Angela Davis’s (1990) Women, Culture and Politics reflect this tendency.
African-centered approaches, to a degree, follow similar patterns. Racialized
capitalism is perceived as an extension of the broader reality of Eurocentrism
and is vaguely contrasted with preenslavement/precolonial “communal”
forms of indigenous socioeconomic organization. At the same time, it often
relies heavily on radical, Western political economy to frame its critique of
economic inequality. For this reason, African-centered thought is often criti-
cized for its inability to offer a sound analysis of the contemporary problems
of African-descendant communities who, in the current period, overwhelm-
ingly find themselves located within and/or influenced by the capitalist
metropoles. Marimba Ani’s (1994) Yurugu and Justin Gammage’s (2012)
African-Centered Economics and Africana Studies reflect this tendency. For
the purpose of this discussion, it is important to reiterate that across the theo-
retical spectrum within Africana studies, urbanization as a sociocultural phe-
nomenon is not perceived as problematic. As a discipline, it typically perceives
both the urban built environment and mass consumption as desirable. From an
ecological perspective, however, urbanization is inherently problematic.
Densu 33

Without an ecological analysis within Africana studies, critiques of capitalism

are limited to the realm of Western, radical political economy. The focus
remains on the social relations of production (unequal distribution of wealth,
power, and technology), to the exclusion of humanity’s relationship with the
natural world. In essence, human sociohistorical development is extracted out
of the earth’s history and its ecological processes.

Mechanistic Thinking, Urbanization, and Eurocentrism

Urbanization, as an ideological phenomenon and approach to constructing
the built environment, has its roots in the scientific and political revolutions
of Western Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. According to Carolyn
Merchant (1987),

Since the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century, the West has seen
nature primarily through the spectacles of mechanistic science. Matter is dead
and inert, remaining at rest or moving with uniform velocity in a straight line
unless acted on by external forces. Change comes from outside as in the
operation of a machine. The world is a clock, adjustable by human clock
makers; nature is passive and manipulable. (p. 267)

Capitalism and industrialization would serve as “outside” forces subduing

nature and indigenous communities in the economic interest of Europe and
its political and religious elites. In doing so, Western modernity asserted itself
as a hegemonic force in the emerging world order, setting the stage for con-
flicts over perceptions of nature between indigenous people and European
colonizers. The “modern” history, worldview, and socioeconomic problems
of African people can be understood within this context. Mechanistic think-
ing, the view that the compartmentalization, manipulation, and study of the
parts of nature are more important than understanding nature as a self-
organizing, dynamic system, becomes prominent during this period. It forms
the basis for the production of knowledge within Western Social Science
(WSS). One of the central aims of Africana studies has been to challenge
WSS and its legitimacy. Consistently, it argues that compartmentalization is
one of WSS’ major flaws. According to James Stewart (2005),

Although the prevalence of interdisciplinary social science initiatives is

increasing, discipline specific research remains the norm. This high level of
compartmentalization reinforces tendencies to produce studies yielding only
minor incremental additions to knowledge about highly specialized topics and
there are few incentives to develop the type of comprehensive analysis
envisioned by Africana Studies theorists. (p. 83)
34 Journal of Black Studies 49(1)

By placing ecological questions at the center of Africana studies, it is pos-

sible to advance the project of transcending the limitations of compartmental-
ization while reinforcing the interdisciplinary vision of the discipline.

Culture, Ecology, and Africana Studies

One of the challenges in explicating an African-centered ecophilosophy and
political ecology is adapting indigenous African thought and practice to
Western modernity. This is not a question of synthesis but, more important, a
question of relevance. African-centered thought must make indigenous
African concepts both reasonable and applicable to the historical and con-
temporary realities of African people. As Kwame Agyei Akoto (1992) argues,

the ideology (African Centered thought) has been forcefully and clearly
addressed for generations, but overall the ideology has lacked coherency and
adequate theoretical clarity to apply at the grassroots level of organizing, or
apply to the conditions encountered in personal interactions. The conceptions
of culture, history, politics and spirituality have not always been presented in a
coherent fashion. (p. vi)

The challenge of adaptation is difficult because there is a tendency for indig-

enous African culture within Africana studies to be used as a mere reference
and not as a foundation for socioeconomic praxis (Karenga, 2008). Beyond
suggesting that African people have a spiritual connection to the earth, little
work has been done to reveal the specific ways that indigenous African cul-
ture perceives nature and how this informs the construction of technology,
the built environment, political, and socioeconomic institutions. African-
centered theory’s emphasis on culture, as an analytical approach to synthe-
size our understanding of the multiple dimensions of reality that shape and
influence human life and development, is the antidote to the problem of com-
partmentalization. As Ama Mazama (2003) suggests, “our main problem is
precisely our, usually unconscious, adoption of the Western worldview and
perspective and their attendant conceptual framework” (p. 4). New concep-
tual models are needed that situate ecology at the center of our understanding
of human culture, the historical development, and contemporary socioeco-
nomic problems of African people. An ecological approach to history, reas-
serts the idea of nature as historical actor (Merchant, 1989).

Non-human nature, therefore, is not passive, but an active complex that

participates in change over time and responds to human induced change.
Nature is a whole of which humans are only one part. (Merchant, 1989, p. 8)
Densu 35

By recentering ecophilosophy in Africana studies discourse, this article

locates itself within the expanding tradition of Africology (Asante, 1992).
From an African perspective, “operating and acting from a centered position”
(Asante, 2007) requires a psychospiritual, intellectual, social, and method-
ological commitment to building reciprocal relationships with nature.

Omenala: Cultural and Conceptual Foundations for

an African-Centered Ecophilosophy and Political
According to Nwala, Omenala is an Ndi Igbo (Igbo people) term that can be
literally translated as “that which obtains in the land or the community,
according to the custom and social tradition of the community” (Nwala,
1985, p. 58). The literal translation of Omenala, however, does not capture
the multiple ways that it is understood and conceptualized as a form of praxis
in precolonial Igbo society. First and foremost, Omenala is an expression of
the Igbo understanding of the cosmos and how the universe works.

It reflects the cosmic order which keeps the world going and without which
too, the very existence of nature and the world would be jeopardized including
the welfare of the communities and all the beings who reside in it. There would
be chaos, and the community would lose its normal balance with nature.
(Nwala, 1985, p. 61)

In addition, Omenala is associated with the multiple, interrelated ways in

which the progenitors of Ndi Igbo constructed social, economic, spiritual,
agroecological, and technological knowledge, and relationships. It defini-
tively represents the “ways of the ancestors,” that is, how best to organize life
and to develop human beings to ensure the continuity and sustainability of
Igbo culture and society. According to Igbo philosophy,

Omenala reflects a cosmic order because it reflects a body of beliefs and mores
without which the community would mean nothing and without which, in fact,
as the Igbo see it and said earlier, the community would cease to exist because
it must have lost its touch with reality and the source of their very existence.
(Nwala, 1985, p. 61)

It is the basis of morality and social justice. It provides a context for negotiat-
ing conflict, making political decisions, managing ecosystem resources, edu-
cating children and adults, and “the actual practice of the customs as they
apply to any aspect of social and ritual life of the various communities in
36 Journal of Black Studies 49(1)

Igboland” (Nwala, 1985, p. 60). As an interrelated cultural system, Omenala

links Igbo conceptions of natural law to the social construction of Ndi Igbo.
It guarantees reciprocal relationships between the individual, nature, and
society. It reflects, in particular, continuity between Ndi Igbo spiritual beliefs,
knowledge of the social and natural sciences, and the construction of socio-
economic institutions.

Omenala refers to the Igbo attitude to life and their basic conceptions about
nature, society and life. It embraces the whole system of civilization of the Igbo
in both theory and practice. (Nwala, 1985, p. 8)

It was an ideology, which emerged from their natural and social environment,
especially from their mode of production, the basis on which Igbo society was
organized (Nwala, 1985, p. 8)

According to Ndi Igbo cosmology, Omenala was given to human beings by

Ala the Alusi, or deity, of the fertile earth. Ala is known as mother of all
things. She is also perceived as the guardian of ethical behavior. According to
Kamalu, Omenala can be loosely translated as “actions in accordance with
the earth” (Kamalu, 1998).
The notion of the earth as mother, the source of subsistence and economic
stability and the progenitor of all things related to ethical behavior and social
cohesion, is a common idea within indigenous African philosophy. It is not
unique to Ndi Igbo and reflects what Cheikh Anta Diop (1989) has described as
the “profound cultural unity” of African people “still alive beneath the decep-
tive appearance of cultural heterogeneity” (p. 1). This can be demonstrated
through a cross-cultural analysis of indigenous African socioecological praxis.
In ancient Kemet, Maat represents quintessentially the spiritual, ideational,
and material force compelling human beings to maintain “right” relationships
with nature. Maat was considered the mother Ntr [deity] of truth, justice,
righteousness, and harmony. Being as such she represented order both in the
universe and within human communities. According to Karenga (2006),
“Maat was the unifying principle that bound all together, from the star to
humans, to the fish in the sea and the chick in the egg, fleas, worms, in a
word—all that is” (p. 385). For this reason, the people of ancient Kemet,

like other Africans, engaged and understood nature not as an abstract concept,
but as an experienced reality. Their sense of oneness with it was heightened by
their sense of the sacred which pervades the world and embraces animals,
plants, mountains, river, wind, rock, flood, sun, moon star and other modalities
of being. (Karenga, 2004, p. 389)
Densu 37

Among the Akan of present-day southern Ghana, the earth is called Asase
Yaa, earth Mother born on Thursday. According to Donkor, on Thursday

Akan people may not till the earth because this period of time is devoted to
consecrating the earth. Any acts that desecrate the earth must be avoided. These
may include spilling blood (homicide) on her, sexual indiscretion on the open
field, toxic waste, and indiscriminate use of land. (Donkor, 1997, pp. 28-29)

For indigenous African culture, the earth is conceptualized as a living, divine

phenomenon. It is both sacred and material. Nature is perceived as the source
of all knowledge related to the spiritual, social, and economic needs of human
communities. Bakongo thought asserts that the earth is futu dia n’kisi
diakanga Kalunga mu diambu dia moyo,

a satchet (parcel) of medicines tied up by Kalunga [the creator] for life on

earth. This futu or funda contains everything that life needs for its survival:
medicines, food, drink, et cetera. The futu of medicines consists of chemicals
actually known and unknown by man, which substances exist for one purpose
only: life on earth. (Fu-Kiau, 1991, pp. 111-112)

The notion of earth as a living phenomenon is rooted in the cosmological

perspective that everything in the universe, all that exists on earth, was cre-
ated by a primordial force/energy. One of the many names for the creator
used by Fon people of present-day Benin, ancient Dahomey, is Se Gbo. It is
an appellation that means “Great Energy.” The creator is perceived as the
substance of life that permeates all things animate and inanimate; everything
is said to share in this energy, and by extension, everything is interrelated.
This echoes the Akan notion of the creator as the “Great Spider” Ananse
Kokoroko, the architect of the universe. The universe is described as a giant
web of interdependent beings spun by the creator. According to Ikeke (2013),
the “African perception of the cosmos is life-centered; life is the essential
characteristic of the universe, a universe in which all beings are intercon-
nected” (Ikeke, 2013, p. 346). The Gamo people of present-day Southwest
Ethiopia in the African Rift Valley affirm this fundamental assumption.

The defining aspect of land-use in the Gamo highlands is a set of intricate and
well enforced traditional laws called Wagas. These laws stem from the belief
that everything is connected and bound in a delicate balance. Together they
form a natural resource management system that dictates everything from
interpersonal relationships to the conservation and preservation of pasture,
forest, soil, and water. Because all of the Wagas are interconnected, if any one
38 Journal of Black Studies 49(1)

aspect is denied or imbalanced then the whole system is understood to be at

risk. (Global Oneness Project, 2009, p. 1)

Without overstating the obvious, it is important to consider that Africana

studies’ emphasis on interdisciplinary scholarship is an extension of this fun-
damental truth, that is, social and natural phenomenon are characterized by
interconnectedness, complexity, and dynamism. Progressive tendencies
within the Western academy have, to a degree, followed suit partially as a
result of the global consensus on the industrial-based causes of climate
change and ecological instability. Critiques of mechanistic thinking called
systems thinking have garnered more attention and support.

At the forefront of contemporary science, we no longer see the universe as a

machine composed of elementary building blocks. We have discovered that the
material world, ultimately, is a network of inseparable patterns of relationships,
that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. (Capra & Luisi,
2014, p. xi)

The African conception of the earth as Mother and the universe as an inter-
connected phenomenon gave birth to indigenous political economies that
were, generally speaking, sustainable in socioeconomic and ecological terms.
Bamana people, for instance, distinguish between two forms of economic
activity: ka bolo, production for life, and ka wari nyini, production for wealth
accumulation (Wooten, 2009). Ka bolo is associated with the cosmological
concept badenya, “things born of the mother.” Badenya refers to all things
that create and maintain social cohesion, solidarity, and equity within a given
society. This principle manifests itself as sociopolitical and economic prac-
tices defined by the commons. The commons is rooted in the idea that all
human beings must have access to the most fundamental social and economic
resources that give life. On an economic level, land, including forest and
water resources, is held in common. All adults, provided they are socially and
ecologically informed and responsible, have the right to land for the produc-
tion of goods and services, in particular subsistence needs, that is, food,
clothing, shelter, medicine, art, and so forth. Typically, common lands are
distributed in a decentralized fashion among extended families within a given
community. The elders of each extended family are responsible for the equi-
table distribution of land among their adult descendants. In traditional African
thought, land is not a commodity; it cannot be bought or sold. Land belongs
to the ancestors and the children yet unborn, all of whom make up the
extended family. The values of the commons encompass other areas as well.
Typically labor for the production of homes, staple foods, community
Densu 39

security, festivals, and so forth, is nonmonetized and cooperative. Community

members are organized into age sets across extended families. They exchange
labor out of moral obligation to one’s community and ancestors, an extension
of the worldview that all things in the universe are interdependent. Food and
music are exchanged for services rendered. What one receives is expected in
return. The dokpwe (Herskovits, 1948) system of Fon people and the cibo
system of Bamana people follow this pattern.

Cibo labor closely resembles the kind of festive labor events described in other
areas of West Africa and beyond. A typical cibo involves hosting a large group
of men (often in excess of 75 individuals) from the home community and
neighboring villages for a day of work in the field. The participants in this kind
of collective labor event do not typically receive monetary compensation, but
the host provides them with some or all of the following: high-quality meals,
tobacco, kola nuts, beer and coffee. These events are usually quite spirited and
fairly social. (Wooten, 2009, pp. 72-73)

In addition to age set and extended family systems as institutions to organize

labor, the guild system was a prominent feature of precolonial African societ-
ies. It organized community members into various industries, for example,
blacksmiths, farmers, midwives, potters, weavers, hunters, architects, and
brass smiths. In the indigenous African context, they were also spiritual soci-
eties. Each industry was linked to a particular honored ancestor or spirit force
that was responsible for passing on the manufacturing, ecological, and moral
knowledge associated with the trade in question (see table 1).
The guild system is significant for two reasons: (a) as a decentralized,
cooperative form of socioeconomic organization; and (b) as an alternative to
the notion that the creative and efficient production of goods and services is
strictly dependent upon competition and the profit motive. Guilds are more
often than not voluntary associations. As voluntary associations in a subsis-
tence economy, socioeconomic class distinctions, within and across indus-
tries, are minimized. In addition, their decentralized makeup ensures
democratic control by producers. The motivating force behind the guild sys-
tem was not simply commodity production but human development. The
spiritual dimension of guilds committed members to a process of initiation
that linked the production of goods and services to the guild member’s human
development, creativity, and respect for the natural resources that served as
raw materials for the industry in question. Amadou Hampata Ba explains this
in his discussion, The Living Tradition.

In the traditional African society, often-human activities had a sacred or occult

character, particularly those activities that consist in acting on matter and
40 Journal of Black Studies 49(1)

Table 1.  “Spirit Force” Associated With Trades Among Select African Ethnic

Ethnic group Farming Blacksmith

Yoruba Orisha Oko Ogun
Bamana Chiwarra Ndomodyri
Akan Asabu Amanfi and Amanfua Adade Kofi

transforming it, since everything is regarded as alive. Every artisanal function

was linked with an esoteric knowledge transmitted from generation to
generation and taking its origin in an initial revelation. The craftsman’s work
was sacred because it imitated the work of Maa Ngala (the creator) and
supplemented its creation. The relationship of traditional man with the world
was therefore a living relationship of participation not of pure utilization.
(Hampata Ba, 1990, pp. 180-183)

Ka wari nyini, production for wealth accumulation, is correlated with fade-

nya, “things born of the father.” Fadenya is associated with rivalry, individ-
ual pursuits, activities that break social norms for the greater good, as well as
the accumulation of individual wealth. In contemporary Bamana culture, ka
wari nyini activities are attached to the local market economy where goods
and services are exchanged for money. Ka wari nyini, however, is pursued
only after meeting obligations related to Ka bolo. Typically, this is concurrent
with the ebb and flow of labor demands required by local agriculture.

Due to the seasonal nature of labor demands in the rain-fed farming cycle, most
people do not devote too much time to such personal activities until the close
of the year’s farming season. However, once their obligations to the food
economy are met, most people—young and old, male and female—at least
devote some time to producing or collecting products that they sell in nearby
markets. (Wooten, 2009, p. 88)

Another important feature of indigenous African political economies is its

emphasis on subsistence. Mischaracterized by Western political economy as inef-
ficient, uncreative, laborious, and often unable to produce a sizable surplus, the
subsistence mode of production emerges out of an alternative set of assumptions
concerning economic development. The goal of subsistence production is to max-
imize security, which, at times, includes but is not exclusively associated with the
accumulation of individual wealth (Altieri & Hecht, 1990). In precolonial Africa,
wealth was not synonymous with money or financial capital, but instead it was
linked with possessions, for example, land, seed stock, livestock, manufactured
goods, and so forth (Ayittey, 1991). Indigenous societies, therefore, remain highly
Densu 41

conscious of the ecological origins of goods and services exchanged between

individuals and communities. For this reason, a more accurate description of the
exchange of goods and services in indigenous societies would be ecological
exchange not economic exchange (Altieri & Hecht, 1990). Ecological exchange
has a twin focus, the reproduction of the human community and the maintenance
of biological diversity. The notion of ecological exchange is an extension of the
idea that nonhuman life-forms have intrinsic value beyond their use value to
human economies. African philosophy maintains that the most tangible expres-
sion of the creator is nature. Nature is the conduit through which humans compre-
hend how the universe functions, what the Minianka call Kle-kolo (the path of the
creator; Diallo & Hall, 1989). The Alusi for Ndi Igbo, the Orisa for the Yoruba, the
Ntrw for Ancient Kemet, the Nkisi for the Bakongo, the Vodun for the Fon, and so
forth, are all expressions of nature as sacred, yet concretely experienced, in the
day-to-day interactions between human beings and local ecologies. This also
expresses itself in the concept of totem. Among the Shona people of present-day
Zimbabwe, for instance, the mutupu (totem) is an animal that has a progenitorial
relationship with a given extended family. For the Shona, “most aspects of nature
are perceived as kin, endowed with consciousness and the power of ancestral spir-
its. Trees, animals, insects, and plants are all to be approached with caution and
consideration” (Taringa, 2006, p. 201). The Akan abusua (extended family) uses
the akyneboa in a similar fashion. In addition to the totem, indigenous African
societies also use the concept of taboo. According to Nehusi (2016), “the earliest
known representation of this system, in Afrika and in all humanity, is in the society
of Kemet” (p. 11). In ancient Kemet, taboo was associated with the concept bwt.
Among the Yoruba, eewo means “things forbidden” or “things not done” (Boteye,
2013). Taboos are the prohibition of certain activities that will disrupt or cause fis-
sions within the existing socioecological order. Taboos can be given to individuals,
families, or communities. Oftentimes taboos are linked to the consumption of cer-
tain foods, natural resources, and/or relationships to nonhuman life-forms. Shona
culture maintains, “that if one does not relate to sacred aspects of nature according
to prescribed taboos and restrictions the ancestors would be angry [kutsamwa]”
(Taringa, 2006, p. 205). Taboos are extended to entire ecosystems as well. This is
particularly true for forest systems. Within the African context, forests are per-
ceived as sacred storehouses of biodiversity and needed ecological resources. Use
of forest resources is managed by a number of taboos and prohibitions against

In traditional times, African people lived and dwelled in the midst of the forest.
The forest like mother earth was seen as a source of life. African people respected
and reverenced the plants in the forest. Not far away from African villages and
towns were sacred groves inhabited by sacred trees and abode of ancestral
guardian spirits. These groves were centers of biodiversity. (Ikeke, 2013, p. 347)
42 Journal of Black Studies 49(1)

Another expression of the earth-centered nature of indigenous African societ-

ies is the approach to the built environment. Given the culture’s emphasis on
maintaining social and ecological harmony, the built environment, that is,
homes, agricultural fields, market places, burial sites and monuments,
shrines, artisan work spaces, and so forth, are constructed using local natural
resources and local knowledge within the realm of local ecologies. According
to Charles Finch, “the material form of African civilization was subsumed by
nature” (Finch, 2007). This gave birth to a range of sustainable architectural
styles, community planning strategies, waste disposal methods, road systems,
and innovative modes of transportation. In addition, the built environment
was defined by a blend of psychospiritual and socioeconomic needs. The land
was both a source of individual and collective identity as well as the setting
in which the ethical and social dimensions of human growth and develop-
ment were understood and transmitted from one generation to the next.

In African tradition, the social order begins with the occupation of the land
inherited from the ancestor-founder of the lineage. This ancestral heritage is the
actual soil where the Africans are born and raised, grow, and organize their own
descent and immortality. This land is more than a birthplace, it is a living
environment, the total environment which has witnessed rituals sacralizing
birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, healing processes, and death. This
land is truly a spiritual universe. (Montilus, 1989, p. 33)

Within the indigenous African context, technological development, socioeco-

nomic exchange, and the built environment materialize, expand, contract,
and coexist within the ecological limits of the bioregion of a given indige-
nous community and what Western-trained ecologists call biocapacity. Every
bioregion has a unique ecology that sets rules and limits for the use of natural
resources and the exchange of energy. Human and nonhuman, animate and
inanimate life-forms extract resources, consume resources, and create waste.
The ability of all life-forms, within a given bioregion, to coexist and self-
reproduce is what can be described as ecological stability. Maintaining eco-
logical stability is a central feature of indigenous cultures in general and
African culture in particular. To summarize, the vast majority of precolonial
African societies approached development through Omenala, a complex of
ecologically centered, mutually supporting values, socioeconomic institu-
tions, and approaches to the built environment (see Figure 1).
Urbanization, in the European context, is the antithesis of Omenala. Its
historical origins can be associated with the rise of capitalism, the industrial
revolution, and the colonization of the indigenous world by Europe.
Philosophically speaking, it is an outgrowth of mechanistic thinking. It is an
Densu 43

Figure 1.  Omenala: African-centered ecophilosophy and political ecology


approach to the built environment and community planning predicated upon

an anthropocentric view of the universe and nature. At the heart of capitalism
is the singular logic of individual-wealth accumulation.
The objective of human development is for the individual to pursue his
self-interests unrestrained by the mandates of community and/or the “limita-
tions” of the natural environment. The notion of earth as Mother and nature
as an interconnected, living phenomenon under which human socioeco-
nomic activity must be subsumed is perceived as constraining to both the
creativity and freedom of the individual from the perspective of European
philosophy. Nature, from the viewpoint of an emerging, capitalist ethic and
epistemology, is nothing more than an inexhaustible pool of resources unde-
rutilized by European peasants and indigenous communities. Underutilization
is understood as the logical consequence of a “primitive” worldview that
sacralizes and has reverence for nature, yet, because of “ignorance” and the
dearth of technological development, is forever victimized by its power and
unmitigated influence. Western science becomes the “new way” of thinking
to overcome these obstacles. It supposedly emancipates the individual from
the constraints of religious ideas and nature and its “success is attributed to
such things as foresight, insight, or genius for improving the environment”
(Weiskel, 1987, p. 276). Western science deems the values and socioeco-
nomic practices of Omenala as contributing factors to underutilization and
44 Journal of Black Studies 49(1)

barriers to the full realization of human consciousness and the development

of industrial civilization. The advent of the concept of private property, that
is, the privatization of agricultural lands, forest resources, water, and so
forth, to replace the commons, is touted as an indispensable legal and eco-
nomic strategy to increase economic productivity and eliminate poverty in
the European countryside and among indigenous people in newly colonized
territories. The enslavement of African people is a product of this history.
Both nature and African people were considered raw materials for industry
and beneficiaries of European civilization.

The colonial revolution extracted native species from their ecological contexts
and shipped them overseas as commodities. It placed cultured European humans
above wild nature, other animals, and “beastlike savages.” (Merchant, 1989, p. 2)

The European, urban, built environment emerged as physical spaces to orga-

nize and institutionalize mass production and consumption. It is dependent
upon colonizing and absorbing the energy of the countryside in the form of
natural resources and human labor. Its growth and expansion are reliant on
the steady, increasing influx of people to serve as both workers and consum-
ers. Community planning, housing, the development of roads, the disposal of
waste, systems of transportation, production systems, and so forth, are shaped
by the mandates of affluence. The more a given community consumes, the
more valuable it is perceived by Western, industrial society. Consumption
habits are determined by the racialized, unequal distribution of wealth and
power. Those who have the capacity to consume more determine, to a large
extent, the spatial organization of urban centers. Relationships to the land
base are no longer defined by the psychospiritual, social, economic, and eco-
logical praxis that characterizes Omenala. Narrow, secular, racialized, eco-
nomic interests define them. The cultural and biological reproduction of
human communities, in concert with nature and the maintenance of biodiver-
sity, is replaced by an approach to development that circumscribes individual
and collective identity to the production and consumption of commodities in
a hierarchical fashion. “Humanness” is defined primarily by the capacity to
acquire more “things” in the name of improving one’s standard of living,
regardless of conflict of interest based on socioeconomic status. Ethnic, spiri-
tual, familial, artisanal, and ecological relationships are distorted and subor-
dinated to economic exchange relationships whose ultimate aim is to
accumulate wealth in the hands of European elites and their compradors in
former colonial territories. Everything is commodified and monetized for this
purpose. This requires the compartmentalization and disarticulation of the
most fundamental aspects of indigenous cultures and societies, that is, ka
bolo, socioeconomic production for life.
Densu 45

The roles that were once fulfilled by families and communities for free have been
“taken apart, function by function, and sold back to people, who missed the
things that these once provided. People have become purchasers of community
and care, rather than participants in it.” (Walker & Goldsmith, 1998, p. 217)

The European, urban, industrial environment is, quintessentially, motivated by

ka wari nyini, socioeconomic production for “wealth” accumulation (Kunnie,
2013). From the perspective of the Bakongo, European inspired, urban, indus-
trial economies are described as Tumba or Nzo, the pyramid/pile economy
(Bunseki Fu-Kiau, 2007). Within the Tumba economy, social and ecological
resources serve the interest of elites. The motion of the productive forces
moves progressively toward the summit of the pyramid where very few ben-
efit. Wealth is hoarded or “piled up,” out of reach for the majority of the com-
munity. Consequently, the Tumba economy is characterized by incessant
conflict because “the entire social body and its environment are in the service
of the few owners of the means of oppression and production” (Bunseki
Fu-Kiau, 2007, p. 65). The opposite of the Tumba economy is the Nkat’ a
ngongo, the horizontally spiral economic system. Unlike the Tumba economy,
the Nkat’ a ngongo, characteristic of indigenous African political economies,
is like a cylinder. Social and ecological resources are distributed horizontally.
It is characterized by what Fu-Kiau calls a “collectively accepted level of indi-
vidual accumulation (CALA)” (Bunseki Fu-Kiau, 2007, pp. 67-68). CALA is
symbolized by the Nkat’ a ngongo, a standard basket of goods that meets the
subsistence needs of Bakongo households (Bunseki Fu-Kiau, 2007). In other
words, each extended family’s consumption and production needs cannot
undermine the social or ecological basis for another extended family to meet
its needs. In the Nkat’ a ngongo economy, ka bolo is primary. This allows for
the redistribution of surplus through localized market activity and what
Western anthropologists have described as “gift economic exchange,” that is,
community rituals and/or festivals celebrating major life or historical events
that involve the nonmonetized exchange of socioeconomic resources.
To summarize, it is important to consider that Africana critical theory must
root itself in the ecophilosophy and political ecology of indigenous Africa if
it is to offer a sharper analysis and critique of European modernity and its
impact on African people in the contemporary world. Africana critical theory
must resist compartmentalization by recentering ecophilosophy as a common
thread weaving its way through all aspects of African cultural thought and
practice. This, in turn, will address some of the theoretical limitations that
Africana studies has inherited from the tradition of radical, Western political
46 Journal of Black Studies 49(1)

Omenala: Implications for New Areas of Inquiry and

Approaches to Africana Studies
An African-centered ecophilosophy and political ecology creates an
opportunity for Africana studies as a discipline to (a) discard the stereo-
type that it is strictly confined to the realms of the humanities and social
sciences and (b) expand its ideological contributions to social movements
and organizations attempting to address the contemporary problems of
African people (Tillotson & McDougal, 2013). Two important examples
are the Environmental Justice Movement (EJM) and the Black Food
Movement (BFM). EJM and BFM emerged during the latter half of the
Black Freedom Movement, 1972 to 1981. Initially, both were largely con-
cerned with the experiences of predominantly rural, African American
communities. The EJM sought to address the disproportionate incidences
of industrial waste facilities being placed in low-income communities of
color, consequently contributing to higher rates of cancer, endocrine, and
respiratory diseases. (Taylor, 2011) The BFM sought to challenge the rapid
loss of African American farmland through forced sales, the racist prac-
tices of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees, rural-to-
urban migration, and a genuine disinterest and disdain for farming because
of its historical linkages to slave labor (G. R. Grant, Wood, & Wright,
2012). Ideologically speaking, both the EJM and the BFM have grounded
their critiques, strategies, and tactics within the tradition of African
American liberalism. The U.S. state is perceived as, paradoxically speak-
ing, both the problem and solution. In the case of the EJM, solutions
include better oversight, protection, and community involvement with
environmental protection agencies. The BFM advocates for a more equi-
table distribution of farmer subsidies, loan programs, and greater access to
conventional agricultural markets. Both the EJM and the BFM lack, to
some degree, a cultural basis for their movement organizing. African-
descendant communities in the United States typically perceive both the
environment and farming as secondary to police brutality, income inequal-
ity, and overt racism. An African-centered ecophilosophy and political
ecology would contribute to expanding the contours of movement dis-
course by recentering the land question (Bandele & Myers, 2016). It would
demonstrate that both the exploitation of people and the exploitation of
nature are twin realities. In addition, it can provide the philosophical con-
text for African Americans to consider that personhood, collective identity,
and the natural environment are interconnected phenomena that form the
basis for group consciousness and genuine community development
(Tangwa, 2000).
Densu 47

The questions of environmental justice and land reform are not narrowly
confined to U.S. borders. They are, in fact, international issues and have impli-
cations for expanding Africana studies contributions to Pan-Africanism.
Critiques of industrial models of production, that is, conventional agriculture,
fossil fuel–based energy systems, Western-styled urbanization, and so forth,
are in order (Kunnie, 2013). For instance, it provides an opportunity and con-
text for Africana studies’ scholars in the areas of agriculture and development
studies to unearth and explore the ways that traditional agroecological knowl-
edge can be used to rebuild local food economies on both the African conti-
nent and in the African diaspora (Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa,
2016). Beyond agriculture, the fields of conservation biology, restoration ecol-
ogy, and bioremediation are important as well. Low-income, African-
descendant communities in the capitalist metropoles, Caribbean and African
nations in the Global South are most impacted by human-induced climate
change. The conservation and restoration of local ecosystems and biomes is
considered to be an important strategy to slow down and mediate the impact
of climate change. African-centered ecophilosophy, political ecology, and tra-
ditional ecological knowledge can play an important role in restoring forest
systems, water systems, agricultural lands, degraded wetlands, and bioreme-
diation of electronic and industrial waste, nonsensically imported from
Western countries by African elites to gain access to foreign currency. This
also provides an avenue to increase the number of students and scholars in
Africana studies in fields typically associated with the natural sciences. A
commitment to the innovation and production of green technologies, fusing
both African indigenous knowledge systems with Western ecotechnical
knowledge, should drive Africana studies’ curriculum development, applied,
and theoretical knowledge (Pope, Smith, Shacks, & Hargrove, 2011). This has
obvious implications for our survival as a discipline given the overemphasis
on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) within U.S. higher
education. This approach also has the capacity to advance the development of
indigenous African knowledge systems. No body of knowledge is without its
own potential for dogma. Although this discussion explores the positive
aspects of African-centered ecophilosophy and political ecology, weaknesses
do exist. One example is the notion that indigenous African socioecological
praxis is not always based on environmental consciousness, but fear of the
“unknown” and spiritual sanctions from the ancestors. Taringa argues,

In the light of this we can note three attitudes to nature. These are to maintain,
obey and act on it. The first two are related to sacred aspects of nature. They are
primarily based on fear of reprisal from powerful ancestral spirits. As we
mentioned in the discussions above the attitudes are one of placation appeal
48 Journal of Black Studies 49(1)

and coercion. Sacred aspects are not indifferent. They are morally significant.
They care. They are involved in conduct. So they constitute a system of moral
consequences. This is why respect (for nature) is based on fear rather than on
environmental consciousness. (p. 211)

In this regard, we must consider the wisdom of Cabral. A return to the source
requires both an internal critique and assessment of the positive and negative
aspects of indigenous African culture in addition to a critical assessment of
the lessons learned from African contact with European cultural hegemony
and exploitation (Cabral, 1973).
In the realm of political economy, an African-centered ecophilosophy pro-
vides a theoretical basis for reconsidering economic development in the
African world. It critiques “catch up development” strategies, in both capital-
ist and socialist forms, because of their commitment to the fallacy of perpet-
ual growth rooted in the unlimited extraction and consumption of natural
resources (P. I. Grant, 2009). It calls for a “new anthropology” of economic
systems that abandons the polarized capitalist versus socialist typology. It
prioritizes the maintenance of biodiversity and the sociocultural reproduction
of human communities as the main goals of economic development.
Finally, an African-centered ecophilosophy and political ecology will
position Africana studies to expand its understanding and critique of science,
technology, and society. African culture’s emphasis on biocentrism provides
a piercing analysis of Western modernity, science, and technological prog-
ress. It situates itself within the broader context of the indigenous call to
decolonize science. It moves beyond the tendency, within Africana studies, to
discuss the “African origins” of science and technology while ignoring con-
temporary problems of alienation, inequality, and development. It inspires
Africana studies’ scholars to answer the following questions: How should we
understand and interact with nature? What, on a material level, do we “need”
to develop genuinely as human beings? How should socioecological wealth
be distributed? What role should technology play in society and what values
should govern its development?
In conclusion, the absence of an African-centered ecophilosophy and
political ecology within Africana studies suggests that there is a relative dis-
regard, among Africana studies’ scholars and social movement activists, for
environmental and land-based issues. This is problematic for a number of
reasons. At the same time, however, it is understandable given European
ideological hegemony over environmental justice and sustainable develop-
ment discourse.

This ecohesitation has been conditioned in part by African suspicion of the green
discourses emanating from metropolitan Western centers. Also, African experiences
Densu 49

of nature, it is often argued, are different and other. Indeed, there is good cause to
worry that environmentalism and ecologism are new forms of dominating
discourses issuing from Western or First World centers. And the suspicion that
environmentalism in all its various shades of green (including red greens) is a white
thing is borne out by the explosive growth of research and participation in it by
white scholars in and outside Africa. (Slaymaker, 2001, p. 133)

Africana studies must address these problems appropriately to ensure that

African people have agency and are not simply following the lead of “green
ideologues” external to African communities. We must find ways to reacquaint
African people with our earth-based sensibilities, philosophies, and socioeco-
logical practices. In doing so, we will unearth ancient tools to address the most
pressing problems facing African communities today. Rediscovering these tools
requires a deeper commitment to the study of African indigenous knowledge
systems. As Zegeye and Vambe argue “Africa needs to evolve its own language
of (sustainable) development” (Zegeye & Vambe, 2006). Given the depth of
African culture, there is a wealth of knowledge and wisdom to draw upon if we
are willing to use it as a foundation for praxis and not merely as a reference.

Author’s Note
The Faculty Research Awards Program in the School of Graduate Studies and
Research at Florida A&M University supported the research for this study.

In addition, I thank Tiffany Austin and Marva Hinton for assistance in editing the article.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.

The author disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article: The Faculty Research Awards Program
(Project No. FRAP 2016-17) in the School of Graduate Studies and Research at
Florida A&M University supported the research for this study.

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Author Biography
Kwasi Densu is an assistant professor of political science and African American stud-
ies at Florida A&M University. He does research in the areas of Africana land-based
social movements, sustainability, indigenous knowledge, environmental justice, and
Africana political thought.