mai 21, 2024

“If you become a monster, the fight is not worth it”: An interview with Dr. Ba

11 min read
If you become a monster the fight is not worth | StirlingPhilosophy

Mouhamadou El Hady Ba is an associate professor of Philosophy at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal. Professor Hady Ba is also the head of the Philosophy Department and Cheikh Anta Diop University’s Teachers College and the former Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Educational Systems. Dr. Ba describes himself as a philosopher of science, although he has written papers in political philosophy. He is also a founding member of the think tank Ipode, which is a progressive, independent, and Pan-African think tank that generates and disseminates innovative policy solutions in Senegal and across Africa. The mission of Ipode is to propose, generate expertise, foster public discourse, advance methodologies across all policy realms, and engage in the reorganization of progressive and humanistic ideas.

I sat with Dr. Ba on November 27th, 2023 via Zoom to discuss his insights into contemporary politics as a father and philosopher living in Senegal.

Thank you again for taking the time to sit down with me today. To begin, please tell me a little about what you consider your primary intellectual and political work in and beyond the university.

I’m an academic in Senegal right now, even though I’m affiliated with UConn. I am an academic and a philosopher. I did work in political philosophy, but I consider myself a philosopher of science. I worked as a unionist in Senegal, as I led the union at the main university in Senegal. Doing that, I worked with the government, policymakers, and the authorities at our university. Because our university is a public university, you will negotiate either with policymakers at the national level or with the president of the university, depending on what you are negotiating for. For example, when we were negotiating the retirement package, we worked with the office of the prime minister, not with the president of the university. This is because academics are considered civil servants here in Senegal, which is a tricky case. They are paid by the university, but the money comes from the government. The idea is that, given that we have strong laws protecting academic freedom, the government can’t pay us directly. The law outlines how academics are the only civil servants who can and should be vocal about political problems. Therefore, the head of the university pays us, but of course, we negotiate with the government. In other words, you negotiate with the government, even though it’s the university that pays you for your work as an intellectual and academic in Senegal. Given that I am this very special sort of civil servant, I must be a good citizen by discussing political problems arising in the country.

Is this also a civil duty for the students, or is discussing political problems arising in the country more the responsibility of professors?

The idea is that the university is a community that has a special duty to seek and tell the truth. Professors do not have restrictions in terms of speech. In Senegal, all civil servants have a devoir de reserve (duty of discretion), except for university professors. There is actually a law that has been voted on to enshrine and protect the freedom of speech of academics. The students, of course, are members of the university, and they are protected by the same laws that protect the professors. Besides, they are not civil servants and are not bound by the devoir de reserve.

Your philosophical work is not primarily focused on race, but race seems to remain relevant to it. What attracted you to the particular foci of your research? How did questions of race or of being an African or Senegalese scholar inform and/or intrude in that work?

As I said, I consider myself an epistemologist and I used to be a very hard-headed scientist. During my undergrad years, I worked at the frontier of physics and philosophy. What happened is that when you are an academic in Senegal, there are some inescapable problems. For example, you have questions about underdevelopment. Why are we a poor country? How do you escape the system in which you find yourself? The problems of poverty, the problem of democracy, all these you can’t escape. One point of contention, given that I was a philosopher of science was about the epistemology of the Global South. Supposedly all the knowledge that exists in my environment is not scientific. What then is the status of this knowledge? These are questions I wouldn’t have confronted if I had stayed in France. If I had stayed in France or if I had gone to the United States immediately after my PhD., I would have continued studying cognitive science and all this stuff, but I wouldn’t have worked on these questions. But being in Dakar there are these debates that I couldn’t escape, and I worked on.

Black subordination is common in the political and social realms of Western societies. How is this subordination similar and different in African politics, in terms of the continued presence of colonization? How would you describe the nature of subordination or Black subordination in contemporary Senegal?

Senegal is supposed to be an independent country. At first, you do not notice coloniality because you just say, okay, we are an independent country, we have elections, we elect our president, we have an independent political system. If the country is not functioning, it’s because we are just not competent. That’s the first way of seeing things. But then when you analyze what’s happening, you see that there is a stratification of Senegal’s economy such that it is still under the tutelage of France. Additionally, there are these treaties that exist between France and Senegal and some of these African countries. You have the fact that our currency is still guaranteed and controlled by the French Central Bank. The French Central Bank has preempted the right to raw materials that exist in Senegal. In all these African countries, you will notice that colonialism is very much present even sixty years after independence. It has become normalized that we have the French military right here in Senegal, not far from where I live. Part of the reason why it has been normalized is because they have always been around. There is no justification for their presence. For example, in some key parts of the administration, you will have French civil servants working at the highest level and “advising” the Ministry of Finance, for example. It doesn’t make sense because we have perfectly fine people who graduated from whatever institution these advisers graduated from. What do we need advisers for? The intricacies and the entanglement between the African government, our higher civil service, and the French is something that you can’t justify. It’s just that colonization is still very much present. This is something that you don’t see at first, but that exists. That’s one of the things that you must confront if you are an intellectual.

Like you, I am West African and Muslim. Unlike you, I grew up primarily in the United States. Speaking as both a professor and a father, what actions and orientations should I, along with my peers, take to positively acknowledge and embrace my racial identity development?

What language do you speak?

Bambara, and I fully understand French but struggle to speak it.

Origin is not destiny. You grew up in the United States, so I suppose you are an American, but you have this culture, Mandingo culture, that you can embrace. In embrace, I mean you are free, but to me, it’s something rich. There are good things in this culture and there is also stuff you can evaluate and reject. I have two daughters. In the United States, we spoke English, so they came back to Senegal speaking English and Fulani. My oldest daughter now speaks French, but no longer speaks very much English. I am also raising them as Muslims. But of course, it’s their choice as they reach adulthood to choose whatever they want to be. That’s something very important about us as human beings: we choose our destiny. We should not consider that because we come from somewhere, we are doomed to stay there. It must be an independent and very conscious choice.

I did not visit my family’s native country until the age of 19. It was such an eye-opening and enriching experience because I gained a different perspective of the world around me by simply observing the culture and values.

The relationships people in some African countries cultivate and the way they build a world together are very important to me. For example, during COVID-19, the reflex here was not to protect the economy but to protect the people, people first. This is very important, even the corrupt and rich elite didn’t react egoistically but with solidarity, trying first and foremost to take care of human life. These are very important values that we can bring to the world.

You have taken on significant leadership roles, both in your union and in your department. Why is it necessary to include attention to self-preservation when undertaking challenging political work, especially anti-racist work? How can we effectively include self-preservation while also taking real action against racism and other forms of injustice?

For me, it’s very, very important to self-preserve because, if you don’t do that, you won’t be able to do the work. Social problems, like discrimination, racism, and all this stuff, what they try to do is to dehumanize you. Humanity is not just being but being a happy, joyful person. To me, that’s the epitome of humanity. When you are doing this work, you need to be happy. You should find joy and peace in the fact that you are trying to change the world to reaffirm humanity. If you do not find that joy, you will lose your humanity during the fight. Therefore, it’s important to preserve what make you human. Your humanity, your family, your friends, your capacity to see other people as human beings, even when they do not behave like human beings. It’s very important to see them as human beings because otherwise, you lose your own humanity. There is a saying by Friedrich Nietzsche, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.” In other words, if you become a monster, the fight is not worth it.

In the United States and Western Europe, Black politics is often considered a form of minority group politics. Is there an equivalent challenge in Senegal, of belittling the national, global, or historical value of studying one’s own people’s ideas and actions?

What happens in Senegal is that they transpose what comes from France. They analyze problems using tools and frameworks that are relevant for France but are not relevant for us. If you try to develop something very original, it’s no longer actually useful. If we try to use our frameworks, we are labeled as “not sophisticated.” This is what colonization does to you because you devalue knowledge stemming from your culture. This leads to you using tools that are developed outside your culture, that are sometimes developed against you. They are developed to destroy, as they are developed in a society that has values that are not compatible with your form of life. Politically it’s pretty hard to embrace cultural ideas that do not perpetuate colonization.

Would you say most of this is impacted by French involvement in political and social life?

Yeah, it is impacted by French implication, but also by the fact that most of the elite for a very long time have been educated in France. For example, if you take my professors, they all went to France immediately after high school. They did their undergrad and graduate studies in France. If you take my generation, I went to France at the age of 26. My friends completed their PhD.s at various universities. Some of them went to France, South Africa, and the United States. A friend of mine even did his PhD. in Burkina Faso and in Senegal. There is this diversity of provenance, which makes the intellectual life richer, as it is constantly changing. But it used to be that every bright Senegalese went to France after high school and stayed there for five to ten years. That is where they would have their formative years and come back to lead the country. This was very prominent for the elite, but this is no longer the case, which is a very good thing. I believe that’s why we are seeing more and more people asking for the end of all the influence of France.

Political exclusion is a recurrent theme in Black political thought. How do we continue to see this and is it possible to combat it?

I can respond in two ways. I will consider specifically what’s happening in Senegal and then I will generalize. If you look at what’s happening in Senegal, you will have people trying to be sophisticated by using concepts from abroad. There is self-marginalization, there is also a pervasive devaluation of our own experience by some of us. Most of us are Black and you would think that we would just develop our theories. But you have this tendency to try to emulate what’s happening elsewhere, to use concepts developed elsewhere. But we live in an anti-Black world, concepts developed elsewhere mostly stem from an anti-Black framework. The result of this influence game is that you end up with people living here who did their PhD.s and all their careers here, but who weirdly exhibit anti-Black mindsets. That’s the first thing. The second thing is, even if you live and work here, you need money to do research. Sometimes the money comes from abroad and it comes embedded with scientific and social interests that are not ours. This also is a way of having anti-blackness permeate our countries. Those who finance the research programs have interests that are detrimental to our societies and/or indifferent to the problems that we should be interested in. The fact that we have this marketization of ideas from countries with resources gives power to anti-Black ideas.

A Black person in academia can develop his own research agenda, but it does not go far without funding. If you are in the United States, you have some very famous Black intellectuals who have all the resources to create centers and all this stuff about Black study. But if you read the work that’s being produced, it can be somewhat irrelevant. On the flip side, you can have some other Black intellectuals, who are doing revolutionary work. Given the structure of research in the United States, the revolutionary work won’t receive much funding. This leads to that person being isolated.

The problem for me is, can you create a community of scholars even if you don’t have the money to do so? Because if you are doing revolutionary work, it will be very difficult for you to receive funding. But if you want to do revolutionary work, you need to have a community of scholars. For example, with the CPA, with Lewis Gordon, and all these people affiliated with the Caribbean Philosophical Association, they don’t have money from big institutions and such, and they are still doing the work of producing revolutionary work. To me, that’s very important and inspiring.

All right, well thank you. That was my last question. Do you have any final thoughts?

This was a very interesting experience. So thank you for the opportunity.

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Rehana Konate

Rehana Konate is a senior at the University of Connecticut studying Political Science with an Individualized Major in Crime, Law, and Justice. She is extremely passionate about crime, race, and mass incarceration in the United States. Through her studies, she is analyzing whether she wants to practice in the fields of legal reform, international, or humanitarian law. Her goal is to advocate for voices ignored and silenced in society.