The Emerging ‘African’ self

Jj Akinlade
11 min readJun 11, 2020


Image by: Josiah Mackey

Part 2 of 4 in -WEIRD Diaspora and Responsible ‘Return’-


In Part 1 I set out the framing of this exploration through the lenses of systems thinking, cultural evolution and my own first hand lived experience as a UK born African diaspora. I introduce the concept of WEIRD cultures and some of the ways that they diverge from the majority of other global cultural worldviews. I then go on to map some of the dynamics I see occurring and emerging between local African populations (with a focus on Ghana and Nigeria) and WEIRD diaspora, visiting and settling.

Seeing Beyond The Surface Of Self

Symbols and Archetypes are useful tools in sense-making. They help us reduce the complexity of a situation and establish some common ground for communication.
But, it’s important to not get too transfixed by these mental simulations that we construct, to the point that we’re unable to perceive the underlying nuances and changing nature of what we’re experiencing. This kind of ‘essentialism’ can obscure deeper truths about a situation.

We can take an example from a word like Love.
I may use it to describe how I’m feeling in many different situations, yet there can be a big difference in the actual underlying felt experience of those occasions.
I vividly remember the first time I ever tried a Falafel wrap, at what has since remained my favourite falafel shop in Camberwell, London. I finished mine before most of my friends had gotten halfway done with theirs. “Wow, you must have like Falafel.” one friend said. “I love it!” I replied, before proceeding to order another and devour that one just as fast and enthusiastically.

I also very vividly remember meeting my youngest sibling, my little sister for the first time. I was holding her in my arms while she slept, she then gave a big yawn, opened her eyes and looked right into mine. I followed with “Welcome to the world little one, I Love you very much!”

Although I really do love Falafel wraps, the first experience just didn’t have anywhere near the same feeling of deep intensity and complexity as the second with my sister.

The word love itself, is not the embodied experience.

FUN FACT: When officiating my older sisters wedding, I actually started my speech with “Love is a terrible word… at least in English.”

Interestingly — and maybe tellingly — English has just the one word for love, while some languages have far more. Sanskrit has 96.
Likewise it’s important to see that while the word ‘African’ is useful for pointing at some underlying common patterns, it is also really a noun.

For now I’ll set aside discussions about the artificial invention of ‘Africa’ by colonial and oppositional movements. However for those wishing for a deeper dive into this subject I recommend The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge by V.Y. Mudimbe and a more recent paper exploring Mudimbe’s work by fabricio de silva where he extends this notion to the concepts of ‘Latin America’ and ‘The Orient’.

The increase of intra-relations between ‘African’ cultures could be seen as both a process that clarifies the signal of what is meant by ‘African’, and as a way of scattering and transforming that same archetypal form and narrative of that ‘Africanness’.

‘African’ isn’t just some ancient phenomena or identity marker as it’s often conceptualised to be. I can see several potential reasons why this distortion occurs.
Firstly, due to the African continent’s role as the cradle of humanities emergence within the Earth.
Secondly, due to the presence of the remains of ancient civilisations such as Kemet, (present day Egypt) which had significant cultural influences on ancient Greek philosophy and society, thus on the dominant civilisation of today.
Thirdly, due to racist tropes of Africans as primitive and ‘undeveloped’ people.
All of these ideas contribute to the notion of ‘Africa’ being a static object, frozen in time.

Yet in reality, ‘Africa’ is a dynamically evolving present day living system of countless intraacting cultures, populations and bioregions.

Here I can use a micro example of myself and the ways I too morph through dimensions of spacetime.
While in some ways I may be the ‘same person’ as my younger self, I am now also a distinctly larger, more complex being who has grown through various phases and stages of development. Along the way increasing my depth of knowledge and range of experiences, that don’t simply accumulate, but constantly interact with one another.

When I think of the difference between myself now and myself during my first visit to Nigeria 5 years ago, A lot has changed.
I’ve learnt more about myself, more about Nigeria, about the world and various frameworks for making sense of it. I’ve thought long and hard about the kinds of relationships I’d like to have with the land and people. I’ve put to rest past perspectives that my present self perceives as naive in hindsight.

This used to be my arm
This used to be my arm

I fully expect that in another 5 years I would look back on my current self and this writing and see plenty of holes and blindspots.
If I didn’t, I would know there to be something very wrong with my capacity to learn and grow. My present self is in constant relationship with my past, through memory and my future, through intent. This leads to an ever emerging sense of ‘self’ with fluctuating degrees of agency, relative to the simultaneously co-evolving environmental field of interaction that I inhabit.
We - people, cultures and whole bioregions - are processes, not objects.

“This too shall pass” - yet this moment matters.

Systems of Slime & Clues of Cosmic Consciousness

When 2 or more complex systems - like cultures - interact, they don’t simply become a combination of parts from the 2 seemingly distinct systems. From the interactions of the system parts (or sub-systems) come new relationships, which themselves become parts of the larger system.
Interactions themselves, interact with other interactions giving birth to something that is more than the sum of its parts
. Something novel that never existed before.

This phenomena is called emergence, and it occurs in all living systems. Even in many complex self-organising systems, that many (particularly within Weird cultures) cannot agree whether or not to extend the definitions of ‘conscious’ or ‘living’ , such as Viruses.
Emergence even occurs in non-organic self organising systems like snowflakes and Tornados.

Self organising systems come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and flavours. Slime molds are extremely interesting organisms that can live freely as single cells that grow by multiplying their nuclei, or can combine together to form multicellular organisms. They are highly mobile, have almost 720 biological sexes, can heal themselves and can even farm bacteria as a food source for later — oh and they do all this despite not having brains.

The best layed tracks of Mold and Men

As Jeremy Narby explores in his fascinating book ‘Intelligence in Nature’ Slime molds baffle many scientists, who previously believed that some kind of brain-like structure was necessary for many of their achievements.They became stars when an experiment led by Japanese researcher Toshiyuki Nakagaki of Hokkaido University demonstrated the astonishing capabilities of slime molds to solve a maze in a way that reorganised the Japanese rail system more efficiently than human engineers had been able too.

Narby states “We struggle over words when the slime mold solves the maze, because our concepts don’t fit the data. It’s not that nature lacks intelligence, but that our own concepts do.”

It just so happens that slime molds also played a key role in the very recent discovery (at least in the eyes of modern science) of the largest structure yet observed in the universe — the cosmic Web.
The cosmic Web is a structure composed of dark matter that spans the entire universe connecting and pulling together its distant galaxies through filaments of this gravity exerting mysterious invisible material.
Without it Galaxies and Stars — including our sun — could never form, thus without it there would be no life as we know it.
Researchers used AI to mimic the behaviour of slime moulds, fed the AI on a 3D map of the known matter in the universe and let it do its thing.
Sure enough, wherever the computer model predicted filaments of dark matter, they detected it out in/in outer space.

When Sci-fi becomes Sci-fact

What does this mean?
Well one thing it means, is that a substance that accounts for about 85% of the mass of the universe (25% of the whole universe including visible and dark energy by current measurements), seems to organise itself in just the same way as a conscious living decentralised single celled organism.

So an invisible web, spanning and penetrating the deepest depths of the universe that is vital in establishing conditions for life.
Hmm… to some, this may sound familiar.
Many indigenous worldviews speak of the concept of ‘The Web of life’ — a decentralised life force throughout the universe. These worldviews see consciousness and agency — of differing degrees — as an inherent property of their world systems, of which we are all — Einstein’s to atoms — intimately relating parts.

This way of seeing the world — when compared to dualistic dead matter perspectives — also has a significant effect of conceptions of the self — of individual and collective identities.
The human body can be seen as a living system of nested living systems we call organs. Those organs along with their functional behaviors, emerge from the coherent interactions of billions of living cells, that are themselves complex living systems.
In fact some estimate that from half to the majority of the cells that comprise what humans call ‘our’ bodies, are actually micro-organisms that contain no human DNA, that have symbiotically (for the most part) colonised ‘us’. An example of this would be the microbiome in our stomachs that helps us digest our food and even influence our mood.

The little things count (in the trillions)

Humans also participate in self-organisation through social behaviour, such as families and communities. These communities too, are complex living systems.
A central concept within The Yoruba philosophy of Ifá, is the development of character or ‘Iwa’.
“Iwa is a set of qualities that make somebody distinctively interesting or attractive, especially somebody’s qualities of mind and feelings, somebody’s reputation”.
The ‘character’ of a person cannot simply be reduced to the sum of their organ functions, just as ‘community spirit’ isn’t simply reducible to the actions of its individual members.
It’s in the relationships both within and between that ‘character’ and ‘community spirit’ emerge.
This conception of self is expressed through such African sayings such as the Zulu “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu” “People are people, because of other people.”
As well as “Show me your friends and I’ll show you who you are.”

The dualistic and hyper individualistic European, “Cogito, ergo sum” — I think therefore I am of René Descartes, could be adapted to ‘We relate, therefore we are’, to reflect this same underlying transpersonal principle of interdependent co-emergence.
This would of course be a significant departure from Descartes original argument — but this is my point — because his philosophy was based in a framework of false duality.

When we consider that this statement became a founding principle in ‘Western’ philosophy, is the abundance of alienation and dischord with the rest of our natural world such a surprising situation?

Brutal Butterflies & Fractal Fences

The ‘Butterfly’ of Deterministic Chaos

The synthetic sense of separation, so central within worldviews of WEIRD cultures, has rippled outward forming waves of isolation. Some have even taken to calling it a loneliness epidemic, affecting around 50% of the U.S population and resulting in the UK being voted ‘loneliness capital of Europe’ in 2014.
Like butterfly wings birthing isolating storms of untold separation and destruction.
Metaphysics matters.
A lot.

Seemingly small things — like thought patterns of imagined separation — often have ways of repeating and reflecting themselves at a range of scales and across a range of contexts.

There’s even an approximate self similarity in the patterns of some physiological, sociological and ecological self-organising systems at differing scales. This is a phenomena known as fractality and is explored in depth in Geoffrey West’s book ‘Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies’.
This is another case where it’s important to not mistake the map for the territory. Not all networks exhibit this kind of scale-free dynamic and even within those that do, the chaos of reality diverges from their neatly plotted order of even our best maps and models.
Yet this doesn’t detract from their usefulness when used appropriately.

These self similar fractal patterns are also abundantly prevalent throughout indigenous African Art, Architecture and spiritual practices — such as Ifá.
As has been documented by Ron Eglash in his book African Fractals: Modern computing and indigenous design.
He explores how these insights into aspects of fractal patterns found throughout nature, have been instrumental in the development of the complex binary algebra used in the creation of the very same digital computer technology that makes it possible for you to read these very words on this screen.

It’s my suggestion that we are yet to fully comprehend and integrate the immense value within many indigenous cultures, practices and worldviews, in navigating potential pathways for future flourishing. We must take great care that attempts to do so do not amount to the kind of extractive pillaging that has occurred far too many times before.
They must not simply be co-opted and put to the use of enabling the continuation of the life denying and exploitative operations of the current dominant capitalist world system.

Instead, through engaging in these delicate processes with ambitious humility, there is the potential of co-creating worlds and ways, that - although will never be ‘perfect - could potentially be a hell of a lot healthier than what we have today.

Part 3 ‘The Indispensability of Indigeneity’ will be taking a deeper look at what indigeneity actually means, and why it is so vital to comprehend and embody.