The rising global interest in community rights provides a new point of analysis for many African countries on several matters. Certain issues previously classified as solely belonging to the human rights conversation, when examined critically, actually belong within the ambit of community rights. Advocating for community rights will empower African societies with the agency to collectively decide what they wish to accept or reject as part of their socialization process and evolving culture, at any given point in time.
Western individualism and the concept of human rights are closely linked and can be traced to the same historical processes. They are twin outcomes of one reproductive process that defines the person as being in competition with others who are out to destroy them. However, if human rights simply mean the rights of a human being to exist and be treated fairly, then it is a concept that is traditional to Africa. Africans value the life of every member of their community.
The concept of human rights, as currently propagated through Western machinery, holds a different meaning. In the Western interpretation of human rights, the individual exists in a vacuum and has no respect for the consequences of their actions on the collective consciousness of the community. As Professor Claude Ake notes, “[the] Western notion of human rights lacks concreteness, it ascribes abstract rights to abstract beings.”
In African culture, on the contrary, the community is all about building harmony and giving meaning to life. Community is, therefore, considered an essential aspect of an individual’s existence. The person is born into the community, which means that they will always be a part of it. Ubuntu is a way of life that is based on interdependence, communalism, being sensitive to others, and being there for them, as well as expecting them to be there for you. In African traditional philosophy, the community is the guiding principle around which life is organized and lived.
The emphasis on individualism and the Western interpretation of human rights, brought about by the global trend towards neo-liberalism, are quickly eroding this community-based orientation to life and human rights. Yet, as humans, we can only fight nature at our own peril. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben describes how “trees of the same species growing in the same stand are connected to each other through their root systems.” In this manner, the author sees trees as “social beings” who exchange nourishment with their own kind and, in certain cases, rivals. When several trees work together, they form an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a lot of water, and creates a lot of humidity. It is usually in such community-based relationships that trees survive to be extremely ancient. Humans, like trees, are able to survive and thrive only within the deeply enriching complexities found in diverse relationships within a functional community.
According to the foremost philosopher and cultural theorist, Kwame Athony Appiah, Africans can and should work towards understanding and imbibing the positive values of the modern global world while still maintaining the values and customs that make them different, such as community rights. For Appiah, community rights should not be allowed to obscure the reality that there are individual issues that transcend family, friendship, or even citizenship. That realization would mean that an appropriate premium must be placed on the lives of each person and the habits and beliefs that give them meaning. Yet, within this understanding, it remains central to protect the idea of community and what it stands for, as it makes life meaningful and worth living.
Among the rights listed and generally accepted as community rights is the right of community members to define their own identity. If the overwhelming cultural, social-psychological, religious and even widely accepted historical leanings of a community gravitate towards a particular orientation, communities have every right, according to this interpretation, to seek to build their identity around that orientation. Many in the West, although strong supporters of individualistic human rights, tilt towards community rights when the occasion demands.
Take, for instance, the issue of gender reassignment surgeries being performed on minors in the United States. Despite the claims that it is a human right for minors to undergo surgeries to change their gender of birth, many communities are rallying against doctors and scientists who are pushing that theory. For example, on the 27th of March, the Idaho State Senate passed a ban on such gender-affirming care for minors. As a community, most citizens of the state of Idaho are not convinced that performing gender-reassignment surgeries on minors is acceptable. In other states, such as California, these gender-affirming care surgeries are accessible to even 13-year-olds.
As a community, many citizens across African countries hold certain views about governance, social organization and other aspects of human existence and identity. When viewed in the light of community rights, these community resistances in Africa, like in the case of Idaho, should be considered and engaged with respectfully. Slamming sanctions and insulting a community for not immediately taking on an unfamiliar concept is humiliating and insensitive. Change is a process. Harassing the majority of a community into mainstreaming an idea that it presently doesn’t believe in comes with heavy economic, political, health, social, spiritual and demographic consequences for the present and future existence of that community. It is tyrannical and expresses the deepest disrespect for their collective humanity and intellect.
Introducing an idea takes a lot of effort, time and reorientation. The process of a paradigm shift must be constructive, meaningfully engaging and understanding of existing realities. The rest of the world will have to respect the community rights of hundreds of millions of Africans in their decision on what they, for the time being, wish to accept or not accept. If Westerners are staunchly convinced of the reality and excellence of their ideas, then they must follow the rules of engagement when interacting with Africans. The community rights of Africans regarding any idea must be respected.
Communities across Africa, for their part, will ensure that they are constantly building knowledge and growing based on what is inherently beneficial. This is where research and openness to diverse voices within communities become essential.
As communities across Africa learn to build themselves up through knowledge generation and promoting conversations around community rights, it is expected that community rights advocacy will define the next level of interaction between Africans and the rest of the world.