African Identity

Chief Dr. Daryl

This paper was presented on 4/27/12 at Kent State University conference “Slavery, Colonialism & African Identities in the Atlantic World”.

Oten Mwen: A Community-Individual Construct to the Pedagogy of African Studies

Daryl M. Peavy


A re-thinking of the importance of indigenous belief systems pre-1870’s in the study of Africa Studies could shed new light on the discipline.

This paper examines the need for the application of the community-individual model in understanding the African identity in African Studies Programs at Ohio’s public universities.

The individual psyche in Benin kingdom, Nigeria is not based on the Western construct. It encompasses the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of the individual, as well as the community. The indigenous view of history lies within the framework of a community-individual psyche. The indigenous holistic approach to the community-individual could give a more in-depth insight into African worldview.

Within the worldview are several African universals; God Almighty, sub-gods, spirits, ancestors, divine kings, elder reverence and familial bonds.

Otem mwen (My family) encompasses the nuclear, extended, authoritative and ancestral members of the family and community. Each member exerts an influence on the other members with clearly defined roles. These dynamics lead to a communal awareness that can have positive or negative results upon the individual, depending on the circumstances.

Most undergraduate programs in African Studies fail to include a course on the community-individual model.

Most theoretical models for African Studies originate out of interdisciplinary programs. This leads to a Eurocentric approach.

Can interdisciplinary programs in African studies provide a correct model for the understanding of an African identity?

A more thorough look at the community-individual construct will have a dynamic affect on the pedagogy of African Studies.

This paper analyzes the African community-individual model in relation to the African identity. The African ethnic group that I include as an example of the community-individual model is the Edo people of Benin kingdom, an ethnic group located in Edo state, Nigeria. I explore how the community-individual model is essential to understanding the African identity, and take a look at how this TYPE OF model is not the focal point of most undergraduate African Studies courses, TO THEIR DETRIMENT.

All too often, the approach to African Studies and identity at many universities is, by default, focused on a Eurocentric theoretical model. This is accomplished through interdisciplinary programs that analyze Africa through their host departments’ eyes.

This Eurocentric bird’s eye view usually focuses on diversity and dis-unity of ethnic groups and their isolation from a universal African identity. Few universities go in-depth into a community-individual model or analysis of the African universal theoretical approach in their coursework. Still fewer offer an introductory course on African identity through an African Studies department. Although, literature on the community-individual model exists, many programs fail to address it in detail, because of a failure to understand its importance.  African identity is important from a diaspora perspetive because it is the first step in understanding the African American.

African identity is a composite or corporate identity of community and individual and neither stands alone.

The African identity stems out of what can be called the African world view. The African world view encompasses a holistic approach to understanding humanity and the cosmos. Within the world view are a multitude of interconnections and interactions between; cosmos, high god, lesser  gods (indigenous religion), spirits, ancestors, vital life force, divine kings, elders and familial bonds.

At the core of the African world view is the community-individual model. Across the nations of North, South, East, West and Central Africa, the nuclear and extended family, as well as the community, remain of vital importance to personal identity.

Throughout Africa, there are a number of references to the importance of community to the individual’s identity. In South Africa, the Zulu maxim, “umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person through other persons) or Ubuntu (a Zulu word) describes the philosophy of the communal-individual model (Shutte,1993, p. 46), to the concept of humanity.

Mbiti (1970), an East African, describing the community-individual model, states that “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.” (p. 4)

These are just a few of the many African dictums that refer to the community-individual model by succinctly illustrating the ontology, philosophy and epistemology of the African universal identity.

At the heart of the community-individual model is the traditional family. Otem mwen (my family), a Benin kingdom term, encompasses the nuclear, extended, authoritative and ancestral members of the family and community (Peavy 2010). Each member exerts an influence on the other members with clearly defined roles that continue after death. These dynamics leads to a highly sensitized communal awareness that can have positive or negative results upon the individual depending on the circumstances. The individual does not stand solo as some sort of isolated being.

The theory of the community-individual model extends to the political, religious, legal, social, and educational policies.

The need for understanding the community-individual model in relation to African identity as a model of pedagogy is important, because it is diametrically opposed to the recognized European ontology of identity of self. In other words, the Eurocentric model cannot and should not be imposed on African identity because it does not effectively translate the African concept of self.

Menkiti (1984) sums up the difference between the African community-individual model and idea of self and the Western Existentialism view as follows:

In the light of the foregoing observations, I take it then that the African view of human personhood and the Existentialist view should not be conflated . Even though both views adopt a dynamic, non-static approach to the problem of definition of human self-hood, the underpinning metaphysical assumptions diverge significantly. Above all, whereas in the African understanding human community plays a crucial role in the individual’s acquisition of full personhood, in the Sartrean existentialist view, the individual alone defines the self, or person, he is to become. Such collectivist insistences as we find in the African world-view are utterly lacking in the Existentialist tradition. And this difference in the two approaches is not accidental. Rather it arises because there is at bottom a fundamental disagreement as to what reality is all about (p. 179).

It is a miscalculation for African Studies Programs to not take note of the difference between the two approaches. The African self is inseparable from the community, as well as the cosmos.

In regards to African identity, Kochalumchuvattil (2010) states “The self is defined in relation to a larger social or ethnic group which encompasses not only the living but also the dead, the spirits, and the unborn (p.112).

In this method of community integration, the self or person is developed into a functional community member.

According to Menkiti (1984):

The various societies found in traditional Africa routinely accept this fact that personhood is the sort of thing which has to be attained, and is attained in direct proportion as one participates in communal life through the discharge of the various obligations defined by one’s stations . It is the carrying out of these obligations that transforms one from the it-status of early childhood, marked by an absence of moral function, into the person-status of later years, marked by a widened maturity of ethical sense–an ethical maturity without which personhood is conceived as eluding one (p. 176).

In traditional society, the community-individual model is equated with the African concept of humanity. Tutu (1999) states:

Africans have this thing called UBUNTU . . . the essence of being human. It is part of the gift that Africans will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, willing to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe a person is person through another person that my humanity is caught up, bound up and inextricable in yours. When I dehumanize you I inexorably dehumanize myself. The solitary individual is a contradiction in terms and, therefore, you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own community, in belonging (p. 22).

The extended family–which encompasses the village, community, as well as the traditional rulers–exhibits an authoritative role that is enforceable by links of familial bloodlines and spiritual cohesiveness. Within the community is a village-headman, referred to as an odionwere. The odionwere is usually the oldest male in the village and is viewed as the communal father. The odionwere, through custom and tradition, is enabled to make major decisions that affect the village, including entire families, as well as the individual. Because of his advanced age–a position that is close to ancestorship–the odionwere is the chief priest of the communal ancestral shrine.

Along with the family shrine, the communal ancestral shrine serves as a means of maintaining contact with the departed and enforcing “good moral conduct” among the community members.

During colonialism in Nigeria, the construct or community-individual model remained intact. The nuclear family was headed by the father, the extended family was headed by the oldest male, the village or community was headed by the odionwere, chiefs, dukes and the nation (Edo) was headed by the king.

In post-colonialism, the community-individual model continues to be intact and relevant.

In contemporary times in the Benin kingdom, the community-individual model is a central theme for the people. The community-individual model is evidenced in how all male relations are referred to as my brother (otenmwen okpia). All female relations are referred to as my sister (otenmwen okhuo). The language has no separate grouping for cousins. Familial references are also extended to family members outside of the nuclear family and even to non-familial relations. Thus, one’s African familial relations are broadly defined.  Therefore, identity itself is broadly extended, as well as closely embraced by the community. It is possible for these broadly defined relationships with the community to sometimes lead to conflicts between the individual and community.

For example, an extended family member belonging to the paternal side of the family is competing for a governmental contract with a member of the maternal relations. Edo society is patrilineal. However, the closest bond for the offspring is with the mother. The politician is expected to and must make a decision or compromise that will be agreeable to both sides. This can often be seen in road construction projects where contracts rotate between different clans or political parties, oftentimes giving each side a chance to profit. It is also illustrated on a national level where the presidency is rotated between different ethnic groups.

In the modern Benin kingdom, it is common to come across an indigene describing someone with sociopathic tendencies or someone engaged in bad social behavior as an “animal”. This word used in this context is more offensive than a curse word. An animal implies something that is not human and does not abide by civilized concepts within the community. In addition, the indigenous people describe foreigners who exhibit behavior that is not acceptable in the community by the phrase “not a Benin man”. A comparative word is “infidel.” That is, someone who is not trained in or familiar with the communal knowledge and etiquette for right conduct.

The community-individual model not only is essential for a historical or political analysis of Africa, it is also important for the modern analysis of African identity and thought. Without a thorough look at the community-individual model, African thought is often presented in a disjointed and non-holistic framework in its approach.

A look at the 11 state universities in Ohio reveals that currently there are no courses that directly focus on a in-depth analysis of the community-individual model or a African universal theoretical approach in core or elective courses. Although, there are courses that focus on Afrocentric approaches toward the study of  Africa, the community-individual model is not being utilized for the purposes of unlocking the fundamental thought process of the African.

The University of Akron offers a certificate in Pan African Studies that is an interdisciplinary program. There are no courses listed on its website.

Bowling Green State University offers a BA. major, as well as a minor, in the Africana Studies Program. It is an interdisciplinary program. Out of 50 course listings, this university does not offer on-site or online courses focused on the community-individual model or an African universal theoretical approach.

Central State University offers a minor in its Africana Studies Program, all offerings consisting of interdisciplinary courses.

The University of Cincinnati offers a certificate program in African Studies, with no listing of stand alone courses on its website.

Cleveland State University offers a minor in Black Studies, an interdisciplinary program offering approximately 89 courses. It offers no on-site or online classes that are entirely devoted to African universals or the community-individual model. However, one online/on-site course in African Art includes a community-individual model in its introduction. This is probably because the professor lived in Africa for twenty years and has had direct observation of this theoretical model.

Kent State offers a BA major and two minors in Pan African Studies that includes a wide selection of 65 courses. It offers two 400 level courses on Pedagogy for Pan African Studies and one introductory course on West Africa that states through  “…religion by examining philosophical  concepts tthat appear to be common to all African peoples.” Kent offers a 300 level class entitled African world view that covers African cosmological principles. However, this class does not specifically address the community-individual model. It also offers a 200 level class entitled the Africentric Perspective. This class does not specifically address a community-individual model, but it does indirectly addresses some of the African universals through an Afrocentric approach. In sum, all the above classes do address the need to find an African centered approach to analysis. However, there is no on-site or online class listed that specifically addresses an in-depth analysis of the community-individual model or African universal approach as applied to understanding African identity on the African continent.

Miami University offers a BA major and minor in Black World Studies in an interdisciplinary program. It lists 20 courses on the website in African Studies, but does not offer courses on-site or online courses that specifically look at an  community-individual model or a African theoretical universal approach to pedagogy theme

Ohio State University offers a BA  major, minor and MA in a African American and African Studies Program with 60 undergrad classes in African Studies and 18 courses on Africa. There are also  no graduate on-site or online coursework on the community-individual model or African universal theoretical approach.

Ohio University’s  BA major and minor in African Studies is a interdisciplinary program with 41 courses, though again without a community-individual model or African universal theoretical approach to pedagogy.

Shawnee State University does not have a major or minor in African Studies or a website devoted to African Studies.

The University of Toledo offers a BA major in African Studies, as well as a graduate degree. It is a interdisciplinary programs. There are no on-site or online courses on the community-individual model or African universal theoretical pedagogy.

Wright State University offers a BA, major and minor, as well as a certificate in African and African American Studies. Its website offers no list of required coursework for this interdisciplinary program, but states that any approved Liberal Arts course can meet the required course of study.

Youngstown State University offers a BA major and a minor in African Studies in an interdisciplinary program with 21 courses. It includes 6 courses on Africa. There are no on site or online courses that specifically examine a community-individual more or African universal theoretical approach.


All 11 state university African Studies Programs currently lack a course that specifically addresses a community-individual model or African universal theoretical approach course in their undergraduate or graduate program. African Studies Programs in Ohio do not have a cohesive approach to understanding the African identity in the undergraduate curriculum. It would benefit the students to utilize a community-individual model or African universal theoretical approach in the earlier part of their academic careers in order to further their understanding and research in African Studies coursework.

Two methods for enhancing the curriculum can achieve this goal. First, offering an on-site course on the community-individual model or African universal theoretical approach. Second, offering an online course focusing on the community-individual model or African universal theoretical approach, available through a Ohio consortium.



Iyare, T. Personal communication, Benin City, Nigeria, 2010.


Ero, O. (1999). The History of Benin: Ogiso Dynasties, 40BC-1300        AD. Benin City: Nosa Computers.

Kochalumchuvattil, T, (2010), “The Crisis of Identity in Africa: A Call for Subjectivity”. Kritke, I (4): 108-122.

Mbiti, J. (1969). African Religions and Philosophy. Oxford: Heinemann.

Menkiti, I. (1984). “Person and Community in African Traditional Thought”, in Richard A. Wright (ed.), African Philosophy. An Introduction. Lanham, Maryland.

Peavy, D. (2009). Kings, Magi & Medicine. {S.I.}.

Shutte, A. (1993). Philosophy for Africa. (Rondebosch, South Africa: UCT Press.

Tutu, D. (1990). No Future without Forgiveness: A Personal Overview of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. London: Doubleday Publishers.


University of Akron.

Bowling Green State University.

Central State University.

The University of Cincinnati.

Cleveland State University.

Kent State University.

Miami University.

Ohio State University

Ohio University.

University of Toledo.

Wright State University.

Youngstown State.


Online Stores:

Owa Afrikan Market Inc., Brooklyn, NY, 718 643 8487
Yoruba Book Center, Brooklyn, NY, 719 774 5800
C. Jones Tea & Books, Cleveland Heights, Ohio

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