Intercultural Philosophy in Mozambique: Interview with Prof. Severino Elias Ngoenha
by Sarah Virgi
This interview took place on the 14th of March 2022.
To what extent can philosophy contribute to the development of a democratic discourse and of an intercultural and interreligious society? In a time when nationalism and religious radicalism are gaining new terrain and imposing new limits to rational dialogue and tolerance among different communities, in Europe and beyond, it becomes urgent to inquire about the role that philosophers can play in dealing with this social and political dynamic.
Today, we propose to explore the example of the Mozambican philosopher Severino Elias Ngoenha, who found a concrete way to respond to the problem of religious and cultural divergence in Mozambique. Alongside his academic work and teaching, for the past few years, Ngoenha has been leading the organisation of seminars and workshops of Intercultural and Interreligious Philosophy for the general public in different regions of Mozambique. Ngoenha titles these encounters “Seminars of Intercultural Philosophy: The Challenges of Radicalization” (Seminários de Filosofia Intercultural: Os Desafios da Radicalização). The country has increasingly been hit by religious radicalism, especially since the recent occupation of the north by the Islamic State. However, as Ngoenha explains, there are also intrinsic cultural and religious divisions in what he describes as an extraordinarily diverse population. With these philosophical workshops, Ngoenha aims to bring these different communities together in a dialogue of tolerance and respect for one another and, thus, to enable the emergence of a truly intercultural and democratic discourse in Mozambique.
About Severino Elias Ngoenha
Ngoenha is considered to be one of the most important and influential contemporary philosophers in Mozambique, focusing on the analysis of the social and political discourse in that country. He is also known more generally for his contributions in the field of African Philosophy. Born in Maputo, he studied Theology and Philosophy in Rome and in Paris, and started his academic career in Lausanne as Professor for Intercultural Philosophy. Today, he is the dean of the University Técnica of Maputo, where he holds the chair for Intercultural Philosophy, and is at the head of the Doctoral School of Philosophy of the University Pedagógica of Maputo. To know more about Prof. Ngoenha’s work and initiatives, you can consult his website.
English highlights of the interview
S: What role did your European education in philosophy have in your understanding of African philosophy?
N: My education is not European. My education is like any other education. In truth, when we form ourselves, we do it according to what we are as individuals, with a specific language and culture. This always requires an ‘interweaving’ (imbricação) of many elements. No African can be formed as European, dispensing with and abstracting from their ‘africanity’ (africanidade), which constitutes them as a person. An anthropologist would say that cultures form us, but we are formed by cultures too. Hence, we are the result of that big interweaving process. I went to study in Rome and in Paris being interwoven [in my African roots]… What is remarkable in philosophy is that it aims to be a ‘metathinking’ about the human, about life, and the world, and this transgresses every origin and every [sentiment of] belonging [to a culture]. The enlightenment, the encyclopaedism of Diderot, Voltaire, Rousseau, always strove to think the universal. But what makes the universal, in the end, are particularities. I am one of those particularities, who entered in the dynamic [stream] of thinking the universal in the world… The contribution of Europe in my education was simply this way of thinking the universal.
S: In your website, you chose as a main image that of a zebra. Does the zebra symbolise anything to you? What led you to choose this symbol?
N: The zebra is my favourite animal, just like the giraffe. It is merely a question of beauty, of aesthetics… The zebra shows a pacific and an intercultural dimension of races. The black and white are mixed in this animal that traverses our lives… Michel Serres used to say that we are constantly in a context of mixture. In this world, where extreme forms of racism are at stake, there is nothing better than a zebra to represent that polarising dimension that makes up the unity of human beings and animals.
S: You have been organising events for interreligious and intercultural dialogue in the north of Mozambique. What do these sessions consist in, and what do you understand by ‘intercultural philosophy’? Could you give us a more concrete idea of who participates in these events and of what is their aim?
N: The Latin-American thinker Raúl Fornet-Betancourt has claimed that all philosophy is intercultural and that the only way to do philosophy must depart from this important premise: we are all intercultural beings. Even when we deny this, we continue to be so. This hasn’t always been acknowledged in philosophy; it began to be acknowledged only seventy or eighty years ago. Then, a “dismembering” took place, what Derrida called “deconstruction” of all the forms of ethnocentrism that gravitated in philosophy. (…) I was a Professor in Lausanne for many years, where I was one of the first professors for interculturality, at least in Lausanne. Many of those who taught intercultural studies were originally attached to the discipline of anthropology or psychology because people thought that they were in a better condition to speak about intercultural diversity. I, as a philosopher, was confronted with this aspect of intercultural studies. But what is a philosopher? A philosopher is an interpreter, a hermeneut of what a culture and a collective live. He becomes the expression of discourse, concerning morals, the organisation of space, politics, community rights. Interculturality asks about the conditions of possibility that enable people who carry and are carried by diversity – be it cultural, religious, political, juridical – to live together in harmony and without violence. (…)
When I arrived in Mozambique, I could have thought that I would find an egalitarian world here. But here too, there are differences. What we are witnessing in the North of Mozambique, the difficulty to “acomunar” (form a community) and implement an ecumenic way of living together in a pacific manner, brings up the same problem that Europe has when it receives people from overseas. There are many people here that come from overseas too, especially now with the relocation of companies like TOTAL and with the diamond business, which has been expanding recently. However, we also have our own intrinsic issues. I am Catholic, but in my country (many people ignore this) more than 70% or 80% of the population is Muslim. Among those Muslims, there are also differences: some are Shiʿi Muslims, some are Sunni Muslims. Many practise an Islam that is completely interwoven with the local culture, which has nothing to do with the Islam that is practised in Pakistan, for instance. Among Christians, there are also the Catholics, the Protestants. Then, there are also the atheists… There are all sorts of confessions in Mozambique. Now, the country is what we call a secular (laico) country. It means that religions have no word nor expression in political and juridical organisation, while they are free of practising their beliefs freely. The problem is that apparently in the last few years some things happened, which make some of these beliefs put at stake this shared way of life. And this is one of the problems that interculturality faces within the regime of secularism, which is a modern democratic conquest.
The aim that leads me to Pemba [region in the north of Mozambique] is to work for interculture and for tolerance. I would like to remind you of what tolerance means: it does not mean simply to allow others to live. (…) It does mean merely to tolerate others, which sounds negative, but rather not to stay indifferent to those who are not like me. (…) The philosophy of interculture for which I fight is a philosophy of tolerance in this double sense. It is the acceptance and total respect for diversity as a necessary value for my growth as an individual and as a member of the community.
S: What is the more concrete impact that the seminars that you organise have? What is the social impact of intercultural philosophy in action in the communities?
N: For sometime now I have been developing philosophical cafés in Maputo. I call these conversations “philosophical workshops” (ateliers filosóficos). The topics treated are everyday topics. Usually, it is not me who speaks. We choose a topic, we have a guest, and they speak about an issue for half an hour. Then, we have about an hour or an hour an a half for questions. The choices are always questions that concern the Mozambican society. I had also the chance of having been called to mediate discussions between Muslims and Catholics. What I realised is that the Catholic priests were good connoisseurs of Christian theology, while the Muslims were good connoisseurs of Islamic theology. But there was never a moment of dialogue, because dialogue means to go out of oneself and enter a relationship with the other. When I was invited to go to Cabo Delgado to participate in discussions, I was confronted with the same situation. (…) I transferred the concept of the philosophical workshops that I was doing in Maputo to the North region of Mozambique. I go regularly there and organise these events. But I never choose the topics. I ask the people that participate in these meetings to choose the topics. Usually, there are Muslims, Christians, academics, politicians, whoever wishes to attend. We meet in neutral places; sometimes in a Muslim space, some other time in a Christian space, sometimes in a school. Little by little, this pedagogy is starting to interest people, mostly alumni and professors, also from other provinces of Mozambique. The idea is to implement these philosophical workshops as a way of starting an intercultural debate, with a method that allows people with different ways of thinking, different beliefs, races, religions, and convictions, to come together, pick some topics that appear to them to be the most important for a certain moment in their lives, and about which they can discuss. (…)
The reception has been very good, massive, diverse. More and more people from other regions of Mozambique ask me: “When are you coming to the South? When are you coming to Beira? When are you coming to Nhambane?”. I would like them to take the challenge themselves, if they think that this is a pertinent method.
S: How do you see the future of this type of philosophical experiment in Mozambique?
N: When I arrived in the city of Chinga, when we had a meeting to which we had invited leaders from the religious communities, I was surprised to see that half of the audience were women. We always tend to think that women have no place and no role to play in the Islamic religion. But there were twenty people there and half of them were women. And who started the discussion and who spoke the most about their ideas for the future were women. (…)
As to the future of intercultural philosophy, it does not have any other future than the one that we wish to give it. It will be that which we want it to become. If we can make people come together and speak, and that they respect one another in their diversity, then we have a lot ahead of us in intercultural philosophy. But if it is only a label and if it does not integrate a real will, a determination from the individuals to look at each other with respect, with tolerance, then, it will become a label without a future. I hope not because labels without a future and without content are only marketing products.