Epistemic Injustice, Disability, and Queerness in African Cultures

  • Kenneth U. Abudu
  • Elvis ImafidonEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Handbooks in Philosophy book series (HP)


Perception, representations, and knowledge claims about disability and queerness vary across societies and cultures. In African cultures negative knowledge claims and representations of disability and queerness create a perception of the disabled and queer that are not only detrimental to such persons in African societies but arguably undermine the work of understanding difference and tolerance in general. These negative claims raise some epistemological questions, such as: how do Africans come to know about disability and how are such knowledge claims validated within African communities? Against this backdrop, this chapter critically examines the epistemology of disability and queerness in African traditions. It shows that the epistemic authoritarianism found in African epistemology leads to an epistemic injustice that contributes immensely to the discrimination against disabled and queer beings as reflected in many cultural practices across the continent of Africa. The chapter argues that knowledge claims about disability and queerness in Africa emerge mainly from neglect, superstition, myth, and, above all, ignorance.


Disability Queerness African culture African epistemology Epistemic injustice 


Disability and queerness have been described as complex, dynamic, and multidimensional concepts subject to various definitions from perspectives and disciplines, ranging from sociology, religion, philosophy, etc. In all societies, beliefs are found about disability and queerness which form the basis of attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors toward disabled and queered beings. However, according to Robert and Lindsell, an examination of attitudes toward disability and queerness across all cultures suggests that these beliefs manifest in societal perceptions and treatment of disabled and queered beings is neither homogenous nor static (1997: 133). Additionally, Benedicte Ingstad (1990) suggests that disability and queerness are global phenomena which occur among people of all races and have often involved discrimination. One cannot underestimate the roles culture and traditions play in the discrimination against disabled and queered beings. This position is espoused by Talle, who argues that to understand the concept of disability and queerness, one needs to examine the cultural beliefs as well as a contextual analysis in order to grasp the phenomena in their full social and cultural setting. People with disability and queerness have been labelled socially excluded, marginalized, vulnerable, and chronically poor (Talle 1995: 56).

The African culture, from a historical perspective, is known to be a culture that is filled with existential values that promote the well-being of not only the individual but the community at large. Values like sense of community, sense of good human relations, sense of sacredness of life, sense of hospitality, sense of respect for authority and elders, etc. promote the well-being of both the individual and the community. On the other hand, there exist some practices that are detrimental to the well-being of the community, practices like female genital mutilation (FGM), discrimination on the issue of inheritance, widowhood practices, etc. In recent times, it is worthy to mention that discrimination against disabled and queered beings has been rampant in many African societies.

The thrust of this chapter is to examine disability and queerness in African culture. Given that all cultures demonstrate responses to disability and queerness which form a continuum (Ingstad, op. cit), literature in non-Western culture, particularly African culture, is dominated by negative attitudes toward disabled and queered beings. O’Toole summarized this postulation as follows:

In the west, the disabled have been stereotyped as being dependent, depressed and emotionally unstable…such negative feelings are intense in LDCs (Least Developed Countries) where overwhelming impression from published literature regarding attitudes towards disabled and queered beings is negative. (1988: 46)

After considering the (1) conceptualizing of disability and queerness in African culture, the (2) knowledge and cognition process of the discrimination against disabled and queered beings in African culture will be explored. This becomes necessary in order to understand the basis for which disabled and queered beings are being discriminated. This is followed by a (3) conceptual discourse on African epistemology, under which there are three basic theories of African epistemology: African epistemology as naturalized epistemology, African epistemology as an elitist epistemology, and knowledge as shared or a “we” enterprise. Following in sequence, we examine (4) the implications of African epistemology for disability and queerness in African culture.

Conceptualizing Disability and Queerness in African Cultures

The African worldview is a world of animate, inanimate and several forces. The African is conscious of the influence of each category of these forces in the universe. Their existence, for the African, is reality so, also, is the fact that they interact as coexistent beings in the universe. This idea of the world is accepted by the African and is passed from one generation to another. It forms the basis of the African’s ideology in relation to his/her existence in the world. This idea helps the African to define and explain, intelligibly, the rationale behind all that she/he does, wants to do, what she/he can, or is expected to do in life. This explains why it is not illogical for Africans to tell stories connecting animals, human beings, and the spirits all acting together in a community (Emeakaroha 2002: 1).

In many traditional African cultures, there is a strong belief that people’s lives are controlled by ancestral spirits and that disability and queerness have spiritual undertones. However, it is important to note that in African culture, there exist universal and particular disabilities. For instance, individuals that are physically challenged and visually impaired fall within a more generalized understanding of difference. While for particular disabilities, there are persons living with albinism (PWAs) and persons with angular kyphosis (hunchback). In African culture, there have been numerous cases of how persons living with albinism have been killed, hunted, and maimed. The reason is that it is commonly held that these individuals are mysterious beings who have special connection with amassing wealth from the spiritual realm. This has led to several cases of killing these individuals for ritual purpose. In terms of those with angular kyphosis, for instance, in the southwestern part of Nigeria, it is erroneously believed that the only value an individual has is if he or she is used in preparing concoctions for money rituals – even though medical research over the years have shown that having a hunch on the back or on chest is as a result of tuberculosis infection. According to Emmanuel Iyidobi, a consultant and a spine specialist:

It is very sad that a medical ailment has dangerous connotations in Nigeria. And this great misconception is common in the South-west, South-south and South-east. Some even say humps are filled with diamonds hence families have to accompany family members with the condition. (Iyidobi 2014)

Regarding persons living with albinism (PWAs) in Nigeria, they have been broadly discriminated, isolated, and, at other time, trafficked and killed. According to Shehu Shagari, former president of Nigeria, discrimination against persons living with albinism in Nigeria is endemic, and much of the discrimination “suffered by these persons can be traced to ignorance on the part of the public” (Shagari made this remark during the Fourth National Conference on Albinism in Sokoto State on 12 July, 2010). This explains why persons living with albinism in most traditional African communities live in hiding.

The discrimination against disabled and queered in African culture has been found to have negatively heightened the socioeconomic relationships with their peers. The quote above suggests the erroneous belief that has become a justification for the discrimination against disabled and queered beings in Nigeria. Apart from living with the fear of being hunted, some disabled and queered beings have had to relocate hundred miles away from home to avoid stigma and discrimination. Some have been denied jobs, even when it is obvious that they are qualified for the jobs.

The above narratives reveal how the discrimination against disabled and queered beings affects them in their respective places of residence. Similarly, the idea that some Africans hold strongly to their cultural and traditional beliefs, with the perception of disabled and queered beings as spiritual creatures rather than a medical condition, heightens the fear of insecurity among these people. Thus, this serves as the manifestations which play into the daily life experiences and trajectories of disabled and queered beings.

The narratives of respondents will give clues as to the kind of insecure life disabled and queered beings are being subjected to. The following statements elaborately capture the limited trust and hope persons with Albinism, for instance, have in their current environment:

The fear still persists. I remember my mum told me we have to be sceptical about the environment and our neighbours. After five years in Nairobi, the only trusted people are my household members and a Catholic Priest. There are stories of syndicates and their networks in Kenya and other parts of East Africa dealing in human parts. This we are made to know by the police and the Church. Often I am told to be cautious about friends everywhere I go, and that I should always be careful, avoid unknown persons and try as much as possible to move with a relative when it is dark. (Ikuomola 2015: 49)

In another instance, an individual living with albinism in South Africa has this to say:

Even in school, though I sometimes want to explore like other colleagues, something in me always caution me, reminding me of the plights of the unlikely ones left behind in Tanzania, and those who have been killed. So life as an albino is almost not safe anywhere in Africa. My future plan is to travel to Europe, Australia or America. (Ibid)

The above instances capture how persons with albinism live in utmost fear in most part of Africa. Selling the body parts of disabled and queered beings has become a lucrative business. According to Thuku, the hand, arm, or any albino organ is combined with other ingredients and then sold for thousands of dollars: $3,000 for a hand or over $10,000 for an entire set of organs. Sometimes body parts are even shipped across borders (Thuku 2011: 5).

The discussion so far on disability and queerness in an African culture reveals the existential challenges encountered by these beings on daily basis, challenges like fear, anxiety, anguish, and inauthentic existence. All these are to mention but a few. The inability of many communities in Africa to understand that disabled and queered beings are simply victims of biomedical conditions plays a key role in the othering of disabled and queered beings in their host communities, with a few persons having the idea that their conditions have scientific explanations. This is the reason why in this twenty-first century, there exist adherents of cultural practices that are detrimental to the survival of humanity. Some of these inhuman practices are encapsulated in the beliefs, superstitions, myths, folktales, and legends about disabled and queered beings as being spiritual and divine beings. These beliefs cut across many African communities and are being passed from generation to generation.

Some Knowledge Claims About Disability and Queerness in African Cultures

The thrust here is to examine the foundation of knowledge and cognition process involved in the othering of disabled and queered beings in African culture, and it is based on this question: What cultural beliefs and knowledge shape local understanding of disability and queerness? Ideologically, people don’t just have discriminatory perceptions toward disability and queerness for no reason. This is because in African communities, there exist some beliefs and ideas that are passed down from generation to generation. These beliefs reflect in myths, superstitions, religious dogmas, witchcraft, and other supernatural forces, and they are generally taken in African culture to be the causes of disability and queerness. This position is corroborated by Abang, who is of the opinion that many people believe that disabled and queered beings are not only inferior to those without disability and queerness but can also be used for social and economic benefit, that is, they lack the basic features that make them full humans and can be used for sacrifices in other to bring wealth or good luck (Abang 1991). This forms the basis of attributing disability and queerness to some form of malevolent, preternatural force by reference to demons, evil spirits, and witchcraft and has contributed to the view of disability as both undesirable and unacceptable in the society.

Various narratives about the knowledge and cognition process of disability and queerness have been observed, and some resonate across sub-Saharan Africa. In Namibia, for instance, the explanatory source disability and queerness are attributed to an external force, such as a curse or evil spirits. Also, it is often believed that disability and queerness are simply consequences of angering the ancestors by breaching some moral codes or failing to honor their memory. Improper family relations, including extramarital affairs and incestuous relationships, have been cited as perceived causes of disability and queerness with mothers generally implicated. Ingstad suggests that such stories may be related to social control and the need to adhere to social conventions and moral codes, for example, being caste in a marriage.

In the Yoruba traditional thought system, it is believed that atypical developmental condition which may result to disability and queerness is, as a result, a curse brought about the defiance of a pregnant woman who walks outside at midday or midnight or represents a punishment for wrongdoings such as getting involved in extramarital affair. Also, in Namibia, it is believed that a woman who gave birth to a child with albinism has slept with either a white man or a ghost.

As explained above, it is cognitively held in African culture that disability and queerness have spiritual and ethical undertone, that is, it is often believed that disability and queerness are implications of a spiritual lag on the part of the parents and also that an individual is disabled due to a supposed immoral conduct which either of the parents had got involved in. On this basis, in African culture, the foundation of knowledge claims about disability and queerness is believed to be a superstitious belief based on a curse or spell which was cast as retribution for a past transgression, with disability and queerness viewed as the negative consequences. Also, in African culture, it is often held that demons and evil spirit dominated a group’s view of disability and queerness causation. The cause of disability and queerness is attributed to an external force. This explains the reason why disabled and queered beings are described as having been placed under or on a seat for demons or ghosts. Knowledge and cognition of disability and queerness do not only define the external, supernatural force in disability and queerness causation but also identified an incidental physical symptoms and financial gains.

In the Eastern part of Africa, knowledge and cognition of disability and queerness continue to be prevalent. Beliefs about the causes of disability and queerness are often described as expressed in proverbs, folktales, oral tradition, and from interviews with traditional healers. Regarding universal disability like blindness, Adams opined that people in Zimbabwe do attribute blindness and leprosy to witchcraft, spirits, disobeying a taboo, or natural causes. Corroborating Adam’s stance, Mallory and Mbah-Ndam explained that disability and queerness are regarded as “Punishment from the gods or bad omen, and hence disabled and queered beings are rejected or abandoned” (Mallory and Mbah-Ndam 1993: 19). Also, there exist descriptions of taboos that, when broken, are thought to cause disability and queerness. For instance, among the Nandi people of Kenya, it is believed that if a man kills an animal without good reason during his wife’s pregnancy, the child to be born may be disabled or queered (Ogechi and Ruto 2002: 63). Having sexual intercourse during pregnancy is also seen as a taboo, and breaking this too can cause a child to be disabled or queered.

It is also believed that laughing at people with disability can cause an individual to have a disabled or queered child. A study in Kenya reported that even healthcare personnel are not free from these superstitious beliefs about disability and queerness. This is because they believe that several factors like birth trauma, abuse, witchcraft, or spirits contact with certain animals (El Sharkawy et al. 2006: 201).

From the exploration of knowledge and cognition of disability and queerness in African culture, it is clear that the bases of discrimination against disabled and queered beings are superstitions, myths, ignorance, etc. The reason being that these beliefs have not been proven scientifically, neither will they be scientifically proven in time to come. These beliefs are simple out of sheered ignorance and are being passed from generation to generation.

Discourse on African Epistemology

Knowledge, its acquisition and certainty, among other discourses, is the theme of the branch of philosophy known as epistemology. In the attempt to theorize how knowledge is being acquired, philosophers have postulated several theories of knowledge, theories like empiricism, rationalism, pragmatism, reliabilism, and, most recently, naturalized epistemology. However, our attempt here is not to discuss the various theories of knowledge but to conceptually elucidate African epistemology under the earlier theorizations.

African Epistemology as a Naturalized Epistemology

In an attempt by the logical positivists to explain phenomena using the methods of science, naturalized epistemology emerged. Naturalized epistemology is a shift from the tenets of traditional epistemology, that is, defining knowledge as a justified true belief (JTB). It simply concerns itself with the natural processes involved in knowledge acquisition. In an attempt to define naturalized epistemology as a recent branch of epistemology, no one can dispute the contributions of W.V.O. Quine. Quine says:

Epistemology still goes on, though in a new setting and a clarified status Epistemology, or something like it, simply falls into place as a chapter of psychology and hence a natural science. It studies a natural phenomenon, that is, a physical human subject is accorded a certain patterns of irradiation in assorted frequencies, for instance – and in the fullness of time, the subject delivers as output a description of the three dimensional external world and its history. The relation between the meagre inputs and the torrential outputs is a relation that we are prompted to study for the same reasons that always prompted epistemology; namely, in order to see how evidence relates to theory of nature transcends any available evidence. (Quine 1969: 24)

From the above quote, it can be deduced that naturalized epistemology differs from the definition of knowledge as a justified true belief; that is why traditional epistemology is concerned with the knowledge of the object by the subject and naturalized epistemology is simply concerned with the natural processes involved in knowing. Evident, for instance, is Quine’s idea of meagre and torrential outputs. It is believed that the epistemic competence of an adult is often time determined by the values inculcated in him during the stage of infancy. This means that what the individual learns at infancy represent meagre inputs and the manifestations at adulthood is known as torrential outputs. By this, naturalized epistemology is a branch of cognitive psychology. This is because the individual at the early stage of life is taught basic cognitive tasks like learning language, perception, paying attention, and the processes involved. These processes, according to Quine, will reconstruct traditional epistemology and bring about naturalism in epistemology. Quine writes:

Why all the creative reconstruction, all this make believe? The stimulation of his sensory receptors is all the evidence anybody has had to go on, ultimately, in arriving at his picture of the world. Why not just see how this construction really proceeds? Why not settle for psychology? (Ibid)

Quine’s position here is simply to make the discourse of epistemology a branch of psychology. By this, naturalized epistemology is an attempt to replace traditional epistemology with the natural processes of knowing.

Elucidating the nexus between naturalized epistemology and African epistemology, it is a truism that the epistemic competence or otherwise of an adult in African community is majorly influenced by the meagre inputs he learnt when he was an infant. This simply means that beliefs and thought systems which an individual may claim to know during adulthood are simply by-products of what he had been taught at the stage of infancy. For instance, believing in rituals, taboos, Supreme Being, and some supernatural forces, basically, is inculcated in a child at early stage of life as meagre inputs. From another perspective, meagre inputs in naturalized epistemology as it relates to knowledge acquisition in Africa are rooted in three basic endogenous ways: analysis of African proverbs, theory building, and documentation of parent ethno-theories. The first process deals primarily with an examination of the indigenous formulations of child development and socialization values embedded in African languages and oral traditions. An infant at this stage within African traditional thought system acquires knowledge about his origin, history, culture, and religion, about the meaning and reality of life, and about moral norms and survival techniques. Several collections of proverbs have been published in different African languages, and their content has been analyzed to show the recurrence of the themes of shared communal responsibility for children’s moral guidance and the importance of providing early in life (Abubakar 2011: 4). What the position implies is that part of the meagre inputs of the natural processes involved in inculcating knowledge in a child within African epistemological framework has to do with proverbs and oral traditions. On this basis, a child is taught via proverbs and, in general, oral traditions.

The second natural process involved in knowledge acquisition at the early stage is called “social apprenticing.” The principal task here is to inculcate in the children how to rehearse social roles that pertain to four hierarchical spheres of life: self, household, network, and public. Parents here assign responsibility to children including care and socialization of children which serves as the function of priming the emergence of social responsibility.

The third natural process is called parental ethno-theories. This simply involves the strategies employed by parents to help their children grow up to become successful members of their communities. Basically, parental ethno-theories about children as learners provide foundation for the way parents think about their children’s environment for learning. These ideas, in turn, are related to parental ethno-theories of children’s intelligence and personality.

From the discussion above, it is obvious that what infants claim to know is simply inculcated in them by their parents. Hence these ideas inculcated in children especially within African community are regarded as meagre inputs. These meagre inputs are expected to serve as the epistemic values that will guide the child to adulthood, and therefore, the meagre inputs will translate to torrential outputs at adulthood. This discourse reflects in African epistemology as a naturalized theory of knowledge. The epistemic competence of an adult is simply a product of what was inculcated in him by his parents. This is simply the natural process of knowledge acquisition within African thought system.

African Epistemology as an Elitist Epistemology

We know enough about our ancient past to be able to say that most ancient civilizations, once they were big enough to have cities, had elites. Human civilizations have always had power relatively concentrated in the hands of a few, and the elites have often received that status from parentage and wealth, although with many exceptions; at times, the strongest, smartest, or boldest individuals have been able to raise themselves to elite status. In some societies, priests, intellectuals, and/or artists have had the potential to gain elite status, although usually only in cooperation with the political and economic. Perhaps the most controversial debate concerning elitism is whether it is the best thing for everyone in a society. Throughout human history, most people have believed that the elites ruled by right, they deserved to be the elites, and had better personal qualities than the others, whether that was supposed to be because of the families they came from, because they were chosen by God, or because they competed for their status with superior strength or intelligence. This idea was not often questioned before the past 400 years and remains a common belief today. In Asia, even more than America, people tend to believe that the leaders of powerful corporations are superior human beings who have rightfully earned their privileges. But even if you reject heredity and God as sources of elite status, you may believe that the people who are raised in the best environments and receive the best educations are going to end up most qualified to wield power.

From the conceptual analysis of what elitism is, one can easily deduce that elitism in epistemology is not in doubt. The question that readily comes to mind is: what is Elitist epistemology? Elitist epistemology is defined as a theory of knowledge which holds that true acquisition of knowledge can be achieved by a particular class of individuals, especially the political, community, or religious elites. Here, the desires of the others must be jettisoned to this class of people who see themselves as the appropriate interpreters of the truth, whether it is the truth of God, nature, science, philosophy, or the state. Hence, they assume the epistemological duty of thought and of reasoning. Accordingly, elitism in epistemology holds that people are considered to be pawns in the games of the elites; yet if their servile status confronted, it will become clear that they have the capacity to judge events (Moseley 2002).

In African traditional thought system, there exist some individuals who are regarded as elites, and their views about issues relating to God, truth, knowledge, etc. are regarded as philosophical disquisitions. These individuals or elites are known as elders. The roles of elders in knowledge acquisition in Africa cannot be overemphasized. African culture is a culture that encourages respect for elders and to accept the values sustained by them. Elders in Africa, because of their moral, religious, and epistemic authority, are capable of influencing their communities’ dispositions toward certain issues. Within the African epistemological framework, elders are seen as repository of knowledge and wisdom. This explains the reason why when an elder dies, it is believed the death is a big loss to the community. Corroborating this, Ki-zerbo argues “when an elder passes away, it is a whole library which disappears” (Ki-zerbo 1990). This position explains the immense roles of elders in a typical community in inculcation of epistemic values in the individuals in African communities.

Although, one can argue that some elders in African communities do not possess the requisite epistemic skills in terms of literacy. However, in a typical African community, literacy is not seen as a yardstick of the sagacity of an elder. Accordingly, the elders are seen as epistemic authorities in existential issues as they relate to their respective communities. The role of the elders in knowledge acquisition in Yoruba traditional thought, for instance, can be realized in the foremost Agbalagba poem:

May good elders not be exhausted in the community…Elder, save me. The elder is the one who saves wholly. Experience is the crown of the elder. Elder understands every matter inside out… The grey haired one, full of knowledge and wisdom… The one clothed in character of white garment. (The “elder” as used here in meaning and social reference among the Yorubas refers to the “aged,” the gerontology concept commonly used in literature.)

The crown of the elder here describes the knowledge that is socially acquired through experience among the Yorubas. The gray hair is not viewed as an indication of physical weakness and gradual descent into death, but as an indication of fullness of knowledge and wisdom. For instance, the Yorubas believe that even though a young person may claim to have knowledge about a particular issue, but such knowledge cannot be compared to that of an elder. The assumptions that elders are epitome of knowledge also socially represent the elders with the value of commanding respect accentuating effectiveness in thoughts, action, and discretion. In terms of knowledge about judgment, the Yorubas place value on an elder’s position as almost infallible. In another perspective, the role of elders in knowledge acquisition in African epistemology is succinctly captured by Ikuenobe:

Learning of values by the younger ones from the elders reveals that the community as an informal educational structure represents a hierarchy of moral authority and teaching responsibilities, where those in the top hierarchy teach and reinforce for those in the lower hierarchy how they ought to behave in order to achieve harmony. In this hierarchy children are at the lowest level and the elders, who are not only the custodian of the tradition, but are people of wisdom (epistemologically and morally), are at the top. The highest moral status in the community is being an elder or chief, or, in some cases, king or queen. (Ikuenobe 2006: 136)

From the discourse so far, it is clear that a typical theory that is truly African has the basics of African epistemology. Just as Albert, Isaac Newton, Plato, Aristotle, and Socrates are regarded as elites in the fields of science and philosophy, respectively, so are elders regarded as elites within African traditional and epistemological framework. The elders are seen as encyclopedias of knowledge, and they possess the feature of epistemic authoritarianism, in the sense that whatever knowledge claim the elders make, it is difficult to discard such.

Knowledge as Shared or “We” Enterprise

While it cannot be denied that knowledge acquisition in African traditional thought can be acquired by the natural processes which involve the five sense organs, and that no one can underestimate the roles of elders in acquiring knowledge, it is also pertinent to note that the community which an individual belongs can also influence such individual. This makes epistemology in Africa to be a social or communal kind of epistemology as distinct from the Western and/or individual type of epistemology. The experience of an African reality gives rise to general qualities in African philosophy, one of these being the discourse of community in Africa, also referred to as communalism. Culturally, “African” denotes a set of customs and a social setting that place community and ancestry at the center of existence and knowing. Consequently, community in this sense refers to the sort of life that is characterized by warm or binding relationships between persons and between present generations and past as well as future unborn ones. According to Higgs, community consists of a number of people who have something in common with one another that connects them in some way and that distinguishes them from others (Higgs 2010: 241). The basis of this connection can be geographical, language, and ethnic or religious identification. For the purpose of this chapter, however, community in Africa is defined in connected interactions between people who are alive today and connections between past, current, and future generations of people. It also refers to harmony between humans and their nonhuman environments. A person is always born and grows within a clan or tribe, lives by, and practices its core values of existence. (S)he is expected to be cognizant of the values, customs, and norms of the tribe to which he belongs in all her/his interactions with other people and nature. These communal values underlie most interactions with your neighbor and nature. Accordingly, Higgs opines that the importance of communality to traditional African life cannot be overemphasized. This is because community and belonging to a community of people constitute the very fabric of traditional African life (Ibid). For example, among the Wanga, a Luhya clan in Kenya, all members of the clan trace their ancestry to one person. For this reason, members of the clan see themselves as brothers and sisters, such that it is an abomination for anyone, male or female, to marry another person from the clan; they would have committed incest. In case a child is born accidentally for two clan members, this child is considered an outcast and does not share in any inheritance of the clan. The communality in this example is the knowledge that all clan members hail from one ancestor and that they are brothers and sisters.

Flowing from the above, it is clear that an African, aside from the fact that he sees his authentic existence in an ontological relationship with others, also acquires knowledge as a form of togetherness in the community. Emphasizing on the essence of togetherness in knowledge acquisition, Bert Hamminga writes:

Since togetherness is the highest value, we want share our views, all of them. Hence we always agree with everybody standing up and saying: “I have a radically different opinion” would not, as it often does in the West, draw attention to what I have to say. Instead, I am likely to be led before my clan leaders before I even had the chance to continue my speech. Among us, you simply never radically different opinions. That is because, and that is why we are together. Togetherness is our ultimate criterion of any action, the pursuit of knowledge being just one of them. (Hamminga 2005: 58)

The above position by Hamminga suggests that the knowing subject in African thought is not the individual, but the clan. This simply means that knowledge is a form of togetherness.

From the perspective of Leopold Senghor, the social feature found in African epistemology is seen in the fact that there is no dualism between the individual and the community. This is because both the individual and the community thrive on mutual interaction. This results in a holistic understanding of African ontological reality which is simply put by Senghor thus: I feel I dance the other, I am (Senghor 1964: 50), I am in contradistinction to Cartesian cogito: I think therefore I am. Put differently, an African knows an object if and only if what he knows belongs to the epistemological framework of such community. This can be expressed as I know because we know, and since we know, therefore I know.

The interrelationship between the individual and the community in African epistemology can also be seen in Hamminga’s distinction between African and Western epistemology. Accordingly, Hamminga writes:

Via ones participation in the social context, one knows. In this regard, knowledge comes via tradition, ancestors and heritage. Here, the acquisition of knowledge becomes a “we” enterprise. (Hamminga, op. cit.)

It is pertinent to note here that African epistemology is based on a communal theory of knowledge, that is, the individual’s knowledge claims must be in conformity to the already established set of beliefs. This is because the knowing subject is the community to which such individual belongs.

Epistemic Injustice and Disability and Queerness in African Cultures

By epistemic injustice, we mean here the analysis of the sought of injustice that arises from attempts to suppress other forms of knowledge production, processes of knowing, and bodies of knowledge by a monopolistic and hegemonic epistemic structure. We also have in mind a closely related meaning of epistemic injustice which consists of attempts to deliberately and actively produce knowledge claims that do harm to others and largely paint others as incapable of producing counter-knowledge claims that can be taken seriously. In the words of Miranda Fricker in her groundbreaking work, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, epistemic injustice is “a wrong done to someone specifically in their capacity as a knower” (2007: 1). Fricker explains that such epistemic injustice could occur at two levels as testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice. She therefore adds that:

Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word; hermeneutical injustice occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences. (2007: 1)

Similarly, Anita Ho (2014: 1038) explains that:

As both a moral concept as well as an epistemic concept, epistemic injustice is a type of wrong and harm that is done to individuals or social groups regarding their ability to contribute to and benefit from knowledge creation. This form of injustice can occur in at least three interrelated types of scenarios. First, epistemic injustice can happen in the form of unequal distribution of hermeneutical resources such as conceptual understanding and articulative ability that would be necessary to achieve or contribute to knowledge creation. Second, epistemic injustice can occur when certain people’s capacity as knowers or collaborative learners is unfairly dismissed. Third, epistemic injustice can happen when there is intermethod hierarchy, that is certain methods of inquiry or research are uncritically dismissed while other methods are categorically presumed to be superior.

Fricker and Ho’s analysis of epistemic injustice is instructive and important in our analysis of the sought of epistemic injustice done to disabled and queer beings in African cultures and societies. Such epistemic injustice consists of the active and deliberate efforts by social structures such as the elite class to produce and sustain in the social system knowledge claims that not only harm persons with disability and queerness but also paint them as incapable of providing an epistemic defense for their status; in other words, their capacity as knowers is somewhat fairly dismissed, and they are put in an unfair, disadvantaged position that makes it difficult for them to provide reliable information about their lived experiences. Thus, African epistemological framework has dire implication for the well-being of persons with disability and queerness since it is ladened with epistemic injustice regarding how knowledge claim about disability and queerness is being naturalized in African culture; it is a known fact that perceptions and social attitudes toward disabled and queered beings often times reflect in the family, which teaches an individual at the stage of infancy, customs, and institutionalized values. Evident, for instance, is the position of Gellman who opined that the upbringing of a child will to a considerable extent predetermine an adult’s behavior toward disabled and queered beings (Gellman 1959). Corroborating the position that child-rearing practices have their implications for disability and queerness, Whiting and Charles write that beliefs about disability and queerness are influenced by significant early relationship between children and parents which in turn lead to the children’s conformity to adult standards behavior (Whiting 1995: 82).

Since the knowledge and cognition of queerness in African culture suggest that most disabled and queered beings find themselves in such conditions as a result of a curse befalling their families, parents therefore tend to institutionalize the idea of not relating with disabled and queered beings in their children. This is because it is superstitiously held that relating with these beings can make them disabled or queered. This explains the position that it is believed that the degree to which disabled and queered beings are discriminated against in African culture is a consequence of the epistemic values institutionalized in the children by their parents. On this basis, when disability and queerness are conceptualized by the parents as evil, it naturally follows the children will have a negative perception toward disabled and queered beings. It then points to the fact that people’s negative attitude toward disability and queerness is simply misconceptions that stem from proper understanding as propagated in the family.

One cannot underestimate the implication of the epistemic authoritarianism as found in the discourse of African epistemology as an elitist epistemology for disability and queerness in African culture. Against this backdrop, the elders in the community make knowledge claims about disabled and queered being, and considering the fact that elders are respected individuals, their knowledge claims are accepted as epistemic values which the community conform to. For instance, in some communities in Kenya and Zimbabwe, the conditions of disabled and queered beings are often made worse due to the pronouncements of the elders. According to these elders, a disabled or queered child is seen as a symbol of curse befalling the whole family. Such child is a “shame” to the whole family, hence their rejection by the family and community. Disabled and queered beings who are often affected by these beliefs, attitudes, and knowledge claims by the elders can hardly develop their full potential. They get less attention, less stimulation, less education, less medication, less care, less upbringing, and sometimes less nourishment compared to other children. In furtherance, affirms the roles of elders’ knowledge claims in othering disabled and queered beings:

Attitudes and behaviour towards disabled and queered b beings are often transmitted from the elders to the younger ones as much as they are felt to fit their sound and comprehensive beliefs because of their less clear emotional prejudice. (Wright 1960: 256)

The elders in African communities are capable of internalizing epistemic norms that are capable of promoting the discrimination against disabled and queered beings. These epistemic norms influence the community perception toward disability and queerness because elders in African communities are seen as custodians of value systems.

Concerning the communal framework that exists in African epistemology as a shared theory of knowledge, there exist communities in Africa where discrimination against disabled and queered beings is at its peak, and if an individual does not conform to such practices, he is deemed to be normatively disabled; Gellman captures this position succinctly when he writes that:

Cues learned in the community serve as guide for distinguishing and differentiating various types of disabilities in accordance with the socially accepted norms. For example, the Eskimos perceive a limited number of disabilities whereas the Americans generally use a large number of terms for persons with disability. Community furnishes in addition to roles and languages, a customary attitude towards disabled and queered beings. (Gellman, op. cit:4)

Gellman’s position explains the impact a community which an individual belongs can have on his view of disability and queerness. Since, for instance, African epistemology is a communal epistemology, the knowledge claims which an individual claims to make are simply borne out of the epistemic framework of such community. This stance has contributed immensely to pity, fear uneasiness, guilt, etc. that disabled and queered beings are passing through. Using Thomas Hobbes expression, African communities to disabled and queered beings are nothing short of living in a “state of nature” which is solitary, nasty, brutish, and short.

These attributes have for a long time affected the relationship between disabled and queered beings with nondisabled people. These communities impose artificial limitations upon them, deny them equal opportunities for development and living, and inadequately demote them to second-class citizens to be pitied (in the sense where pity is seen as devaluation tinged with contempt (Munyi 2012: 5).

Another implication of African epistemology as a communal epistemology for disability and queerness is that it promotes a kind of predetermination of values which an individual is expected to abide by. Accordingly, an individual that is novel in a community that propagate discriminatory practices toward disabled and queered beings may not have an option than to conform to the already existing values, since in Africa, the individual is insufficient to live for himself, but sufficient if his existence conforms to the communal norms. By this, there already exist stereotype of disabled and queered beings. Just as it is normative for an African to conform to already existing beliefs like the belief in a Supreme Being, the potency of rituals and taboos, and the belief in ancestors and other supernatural forces, it is imperative to believe that disabled and queered beings only serve economic purpose, that is, using their body parts as rituals. This explains the reason why in African communities, the physique of a disabled or queered being is enough to give meaning his existence. For instance, in some communities in the southwestern part of Nigeria, when a person with hunchback is sighted, the erroneous belief that comes to mind is the millions of dollars in which the hunch can be sold. Espousing this position further, Wright puts it:

The physique (as well as certain other characteristics), has an enormous power to evoke a wide variety of expressions and feelings about the person. In fact, the physical deviation is frequently seen as central key to a person’s behaviour and personality and largely responsible for the important ramifications in a person’s life. This spread holds for both the person with disability himself and those evaluating him. (Wright 1960: 118)

Wright’s position above explains the extent to which the knowledge claims about disability and queerness can go a long way in affecting how people view the physique of a disabled and queered being from a social perspective. This position is evident in the communal framework of an African culture which is basically influenced by what the community accepts to be knowledge claim.


Thus far, this chapter has examined the concept of disability and queerness in an African culture. From the discussion so far, it is evident that disabled and queer beings in most African communities are living an inauthentic life due to the epistemic injustice done against them in African thought. Also, the chapter examined the knowledge and cognition process involved in the negative perception toward disability and queerness and maintains that this perception is simply out of myth, superstition, and, above all, ignorance.

While African epistemology to a considerable extent deals with how Africans acquire knowledge, one cannot also deny how the epistemic injustice in it has contributed to the discrimination against disabled and queered beings. A typical naturalized African epistemology propagates this discrimination as a form of parents to child disposition. In this discrimination against disabled and queered beings, the elders and the community to which an individual belongs are culpable. The reason being that while discriminatory norms are inherent in African communities, the elders help in propagating these norms. Having said all these, it is imperative to note that no matter the diachronic discrimination against disabled and queered beings, none of these practices can be justified. To this end, efforts to eliminate all forms of prejudices and discrimination against disabled and queered beings have become futile.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Faculty of ArtsAmbrose Alli University EkpomaNigeria

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