Suffering and the Encounter of the Other in African Spaces

  • Austine E. IyareEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Handbooks in Philosophy book series (HP)


In this chapter, I argue from African contexts that suffering is ontologically encapsulated in different forms into the being of the other. I develop three different aspects of this encounter of the other with suffering. First, I argue that although suffering is always a part of our ontic human experiences in that all beings suffer, the other suffers more than the self in an African community of selves. I buttress this point drawing on past and current evidences in African places such as the Boko Haram experience in Northern Nigeria and the xenophobia experience in South Africa. Second, I assert that the other is often seen as a source and cause of suffering by the self in African communities. A case in point once more is the xenophobia experience in South Africa. The first and second aspects necessitate a third aspect which I configure around the question. What is then our moral responsibility and obligation toward the other if the other’s being is naturally encapsulated in suffering? In answering this question, I show that the understanding of the being of the other in terms of the first and second aspects above necessarily results in the violent othering of the other and a denial of moral responsibility toward the other. I therefore attempt to reinterpret the understanding of the other as characterized with suffering and show that we do have a moral responsibility toward the other as we expect of others to have the same moral responsibility toward us when we take the position of the other. I therefore conclude by an attempt to understand the other in terms of hospitality rather than suffering.


Suffering Other Osu caste Xenophobia Hospitality 


Suffering is one major problem that human beings have continually experienced irrespective of one’s culture. The concept has different meanings, and its form differs from one society to another. Suffering generally means the experience of pain or distress as well as the aftermath of such experiences. Although sometimes identified with pain, suffering is better understood as a highly unpleasant emotional state associated with considerable pain or distress (Ireogbu 1995). It is the presence of pain, displeasure, and other forms of anguish: physical or spiritual in a given human person or sentient being (Ibid.). Whether and how much one suffers can vary in accordance with any meaning attached to the associated pain or distress or with expectation regarding the future. There seems to be an intuitive rationale justification of pain or other forms of suffering, when this is as a result of some guilt, crime, or misdemeanor one has committed. People usually accept suffering either as punishment for an offense or simply as nemesis which is a proportionate natural sanction to a proportionate evil act and to the law of Vendetta, which is revenge for offense committed (Ibid.). But in a situation where the cause or origin of suffering is not known, it raises some fundamental questions such as why one suffers for the sake of suffering or for unknown reason? For instance, an unexpected natural disaster such as an earthquake or a tsunami could cause untold pain, hardship, and suffering to people, which would include those who consider themselves as deserving of such harm due to wrongs done in the past and those who cannot simply fathom why they would have to go through such hardship or suffering.

In Africa, there are several examples of different forms of suffering that people have experienced often caused by different levels of systemic failure resulting mainly from the selfishness of the political elite. These forms of suffering seem to negate one of the core values of African cultures, communalism, which Africa is known for. For instance, lack of water supply and power supply, good roads, and other essential infrastructures could easily result in the suffering of many and even death. Beyond these forms of suffering caused by the failure of the political and social systems, another major source of suffering in African societies, which forms the basis for this chapter, is deeply rooted ideas about reality in African traditions. For example, in many parts of Nigeria, there is a caste system such that the other who is a member of the caste system, although dwelling alongside with others who are excluded from the caste system in the same community of selves, suffers. In these communities, the indigenous people see the other of the caste system as different from them, thereby possessing different identities which causes them to suffer terrible forms of discriminations within the same community, denying them of the enjoyment of the same rights and privileges that others enjoy. Same negative othering that results in suffering is experienced in many other African societies. Such negative othering includes the notorious Boko Haram saga in Northern Nigeria; the disturbing xenophobia experience in South Africa; the Hutu-Tutsi othering in the Rwandan genocide, traces of which are still obvious today; the ill-treatment of disabled persons specifically persons with albinism in Tanzania and other Eastern African countries; the marginalization of the African woman by African men; and the racism against blacks in non-black spaces, to mention a few.

The perception that the other is different from the self even in modern societies is largely responsible for the violence, inequality, injustice, and discriminations experienced by Africans within African places and beyond. These perceived differences permeate our social cultural, religious, and political life both in traditional and modern societies. These facts of suffering provoke moral concerns especially when there seems to be no rational justification for such suffering, and it raises some fundamental and ethical questions such as why should the other suffer in a community of selves? Why should the other be perceived as different? And what is the nature and extent of our obligations to those who suffer under these conditions?

The Suffering of the Other in African Communities

How is the other made within a community of selves in African societies? Simply put, the community has an enclosed and rigid understanding of what a self ought to be. This would often consist of a rigid, comprehensive, and complex ontological system and structure of the nature of specific beings and being in general. Once this is clearly understood within the African community of selves, any human being that lacks in some way what is expected of her as a being or possesses beyond what is expected of her becomes the target of suspicion and hatred. But why should the other suffer in a supposed homogenous community of selves in which she dwells simply because she is in some way different from the status quo? Sometimes, such persons suffer to a great extent, and yet one cannot even pinpoint what exactly is the cause of the suffering. In what follows in this section, we shall examine a few examples of such othering in specific African spaces that result in suffering: the caste system, Boko Haram, and xenophobia.

The caste system in Southeastern Nigeria is called Osu. The Osu caste system is an ancient practice in Igboland that discourages social interactions and marriage with a group of persons called Osu (Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( Who is an Osu? In the words of Francis Onwubuariri:

The word Osu in Igbo land simply means a belief system, a traditional and religious belief that certain people should be discriminated from others. It is a name that is given to slave, untouchables and outcasts. It is the name given to those humans that are sacrificed to the gods, those that are banished from their community who do not have anything to do with the people of the society or community and finally those people that ran to a far distanced town due to inversion from their enemies, and so forth. Besides, Osu in the other hand in most cases is seen as signifying course, in other words, Osu is viewed as course, thus, umuosu are referred to as coursed people. This is the reason why calling one an Osu is more dangerous than calling him a thief, harlot or any bad name (Onwubuariri 2016).

Victor E. Dike adds that:

The Osu, by definition, is a people sacrificed to the gods in Igbo community. And they assist the high priest of the traditional religion to serve the deities or the gods in their shrine. It is the belief of many Igbo traditionalists that the deities, which were (and are still) perceived in some quarters as being very powerful, would wreck havoc in the society, if they are not appeased. In some special circumstances, those who hold the traditional beliefs of the Igbos could transform a Diala who committed certain atrocities against the land, into an Osu. This process involved intricate rituals (offering of libations and sacrificing animals to the earth goddess). Some of the ancestors of the present-day Osu people inherited their dehumanizing social status this way. That method is now a thing of the old; Western influence has affected this practice. Presently, one could acquire the Osu status through inheritance and marriage. (Dike 2002)

In Igbo communities, the group of persons labelled Osu by these communities are discriminated against, labelled as subhuman beings, and forbade to participate in most social ceremonies in their communities. In some situations, they usually have designated areas in the community where they live. Most often, they are denied some rights and also they do not enjoy the same kind of freedom other members of their community enjoy. Even in modern times, it is seen as a taboo for an Igbo person to get married to an Osu. One may wonder why such discrimination still holds sway in modern time. But the truth remains that even in modern societies where such discriminations do not appear so pronounced in those communities where they exist, the stigma attached to these people referred to as Osu still lives with them. And this is very dehumanizing and worst of psychological suffering. The caste system is common not only to the Igbos of Southeastern Nigeria but also to some other Nigerian communities. People in these communities in their darkness and ignorance called an innocent person “Osu,” a thing given to the idols and thereafter became an outcaste and his children and children’s children forever (Igwe and Akolowu 2014). According to O. W. Igwe and G. O. Okolokwu:

The Osu are treated as inferior human beings in a state of permanent and irreversible disability and are subjected to various forms of abuse and discriminations. They are made to live separately from the freeborn. They reside in most cases very close to the shrines and market places. In extreme cases they are not allowed to dance, drink, hold hands, associate or have sexual relations with Nwadiala. Further, they are not allowed to break Kola nuts (an offering of peace) at meetings. At the level of spirituality, an Osu cannot be allowed to pour libation or pray to the gods on behalf of a freeborn at a community gathering. It is believed that such prayers will bring calamity and misfortune. An Osu may find it difficult fulfilling a desire to occupy political position in Igboland particularly, where a Diala has indicated interest (Ibid.).

These are some of the psychological suffering these people go through as a result of the difference. Igwe and Okolowu also explain that the discrimination against the Osu is evidenced in such cases as parents administering poison to their children, in a desperate move to perpetually wipe out the stigma, disinheritance (in a situation where a freeborn marries Osu), ostracism, organized attack, heaping harvest offering separately in churches, denial of membership in social clubs, violent disruption of marriage ceremonies, denial of chieftaincy titles, deprivation of property, and expulsion of wives (Ibid.). “The discriminations are more pronounced in the area of marriage. An Osu cannot marry a freeborn. The belief is that any freeborn that marries an Osu defiles the family. Consequently, freeborn families are always prepared against any of their own desiring to marry an Osu. Every available “arsenal” is assembled to scuttle the arrangement. This scar is so feared that marriages in most Igbo communities are preceded by very thorough and rigorous investigations (Francis Onwubuka). The othering of the Osu is thus violent and causes a lot of suffering to those othered even today.

The Boko Haram experience in Nigeria portrays a situation where the other suffers as a result of their ideological difference. In less than two decades ago, the northeastern part of Nigeria was relatively calm and peaceful before the development of some Islamic fundamentalist group. The propagation of this ideology by members of the sect Boko Haram created a religious and ideological difference in the North East. The Islamic sect believes politics in Northern Nigeria has been hijacked by a group of corrupt and false Muslims and, also, that westernization has bred corruption in Nigeria policy and therefore wants to wage a war against westernization of all sorts in the county by creating a theocratic state ruled by Sharia law (Anyadike 2013). Since August 2011, the Boko Haram sect has bombed so many public places and churches in Nigeria’s northeast. The activities of this sect have created so much fear in the minds of the other members of these communities who do not believe or share their extremist ideology. As a result of this difference, the other suffers more in the northeastern of Nigeria. As Olugbenga Oke-Samuel and Ayoduwa St. Emmanuel explain, Boko Haram carries out “insurmountable violent and brutal attacks such as bombing of places of worship, suicide bombings, kidnapping, assassinations of individuals and groups especially Christian minorities, prominent politicians and clerics who opposed it” (Oke-Samuel and St. Emmanuel 2017).

Existing literature presents theories explaining the source of this problem. The theories are divided into two broad spectrums. One views this problem as entirely internal. The other blames external forces. The former looks at socioeconomic factors, as well as deep-seated political and religious differences in the Nigerian society (Nkechi O. Anyadike). This has resulted in the killings of so many persons and several persons have been displaced in the Northeast. It has brought untold hardship to non-Muslims and Muslims alike in the same community of selves. What is clear from whatever factors or forces may be responsible for the being of book haram is that difference in ideology and convictions played and continue to play a key role. Hence, the targeted groups such as Christian minority groups in Northern Nigeria suffer because they in some way oppose the beliefs of the Boko Haram group.

A more worrisome development is the suffering that the female other goes through due to the Boko Haram insurgence. In its Research Summary for February 2016 titled “Bad Blood,” UNICEF aptly captures this when it says in the Executive Summary that “Sexual violence is a characteristic of the ongoing insurgency in northeast Nigeria, during which hundreds of women and girls have been raped by fighters belonging to Jama’atul ahl al-sunnah li da’awati wal jihad (JAS), known globally as Boko Haram. Many of the women and girls were abducted, forcibly married to their captors and became pregnant as a result of rape” (UNICEF 2016). More worrisome is the fact that the female folks who have been resued successfully by the Nigerian army personnel from these terrorists and the children they have forcibly been made to have before such rescue are often not accepted back into the community of selves. They are marginalized and discriminated against. They are thus often called “Bad Blood,” which explains the title of the UNICEF research summary. As the Research Summary puts it:

The ongoing offensive of the Nigerian Armed Forces and the recapturing of swathes of territory held by JAS has led to large numbers of men, women and children being encountered and released. Women and girls who have been subjected to sexual violence have been returning to their communities in the internally displaced camps and host communities or returning to their local government areas (LGAs). Some are returning with their children who were born as a result of sexual violence. As they return, many face marginalisation, discrimination and rejection by family and community members due to social and cultural norms related to sexual violence. There is also the growing fear that some of these girls and women were radicalised in captivity. The children who have been born of sexual violence are at an even greater risk of rejection, abandonment and violence (Ibid.).

One can thus imagine the pain and suffering that such women and young girls and boys have gone through in the hands of these terrorists simply because such a notorious group considers them as different.
A third specific example of the suffering of the other in African places that has been quite prominent in recent times is the experience of xenophobia in South Africa. Southern African xenophobia portrays a situation where the other suffers by virtue of being a foreigner. Xenophobia means the fear and hatred for strangers or anything that is strange and foreign. The indigenous people of South Africa sees foreigners as an other and therefore out of fear and hatred terrorized the foreigners by killing them and destroying their properties. As Mojalefa L. J. Koenane explains:

Undoubtedly, xenophobia and xenophobic attitudes are subjects of interest throughout the world today. The world is battling with addressing the problem of migration without being xenophobia. Europe and the United States are faced with the same challenge in terms of their relationship with Islamic countries in particular. Generally, xenophobic attitudes are a result of a struggle for scarce resources which citizens believe they have more rights to than foreigners. In South Africa, xenophobia manifests itself through negative attitudes and violence against non-nationals from other parts of Africa, a phenomenon now popularly referred to as ‘Afrophobia’. Afrophobia signifies the idea that targets for violent attacks are black people suspected or known to be outsiders, particularly Africans such as Zimbabweans, Mozambicans, Somalis, Sudanese and lately Nigerians. (Koenane 2018).

The xenophobic feelings and acts exhibited by the South African indigenous people portray them as unfriendly and unreceptive people. This feeling is captured in the words of Cynthia Khanyile, a street vendor in Jabulani, South Africa: “I hate foreigners. I don’t like them. They take business away from us. We work hard and then the foreigners come and take our business and jobs” (Khadija Patel and Azad Essa, Although quite difficult to explain why this is so, these attitudes may not be unconnected to their past historical experience of apartheid which makes them repulsive to, and suspicious of, foreigners. The portrayal of the foreigner as an other has led to untold suffering and pain for such persons.

These cases of the suffering of the other examined in this section clearly show that suffering is often implied in othering in African places which raises the why-question. In the section that follows, we pay attention to one main reason why the others suffers in African spaces: the self sees the other as the source of her suffering and would therefore make life unbearable for the other who causes her suffering.

The Other as a Source of Suffering

How does the Boko Haram terrorist perceive the West and its tradition that has now become globalized even in forms of education? How does the Igbo person see the Osu? How does the South African see the foreign other? A common answer to these questions is the other is a source of suffering for the self – the terrorist who dominates the northeast of Nigeria, the freeborn Igbo person, and the South African. Recall that the street vendor in South African, Cynthia Khanyile, says that the reason why she hates the foreigner is because they cause her suffering by, for instance, taking jobs that rightfully belong to South African indigenes. For this reason, Cynthia and many other South Africans see it as their responsibility to make life unbearable for the foreigner and to chase them away from their land.

Apart from the cases of the caste system noticed in many African communities as mentioned above, the Boko Haram terrorism as a result of differences in religion and ideology and the xenophobia experience as witnessed in South Africa, there are more of such cases where the other does not only suffer but is labelled as the source of suffering. For instance, in the West, being black is a source of suffering obvious from the notorious history of racism, slavery, and colonialism. Black persons are discriminated against in most white countries simply because of being visibly different, being black. In the laws and constitutions of most countries of the world especially in the advanced and developed countries, we have all the elements of equality of freedom and justice. But most times when the other presents itself, the other suffers more in spite the position of the law. The idea of the laws of freedom, equity, and justice as it concerns the treatment of people perceived as different in a community becomes more of theory than in practice. Therefore, it is not uncommon to see so many black people being discriminated against in Europe and America due to their difference. Hence, every now and then, we witness different forms of maltreatment of the black other from most government agencies especially from the police and other security agencies in the West. The black other is most culpable and victimized in most cases. The rate of police brutality on the black other in these societies is usually intense due to discrimination. One major reason often provided for the continuous marginalization and racist treatment of black people in Europe and the United States is that black migrants to these places increase the rate of crime, take their women and jobs, and disrupt the status quo and systemic structure.

In most societies in Africa and the world generally, ethnic and tribal differences also present an other such that people of different ethnic group suffer discrimination either as individuals or a group. If a person belongs to a small ethnic group where a larger ethnic group exists within the same society, she is seen as an other that must be normalized or subsumed into the one due to fear of being threatened in the future by such smaller groups. In this case the person suffers more in terms of denial of rights and privileges accrued to every member of the society because she is a source of threat. Same happens when one is not a member of a most popular tribe in the same community. The person often times is discriminated against for no just reason but simply because of the tribal differences which presents her as an other that dents the image of the popular group. There are some situations where language is what separates the self from the other resulting in difficulty for the other because the self sees the other as one who is challenging the linguistic status quo. When one finds herself in a community where the language spoken is not understood by her, she becomes an other because of his inability to communicate. This inability creates a psychological difference in one such that he is isolated and suffers some form of social alienation. This becomes worse if such community is not receptive to strangers or foreigners.

Also, in some class-driven societies that are highly polarized such that the rich and highly placed persons live in secluded highbrow areas and the poor and downtrodden live in poor settlements, each class would not only see each other as an other, but they would always see each other as the cause of their respective suffering. The rich would accuse the poor of jealousy and hatred, and the poor would accuse the rich of being the primary cause of their pitiable situation. The rich would become apprehensive and not comfortable with the sight of such poor person in their environment. This scenario may not be so common and pronounced in those places where they exist, but this feeling of apprehension exhibited by the rich creates a feeling of inferiority complex in the psyche of the poor in their midst. These cases presented above show that the other is always viewed as a source of suffering in every situation it presents itself.

Hospitality and Our Moral Duty Toward the Other

Flowing from the understanding above that suffering is a highly unpleasant emotional state associated with considerable pain or distress for anyone undergoing it, do we not have a moral responsibility to ensure that others do not suffer no matter their difference? The fact of suffering provokes moral concerns, especially when suffering is caused unnecessarily, and this raises some ethical questions, mainly regarding the nature and extent of our obligations to those who suffer. What should be our moral duty toward the other? One of the most notable philosophers who attempted to address the problem of suffering of the other and our moral responsibility toward the other is Emmanuel Levinas. In his famous book Thinking of the Other, he described suffering as “useless and meaningless.” Levinas’ phenomenological conception of suffering consists of an attempt to understand suffering from a presuppositionless basis as an object of human experience that fosters the encounter of the self with the other.

In Levinas view, we should care and be responsible for the other. As Levinas observes:

I understood responsibility as responsibility for the other, thus as responsibility for what is not my deed or for what does not even matter to me; or which precisely does matter to me is met by me as a face (Paul Marcus).

Levinas believes that the issue of suffering lies beyond mere knowledge of what it is and that it cannot make sense beyond what the self can contain, but rather suffering can be appreciated through the call to responsibility. He argued that one needs to attend to the suffering of others as he believes that the urgency of suffering cannot be consoled in meaning. The only morality therefore is one of kindness (Levinas 1990).

This attention to the suffering of the other is the basis for the connection of human subjectivity; when we pay attention to the suffering of others, we are elevated from our own suffering because we become morally responsible to the other. Suffering becomes the ground for moral responsibility. Levinas suggests a kind of selfhood, one not simply lodged within familiar notions of responsibility for oneself. In a sense, Levinas goes further than mainstream psychoanalysis in that he posits and describes a selfhood mainly based on its responsibility for, and obligations to, others (Emmanuel Levinas). This position is similar to that of brotherhood known in Africa which suggests one becoming his brother’s keeper. It aligns with the popular African saying that if one takes care of his brothers, he has indirectly taken care of himself. Some religions also talk about helping those who suffer in our midst especially the poor. But for Levinas, he suggests that responsibility should not be seen as responsibility for oneself but that responsibility should be seen from the care we offer to the other in our communities.

Within the African framework of thought, one concept that would be useful to explore in promoting hospitality toward the other in African spaces is Ubuntu. Ubuntu is no doubt one of the most popular African philosophical concepts, and it places emphases on communalistic living. In the words of Barbara Nussbaum:

Ubuntu is the capacity in African culture to express compassion, reciprocity, dignity, harmony, and humanity in the interests of building and maintaining community. Ubuntu calls on us to believe and feel that: Your pain is my pain, my wealth is your wealth, and your salvation is my salvation. In essence, Ubuntu… addresses our interconnectedness, our common humanity, and the responsibility to each other that flows from our connection. (Nussbaum 2003)

Koenane adds that:

A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, and willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, are willing to be vulnerable, are affirming of others and do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole. They know that they are diminished when others are humiliated, diminished when others are oppressed and diminished when others are treated as if they were less than who they are. (Mojalefa L. J. Koenane)

These are very striking and important points to learn from the African concept of Ubuntu. Ubuntu thus promotes genuine hospitality toward the other. It promotes true friendship toward the stranger. It brings to our attention the obvious fact that the self is also an other to others just as others are to her. It becomes essential that we treat each other with love and respect.


From our discussions above, it is clear that the problem of suffering is a perennial problem which exists in one form or the other in every human community. Despite the cosmopolitan appearance of our cities and influence of religion in our lives, some cultures and subgroups have continued to be guided by the dictates of long-established traditions. These deeply rooted traditions have continuously and perpetually put the other in a disadvantaged and precarious situation of suffering. Even the civilized societies are also not free from this guilt of discrimination against the other as we see in the discrimination by whites against blacks. This discrimination is a rock-bottom attack on the personality of the victim from the membership of human community. In the words of Levinas, “this extreme passivity, helplessness, abandonment and solitude in pure suffering which is intrinsically senseless and condemned to itself with no way out, a beyond appear in the form of inter human (Levinas 1998).” This means we need to relate which each other with respect and dignity. This interhuman relation of the self and the other can foster the relative peace needed for global peace and development.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Philosophy, Faculty of ArtsAmbrose Alli UniversityEkpomaNigeria

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