The African Genome Project...Where Human Life Began

*Article credit.

WHEN THE Mutambaras’ first son was a about 18 months old they began to worry about his hearing. The toddler did not respond when asked to “come to Mama”. He was soon diagnosed as deaf, though no doctor could tell the Zimbabwean couple the cause. Several years later their second son was also born deaf.

This time a doctor referred them to Hearing Impairment Genetics Studies in Africa (hi-genes), set up in 2018 by Ambroise Wonkam, a Cameroonian professor of genetics now at the University of Cape Town. The project is sequencing the genomes of Africans with hearing loss in seven countries to learn why six babies in every 1,000 are born deaf in Africa, a rate six times that in America. In Cape Town, where Mr and Mrs Mutambara (not their real names) live, a counsellor explained that the boys’ deafness is caused by genetic variants rarely found outside Africa.

What is true of deafness is true of other conditions. The 3bn pairs of nucleotide bases that make up human dna were first fully mapped in 2003 by the Human Genome Project. Since then scientists have made publicly available the sequencing of around 1m genomes as part of an effort to refine the “reference genome”, a blueprint used by researchers. But less than 2% of all sequenced genomes are African, though Africans are 17% of the world’s population (see chart). “We must fill the gap,” argues Dr Wonkam, who has proposed an initiative to do just that—Three Million African Genomes (3mag).

The evolutionary line leading to Homo sapiens diverged 5m-6m years ago from that leading to chimpanzees, and for almost all that time the ancestors of modern humans lived in Africa.

Only about 60,000 years ago did Homo sapiens venture widely beyond the continent, in small bands of adventurers. Most of humanity’s genetic diversity, under-sampled though it is, is therefore found in Africa. Unfortunately, that diversity is also reflected in the greater variety of genetic illnesses found there.

The bias in sequencing leads to under-diagnosis of diseases in people of (relatively recent) African descent. Genetic causes of heart failure, such as the one that caused the ultimately fatal collapse of Marc-Vivien Foé, a Cameroonian football player, during a game in 2003, are poorly understood. The variation present in most non-Africans with cystic fibrosis is responsible for only about 30% of cases in people of African origin. This is one reason, along with its relative rarity, that the illness is often missed in black children. Standard genetic tests for hearing loss would not have picked up the Mutambara boys’ variations. And such is the diversity within the continent that tests in some countries would be irrelevant in others. In Ghana hi-genes found one mutation responsible for 40% of inherited deafness. The same variation has not been found in South Africa.

Bias also means that little is known about how variations elsewhere in the genome modify conditions. With sickle-cell disease, red blood cells look like bananas rather than, as is normal, round cushions. About 75% of the 300,000 babies born every year with sickle-cell disease are African. The high share reflects a bittersweet twist in the evolutionary tale; sickle-cell genes can confer a degree of protection against malaria. Other mutations are known to lessen sickle-cell’s impact, but most knowledge of genetic modifiers is particular to Europeans.

Quicker and more accurate diagnosis would mean better treatment. The sooner parents know their children are deaf, the sooner they can begin sign language. Algorithms that incorporate genetic information, such as one for measuring doses of warfarin, a blood-thinner, are often inappropriately calibrated for Africans.

Knowing more about Africans’ genomes will benefit the whole world. The continent’s genetic diversity makes it easier to find rare causes of common diseases. Last year researchers investigating schizophrenia sequenced the genomes of about 900 Xhosas (a South African ethnic group) with the psychiatric disorder. They found some of the same mutations that a team had discovered in Swedes four years earlier. But those researchers had to analyse four times as many of the homogeneous Scandinavians to find it. Research by Olufunmilayo Olopade, a Nigerian-born oncologist, into why breast cancer is relatively common in Nigerian women, has revealed broad insights into tumour growth.

Dr Wonkam’s vision for 3mag, as outlined in Nature, a scientific journal, is for 300,000 African genomes to be sequenced per year over a decade. That is the minimum needed to capture the continent’s diversity. He notes that the uk biobank is sequencing 500,000 genomes, though Britain’s population is a twentieth the size of Africa’s. The plummeting cost of technology makes 3mag possible. Sequencing the first genome cost $300m; today the cost of sequencing is around $1,000. If data from people of African descent in similar projects, like the uk biobank, were shared with 3mag, that would help. So too would collaboration with genetics firms, such as 54Gene, a Nigerian start-up.

The 3mag project is building on firm foundations. Over the past decade the Human Heredity and Health in Africa consortium, sponsored by America’s National Institutes of Health and the Wellcome Trust, a British charity, has supported research institutes in 30 African countries. It has funded local laboratories for world-class scientists such as Dr Wonkam and Christian Happi, a Nigerian geneticist.

There are practical issues to iron out. One is figuring out how to store the vast amounts of data. Another is rules around consent and data use, especially if 3mag will involve firms understandably keen to commercialise the findings. Dr Wonkam wants to see an ethics committee set up to review this and other matters.

At times he has wondered whether his plan is “too big, too crazy and too expensive”. But similar things were said about the Human Genome Project. Its researchers used the Rosetta Stone as a metaphor for the initiative and its ambition. In a subtle nod, Dr Wonkam has a miniature of the obelisk on a shelf in his office. It is also a reminder of how understanding African languages, whether spoken or genetic, can enlighten all of humanity.

*The Economist.

Reverse Migration to Africa ...Policy Makers Should Encourage this Spectacle.

*Article credit.

WHEN BANKS started to fail and protesters began filling the streets in 2019, Moussa Khoury resisted the temptation to leave his native Lebanon. After a massive explosion flattened part of Beirut, the capital, last year, he fixed his broken windows and stayed put. But in the end he could not withstand the collapse of Lebanon’s currency. Mr Khoury runs a startup selling vegetables grown in hydroponic planters. His customers paid him in liras, while his suppliers demanded hard currency. So in April he accepted an offer from an acquaintance who promised to invest in the business—if Mr Khoury moved it to Ghana.

More than 250,000 Lebanese probably live in west Africa. It is impossible to know how many have moved there since Lebanon’s economic crisis began in 2019, but the evidence suggests the number is large. A pilot of Lebanese descent living in Togo says Lebanese pack his flights to west Africa. Lebanon’s embassy in Nigeria reports a “noticeable increase” in Lebanese moving to the country. Guita Hourani, who leads a centre that studies migration at Notre Dame University-Louaize in Lebanon, says her office is flooded with calls from locals who want advice on how to track down relatives abroad, including in Africa.

Many Lebanese came to west Africa in the 19th century, disembarking (some say by mistake) from ships heading for America. The new arrivals proved remarkably successful, first as middlemen between locals and colonising powers, later as business owners and commodity traders. Today, for example, Lebanese reportedly control many of the companies in Ivory Coast that handle exports of coffee or cocoa.

Over a century of conflict, crisis and famine have scattered Lebanese all over the world. But these days Lebanese find it much easier to obtain visas from west African destinations than from America or European countries. Jobs are easier to get hold of, too. Someone always knows someone who has an opening, says Karim Maky, a Senegalese of Lebanese descent. Skilled workers are paid well. And most west African countries already have Lebanese churches, mosques and schools.

Some newcomers plan to stay for a while. Take Ibrahim Chahine, a young mechanical engineer who left Lebanon last year. Canada’s visa process was too cumbersome, he says. His applications to Gulf countries went unanswered. So when he got a job at a company run by Lebanese in Nigeria, he didn’t think twice. Within two weeks he had moved to Abuja, the capital. He expects to stay for ten years.

Mr Khoury is not so sure. He had hoped to use his startup to boost agricultural production in Lebanon, which currently imports nearly all of its food. Instead he is building a greenhouse in Accra, the capital of Ghana, with the aim of selling baskets of kale, leeks and lettuce to local supermarkets, restaurants and hotels. He plans to spend at least a year there. But his extended family is back in Lebanon. And he’s kept his operation there open. That’s because of nostalgia, he says, not profits.

*The Economist.


International Human Rights Law and Practice

By Illias Bantekas and Lutz Oette.

This unique textbook merges human rights law with its practice, from the courtroom to the battlefield. Human rights are analysed in their particular context, and the authors assess, among other things, the impact of international finance, the role of NGOs, and the protection of rights in times of emergency, including the challenges posed by counter-terrorism. In parallel, a series of interviews with practitioners, case studies and practical applications offer multiple perspectives and challenging questions on the effective implementation of human rights. Although the book comprehensively covers the traditional areas of international human rights law, including its regional and international legal and institutional framework, it also encompasses, through distinct chapters or large sections, areas that have a profound impact on human rights worldwide, such as women's rights, human rights and globalisation, refugees and migration, human rights obligations of non-state actors, debt and human rights, and others.


Hidden Toll of COVID in Africa Threatens Global Pandemic Progress

Sarah Wild.

Undercounting or ignoring cases of the disease on the continent could lead to new variants that might derail efforts to end the pandemic. Kenya and other African countries are reporting relatively few COVID cases, but studies suggest that the continent’s true burden of disease may be undercounted.

Africa has suffered about three million COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic—at least officially. The continent’s comparatively low number of reported cases has puzzled scientists and prompted many theories about its exceptionalism, from its young population to its countries’ rapid and aggressive lockdowns.

But numerous seroprevalence surveys, which use blood tests to identify whether people have antibodies from prior infection with the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), point to a significant underestimation of African countries’ COVID burden. Undercounting could increase the risk of the disease spreading widely, hinder vaccine rollout and uptake, and ultimately threaten global efforts to control the pandemic, experts warn. Wherever the virus is circulating—especially in regions with little access to vaccines—new mutations are likely to arise, and it is crucial to identify them quickly.

Viral variants are already complicating vaccination drives around the world. New SARS-CoV-2 variants first detected in South Africa, Brazil and the U.K. have raised concerns that they could be more transmissible or make available vaccines less effective. And drugmakers are scrambling to develop vaccine boosters to protect against them. (The currently authorized vaccines still provide strong protection against severe disease and death.)

Undiagnosed transmission of COVID in African countries increases the risk of new variants taking hold in the population before authorities have a chance to detect them and prevent their spread, says Richard Lessells, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform in South Africa. That nation has the highest number of recorded cases on the continent (many of them caused by a new variant). And officials suspect that its surveillance network is only catching one in every 10 infections.

Mutations develop spontaneously as a virus replicates and spreads. While many of them are innocuous, they can sometimes make the pathogen more transmissible or deadly, as seen in the SARS-CoV-2 variant first detected in the U.K.

“If you allow it to continue to spread, it will continue to evolve,” warns Lessells, who was part of the team that first identified the new variant in South Africa. The threat of mutation is greater if the virus is moving unhindered through large swaths of a country’s or region’s population. Lessells emphasizes that Africa is not the “problem” and that new variants could just as easily emerge elsewhere. Rather the issue is vaccine equity. “It is clear that if we leave Africa behind on the vaccine front, then there’s clearly a risk that it gets more challenging to control transmission,” he says.

The underestimation of COVID cases feeds into a narrative that African countries do not need vaccines as urgently as other nations. After all, if there are relatively few cases and deaths, then some people may say, “Good, no problem––they don’t need vaccines,” says Maysoon Dahab, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. Her research estimated that only about 2 percent of COVID deaths in Khartoum, Sudan, were correctly attributed to the illness between last April and September.

Many African countries have initiated limited vaccination programs, mainly procured through the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility. Vaccines are earmarked for health care workers and extremely vulnerable groups. They are simply not available to inoculate entire African nations in the short to medium term—both as a result of global demand and because of rich countries hoarding doses.

Currently, rich nations accounting for 16 percent of the world’s population have bought 60 percent of the global vaccine supply, wrote World Health Organization director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Foreign Policy last month. “Many of these countries aim to vaccinate 70 percent of their adult population by midyear in pursuit of herd immunity,” he wrote.

Vaccine-induced herd immunity is not likely for African countries in the near future. A spokesperson for COVAX co-leader GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, told Scientific American that the initiative aims to vaccinate 20 percent of people in its member countries by the end of the year. “COVAX’s work has only just begun: it is vitally important that manufacturers continue to support COVAX and governments refrain from more bilateral deals that take further supply out of the market,” the spokesperson said.

But if reported COVID cases are low, officials may struggle to persuade people to get a shot even if they are in a position to do so. The low reported disease numbers are bolstering vaccine hesitancy, warns Catherine Kyobutungi, executive director of the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, Kenya. “People are asking why they need to be vaccinated when they’ve already gotten rid of the virus without vaccines,” she says.

Kenya has officially had 122,000 cases, but a nationwide blood-bank survey found that about 5 percent of more than 3,000 samples taken between last April and June contained SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. If extrapolated, this finding points to the possibility of millions of undiagnosed cases in Kenya, although some scientists say that the survey was not representative of the general population and could have had skewed results. Nevertheless, the country aims to vaccinate 30 percent of its population—a figure Kyobutungi describes as a “drop in the ocean”—by 2023.

Without widespread access to vaccines, African countries are relying on basic public health measures such as mask wearing and handwashing alone to control the disease’s spread. And, as with vaccination, people could dismiss these measures as unnecessary if the numbers misrepresent the risk of infection.

Governments may also take the statistics at face value and downscale their COVID surveillance efforts, Kyobutungi warns. That is, they may do so “until something terrible happens or, a year down the line, there’s a Malawian variant, a Ugandan variant or Sudanese variant,” she says. “If new lethal variants emerge in Africa, Africa gets cut off from the rest of the world, or the variants spread like the first cases in China. Then you have cases everywhere, and we need to vaccinate the whole world all over again.”

Others, however, are less concerned about undercounting and its potential consequences. Epidemiologist Salim Abdool Karim, co-leader of South Africa’s ministerial advisory committee, says that the only way to completely protect the public is to presume “everybody is potentially infected” and institute universal health measures such as mask wearing. “Vaccines are an important part of our prevention tool box—probably the most important part,” Abdool Karim says. “But they aren’t enough on their own.”

Ngoy Nsenga, WHO Africa’s program manager for emergency response, agrees that variants are a concern and that the best response is implementing public health interventions. “Of course, we wish we could have vaccines to vaccinate everyone and stop the chain of transmission, but because of availability, that is not possible,” he says.

Without worldwide concurrent vaccination, COVID will continue to spread. With the disease, African countries are “here for the long haul,” Nsenga says. And if that is true for the continent, it could well be true for the rest of the world. “If any place, any country, is not safe in this world, no country will be safe,” he says.

*Courtesy of Scientific American.


'Savages armed with ideas: more difficult to deal with' - Churchill's Empire


 Richard Toye.


On 10 December 1954 a visitor from East Africa was waiting on a horsehair sofa in the hallway of 10 Downing Street. Suddenly, the small, frail figure of Winston Churchill appeared from behind a screen, said, 'Good afternoon, Mr Blundell,' and offered him a slightly stiffened hand to shake. The two men went together into the Cabinet Room. It was only three o'clock but Churchill — smoking his customary cigar — ordered them both a strong whisky and soda. As they sipped their drinks, their meeting, scheduled to take fifteen minutes, spilled out to last forty-five. The topic was the Mau Mau rebellion against British colonial rule in Kenya; and Michael Blundell, a prominent white settler with a somewhat spurious reputation as a liberal, was given an impassioned exposition of the Prime Minister's views.

Churchill began by recalling his own visit to the country in 1907. Then, he had found the Kikuyu group, from which most of the rebels were now drawn, to be 'a happy, naked and charming people'. He professed himself 'astonished at the change which had come over their minds'. He became animated over the problem of how settlers might be protected from attack, and he poured out a flood of ideas designed to defend farmers: trip-wires, bells and other early warning systems. But in his view the issue was not really a military one — the problem was to get to the rebels' minds. His eyes grew tearful as he told Blundell of the threat the situation posed to Britain's good name in the world. It was terrible that the country that was the home of culture, magnanimity and democracy should be using force to suppress Mau Mau. 'It's the power of a modern nation being used to kill savages. It's pretty terrible,' he declared. 'Savages, savages? Not savages. They're savages armed with ideas — much more difficult to deal with.'

Over and again he pressed on a reluctant Blundell the need for negotiation, arguing that the strength of the hold the Mau Mau had on the Kikuyu proved that the latter were not primitive, stupid and cowardly, as was often imagined. Rather, 'they were persons of considerable fibre and ability and steel, who could be brought to our side by just and wise treatment'. He offered an analogy with his own role in finding a solution for the problem of Ireland after World War I, when he had negotiated with the nationalist leader Michael Collins, once a hard-line terrorist opponent of the British. Churchill also deplored British brutality against the Kenyan rebels and the fact that so many of the local population were locked up in detention camps, before offering his views on race relations. He was old-fashioned, he said, and 'did not really think that black people were as capable or as efficient as white people'. All the same, 'If I meet a black man and he's a civilized educated fellow I have no feelings about him at all.' He showed some scepticism about the white settlers too, 'a highly individualistic and difficult people', although he put some of their attitude down to 'tension from the altitude' in the highland areas in which they lived.

When Blundell asked him for a message of encouragement to pass on to them, he declined, but, as his visitor got up to leave, Churchill assured him that he was on the right path and had his support. Blundell wished him a slightly belated happy eightieth birthday, and the Prime Minister looked greatly touched. He was beginning to feel his age, he said. Then he revealed a secret that had been kept from the outside world: 'Hm. I've had two strokes. Most people don't know that, but it's a fact. I keep going.' Blundell deduced that this accounted for the stiffened handshake at the beginning. Churchill walked him to the exit of the room and then, when Blundell had gone about five steps into the hall, wished him goodbye and good luck.

This conversation did not mark any great turning point in the history of Kenya. Churchill, just months from retirement, was no longer in a position to be a major influence on colonial policy. Nevertheless, it was highly revealing of his attitudes to race and Empire, touching numerous themes that had been present throughout his career. There were so many familiar hallmarks: the gift for a phrase ('savages armed with ideas'), the recollection of a happier, more innocent past, the emphasis on magnanimity and negotiating from strength. Also familiar was his unashamed belief in white superiority, a conviction which, for him, however, did not lessen the need to act humanely towards supposedly inferior races that might, in their own way, be worthy of admiration.

Recognizable as part of this was his opinion that members of these races might earn equal treatment, if not exactly warm acceptance, provided they reached an approved cultural standard: a 'civilized educated' black man would provoke 'no feelings' in him. Overall, the striking thing is the complexity of his opinions. He emerges from Blundell's account of the discussion as a holder of racist views but not as an imperial diehard. He comes across in his plea for peace talks as a thoughtful visionary, but also, in his description of the formerly 'happy, naked' Kikuyu, as curiously nïave about the realities of imperialism. He was prepared to question the conduct of a dirty colonial war, but was in the end willing to assure its supporters of his backing.

Churchill's conversation with Blundell is a good starting point for consideration of his lifelong involvement with the British Empire, and the general attitudes to it from which his specific policies flowed. In order to do this we need to contend with his reputation — or reputations — on imperial issues. The popular image of him, which draws in particular on his opposition to Indian independence in the 1930s and 1940s, is of a last-ditcher for whom the integrity of the Empire was paramount. Yet many of his contemporaries had viewed him differently. As a youthful minister at the Colonial Office in the Edwardian period, political antagonists had described him as a Little Englander and a danger to the Empire. ('Little Englandism', which today carries connotations of anti-European xenophobia, at the time implied opposition to imperial expansion and to foreign entanglements in general; it was often used as a term of abuse.) As late as 1920, even the wild-eyed socialist MP James Maxton would claim disapprovingly that 'the British Empire was approaching complete disintegration' and that 'it was not going too far to say that Mr Churchill had played a primary party in bringing about that state of affairs'. Such critics, it should be noted, were not alleging that Churchill was actively hostile to the Empire, more that it was not safe in his hands or that he was comparatively indifferent to it. By the time of Churchill's final term in office, this view was still maintained by a tenacious few.

In 1953 the Conservative politician Earl Winterton wrote to Leo Amery, one of Churchill's former wartime colleagues, to congratulate him on the first volume of his memoirs. He told him: 'I am particularly pleased that you have, whilst paying a tribute to Winston's great patriotism, stated, which is indubitably the case, that he has never been an imperialist in the sense that you and I are; we suffered from this point of view during the war, whilst we were in opposition after the war and are still suffering from it to-day.'

Although similar opinions can be found in the historical literature, such contemporary opinions of Churchill need to be treated with some caution. Those who accused him of not caring enough about the Empire often meant, underneath, that he did not happen to share their particular view of it. Nor is the conventional image completely misleading. Although during his post-1931 wilderness years Churchill publicly disclaimed the diehard label, it is clear that he came to revel in it. During the war, the topic of India frequently triggered such extreme reactions in him that he sometimes appeared not quite sane. Nevertheless, this man who could be so disdainful of non-white peoples — 'I hate people with slit eyes & pig-tails' — also had another side to him. In 1906, when criticizing the 'chronic bloodshed' caused by British punitive raids in West Africa, it was he who sarcastically wrote: 'the whole enterprise is liable to be misrepresented by persons unacquainted with Imperial terminology as the murdering of natives and stealing of their lands'. As his talk with Blundell shows, this concern for the welfare of subject peoples stayed with him until the end of his career.

In 1921, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, he stated that within the British Empire 'there should be no barrier of race, colour or creed which should prevent any man from reaching any station if he is fitted for it'. Yet he immediately qualified this by adding that 'such a principle has to be very carefully and gradually applied because intense local feelings are excited', which was in effect a way of saying that its implementation should be delayed indefinitely. As one Indian politician put it the following year, when noting Churchill's seemingly inconsistent position on the controversial question of Asians in East Africa, it was 'a case, and a very strange case indeed'.

Excepts from the book Churchill's Empire by Richard Toye.

The state of instructional technology in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial Africa: A survey of literature


Godwin Haruna.


This article examines the evolution of instructional technology in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial Africa’s educational system through a survey of existing literature. It stresses the position that education pre-dates colonization of Africa as customary education taught morals and the essence of communal living from the cradle with the goal of molding decent human beings who would preserve the cultural heritage of the people. However, with colonialism, beginning with the Portuguese, who first introduced their brand of education in the continent, the earlier focus was fundamentally altered to making the African embrace the mannerisms and ways of life of the colonists. This trend continued with the British, French, and German colonial administrators who balkanized Africans among themselves. As the literature on the subject revealed, what started as distance learning through the aid of radio and television metamorphosed into many variants. The paper noted that the emergence of the computer and the accompanying internet connectivity has made instructional technology the talking point in many educational settings across the continent.

Keywords: Instructional technology, educational technology, information communication technology, distance learning, e-learning.



There have been many definitions of technology as a concept by as many scholars that broached the topic over time. One that is particularly significantly related to the subject matter was by Saettler (1968):

The word technology does not necessarily imply the use of machines, as many seem to think, but refers to any practical art using scientific knowledge (p. 2) as cited in Gentry (2011).

A further clarification of the ‘practical art’ suggested technique, which makes possible the instructional applications of the machine. Technology has undoubtedly revolutionized learning, in the same way it has transformed all aspects of human endeavor in modern times. Kohut, Taylor, Keeter, Parker, Morin, and Cohn (2010) argue that significantly, technological change and generational change happen to be two sides of the same coin as they move together side by side in a natural progression.

Another perspective on the definition was by Simon (1983):

Technology is a rational discipline designed to assure the mastery of man over physical nature, through the application of scientifically determined laws (p. 2) as cited in Gentry (2011).

There is a connection between this definition that presupposes the mastery of man over nature with attempts to leverage technological development in information technology to improve learning outcomes in educational institutions. Related to the topic also, is the perspective of Finn (1960):

In addition to machinery, technology includes processes, systems, management and control mechanisms both human and non-human, and… a way of looking at the problems as to their interest and difficulty, the feasibility of technical solutions, and the economic values – broadly considered – of those solutions (p. 2) as cited in Gentry (2011).

Instructional technology, broadly speaking, is leveraging Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to impart knowledge in educational institutions. Education per se, brought instructional technology to Africa.

Education as an avenue to learn new things preceded the colonialists who held sway over African countries for several decades in their colonizing mission. In various parts of Africa, customary education taught morals and the essence of communal living from the cradle. In the traditional African society (pre-colonial), education was stepped down through the family, clan or village settings (Mazonde, 1995). It was organized in such a way that everyone, especially among the adults, had a role to play in the proper upbringing of the younger members of the society. The importance of being your brother’s keeper was the underlining factor in the morals taught to the younger elements in face-to-face settings in the absence of technology. Basically, the methods of stepping down instructions were both formal and informal.

Mazonde (1995) situated much more poignantly, the main objectives of the African customary education; firstly:

To preserve the cultural heritage of the extended family, the clan and the tribe. Secondly, to adapt members of the new generation to their physical environment and teach them how to control and use it; and to explain to them that their own future, and that of their community, depends on the understanding and perpetuation of the institutions, laws, language and values inherited from the past (p. 2).

In contrast, the purpose of colonial education, in addition to helping the colonists in the colonial civil service, was to make the African become a complete European in thoughts and in deeds. This position was succinctly put by Wa Thiong’o (1981), a Kenyan scholar, who noted that:

the process annihilates a people’s belief in their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves. It makes them see their past as one wasteland of non-achievement and it makes them want to distance themselves from that wasteland. It makes them want to identify with that which is furthest removed from themselves (p. 3).

The advent of colonialism by the European political elite and the collaborating missionaries and their business counterparts brought to Africa what is today known as modern education. This genre of European-style education, which was first started by the Portuguese missionaries in the fifteenth century, was popularized by other European missionaries across Africa in the eighteenth century in the wake of colonialism (Mazonde, 1995). The British, French and Portuguese colonial administrators formed a perfect partnership with the missionaries in the spread of this Western-style educational system in the various African countries where they had a foothold.

Then, school was the special prerogative of the children of kings, colonial civil servants and the nouveau riche of the society. With the imperial powers’ wholesale involvement in the educational nurturing of Africans began the gradual introduction of technology into the school system as it evolved in the various metropolitan countries over time. However, at the initial stages, Mazonde (1995) noted that the educational emphasis was on liberal arts as there was not much of instruction in the technical, vocational and professional fields. Instructions were stepped down directly through a class-style sitting of face-to-face arrangements as instructional technological aids were a rarity.


The purpose of this study was to review the state of access, utilization and quality of instructional technology during the pre-colonial, colonial post-colonial periods in Africa. With the way the rest of the world is adapting to changes in information and communication technologies in pedagogy, Africa’s growth in ICTs appears to be sluggish. This article highlights some of these inadequacies with a view to putting them before educational policy makers on the continent. Advancement in educational offerings in this new information age is viewed through the lenses of the progress attained in forging ICTs strategies in instructional technology.

Research Questions

Based on the gradual evolution of instructional technology approaches into the African educational system, the research questions that guided this study are: What has been the state of instructional technology in Africa during the pre-colonial and colonial periods? What is the level of access, utilization and quality of instructional technology in post-colonial Africa? A survey of literature in selected African countries would unearth the clues.

Literature Review and Conceptual Framework

Instructional technology applications in educational settings evolved to aid learners realize learning outcomes through the channels of multi-media, CD ROM, projectors, as well as the Internet. In precolonial and colonial periods in Africa, these modern innovations that aided instructional technology in the classroom were rare in the same way that literature on them are not readily available. In contrast however, the post-colonial era became the boom time for instructional technology solutions in the classroom and many African countries have embraced the synergies amid some hiccups . Due to its phenomenal impact on students’ learning, many of the countries on the continent have enacted IT policies to guide implementers of this strategy that has thrown up many vistas of learning. As literature would show on access, utilization and quality of instructional technology in mainly post-colonial Africa, amid the glitches being experienced by many countries in the region, there is no let off in creating a favorable environment for this strategy to thrive.

Access to instructional technology

There is dearth of literature on any form of instructional technology as contemplated in the definitions by Saettler and Simons in Gentry (2011) during the pre-colonial and colonial epochs in Africa. However, technological approaches to instruction were being gradually deployed in the immediate post-colonial period owing to the massive enrollment witnessed across all schools in the provision of education in the various African countries. These forms of technological strategy of instruction in African education began in the wake of the measured introduction of distance learning through television and radio broadcasts as means of educating the mass of the population (Mazonde, 1995). In many African countries open universities have emerged as a potent way learning through technological aids in the modern era. Technology has, understandably, remained a boon to education and it has changed the face of learning in various societies across the world including Africa. Clearly, the evolution of multi-media channels, CD ROM, projectors and the like in classroom instruction have advanced the cause of learning in later epochs in Africa (Okah, 2010).

How does technology aid educational pursuit? Simply put, technological synergy in the educational arena is euphemism for e-learning or online learning as well as the use of other electronic aids to step down learning. Okah (2009) defined e-learning as the online delivery of information. In another paper, Okah (2010) saw the concept as integrating learning with technology. This definition subsumes the use of all electronic aids for learning purposes. For Landon and Landon (2010), e-learning is synonymous with instruction distributed through purely digital technologies such as CD ROM, the internet and private networks. In their own perspective, Hagg, Cumming, and Dawkins (2000) saw the concept of tele-education in various dimensions, among them, e-education, distant learning, distributed learning, and online learning, which are all delivered through various channels of Information Technology (IT) such as chatrooms, video-conferencing, e-mails and the internet. It is a form of self-directed learning that has assumed an important place in education, which affords students greater autonomy and leaner control.

Technology has undoubtedly revolutionized learning, in the same way it has transformed all aspects of human endeavor in modern times, and Africa has not been left behind in the scheme of things especially in the post-colonial era. Significantly, technological change and generational change happen to be two sides of the same coin as they move together side by side in a natural progression (Kohut, Taylor, Keeter, Parker, Morin, & Cohn, 2010). One of the strategies that facilitates active learning in educational institutions in this age is text messaging, due essentially to its instantaneous effect. Innovative mobile learning has assumed a very significant portion of educational offerings in Africa, and applications such as Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS), Short Message Service (SMS), which is also euphemism for text messaging, internet-based tools, mobile phones and the others have become avenues to promote learning (Gurocak, 2016). The mobile phone’s portability, coupled with its wide reach to populations far and near, has increased its attractiveness in educational settings and faculty across African schools have taken advantage of its offerings.

Over the years, the emergence of mobile wireless technologies has been a source of enthusiasm among professionals in industry and, especially, faculty in higher educational institutions because of its potential in shifting the classroom learning environment from the conventional settings to mobile learning (Kims, Mims, & Holmes, 2006). The advantage of wireless technology over the erstwhile wired technology is huge given its limitless freedom to operate from anywhere regardless of time and location and this is where text messaging through mobile phones remains one of the attractions in the mobile learning technologies of this era.

Kims et al made a clear distinction between mobile or wireless technologies and mobile wireless technologies. Specifically, Kims et al defined mobile wireless technologies as:

Any wireless technology that uses radio frequency spectrum in any band to facilitate transmission of text data, voice, video, or multimedia services to mobile devices with freedom of time and location limitation (p. 79).

This is where the mobile phone electronic device perfectly fits into the freedom of being located anywhere, anytime into the context of using it for instructional purposes for students. Many Educational institutions in Nigeria, for instance, have adopted this technological approach towards instructions in various schools across the nation.

Elsewhere in the Southern African nation of Zimbabwe, the country is still grappling with acquiring basic utilities such as telecommunication infrastructure, hardware, software and networks and it is only when these are easily available that consideration could be extended to serious educational and training issues like pre-service teacher education and integration of technology instruction (Chitiyo & Harmon, 2009). The paper noted that there was the urgent need for African countries to develop the use of ICTs in instruction in order to revitalize African universities to meet the crucial needs of the population in the 21st century. Chitiyo and Harmon noted that the political instability in Zimbabwe in the last ten years has not only seriously incumbered the growth of technology instruction but has culminated in the backward slide of ICTs capabilities in the country. It was the contention of the paper that the situation in Zimbabwe was a true reflection of what has been happening in other African countries as it relates to technology integration into educational instruction.

In the East African country of Tanzania, there are a legion of factors militating efforts towards institutionalizing instructional technology in order to liberalize access to the majority of people. According to Hennessy, Onguko, Namalefe, and Naseem (2010), some of these constraints include inadequacy of electricity supply which culminates in incessant power outages, poor technology infrastructure, large classes and overcrowded computer labs, low bandwidth, high costs of (mainly satellite) internet connectivity especially for rural schools located outside the national telecommunications network and electricity grid, software licenses and equipment maintenance, insufficient and inappropriate software. Added to these hiccups, the authors stated that there was also lack of qualified teachers to birth a seamless integration of instructional technology. They called for a proactive government policy that would drive ICTs integration policies in the country’s educational system.

Utilization of instructional technology

The West African country of Nigeria, which has a blossoming Internet connectivity reach in both rural and urban locations has a national information and communication technologies’ (ICTs) policy that is geared towards the education of the mass of the people. Since one of the fundamental features of the Nigerian IT policy is to leverage the huge potentials of ICTs to enhance education, it also has one of its general objectives of fostering pedagogical innovation in the area of e-learning (Vooslo, 2012). The Nigerian IT policy was approved more than two decades ago, and it became fully operational almost immediately. As at today, virtually all universities (both public and private) and other allied institutions have Internet connectivity that navigate their operations using the processes of the new information age. Other levels of educational training are leveraging the potential of instructional technology in advancing the cause of learning.

In higher educational institutions across Nigeria, a study by Allen and Seaman (2013) stated that as at 2012, more than 6.7 million students participated in at least, an online course in pursuit of their various educational degrees. This represents the growing number of students signing up to the technological platform of learning which is fast taking roots in the country. The frequent labor disputes over wages and provision of other amenities between the members of the academic community and the Nigerian government, which owns most of the universities, have increased the attractiveness of online learning. When such disputes result in closure of classes, people resort to online course offerings to satisfy their educational diet.

In another West African country of Ghana, where the ICTs revolution has since taken roots in the educational institutions, a study conducted by Boabeng-Andoh (2012) noted that there is a positive correlation between the use of ICTs and the teachers’ competence. The study noted further that both traditional and adult learners appreciate the integration of ICTs into their study. Computer technologies remain the most essential information and communication technology tools being deployed in the world today, and with increased pressure on educational institutions in Nigeria to do more with less resources, ICTs has come to the fore as the veritable instrument to realize the goals of education for many more people (Nwachukwu, Eke, Uzorka, Ekpenyong, & Nte, 2009).

In a policy brief on the instructional technology situation in South Africa, Mdlongwa (2012) contended that the resort to ICT in educational institutions to improve learning could assist in overcoming some of the difficulties of improving the effectiveness and productivity of both learning and teaching in the country’s schools, and in the process, reduce the digital divide. The paper noted that ICTs utilization in South Africa was not at the desired point since out of a population of 48 million as at 2002, only about three million had internet access. However, since the introduction of computers to South African schools beginning with private, and then public, in the 1980s, the growth of its widespread use has been very sluggish owing to paucity of funds and lack of prioritization among competing demands.

Quality of instructional technology used

In their appraisal of this strategy, Iloanusi and Osuagwu (2009) contended that ICTs-enhanced instruction tended to stimulate critical reasoning and provided a much wider variety of means for accomplishing educational goals. Nwachukwu, et al (2009) also stressed that while there might not be any iota of illusion that instructional technology would address all the challenges of education, but there is no denying the fact that technology has intruded into every facet of life in today’s world. The use of internet-enabled strategies to step down instruction, has, therefore, become widespread among educational institutions in most African countries, ostensibly, for ease of learning in the post-colonial era. It is the contention of Nwachukwu et al (2009) that ICT boosts value to the methods of learning and to the organization and management of learning institutions. The paper noted that technologies are a driving force behind much of the development and innovation in both developed and developing countries, and this would explain why African countries keyed into the strategies in the post-independence era.

In Nigeria, Yusuf (2005) stressed that ICT has contributed to the quality and quantity of teaching, learning, and research in conventional and distance educational institutions in the country. This it does by its dynamic, interactive, and appealing content; and it also provides real prospects for individualized instruction. However, despite these overwhelming advantages, the quality and spread of ICTs is at a low ebb in Africa. Yusuf contended that with a total contribution to world population standing at 12 per cent, the continent has just about two per cent presence in ICTs use in its operations. The reasons accounting for this appalling situation could be attributed to low Internet connectivity, inadequate access to ICTs infrastructure and low involvement to software development.  This overall poor quality has undoubtedly affected the rapid integration of instructional technology strategies in all facets of educational offerings. Against this background, the Nigerian ICTs policy has as one of its major themes the integration of IT into the mainstream of education and training.

In the East African country of Kenya, there are complaints against the quality of instructional learning facilities. Ndirangu and Udoto (2011) noted that the quality of the library, online resources and lecture facilities provided by Kenyan public universities have failed to meet the test of quality. The paper added that institutions were incapable of supporting the desired educational programs effectually in order to facilitate the development of learning environments that support students and teachers in realizing their objectives. In a policy brief on the situation in South Africa, Mdlongwa had made similar complaints about disjointed facilities which has affected the smooth utilization of ICTs solutions on a wider scale.


Fundamentally, this article sprang from a survey of literature on the subject of instructional technology in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial epochs in Africa and the need for its uptake in current educational offerings across the continent. Relying on a variety of literature on the subject, the intent is to examine the state of access, utilization and quality of instructional technology during the pre-colonial, colonial post-colonial periods in Africa. The article explored the extent of instructional technology integration into the educational systems in selected African countries under the various epochs. The countries include Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Ghana and Tanzania, among others. As would be expected, the development of technology infrastructure and the accompanying components were the major challenges for the countries at the very early stages of their nation-building. This proved a major concern for many others that hindered appreciable progress.

Databases such as Google Scholar, ERIC, and JSTOR were the sources of data from where all the relevant articles came for scrutiny. The procedure was to use keywords such as instructional technology, educational technology, information communication technology, distance learning, e-learning in Africa using the resources of the Ohio University Alden Library to generate the articles. Once the articles were assembled from the aforementioned data bases, we used the keywords of access, utilization and quality of instructional technology as the rubrics of analysis of integration in the selected African countries during the various epochs from the selected articles. The table below shows related articles on the various search engines from where the reviewed articles emanated.


Database Keyword Documents
Google Scholar Inst. technology in Africa

Information comm, technology

e-learning in Africa

Distance learning in Africa

159, 000

3, 400

71, 000

2, 590, 000

ERIC Inst. technology in Africa

Information comm, technology

e-learning in Africa

Distance learning in Africa

33, 335



18, 702

JSTOR Inst. technology in Africa

Information comm, technology

e-learning in Africa

Distance learning in Africa

6, 144

54, 457

1, 050

45, 592



Findings, Discussion, and Analysis

To effectively deal with the research questions for this paper, this section has been broken into the precolonial and colonial epochs. Thereafter, the findings and analysis would turn its searchlight on the post-colonial period when this revolutionary instructional technology synergies were birthed in Africa. Under the postcolonial period, we examine closely the topical issues of access, utilization and quality of instructional technology strategies that are on offer in the selected African countries.

Precolonial and colonial epochs

From the definitions of technology offered by Saettler and Simon as cited in Gentry (2011) earlier in this paper, it is worth noting that the customary education offered in pre-colonial African societies was devoid of any scientific body of laws. Although it is within the realm of knowledge passed on from one generation to the other, there was no extant body of scientific laws guiding it. To that extent and related to Mazonde’s (1995) description of the type of education offered in that era, instructional technology synergies as we know them today, were practically non-existent and therefore, inapplicable. Colonization by European imperialists supplanted the pre-colonial era as European missionaries and their business collaborators established their foothold across Africa.

As Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1981) contended in his treatise, colonial education came with the idea of Europeanization of Africans to fit into the colonial civil service. Also, Mazonde (1995) noted that the educational emphasis was on liberal arts as there was not much of instruction in the technical, vocational and professional fields. Suffices to say that instructions were stepped down directly through a class-style sitting of face-to-face arrangements as there was little semblance of instructional technological aids. So, for most of Africa, instructional technology was not a feature of their educational offerings during the colonial period with the exception of a few who remained under colonization until the 1980s. Related to the first research question therefore, it can be argued that there was little or nothing of instructional technology in the educational systems of both pre-colonial and colonial periods in Africa. Since we cannot establish the use of instructional technology applications in both precolonial and colonial eras, it would be difficult to contemplate its access, utilization, as well as quality.

According to Mazonde (1995), in the pre-colonial era, customary education was mostly stepped down through one-on-one family circle or via the instrument of peer groups as passed on from one generation to the other. The family setting was the strongest citadel of learning, and any aberrant behavior was dealt with at that level before it rears its ugly head in the public sphere. Effectively, what we know as instructional technological aids in the modern era were absolutely non-existent. The colonial setting was a little different even though it was also devoid of any tangible technological aids. This is because, in the Western metropolitan countries, which were lording it over the colonies at the time, what is today known as instructional technology education were equally absent. Therefore, you cannot give what you do not have or you give little of what you have! However, to meet the requirements of the colonial civil service as stressed by Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1981) colonial education was organized in class-style setting of students being grouped together with the teacher at the helm leading the instruction for them. It was an improvement over the pre-colonial variant as students progressed to the next level of education based on their mastering of content taught in their class.

Post-colonial period

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), computer technologies and other aspects of digital culture have changed the ways people live, work, play, and learn, impacting the construction and distribution of knowledge and power around the world (1984). The United Nations agency believes that science and technology are crucial components of development and growth, and many of the problems of underdevelopment had been attributed to weak indigenous science and technology capacities, inappropriate technological choices, poor technological development policies and dependency-producing transfers of technology (UNESCO, 1984). To redress this, since 1968, UNESCO aggressively advocated for developing countries (a large chunk of which are in Africa) to pursue science and technology policies that would aid sustainable development (UNESCO, 1984). Since most of the countries in Africa had become self-governing by this time, it was the spur of the moment that crystallized into the various technology-enhanced educational policies by the various countries on the continent in order to put technology at the center of development.

Another United Nations agency at the forefront of campaign for learning globally is the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and its work has been very remarkable in the post-colonial period in Africa. Based on its entrenched policy of “Every child has the right to learn”, UNICEF advocates strongly for the right to education for the world’s children . Even though UNICEF (2019) statistics show that over one billion children go to class daily around the globe, yet another 617 million children and adolescents around the world are unable to reach minimum proficiency levels in reading and mathematics – even as two thirds of them are in school. In fact, the statistics estimate that one in five children are entirely out of school globally. Unfortunately, a sizeable number of these are in crisis-torn African countries and others ravaged by poverty, the main factors fueling the unfortunate development. Over the years, in addition to working in health-related fields on the continent, UNICEF tacitly promotes education under three planks. These include, access, where it advocates gender equity, learning and skills, under which it advocates quality learning outcomes and skills development where innovative instructional technology aids are taught, and finally, emergency and fragile contexts, where it campaigns for improved learning and protection during emergencies.

As postulated by Kohut et al (2010), technological change is synonymous with generational change as humanity undergoes transformation over time. Therefore, the post-colonial period started in the age of fast-paced technological innovations, which was complemented by the emergence of internet connectivity. These advances in technology and information dissemination synergies across the globe hastened the introduction of instructional technology solutions in Africa’s educational offerings. This development upped the ante for African countries, which prompted some to begin the enactment of IT policies as studies such as Vooslo (2012), Yusuf (2005), and Okah (2010) showed on Nigeria, Mdlongwa (2012) on South Africa, as well as Chitiyo and Harmon (2009) on Zimbabwe. As these developments unfolded all over Africa in the years following independence, we will briefly look at access, utilization, and the quality of the offerings in the selected countries. With the gradual implementation of these policies in the various countries, instructional technology aids were being launched at all levels of educational offerings.

Access to instructional technology

In terms of access, as the post-colonial advances in the use of instructional technology in educational institutions continue to expand, Nigeria has recorded a surge in recent years. Studies by Allen and Seaman (2013) showed that as at 2012, more than 6.7 million students participated in at least, an online course in pursuit of their various educational degrees. Also, in Ghana, a study by Boabeng-Andoh (2012) noted that there was a positive correlation between the use of ICTs and the teachers’ competence as the bug of instructional technology spreads in educational institutions in the country. Also, as reported by Mdlongwa’s (2012) policy brief on South Africa, there is also a growing awareness and utilization on the use of ICTs solutions in educational offerings.

In the East African country of Kenya, the government’s revolutionary development blueprint christened “Vision 2030” formulated the policy of one laptop per child in order to avail the children the opportunity of using computer for learning to quicken their migration into the digital age (Waga, Makori & Rabah 2014). Besides entrenching the digital culture from the elementary school as proposed by the Vision 2030 laptop agenda, the study focused on the efforts to build a centralized digital content repository containing e-learning resources, research applications and tools with a collaborative on-line modern digital library accessible with a controlled right based accessibility in the country. The Kenyan approach to digitization was engineered to assist students on the e-learning synergies which would address the dwindling instructor-student ratios while universities and research institutes through collaborative ventures would participate alongside their international colleagues with immediate innovation promoting the local industries. Although, the implementation of the one laptop per child policy in Kenya has attracted criticism over cost and other issues, it remains a right step at the right time that would bridge the rural-urban divide given that the world has moved on towards knowledge economy.

  Utilization of instructional technology

Henessy et al (2010), and Chitiyo and Harmon (2009) had noted on Tanzania and Zimbabwe respectively, that utilization of instructional technology applications is confronted with a lot of challenges. Tanzania is confronted with issues that include inadequacy of electricity supply which culminates in frequent power outages, poor technology infrastructure, large classes and overcrowded computer labs, low bandwidth, and high costs of (mainly satellite) internet connectivity. On its part, Zimbabwe is contending with acquiring basic utilities such as telecommunication infrastructure, hardware, software and networks in order to bolster instructional technology applications in its educational system. Despite all these hiccups, however, instructional technology synergies are reportedly in use in the countries’ educational systems. In Nigeria where appreciable progress appears to have been made integrating instructional technological aids into class offerings, the issue of frequent power outages remains a major obstacle to educators. Even where equipment are available, lack of power to operate them has constituted a major barrier towards seamless class use.

Quality of instructional technology used

While it is indisputable that there is appreciable level of access and utilization across African countries in the use of instructional technology solutions in educational institutions, the quality of what is on offer appear problematic in most of these countries. Studies by Okah (2010) on Nigeria, Chitiyo and Harmon (2009) on Zimbabwe, Ndirangu and Udoto (2011) on Kenya, as well as Hennessy et al (2010) on Tanzania aptly capture the problems being experienced in these countries, which are summed up in problematic technology infrastructure and strong foundational policy initiative. Okah (2010) noted that the problem of paucity of funds to execute technology-related educational programs was at the core of the challenges facing the quality of what is on offer. Undoubtedly, Africa has come a long way to arrive at its present epoch of access and utilization, yet there is a long way ahead to reach the desired level of quality. This is a challenge that must be overcome.

Given the fact that access and utilization are both driven by the quality of Internet connectivity in operation in the various countries, it is worthwhile to scrutinize the demographics of the people who have Internet connectivity in the various countries in the table shown below. As at 2012, figures obtained from the Internet World Statistics showed that Nigeria, which had the highest population of Internet users on the continent, was ranked 129th on the world’s fastest broadband speed. This would clearly impact negatively on utilization of technology modulated instruction in the various levels of educational offerings across the country. All the other African countries surveyed ranked poorly on the broadband speed, and this reflects the conclusions of Henessy et al (2010), and Chitiyo and Harmon (2009) on Tanzania and Zimbabwe, respectively, all of which cited poor foundational infrastructure as the bane. The studies show a similarity of conclusions on poor infrastructure impacting negatively on access, quality and utilization.


Recommendation for policy makers: In the new world information order that has birthed the globe’s knowledge economy, Africa’s educational offerings must embrace all the dynamics of instructional technology synergies to remain competitive and take active part. Anything otherwise is suicidal and counterproductive. Studies by Okah (2010), as well as Chitiyo and Harmon (2009) have acknowledged that the digital divide between Africa and the rest of the world is huge. Therefore, the only option left for education policy makers in Africa is to rise to the occasion and ensure that the current wide gap is substantially reduced. The pathway to this reduction, is the enactment of favorable and strong policies consciously designed to institutionalize instructional technology strategies in all levels of educational offerings on the continent. Therefore, it is high time African leaders seized the initiative and rebuild the existing fragile infrastructure through proactive policies.

Recommendation for practitioners: The reality of today’s world is that the much-touted technology transfer is a mirage and practitioners must rally and deepen integration of technology in educational offerings. To that extent, African governments must prioritize human resource development by investing in capacity building and training of the personnel in the education sector in order to realize the objectives of raising a new army of competitive graduates that could hold their own among contemporaries from across the world. Enough financial resources should be devoted to building technology infrastructure across the landscape to enable organizations and educational institutions leverage upon them to firm up their instructional technology synergies. Instructional technology solutions should be made available and taught across all levels of educational institutions beginning with the kindergarten to the tertiary education offerings. The idea of catching them young should not be lost on policy makers in future, and one such laudable initiative to be embraced by other African countries is the one laptop per child policy in Kenya. Given the huge potential of technological synergies, it’s a win-win situation to play active role. Development scholars have linked technological advancement to overall development of a nation, therefore, it is sine qua non for the continent to embrace technology in order to make a headway.

Recommendation for future research: This article had been developed before the unprecedented COVID-19 health challenge, which practically paralyzed the entire world. Many countries of the world with the requisite technology infrastructure quickly reverted to remote working for their workforce and learning for their educational institutions across all levels. You could still feel motion even amid the lockdown that pervaded these countries, but many African countries apparently lagged behind, understandably! Future researchers should examine closely how African countries could synergize post-COVID-19 and tap from technological advances in their educational offerings. It is only a deepening of technology at all levels of educational pursuits that could galvanize efforts towards desirable development.


It is incontrovertible that the advent of technology has reshaped the modern world in so many ways never contemplated. From the definition of technology by Saettler and Simon as cited in Gentry (2011), it is obvious that instructional technology was absent from the category of customary educational offerings prevalent in African societies in the precolonial age. However, the colonial era came with some semblance of instructional technology, which was built upon in subsequent years of development. Although the colonists came with their policy of Europeanization of Africans according to Ngugi wa Thiong’o (1981), the gradual introduction of instructional technology in educational offerings began in that era. This was essentially to reflect the technological changes taking place in the metropolitan countries, since ipso facto, the territories were their extensions overseas, they also benefited from the changes.

Significantly, instructional technology blossomed in various African countries in the post-colonial era. The United Nations agencies led the way in advocating for educational technologies into African schools’ curriculum. Of particular importance is UNESCO’s conviction that computer technologies and other aspects of digital culture have changed the ways people live, work, play, and learn around the world, and Africa and other developing countries must factor into its offerings to meet the goals of development. This advocacy facilitated policy initiatives that expanded the space for instructional technology for schools in Nigeria (Okah, 2009), the Vision 2030 blueprint in Kenya (Waga, Makori and Rabah 2014) that facilitated the distribution of laptops to schoolchildren and several such actions by the other countries on the continent. UNICEF was also a contributory factor to the growing awareness of computerization and instructional technology in several African nations through its collaborative activities with the governments in the post-colonial era.

It is worthy to note that the expansions taking place in the various countries were not without hitches. Several studies, including Okah (2010) on Nigeria, Chitiyo and Harmon (2009) on Zimbabwe, Ndirangu and Udoto (2011) on Kenya, as well as Hennessy et al (2010) on Tanzania have highlighted problems associated with quality, access, and utilization in the various countries. A major hiccup common to all these countries is the issue of poor communication infrastructure, which would require a deft political will to resolve in order to put the continent on the proper path to integrating instructional technology in its educational offerings. The lackluster development of instructional technology on the continent is aptly surmised by the statistics from Internet World, which showed that Nigeria, which had the largest population of Internet users in Africa, was ranked 129th on the world’s fastest broadband speed. The best ranked African country, Ghana, was put at a distant 73rd! In modern times, fast Internet drives pedagogical instructions in the wake of online classes and other hybrid variants of educational pursuits. What this means in effect is that, although the countries have since introduced one form of instructional technology or the other, a lot still remains to be done.


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Global Mergers and Acquisition: Combining Companies Across Borders, Vol. I

Abdol S. Soofi and Yuqin Zhang.

This book primarily deals with corporate restructuring through mergers and acquisitions (M&As). It critically examines all functions that must be performed in completing an M&A transaction. Domestic and cross-border M&A’s are very similar in many respects even though differences between them also exist. The book includes discussions of international finance and multinational financial management, the topics that arise in cross-border M&A transactions.
Given the increasing importance of China as the second largest economy in the world and Chinese companies’ growing merger and acquisition (M&A) activities globally, we devote the last two chapters of the book to China’s outward foreign direct investment and cross-border M&A activities. Moreover, the second volume includes the case studies regarding Chinese foreign direct investment both in Greenfield and acquisition forms give additional insights into challenging tasks of due diligence and post-merger cultural integration that foreign investors face.
The M&A literature is a fragmented field of inquiry. The book brings together important, practical insights from this vast literature in a short, but cohesive form that has high managerial relevance.

Global Mergers and Acquisitions: Combining Companies Across Boarders, Vol. II

Abdol Soofi and Yuqin Zhang.

This book primarily deals with corporate restructuring through mergers and acquisitions (M&As). It critically examines all functions that must be performed in completing an M&A transaction. Domestic and cross-border M&A’s are very similar in many respects even though differences between them also exist. The book includes discussions of international finance and multinational financial management, the topics that arise in cross-border M&A transactions.
Given the increasing importance of China as the second largest economy in the world and Chinese companies’ growing merger and acquisition (M&A) activities globally, we devote the last two chapters of the book to China’s outward foreign direct investment and cross-border M&A activities. Moreover, the second volume includes the case studies regarding Chinese foreign direct investment both in Greenfield and acquisition forms give additional insights into challenging tasks of due diligence and post-merger cultural integration that foreign investors face.
The M&A literature is a fragmented field of inquiry. The book brings together important, practical insights from this vast literature in a short, but cohesive form that has high managerial relevance.


To Forgive or Not: A timely question in an age of terror

Simon Wiesenthal’s seminal narrative of his experiences as a Nazi concentration camp inmate is, at its core, an inquiry into the nature of human capacity to make decisions under conditions of extreme trauma. Conditioned by the daily assault on his physical and psychological well-being by his captors, he was unwittingly placed in a position that required him to make a decision with moral and ethical implications – grant or not grant the request for forgiveness by a dying Nazi SS soldier who had confessed to a most depraved act of inhumanity against innocent Jews. The inability to grant this request bothered Wiesenthal; and ultimately provided the principal impetus for the book he entitled The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness, which also contained instructive symposia on the question of forgiveness.

In the first English edition of The Sunflower published in 1969, only ten respondents offered their opinions on the question posed by Wiesenthal; all Jewish and Holocaust survivors who responded were unanimous in their opposition to forgiveness. The Christians amongst the respondents echoed a principal doctrine in Christianity, which is to forgive all sins. The current edition of the book, published in 1982, had fifty-three respondents, and offered a remarkably more varied responses and reactions to the same question. A critical analysis of the reception of The Sunflower by respondents in the 1982 edition of the book is the primary object of this dissertation. In point of objectivity, however, the analysis distills into one of forgiveness – should Wiesenthal have forgiven Karl, or was he right in withholding forgiveness? The reactions of the respondents thus centered on received articulations of forgiveness – what it entails, when to render it, and when it may be prudentially withheld. Hence in order to profitably analyze the reception of the book by respondents, it is first necessary to understand what informed Wiesenthal’s moment of “indecision.”

A secularized interpretation of forgiveness
The question raised in The Sunflower, by force of the faiths of the victim and the wrongdoer (Simon and Karl respectively), implicates a need for exploration of the different apprehensions of the concept of forgiveness in Christianity and Judaism, and warrants, at once, its secular interpretation and understanding. I begin with a multidisciplinary discussion of the literature, and then turn my attention to the theology of forgiveness. Theorists, particularly Hannah Arendt (1958, 32) and Bishop Butler (1970, 72)), insist that there are necessary and sufficient conditions for forgiveness, and that these conditions are partly moral, metaphysical, and existential. One obvious condition requires that a culpable wrong be committed for forgiveness to be relevant, and that both victim and offender be moral agents (the concept of forgiveness would be senseless in a world comprised of stones, fish, and vegetables).

Thus once a harmful act has been committed, forgiveness acts as a mechanism that interrupts the damages inflicted, and mitigates the stimuli to react or seek revenge. But once a great harm has been done, the mere act of forgiveness may lack the capacity to make whole or redeem the victim from what Arendt described as “the predicament of irreversibility – of being unable to undo what one has done”(Arendt 1958, 40). Arendt acknowledges this limiting power of forgiveness, but insists that forgiveness, in spite of its limitations, remains the solution for the “inevitable damages resulting from action, which, rather than undoing actions, interrupts their consequences;” without forgiveness we would remain the victim of our own behavior “confined to one single deed from which we could never recover.” (Arendt 1958, 241). In this sensibility of forgiveness, it terminates that which could go on pointlessly and endlessly without interference.

Arendt’s writing on forgiveness seemed to place strong emphasis on the distinction between minor wrongdoing and what Kant described as “radical evil,” or willed evil that transcends human capacity to understand or comprehend. Humans can forgive minor wrongdoing but willed or radical evil would require a more complex regime of forgiveness and punishment. Card (2002, 182) takes cognizance of Arendt’s later writing on the “banality of evil,” and defines evil “as a reasonably foreseeable harm (which need not be highly probable) that falls within a certain range of magnitude and importance and is brought about, seriously, sustained or tolerated by culpable wrongdoing.”(Card 2002, 185). Card’s range of evils includes “intolerable harm” and harm that tends “to ruin lives, or parts of lives.” If such definition of evil is applicable in a given circumstance, how can the response to incomprehensible atrocities such as genocide and mass murder be forgiven? How may victims be persuaded to forgo the natural human instinct for retributive justice or revenge, and instead carry-on and make do with the knowledge that whatever harm they suffered is “irreversible?” Joanna North (1998, 19) has an answer:

What we must remember is that a correct conception of forgiveness does not require that we forgo punishment altogether or that we should, in forgiving, attempt to annul the existence of the wrong done. Forgiveness does not remove the fact or event of wrongdoing but instead relies upon the recognition of wrong having been committed in order for the process of forgiveness to be made possible. What is annulled in the act of forgiveness is not the crime itself but the distorting effect that this wrong has upon one’s relations with the wrongdoer and perhaps with others. From the injured person’s point of view, forgiveness will have the effect of preventing the wrong from continuing to damage one’s self-esteem and one’s psyche, thus bringing to an end the distortion and corruption of one’s relations with others.

The point North is making here has a near universal appeal and utility amongst practitioners of psychiatry, and psychological counseling. A hypothetical case would be instructive. Suppose a male, jogging on a deserted road on a cold night, is brutally attacked and left for dead. But manages to survive the attack, and regains his physical abilities, but for the next several months he continuously relieves the horrible experience, and finds himself unable to leave the safe environment of his home after dusk, and ultimately becomes fearful and untrusting of anyone he encounters after dusk. Apart from the debilitating psychological effects of this attack, he remains consumed by anger and hatred of the assailant, but he is physically and legally unable to exact revenge. So he lives his daily life defined by fear, anger, and helplessness; one might say, he has allowed his assailant to perpetually dominate his existence by corrupting and destroying his ability to return to his accustomed existence before the assault. He is now a virtual prisoner in his new existence – unable to forgive, unable to free himself from the memory of the painful event, and clearly unable to lead a productive life. Again, Joanna North (1998, 17):

Through forgiveness the pain and hurt caused by the original wrong are released, or at least they are not allowed to mar the whole of one’s being for all time. …I am not suggesting that the moral value of forgiveness resides solely in its capacity to make the injured party feel better, as if forgiveness were simply a species of self-help therapy. Indeed, if this were a person’s sole motivation in forgiving another, then he should be in danger of losing sight of the notion of forgiveness altogether. …Forgiveness is not something we do for ourselves alone, but something we give or offer to another. The forgiving response is outward-looking and other-directed; it is supposed to make a difference to the wrongdoer as well as ourselves.

The debate over a precise secularized definition of forgiveness notwithstanding, there seems to be a consensus amongst theorists that it is a process that entails a revised emotion and attitude toward the wrongdoer (Finch 2006, 30; Govier 2002, 41). The process of forgiveness, once engaged, is believed to minimally suppress the instinctual desire for revenge, and release internalized harmful emotions such as fear and anger. Authors such as Herman (1997, 25), and Lamb (1998, 162) suggest that forgiveness need not be dependent on the attitude of the offender, and can be unilaterally rendered by the victim, thus giving the victim maximal control of the recovery process from the traumatic event. But other theorists such as Blech (1992, 60), and Finch (2006, 27) propound that forgiveness is a bilateral process that should be negotiated between the offender and the victim in order for both to reach beneficial closure on the harmful event.

So far the discussion has focused on the victim from whom forgiveness is urged on moral and existential grounds. But are wrongdoers always ‘culpable’, and thus candidates for forgiveness? Are there wrongs that are excusable because the act that led to the harmful event is outside the competence of the wrongdoer? Philosophers such as Kant (1996, 32) and Bentham (1948, 25) have argued the essence of determinism which postulates that events in the natural world have causes of indeterminate origin – that whatever happens in human existence or in the physical world is a result of a chain-reaction of events that far predates a particular act. This particularistic interpretation of acts by humans that lead to harm provides excuses, or at least explanations of why injuries were inflicted on a victim (I could not help it; it was an accident; it was out of my control; I was forced to do it). Kant, in espousing the concept of determinism, argued that because a cause is not readily made manifest does not mean it does not exist (Kant 1996, 49). Arguing in a similar vein, John Stuart Mill (1961, 32) insists that uncharacteristic and unpredictable human acts count no greater against the essence of causal explanation than unpredictable and uncharacteristic events in nature such as the weather and earthquakes count against the possibility of there being causes that remain elusive.

A belief in the concept of determinism would tend to make forgiveness “irrelevant” to both the offender and the victim, for if the harmful act committed by the offender was due to forces outside his physical competence or legal responsibility, then the beneficial properties of forgiveness would not be in play since there would be no culpable individual to forgive. This position, of course, presumes that forgiveness is only proper where a culpable harm is properly in place. But such understanding of responsibility for harm done is too simplistic. The fact that there may be good excuses or reasons for acts leading to harm do not lift culpability; it all depends on the nature of harm caused, what precipitated it, and what it is that needs forgiving. Thus, the old saying, “To understand all is to forgive all,” while instructive may not be useful in many instances of atrocious inhumanity for the simple reason that when all is known about a harmful event, more “salt may be added to injuries.” It may also be the case that a rationale may be adduced to excuse the act. Jerome Neu (2002, 29) takes this point further:

Once one knows all the factors that went into bringing about an action, it will often emerge that the crucial determining factors were outside of the person’s control. It is a deeply Kantian part of our understanding of ourselves and others that where a person is not free to act otherwise, “could not help it,” that person is not regarded as responsible or properly blamable for the action done due to the factors outside their control….But this brings us to some of the limits on the folk wisdom which are also limits on our Kantian intuitions. For if we are determinists about human action, and believe that causal chains can always be traced outside the person, it might appear that we never have ultimate control or responsibility, and so everything must always be forgiven. To refuse to forgive is simply to cling to present ignorance. But I think we should recognize that there is always a story to explain how things have come to be as they are and why a person did whatever it is they have done. But not all stories excuse…

Determinism, however, is not a matter of our immediate concern; people forgive not because they believe in a general principle of universal causal order or that every violent act that causes harm has certain but indeterminate antecedent origins, but because of the existence of relevant and necessary conditions that make such act understandable, if possible, or excusable. Some atrocities may never be understood, but may still be amenable to forgiveness on religious, moral, or existential grounds. One of the conditions that properly facilitate our understanding of forgiveness is a distinction between excusing and forgiving; an excuse that reveals a harmful act to be purely an accident or a by-product of intent to advance the welfare of the victim may facilitate forgiveness because such act lacks purposeful will to inflict harm.

While the victim may be angry for the harm done, the excuse generally militates against resentment and hatred. In this regard, it will help matters to follow Jeffrie Murphy (1988, 92) and Bishop Butler (1970, 75) in describing forgiveness as forswearing resentment of the offender, and insisting that forgiveness is proper only when resentment is already justifiably in place, otherwise there is really nothing there to forgive of the offender. Equally important in this understanding is that the degree of resentment, and the willingness to forgive are both a function of the magnitude and duration of the harm. This articulation of forgiveness and resentment necessarily restricts resentment to culpable harm devoid of acceptable excuse; but even here, in this seemingly straight-forward description of forgiveness, there are still complexities. Jerome Neu (2002, 24) explains:

Even where an excuse removes all responsibility and so make resentment inappropriate, there may be a sense to forgiveness. The therapeutic concern served by forgiveness may require the overcoming of anger as well as resentment. The kind of responsibility essential to resentment may not be essential to anger, and so an excuse that attenuates responsibility may not undermine the anger provoked by an injury. Anger at harm may persist in the absence of resentment at wrong. Our concern here is how understanding might lessen responsibility, and so provide an excuse, or otherwise lead to forgiveness. Excusing and forgiving are two different paths to disarming resentment, one by showing it misplaced, and the other by renouncing it despite its warrant.

The causes or circumstances that led to harm aside, there may be instances where forgiveness is simply not possible. This would be the case where it is very difficult to separate the harm from the offender as is the case in instances of horrific crimes where the sheer magnitude of the event defies comprehension. Specific examples of such crimes would include genocide, torture and mass murder of children or the purposeful extermination of people who identify with a race or religion (such as the atrocities Karl confessed to participating in); in these cases the crime perpetuated would almost always militate against any interpretation of forgiveness especially where the extent and degree of the crime essentially foreclose understanding. Under these circumstances, retention of anger, resentment, and the desire for revenge by victims and family members may be a moral prerogative that preserves self-respect and human dignity. Writing on the Holocaust, Richard Fitzgibbons (1986, 63) insists that “wrongs having this degree of culpability and enormity may put one permanently in debt to the victim such that the moral amends are unending and resentment is forever justified.”

Aristotle (1984, 62) spoke about the proper role of anger in society as a signifier of one’s self-worth, and decried the deficiency of those who fail to be angry enough when harmed:
The deficiency, whether it is a sort of irascibility or whatever it is, is blamed. For those who are not angry at things they should be are thought to be fools, and so are those who are not angry in the right way, at the right time, or with the right person; for such a man is thought not to feel things nor be pained by them, and, since he does not get angry he is thought unlikely to defend himself; and to endure being insulted, and to put up with insults to one’s friends is slavish.

The point Aristotle seems to be making is that feeling anger and resentment is a constituent part of self-respect, thus failure to express such emotions appropriately would be a sign of insufficiency of self-respect and lack of concern for one’s dignity, and rights. Following Aristotle, Bishop Butler (1970, 77) suggests that resentment has social value because “resentment against vice and wickedness is one of the common bonds by which society is held together…and is to be considered as a weapon put in our hands by nature against injustice and cruelty.” But it should not follow from these pronouncements on anger and resentment that one should never let go of both; they do, however, suggest that if one is to forgive, the proper roles of anger and resentment require adequate consideration.

If one is to fully understand the complex process of forgiveness, it is also important to recognize that the attitude of the offender or perpetrators of harm is an integral part of the injury sustained by victims. The absence of care, recognition of the rights of victims, remorse or repentance are attitudes that are just as damaging as the physical injuries sustained. Part of what is therefore resented is the offender’s attitude, and what alters when forgiveness is granted is the forgiver’s attitude toward the offender. Jeffrie Murphy (1988, 28) puts it differently:

One reason we so deeply resent moral injuries done to us is not simply that they hurt us in some tangible or sensible way; it is because such injuries are also messages, i.e., symbolic communications. They are ways a wrongdoer has of saying to us “I count and you do not.” I can use you for my purposes, or “I am up here and you are there down below.” Intentional wrongdoing degrades us –or at least represents an attempt to degrade us—and thus it involves a kind of injury that is not merely tangible and sensible. It is a moral injury.

If one, therefore, takes forgiveness as the foreswearing of resentment, and the subsequent abatement of anger, the centrality of attitude in the complex scheme of forgiveness becomes obvious; for it enables one to see the connectedness of the reasons that may serve as the basis for forgiveness. Repentance and remorse, for instance, facilitate the distinction of attitudes displayed by the offender at the commission of the harmful act, and the moment forgiveness is sought, thus affording a better understanding of St. Augustine’s admonition to “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” (St. Augustine 2009, 123). St. Augustine’s counsel is very much relevant in the secular world since victims of horrific crimes often have difficulties separating offenders from their act. As Murphy (1988, 56) explains, “when you repent, I forgive you for what you now are. When I forgive for oldtime sake, I forgive you for what you once were.” Attitudes matter, and quite complex; just as it is difficult to be certain of the motivations that underwrote the offender’s current behavior in seeking forgiveness, it is equally a challenge interpreting a victim’s presumed change of heart – a forgiving heart that does not reflect such change in attitude toward the offender can hardly be countenanced as genuine forgiveness. This point is not lost in Heinrich Heine’s (1982, 72) statement:

Mine is a most peaceable disposition. My wishes are: a humble cottage with a thatched roof, but a good bed, good food, the freshest milk and butter, flowers before my windows, and a few fine trees before my door; and if God wants to make my happiness complete, he will grant me the joy of seeing six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees. Before their death I shall, moved in my heart, forgive them all the wrong they did me in their lifetime. One must, it is true, forgive one’s enemies – but not before they have been hanged.

For both offender and victim, the certainty of a genuine change of heart or lack of it matters; it enables one to either move on or continue to seek a clear indication of repentance or forgiveness. Karl would never know of the status of his request for forgiveness; the crimes he confessed to gave Wiesenthal a lot to ponder.

The trauma dimension
While the concept of forgiveness, in its various articulations, informs the thrust of this enquiry, emotional and physical trauma and the subconscious psychological defenses they engender are proper and relevant areas of consideration in maters that touch on behavioral manifestations from Holocaust survivors (Gobodo-Madikizela 2008, 170). Trauma, emotional numbing, and post-traumatic stress have long been recognized in the literature as powerful determinants in shaping victim’s responses to both internal and external stimuli, and to a large extent, helped underscore the fragility of the human mind (Herman, 1997, 152). Unrelenting and persistent traumatic episodes have been shown to distort perception, compromise faculties, induce physical and psychological infirmities, impair judgment, and ultimately dehumanize (Kaminer 2006, 182).

For Holocaust survivors, remembrance and memory are exceedingly burdensome and complicated; each invariably demands more of the victim the greater the degree of trauma endured. Wiesenthal’s reaction to Karl’s request for forgiveness, while nonverbal, is complicated, and so are his subsequent behavior soon after his encounter with Karl, and after he was liberated from a Nazi concentration camp at the end of hostilities. The extent to which he was traumatized by his experiences is an open question, but one that leaves no doubt that he was indeed traumatized by events in the camp. But how much of what he relates in The Sunflower are “actual recollections” of his experiences? How reliable is his memory and his ability to accurately recall events that took place while under a state of prolonged trauma? Was his inability to accommodate Karl’s request a manifestation of his state of mind that subconsciously shielded him from unpleasant external stimuli? Krondorfer (2008, 244) elaborates further:

Holocaust memory, like all memories of atrocity and genocide, are complicated by the fact of trauma. Not only are survivors of catastrophes unable to comprehend the totality of their memory, their condition is also characterized by “the inability to convey their experiences, to utter the unutterable” (Zertal, 2005, 55). Because of the traumatic content, survivors themselves experience a tension “between the desire to forget and the need to remember” (Wajnryb 2001, 78). The deeper the trauma, the more remarkable the sense of irretrievable loss, and pain.

Are perpetrators of unspeakable evil such as genocide also traumatized by their act, even when such act of inhumanity was either willingly engaged or compelled in furtherance of perceived collective welfare? Was Karl’s request for forgiveness equally a manifestation of his traumatized state of mind, and thus not fully volitional? What about Klaus Barbie, the infamous butcher of Lyon, who proclaimed in his trial, “I have forgotten. If they haven’t, it’s their concern. I, in any case, have forgotten” (Suleiman 206, 103). Are these perpetrators just as traumatized by the knowledge of their atrocities, albeit on a different degree, as the victims? Again, Krondorfer (2008, 251):
When it comes to forgetting and remembering perpetrators of homicidal violence must be treated differently from survivors of atrocity. Testimonies of Nazi perpetrators and their accomplices differ fundamentally from testimonies of Jewish survivors, because perpetrators have an interest in trivializing the harm inflicted on their victims and in reducing their own culpability. As a general rule, perpetrators have reasons to distort the truth. While victims resist the rawness of trauma spilling into their lives, the perpetrator resists the acknowledgment of individual blame in relation to his participation in collective evil.

But Karl admitted his crime, confessed it, and sought salvation through forgiveness in accordance to the dictates of his religious faith (Catholicism, as we are told in the book). The question, however, is whether his testimony is an “accurate” account of the extent of the genocidal atrocity he committed alongside his fellow soldiers. Did he subconsciously withhold other deadly acts of violence against innocent Jews as a defense mechanism in order to minimize the harm done, and to facilitate Wiesenthal’s rendering of his request? One can never be certain, but traumatic events that perpetrators are not particularly proud of or were compelled to execute may engender memory suppression and misrepresentation of facts (North 1998, 19). It is, perhaps, within this context that Karl’s rendition of events may be profitably considered, for traumatized persons have been shown in clinical studies to deploy unconscious mental processes or coping mechanisms that lessen anxiety associated with painful events or internal conflicts, and thus protect the individual from psychological discomfort (Enright, 1998, 55). Some of the more commonly employed defense mechanisms by perpetrators of horrific crimes are rationalization of action, denial, projection, and sublimation, all of which have been found in one form or another in the trials of former Nazis (Card 2004, 215). There is no evidence that any of these applied to Karl; all we know of him in this regard are the details of his confession to Wiesenthal, and from them one may reasonably make inferences to this state of mind as one who engaged in a collective act of atrocity. Lewis (2005, 19) elucidates:

When atrocities are performed in the name of a collective identity, individuals may in fact not see the inhumanity of their deeds in the very moment they enact them. They neither perceive their own actions as individually willed nor do they truly see their victims’ faces, that is, recognize people in their subjectivity. Hence, when perpetrators later testify, they do not so much misremember as they actually – with respect to their own selective memory – remember “correctly.” Their victims have always been absent from their view, at the moment of the mistreatment and murder as much as at the moment when perpetrators are asked to recall their wrongdoings. Effacement, then, is already built into the initial act of genocidal evil. As far as the perpetrators are concerned, they do not remember the victims in their trial testimonies because they never saw them in their humanity to begin with. What perpetrators did not acknowledge (to themselves when committing the atrocity, they cannot recall later.

But what about the account of life in Auschwitz by Primo Levi in his book, Surviving Auschwitz (1958)? An account so devastating that one can almost feel vicariously the actual psychological pain of the victims. Was he really capable of recalling the “actual” event as stated below or is the narrative an out growth of “refreshed” or long-suppressed memory that is at best compromised by trauma? In any event, the accuracy of recalled events by individuals may matter less in the scheme of things if what they refer to are events that actually took place, diminished capacity and compromised specificity notwithstanding. Of immediate relevance in this enquiry, however, is whether, in spite of the traumatic events experienced by victims, and, to a limited sense, by perpetrators, both can function effectively in their daily existence without the agency of forgiveness. If normalcy is eventually restored with the passage of time, and with sufficient spatial separation from the offensive environment, then of what use is forgiveness except in compliance with religious dictates? But if these two conditions are reasonably met and the victim’s psychological wellbeing remains wanting, then there might be a case to be made for the usefulness of forgiveness.

The Bible, without explicit intent, gives an excellent narrative of an event that some experts in the field of traumatic disorder and unconscious human responses to stress now recognize as one of the earliest known incidents in which a trauma survivor managed to achieve remarkable success in secular activities, while at the subconscious level the traumatic events in his past remain operational. What is being referenced here is the story of Joseph and his brothers as told in the Old Testament (KJV, Genesis, Chapters 37-45), and repeated by Mann (2001). What began as squabbles between siblings soon degenerated into hatred that was self-consuming enough to compel Joseph’s brothers to sell him to a group of Ishmeelites who in turn took him and resold him in Egypt. Joseph, before this event, was their father’s favorite, in the main because Jacob (their father) had him when he was an old man and Joseph was the son of his beloved wife Rachel, who, for a long time was infertile. Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah had given birth to Joseph’s other ten brothers. Rachel died after giving birth to Benjamin.

Joseph, as we are told, was not a particularly humble child at seventeen; in one of his boastful moments, he told his brothers of his dream in which they all bowed down to him as their ruler. His brother’s jealousy of their father’s favoritism, and their contempt for Joseph’s behavior drove them to plot to kill him, but relented and instead threw him into a pit and sold him. They informed their father Jacob (who was later renamed Israel) that Joseph had been killed; Joseph, however, was eventually imprisoned in Egypt on false accusations of making sexual advances to his master’s wife. But, in due course, Joseph was called into administrative service by Pharoah for his uncanny ability to interpret dreams – his accurate prediction that Egypt would undergo seven years of abundance and then followed by another seven years of famine was enough to convince Pharoah to appoint him viceroy over Egypt.

As the famine swept over the region, his brothers traveled from the land of Canaan to obtain grain, and in the process had to appear before Joseph. Joseph recognized his brothers but they, however, did not recognize him. While Joseph at the end forgave and reconciled with his brothers, he took his time in the interim to undergo a catharsis by way of exacting psychological trauma of his own on his brothers. He first got his just revenge – he began by prosecuting them as spies, had one of the brothers thrown in jail, and then turned his anger on Jacob by having his other brothers request of their father to send Benjamin to Egypt knowing that such demand would cause his father much anguish. It took Joseph a while to come to terms with his past, but eventually he did tearfully reveal himself to his brothers, and invited them and his father to live in Egypt. Ultimately their descendents were enslaved in Egypt until their deliverance by Moses. (KJV, Genesis, Chapters 37-45).

Biblical interpretations of Joseph’s story raised pertinent questions: why did he take so long to reveal himself to his family? Why torment his father who loved him dearly, and by all account whom he also loved deeply, by not sending word earlier that he was fine and alive, thus relieving his father’s long years of grief? Why have his father send his other beloved son, Benjamin, to Egypt knowing how painful that would be to Jacob? But more importantly, why inflict so much torture on his brothers and father? While these are difficult questions to unravel, modern analysis of individual and collective trauma and its effects offer explanations and insights. In the Biblical narrative, Joseph was not described as emotionally burdened or despondent by what his brothers did to him; in fact he was described as doing quite well in Egypt.

This lack of explicit display of emotions and the ability to function in spite of the horrible event is indicative of the operational engagement of unconscious defense mechanisms that numbs emotions while enabling functionality. But such defenses may not long endure, for years later when his brothers appeared before him, his suppressed emotions reawakened and emerged with full effect, triggering the anger and desire for revenge. The three days he kept his brothers in jail match the three days he spent in the bit before being sold. The negative impact of traumatic stress, long suppressed, is now being unleashed, albeit not upon self but on others responsible for the event. The brothers’ expression of remorse for what they did further unleashed suppressed emotional pain that once acknowledged enabled Joseph to begin the healing process.

Joseph’s experience illustrates the power of unconscious defenses, and conscious acknowledgement and accessing previously inaccessible pain and deep-seated anger; through them one can both function, and ultimately love again through forgiveness. Samuel Mann (2001, 337) repositions Joseph’s experience in modern psychology of trauma quite effectively:

Joseph’s story suggests that the use of unconscious defenses allowed him to move on seemingly unaffected after severe childhood trauma, and that repressing such emotions may help in maintaining psychological stability…. While teaching that psychological numbing is not antithetical to survival and success in life, the text also implies that repression, while desirable at the time of trauma, is not the ideal long-term solution, as it may stand in the way of emotional and spiritual healing. When emotions related to trauma are handled largely by repression, the experiencing of love and forgiveness may also be blocked. Joseph’s story suggests that healing and wholeness are possible after emotions kept from awareness have been consciously acknowledged.

The role of trauma in remembrance, memory and subconscious defense mechanism employed by victims and perpetrators alike remains complicated, but it affords a reasonable means to understanding the behavior of both Karl and Wiesenthal, and in a broader application, the dispositions of Holocaust survivors, and former Nazis.

On therapeutic aspect of forgiveness
The value of forgiveness, until the seminal work of Lewis Smedes in 1984, was almost exclusively considered within theological paradigms. Smedes’s Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve (1984), dramatically raised awareness of the therapeutic value of forgiveness in secular psychology; by advocating self-forgiveness as the first step towards restoration of one’s dignity and health, it gained wide acceptance in the fields of psychotherapy and counseling. But the book’s popularity amongst the general audience derived from its insistence on the victim’s forgiveness of the offender because it helps the victim redefine his role, not as a powerless and abused entity but as a person who retains the strength to exercise grace by forgiving the offender. In spite of the interest generated in academic and professional circles, and to a limited extent, in the broader vested audience, questions on the therapeutic usefulness of forgiveness remain – when should one forgive? Does forgiveness actually help the victim in the long-run or does it simply ameliorate and mask short-term manifestations of psychological distress? Is the victim ultimately made whole again by forgiveness, and if not, how much relief should the victim expect when he forgives? Put more bluntly, does forgiveness have its reputed therapeutic efficacy? The questions are simple enough; but the answers, by the very nature of the matter under consideration, are complex, and become more so as the context within which forgiveness is sought displays its uniqueness and complexities. This is especially the case if the difficulties posed by oversimplification and unrealistic expectations are to be avoided.

In Forgiveness and the Healing Process: A central Therapeutic Concern, Ransley and Spy (2004) drew attention to misconceptions of the attributes of forgiveness, and the motivations that inform a victim’s desire to render forgiveness. Their point being that forgiveness is neither easy, nor a straightforward process, and definitely not a panacea for all wrongs inflicted on victims. In this regard they urge their readers to view forgiveness as a lengthy process of redeeming the self from the grasps of pain, anger, frustration, and anxiety inflicted by the offender, and through the same process revisit one’s core values and beliefs to facilitate healing. Their interpretation of what it means to forgive is transparent enough: “Forgiveness does not mean ignoring wrong things people do or condoning them; it is about seeing the humanity in ourselves and other people and giving ourselves and others the opportunity to change.”(Ransley and Spy 2004, 58).

Moltmann in his seminal work, God for a secular society: The public relevance of theology (1999), considers forgiveness as the creation of a new beginning. In this sense he suggests that forgiveness is less about the harm done, but more of the new life to which God awakens in the perpetrator and the wronged. In this regard, he asks, “How can we be free, not only of the evil we have committed, but of the evil we have suffered, and cannot forget because it has left traces in body and soul?” (Moltmann 1999, 75). His point being that freedom from debilitating effects of evil acts is what is obtained for those who forgive, for it frees them from hatred, anger and bitterness for what occurred in the past. And since the past cannot be revisited to foreclose the evil act, forgiveness frees the individual and enables the creation of a new existence. For perpetrators of evil acts, Moltmann (1999, 36) sees atonement and repentance as means to freedom but acknowledges that these would not be entirely sufficient to amend for harm committed. But nonetheless argues that “in the Bible repentance means conversion, and about-turn, and this turn is a turn to the future.” (Moltmann 1999, 24). Thus, to Moltmann repentance is forward-looking but mindful of harmful acts committed, while forgiveness frees the victim from the bondage of a painful past. This new beginning, made possible for both victims and perpetrators, emanates from the liberating and therapeutic effects of forgiveness.

Testimonies to the therapeutic efficacy of forgiveness, whether at the individual or national level abound. In the years following the Holocaust, there have been numerous acts of genocide, and high crimes against humanity targeted at minority groups or vulnerable ethnic groups in various parts of the world. Events in Rwanda, Bosnia, and South Africa come to the fore; others in smaller scope remain just as evil and inhumane. In what follows, it will be necessary to provide a full and unabridged reproduction of testimonies, not only for the sake of fidelity but also for effect. In the book entitled The Wisdom of Forgiveness, Victor Chan (2004) produced a powerful interview he conducted with Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, and the Dalia Lama. Victor Chan (2004, 67):

From 1995 to 1997, Archbishop Tutu was chairman of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His job? To listen to 21,000 witnesses describe the human-rights anuses and atrocities committed during the apartheid era. At times, he wept openly after hearing the tales of torture, of people’s limbs being blasted off with blowtorches. His mandate? He had to forgive the perpetrators in order to foster healing.

In 2004, Tutu, in a forum with the Dalai Lama at the University of British Columbia, talked about his experiences with the Commission. Tutu:

Many times people were moved by examples, especially examples of people who, having suffered a great deal, instead of demanding a pound of flesh in retribution, have behaved extraordinarily. A young black woman came to us and told this story: “The police came and took me to the police station. They put me in a room, and undressed me. They took my breasts and shoved them into a drawer, and then slammed the drawer repeatedly on my nipples until the white stuff oozed out.” Now you imagine that someone who had experienced this atrocity would be bitter, would lust for revenge. But frequently people like her would say they were ready to forgive. We sat there and we were deeply, deeply humbled. Humbled by the privilege of listening to people who by right should be angry, resentful and vindictive. And instead, they were filled with desire to forgive. (Chan 2004, 69).

His second narrative was even more compelling, and troubling. Again, Tutu:

There was something called the Bisho massacre, thirty to forty people were killed and 200 injured. We held a public hearing in a huge hall, the room was packed to the rafters with angry people, many of whom were either injured at the incident or they had lost their loved ones. Four officers that had shot and killed people came in. You could feel the tension in the room, the anger. They came and they sat over there on the stage and we were in the middle. One of the officers, a white officer, the other three were black, got up and said, “yes, we gave the order for the soldiers to shoot.

The temperature shot up in the room, the tension you could cut with a knife. And then, he said, “Please forgive us, please forgive these three of my colleagues and receive them back into the community.” Now, you’d have thought this hall will erupt with anger. You know what the audience did? They applauded. Incredible. They applauded. And when the applause subsided, I said, “let’s keep a moment’s silence. Because we are in the presence of something holy, we were standing on holy ground. We ought to be taking off our shoes, like Moses did. (Chan 2004, 71).

Chan: Archbishop Tutu came by his deep-seated conviction of forgiveness through his exposure to an age-old piece of wisdom. As Tutu put it during his dialogue with the Dalai Lama in Vancouver:

In my country, we speak of something called ubuuntu. When I want to praise you, the highest praise I can you is to say, you have ubuuntu – this person has what it takes to be a human being. This is a person who recognizes that he exists only because others exist: a person is a person through other persons. When we say you have ubuuntu, we mean you are gentle, you are compassionate, you are hospitable, you want to share, and you care about the welfare of others. This is because my humanity is caught up in your humanity. So when I dehumanize others, whether I like it or not, inexorably, I dehumanize myself. For we can only be human, we can only be free, together. To forgive is actually the best form of self-interest. (Chan 2004, 69).

Chan then posed the following sequence of questions to the Dalai Lama, the High Monk of Tibet:

Chan: So to be able to forgive your enemies can make a difference to one’s spiritual progress? I asked the Dalai Lama.

Dalai Lama: Yes, yes, there is no doubt, it is crucial. It’s one of the most important thing. It can change one’s life. To reduce hatred and other destructive emotions, you must develop their opposites – compassion and kindness. If you have strong compassion, strong respect for others, then forgiveness is much easier. Mainly for this reason: I do not want to harm another. Forgiveness allows you to be in touch with these positive emotions. This will help with spiritual development.

Chan: Is there a special meditation technique that you use?

Dalai Lama: I use meditation technique called giving and taking. I make visualization: send my positive emotions like happiness, affection to others. Then another visualization. I visualize receiving their sufferings, their negative emotions. I do this every day. I pay special attention to the Chinese – especially those doing terrible things to the Tibetans. So, I meditate, I breathe in all their poisons – hatred, fear cruelty. Then I breathe out. And I let all the good things come out, things like compassion, forgiveness. Giving and taking. I take care not to blame; I don’t blame the Chinese, and I don’t blame myself. This meditation is very effective, useful to reduce hatred, useful to cultivate forgiveness. (Chan 2004, 74).

Clinical studies have shown that forgiveness is positively associated with better mental health in victims of evil acts (Walker 2006, 181; Govier 2002, 36). In these studies, forgiveness was found to be a lengthy process and ultimately linked to reduction in stress, depression, anxiety, and anger; but more importantly, it encouraged victims to abandon the desire for revenge, and resentment of offenders, which in turn brought about improved psychological wellbeing (Schott 2004, 209). Similar findings were reported in a study by Meyers (2009, 136), in which the focus was the impact of forgiveness on mental health of victims. In this clinical study, forgiveness was conceptualized as a unilateral act by the victim in order to investigate the efficacy of forgiveness that emanates from the victim independent of the perpetrator following victimhood and exposure to extreme violence, and the subsequent impact such unilateral forgiveness has on mild psychiatric morbidity. They found it to be very helpful, and facilitated the victim’s recovery process.

If these findings hold true for some victims (they certainly cannot be generalized to be helpful to all victims) then what does one make of the notion of the need to never forget past evil acts, for to forget is to doom one to forever fall victim of similar acts of evil. This sentiment is aptly captured by Elie Wiesel (1982, 32), “Never should I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never. But how does one forgive and move on with life while clinging to the memory of a painful and damaging past that constantly invoke the image of the wrongdoer? Is the age-old admonition “Forgive and Forget” useful in the forgiveness paradigm? Put differently, is forgetting essential to forgiveness and psychological wellbeing? Friedrich Nietzsche (1969, 58) in a different context, certainly believed in the efficacy of forgetting for a healthy psychological state: “It will be immediately obvious how there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present, without forgetfulness.” James Young provided the introduction for Oblivion by Marc Auge (2004), and cited the fable of a man who had perfect memory to illustrate the dangerous consequences of not forgetting things. In the fable, the man was incapable of living in the present because the past kept intruding, thus he was forever compelled to relive every minute of his past, which made living in the present impossible. It is in this regard that Auge (2004, 235) wrote:

Given the fundamental role that forgetting plays in the life of an individual and a community, it is surprising to realize that hardly anything positive has been said about forgetting in Holocaust discourse. Without much sustained thought or critical examination, forgetting has often been identified as the antithesis of remembrance, as an attempt at distorting and denying the reality of genocidal anti-Semitism perpetrated by Nazism. The discourse has assigned cathartic, religious, and sometimes quasi-magical powers to remembrance – in often repeated phrases such as “those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it,” “not granting Hitler a posthumous victory,” “from destruction to remembrance,” “in remembrance lies the secret of deliverance.” Forgetting, on the other hand is denigrated as an activity in which only perpetrators and their descendents, anti-Semites, and revisionists would engage. Forgetting is viewed as a form of individual repression and cultural amnesia, as a mental operation that, if not done with outright malicious intent, can only be explained as a kind of psychic defense or psychological pathology. The case as presented is somewhat exaggerated, but it makes the point that a ubiquitous rhetoric of remembrance, especially in public commemorations and popular discourse, has pushed aside a more careful analysis of the role of forgetting.

These statements and questions aside, it is quite natural and very possible to forgive a wrongdoer without the necessity to forget the harm done; forgetting should not be a prerequisite of forgiveness. To forget all aspects of an event that caused so much misery and destruction is to go against the natural instinct of what it means to be human; and that would be asking too much of the victim or even the perpetrator whose interest it is to forget. It is the ability to use past experiences to shape one’s future that separates humans from the lower species. But this is not to suggest that one must perennially dwell on the past; it simply means that past events should be selectively used to guide future conduct. It is a matter of balance – knowing what to disregard and what to retain for self-preservation. In discussing the notion of forgetting within the context of a genocidal atrocity, such as the Holocaust, may seem callous, and perhaps bordering on immorality, for it appears to withhold empathy to, and recognition of, the incredible act of inhumanity visited on the victims. Thus, advocates of forgetting come perilously close to denying the historical event or suppression of it in collective memory, and in the process make it more difficult for victims still grappling with the process of being made “whole” again through forgiveness.

It is within this understanding of the beneficial aspects of forgiveness that one may contextualize some of the opinions adduced by respondents to Wiesenthal’s narrative, for it sees forgiveness not from a theological perspective but from the point of view of its therapeutic value.

Forgiveness as understood in Judaism and Christianity
Two of the Abrahamic faiths relevant to this enquiry, Judaism and Christianity, have at their very core a procedural and objective understanding of forgiveness. For Christians, Jesus of Nazareth is the embodiment of forgiveness and the absolver of all sins, for through him God forgave his subjects all their trespasses against Him, and harm done to humans. By sacrificing his “only begotten Son” to atone for the sins of His primary creation (humans), salvation for all believers must thus come through Jesus, first by believing in him, and second, by abiding by his teaching of love and forgiveness. In this particular Christian sensibility, forgiveness assumes a pervasive role in the functional existence of believers in the sense that forgiveness becomes a duty to be constantly discharged to remain in good standing with God; all Christians have a duty to forgive all sins regardless of scale and scope, and no sin may be deemed so great that it cannot be forgiven by God. This understanding, at the very least, informs an overarching Christianity’s doctrine on forgiveness; but as is true of many doctrines based on faith, Christians of various denominations hold varied opinions on this subject as do Christian theologians. (Bass 2012, 131).

In Christian theology, forgiveness is not dependent on repentance by the wrongdoer; repentance only facilitates the healing process and soothes the victim but it is not a requirement. The victim already bears the burden of forgiveness as a duty imposed on him by his faith. The New Testament, beginning with the book of Matthew, is replete with the theological imperative from Jesus to forgive all sins regardless of who the victim is or the magnitude of the sin. “This, then, is how you should pray,” said Jesus to his followers: “Our Father in heaven hallowed be your name……Give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…” (KJV, Matthew 6: 9-15). Jesus then admonishes his followers, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if do not forgive, your Father will not forgive your sins.” (KJV, Matthew 6:17-20). Ever so mindful of the persuasive power of dramatization and logic, Jesus utilizes parables to remarkable effect in his teachings of love for neighbor, and forgiveness of transgressions by fellow beings. The parable of the unmerciful servant is particularly instructive:

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

“Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”

Therefore the Kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.”

The servant fell on his knees before him, ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.”

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’

But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master what had happened.”

Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all the debt of yours because you begged me to. Shoudn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.” (KJV, Matthew 18:21-35).

But there remains the vexing and unsettling matter that touches on the severity of the sin under consideration. Are there sins against God and humans that are, on account of their magnitude and depravity, outside the reaches of a theologically informed conception of forgiveness, and tend to activate the all-human impulse for retribution and resentment? Examples abound. During the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr., in alliance with other groups combating Jim Crow laws in the Southern states of the country that effectively encouraged extreme brutality, lynching, and debilitating discrimination against African-Americans, preached love, non-violence and forgiveness of perpetrators and enablers of the laws. In addressing a crowed that had gathered soon after his home was bombed in Atlanta, he remained steadfast in his belief in the efficacy of the teachings of Christ on Love: “We are not advocating violence. We want to love our enemies. I want you to love our enemies. Be good to them. Love them and let them know you love them.”(King, Jr. 1998, 80). Many in the African-American community doubted the wisdom of such strategy and agitated for a responsive approach that matched violence with violence, an eye-for-an-eye, and restorative justice (Eagles 2009, 72).

But regardless of the strategy adopted in this instance, the central question of whether the perpetrators of the horrific crime of lynching innocent beings deserve the benefits of forgiveness pits human nature against a theological imperative to forgive all sins. To staunch believers in the Christian doctrine on forgiveness, the answer to the question being asked is really quite simple, “turn the other check,” and pray for those who seek to harm you. The simplicity of this solution, while admirable, was not enough to persuade a vicar who lost a child in a 2005 London terrorist attack to render forgiveness, nor was it enough to keep her as a “woman of the cloth;” she resigned her position as a vicar on the grounds that she was unable to forgive (Morris 2006, 12). But in spite of the vicar’s inability to discharge her Christian duty, which, as a believer she had preached to her congregants all along, some of the victims of the attack, however, publicly professed their forgiveness of the attackers. The public, already conditioned by the implicit social contract that calls for punishment for inexcusable harm, expressed amazement and even went as far as to describe the few victims who professed forgiveness as saints (Morris 2006, 12). Other victims, still understandably consumed by resentment and anger, felt unjustly treated by implication. One of the victims who lost his wife in the attack could not be clearer of his resentment:

I could never forgive and I think that recently there has been too much pressure put on people to express forgiveness. It’s as if we are being asked to apologize for feeling hurt, that society is embarrassed by our anger and would feel better if we would express forgiveness and then disappear . . . . Forgiveness is being offered up as an alternative to justice and that is very dangerous. (Morris 2006, 13).

Such “willed evil” almost always defy comprehension; and has the capacity to compel even the most ardent believer in the Christian imperative to forgive all sins to question the rationale of such theologically imposed duty. But for believers still encumbered with the dilemma of whether to forgive incomprehensible acts of evil wrongdoing or withhold forgiveness, Jesus had already put in place a generalized and all-encompassing response – cast the first stone if you are without sin! The idea, of course, is that everyone is a sinner and deserving of forgiveness not judgment, the nature and depravity of the act notwithstanding. He illustrated this idea with yet another profound session of teaching, and admonition:

But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again at the temple Courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such woman. Now what do you say? They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground. At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time……” (KJV, John 8:1-11).

This understanding of sin informs a fundamental Christian theology that defines forgiveness as a return to God, and that God invariably forgives, and forgives all sins (at least since the death of Christ, who died to atone for all sins; this would not be the case in the Old Testament). Since God, in all His infinite wisdom and love for His creations, is willing to forgive humans for all transgressions if asked, why should humans not do likewise in their relations with their fellow beings? Christians hence have a duty to forgive all sins, and such dispensing of forgiveness should not be conditioned on repentance by the sinner; but for the wrongdoer, some Christian denominations, such as Catholicism, insist on repentance, and penance that include sacrament, confession of the sin and contrition for the sin to be forgiven by God or face the prospect of purgatory, and possibly eternal damnation in hell.

Judaism, in contrast, is not based on creed but on deeds; it is not just a religion that teaches the laws handed down by God, it is a way of life that guides, prescribes and proscribes on matters that touch on both theological and secular existence of its adherents (religion, culture, and nationhood). For over 4000 years it has been a source of strength, inspiration and grief for Jews, and for ardent believers, it is what has kept the world Jewry from extinction given the history of hostility endured by practitioners of its belief system. It is in this regard that Mark Twain (1934, 23) pondered:
All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dreamstuff and passed away; the Greeks and the Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch light for a time but burned out; and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. What is the secret of his immortality?

To which Rabbi Benjamin Blech (1992, 21) replied, albeit not directly, “Judaism is the secret of our survival. It is not we who have kept our faith, but our faith that has kept us.”

Judaism teaches that there are two kinds of sin; the one against God, (neyn adam le-makom) which only God can forgive, and that committed against humans (beyn asam le-adam) for which the victim is the only one who can render forgiveness. Thus, it is the case that a victim, while within his right to forgive or not forgive a sin against him, it is not within his competence to forgive a wrongdoer on behalf of other victims (Steinlauf 1997, 52). The relationship of the one whose forgiveness is sought to the victims does not change this entitlement. In either type of sin, the rendering of forgiveness engages a complex formulaic process that begins with a recognition of the sin or harm done, followed by repentance and atonement. In this lengthy procedure, repentance or teshuvah (a return to God, and renouncing evil) requires the faithful to take specific steps that evince remorsefulness and the will to abstain from committing future harmful acts or sin. Prayer, fasting and charity are means by which one atones for sins against God; to these should be added reparations, if possible, for harm against a human being (Kegan, 1982).

Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, is the holiest day of the year for practicing Jews. The centrality of repentance and atonement for wrongs done to others defines this particular Jewish understanding of the cleansing and restorative effects of forgiveness from God and humans. Yom Kippur, which takes place on the tenth day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar, and completes the annual activities of the High Holy Days that begins with Rosh Hashanah on the first day of the same month, is a period of fasting, prayers, and specifically seeking a return to the Torah (Heschel 2005, 59). It is thus a period of high significance for the faithful practitioner who seeks a return to God through repentance, atonement, and a solemn promise not to stray from the teachings of the Torah, for as the Talmud states, “Yom Kippur atones for those who repent and does not atone for those who do not repent.” (Heschel 2005, 66). But it is equally important for the faithful to take notice that Yom Kippur is not only a period of asking for forgiveness, but also one in which forgiveness is granted to those who have transgressed against others. Tzedakah is the final stage of this process for it is the point when one recognizes harm done or sins committed and takes responsibility to make as much amends commensurate with one’s capacity. This may be accomplished, directly or indirectly, through charitable contributions to causes that help address the kind of wrongs committed. Just as important in this discourse is Yom ha-Kippurim, a period of atonement for God and individual Jews, as observed in the Hasidic tradition of Judaism.

Only after these observances have been undertaken would the wrongdoer entertain a reasonable expectation of forgiveness from the victim or from God. But within this relevant understanding of forgiveness, God, His status as the supreme deity notwithstanding, cannot forgive a wrongdoer unless he has first secured forgiveness from the victim; this requirement necessarily places the wrongdoer in a position where he is forever beholden to the victim unless there is a change of heart; not quite. A wrongdoer who asks for forgiveness of a victim after undergoing the procedural and substantive aspects of repentance and atonement is deemed to have atoned if after several requests the victim remains unforgiving. Maimonides (2004, 152), while not uniformly viewed as authoritative, had this to say on this matter:
When you ask some one for forgiveness, he or she is allowed to turn you down. If this happens, you should return a second and a third time, with three witnesses, and try apologizing again. If the victim won’t forgive you after three tries, then you are considered to have atoned, even if you have not been granted forgiveness.

It is for this reason that murder can never be forgiven because the victim is gone, and cannot render forgiveness; and God cannot unilaterally forgive the murderer because the victim has not, and cannot forgive. This understanding further emphasizes the belief in Judaism that murder is one of the most horrible acts against God and humanity for it essentially makes light of God’s most important creation, and since it cannot be atoned for, it is unforgiveable. This particularly Judaic sensibility of murder and its implications provide relevant contexts for Wiesenthal’s dilemma, and the responses from Jewish respondents in the Sunflower.

While Christianity is an outgrowth of Judaism, fundamental differences in the relevant issue of forgiveness remain remarkable. Judaism, anchored by the tenets, laws and instructions that issue from the Torah, mandates strict adherence to a processes that requires the wrongdoer to first repent and atone for harm done or sins committed, and then ask for forgiveness. But of equal import in this understanding is that certain crimes such as murder are unforgiveable. And herein lies the all-important difference between the two faiths in matters of forgiveness; in Christian theology Jesus died to save humanity from its sinful self, and whosoever believes in him would have his sins forgiven. The sinner or wrongdoer need not ask his victim for forgiveness to receive grace; it is the victim’s duty to forgive because the Christian faith demands it. But for sins against God, the sinner would have to appeal to God through Jesus for absolution; this would include repentance, penance, and sacrament followed by prayers and perhaps fasting, depending on the denomination of Christianity one ascribes to. It is on this ground that Denis Prager (2012, 63) adduced four reasons he believes separates Judaism and Christianity on the concept forgiveness:

  1. The Christian doctrine of forgiveness has blunted Christian anger at those who oppress them.
    2. The notion that one should pray for one’s enemies has been taken to mean “pray for them, do not fight them.”
    3. The belief that God loves everyone, no matter how evil, makes it impossible for a believing Christian to hate evil people and therefore difficult to fight them
    4. The Christian emphasis on saving souls for the after-life has led to some de-emphasis on saving bodies in their lifetime.

Prager, a radio-talk host and a practicing Jew, used his program to express extreme disgust at the Roman Catholic Cardinal of New York in the 1990s for visiting the molesters of a young lady who was mugged and raped (Hooks 1995, 51). The boys, in their teens, were told by the Cardinal during his short visit that “God Loves them.” In the subsequent informal poll taken by Prager on the radio, virtually all his Jewish listeners expressed similar outrage at the Cardinal’s behavior. On the same question, all Christian callers and Catholic clergymen agreed with the Cardinal, and stressed that he did the right thing. All the Rabbis who responded, whether reformed, conservative or orthodox were unanimous in their disagreement with the Cardinal’s behavior, and consoling statement; but if forced to visit the boys, they would express their contempt for the act, and would prescribe severe punishment, followed by a lifetime of repentance and atonement; and surely would not have told the boys that God loved them for it is not within their competence to speak on behalf of God.

The centrality of forgiveness in Christian theology – the understanding that all humans may be and should be forgiven, thus reconciling all to God, also sets Christianity apart from Islam, an arm of the three Abrahamic faiths. In her interview of asylum seekers quarantined in camps in Australia under sub-human conditions that included physical and psychological abuse (in the main to discourage unlawful immigration), Elaine Ledgerwood (2012, 222) described how the “inmates,” responded to the notion of forgiving their captors who administered the regime of pain and agony. Here interview of one of the asylum seekers named Mahmud was revealing of his understanding of what Islam teaches on the concept of forgiveness; to Mahmud there was no forgiveness in Islam, or at least not the Islam he believed in. His faith does not believe in forgiveness from God that enable one to put behind his past harmful acts; instead, one who transgresses must work harder towards earning God’s favor. This understanding was repeatedly expressed to Ledgerwwod by other Muslin detainees she interviewed in the camp, and from these she reached the conclusion that such faith-based understanding of forgiveness would inevitably lead to a reluctance to forgive people (Ledgerwod 2012; 225). But this is purely anecdotal evidence that lacks universal or generalizing properties; it’s usefulness is manifest only in understanding how individuals, steeped in a particular faith, are guided by the principles they believe define their religious sensibilities, and how to conduct themselves in observance of such belief system.

These differences in Christian theology and Judaic formulations of what forgiveness means inform the varying responses in the Sunflower, and may help explain Wiesenthal’s inability to grant the dying Nazi’s request for forgiveness, and why Karl, as a Christian, sought forgiveness in the first instance.

Analysis of the responses to Wiesenthal’s dilemma and the implications for Jewish-Christian relations
The discussion so far has touched on different articulations of forgiveness and its apprehension in secular and theological interpretations. By its very nature, forgiveness, as also discussed in the preceding pages, is only relevant when someone is harmed as a result of the actions of someone else, otherwise there would be nothing to forgive. But forgiveness is a process presumed (and shown in clinical studies) to help victims overcome, in time, the traumatic and psychological pain suffered at the hands of the wrongdoer, through foreclosure of anger and resentment, abatement of anxiety and depression, and suppression of the desire to revenge; essentially, it is a process of “letting go” of harmful psychological manifestations of past evil acts inflicted on victims. It is in this special sense that forgiveness is said to have beneficial therapeutic and healing properties if properly engaged in any of the following ways: one way is to “reframe” the harmful act of the offender, thus enabling the victim to see the offender and the harmful act in a different light; another is for the victim to regard forgiveness as a moral imperative that empowers the victim through the ability to render grace, and retake control of one’s life; and yet another is for the victim to follow the dictates of his or her religious faith.

This last approach is of particular relevance to the current enquiry – the influence of Christian theology on forgiveness on Karl, a perpetrator of Holocaust atrocities, and the role forgiveness plays in Judaism, and how it may have influenced Wiesenthal, a victim of Nazi atrocities. That this is the case is because the principal actors in the book on which this enquiry is based, Karl and Wiesenthal, are respectively members of both faiths, and their behavior towards one another is a defining event in The Sunflower, and the ensuing reactions by respondents in the symposia. It is in this regard that the prisms of religious and cultural influences and dictates may be beneficial (Judaism comprises more than religion). Of course other reasons for the principal actors’ behavior, and reactions to the question posed may have superior explanatory powers than religious or cultural sensibilities, but their respective faiths happen to be more expedient “explanators” in light of the overarching thrust of this study – Jewish-Christian relations.

The point to be emphasized strongly here is that one’s faith or the belief system that guides conduct matters, and quite often decisive in matters of conscience and morality. Beginning with Karl’s urgent need for forgiveness, he, like all Christian respondents, would like to know that his evil acts have been forgiven before he dies. This is important, because what Karl is requesting, forgiveness, lies at the heart of Christian theology and its doctrine of salvation that rests on the belief that Jesus died to atone for all sins, and whoever believes in him and his teachings shall be saved. To the Christian, religion is a creed informed by faith, hence what one believes is far more important than what one does; believe in Jesus and you shall be saved is the message in John 3:16. Since Jesus prescribed love for those who hate you, and forgiveness for those who harm you, the belief in Him as means to salvation and the kingdom of God undergirds the essence of Christianity.

The logical implication of such belief system (assuming there is logic in acts of faith) is that a person of evil deeds can receive salvation and enter the Kingdom of God if he believes in Jesus and his teachings and repents; he need not do more. But one who, by all accounts, has been righteous in his dealings with others and never harmed anyone would not be saved or enter the Kingdom of God if he does not profess his belief in Jesus as his Lord and savior. And herein lies an important difference between Christianity and Judaism; for one, belief is more important than deeds, for the other, what one does in life is what grants him favor from God.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech (1992, 21) insists that Judaism is a religion of 613 commandments; and unlike Christianity, it is not a religion of “this thou shalt believe” and “this thou shalt not believe,” but one in which its 613 commandments are divided into “this thou shalt do” and “this thou shalt not do.” (Blech 1992, 21). The point being that Judaism places strong emphasis on deeds, and not so much on belief. Again Benjamin Blech (1992, 22):

Does this mean that belief plays no role in Judaism? Of course that cannot be. The very first commandment is “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). A Jew must believe. As Ibn Ezra, a prime commentator on the Torah, explained: If there is no commander, there can be no command. However, the purpose of belief in one Deity is to ensure that the mitzvoth is kept. Belief in God is not the message but rather the medium. The goal is not God but a life of holiness, for which belief is simply a prerequisite.

Adherents of Judaism understand that forgiveness is a very complex process, and that there two kinds of sins for which forgiveness may be sought: sins against God for which only He can forgive; and those against people for which only the victim has a right to forgive. No one, however, regardless of the relationship to the victim, may forgive a wrongdoer on behalf of the victim. Equally important is the notion in Judaism that there are certain sins that may never be forgiven, such as murder; in the main because the victim is no longer capable of rendering forgiveness, and God will not be disposed to forgiving the murderer because forgiveness must first originate from the victim.

These religious and institutional articulations of forgiveness are determinative in any effort to understand or analyze the reception of, and reactions to The Sunflower by respondents to the question posed by Wiesenthal. The positions held steadfastly by Christian respondents is one of forgiveness, for in Christian theology no sin may be considered too great or evil to disqualify the offender from salvation so long as he or she professes a belief in Jesus as the savior, repents, and seeks forgiveness. “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” (KJV, John 14:14). This sentiment, and what it means in Christian theology is in full display in one of the responses offered by Christopher Hollis, a Christian (1998 edition, 181):

I am asked what, absolutely, he ought to have done under these circumstances. Let me first make it clear that that is quite a different question from the question “what would I have done?” To the second question I can make no answer…..But on the absolute challenge of what the author should have done I have no doubt that he should have said a word of compassion. The theology of the matter is quite clear and, as the Polish seminarist truly says in this book, there is no difference on it between Christians and Jews. Differences are here irrelevant. The law of God is the law of love. We are created in order to love one another, and, when the law of love is broken, God’s nature is frustrated. Such bonds when broken should be reforged as soon as possible. We are under obligation to forgive our neighbor even though he has offended us seventy times seven……We are indeed told to be reluctant to condemn others. “Judge not that ye be not judged.” It is our duty to reflect how small is our understanding and that, if we knew all of a story, we should often see how much more there was to be said for another’s action, how much more – it may be – of the blame really is ours than appeared at first……According to an old medieval legend, the Apostles assembled together in heaven to recelebrate the Last Supper. There was one place vacant, until through the door Judas came in and Christ rose and kissed him and said, “We have waited for thee.”

Eugene Fisher (1998, 150), a leading American catholic, was forcefully emphatic in his position that forgiveness of the dying Nazi was not an option, but also adds that Karl, by asking forgiveness of a Jewish concentration camp inmate commits yet another sin because the sheer enormity of the Holocaust makes it unethical to place additional burden of responsibility to forgive on Jews. Many respondents (philosophers, Buddhists, Christians) advocate forgiveness for peace of mind of affected Jews and for the greater good of humanity. Others, however, point out that the suffering received by Jews at the hands of the Nazis is so unimaginable and horrific to the extent that it is understandable why a Jew could never forgive or forget.

The strongest argument for this position is that some crimes against humanity are simply too great as to make any request for forgiveness more damaging, for it trivializes the enormity of the harm inflicted. Andre Stein, a Jewish respondent (1998 edition, 251), explains:
For me Simon’s story does raise important questions about Karl’s role in this matter. Did he have the right to ask for forgiveness? Can we believe in the authenticity of his repentance? Should anyone perpetrating crimes against humanity expect forgiveness? If we forgave war criminals how would such act of questionable generosity affect the survivors and victim’s memory?…..The call for forgiveness reminds me of the words Arthur, Simon’s comrade, uttered in the camp when Simon asked his opinion: “…..there will be people who would never forgive you for not forgiving him…But anyhow nobody who has not had our experience will be able to understand fully.” The quote points out two truths: First, that those who caste a stone at Simon show a greater affinity with the dying murderer than with his victims. And second, that by lobbying for forgiving the young SS, they view Nazism through spuriously humane glasses. Let’s remember that Karl at twenty-one was old enough to make informed choices. He could have drawn on the teachings of his faith and on the moral values of his family. Instead, he opted for endorsing a seductive myth that gave him powers nobody should have….I am not moved by his “moral pain” any more than were Simon’s comrades, or for that matter than Simon himself.

The position held and advocated by respondents who self-identify as Christians remains consistent throughout; the source of this unanimity of response is not difficult to trace – the theology of their faith prescribes it. Here is Cardinal Franz Konig, a Christian (1998 edition, 182):
Even though an individual cannot forgive what was done to others, because he is not competent to do that, there is still a question of whether one may forgive. For Christians, the binding answer is in the Gospels. The question of whether there is a limit to forgiveness has been emphatically answered by Christ in the negative. The distinction between whether we can forgive and whether we may forgive still leaves unresolved questions of whether we should forgive. You did the dying young man a great service by listening to him despite your internal reluctance, by showing him sympathy, by giving him an opportunity to confess his crimes and express regret, which means you acknowledged his inner conversion. We have reasons to assume that the dying man still believed in God, and that, through his personal confession to you, he did what he could under those circumstances, in the hope of finding God’s mercy. Even though you went away without formally uttering a word of forgiveness, the dying man somehow felt accepted by you; otherwise he would not have bequeathed you his personal belongings….Nevertheless, you had the opportunity to put forward an act of almost superhuman goodness in the midst of subhuman and bestial world of atrocities. The fact that you did not take advantage of this opportunity may be what still haunts you as a striving human being.

But faith and theology do not offer such simplicity of understanding when grappling with responses given by Jewish respondents. For practicing Jews, Judaism certainly offers a partial explanation, but other deterministic vectors remain operative for both practicing and non-practicing Jews. These would include the extent of personal exposure to the Holocaust, whether family members also perished in the camps, and the degree of psychological trauma endured. These powerful deterministic factors maybe outside the life-experiences of some of the Christian respondents who urged forgiveness; one wonders if they would react the same way if they personally experienced the tragedy of the Holocaust. One hopes they never do; but such life-altering experiences have a way of forcing victims to “reframe” and reconsider the essence of humanity. It is in this sense that Walker (2006, 153) wrote:

Any appreciation of forgetting is complicated by Christian appeals to forgiveness…. Religion, both as a reflective discourse and a communal practice, can play an important role in developing spaces where ritualized acts of active forgetfulness can transpire. The purpose would be to help erode traumatic memories that paralyze and to allow compassion to flourish between and among those deemed “others.”

It will, however, not do to designate Christianity as a religion of forgiveness and Judaism as one of remembrance, a contrast that is itself an outcome of post-Holocaust insensibilities. For, forgiveness is also a central aspect of Judaism, especially during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The reception of The Sunflower, as reflected in the statements by respondents, is as varied as their theological and life experiences. This outcome, for all its limitations in generalized applicability, re-enforces the underlying fact that forgiveness is a personal journey that only the victim may profitably engage; faith, morality, and culture notwithstanding. The fact that Jewish respondents found forgiveness inappropriate for perpetrators of the Holocaust may be a reflection, not so much on how Judaism teaches the essence of forgiveness, but on the horrific nature of the Holocaust and its indelible imprints on the collective memories of Jewish respondents. It is perhaps in this sense that Wiesenthal’s dilemma may acquire meaning and sensibility. It is much easier to articulate what one should do in “hypotheticals,” but quite a different matter altogether to adduce a theologically and morally infused response when one is an actual victim of unspeakable crimes. The referenced instance in which a vicar in Britain had to resign her position because she could not bring herself to forgive the terrorists who killed her child, despite a long history of preaching forgiveness to her congregants, is most instructive of such human dilemma.

But is there value to forgiveness? How useful is it to victims and offenders? Christians, therapists, and philosophers who responded to the question posed by Wiesenthal believe there is – on theological grounds, on the basis of morality, and its efficacy in facilitating the recovery process of both victims and perpetrators of the Holocaust. Clinical studies cited in this work show that forgiveness significantly helped victims regain control of their humanity, and cope effectively with debilitating traumatic events (no similar research has shown a similar beneficial outcome for harboring hate, anger, and a desire to revenge). The need to forgive was argued quite forcefully by no lesser personalities of the likes of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and The Dalai Lama; their position could not be better articulated than the remarks by Yandell (1998, 45):

The significance of forgiveness rests, perhaps, on two facts and a consequence. The facts are that people harm people (theologians place this fact under the rubric of sin) and that people are inherently social and cannot flourish in isolation. The consequence is that people either forgive one another or else wither as persons; they reconcile or perish. Reconciliation among sinners has forgiveness as an element – a necessary though not sufficient condition. So people learn to forgive, or they wither as persons, quite independently of the harm caused by the seeking of revenge.

Could Wiesenthal have benefited by forgiving Karl, and thus avoid the prolonged agony of not rendering the request made of him by the dying Nazi soldier? Perhaps, but we would never know, for forgiveness is a process that draws much from the individual’s constitution and life experiences. The inability to forgive, and the need to forget the past, resonated strongly amongst the respondents. Being able to forget, however, is made possible by the act of forgiveness; but forgetting is a necessary part of remembrance for it allows the recollection of essential aspects of the past, that is uncluttered by irrelevancy and endless reliving of what makes living in the present impossible. This, in no way implies that the past should be entirely forgotten, which is impossible, but rather to unburden memory of aspects of the past that do not add value to remembrance but instead retard the ability to remember important parts of past events that enable effective communication and the ability to forgive. This may be beneficial to victims, but as Finch (2006, 33) argues, forgetting is especially useful to perpetrators:

As much as one may wish a genocidal perpetrator to admit culpability, it might be unrealistic to expect from him a demonstration of his ability for human compassion by asking him not to forget. Suspending the role of forgetting – that which assists in his efforts of self-preservation- would be to take away his identity, his life. Having to face one’s shame, without protective mental operations, has the power to wipe out a person’s existential grounding. From a victim’s perspective, this may be a risk worth taking, since one can legally and morally insist that genocidal perpetrators have forfeited their rights to be part of humanity. From a perpetrator’s perspective, the means to circumvent a memory that would lead to recognizing the face of the victim and to acknowledge their own shameful agency is to resist such memory or to perceive it as an external force imposed on them.

Jewish-Christian relations have been, as far back as the parting of the ways, a complex and complicated one. The persecution by Christians, massacres instigated by Christians, deadly anti-Semitic charges such as the blood libel that led to loss of innocent lives, and forced conversions are some of the atrocities that may be rightfully blamed on Christianity’s intolerance of the Jewish faith. While the tension between both groups has remarkably eased by virtue of progressive civilization of human society, more work needs to be done at reconciliation and tolerance. The lesson from this work indicates that forgiveness by Jews (once again), and a recognition by Christians of past harmful deeds (by way of apology and good-will gestures) may well facilitate a mutually beneficial relationship based on trust and respect for the right to practice one’s faith.


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To what extent does economic dependence inform the anachronistic practice of female genital circumcision in Africa?


Female genital circumcision is a procedure that requires the excision of some tissues that form the female genitalia. It is an old tradition that exists predominantly in Africa, and has, of late, become a very contentious and controversial issue in the international community. There are various grounds for this controversy, one of which is the contention by rights advocates that female circumcision is gratuitous violence against women in the form genital mutilation, and should be abolished. Cultural relativists counter that female circumcision is a traditional ritual that defines cultural identity, and hence outside the competence of international bodies with Western liberal sensibilities. This work examines female genital circumcision as practiced in Africa, and its legitimacy within the context of modern human rights regime. My method of inquiry consists of a thematic analysis of this practice as it touches on United Nations’ conventions, and an ethnographic approach that seeks meaning through interpretation of cultural observances.

My thesis adopts the position that female genital circumcision is a dangerous practice that violates accepted precepts of international human rights. But since no single factor can fully explain its practice and prevalence, a successful challenge would necessarily be multifaceted, and at the same time mindful that any effort to enforce internationally recognized rights may come in conflict with other equally important rights, such as those of religion and cultural minorities. Thus, national governments have a duty to carefully balance other sets of important rights against the need to protect fundamental human rights of girls and women.


Ms. Kasinga hails from a northern village of Togo comprised of the Tchamba-Kunsuntu tribe. Young women of this tribe are, as part of the tribe’s traditional observances, circumcised by the time they are fifteen to prepare them for marriage. Kasinga’s father, an influential man in the village, protected her from this practice until his death in 1992. His sister (Ms. Kasinga’s aunt), by tradition, assumed full responsibility for the welfare of his children upon his death, and subsequently forced Ms. Kasinga’s mother out of the family home. The aunt then arranged a polygamous marriage to a man, and together they brought pressure on Ms. Kasinga, then 19 years old, to get circumcised. Ms. Kasinga fled to the US, and promptly petitioned the US government for asylum under the United States refugee Act of 1980.

For Kasinga’s petition to be successful, she must be able to prove two things: (1) that female genital circumcision is indeed a form of physical mutilation that falls under the category of “persecution” which the Refugee Act defined as “the infliction of pain or suffering by a government, or person a government is unwilling or unable to control, to overcome a characteristic of the victim,2” and (2) that the persecution she feared was directed towards an identifiable group to which she belonged. By narrowly tailoring the elements of the Refugee’s Act to the particulars of her case, Kasinga was able to convince the Board of Immigration Appeals in 1996 that she belonged to a social group of young women of the Tchemba-Kunsuntu Tribe who have not had genital circumcision, and who are opposed to the practice3. The Board, relying on the ‘test for a social group’ established in an earlier case (the Acosta case) held that gender and tribal affiliation are immutable characteristics, and that an intact genitalia is a characteristic so fundamental to the individual identity of a woman that she must not be obligated to alter it4. This ruling was a powerful precedent, and continues to guide immigration judges in cases based on Female Genital Mutilation.

The Kasinga decision ignited a heated debate in academia, amongst human rights activists, and international agencies such as The World health organization (WHO)5. Human rights advocates argued that fundamental human rights are universal, and thus transcend all local cultures in conflict with basic rights6. Cultural relativists weighed-in, and argued that defining female circumcision as persecution amounts to a challenge to the cultural autonomy of groups in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula that engage in such practices7. The World Health organization called the practice a ritualized violence that violates universally recognized human rights standards8.


The chief concern of my thesis is female genital circumcision as practiced in Africa, and its legitimacy within the context of modern human rights regime. The approach I adopt in this inquiry would include a thematic analysis of this practice as it touches on United Nations’ Conventions; and an ethnographic inquiry that approximates what Clifford Geertz9 has labeled as ‘thick’ description, a method of study that seeks meaning through interpretation of cultural observances. This would necessarily include a narrative of my experiences as a young man growing up in Nigeria where the practice of female circumcision is prevalent, and the field work of Janice Boddy in Sudan.

At the heart of this inquiry is the tension between human rights advocates on the one hand, who strongly adhere to the view that human rights are universal and may not be attenuated to accommodate cultural peculiarities, and on the other, cultural relativists with their argument that the imposition of a universal standard of rights marginalizes the cultures of indigenous groups. Embedded in this tension is a group of issues, one of which is female genital excision or what is now commonly referred to by abolitionists as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). My thesis posits that female circumcision is an unnecessary and dangerous mutilation of the body that violates accepted precepts of international human rights.

The next sections of this work would discuss its practice and prevalence, the dangers associated with its practice, and those most likely to engage it. These would be followed by an analysis of how female circumcision violates the norms of modern human rights regime; and a brief discussion of universal human rights and cultural relativism. The last section concludes with recommendations on how to curb its practice.

Practice And Prevalence

The practice of female circumcision is an old tradition in at least 28 countries in Africa and Asia; and generally performed, presumably, to prepare young girls for womanhood and marriage. Lately, however, this practice has surfaced in immigrant communities in North America and Europe11. Before the advent of Western medicine, all circumcisions were performed without the benefit of effective anesthetic, and under septic conditions; in countries where it is still prevalent, this is still the case, and often performed by lay practitioners without any medical background. The rationale for the practice is all too familiar – it conduces to good hygiene, promotes fertility, and discourages promiscuity. Generally, girls are subjected to this experience between the ages of five months to ten years. However, as more of the general population gained access to formal education, the practice in the mid 1960s became almost nonexistent amongst the middle class.

By the 1970s, female genital circumcision was confined exclusively to villagers and peasants. While practices vary widely, there are three basic forms of genital circumcision. One is essentially a clitoridectomy, where part or all of the clitoris is amputated, the second is an excision that involves the removal of the clitoris and the labia minora; the third is the most severe, and is what is commonly referred to as infibulation. This requires the excision of the clitoris and the labia minora, the labia majora is cut and then stitched by the edges, the legs are then tied together until the wounds heal. When the wounds heal, scar tissues join the labia and cover most of the virginal opening, barely enough to allow the flow of urine and menstrual blood. In this regard, Janice Boddy gives an account of her experience in the Suadanese village of ‘Hofriyat’:

Though conventionally termed “circumcision,” the procedure is not physically equivalent to the like-named operation performed on boys. In Hofriyat, male circumcision entails removal of the penile prepuce, as generally done throughout the Middle East and, indeed, the West. Pharoanic circumcision, however, is more extreme, involving excision of most external genitalia followed by infibulation: intentional occlusion of the vulva and obliteration of the vaginal meatus. It results in the formation of thick, resistant scar tissue, a formidable obstruction to penetration. A less severe operation, structurally similar to that performed on boys, is currently gaining ground in Khartoum…. This is referred to as masari or sunna circumcision and consists in removing only the prepuce or hood of the clitoris…. While realizing that it is less harzadous to health than pharaonic circumcision, they continue to oppose it on aesthetic and hygienic grounds and in this lies a clue to its deeper significance. Several women I questioned in 1984 made their feelings graphically clear: each depicted sunna circumcision by opening her mouth, and pharaonic, by clamping her lips together. “which is better,” they asked, “an ugly opening or a dignified closure?” Women avoid being photographed laughing or smiling for precisely this reason: orifices of the human body, and particularly those of women, are considered most appropriate when closed or, failing that, minimized.12

For those who survive the ordeal, the pain from damaged nerve endings never goes away, and remain susceptible to urinary tract infections13. For those who continue to reinfibulate after each birth, the opening gets smaller, thus raising the likelihood of menstrual blockage and obstruction of the urethra which in turn may lead to reproductive tract infections and compromised fertility14. Janice Boddy again gives an account of what circumcised Sudanese women in ‘Hofriyat’ must endure:

A young girl both dreads and eagerly anticipates her wedding day: she welcomes the elevation in status while fearing what it implies, having to endure sexual relations with her husband. Informants told me that for women circumcised in the radical manner, it may take as long as two years of continuous effort before penetration can occur….. Because they find it so painful, many of the women I spoke to said they avoid sex whenever possible, encouraging their husbands only when they wish to become pregnant ….. Sexual relations do not necessarily become easier for the couple over time. When a woman gives birth the midwife must be present not only to cut through the scar tissue and release the child, but also to reinfibulate her once the child is born.15

But in spite of the inherent risks, practitioners look at the practice as an integral part of their culture and ethnicity. But what is culture, and how does one begin to understand symbolic representations and behavior of a people? Geertz asserts that “culture is context16,” and propounds that in order to understand it, one must see things from the point of view of the natives – “our formulations of people’s symbol system must be actor-oriented17,” but acknowledges that our interpretations are of themselves interpretations of the native’s.

Rationale for female Circumcision And Unresolved Tensions

Anthropological and ethnographic studies of female circumcision have all pointed to an array of reasons commonly adduced by practitioners in twenty-eight African countries18, they include: compliance with religious precepts, protection and preservation of ethnic and group identity, promotion of good health through cleanliness, protection of family honor by preventing sexual promiscuity, and preparation for womanhood and marriage. In communities where religious grounds are the main motivation for female circumcision, Islam is the predominant religion, even though there is no direct mandate for it in the Koran19. While the Koran recommends chastity for women as a worthy moral value, it does not explicitly instruct believers that circumcision is the means to achieve this objective20. Some researchers have made note of the fact that in Saudi Arabia, presumably the center of Islam, female circumcision is not prescribed; indeed some have traced the earliest known evidence of female circumcision to Egypt in a period that predates Islam, thus supporting the notion that the practice has Pharaonic rather than Islamic beginnings21.

For many practitioners in Nigeria and Togo, the need to protect ethnic identity, and the foreclosure of sexual promiscuity resonate in the majority of communities where the practice is prevalent. For, in these communities social status, privileges, and respectability are often established by rituals such as circumcision, and with heightened social standing females become more attractive and eligible for marriage. But there is also the issue of abiding by, and sustaining local custom and tradition; as one Somali woman puts it ‘if you stop a tradition, it’s similar to making God mad22.’ Thus, in many instances strict observance of customary practices are held above all other human endeavors, and come to define daily existence.

One of the more contentious and enduring aspect of female circumcision is the claim that Westerners approach the issue from an ethnocentric, and colonial interpretation23. Thus, communities where the practice is prevalent take offense from the implication that change can only come from Western intervention. Feminists engaged in this struggle also face a very serious dilemma, and that is how to forcefully argue against a practice that is principally conducted by women, and known injuries are inflicted by women on other women. Given the cultural dimension of female circumcision, any argument against its practice tends to invoke the overtone of cultural elitism, and disregard for others’ culture. Ellen Gruenbaum addresses these issues in her study of female circumcision in Sudan by using what she termed a ‘contested culture approach’ that highlights a culture’s internal contradictions by encouraging debates amongst different classes, gender, and social divisions24.

Gruenbaum disputes the commonly held view that female circumcision is practiced to control a woman’s sexuality, and contends that the sexuality of Sudanese women that have undergone circumcision is ‘neither destroyed nor unaffected’ and that circumcision does not totally eliminate sexual satisfaction of circumcised women25. As to the possibility of enduring psychological scarring, she found that adult women in Sudan “could recall their circumcision vividly, but most did not dwell on the pain or fear except to laugh about it.”26 While several factors may help explain the prevalence of female circumcision in Africa, Gruenbaum found that in some instances it serves as an ethnic or social mark, and the more severe the procedure is the higher the social status of the recipient27. She also asserts that the most often cited reason for circumcision is marriageability28; for marriage remains a significant means of achieving desired social standing in the absence of other more modern symbols of achievement such as education and employment.

Another significant aspect of this debate is the right of parents to raise their children in accordance to received customs and traditions. A parent who subscribes to the practice of female circumcision, perhaps in deference to local custom, may strongly believe that the welfare of the child would be abridged if left uncircumcised, and thus harbor a sense of guilt for not exercising her parental responsibility. For she sees the practice as a social and cultural right that inures to the child; the idea that the practice may be seen by outsiders as child abuse is far removed from the calculus since the procedure is presumed to be in the best interest of the child. Children, however, are generally adjudged incapable of making informed decisions in matters that touch their welfare; given this presumption of ‘diminished capacity’ a child cannot be said to have exercised her free will when she undergoes the surgical operation of circumcision. It is on this basis that rights advocates see circumcision as violence against children, and an abuse of guaranteed human rights. And herein lies the conflict between the right of parents to raise their children in conformance to customary observances, and the right of the child to be free from potentially harmful practices.

With regard to adult female circumcision, it is not altogether clear that consent was given ‘freely.’ Social conditioning, peer pressure, and the prospect of life without a husband are strong influences on the adult female in regard to the issue of circumcision. As in the case with the child, the adult female has no real choice in the matter; thus with full knowledge of the health risks and pain that accompany the procedure, and equally cognizant of the social and economic consequences of not being circumcised, she is faced with no better alternatives. Since no single factor can fully explain the practice and prevalence of female circumcision, successful challenges to its practice would necessarily be multifaceted, and mindful that any effort to enforce internationally recognized human rights may come in conflict with other equally important rights, such as those of religion and cultural minorities.

Human Rights Implications of Female Genital Circumcision

The rationale given by practitioners in Nigeria, Sudan and elsewhere for female circumcision are almost identical. As earlier suggested, the idea that circumcision conduces to purity, fertility, or chastity is a common ground invariably adduced by the natives. If the procedure did not come with unimaginable pain that boarders on inhumane treatment, the practice may have remained unnoticed by human rights advocates both in Africa, and in other parts of the world. If the associated health risks, when compared to assumed benefits, were marginal the practice may also remain under the radar of international women’s organizations. But this is not the case; from my personal inquiries of my relatives and my wife, there is strong indication that the presumed benefits, with the exception of chastity, are imaginary; the practice cannot be shown to have increased the fertility of women because uncircumcised women are found to be just as fertile. The best that can be said about purity and fertility is that they mask the real reason for the practice: in patrimonial societies where men have perennially subjugated the rights of women, this was just another means by which control is exerted. Men simply want their women to remain ‘pure’ by making leisure sexual activities very painful for women; this is especially true for the most severe form of circumcision – infibulation. And to guarantee chastity long after marriage, the women are reinfibulated after each birth. Here again is Boddy’s interpretation of her informants’ rationale for the practice in Sudan:

There exists a broad range of explanations for infibulation which together form a complex rationale that operates to sustain and justify the practice. Among them, however, those which refer to the preservation of chastity and curbing of women’s sexual desire seem more persuasive, given that in Sudan, as in elsewhere in the Muslim world, the dignity and honor of a family are vested in the conduct of its womenfolk…. Hence the need for circumcision to curb and socialize their sexual desires, lest a woman should, even unwittingly, bring irreparable shame to her family through misbehavior.29

When subjected to the principal doctrines of modern human rights regimes, female genital circumcision looks suspiciously brutish, hence the new designation by human rights advocates— Female Genital Mutilation or FGM for short30. Beginning with the 1948 articulation of rights declared in the United Nations’ Universal declaration of Human Rights31, feminists and rights advocates have relentlessly sought the elimination of female circumcision32. As early as the 1950s, African medical practitioners and activists have brought to the attention of international bodies such WHO and the UN the health risks of female circumcision33. It was not, however, until 1979 that a formal policy statement on this issue was made in an international seminar held in Khartoum34. The seminar focused exclusively on traditional practices that affect the health of women and children, and at its conclusion issued recommendations to governments that require the elimination of female circumcision.

In 1984, the African Women’s organization met in Dakar, Senegal, to discuss female circumcision35. The outcome was the formation of the Inter African Committee Against Harmful Practices (IAC); the goal was to forcefully bring to the attention of African Governments the harmful effects of female circumcision36. These initiatives led to the adoption by the UN of such treaties as the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child37. Article No. 19 of the Convention of the Rights of the Child provides that all state parties:

….shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child against every form of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parents(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.38

Article No. 24(3) of the same convention issues this directive: “State Parties shall take all appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children.39” To many human rights advocates, the reference to ‘traditional practices’ in Article 24(3) is interpreted to refer principally to FGM40. Finally, the African Charter on Rights and Welfare of the Child adopted strong language that addressed the practice of female genital circumcision41. In Article 21(1) of its Charter it states:

State Parties to the present charter shall take all appropriate measures to abolish customs and practices harmful to the welfare, normal growth and development of the child and in particular; a) those customs and practices prejudicial to the health or life of the child, and B) those customs and practices discriminatory to the child on the grounds of sex and other status.42

But it was not until 1994, in the International Conference on Population and development held in Cairo that a formal body explicitly used the term ‘female circumcision’ in its policy pronouncements; and declared it a “violation of basic rights,” and requested of all governments to ‘prohibit and urgently stop the practice wherever it exists43.’ In 1995, The Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing declared the practice a violation of women’s rights, and a serious threat to their reproductive health44.

A Brief Discussion of Universal Human Rights And Cultural Relativism

Modern human rights activism, while remarkably successful in many areas of relevance, is needlessly burdened by the presumed absence of a coherent and sustainable theoretical foundation on which to erect the principles of rights that would have both universal appeal and acceptance45. In substance, detractors and well-meaning proponents propound that the notion of universal human rights is flawed for two principal reasons: (1) it is based on Western democratic ideals of individual rights and freedom, and thus inappropriately hegemonic, and disrespectful of other cultures; (2) the primary ground on which rights advocates have based their demands – human dignity, is not justifiable except on religious basis46. The former, forcefully advanced by cultural relativists, is more serious and remains attractive to significant audiences in both developed and third-world nations.

The thesis here espoused is that female genital circumcision as practiced in many African countries is a violation of rights when examined within the context of modern human rights regime. This thesis is anchored on the notion that certain human rights are primary and fundamental, and may not be derogated from regardless of the kind of society or culture in which they first gained prominence. Furthermore, once such rights have attained near universal acceptance, either in law or practice, no ontological justification is needed for their being. However, some human rights as currently formulated, and because of their ‘secondary’ nature must be allowed considerable time to become malleable to domestic practices, and even then, may never enjoy universal acceptance in a specific form.

Human Rights and Cultural Relativism

Striped to its bare essentials, the primary objective of human rights is to confer on individuals a certain degree of dignity that enables free exercise of will, to engage in meaningful and sustaining relationships, to be free from harm, and to enjoy the freedom to pursue objectives that will enhance personal welfare without subjection to the indignity of physical and spiritual domination. This ‘certain degree of dignity’ properly stems from a sense of morality47. Put succinctly, human rights are ‘the equal and inalienable rights, in the strong sense of entitlements that ground particularly powerful claims against the state, that each person has simply as a human being.48’But these ideals are decidedly liberal and Western in origin, and owe significant intellectual debt to the seminal and revolutionary ideas contained in such documents as the American Declaration of independence of 1776, and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789. Collectively, these documents formed ‘the cornerstone of the political thinking of the nineteenth and twentieth century liberalism and progressivism.49’ Indeed, modern human rights regime may be rightfully categorized as an attempt to universalize the political and socio-economic liberal versions of rights. A glimpse of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides ample evidence for this claim. In parts of its preambles, it state:

Whereas the people of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom….. proclaims [T]his Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations50.

Undoubtedly, some human rights require relevant legal and social institutions to be meaningful and effective. Thus, countries previously within the sphere of influence of the erstwhile Soviet Union may find the argument for human rights vacuous since they lacked the requisite background and instrumentalities necessary for modern human rights regimes. But this is not to say that because these countries are wanting in the essential social institutions, they are therefore undeserving of the benefits of human rights. To the contrary, it is in these countries, more than anywhere else (except for the totalitarian regimes in Africa, Asia, and Latin America) that human rights law can produce significant immediate benefits, and create long-term conditions for social and economic growth. Fernando Teson makes this point quite eloquently when he propounds that “it is perfectly legitimate for a Westerner to advocate universal human rights and to discuss the possibilities for their protection worldwide. Human rights are about protection of people’s lives, safety, and individual freedom. They are a supreme universal value in the sense that most people, deprived of these protections, want to have them regardless of the culture in which they live.51” The point to be emphasized is that certain human rights are primary and fundamental, thus regardless of where their articulation hails from, their value remains universal and independent of cultural observances. The source of these rights, says Donnelly, “is man’s moral nature … Human rights are needed not for life but for a life of dignity, that is, for a life worthy of a human being. Human rights arise from the inherent dignity of the human person.52

This justification for human rights seems sensible, at least to one with liberal sensibilities; but rights advocates around the world continue to face daunting challenges that question the theoretical justification for universal human rights. These challenges come in the form of group rights, national sovereignty, cultural, and religious autonomy. This variety of claims underscores the philosophical doctrine of cultural relativism53; a doctrine that informs the strongly held conviction amongst its apologists that foreign actors should never interfere with purely domestic matters. This, of course, is based on the well- established norm of state sovereignty, and the philosophical supposition that only the ‘natives’ can solve problems pertinent to a culture. Thus, cultural relativism, in its complete sense, is often used to support the position that a particular articulation of human rights, even those of the most basic of rights, may be incompatible with cultural observances of other societies, and hence unacceptable54.

Cultural relativists are quick to point out that the notion of rights are universal; however, its articulation and practice vary and rightfully so amongst different cultures55. Every society, they assert, has a different idea of what constitutes ideal human rights, and that such ideal does not have to be consistent with those held in western democracies, and espoused by the United Nations. This position is succinctly and forcefully stated in a recent critique of human rights in Africa: “For countries that have not known peace, stability, or progress since their contact with the forces of Western imperialism, civil and political rights have no meaning.56. And herein lies the essence of the current debate; on the one hand rights advocates assert that human rights should be universal, and that all cultures are ultimately malleable to the liberal interpretation of rights; on the other hand cultural relativists insist that universalizing the concept of rights as articulated by rights advocates will be tantamount to a western hegemony, and a delegitimization of other cultures.57 They argue that different societies should be allowed to define and promulgate rights to the extent that their cultures permit. Both sides make compelling arguments, but they confuse the issues; primarily because they fail to identify the source of human rights.58

A Confusion of Natural Law and Positive Law

In human rights discuss, two kinds of law have always been invoked to lend credence to the various propositions adduced by the principals: positive law and natural law. Positive law, in its popular apprehension, is the sort that different jurisdictions enact to govern conduct, and enforced by the police and the judiciary. But these laws are relevant only to the affairs of citizens within a particular jurisdiction, and are such not human rights. Thus, as a citizen of the US I can point to the Bill of Rights as the basis for my claims or rights; but those who live in Columbia or Nigeria where there are no such enforceable constitutional guarantees to protect them will have no use for rights based on positive laws that do not transcend jurisdictional boundaries. A different sort of law is therefore needed to overcome this difficulty.

Natural law, in a special apprehension, provides a set of general moral standard on which claims, immunities, and liberties may be based without the constraints of jurisdictional limitations. These moral standard must necessarily be universal and independent of culture, religion, and nationality. Thus, it must be the case that a particular version of natural law must inform the claim of universal human rights. For if humans have rights by virtue of their humanity, it must be the case that there exists a general moral standard that is universally accepted, the particularities of its manifestations or understanding notwithstanding. This is what gives natural law its special advantage over positive law as a source of human rights.


In 1998 the World Health Organization estimated that about two million girls and women are circumcised every year.59 A study by the Kenyan government reports that over 80% of circumcised women experienced at least one serious medical complication from the procedure.60 In other notable studies conducted in other countries, researchers found that between 15% and 30 % of all girls circumcised die from infections and bleeding.61 The primary objective of human rights is to confer on individuals a certain degree of dignity that enable free exercise of will, to engage in meaningful and sustaining relationships, free from harm, and the freedom to pursue objectives that would enhance personal welfare without being subjected to the indignity of physical and spiritual domination.62 Since 1948 rights advocates have consistently argued that human rights should be universal, and that all cultures are ultimately malleable to the liberal interpretation of rights.63 On the other side of the fence are cultural relativists, who have also for long argued that universalizing the concept of rights as articulated by rights advocates will be tantamount to a western hegemony, and a delegitimization of other cultures.64 They argue that different societies should be allowed to define and promulgate rights to the extent that their cultures permit. Both sides make compelling arguments, and a compromise must be reached or the obstacles to a coherent and consistent universal observance of rights will persist.

The practice of female genital circumcision falls squarely within this debate, and clearly illustrates the kind of difficulties that rights advocates must overcome in their quest to universalize basic human rights. Unquestionably, there are certain human rights, such as the right to be secure in person, and freedom from civil, political and religious subjugation, that must enjoy the international status of jus cogens, regardless of domestic cultural observances. Female circumcision comes with a high risk of physical endangerment, and must be strongly condemned, and discouraged. But it is the outcome of a powerful tradition that permeates most of Africa, and some religious observances. While Westerners may find this practice abhorrent, it remains a right of passage for many, hence the need to seek the most effective approach to curb its practice is imperative; but the approach taken must also be, at once, equally sensitive to cultural and religious sensibilities.

A starting point in this campaign should be the enlistment of national governments in countries where circumcision is prevalent; such enlistment is critical for the simple reason that national governments have the capacity to carry ‘carrots’ or wield the ‘stick.’ The ‘stick’, however, must always be the last resort in all human rights discourse. This should be followed by a concerted effort to educate the relevant population and people in responsible offices, such as traditional and spiritual leaders, on the health risks of circumcision, and the attendant inhumane treatment to recipients. If this fails, then an alternative ritual that approximates the same need may be adduced; and with patience, the old practice of female circumcision may gradually fade away. Criminal sanction cannot be a viable solution in this case, for it fails to address the fundamental reasons for the practice; and unless those reasons are properly addressed, the practice will continue, albeit out of public view, even with the prospect of severe sanctions.

While the ideals of human rights are admittedly western and liberal in inclination, their substantive values and usefulness are not limited to societies that espouse western ideas, but are rather just as meaningful and useful to non-Western societies. The common bond of humanity makes these ideals non-parochial, and imbues them with universal qualities. The fact that individual rights and freedom were first comprehensively articulated and formalized as principles of governance and conduct by Western societies is not enough to make them objectionable to other cultures as long as experience has shown them to be salutary to individual welfare and societal progress. By way of example, the idea that man can fly, and hence the invention of modern air travel, is of Western origin. The benefits from air travel are unquestionable; should non-Westerners now refuse to fly because the idea and the subsequent invention are Western? Are we also to reject the global use of modern Western medicine because they may be incompatible with traditional observances in other cultures? For now, a contemplation of these questions will do. Perhaps, but the words of Lightfoot-Klein remain very instructive:

…childhood genital mutilations are anachronistic blood rituals inflicted on the helpless bodies of non-consenting children of both sexes. The reasons given for female circumcision in Africa and for the routine male cir. in the US are essentially the same. Both falsely touch the positive health benefits of the procedure. Both promise cleanliness and the absence of “bad” genital odours, as well as greater attractiveness and acceptability of the sex organs. The affected individuals in both cultures have come to view these procedures as something that was done for them and not to them.65

Female circumcision, like other habitually observed rituals in different societies and in different eras, must have a presumed social or religious relevance amongst its practitioners in order to remain serviceable. Once so convinced, it is hardly necessary to adduce further reasons for its observance, and the ritual would remain in practice until its usefulness is found wanting or alternate rituals with less inconveniences are introduced. In order to curb its practice, practitioners must be convinced that its assumed benefits can be achieved through other means impose with less severe hardship on beneficiaries. But given its long history in Africa this would require sustained effort in exposing its harmful effects to children and adults who are subjected to the procedure as a matter of course, and not by free will; and that a better policy would be to either abandon the practice altogether or retain it with the proviso that only individuals that have reached the age of consent may freely engage in it as an elective procedure. This is an area that would benefit from further research on alternative rituals that serve the same end.


1 Immigration And Naturalization Act. 1980. (8 U.S.C. sec. 1101 (a) (42) (A).

2 ibid.

3 IN RE KASINGA. 1996. Interim Decision 3278, 1996 Westlaw 379826, 35 ILM 1145

4 ibid. pp.5.

5 Lewis, Hope. 1995. Between Irua and Female Genital Mutilation: Feminist Human Rights Discourse and the Cultural Divide, 8 HARV. Hum. Rts. Journal, 1 2-3.

6 Larsen, Ulla; Yan, Sharon. 2000. Does Female Circumcision Affect Infertility and Fertility? A Study of the Central African Republic. Cote D’Ivoire, and Tanzania, Demography, Vol. 37, No. 3, 313-321

7 ibid.

8 WHO. 1996. Female Genital Mutilation: Report of a WHO Technical Working Group, Geneva.

9 Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books, pp. 5.

10 WHO. 1996. Female Genital Mutilation: Report of a WHO Technical Working Group, Geneva.

11 Rich, S., Joyce, S. 1997. Eradicating Female Genital Mutilation: Lessons for Donors. Occasional paper, Wallace Global Fund, Washington, D.C.

12 Boddy, Janice. 1989. Wombs and Alien Spirits. Madison Univ. of Wisconsin Press, pp. 52

13 Larsen, Ulla; Yan, Sharon. 2000. Does Female Circumcision Affect Infertility and Fertility? A Study of the Central African Republic. Cote D’Ivoire, and Tanzania, Demography, Vol. 37, No. 3, 313-321.

14ibid. at pp.316.

15 Boddy. 1989. pp. 54.

16 Geertz, 1973. pp.14.

17 ibid.

18 Gruenbaum, Ellen. 2000. The Female Circumcision Controversy: An Anthropological Perspective. University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 25.

19 Toubia, N; Rahman, A, 2000. A Guide to Laws and Policies Worldwide. Zed Book, New York. pp. 12.

20 ibid. at pp. 13.

21 Tobia, N. 1995. Female Genital Mutilation: A Call for Global Action. RAINBO, New York

22 Bashir, Layli. 1996. Female genital mutilation in the United States: An Examination of criminal and Asylum Law; The American University Journal of Gender & Law, 4 Am. U.J. Gender & Law, pp. 415.

23 Gruenbaum, 2000. pp. 35

24 ibid.

25 ibid. at pp. 153

26 ibid. at pp. 56.

27 ibid. at pp. 59.

28 ibid.

29 Boddy, 1989. pp. 56

30 Rich, S., Joyce, S. 1997. pp.38.

31 Universal declaration of Human Rights; G.A. res. 217A (III), UN Doc. A/810 at 71 (1948).

32 World health organization. 1979. Seminar on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women And Children, Khartoum, Sudan.

33 Assaad, Marie. 1980. Female Circumcision in Egypt: Social Implications, Current Research, and Prospects for Change. Studies in Family Planning, Vol. 11. No. 1, 3-16.

34 ibid.

35 Babalola, S., Adebayo, C. 1996. Evaluation Report of Female Circumcision Eradication Project in Nigeria, paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, New York

36 ibid.

37 United Nations General Assembly, Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (Geneva: U.N. General Assembly, A/RES/48/104, 23 Feb. 1994) at pp. 2.

38 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art. 12, GA RES. 44/25, Annes, UN GAOR, 44th Sess., Supp. No. 49, at 199, UN Doc. A/44/49 (1989)

39 ibid. Art. No.24.

40 Freeman, Michael. 1994. The philosophical Foundations of Human Rights. Human Rights Quarterly, Aug., Vol. 16, n3, pp. 451-514.

41 Organization of African Unity. 1990. African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Art. 24(3).

42 ibid. Art. No. 21(1).

43 United Nations (UN). 1994. Report on the International Conference on population and Development, New York.

44 WHO. 1996. Female Genital Mutilation: Report of a WHO Technical Working Group, Geneva.

45 Donnelly, Jack, 1989.Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice; Cornell University Press, New York, P44.

46 ibid. at pp.120

47 Teson, F. 1984. International Human Rights and Cultural Relativism. Virginia Journal of International law, 25, pp. 87-122.

48 ibid. at pp. 13.

49 A. Belden Fields, and Wolf-Dieter Narr, 1992. Human Rights as a Holistic Concept; Human Rights Quarterly, Feb., Vol. 14, n1 p1-20.

50 Universal declaration of Human Rights, supra note 31.

51 Teson, F. 1984, supra note 47.

52 Donnelly, Kack, 1989, supra note 45.

53 Brown, Chris, 1993. Universal Human Rights: A Critique; in Dunne and Wheeler, Human Rights in Global Politics, pp. 105.

54 Howard, Rhoda, 1993. Cultural Absolutism and the Nostalgia for Community; Human Rights Quarterly, May, Vol. 15, n2 p315-338.

55 Assaad, Marie. 1980. Female Circumcision in Egypt: Social Implications, Current Research, and Prospects for Change. Studies in Family Planning, Vol. 11. No. 1, 3-16.

56 Babalola, S., Adebayo, C. 1996. supra note 35 at pp.21.

57 Steiner, H, and Alston, P, 2000. International Human Rights in Context; Oxford Univ. Press, pp.180.

58 ibid. at pp.189.

59 World Health Organization. 1998. Female Genital Mutilation: Report of a WHO Technical Working Group, Geneva

60 African Report, March, 2003, pp. 37.

61 ibid.

62 Donnelly, Jack, 1989, supra note 45.

63 ibid.

64 Lewis, Hope. 1995. Between Irua and Female Genital Mutilation: Feminist Human Rights Discourse and the Cultural Divide, 8 HARV. Hum. Rts. Journal, 1 2-3.

65 Lightfoot-Klein, H., 1989. Prisoners of Ritual: An Odyssey into female Genital Circumcision in Africa, Harrington Press, New York, pp. 78.