Aggrey of Africa and his ideas


Nobody can stop an idea whose time has come, thus declared a French writer and philosopher Victor Hugo. The world is influenced by both persons of ideas and action.

Two thousand years ago, in Israel, a 30 years old carpenter downed his tools and went out to reform the Jewish faith or found his own church. He heard a mysterious voice that he was the Messiah for whom the Jews had been waiting. His name was Yesuah but the Greeks transformed it into Jesus.

“Seek first the kingdom of Heaven, other things will be added unto you”. “What you wish other people to do for you, so you should do to them. Love your enemies, pray for them”.


Those who disliked his ideas accused Jesus of blasphemy and high treason, asked their Roman Governor Pontius Pilate to crucify him and they went on to persecute his disciples for continuing to propagate his ideas. One man who was converted among the Pharisees took the message of Jesus beyond Jewish communities into communities what Jews called Gentiles. His name was Paul. He and his converts were prosecuted and killed. But that did not destroy the teachings of Jesus. The time for his ideas had come.

Two men have had tremendous influence on the history of Africa in the 20th century. Both of them were from the Gold Coast (Ghana). The first was James Kwegyir Aggrey, a philosopher, and Kwame Nkrumah, a politician. Aggrey appealed to fellow Africans to cherish self-esteem. Nkrumah, by achieving self-government in 1952 and independence in 1957, influenced the emancipation of colonial Africa.

If you ask a well-educated young man or woman today who Aggrey was, probably he will say he does not know him. If, on the other hand, you talked to someone who attended primary school in the period up to 1950, you will most probably find he knows Aggrey and his ideas. In many African countries, you will come across men with the name Aggrey even here in Malawi. They were named after the man who was well known in the 1920’s up to 1950’s as Aggrey of Africa.


Aggrey went to study in the United States about two years before John Chilembwe. He obtained several degrees including that of Doctor of Divinity. In 1924, he arrived in Malawi as a member of the Phelps Stoke Commission on education in Eastern Africa. Before coming here, the commission had been to several other parts of Africa. Wherever he went, Aggrey spoke about the eagle that had been found among chickens. A naturalist or biologist visited a farmer that reared chickens. Among the chickens, the visitor saw an eagle.

“What is the eagle doing among the chickens?” the visitor asked. “The eagles should be up in his forest as king of other birds flying over tree tops”.

The farmer said he had tamed the eagle. It was now like chickens.

The visitor asked for permission to remind the eagle of its true nature. He got the permission. Twice he tried but failed. One morning, he took the eagle to a mountain and waited for the sun to rise.

When it rose, the biologist spoke to the eagle: “Stretch forth your wings and fly.”

The eagle recalled its early days when it was dwelling in the jungle. It opened its wings, with a loud voice off it flew and never went back to chickens.

This was a parable. Aggrey said we Africans are like that eagle; people of other races despise us and treat us as inferiors. But God made us in His image. Let us stretch forth our wings and fly.

When in the 1970 I interviewed men like Pilgrim Chigamba who had been involved in the Chilembwe uprising what were their grievances against azungu ( white people), they told me whenever a well-dressed and educated African went and met a white man, the white man would shout chotsa chipewa nyani iwe (take off your hat, you ape). They treated us like animals.

Aggrey said we were as good as other people and that our black skin had nothing to do with our backwardness.

“I am proud of my colour. If I died today and God said Aggrey I want to send you back to earth, what colour would you like to be, I would say make me as black as possible because as a black man I have work to do that no white man can do.”

Those Africans who had been feeling inferiority complexes because of their skin colour now regained self-respect. Some of them began saying if we are the equals of white people, why then are we being ruled by them. Nationalism started in this way.

Though Aggrey was proud of his colour, he was not a racist. When he was in South Africa he spoke of the piano: you may play white keys and make tune of sorts and you may play black keys and make a tune of sorts.


But for harmony, white and black keys should be played together. He was indirectly attacking what later came to be known as apartheid.

This philosophy may nowadays seem outdated but it is still valid. Hardly any country in the world these days contain people of one race. In the year 2001, I went to Quatemala and Ecuador and I was surprised to find their people of African origin, pure black.

Foreign minorities often come with modern knowledge and technology. These are the ingredients of economic and social progress. Xenophobia hurts a nation that practises it.

Wherever Aggrey went, he said only the best is good enough for Africa. Those who want to reform African custom should eliminate by substitution. What did he mean? Take for example chikamwini and lobola custom.

They were both designed to ensure that old parents are supported by their female children. In chikamwini, daughters remain with their parents. In lobola daughters got to their husbands’ home who pay lobola as compensation. If the two customs are abolished, then replace them by a system that will ensure old people are cared for not left to themselves.

Two of those who were inspired by Aggrey were Nandi Azikiwe of Nigeria who says so in his autobiography My Odyssey and Kamuzu Banda whose dealings with Aggrey are recorded in Volume 2 of History of Malawi by DD Phiri.

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