What is African rhetoric? The question is vexed not only because the very definition of rhetoric is contested, but also because “Africa” itself is a spectacular multiplicity of social formations, intellectual practices, and creative potentialities.
The ancient Egyptian text, The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant, may offer one way of responding to this question in a manner attuned both to the facticity and the indeterminacy of “African rhetoric.” This story – reputed to have been written during the Twelfth Dynasty (1985–1773 BCE) – tells the tale of a peasant named Khunanup who is robbed of his belongings by Nemtinakht, a subordinate of the High Steward Rensi. The tale then recounts Khunanup’s eloquent speeches petitioning Rensi for justice.
There are significant parts of The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant that are resonant with a definition of rhetoric that Aristotle made famous – “the faculty of discovering, in a given instance, the available means of persuasion.” In these sections of the text, Khunanup draws on a variety of rhetorical tropes and strategies – praise and blame, pathos and logos – in appealing to Rensi to uphold justice.
But what is most interesting about Khunanup’s tale is that he doesn’t stop there. Rather than simply arguing that Rensi should enforce existing legal and moral norms, he charges the High Steward with a failure to bring about a flourishing polity:
There is none quiet whom you made speak,
none sleeping whom you roused,
none obtuse whom you enlightened,
none with shut mouth whom you opened,
none ignorant whom you made wise,
none foolish whom you educated.
Officials are men who beat back evil, they are lords of goodness,
they are craftsmen of creating what is, joiners of the severed head!
These extraordinary lines are striking not only for what they articulate about Khunanup’s idea of justice, but also for what they reveal about his notion of rhetoric. According to his account, justice is not only “corrective” – a rectification of wrongs – but also ought to be empowering – that is, ought to unfold capacities and powers hitherto nonexistent. It is clear from the text that rhetoric is vital to this task of engendering justice. In this account, then, rhetoric is not simply instrumental – as Aristotle rendered it – but it is also constitutive.
It is precisely such a constitutive conception of rhetoric that offers the best response to the question: “What is African rhetoric?” Rather than essentialize “African rhetoric” as reducible to a single definition, the very constitutivity of rhetoric allows for the flourishing of a multiplicity, a polyvocality, an intertextuality of African rhetorics.
—Omedi Ochieng is assistant professor of communication at Denison University. His areas of specialization include the rhetoric of philosophy, the philosophy of rhetoric, political theory, and aesthetics. He is the author of Groundwork for the Practice of the Good Life: Politics and Ethics at the Intersection of North Atlantic and African Philosophy (Routledge: 2017).