The West looks at the underdeveloped countries and shakes its head. The underdeveloped countries look at the life-values of the West and shake their heads. Perhaps we both have something to offer each other.
The following excerpt is from Chapter 7 in "Candles in the Dark: A New Spirit for a Plural World," a book commissioned by the United Nations. Thomas Odhiambo is Professor of Biology, President Emeritus of the African Academy of Science, founder of ICIPE; Managing Trustee, The Research and Development Forum for Science-led Development in Africa (RANDFORUM), Nairobi, Kenya.
ESSENCE AND CONTINUITY OF LIFE IN THE AFRICAN SOCIETY
What is the purpose and meaning of human life? This, the mother of all questions, has baffled philosophers and theologians in all societies throughout the ages. Likewise, the question that naturally follows: What is the destiny of a human being within that purpose? These fundamental yet troubling questions are as relevant and perplexing today as they were during the Pharaonic times of Africa, beginning more than 5,000 years ago. Answers provided by sages, philosophers, theologians, and thinkers whose prime concerns are the mysteries of life, destiny, and existential continuity are still vital to society. Social institutions are built and shaped accordingly.
In contrast to the dominant contemporary world-view expressing the depersonalizing, materialistic dogma formulated by mega-giants of market societies, almost all major religions, including indigenous African religions, emphasize the evolution of human beings to a higher level of righteousness, compassion, peace, and divine insight. Righteousness and divine insight are highly personal spiritual values. Compassion and peace encompass "others"—the family, the community, the society, the international community, the aliens, and the outcasts. The preservation of these values depends on the work of those devoted to the personal spirit within, through contemplation, retreat, prayer, study, and meditation.
A tragedy at the dawn of the third millennium is that humanity, having invented unparalleled information technologies offering leisure for thoughtful discourse and unhurried contemplative study, is unable to benefit thereby. This is so because human beings are frenetically occupied with political power and the elevation of their "physical selfhood" to a new market utopia. All humanity is called upon to notch up the economic ratchet-wheel to the level of the modern industrialized societies of the West, regardless of their values and living conditions. There is overwhelming interest in information and knowledge, without concern for insight. Such powerful materialistic forces that consider less technically developed societies on a lower rung of cultural, scientific, and religious accomplishment are leading to the homogenization of human experience on a wholly Western neo-liberal model that emphasizes the spread of consumerism and aggressive individualism. Sadly, inherent in this vision is the absence of sages, philosophers, theologians, and other intuitive thinkers whose prime vocation has been fathoming the mysteries of life, destiny, and existential continuity.