Narratives and the common good

The fact that the notion of human rights is abstract and in many cases contentious is very much known. Different cultures and societies conceive of it in different ways. For example, most Africans associate it with Western moral imperialism and specifically with nongovernmental organizations headquartered in New York, London, or Paris. Human rights, they believe, is not original to Africa. Yet when confronted with the granular details of the contents of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), they admit that human rights is as African as African people’s respect for their elders and neighbors. What, then, accounts for the apparent disconnect between the noble aspirations of the UDHR and their instantiations in people’s lives?

Africans are not alone in this apparent mistrust of aspects of the human condition. Cynicism toward human rights is widespread in the West. Former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada Michael Ignatieff (2017a:4) does not believe in the universal claims of the Declaration either; rather, he proposes ordinary virtues as a better alternative, and, for him, ordinary virtues mean “the common practices of trust and tolerance, forgiveness and reconciliation that are the essence of private moral behavior.” In June 2013, he led a small team of moral inquirers on a journey of discovery, which took them to four continents, specifically to villages, shantytowns, favelas, and poor neighborhoods, where they interviewed citizens and dwellers about their views of the world and human rights. He states that the most outstanding feature in the expression of morality among the people he interviewed is how little the people used the universal principles of any kind to justify their relationship to their fellow humans. On the contrary, “they reasoned in terms of the local, the contingent, the here and now” (Ignatieff 2017b:208). Rather than organize their moral life according to abstract principles of justice, or imagining “the human race beyond the veil of ignorance [...they imagined] themselves: their own reflection in the mirror” (208). It is as difficult to disprove this observation as it is to believe that humans do not care much about other humans outside their immediate circle.

In light of the above, I wonder whether we can truly manage our increasingly complex world without recourse to some idioms that transcend the idols of the tribe, idioms rooted in universality. I duly acknowledge the African (and postcolonial) mistrust of the discourse of universality because of its provenance in Western modernity. However, I argue that we also need universals, even while holding on to the virtues rooted in the world we know. How then can we bridge the gap between the grandiose language of justice and human rights and its practical relevance to people’s lives? How do we explain to an average African that accusing his or her neighbor of witchcraft is unjust and a gross abuse of the other’s human rights and that this other deserves those rights because he or she has intrinsic dignity as a human being, a universal property?

1 think it is safe to say that any proper understanding of universal human rights must take into account its origins in the ordinary virtues of co-feeling, care, tolerance, and so on. This much is obvious in the many versions of the history of human rights in Europe. For example, Lynn Hunt (2007:34 39) argues that eighteenth-century European sentimental novels such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie or the New Héloïse and Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-1748) provoked a “torrent of emotions” and co-feeling in their readers because of the way they shed light on the pains of their protagonists and so contributed to the thoughts captured in the proclamation of “the rights of man.” Ultimately the notion of empathy, this most basic of the ordinary virtues, was an integral part in the thinking about universal human rights. As Hunt states,

novels made the point that all people are fundamentally similar because of their inner feelings, and many novels showcased in particular the desire for autonomy. In this way, reading novels created a sense of equality and empathy through passionate involvement in the narrative.


Even before the eighteenth century, stories have always been a reliable means to appeal to people’s sense of solidarity, as I have already implied in my references to Mencius and Jesus. It is therefore worth posing the question: What can thoughts about justice and human rights in Africa learn from narratives about African lives?

1 seek to achieve two main things in this chapter: First, establish the absolute importance of universal moral frameworks for the existence of decent societies and participatory democracy in Africa, and second, show how narratives can bring us closer to those moral frameworks, part of which is the notion of human rights. UDHR and all the subsequent Conventions and Covenants gesture toward universal moral frameworks that imagine all nations (indeed, all societies) as parts of a community. When people describe their conditions as threatened, they appeal to that community in the knowledge or assumption that all are bound by the frameworks that make us what we truly are as humans. As Kay Schaffer and Sidone Smith (2004:3) argue about life narratives in the context of human rights, “In the specific locales of rights violations and in the larger court of public opinion, life narrative becomes essential to affect recourse, mobilize action, forge communities of interest, and enable social change.” What they recognize as the larger court of public opinion, I call universal moral frameworks and which 1 understand further down within the context of the common good. In pursuit of these goals, I break down human rights in the idioms of ordinary virtues that are an essential part of African people’s lives, as surely they are a part of lives elsewhere.

Stories, values, and the community

James Dawes, the founding director of Human Rights and Humanitarianism at Macalester College, has observed that literature and human rights have increasingly gained attention in world literature. Much of that attention had been devoted to “ideology critique and moral normativization. Critics have framed texts by way of ethical paradoxes inherent to the broader human rights movement itself” (2018:4). 1 think such critiques are in order when dealing with developed societies of the West, which have some degree of ethical and legal standards.1 The human rights situation in Africa and, perhaps increasingly in the West, given the growing coarseness of society, requires a return to the basis of society’s moral framework. After the end of apartheid, South Africa was faced with the colossal but fundamental and delicate task of demonstrating the humanity of all, despite the horrors of the past. The task was all the more complex because the colonial and apartheid systems had never granted black people that basic affirmation. On the other hand, it appears to be impossible to expect black people to extend equal humanity to those who had brutally oppressed them for centuries.

It is perhaps part of Nelson Mandela’s ingenuity and boundary-defying legacy that his government came up with a simple idea of people telling one another their stories of suffering in the now famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The goal of the TRC was to provide a new context for understanding justice; it was to create a condition for restorative rather than retributive justice. It was to restore the humanity of all, the oppressors and the oppressed. As Dawes (2009:395) has observed, “The TRC was arguably one of the most visible acts of collective storytelling in the history of human rights endeavors.... It was quite self-consciously an exercise in narration and healing.” The TRC did not bring about a perfect peace or economic progress or the acceptance of the humanity of all South Africans. Its greatest achievement, though, was the creation of moral frameworks that would make the pursuance of those goals worthwhile and credible.

In his justification of the modalities of the TRC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1999:26) states: “Since we were exhorted by our enabling legislation to rehabilitate the human and civil dignity of victims, we allowed those who came to testify mainly to tell their stories in their own words.” Archbishop

Tutu alludes to the special atmosphere surrounding the ritual of testimonies. The TRC created special context and condition that gave the victims the feeling of being taken seriously. The victims felt readmitted into the universal humanity. Of importance is Tutu’s interpretation of the humanistic reach of the mandate given to them. He underlines what he believes has been one of the immediate results of such an exercise when he relays the testimony provided by one of those who had told about their ordeals during apartheid. According to Tutu, the man said:

Archbishop, we have told our story to many on several occasions, to newspapers and to the TV. This is the first time though that after telling it we feel as if a heavy load has been removed from our shoulders.


I read the man’s metaphor of a heavy load being removed from his shoulders as a feeling of not only relief but also of becoming whole and being a member of the human community. I think it is fair to suggest that the man felt that justice has been served.2

Based on Archbishop Tutu’s testimony, it does appear that the ordinary act of narration links one’s humanity to that of others in society. It makes people, ordinary people, feel their mutual reliance on one another. Their dependence is not economic, social, or political; it is moral and to the degree that it helps people to appreciate their own dignity and that of others. We note in the man’s testimony the special context in which a heavy load has been removed from his shoulders. The context is the gathering of the community as distinct from an audience of one journalist. The gathering of the community recalls the origins of storytelling in the caves and small groups in the tribe, situations in which people told stories in order to live, as Joan Didion (2006) suggests. Every story assumes a community so that there is a special bond between the individual (the narrator) and the community (the listener). Commenting on Desmond Tutu’s reading of the testimonies of the TRC, Eleni Coundouriotis (2006) argues that how one understands dignity affects how one perceives political struggle and social and political power. It does appear, therefore, that Tutu interprets dignity first and foremost as being fully integrated into the human community. His whole political struggle has been the creation of a rainbow community.

What is communicated in the narrative act is the awareness of the moral presence of the others in our lives; that is, with the stories come the virtues of compassion, care, a common search for truth, and some shared sense of justice. Tutu makes a rigorous distinction between the type of justice that is communicated through the TRC, which is restorative, and the conventional Western understanding of the same, which is retributive. Dignity is integral to our understanding of human rights and belongs squarely in the sphere of restorative justice. What is restored is precisely what had been denied: the sense of worth. This understanding of dignity, highlighted in the preamble to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), is enhanced when approached from the South African notion of ubuntu, which 1 discuss in the later part of this chapter.

As much as every society needs legal frameworks to assure that people’s dignity and rights are not trampled upon, laws cannot initiate or sustain these virtues in people; they must be initiated in interpersonal relationships outside the reach of laws. As Eleanor Roosevelt states, human rights and dignity must be sought “in small places, close to home” (Horton 2007). Human rights are therefore approached from the bottom up, not the other way around. Its approach emphasizes ordinary virtues, and it is in light of the ethical and human rights impulses of the TRC that this book examines the role of narrative in the promotion of justice and human rights in Africa. It asks: What is the relationship between the stories we tell about ourselves and others and the dignity we accord humans? What is the image of the human person in the stories we tell?

Literature is about the stories we tell. We do so for many reasons, some of which include entertainment, keeping ourselves company, and imparting lessons that could be religious, moral, or mundane. Sociologist Arthur W. Frank (2010:46) argues: “Stories teach people what to look for and what can be ignored; they teach what to value and what to hold in contempt.” Frank’s claim is true based alone on the material we select for our stories; every choice of material reveals the value system of the person who makes that choice. Also, the way a story is arranged—what is highlighted and what is suppressed—says much about what is important and what is less so. Through a subtle and often complex system of figures, signs, and symbols, stories thus shape our values and display our moral dispositions to the world.

Walter Fisher (1984:6) argues that regardless of the form our stories take, the primary thing in storytelling is “to establish a meaningful life-world.” There will be differences in character, conflicts, and so on, “but each mode of recounting and accounting for is but a way of relating a ‘truth’ about the human condition.” What is at stake here is the human community. Who deserves to stay in? Who is to be excluded? A person who tells about his pain wants that experience to be taken seriously. He or she wants others to feel what he or she has felt, if only vicariously. The assumption of co-feeling suggests the desire of the narrator to be welcomed into a world, out of which his or her experience of pain had forced him or her. He or she wants to know that he or she, too, is human.

At the most obvious and perhaps more immediately and ethically rewarding level, stories provide us with characters whose mere existence excites our curiosity and, when translated into everyday encounters, reads like the questions we might pose to a stranger: Who are you? What is your name? Where are you from? What is your value or belief system? These questions are, of course, implicit in our curiosity about the characters and signify our readiness to encounter the world of the other; this encounter inevitably forces us to engage that world and to interrogate some of our settled biases. The encounter between texts and readers becomes truly moral when a relationship is initiated in the form of identification with characters, worldviews, or events, or rejection of the same. Either way, judgment is involved; every judgment implies responsibility, which is already a moral exercise but one whose nature is yet unknown.

The relationship between literature and ethics is as old as humanity’s effort to understand the universe. As Martha Nussbaum (1999:15) explains, ancient Greek dramatists have always seen literature as a form of ethical inquiry. Dramatic poetry was no more than “ways of pursuing, a single and general question: namely, how human beings should live.” Aristotle (1996:10) identifies the moral importance of narratives when he defined tragedy as

an imitation of an action that is admirable, complete and possesses magnitude; in language made pleasurable, each of its species separated in different parts, performed by actors, not through narration; effecting through pity and fear the purification of such emotions.

Tragedy is thus a way of re-presenting some painful aspects of human life that are deemed important, especially for the purpose of underlining them.

Aristotle is proposing the most basic co-feeling produced in the audience by the tragic condition being performed on the stage. Stephen Halliwell (1998:175) states that pity and fear should be understood as the “capacity to sympathize with the sufferer.” Thus, what is performed on the stage are those aspects of the human condition whose goal, among other things, is to bring the audience emotionally closer to the figures on the stage. He emphasizes that “Aristotle does not derive this sympathy from an undifferentiated sense of humanity: instead, he takes it to be rooted in a felt or perceived affinity between the subject and the object of the emotion.” In that regard, tragic characters “have to be within the reach of an audience’s compassion” (175-179). Halliwell’s use of the word compassion goes beyond the limited scope of sympathy and seems to be closer to what true stories do in our lives; they help us develop empathy, as David Swanger (1993) suggests. What is important, therefore, is the fact that the piece of representation, whether performed on the stage or read in the pages of a book, unleashes a torrent of emotions in the audience.

The ordinary virtues and their limits: the need for stories

As I have sought to establish in the introductory part of this chapter, Michael Ignatieff has aptly articulated the growing skepticism associated with the notion of universal human rights. For him, human rights and the ordinary virtues are in tension, and he privileges the latter. Indeed, for him,

Human rights enjoins citizens to be morally consistent and universalis-tic in their perspective toward strangers in danger, but ordinary virtue will always pull them toward favoring citizens close to home. The meeting point between the language of rights and the ordinary virtues is actually the language of compassion, pity, and generosity.


The core of the tension between human rights and the ordinary virtues, as Ignatieff argues, lies in the fact that the human rights activist or the global ethicist is concerned only with the vulnerable universal human being while ignoring human differences such as race, class, or situation, and regarding “the distinction, for example, between a citizen and a stranger as morally irrelevant”; the person informed by ordinary virtues on the other hand, “the citizen-stranger, the us-versus-them distinction, was the first consideration, the starting point for decision making. The universal human being was rarely if ever the object of ultimate concern” (2017b:207-208).

Ignatieff is correct to highlight the basic, individualistic instinct in all ethical concerns. We care most about those we know. Yet, when he states that majority of those he and his team interviewed rather imagined their “own reflection in the mirror” (2017b:208) while justifying their behavior, he seems to see them as mere narcissists, denying them the power of imagination to put themselves in the position of peoples elsewhere and to respond to their humanity (2017b:208). He seems to paint a particularly bleak picture of the human person. There is, in any case, some truth in the suggestion that humans are largely ruled by tribal instincts. The other side of that truth is that when they get to know other people, they also get to care about them. To know is to care. Given that both the universal ethicist and the local ordinary virtue practitioner care about humans, what seems to be at stake here is the language in which that care is couched on the one hand, and on the other the degree of affinity, that is, the problem associated with knowing others. This is indeed the case, unless Ignatieff is implying that the local person is essentially xenophobic.

Perhaps a few questions that the practitioner of ordinary virtues must answer include: Do we have the obligation to save a drowning person, regardless of the gender or the color of the person’s skin? What does saving or not saving him or her say about our conception of the common good or moral frameworks as humans?3 Do we have the obligation to care about civilians in war zones or strangers in our midst? Essentially, the difference between universal human rights and the ordinary virtues is this: The ordinary virtues urge us to respect somebody because we know him or her. UDHR tells us to do the same because he or she is a human being. My sympathy lies with the latter, and this does not deny my right to love my relatives more because of my obligation to them. But that leaves us with the question of how to bridge the gap between the two, the tension between universal human rights and the ordinary virtues, without delimiting their impact or making them seem to necessarily exclude each other.

It is true that to care is necessarily to care about the people one knows. But we also live in a world that is increasingly shrinking due to globalization and mass migration. Our world is becoming a global village, despite the rise of tribal sentiments. This calls for putting the ordinary virtues “on steroids,” to use Carl Pope’s (2010:294) expression regarding the environment. It calls for increasing the circle of people we know, or specifically, to keep our horizon open for the yet to be known. So, the question is how to reduce the “difference and otherness” (Ignatieff 2017b:210) that dominate the world of ordinary virtues and possibly increase the awareness of the togetherness of our common humanity.

Thus far, we have established that a narrative achieves at least two things: (1) It delivers the world of others to us and makes it understandable, thus making it easier for us to relate to them (Palumbo-Liu 2012:3-9), and (2) it provokes some degree of affective identification or rejection of what has been delivered to us; it conveys values. In both cases, we encounter a new world, and this encounter has a lot in common with those we have in real life. It differs significantly, though, in terms of its composition. In real life, we meet people fairly as they are, not always in neatly packaged formats. Stories are neatly structured, and the materials that make up their composition are meticulously selected. As Wolfgang Iser (1980) argues, the act of selecting materials for a story heavily affects the manner of its reception. The storytellers select materials they believe will achieve the most dramatic effect. They plot carefully.

To explain the ethical content of Aristotle’s definition of tragedy, Paul Ricoeur (1991:21) introduces the notion of emplotment. For him, “the plot serves to make one story out of the multiple incidents or, if you prefer, transforms the many incidents into one story.” Even when we narrate the stories of our lives, as was the case with the South African TRC, we select only materials we believe would make the most impact and arrange them in a way that would be most coherent; we hope that our stories would make us less strange to our listeners—that is, make it easier for them to apply ordinary virtues to us. Through emplotment, the disparate incidents in a particular life are organized into a distinct meaning-making narrative. Interpretation is not confined to reading; every act of telling is an interpretation that is also an appeal to the reader. Stated simply, the story says: Can you feel what I feel? Do you understand me? It is the narrator’s ardent wish not to remain anonymous or a stranger.

Stories have, indeed, been the most effective ways of teaching lessons about life and the dignity of every human. For instance, consider the parable of the Good Samaritan. When a legal scholar posed a question to Jesus about the love of God and the nature of our neighbor, Jesus did not engage in abstract legalism; he told the story of the Good Samaritan. In this story, a certain Jewish trader traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho is robbed, severely beaten, and left for dead. A priest passes by, but pays the man no attention. A Levite does the same. Only a Samaritan stops and helps the man (Luke 10:25-37). What is of interest in the parable is the choice of characters: a priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan. The scholar recognized that the assaulted man’s true neighbor is neither the priest nor the Levite, who are Jews, but rather the Samaritan, who is not ethnically related to the assaulted man. The story forced the scholar to make a moral judgment. Essentially, then, narration is not a blind act. It is designed to achieve some effects—in this case, to drive home a moral lesson about the universal nature of love. Thus, in the Samaritan and the business man, the abstract notion of love of all humans meet the concreteness of care. In light of Aristotle’s notion of tragedy, narration is a moral act, for the writer also reveals his or her biases in the act of selection. As I suggested in the introduction, a writer who writes about an issue such as toxic waste disposed in some part of Africa is already assuming that the reader will be moved to make a judgment; he or she wants us to care about the people we do not know. But the writer can never be sure of the reader’s response, and that is why works of fiction are an appeal, albeit a structured and calculated one.

I am drawn to Jean-Paul Sartre’s (1988:54) timeless observation that “all literary work is an appeal. To write is to make an appeal to the reader that he lead into objective existence the revelation which I have undertaken by means of language.” I understand this appeal in terms of the demands of the ordinary virtues, the demand to imagine these otherwise strange persons presented to us in stories as if they were our neighbors. Taking this leap of imagination is not an easy task, but there lies the seed of the universality of human rights. What makes the difference here is whether we are relating to a person because he or she is our tribesperson or we are relating to him or her simply because he or she is a human being.

As in the parable, to become engaged in the narrated details of a human life is an ethical act, crossing the bridge of foreignness and reaching out to the other in a gesture that binds both to the same humanity. This is an act that at the least de-exoticizes the stranger. Only when a story presents important details without forcing itself on the reader does the narrator evoke a sympathetic understanding, which takes into account various aspects of the lives of individuals as parts of a comprehensive whole. Meaningful links between different and often contradictory events are formed in ways that lead to insight. It becomes obvious, therefore, that we cannot fully understand a particular incident in a person’s life without knowing many other details. This is a special domain of the hermeneutic circle that states that “we must understand the whole from the individual and the individual from the whole” (Gadamer 1988:68-78). The understanding provided by a narrative in this way is rooted in our imaginative reconstruction of people’s experiences. In this reconstruction, we literally become these otherwise strange “others.” We live their lives. It is in this regard that Mark Johnson (1993:x) argues that moral reasoning is basically an imaginative activity because it “requires imagination to discern what is morally relevant in situations, to understand, empathetically, how others experience things, and to envision the full range of possibilities open to us in a particular case.”

Following Johnson’s definition of moral reasoning, understanding others’ experiences gives us the added advantage of creating a more humane, less legalistic community. To be sure, we can never fully understand the other’s experience; we can only approximate it by a leap of imagination. We cannot do away with legal frameworks either. Stories help us in that regard. Following Johnson’s suggestion, morality is always about our actual concrete relations to others, and these relations can be enhanced by stories. Thus, stories help us become moral agents. In the context of the world presented to us by stories, what really counts is the fact that these others are humans. Given that stories have stripped them of their strangeness, we are then more able to relate to them in ways we would want to be related to if we were in their position. From this perspective, therefore, the UDHR no longer appears as abstract as it sounds, and nor do concepts such as autonomy, dignity, and justice. To apply them to the people we know as to those we had not known, therefore, becomes a matter of stretching our imagination.

We tell stories for the sake of the common good

From the foregoing we can infer that the relationship between narrative and morality is indirect—that is, literature affects moral consciousness indirectly by initiating a thought process or identification with a world and for the sake of the common good. Donald Morrison (2013:182) differentiates between the common good and the public good. The public good, as understood by economists, “is a good that is equally available to others, and no one can be effectively excluded from use of the good.” The public good is essential to the pursuit of the common good, which is moral, universal, and permanent.

The notion of the common good can be traced back to Aristotle’s conception of the city-state. Every community, he argues, is established with a view of some good. And since every community is “formed for the sake of some good” it is clear that “the community that has the most control of all, and encompasses all the others, aims both at the good that has the most control of all and does so to the highest degree” (Aristotle 2017:2). It is instructive that community is central in this assertion; it can be assumed that whatever good comes from the act of establishing a community must serve those who established it and for whom it is established: all those who live in it. Good is then understood as what serves all.4 Aristotle further explains that the community comes together “for the sake of living, but it exists for the sake of living well” (2017:3).

What does it mean to live well, for Aristotle? What is the good life for which the community exists? For that, we turn to his ethics, specifically to the concept of eudaimonia—human flourishing or prosperity, which I have already referred to in the introduction. To add to my discussion in this chapter, human flourishing refers to a condition in which every free individual achieves optimal well-being, a condition in which individuals feel integrated

Narratives and the common good 25 and respected in their community. This cannot come about without a framework, that is, a standard of acceptable ways of relating to others. There is therefore a link between the feeling of dignity and the community. Conversely, the community exists to create a space in which individuals achieve their highest happiness or fulfillment. The “common good” is the enabling condition for individuals to achieve eudaimonia. It is important to note the emphasis laid on the individual. Happiness takes place only in the individual, but it cannot be realized through excluding others. So the community exists for all, and all are ethically obliged to ensure its survival. At this stage, regarding our discussion of narratives and human rights, we can provide a preliminary standard for judging a story: Does it help or hamper the realization of the common good? Does it increase or limit the freedom of individuals? Does it help to bring the other closer to us, familiarize him or her to us so that we can relate to him or her as we would like to be related to if we were in his or her situation?

Dorothea Frede (2013:14-15) argues that the core of Aristotle’s ethics is political and that “ethics is part of politics because the life of an entire community is a higher aim than the life of an individual, has a deeper background.” Perhaps one might add that in Aristotle’s thinking, the life of a community is higher than that of the individual if and only if the community truly lives in tune with its calling as a space that assures individual freedom and well-being.5

Ubuntu as an act of storytelling

To narrate is to situate oneself or at least fictional characters phenomenologically in the manner of “This is me. Here I am.” This is an acknowledgment of oneself as an embodied being. In stories, we articulate a particular sense of ourselves. We also get a sense of other selves and the kind of world they want to live in; we present ourselves to the other, and we do so in all our vulnerability. Stories provide the answer to the questions implicit in the act of reading, such as “Who are you?” and “Where are you from?” In a story, the narrator says: This is who I am.

In stories, we aim to achieve the ethical premise of ubuntu articulated in the now-famous phrase embodying the African traditional conception of community: “I am because you are.” The dialogical relationship captured in that expression reflects that which exists between texts and readers. I have discussed ubuntu elsewhere (Eze 2017), but I think it merits more attention, especially in light of the philosophical contexts of narratives and justice in Africa. The core of this ethical attitude is captured in the expression “Ubuntu ngu-muntu ngabantu” or “A person is a person through other persons.” Desmond Tutu (1999:31) states that ubuntu “speaks of the very essence of being human. [It implies]... My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.” We belong in a bundle of life.” Ubuntu can be seen in this light as a common search for meaning. Revealingly enough, at least in the context of the critique of the abstract nature of human rights, Archbishop Tutu contrasts ubuntu with the Western notion of the individual. “It is not, ‘I think therefore I am.’ It says rather, ‘I am human because I belong. I participate. I share’” (31).

Stories present us with a world that draws us into the context of “I participate. I share.” We participate or share in other people’s lives and let ours open to be shared. As the Nigerian human rights scholar Bonny Ibhawoh (2018:32) argues:

from the standpoint of Ubuntu, there can be no human rights without community. What makes Ubuntu as an African moral principle so significant for human rights is that it helps us see individuals not as isolated entities, but as linked in a web of social relationships founded on empathy and compassion.

Ibhawo anchors the notion of human rights in the African traditional moral world and in the long history of African liberation struggles, which culminated with Nelson Mandela. The South African philosopher Thaddeus Metz (2011:537) argues that the expression “A person is a person through other persons” captures

a normative account of what we ought to most value in life. Personhood, selfhood and humanness ... are value-laden concepts. That is, one can be more or less of a person, self or human being, where the more one is, the better. One’s ultimate goal in life should be to become a (complete) person, a (true) self or a (genuine) human being.

I fully agree with this interpretation of the moral agency implicit in that expression, especially in light of Metz’s conclusion, that “One becomes a moral person insofar as one honours communal relationships” (2011:547). His emphasis on the development of moral personhood can also be understood within the context of the UDHR as a call to all to provide an enabling ambience in which every individual can flourish and in which people relate to one another in the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood. In this way, moral personhood begins the moment an individual becomes aware of the degree to which he or she contributes to the affirmation of others because, according to the expression “I am because you are,” it holds that this other cannot be who he or she is without oneself. This expression can also be taken to mean that our values attain meaning or justification only within our agreed framework. We are therefore bound to the common good. Within the context of ubuntu, therefore, the body is always embedded in the community.6 The expression “I am because you are” places the condition of the existence of my body in that of the other. The you refers to both the singular and plural forms of the second person. Human flourishing implies the flourishing of the individual in the company of others. Narratives take all the above conditions as given.

Every story depends on a reader to make sense of it. Somehow, the story begs the reader to bring it into full existence. In the same way, the storyteller appeals to the listening world. Even in the act of telling, the reader is present, if only by implication. In reading, the storyteller is also present. At any rate, there is a meeting of two worlds, and the nature of this meeting is uncertain and fragile. One thing is certain, though: Dialogue exists between these two, however tenuous, and there is a meeting and melding of horizons. Within the hermeneutic parameters of “I am because you are,” one is impelled to grant the other recognition by the grace of their shared human condition. In this regard, a moral framework or the common good is the space in which we acknowledge the fundamental importance of the other presented to us in a story and the necessity of our accommodating the other.

To narrate oneself is to consider oneself seriously enough to be heard as much as it is to consider the other seriously enough to listen to oneself. Narrative speaks to that common moral ecosystem shared by the narrator and the audience. We need morality to live, just as we need stories. We have to make sense of our lives. Ubuntu is storytelling insofar as the narrator cannot function and the narrated world cannot make sense without the listener/ reader. It is a process of making meaning together.

Justice as an element of the common good

My concern in the foregoing sections is to establish the framework within which the moral assumptions of human rights can best be approached and to argue that narrative can help us achieve it. In this section, I provide a more detailed discussion of human rights—an instantiation of justice—especially in relation to Africa. I discuss universal human rights as an important aspect of the moral framework of any decent society. My proposition is simple: Whoever believes in decent societies and that ordinary virtues are nonne-gotiable must believe in human rights. Human rights are merely ordinary virtues amplified to the community level.

Africa has seen a growing interest in human rights and more scholarly discussions of the topic. Most of them explore either its cultural or legal aspects. Sylvia Tamale’s (2008) “The Right to Culture and the Culture of Rights” and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im’s (1990) Human Rights in Africa: Cross-cultural Perspectives examine the cultural aspects of human rights in Africa. As I have already pointed out, Bonny Ibhawoh provides a rich historical analysis of human rights thought and movements in African postcolonial history. Rachel Murray’s (2004) Human Rights in Africa: From the OAU to the African Union examines how the Organization of African Unity has dealt with human rights since its inception.

I take my understanding of human rights as those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in 1948 by the United Nations. More fundamentally, they are those rights that humans have by the mere fact of being human, as Jack Donnelly (2003) has exhaustively explained.

It is comparable to the rights one enjoys in the family into which one is born. A member of a family automatically carries the family name and lives in the house that belongs to the family by merely being born into it. According to James Nickel (2017),

Human rights are norms that help to protect all people everywhere from severe political, legal, and social abuses. Examples of human rights are the right to freedom of religion, the right to a fair trial when charged with a crime, the right not to be tortured, and the right to engage in political activity. These rights exist in morality and in law at the national and international levels.

Important in this definition is the notion that the norms and the rights they protect exist in both morality and law. Whereas some laws could be arbitrary, morality, as is implied in the UDHR, is as timeless as humanity itself. My interest lies in this latter aspect of human rights, and my discussion of human rights here is based on Article 1 of the UDHR: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (United Nations). The Declaration is undoubtedly a legal document. For the purposes of my discussion, especially in light of the conception of the common good as an ethical property, I restrict myself to the moral aspect of human rights. To that effect, the concepts of dignity, conscience, and spirit of brotherhood (and sisterhood) take a prominent place in my discussions of the narratives or incidents that add to our appreciation of human rights.

The preamble of the Declaration addresses human dignity in the very first lines of the document: “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” (United Nations). The Council of Europe’s manual for educating young people about human rights brings this idea home in its claim that “Human rights are moral entitlements that every individual in the world possesses simply by virtue of the fact that he or she is a human being” (Council of Europe). It is instructive that human rights is described as a “moral entitlement” and that we understand it as a claim that an individual can make upon others. Perhaps the reason it is a claim has to do with what we have already identified as the common good. As with being born into a family, occupying the same moral framework as others—a quality that differentiates humans from brutes—is the justification for demanding honor and respect. So, respect is not a privilege, but rather a thing every individual must claim in every decent society.

The Council of Europe explains further that this moral claim is what individuals make on their government and on their fellow humans; they tell their governments “You cannot do that, because it is a violation of my moral sphere and my personal dignity. No one—no individual, no government— can ever take away our human rights” (Council of Europe). Their linking of

Narratives and the common good 29 moral sphere and persona! dignity is related to another important concept in Article 1 of the Declaration: conscience. A moral sphere refers to the quality or condition in which a person is deemed capable of making decisions about his or her life. Being a member of the human race already qualifies one as possessing a moral sphere, regardless of the state the person is—that is, whether the person is a child, mentally challenged, in a coma, or an adult in full possession of his or her faculties. It means acting as a moral agent, which all humans are by the grace of being human.

As sentient beings, only individuals know what they feel and are thus the only persons who can know what is good or bad for them; that is, they are the only ones to justify those feelings. If every individual has the right to decide what is good for him or her, it implies that his or her moral/individ-ual space is inviolable. No one, no state, and no agency can take over the individual agency, except when the individual is incapacitated or is deemed dangerous to the state, in which case the law takes care of that person. The profound implication here is that the abuse of human rights begins on the microcosmic and most basic ethical level when people violate other people’s moral spheres and make decisions that adversely affect other people’s lives without consulting them. The spirit of brotherhood is the fundamental imperative that directs all humans to act in a way that upholds the framework outside of which one’s life has no meaning. Without this moral force, the UDHR’s claim to universality would be arbitrary. The spirit of brotherhood is the backdrop against which ordinary virtues make sense.

It is customary to think of human rights abuses only when heinous crimes are committed against a person or a group of people. I think it is more fruitful to emphasize the microcosmic level of human rights abuse or its appreciation, the level that ultimately leads to the large-scale abuses that often attract the public’s attention. I do this in the belief that all the well-known cases of abuse of human rights, all forms of atrocities in history, did not start with spontaneous, explosive outbreak of violence. They all started with some form of gradual disregard for the other, and this disregard is nurtured in narratives until it is baked into beliefs and ideology and become a widely accepted form of prejudice.

Not all cultures or parts of the world accept the logic that human rights holds universally. This is due to some problems inherent in its conception and execution. As Lora Wildenthal (2012) has observed, human rights language is abstract and ahistorical because of the original intention of the advocates of human rights to capture the universality of its underlining ideas. For her, the abstract universality of human rights discourse is a problem for historians, who seek to understand language in a particular time and place.

The abstract nature of the language of human rights is a problem not only for historians; it is much more so for cultures outside the logocentric Western world—that is, one that is centered on the primacy of reason over all human faculties. Indeed, the second sentence of the Declaration underlines that aspect of Western thought; it refers to humans as “endowed with reason and conscience.” It implicitly downplays any conception of the human that would highlight feeling, since feeling was thought to belong to lower animals. Elizabeth S. Anker traces the problems associated with this aspect of human rights’ origins in the European liberal tradition, which privileged logos over the body. She argues that even though the notions of human dignity on which the UDHR is based are useful, they are ultimately fictions because of the “contradictory status of the body within” that liberal tradition, which

posits a dangerously purified subject, one purged of the body’s assum-edly anarchic appetencies: its needs and desires, its vulnerabilities and decay. And when the body cannot be thus ignored, the liberal tradition generally treats it as an entity that must be repressed, quarantined, or otherwise mastered by reason.

(Anker 2012:4)

The notion of human rights resting on reason was therefore a product of an abstract conception of the human that is traceable to Plato’s ideal world via Christian theology via Descartes’s cogito, and this world notoriously considers the body to be inferior to the mind.

Highlighting some of the issues associated with the Western origins of human rights, Professor Lynn Hunt, one of the eminent historians of human rights, suggests that one of the origins of human rights as entrenched in the 1948 Declaration can be traced back to the American Declaration of Independence. Hunt points out the obvious contradiction in the idea of human rights and its implementation in practice. Those who claimed that rights were universal were not inclusive in their treatment of their fellow humans, as women and black people were not part of the equation in Europe and America at the time. Thomas Jefferson, one of the pioneers of this universal idea, was at the same time a slaveholder and a strong proponent of the notion that black people were not equal to whites.

Opponents of the UDHR seize upon some of these ideas to claim that the notion of human rights is a European cultural construct and cannot be applied to all cultures (Howard-Hassmann 1995). Some contend that the ideas behind the documents cannot be universal because they are deeply rooted in a Western liberal conception of the world, especially its prioritizing of the individual over the community (Ramcharan 1998; Tharoor 1999/2000). Some people even propose a postcolonial argument to the effect that human rights are parts of a Western ploy to impose itself on the rest of the world and therefore cannot be universal (O’Sullivan 2000). Some of these critics rely on cultural relativism to counter human rights’ claim to universalism (Donnelly 1984:400-419).

Nigerian human rights lawyer Chidi Anselm Odinkalu (1999) has observed that Africans “do not describe their problems in human rights terms. Many communities and groups involved in social justice movements and initiatives in Africa are reluctant to make the Universal Declaration, or

Narratives and the common good 31 language inspired by it, their mascot or medium.” As most African scholars of human rights argue, Africa is not averse to the spirit of the UDHR. They, however, point to African conceptions of human rights are codified in the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, also known as the Banjul Charter (African Commission). There are, however, disagreements as to the specificities derived from its genealogy.

It seems to me to amount to a purely academic exercise to debate the proper designation of the struggles for African people to attain dignity. It is not the goal of this book to judge the adequacy of terms. It is, however, fair to state that the Banjul Charter highlights some of the general criticisms leveled against UDHR but does not disagree with its moral assumptions. Both declarations have one thing in common: the quest for justice, pursuit of human dignity, and the common good.

Making human rights palpable in Africa

The abovementioned weaknesses of the conception of human rights notwithstanding, an important strain in the evolution of human rights in the West stands out, and when examined closely, can enhance the appreciation of human rights in general. It is the role of fellow feeling. As Lynn Hunt (2007:29) argues, human rights becomes self-evident in the cultural practices that recognize that “others feel and think as we do, that our inner feelings are alike in some fundamental fashion.” Hunt argues further that “autonomy and empathy did not materialize out of thin air in the eighteenth century; they had deep roots” in the maturation of European culture over time. Part of that maturation is what she calls “imagined empathy,” by which she means “the sense that empathy requires a leap of faith, of imagining that someone else is like you” (32).

Against the backdrop of the abovementioned difficulties associated with the universal notion of human rights, 1 return to a central aspect of this book: How do we make the universality and abstractness of the notion of justice or human rights as formulated in the UDHR palpable to Africa? How can 1 get an African, who sees a person living with albinism as exotic and therefore deserving of no empathy, to admit that the albino has inherent dignity? How do I convince a traditional African man that his wife and his daughters deserve the same dignity and right as he and his sons do? Can I convince most Africans that persons with alternative sexualities have the basic right to be left alone to live their lives? How do we make respect for every individual take a prominent place in our moral framework? In the introductory chapter, I stated that narratability is a litmus test of the universal nature of concrete rights. The test is this: Can it be explained in a story format? Stories widen our moral horizons by making space for others in our lives.

We must keep telling stories; we must tell the story of how people with albinism feel when being bullied or even hunted down for their body parts. We must hear the words of a lonely elderly woman accused of witchcraft in an

African village. Whatever can get people to imagine the pain of these people is welcome. Stories cut across the chatter and abstractions of arguments; they present us humans as we are in our embodiedness and vulnerabilities and can help us imagine that these others are like us. Stories are vectors of values, and telling stories about other people imbues all concerned with dignity.

The question of whether an issue can be put in story formats assumes a few things, one of which is that telling a story necessarily makes humans feel the humanity of others and thus respect their human rights. This is not always the case. It is worth noting that human rights are also hampered by stories, the negative stories we tell about others. The Nazis told stories about Jews, characterizing them as vermin. Indeed, stories have been misused in the history of humanity even before Hitler. Stories have always been vectors of truth and untruth. However, some details make some fundamental differences between stories that make the abstract notion of human rights concrete and others that work against human rights. In other words, there are differences between stories that arise from the human condition and those designed to further an agenda. The former makes sure that humans are presented as living, breathing entities possessing the many dimensions of being human; the latter rests on generalizations and one-dimensional portraits of otherwise complex characters. Humans are neither angels nor demons; stories arising from this awareness do no more than further an understanding of the human. They do not promote specific agendas. To that effect, I follow South African scholar Njabulo Ndebele’s conception of an ideal African literature, one capable of initiating appreciation of the other and convivial living.

In “The Rediscovery of the Ordinary,” Ndebele (1986:144) critiques the apartheid-era South African writers who adopted protest literature as a way to confront apartheid. His concern was not with the goal of the writers, which was the liberation of the oppressed black population; rather, he was much more interested in their method as literary artists. He argues that their approach has two main flaws: (1) It does not enhance the understanding of literature as a work of art, capable of highlighting the human condition, and (2) it does not contribute to the creation of moral frameworks. Protest writing was bound to fail because not only did it fail to change the system it was challenging, it also replicated in a less obvious manner the system’s spectacles, which notoriously objectivized humans. Ndebele calls the writers’ approach “spectacle” because they produced “spectacular representations of reality.” Like the spectacular, their writing preferred “the larger issues of society in our minds, obliterating the details.... It is the literature of the powerless identifying the key factor responsible for their powerlessness” (149-150).

We note Ndebele’s observation about the powerless identifying the key factor responsible for their powerlessness. Important here is the object of attention—namely, the source of their oppression—not their condition as

Narratives and the common good 33 humans whose state of life includes being oppressed. Part of Ndebele’s contention is that narratives that mimic an oppressive machinery ultimately fail to create a moral framework for a better society.

A spectacle is whatever captures the immediate short-term imagination of the spectator, such as wrestling matches or the gladiator fights in amphitheaters in ancient Rome. It is what is designed to please an immediate emotional need, a jolt of adrenalin; it does nothing for the spiritual side of the human, nothing that provokes introspection or leads to thoughts about the human condition. Ndebele states that some of the major characteristics of the spectacular are that “it provokes identification through recognition and feeling rather than through observation and analytical thought; it calls for emotion rather than conviction; it establishes a vast sense of presence without offering intimate knowledge” (49). Ndebele does not dismiss feeling or identification as a product of reading; what he is against is the condition in which a story is produced, and precisely for defined goals. He falls short of calling those stories propaganda. Any story’s first goal should be to explore the human condition and present it to the other as an appeal. Anything that offers a vast sense of presence or knowledge without offering intimate knowledge is nothing short of ideology or propaganda. It is abstract and ultimately ignores the moral sphere or dignity of the individual. It fails our test of narratability.

By narratability, therefore, I mean the ability of the storyteller/writer to use the ordinary details of a life to divest that life of all ideological abstractions and to present it to people, enjoining them with the strength of its narrative gestures to consider that life as if it were theirs. This hypothetical condition is truthful in a work of fiction to the degree that it invites the use of the imagination. The leap of empathy is precisely what narratability seeks to achieve; it makes the life of the other relatable. In this way, narratability makes concrete the universal and universalizes the concrete. In sum, therefore, the conditions of narratability are (1) the story must arise from the human condition, (2) it must be relatable, and (3) it must be based on the practice of the ordinary. In light of the notion of narratability, I propose that all human rights discourses in Africa begin with the body—the body that feels pain and pleasure, the body that must not be violated, and the body that must be respected as if it were one’s own.

One of the discourse modalities for engaging human rights at the grassroots level is to emphasize the condition of those who suffer pain due to no fault of their own. What we owe others reflects what they owe us, should we find ourselves in their shoes. If the language of human rights is abstract and if the practice of human rights is being imposed from above, only stories can make their noble ideals and aspirations palpable to people. Narratives therefore make the abstract language of human rights concrete and provide us with functional vocabularies to engage reality more fruitfully. The goal of human rights advocacy in this regard is to make the issue primarily about people’s individual responses to fellow human beings.7 It is to place the responsibility of caring for our common moral framework squarely in the laps of individuals. It is not the duty of the government to ensure that we love our neighbors and respect one another as humans; it is the duty of the individual in the community. This duty is just an integral part of our being human.

I stated above that people are accustomed to read human rights violations only as egregious forms of violence such as torture, disappearance, and genocide; human rights violations can unfold in subtler, insidious ways over time. They also begin the very moment we consider another person disposable and relate to them accordingly, either verbally or in our actions. These attitudes invariably begin with the stories we tell about them. Some of the incidents of human rights abuses in the selected texts and films are rather obvious, while many others are less so. When I analyze texts in relation to human rights, I shall be looking for situations in which humans are considered inferior or undeserving of dignity, especially in the myths or seen as means to ends rather than as ends in themselves. I shall be asking, explicitly or implicitly, whether an individual’s or group’s dignity or moral sphere has been respected or violated, and whether people relate to one another “in the spirit of brotherhood.” Above all, my interest in the explication of the texts lies in their effectiveness in making palpable the otherwise abstract notion of justice. I shall be asking the questions implicit in the lives of the characters: Aren’t we, too, humans?


  • 1 It is anyhow becoming increasingly difficult to hold to such critiques even in the West, especially in the aftermath of poststructuralism and in times like ours in which people look for moral clarity in sociopolitical life.
  • 2 I grant that many people might disagree with the man. For now, though, we must accept his version of justice which seems to suggest his satisfaction at having been restored to the community by the mere act of being listened to. To be sure, the past cannot be undone, and neither can punishing those who inflicted harm on him.
  • 3 To be sure, the human rights of a drowning person or a person experiencing unmerited pain is not rooted in the perception of the person as a victim; the person has the right to be relieved of the unbearable condition and helped to reach a different condition in which he or she can exercise his or her autonomy. The goal therefore is creating a condition in which people can flourish by exercising their moral agency.
  • 4 The question, though, is who chooses to be part of that community? We know that the city-state Aristotle was addressing did not consider slaves worthy of the virtues accorded to others. Nor did the American Constitution consider women and slaves as equal members of the union.
  • 5 Of course, we know that the notion of community could become tyrannical. It could become so when it is used to suppress individual freedom and well-being.
  • 6 This, of course, does not do away with rationality or the need to aim for universality. It is also important to note that the body is not defined by specific characteristics such as white/black/brown, but rather as a human body that feels pain and pleasure.
  • 7 The need for laws that bind people to the agreed frameworks will surely arise from their understanding.


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