In a recent seminar organised by GRIP in collaboration with the Egalitarian Futures Research Group, Divine Fuh, Director of the Institute for Humanities Africa (HUMA) at the University of Cape Town, delivered an insightful talk titled “Suffering as Way of Life: Precarity and New Imaginative Subjectivities.” This seminar engaged scholars, researchers, and participants in an eye-opening exploration of suffering, precarity, and their potential to reshape individual subjectivities and societal narratives.
Acknowledging Human Relations
Fuh’s opening remarks included expressions of gratitude for the warm welcome and an acknowledgment of the uncertainties inherent in how one moves around in the world. He shed light on the transient nature of people’s journeys and emphasised the significance of human relationships and care in daily life, reinforcing their role in nurturing human dignity.
…interdependency, the ways in which we create and activate dignity on a daily basis and how through our practices we increase other people’s terms of recognition by seeing them in particular ways. Our politics of welcoming and hospitality quite central to increasing these terms of recognition….
Interconnectedness of Suffering and Struggle
Fuh highlighted the deep interconnection between suffering and struggle, drawing from his linguistic background where these terms hold near synonymous meanings. In the Bafut language in Cameroon, both suffering and struggle mean the same thing, what locals call “nge”. He discussed how the imposition of empire led to their separation in discourse, while their intrinsic link remains intact. Sharing personal experiences about conversations on suffering with his family, he illustrated how such concepts as “nge” are understood and perceived today. .
…it is something you generally activate through seeing. You see suffering, which is very different from how it is framed as a feeling…
Fuh delineated his dual objectives for the talk. Firstly, he explored how suffering has gained centrality within the international human dignity project, often manifested through international development, aid, or philanthropy. Secondly, he delved into the relationship between suffering and decolonization, particularly through the lens of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement in South Africa.
Critiquing the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, Fuh noted how it ignited discussions on coloniality and decolonisation. However, he argued that the movement inadvertently diverted attention from the immediate predicaments faced by marginalised individuals. This shift towards intellectual projects eclipsed the pressing needs of impoverished communities residing in racially segregated environments.
Exploration of Suffering and Precarity
Fuh provided an in-depth exploration of suffering, defining it as a multidimensional concept encompassing physical, emotional, and psychological dimensions, often instigated by external influences. He juxtaposed suffering with precarity, a political subjectivity characterized by uncertainty and vulnerability. Fuh coined the term “smiling as agency” to denote the agency that marginalised individuals exercise as they navigate their struggles.
Cultural References and Popular Culture
Drawing from popular culture, Fuh referenced African musicians Fela Kuti and Youssou N’Dour to illustrate his points. He examined how societal acceptance of suffering and smiling as a way of life is portrayed in Fela Kuti’s song “Suffering and Smiling.” Moreover, he highlighted the normalisation of suffering and the resilience displayed by individuals facing uncertainty, as exemplified by Cameroonian musician and political activist Lapiro de Mbanga.
It’s a very powerful song because he is trying to really call on the consciousness of Africans and black people… the way in which they have accepted this way of being… mediating suffering and smiling at the same time. He’s showing the contradictions that look at the bishop to whom you’re praying every day, is living in opulence. You know, look at the pastor, look at the Pope, they’re living in opulence. But you have accepted suffering and smiling. You know, as a way of being…
Engaging Discussion and Q&A
Fuh’s insights sparked a vibrant question-and-answer session, during which participants lauded his multidimensional approach to suffering and its cross-contextual resonance. Fuh underscored the complexity of suffering and its intertwined nature with smiling, introducing the concept of “precariat” and the inseparability of suffering and aspirations. He emphasised that these concepts cannot be isolated from each other, forming a complex interplay that shapes human experiences.
Religion and culture also emerged as integral themes in the QnA. Fuh explored the connection between suffering and religious beliefs, where suffering is often seen as a path to salvation. He discussed agency and the power of imagination in navigating adversity. Notably, Fuh shed light on smiling as a potent force for change, capable of challenging societal norms and prompting transformation.
The discourse extended to the socio-political implications of suffering and smiling. Participants raised essential questions about the portrayal of suffering globally, its manipulation in political discourse, and the potential for smiling to subvert established power dynamics. Fuh highlighted the significance of aspiring for change and emphasised the pivotal role of envisioning transformation before initiating action.
Throughout the QnA, Fuh provided insightful responses, offering nuanced perspectives on the intricate relationship between suffering and smiling. The dialogue unveiled the multifaceted dimensions of these emotions, their influence on individual and collective experiences, and their integration within religious, cultural, and political contexts.
This post-seminar discussion enriched the exploration of suffering and its ties to diverse contexts. It showcased the evolving nature of scholarly engagement with these emotions, highlighting the need to balance universal understanding with contextual nuances. Fuh’s insights underscored the importance of cross-cultural conversations and the role of critical theories, fostering a deeper appreciation of the complexities inherent in the human experience of suffering and resilience.
Implications and Future Research
This seminar offered a profound exploration of suffering’s enduring role in human existence, its entwinement with precarity, and its capacity to shape individual agency and societal transformation. Fuh’s comprehensive analysis illuminated the complex interplay of these themes, encouraging discussions and inspiring future research endeavors. The seminar’s significance lies in its ability to challenge conventional perspectives and inspire scholars and researchers to delve into the profound implications of suffering in contemporary societies. The seminar’s conclusion called for further examination of the intricate connections between suffering, precarity, and imaginative subjectivities.