In Conversation with Leonard Dembo and Aurel Kolnai’s Pic of Forgiveness
28 May 2022
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the case of Dembo’s Kangamwiro Song

By Tinashe Gumbo

Dembo in the Class of World Philosophers.

For me, Leonard Musorowenyoka Dembo (1959-1996) and Aurel Thomas Kolnai (1900-1973) are part of a group of great world philosophers who have done a lot in amplifying discussions on the concept of _forgiveness_

the late Leonard Dembo

I always argue that part of Dembo’s outstanding contribution to philosophy is his conceptualization of forgiveness. On his part, Kolnai’s viewpoint of forgiveness has continued to shape the discussion on the subject.

Therefore, the two philosophers under review, need to talk to each other for the for the sake of millions of their students. These philosophers produced a lot of work in their life time, but in this article, focus is on Dembo’s song, _Kangamwiro_ and Kolnai’s 1973-4 paper entitled “ _Forgiveness_ ”.

_Contextual_ _Issues_

Dembo and Kolnai produced their work for different audiences using different methodologies. Dembo used music as the medium of communication while Kolnai was academically rooted. Their political, social, economic and cultural contexts were different, their aims were equally different and indeed, their generations were not the same. However, what they produced has remained socially and academically influential, years after they left.

Dembo was a Zimbabwean musician who focused on a number of themes including but not limited to poverty; forgiveness; love as well as social-economic and political justice among others. He was married to Eunice and they were blessed with three children, Morgen, Law Tendai and Fenistia Linah. Dembo passed on in 1996 when the song _(Kangamwiro)_ under review had already been released.

Dembo is generally believed to have been a deep religious man as can be noted in Kangamwiro where he talks to Yahweh (God) and to his Ancestors. Most importantly for this article, is the fact that towards the end of his life, Dembo seemed to have mainstreamed the theme of forgiveness more than before. As his student, I have personally continued to review his work on this theme and others.

On the other hand, Kolnai was a 20th century philosopher and political theorist, born in Budapest, Hungary to Jewish parents, but moved to Vienna. Academically, Kolnai was attracted to the phenomenological thoughts of Edmund Husserl. He was Catholic but he discounted some of the practices in that religion. Kolnai did a lot of work on various topics including forgiveness.

However, Konail’s work under review was only compiled and published by his wife Elisabeth after his death in 1973. He taught at a number of European schools including Bedford College at London University.

_The_ _Beginning_ _of_ _a_ _Series_ _of_ _Discussions_

While I acknowledge one’s strong subjectivity when it comes to Dembo philosophy, I commit to be as objective as possible as I embark on a journey to ensure that my beloved musician speaks to other great philosophers on the subject matter of forgiveness. In this article, one focuses on Dembo’s song, _Kangamwiro_ and his counterpart is Kolnai. In the upcoming articles (later next month), one will focus on other philosophers as they relate to Dembo’s songs particularly _Mutadzi_ _Ngaaregererwe_ and _Ndirimudiki_ .

My specific agenda is to try and understand Dembo’s thinking on forgiveness against other scholars’ perspectives. As a student of Dembo’s work, I always feel obliged to contribute to the amplification but also simplification of his deep message for the benefit of his fans especially in the context of varied interpretations of his key thematic areas of forgiveness, poverty and love.

_Of_ _Kangamwiro_

The song is part of the album _Shiri_ _Yakangwara_ which was released in 1995 by the Barura Express led by Dembo and has remained a popular album in and outside Zimbabwe to this day. The album carries five excellent songs, _Yave_ ; _Wakandigona_ ; _Shiri_ _Yakangwara_ (title track); _Dzinde_ _Rerudo_ and _Kangamwiro_ (the subject of the current article).

Personally, I got in strong love with all the tracks with _Wakandigona_ emerging as my number one from this project. The album was released when I was pursuing my Form Four education at Guruva Secondary School in Mberengwa West. I need not repeat my story which is associated with the album, my friend Runesu Mugoberi and our Ordinary Level Examinations, as I have already shared that in my earlier article entitled “ _Unpacking_ _Leonard_ _Dembo’s_ _Philosophy_ : _The_ _Case_ _of_ _Shiri_ _Yakangwara_ _Album_ ” published in 2021.

_A_ _few_ _Lines_ _from_ _Kangamwiro_

Generally, in _Kangamwiro_ , Dembo reiterates the message he had pushed out in _Mutadzi_ _Ngaaregererwe_ , off the _Tinokumbira_ _Kurarama_ album. I once argued that in _Kangamwiro_ and _Mutadzi_ _Ngaaregererwe_ , Dembo is now seeking life after death through the two songs. His earthly life is almost over hence he needs to prepare for that other life as promised in our holy Scriptures. However, for Dembo, he also requires the services of his Ancestors to reach to our Lord.

“Zvinhu zvese zvinondinetsa pano panyika, ndinoteura kwamuri Mwari Baba mundinunurirewo. Nhamo yose yandinoona pano panyika iyi, ndinochema kwamuri Vadzimu vangu mundinunurirewoo…. Vakawanda vavengi vangu pano panyika iyi, ndinoteura kwamuri Vadzimu vangu muvaregererewoo…ndinoteura kwamuri Mwari Baba muvaregererewoo. Pamutongo Wangu Baba, ndiiseiwo pamwe navo vosee…Pamutongo wohuipi hwangu, ndiiseiwo divi rimwe navo vosee. Kangamwiro yenyu Baba, ndizadzisireiwo pamwe navo vosee……..”.

Dembo is praying to God and to his Ancestors for forgiveness (of himself but also of his “enemies”). He starts by showing that there are a lot of challenges he is facing at the time, but he quickly links them to his “sinfulness” (he talks of “huipi hwangu” which resonates well with the concept of sinfulness) hence the need for forgiveness from the Lord but also from the Ancestors.

While Dembo mentions poverty by name, he still does not give details to the “many things that trouble him”. What is clear is that Dembo values the role of both God and the Ancestors in his life. He offloads all his sins, challenges and poverty onto God and the Ancestors.

My particular interest is on where he wants his “enemies” and “himself” forgiven. Dembo highlights the existence of many enemies in his life. However, he quickly prays for them to be forgiven by God and the Ancestors. He even requests for God and the Ancestors to put him on the same side with his enemies when he finally faces his judgement. Thus, _Kangamwiro_ pushes the message of forgiveness on the part of Dembo himself but also of his enemies.

The key words and phrases from this song are: “kangamwiro; vavengi vangu; huipi hwangu; pamutongo; muvaregererewoo; mundiregerewoo; ndinoteura; nhamo yose; zvakawanda zvinondinetsa; Mwari baba; Vadzimu vangu; and ndiiseiwo pamwe navo. I have tried to summarize all these into the message of “forgiveness”.

_But_ _What_ _is_ _Forgiveness_ _?_

While there seems to be a number of definitions given by different scholars on forgiveness, it is generally agreed that “to forgive is to respond in a particular way to someone who has treated someone badly or wrongly” (Hughes and Warmke, 2022). On their part, psychologists generally define it as a conscious, deliberate decision to release feelings of resentment or vengeance towards a person or group who has(ve) harmed one, regardless of whether they actually deserve one’s forgiveness.

Witvliet (2002:n.p) indicates that scholars generally agree with Enright and Coyle’s (1998) position that forgiveness is different from a number of things it is often associated with: “pardoning (which is, strictly speaking, a legal concept); condoning (which involves justifying the offense); excusing (which implies that a transgression was committed because of extenuating circumstances); forgetting (which implies that the memory of a transgression has decayed or slipped out of conscious awareness); and denial (which implies an unwillingness or inability to perceive the harmful injuries that one has incurred). Most scholars also agree that forgiveness is distinct from reconciliation-a term that implies the restoration of a fractured relationship (Freedman, 1998)”.

Biblically, the concept of Divine Forgiveness reveals the view of a compassionate Deity who responds accordingly to human contrition and moral rehabilitation.

In Christian circles, forgiveness is also associated with love. “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you”, argues Lewis (n.d). Others regard forgiveness as the final form of love. There are many Biblical texts that can be cited on forgiveness (and love) including but not limited to Colossians 3:13; 1 Peter 4:8; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 and many more. What is common in many of these verses is the argument that forgiveness is not something that one can say with his or her mouth as it should be something that is done with heart.

Yet, in life, inevitably and unfortunately, people are often mistreated by others, thus, forgiveness concerns one kind of response to those who wrong us. Forgiveness has typically been regarded as a personal response to having been injured or wronged, or as a condition one seeks or hopes is bestowed upon one for having wronged someone else (Hughes and Warmke, 2022). Let me indicate that there are a lot of philosophical issues that are associated with the concept of forgiveness, however, for this article I try to zero in on the specific work of Kolnai and Dembo.

_Kolnai’s_ _Paradox_ _of_ _Forgiveness_

Kolnai’s “bold and blunt” (Adams, 1991) aim was to reclaim the topic of forgiveness for ethics by disentangling it from its context in the Christian religion. Methodologically, Kolnai sought to provide what he termed “‘rigorous’ logical analysis”. He aimed at creating a paradox that forgiveness is logically not possible unless understood from an ethical stand point.

It is interesting to note that Kolnai’ paper “ _Forgiveness_ ” (1973-4) does not attempt to define this concept (Adams, 1991). Kolnai simply delimits the concept by characterizing it through what he called conditions for forgiveness. Below I cite Kolnai’s conditions directly as in Adams (I have however rearranged them for my purpose):

(i) Forgiveness primordially refers to a context of interpersonal relationships, in the narrow sense of relations between two parties on an equal footing. The intention by Kolnai is to contrast with theological, political, or judicial contexts, in which one person has authority and jurisdiction over another.

(ii) Forgiveness presupposes an affront, injury, trespass, or offense committed by one person against another.

(iii) Forgiveness “digs deep into its object” in the sense that (a) the offense is recognized as such and imputed to the offender, and (b) the recognition and imputation of the offense is at first accompanied by indignation and a retributive attitude.

(iv) One can forgive only offenses against oneself, but not the wrongs done to others.

(v) Forgiveness involves an “explicit,” “intentional,” “conscious decisional” act, not just a “fading out” of emotional, cognitive, or attitudinal states about the offensive incidents.

(vi) In particular, forgiveness involves (a) giving up or “nullifying” the retributive attitude (b) without revising the judgment whereby one imputes the offense.

(vii) Finally, Kolnai is inclined to see reconciliation as a possible result based on, but not the essence of forgiveness.

_Kolnai_ _on_ _Condonation_ _Vs_ _Forgiveness_ ( _Directly_ _cited_ _from_ _Adams_ _with_ _some_ _minor_ _paraphrasing_ )

Clearly, all the above conditions given by Kolnai are meant to differentiate forgiveness from a number of responses that can manifest to cases of wrongdoing. His main aim is to expose the differences between forgiveness and what he terms condonation. In a case of (let A be the offender and B the offended party) B condones A’s offense when:

(viii) B is clearly aware of A’s offense,
(ix) B per se disapproves of such offense, but
(x) B deliberately refrains from any retributive response to A’s action.

*NB* : Where forgiveness presupposes and then nullifies “the original retributive position” condonation “acquiesces in the offense,” whether out of tolerance for weakness or prudence.

_Kangamwiro_ _Vs_ _Kolnai’s_ _Forgiveness_

The work of Dembo and Kolnai can be viewed from various angles depending on one’s agenda. For this piece, focus is on the two philosophers’ views regarding forgiveness as it relates to issues of ethics; religion; moral responsibility; relationships (reconciliation) as well as emotions. The sections below summarize the interaction of Dembo and Kolnai.

_Ethics_ _or_ _Religion_ _or_ _Moral_ _Responsibility_

While Kolnai views forgiveness exercised within the context of religion as logically impossible, Dembo sees no problem in praying to his deities (God and Ancestors), an act which automatically brings the religion into the equation.

Ethical considerations are not manifesting visibly in anyway in Dembo’s story. However, as noted by Adams (1991), Kolnai fails dismally to reclaim forgiveness from religion to ethics. At most according to Adams, Kolnai managed to move forgiveness from religion (Christianity) to another “religion” (Morality).

The issue of morality, seems to be silent in _Kangamwiro_ . Maybe Dembo implied it in his line “Pamutongo wohuipi hwangu…” where probably he could have acted in an unacceptable, at most, immoral manner in the eyes of God.

As for Kolnai, moral responsibility lies with both the offender and the forgiver. He is comfortable with a situation where the offender should actually “earn” forgiveness through his or her exercise of moral responsibility. Yet, forgiveness itself according to Kolnai, is a “conscious decisional” act for which the victim must render moral account (cited in Adams, 1991:282).

In the case of Dembo, he shows moral responsibility by reaching out to the “victim” of his actions, God and his Ancestors. However, this is not visible when it comes to the moral responsibility of his “enemies”. It is not shown in the song whether indeed, they earned this forgiveness or it is Dembo himself who is forcing it onto them.

_Forgiveness_ _as_ _a_ _Virtue_

Another key question emerging from Dembo and Kolnai’s work is the issue of forgiveness and ethics particularly when the former has been regarded as a virtue by some scholars. Within Western traditions, forgiveness has often been regarded as a “high” and “difficult” virtue (Scarre 2004, cited in Hughes and Warmke, 2022), and its opposite, unwillingness to forgive, as a vice.

Indeed, Kolnai’s agenda is to pluck forgiveness from religion and transplant it onto ethics, although Adams (1991) argues that this was a dismal failure. Dembo did not expose his agenda in _Kangamwiro_ but, the way he emotionally cries to God and his Ancestors, is an indication that he strongly believed in forgiveness as a virtue. He feels compelled to ask his deities to forgive his enemies but also himself.

However, Dembo may have involuntarily felt that it is a vice not to forgive hence in that case, he pushes the idea of forgiveness as a virtue.

_Forgiveness_ _and_ _Relationships_ _(Reconciliation)_

When we are wronged, this typically damages our relationship with the wrongdoer. Minor offenses might put strains on relationships that put burdens on both persons involved; serious offenses might lead the victim to terminate the relationship altogether (Hughes and Warmke, 2022). It is generally agreed that even if reconciliation is neither necessary nor sufficient for forgiveness, it can still be recognized that reconciliation is, as Robert Roberts (1995) puts it, the “teleology of forgiveness” (Hughes and Warmke).

All things being equal, reconciliation is the goal to which forgiveness points. Thus, forgiveness is oriented towards promoting pro-sociality and friendly relations even though reality may make it difficult to achieve that (McCullough 2008: 114, 116, cited in Hughes and Warmke, 2022).

Condition one of Kolnai specifies forgiveness as a move in the context of an interpersonal relationship. However, Kolnai’s position is not clear particularly with regards to the kind of change expected after forgiveness. Of course, he says that reconciliation is a possible outcome of forgiveness, but not its essence.

On relationship, Kolnai also emphasizes the issue of equality between the parties involved. He is obviously trying to discount a situation where theologically, politically or judicially, one is superior to the other hence determining when to or not to forgive.

Dembo talks of his “enemies” who should be forgiven, which clearly shows that relations have been disturbed here but can still be adjusted. It is not however clear, if at all Dembo’s relationships with his so-called enemies were on an equal basis.

With regards to Dembo’s relationship with God and his Ancestors, clearly there is recognition through “mundinunurirewo” that there is no equality. There is a deity who has some extra powers to “rescue” Dembo from his plight. Similarly, the same deity has authority to forgive Dembo’s “enemies”. This is what Kolnai attempts at discounting in his argument.

On the same issue of reconciliation, Dembo seems to be preparing for his reconnection with God and his Ancestors, most probably after death when he faces his judgment. In this case, _Kangamwiro_ becomes a strong prophetic song by Dembo. With regards to reconciliation with his “enemies”, this was left hanging and as his students, we continue to guess as to what he thought.

_Who_ _were_ _Dembo’s_ _“_ _enemies_ _”_ _after_ _all_ _?_

I have always asked myself “who were these enemies of Dembo? Were they imaginary or real?” My guess is that these could have been real enemies who wronged Dembo but he chose to be diplomatic about it as he wanted to keep that much valued relationship by keeping them secret.

However, my other possible explanation is that as he was crying over “Nhamo yose yandinoona pano panyika iyi…” these could be anyone who has contributed to his poverty. In this case, Dembo maybe representing all those citizens who are suffering because of the action by some people who have control over resources.

Thirdly, Dembo could have believed that all the “troubles”, possibly including illness in his life and that of others was a result of some human action. This is a common belief in African traditions that any misfortune is caused by some people who may be jealousy of one’s progress in life.

Please note, these are my own subjective opinions, these “enemies” could be something else outside the suggested ones. Therefore one leaves to all concerned students of Dembo to attempt.

_Forgiveness_ _and_ _Emotions_

In his conceptualization of forgiveness, Kolnai does not seem to mainstream emotions. This is surprising as he had initially mentioned indignation and a retributive attitude in his condition three as appropriate first responses to wrongdoing.

As for Dembo, throughout the song, it is not clear at all how he had been injured by his enemies. Nevertheless, his tone shows some emotions running through his blood. Maybe, Dembo had been injured by poverty, which he directly cites as “Nhamo yose yandinoona pano panyika iyi, ndinochema kwamuri….”. What is clear though is that Dembo is more emotional, at least in practice and not in conceptualisation than Kolnai in this matter.

_In_ _Conclusion_

One can conclude that forgiveness is a concept that is open to various interpretations. It has been noted that there are many points in which Dembo and Kolnai did not converge. These include how they view the issue of relationships regarding forgiveness; matters of the involvement of a deity; possibility of forgiveness within religion or ethics and others. However, they seem to agree that forgiveness is a necessary phenomenon in life and that real life means existence of offenders and victims. Dembo is clear though, that one needs to seek for forgiveness to one’s enemies from a particular deity who can be God or Ancestors. This is not acceptable for Kolnai. Both philosophers left their audience hanging regarding the issue of reconciliation. They did not pursue it to its logical conclusion. However, their contribution to the subject of forgiveness is huge.

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_Reference_ _List_

Adams, M.M. (1991), Forgiveness: A Christian Model, Faith and Philosophy: Journal of the Society of Christian Philosophies, Volume 8, Issue 3, 277-304

Hughes, Paul M. and Brandon Warmke, “Forgiveness”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2022 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = ., Accessed 26 May 2022

Witvliet, C. van., (2002), The Psychology of Forgiveness, in Snyder, C.R. and Lopez, S,J., (2002), The Handbook of Positive Psychology, New York.

25 Powerful Bible Verses About Forgiveness And Healing (God) (, Accessed 27 May 2022