It has long been said that there are 3 categories of Africans: Africans of the blood, who are identified by their genealogy. Africans of the soil who are identified by a known geography, and finally Africans by culture. With Her many ancient ruins, exotic animals, mountain peaks, the world’s greatest rivers and lakes, and standing pyramids from an era long gone, to be African has always meant more than a simple familiarity with these marvels. History has shown that it is culture that has often marked a true African identity. While Africa as a whole is often painted in the western media as a war-torn, starving continent, today I wish to highlight another side of Africa!
Over the course of the nearly 4 years that I have spent in the western world, I have sensed a gradual but incessant alienation from my traditional African values. The basic elements of community that define what it is to be African are a scarce resource around here. As a little boy, my mother often said,
“Omulya mamba ab’omu, navumaganya ekika kyonna” [Luganda proverb].
The loose translation is that one sinful person makes a bad name for the entire clan. To put it differently, no one sins against the gods alone. In the same vein, the blessings of the gods are shared by all members of the clan. This value-laden concept has guided my people for millennia. They built tightly-knit villages that were the very embodiment of our common humanity.
To a traditional African, life’s purpose is to become one with the village and eventually (through death) join the ranks of those distinguished ancestors who watch and guide future generations. As one South African philosopher has put it,
“Our deepest moral obligation is to become more fully human. And this means entering more and more deeply into community with others. So although the goal is personal fulfillment, selfishness is excluded” (Augustine Shutte, Ubuntu an ethic for the new South Africa, P.30).
Perhaps it is this world view that carried Nelson Mandela through his 27 long and difficult years on a prison island. He was offered freedom on condition that he would retreat to his village and keep his mouth shut. He was willing to pay the ultimate price, rather than give up on the freedom and dignity of his fellow Africans. While standing in the dock before the South African Supreme Court in 1964, this true son of Africa told the world that he was “prepared to die” for the African cause.
I find it sad that early European explorers called these morally rigorous people savages. I wish to suggest that they failed to learn a thing or two from our societies. Among many sub-Saharan tribes, routine rituals and elaborate ceremonies are centered on the ancestors. On the surface, these rituals may appear like savages engaging in mystical observances but there is something deeper!
Among the Baganda, ancestors are those goodly souls who upon departure from the realm of mortality achieve a status that in the cosmic scheme of things is worship-worthy! With such cosmic potential, the traditional Muganda watches his every step with great care! His language is restrained and formal. Since his/her goals are by definition situated in a community of relationships, the worst curse in life is a severed relationship. The worst that a parent can do to his/her children is disown them. In this context, relationships make life worth living. Against this backdrop, it is not surprising that Dr. Magesa in his book, African religion: the moral traditions of abundant life, argues that the goal of criminal justice from an African view point is to mend broken relationships. Out of this fence-mending approach emerges a social order that is regarded sacred.
Here I pause to briefly consider what a ‘non-African’ might take issue with. If Africa is so great, why isn’t she exporting sentient machines, political doctrines, and musicians like Justin Bieber? Contrary to popular opinion, many Africans do not regard the west as the saints of good governance and freedom. They sadly remember the brutality, forced labor, and racism that characterized the colonial rule. While Africa today is comprised of ‘sovereign’ nations, the brutal wounds caused by the inheritance of a kind of democracy that is incompatible with our own ‘way of life’ cannot be over stated. For that reason I believe Africa limps. The Oxford trained Journalist, Leonard Barnes (1895 – 1977) aptly put it:
“We are destroying the solidarity of blood related societies in which all members were productively active and of whose cooperative character and significance all members were fully and directly aware. We have split the whole basis of social relationship, and are putting in its place a society which is no society, a society divided against itself and driven by the conflict of opposed group interest. We are, in a word, introducing into African life our own type of class society with all our own unhealed social wounds.” [Hetherington, British Paternalism and Africa: 1920–40, p. 72].
Clearly, only a lazy person wallows in the absurdities of history. However, I think that the time has come for Africa to look back on history for valuable lessons. In the words of J. H. Badley, this is the “time to look on the way we’ve come, and forward to the summit our way lies”.
Many historians refer to the European invasion and occupation of Africa as the “scramble for Africa”. The glaring result of the scramble and partition of Africa was what the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan called ‘a cocktail of disaster’. The Guinea-Bissau independence war hero Amilcar Cabral once noted:
“One of the most serious errors, if not the most serious error, committed by colonial powers in Africa, may have been to ignore or underestimate the cultural strength of the African peoples”.
In pre-colonial Africa, culture reigned supreme. The strength of this culture should have been apparent to any good-willed individual. I wish to suggest here that the greatest assault on that dear continent that I call home was and is on the culture of her peoples. One of the boldest challenges for Africa today is to restore hope in a system that has now been receding into oblivion for the last few centuries. Western standards as a result of colonialism now perennially linger. Now is the time for Africans everywhere to walk the way of the ancestors. The iconic reggae legend Bob Marley put it beautifully in song,
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery”.
In John’s Milton’s paradise lost, fallen Adam reminisces about the various Edenic spots he once enjoyed: “under this Tree,” “among these Pines,” “at this Fountain.” The colonialist found societies that worked hard, enjoyed cool evenings around the fire place, music, dance, poetry, philosophy, and folklore. His weapon at every point of the African conquest was a kind of fraud. First, promises of a better way of life, which clearly didn’t turn out to be the case. Secondly, the myriad confused religions of the dark ages. These turned out to be at the heart of nearly every conflict on the continent. Today, many organisations from the West albeit with good motives are false Moses whose misguidance will surely worsen the African condition.
At the beginning of this article, I drew attention to the different varieties of Africans. I argued that the common unifying thread that characterizes all Africans is African culture. Perhaps African culture is best reflected in one word, Ubuntu. A friend of Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu summed up its meaning this way:
“It is the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong.”
Despite the ordeals of the centuries, genocides and current wars, Africans have shown remarkable resilience. Now is the time to forge a uniquely African system of government! The late Pan-Africanist, Professor Ali Mazrui feared
“ That if African do not take control of their destiny themselves, they will once again be victims of malevolent colonial force by others” (Mafeje, “Benign Recolonization”, 17).
The prospects of an African renaissance are breath-taking. It does not appear that a Messiah is on his way to save Africa. I conquer with Mazrui, we have to do it ourselves.