I came across a post on a social media site which featured a video of what appeared to be an African American woman thanking God for slavery, which supposedly saved her from being somewhere in Africa worshiping a tree. A commentator who re-shared this post indicated that he would rather worship a tree since trees are, after all, real.
His was a good commentary on the logic of African spirituality, that is that it eschews abstraction and elevates that which gives life to the status of the divine. After all, why shouldn’t humans worship the trees, the sun, the earth, and those other things upon which life depends?
Below I list a few examples of how Africans recognized nature as divine from the Akan, Igbo, and Yorùbá traditions.
There is an imperative for social change that is articulated in the spiritual systems of many African cultures. The demands for honesty, righteous character, service to one’s community, frugality and restraint, reciprocity, discernment, and sacrifice are not merely matters of personal, spiritual cultivation. Nor are they born of a lack of concern for the physical world that we inhabit. These are commitments that require a parallel commitment to self-transformation and the revisioning of the world.
For instance, to be mAa xrw (true of voice) in a world awash in the currency of lies can be costly. But this is a necessary disposition if isft (wrong-doing) is to be appropriately understood and corrected. To strive towards the practice of mdw nTr (divine speech) is not only a matter of seeking to build bridges between the kmtwy (African/Black people) of the present world and the deep thought of their ancestors. mdw nTr, as a body of living practice, requires that the world be refashioned wherein alienation is not an inevitable outcome of the human condition.
There are other, innumerable examples, but I submit to you that only WE can save us, and that our culture is one of the most underutilized assets in this struggle.
A few days ago I posted something about the implications of the desacralization of nature and the erosion of humans’ relationship with it. I was happy to see that this topic was recently addressed on the Medicine Shell. The reality is that not only was Africa historically wealthy in terms of our ancestors’ knowledge of nature, but also their ability to apply such wisdom in ways which were sustainable. The loss or suppression of this knowledge vis-á-vis enslavement, colonization, globalization, and modernization–all processes of westernization–have not only attenuated our connection to the natural world as a people, but have limited our consciousness to a paradigm of life where nature is seen only for its extractive, instrumental value–a form of relation that has and will continue to be disastrous for humanity.
I think that people were better off believing that the forests, the rivers, the lakes, and so forth were inhabited by divinities, ancestral spirits, and other spiritual beings. Once these beliefs were supplanted the forest became lumber, the river and the lakes became dumps, and generally, nature was reduced to commodity.
Q: How does the issue of alienation apply to spirituality? There is a noted dialectic between the harmful effects of alien religions and the corresponding rejection of African spiritual systems.
A: I’ve tried to follow in Jacob H. Carruthers’s footsteps by (A) acknowledging the importance of indigenous African spirituality as a necessary component in our re-Africanization and (B) acknowledging the need for a posture of “non-aggression” pertaining to this, lest we descend into the idiocy of Holy Wars. However, I think that we have to consider what is lost when we ground ourselves in alien paradigms, as religion is so central for many African people, who see it as a way of living. The question becomes what ways of living, being, and knowing do these systems propagate and if these are detrimental or advantageous to our community.
There are many aspects of indigenous African spirituality that are valuable on the conceptual, social, and even structural levels. I’ll discuss these in turn. First, is the emphasis on inner “divinity”, that is the mtu (human being) as divine as an alternative to the idea of one being born in sin, which is really just another example of fundamental alienation.
Second, are the ethical values of African cultures, which compel for us to act ethically towards ourselves, community, and nature. There is no African belief that I am aware of wherein watu (humans) have been given dominion over nature. This is a worldview born of a fundamental misunderstanding of the consubstantial nature of life on this planet. In fact, in the African paradigm, one has a moral obligation to safeguard nature for the denizens of the future.
Third, is the value of ancestral veneration, which in reality is a means for keeping people connected to the lineage. This provides a connection that compels the mtu to study, honor, and ground themselves in their traditions–as opposed to eschewing them in preference for venerating someone else’s ancestors.
Fourth, is that African traditions offers a basis of critique for many of the conceptual assumptions of other religions–pacifism and detachment versus the need to act deliberately to actualize one’s destiny, intolerance and forced conversion rather than a perspective that emphasizes commonality across related traditions, resignation to an oppressive and alienating order in contrast to a mandate to actualize Maat or what the Akan call Onyame Nhye-Hyɛe–a conception of divine order, and so on.
Finally is the rejection of the cultural primacy and conceptual hegemony of non-Africans. When we embrace our own traditions, we demonstrate not only their suitability, but the value and relevance of our ancestors and what they bequeathed to us.
Within the African worldview we see a conception of the mtu (human) as existing in body, mind, and spirit. At the foundation of this scheme and within the framework of traditional society was a comprehensive orientation towards developing the self and each of its facets holistically.
Hence, the warrior arts are but one small part of the cultivation of the body. Whether we are referring to boxing, wrestling, or weapons training, these not only sharpened the body, but also the mind. It is this orientation which continues to inform the work of many enlightened practitioners.
The mind is a major concern within African cultures, as the cultivation of intelligence, wisdom, discernment, propriety, and ethics are major ends of the process of socialization. This is why intelligence and wisdom are common themes in sayings, proverbs, and stories from throughout the continent and the diaspora. Many of the most scathing critiques relate, not only to behavior which is regarded as unethical or improper, but also to behavior which demonstrates a lack of intelligence. Further, the former is linked to the latter, as people who seem to be incapable of proper action are often regarded as being intellectually deficient–hence expressions such as someone being “messed up in the head”, “touched”, needing to “get their mind right”, or “special” are meant to convey such deviance.
Lastly, “spirit” is a major concern within African cultures. “Spirit” is variously conceived as the non-physical aspect of the being–the source of one’s vitality, often a higher or more elevated self, a self that has transcended time and space (as in an ancestral self), as well as one’s destiny. Much of the nurturing of the mtu in the traditional context was related to the notion that each human being arrives with a purpose, a veritable message from the ancestors to bring forth into the world. Apart from literal interpretations, this can also be seen as indicating that each mtu represents a purposeful existence, a set of dynamic and finite capacities that gain expression through the permutations of their journey through life, and the degree to which these facilitate a higher level of realization as to their inclinations, capacities, potential, and their ultimate decision (either conscious or unconscious) of a path in life–and that these are, inescapably–linked to their ancestral inheritance.
It should be noted that these concerns are the core of much of what is articulated or presented as African “spirituality”, and that this obviously entails a range of social structures whose work is focused on the development of the mtu and the independence of the taifa (nation). Ultimately there was no separation in terms of the path towards “spiritual enlightenment” and the means which enabled the society to minister to its needs on a day-to-day basis. Thus those concerned both about the practice and institutionalization of African spirituality should be mindful of this.
The idea that we should approach African traditions as ways of being capable of transforming the consciousness of our people is a critical imperative. However re-Africanization is not merely a project of psychological reorientation, but is also an effort to re-pattern the world.
After both participating in and observing a dialogue about spirituality and the martial arts, I was compelled to reflect upon the ethical and conceptual modalities informed by African cultural systems, and the ways in which these inform processes of social and personal transformation. These discourses have been situated in a range spaces wherein the combative implications might be explicit or implicit.
Explicit implications pertain to those discourses that explicate the context of war and struggle as reflected in the Odù Ifá, which states, “The constant soldier is never unready, even once.” (Òwónrín Otúrà, 159:1) Elsewhere it emphasizes the necessity of struggle, as a process which refines both one’s character and challenges the world.
“Fighting in front; fighting behind
If it does not lead to one’s death,
It will cause one to become a courageous person…” (Òkrànran Ká, 189:2)
As a sacred text, the Odu Ifa is a replete with references to vigilance, courage, and the importance of battle waged for the greater good.
Similarly we find these ideas expressed in other contexts within the sacred texts that are implicit references to a warrior tradition. One notable, but easily overlooked example is a text from Kemet (ancient Egypt), which the Egyptologists call The Prophesies of Neferti. Wherein it states, “iw mAat r iyt r st.s isft dr.ti r rwty”, which can I have translated as “Maat, in relation to injustice, is in her place. Cast out isfet.” The point here is that the expulsion of isfet, disorder, is not assumed to be beyond the realm of human agency. Quite the contrary, humans as expressions of nTr (phonetically netcher, which can be thought of as totality, which the Egyptologists translate as god or divinity), are charged with the task of restoring order in the wake of its imposition. Thus the maintenance of order (mAat) requires, among other things, vigilance–an implicit appeal to things martial. This becomes more explicit elsewhere in the text where it states “tw r Ssp xaw nw aHA anx tA m shA”, which translated states that people will “take up weapons of war” and that the “the land lives in turmoil”. Again, the martial tradition is invoked, but here in explicit terms, as the people themselves rise up to “Cast out isfet.”
Beyond the combative dimension, one should note that this text seeks to affirm the necessity of the people acting as the stewards of order. This is an extension of what Theophile Obenga states when he writes, “The pharaoh, in his capacity as guarantor of Maât…He was responsible for the maintenance of universal harmony.” Jacob H. Carruthers says something similar where he states, “The Niswt’s overall function, like that of Wosir, is the establishment of Maat in Tawi, i.e., to establish conditions where enlightenment will prevail over ignorance”. Niswt is the the ruler of upper and lower Kemet. Wosir is the nTr that the Greeks referred to as Osiris. Tawi is the united two lands (upper and lower Kemet). In this sense we see a shared social practice in the defense of order (mAat) extending from the highest levels of government to the denizens of the land.
In conclusion, I concur, African spirituality is replete with appeals to a warrior tradition. In fact, one might argue that spirituality is sufficiently diffuse in form as to represent a totalizing element of the culture, and that this is synergistically linked to an insistence upon vigilance, lest the structures which sustain order and the good condition be lost.
Here I offer some thoughts on what one such idea, mAat, means as a form of liberatory praxis: