The lamp of ignorance misleads in the night

Too many African/Black people have a love affair with pseudo-consciousness. Perhaps false ideas and contrived identities have an emotional resonance that more valid and historically grounded notions lack. Perhaps the false ideas are more immediately intelligible, requiring no real work to understand and internalize. Or could it be that such ideas make little demand of their adherents, enabling them to continue in the world as they always have? Perhaps reality is too complex, too complicated, and nonsense becomes a filtration device, rejecting information that is incongruent with one’s preferred mythology. After all, one of the advantages of ideology is that it provides a system of thinking, a way of seeing the world. Whether such a system is grounded in logic and facts is inconsequential to its functioning.

Whatever it is, whatever its causes, I am reminded of three African proverbs. A Yorùbá proverb states, “Ọgbọ́n ní ńpẹ́ kó tó ran ẹni; wèrè kì í gbèé ran èèyàn; wèrè Ìbàdàn ló ran ará Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́,” which translates as, “Only wisdom takes a long time to rub off on others; imbecility does not take long to affect others; it is the imbecility plaguing Ibadan people that rubbed off on the people of Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́.” This means that folly is a contagion, easily transmitted. Enlightenment, by contrast, is much more difficult to establish among the people.

I am also reminded of a Swahili proverb which states, “Jinga likikwerevuka akili hakuna tena,” which translates as, “When a fool is believed to be intelligent then there is no more intelligence.” Consider the unfortunate lack of discernment among those taken in by false ideas. For them, the intelligence of someone who has a great deal of valuable expertise and knowledge and someone who is ignorant (or deceptive) are equal.

I close with an Ewe proverb which, like these others, reflects the times in which we live. It states, “Nu manyamanya fe akadi tra ame za,” which translates as, “The lamp of ignorance misleads in the night.” While some of us are making deep investments in falsehood, we will find that misinformation is insufficient to both transform our lives individually or our condition collectively. In fact, such ignorance, as misinformation induces, makes us more useful subjects of misdirection, division, and control by powerful interests. As Thomas Sankara said, “The enemies of a people are those who keep them in ignorance.”

Following the heart: The Wisdom of Ptah Hotep

“Follow your heart as long as you live,
Do no more than is required,
Do not shorten the time of ‘follow-the-heart,’
Trimming its moment offends the ka.
Do not waste time on daily cares
Beyond providing for your household;
When wealth has come, follow your heart,
Wealth does no good if one is glum!”
-Ptah Hotep

Explanation: Though our lives present many necessary tasks, some of vital importance, Ptah Hotep reminds us that we should also seek fulfillment, to “follow your heart”. He emphasizes that one should give due attention to such matters and links such activity to the ka, which Obenga translates as “soul, spirit, the essence of a being, personality, fortune”. This is an important reminder, as we live in a society that not only emphasizes the pursuit of material gain over all other considerations–a striving that would have been considered vulgar in ancient Kemet, in addition to incessant toil. In fact, many today have reported an erasure of any clear separation between their personal and professional lives. For Ptah Hotep, to be consumed with work, disallows balance, which is vital to one’s development. Balance is key to our well-being. As Fu-Kiau has stated, “To be healthy is to be mu kinenga, ‘in balance’–with ourselves, our environment, and the universe.” Thus, while one should not waste time, one should, remember to satisfy one’s ka by following the heart.

Yorùbá wisdom on the cultivation of the mind

Let us not engage the world hurriedly.
Let us not grasp at the rope of wealth impatiently.
That which should be treated with mature judgement,
Let us not deal with in a state of uncontrolled passion.
When we arrive at a cool place,
Let us rest fully.
Let us give continuous attention to the future.
Let us give deep consideration to the consequences of things.
And this because of our eventual passing.
-Èjì Ogbè

While Buddhism is often central to the discourse on the cultivation of mindfulness, I propose that such insights are also present in African thought. The above text is one such example. The Odù Ifá is the sacred text of the Yorùbá people. It is a text that distills their wisdom and ethics. Below I will offer a succinct analysis of this text, seeking to explicate its implications for practice.

The first line compels us to approach the world from a standpoint which seeks to value the present. To engage the world hurriedly is to rush headlong into the future. While the future is our inevitable destination, striving for it at the expense of the present robs us of the beauty or insights of the present moment, which must be fully conjoined by our minds/hearts in order to be fully realized.

The second line seeks to temper the urge for avarice. In the US, the pursuit of wealth has been all-consuming throughout all of its history. While material wealth provides material comfort, it does not necessarily ensure the cultivation of good character or the perpetuation of the good condition in the world. Thus, while wealth is not decried, one is not encouraged to neglect other necessary endeavors (such as the cultivation of “mature judgement”) in its pursuit.

Mature judgement and the regulation of passion, or more specifically anger is a critical issue. As the text instructs, we should give due attention to the critical matters of our lives. Anger compromises clarity of the mind, and if indulged corrupts one’s being. Having mature judgement then begins with a temperance of passion, and this requires the practice of both awareness and restraint, awareness of one’s mental/emotional states and the practice of self-control. Mature judgement and the regulation of passion cannot be present absent these two types of practice.

Coolness is a notable theme in the Yorùbá wisdom literature, as coolness represents a place of mature judgement and intelligent discernment. It means to be in a place (both spatially and mentally/emotionally) where one is unperturbed by things which might cause imbalance. Further, one is compelled to rest fully in such a place, to imbibe its essence, and to refresh oneself at such an occasion. This is a replenishment that prepares one to, yet again, face the challenges of life and living, but not from a standpoint of fatigue or fury, but one of coolness or centeredness.

Lastly, one is encouraged to look to the future, that is to see one’s actions in the present as being inextricably linked to the future. The future is not merely the moment that has yet to arrive. It is the inevitable consequence of the present. Thus, we are forever the architects of the future, the authors of its history. This power lies within our purview, and our degree of awareness of the temporal linkages between that which is now and that which is yet to come, provides a basis for sound and intelligent judgement. Therefore we are, again, reminded of the necessity of mature judgement, not as an abstraction, but as a matter of practice.


Karenga, Maulana. Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings.  Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1999.