Given that our notions of “progress” derive from others and not ourselves, we have limited ourselves to actualizing their vision of the future and not our own.
We talk about ideologies in terms of certain political orientations, but I think that it is important to explore the personal investments that people make in ideology–why these ideas appeal, what they provide psychologically and socially, etc. Ideologies are often refuges.
From the outset I will state that I find the philosophy of Buddhism fascinating, and also that there several points of convergence and divergence between it and African deep thought. I will start with the points of divergence.
First, the Buddha’s departure from his family is pursuit of enlightenment is not consistent with African conceptions of family life or enlightenment. In the traditional society, conditions of enlightenment would be expected to be established in the milieu of normal life, not seclusion. This is reflected in ptH htp’s (Ptah Hotep) sbAyt (instruction). “lf you are parents of worth and wisdom, train your children so that they will be pleasing to nTr. And if they do what is right, following your example, and handle your affairs as they should, do for them all that is good.” ptH Htp adds (and this is most important to my point here), “For they are begotten of your own heart and soul, Therefore separate not your heart from them.”
Secondly, the focus and pursuit of individual enlightenment is not really central in African cultures, as enlightenment is generally regarded as a collective condition. In commenting on Kemetic governance, Jacob Carruthers’s writes, “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.” The point here is that enlightenment is a matter of the social conditions of the masses of people, rather the domain of an ascetic minority. Thus, those in pursuit of it are compelled to establish Maat in society. A second example can be found in the wisdom of the Yorùbá people, which enumerates the things needed to establish “the good condition in the world”, which are wisdom, sacrifice, good character, and the love of righteousness.
Thirdly, some of the modes of practice that are articulated by the Buddha are absent from African thought in an explicit sense–such as various forms of meditative practice for instance. It is not to say that meditation did not exist in traditional African societies, but I have never found any instruction for it as one finds in Buddhists texts.
In terms of points of convergence there are several. First among these are the ethical discourses of both traditions. African thought emphasizes ethical behavior as a core and most critical element.
The second is with respect to the need to cultivate wisdom, and the essential nature of such wisdom to one’s path. One can think of wisdom as “a deep well” as Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers would say, from which can renew oneself. Wisdom is articulated as that which illuminates one’s path or one’s presence in the world. In fact the Yorùbá wisdom states, “If one’s destiny is unfortunate, perhaps one’s internal wisdom is not sufficient.”
A third point of convergence is the emphasis on contentment. The Swahili proverb “Contentment is better than wealth” illustrates this. One is compelled to find satisfaction in what one possesses, as dissatisfaction is often a source of great suffering.
A fourth point of convergence is the idea of causality, that is that one’s condition is a consequence of one’s actions. Consider the following Wolof proverb, “He who dives in the water will get soaked.” Thus, consequences are both inescapable and apparent.
Finally, I think that one finds a recurring emphasis on what is commonly referred to as mindfulness in Buddhist discourses. The Yorùbá wisdom provides an example of this.
“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.”
This text reminds us to be fully present in our lives, to be mindful of the impact of our actions and the world that they inevitably give rise to. Here we are encouraged to apply wisdom to those things both grand and minute.
Overall, I think that much of the beauty that one finds in Buddhism can also be found in African thought–in African proverbs, in sacred texts of the Yorùbá and Kemet, and even cosmologies–such as among the Kongo people. One merely must be resolved to find and reflect upon them. Also, notable differences remain, such as the in conceptions on the nature of enlightenment and also development of meditation as a type of practice.
I was outside weeding the garden and saw that weeds on the outside of the raised bed often find a way inside of the raised bed. Once inside, they can overtake one’s plants. Thus problems just beyond recognizable boundaries can easily become internal difficulties, which can overwhelm our capacity. This reminded me of the type of moral discernment in traditional African cultures, that isft (wrong-doing) was intolerable, not merely because of its immediate effects, but because of its corrosive capacity.
One of the themes that we see across African cultures are very specific discourses on 1) the existence of behaviors antithetical to the social order, 2) the hazards that these pose for the community, and 3) the appropriate responses towards this.
With regards to number one, this is most evident in the African wisdom on evil. One Hausa proverb captures this well. It states, “Ta fi chikka kasua’n munafukai” or “The market of evildoers is always fullest.” This proverb illustrates not only the existence of evil, but that fact that it can become deeply entrenched in society. Thus, evil can become fashionable and a basis for community among the like-minded.
With respect to the dangers that such behaviors pose to the social order, consider the following Akan proverb which states, “Nkontompo ama nokorɛ boɔ ayɛ den” or “Abundance of lies has made truth a high priced commodity.” This proverb illustrates the corrosive impact that lies can have on truth, such as obscuring it. This is important, as truth is a basis of trust, and trust is a foundation for social relations. Thus the proliferation of lies results, not only in truth being less visible, but also in undermining the very fabric of society.
Lastly, African wisdom is replete with recommended responses to the consequences of socially corrosive actions. The following Swahili proverb provides an example of this. It states, “Ukimtendea mwizi vizuri, mwishowe atakuibia” or “If you treat a thief nicely, they’ll rob you at the end.” The implication here is that accommodating a wrong-doer, may result in being the victim of their misdeeds. Thus, not only should one be discerning of the nature of those with whom one is dealing, but that failure to do so may have negative consequences.
The preceding illustrate the following basic aspects of African thought: 1) The African paradigm posits the existence of actions or behaviors which are socially inharmonious, 2) the African wisdom argues that these can negatively affect the nature of social relations, and 3) rather than being all-embracing–the African perspective contends that both wrongful acts and actors have no place in the community and that their presence may prove detrimental.
Beyond this however, moral judgements are instruments of group survival, as no group can purposely direct its growth and development without some form of authority (moral, political, etc.) to direct social life. Social functions, that is the things which facilitate group survival such as child rearing, food production, security, housing construction, healing, and so forth are not domains where relativism and functionality are optimally compatible. Thus, the types of protocols that emerged in the traditional society evolved in relation to on-going negotiation of human beings to the exigencies of the world around them. These moral foundations were not mere philosophical abstractions, but a part of the functional adaptation of a people. They were driven by a clear recognition that upon the foundation of a shared sense of identity, purpose, and direction optimal conditions for living could be established and maintained.
Chombo hakiendi ikiwa kila mtu anapiga makasia yake.
“A boat doesn’t go forward if each one is rowing his/her own way.”
One of the things that has emerged as a consequence of the attempted deAfrikanization of our people via the Maafa is an irreverence for African tradition, our ancestral traditions. In this–the modern, western context–tradition is described as the abode of the dead, the static, and the anachronistic. Herein, tradition is not that which links the children to the elders to the ancestors–thus providing a necessary force of social cohesion. Tradition is not regarded as that accumulated wisdom, borne of our people’s deep study of the universe, society, and humankind. Rather our traditions are described as fetters, as encumbrances–things and ideas which impedes the full flowering of our modern, individual expression.
What must be noted here is that while African tradition is decried, the western tradition is embraced. Thus western notions of governance (i.e., liberal democracy), economics (i.e., free market capitalism), ethics (i.e., Dr. Ani’s “rhetorical ethic”), family (i.e., the nuclear family), humanity (i.e., hyper-individualism), and so forth are not relegated to the rubbish bin as useless, outmoded, or alien ways of being. Instead, having been described and imposed as universal, these notions are thus ever-relevant, ever-compelling, and ever-suited for African people today. These traditions, though embraced in the modern context, owe their formation to older intellectual, political, economic, and philosophical traditions in the west–from ancient Greek philosophers to 19th and 20th Century social theorists. Thus, these modern and supposedly universal ideas are grounded in a European tradition.
Given that what is occurring is not the evisceration of tradition per se, but rather the the continuing supplanting of an African one by a European one, several urgent questions come to mind:
- What are psychological, economic, or political the implications of privileging the traditions of aliens over one’s own?
- What are the economic and political systems that buttresses the hegemony of the western paradigm–and by extension facilitate the erasure of our own?
- How does dependence upon alien paradigms and ways of being inevitably determine the form and parameters of our cultural expression?
- Can African people free themselves , political and economically, on the basis of alien constructs?
I will not take up the first three questions now, but I will offer Dr. Carruthers’s wisdom with respect to the final question, whose insights suggest that any supposed freedom based on alien paradigms will ultimately prove insufficient. Our ancestor stated: “We cannot move our people by borrowing our foundations from other people.”
In traditional African societies nature was seen as sacred. The trees, rivers, rocks, and soil were believed to possess a divine essence. Such beliefs necessarily encouraged reverence and respect for nature, while they also discouraged rapacious plunder of the local ecosystem.
It’s strange being a faculty member in a college of education where, as you might imagine, talk of something called “the achievement gap” is not an infrequently addressed concern. In truth, I am concerned about the paucity of power that we possess as a people. I am concerned about the deep and profound levels of cultural mis-orientation that exists in our community as a consequence of the assault that has been waged against us.
Thus, rather than being concerned about some imagined gap that posits European settler-colonists as the standard to which we, as a people, should aspire, I am concerned about us acting decisively to definitively end the maafa and to restore a condition of Maat amongst our people. The distance between our present condition and such a goal is the only gap which concerns me.
Any set of conceptual, paradigmatic, philosophical, theoretical, or ideological premises, even if supposedly liberatory in origin or intent, if grounded in absolutist premises which pose simplistic responses to complex quandaries, can potentially become instruments of oppression.
One should guard one’s mind accordingly.
Africans in the US are compelled to embrace everyone’s nationalism and liberatory struggle but our own. We are routinely presented with “radical” politics that seek to elevate some group of social actors, while within such configurations we are often fodder or our destiny an enigma.