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.

I am often reminded of the contrasts between the African way and the hyperrelativism that abounds today, where we are often discouraged from discernment under the premise that judgements by their very nature are wrong. That people should be free to do whatever they desire. Perhaps such thinking is fashionable in the culture that we inhabit, but this idea is antithetical to how Black folks have traditionally lived–both prior to and since the Maafa given that traditional African cultures were collectivist rather than individualist in their orientations. In fact, the atomistic ethos of individualism might be regarded as anarchistic in a collectivist culture.

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.”
-Swahili proverb


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 modernwestern 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:

  1. What are psychological, economic, or political the implications of privileging the traditions of aliens over one’s own?
  2. What are the economic and political systems that buttresses the hegemony of the western paradigm–and by extension facilitate the erasure of our own?
  3. How does dependence upon alien paradigms and ways of being inevitably determine the form and parameters of our cultural expression?
  4. 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.”

Nature as divine

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.

Ọṣun, Aset, and the divinity of motherhood in African thought

Years ago I read Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí’s work on gender in Yorùbá society. I found her work exceedingly interesting.

I was struck by the indigenous conceptualization of Ọṣun (Oshun) as “Oore yeye”, the “generous mother”. I found this quite interesting given that Ọṣun also represents (among other things water and harmonious relations). This made me think about the Kemetic concept of nwn (nun), which is primordial water, as well as ast (Aset), and to a lesser degree mAat (Maat). While I don’t think that Ọṣun is the Yorùbá “equivalent” of these Kemetic concepts (the search for conceptual equivalencies across cultures betrays a number of problematic assumptions about cultural universalism, but more on that at another time), it is interesting that both societies represented these ideas in the form of women.

The critical role of women as the vessels of new life was not lost on the architects of these ancient civilizations. The reproductive and educational roles of women were not just physical or instructional, what we might term “instrumental functions”. In the Yorùbá imagination women were reflective of the conduit of life, the stream of human consciousness from time immemorial to the present, the maintenance of ethical and nurturing relations, and the deep feelings of love that sustain them. Thus the role of rivers, lakes, and streams in sustaining food production systems paralleled the roles of mothers as sustainers of humanity.

This echoes the role of Aset, who was not only the mother of Hr (Heru), but also represented the archetype of human motherhood. Again, this was not simply an instrumental or functional role, but was one that expressed the role of women as carriers of future possibility. In this case Aset carried Heru, who delivered the country from the rule of his uncle stX (Set). Heru represented the triumph of right or righteousness over might. Aset therefor represented the possibility of renewal, redemption from injustice, reclamation of truth, and the forward flow of human society. Again, these are similar concepts. Though they differ in critical ways, they reveal a great deal about the ontology of gender in at least two indigenous African civilizations.