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.
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.
Many of us in our search for healing, understanding, and purpose have unwittingly taken on ideologies which cultivate aversion and hopelessness. These state that we are alienated from a broader African world community or that African men and women are stark rivals or worse, fetters on our collective welfare. These are poisonous ways of thinking.
One of the most striking challenges of living in a society with “fundamental alienation” as its asili (foundation, essence) is that it infects us on every level. Many of us, in our quest for wholeness & meaning have taken on more of this poison via the ideologies that we imbibe.
We are beset by the fact that the most accessible solutions or answers also happen to be those which are most divergent from an African worldview. As such, we should never be surprised that the most popular or progressive discourses amount to little more than celebrations of alienation. This is why Mama Marimba Ani says that “To be Afrikan is the revolutionary act of our times.” She recognizes being African as an imperative for both personal and social transformation. An African worldview not only informs how we live as individuals, but directs us to reshape the world.
Thus, if we truly understand re-Africanization then, it is not a means for conformity to or within the dominant order. It is an imperative to dismantle a social order that creates and sustains conditions of alienation and to replace it with one that creates and sustains life, power, and health. True re-Africanization then, is nothing short of revolutionary thought and practice.
The mind is endowed with infinite potential. In fact, the mind is the wellspring that has enriched human life since its inception on this planet. When we survey African history, we are continually astounded by the grand potentiality of the human mind, in particular its capacity to create ideas, objects, and conditions that optimize human life.
Today, African people find themselves living in a world shaped by the Maafa—the interrelated process of slavery, colonization, and its legacy. We reside in a world that has been shaped by tyranny and plunder, one wherein the deprivations, campaigns of destabilization, and alienation continue characterize our existence.
We are even taught that we are bereft of possibility, that we have arrived at the end of history, and that the established order—despite its inescapable problems—represents the best possible expression of human potentiality. All of these messages are not happenstance, but have been devised specifically to impoverish our imaginations and deaden our creativity.
However, for those of us who know our history, we know that these things are untrue. We know that our history provides a testament of African ingenuity, and that, as Marcus Garvey has said, “Whatsoever things common to man, that man has done, man can do.” Garvey reminds us that history, beyond being a chronicle of the past, is also a measure of human capacity. Our history is no different, for its reveals to us that we are capable of building vast cities, maintaining effective and just governance, developing ecologically-balanced food systems, preparing our youth to be the stewards of our future, devising profound and stirring art forms, and creating practices and principles that gives the people a powerful and expansive sense of identity, purpose, and direction. In effect, history teaches us what we have been and what we might become. It is the deep well of knowledge that fuels the imagination, and enlivens our creativity, a creativity that once awakened, is boundless in what it can achieve. This is the essence of Kuumba.
We are not living at the apex of African civilization. In fact, we must face the unfortunate reality that our civilizations, our societies have been reduced and that their resources—intellectual and material—have been usurped to serve as a foundation for the current world order. Our orientation towards the present condition is most instructive as to our vision for the prospects of the African world–meaning do we acquiesce to our oppressors, or do we resist and join a struggle to achieve our restoration?
Nia challenges us to choose the latter path. It challenges us to understand that we are not struggling for the sake of our personal aggrandizement or for a place within the established order, but are struggling “to restore our people to their traditional greatness”. The question of restoration raises urgent questions about the “source material” that informs our efforts. In 1987, speaking in Aswan at the Conference of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations, Jacob H. Carruthers stated, “We cannot move our people by borrowing our foundations from other people.” Carruthers challenges us to draw fully and deeply from the deep well of African thought, and to apply these insights to the malaise confronting us, recognizing that our history, our culture carries within it the seed of our potential renewal.
Nia also challenges us to realize that the restoration of our people must be the driving force in our lives. It is work that must animate our thoughts and give purpose to our actions. We recognize that though our enemies are legion, that each act of resistance is a victory in that it defies the lie that we are a people bereft of a history and future possibility, and that the key is to sustain such resistance, enabling it to grow in scale and intensity until victory is achieved.
Ultimately, Nia is a challenge for us to live lives that makes us worthy of remembrance, to be like those ancestors whom we call upon when we pour libations, true exemplars of our determination to be free, true models of African excellence.
Eric Williams’s monumental work Capitalism and Slavery captures the synergistic links between the rise of modern capitalism and white racism. In it, Williams argues that racism, as an ideological framework that argued for and sought to concretize in the realm of social relations the subordination of Africans and the superordination of Europeans, emerged as a necessary by-product of the system of chattel slavery. Williams’s analysis thus shows that racism cannot be delinked from capitalism, and that from this vantage point, the struggle against racism must also necessarily entail a struggle against the malformations of capitalism.
In Kawaida Theory (the body of ideas that spawned both the Nguzo Saba and Kwanzaa), there are seven areas of culture. These are: “history, religion (ethics and spirituality), social organization, economic organization, political organization, creative production, and ethos” (Karenga 1997, 10). Of these, economic organization, offers valuable lessons pertaining to the form and character of our liberation struggle, and is directly related to the principle of Ujamaa, “Cooperative Economics”.
There are two dimensions to be discussed here. First, it is critical that we control the economics of our communities. This means that we must produce, distribute, and consume goods and services produced by ourselves for ourselves. No sovereign people, nor any people aspiring to sovereignty, can attain such a status so long as they remain dependent on another for their basic, day-to-day necessities.
Second, it is necessary that our economic institutions do not reproduce the malformations of the dominant society—that is extreme forms of stratification and dispossession. Ours must be a humanizing system, that is a system that respects the rights and dignity of people over that of capital, profit, and greed, and that seeks to enable people to achieve their maximum development. And as an African people, such systems must also be Africanizing, that is that they must facilitate our process of cultural reclamation and renewal, and reflect the African value system.
This latter point takes us to the root of the word ujamaa itself, which is jamaa. Jamaa translates into English as “family”. Ujamaa translates as “familyhood”, and denotes a collective interest or concern. This is part of why the word ujamaa has been employed to refer to socialism—an economic system emphasizing shared resources and shared profit in the interest of all. This was not due to a reliance on the ideas of any European theorist, but due to the values inherent in the economic systems of traditional African society, which entailed concerns about the collective welfare, the greater good. Thus, while the pursuit of profit was welcomed and envouraged, the values of compassion and generosity were also enforced. Such a sentiment is born out in the ancestral wisdom which states, “Ubepari ni unyama,” which translates as “Capitalism [exploitation] is animalistic”, that is, savage. A just economy, must enhance our humanity, not negate it.
Karenga, Maulana. 1997. Kawaida Theory: A Communitarian African Philosophy. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
Williams, Eric. 1994. Capitalism and Slavery. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
One message of the dominant culture is the ethos of atomistic individualism. This is the notion that we are all solitary individuals, having no obligations beyond our own person, wherein our own preferences take greater priority over any imagined collective interests, and that in fact the very notion of collective interests is in fact oppressive.
It should go without saying that thought and practice based on such premises is antithetical to the African worldview. This is borne out in the deep thought of our ancestors which teaches us that there is no separation between the individual and the collective, in fact the individual is merely an extension or expression of it. The Zulu put it this way, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu”, that is, “A person is a person through other persons (or people)” (Karenga 2015, A6). This teaches that our humanity is bound up in the humanity of others, hence we are all connected and interdependent. In fact, this statement articulates the ethos of ubuntu or humanity in the African worldview.
By contrast, we are also forcefully reminded that those who rule the world, enforce their power through collective means, particularly through institutions built in the image and interest of their hegemony. Many of our wise ancestors and elders including the Honorable Marcus Garvey, the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Osagyefo Kwame Nkrumah, Baba Hannibal Afrik, and others recognized the following truths:
- That we are capable of liberating ourselves
- That our capacity to achieve liberation is dependent on our ability to engage in collective actions, including the building of organizations and institutions dedicated to African redemption
It is this message of collective struggle that the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party so wonderfully articulates in their insistence that all African people should be a part of an organization dedicated to struggle. This is the essence of the third principle of the Nguzo Saba—Ujima: Collective Work and Responsibility.
Ujima is not merely a principle of those who advocate for revolutionary social change (though it is an imperative of such possibility), it is also present in the ancestral wisdom. The Akan put it this way, “Nsa baako nkukuru adesoa, which translates into English as “One hand cannot lift a [heavy] load.” Ujima teaches us that those who would dare to take on the audacious aim of liberating their people, must necessarily share such work. It is impossible to succeed by doing otherwise.
Karenga, Maulana. 2015. “The Ideal and Ethics of Ubuntu: A Kawaida Conversation”. Los Angeles Sentinel. April 9, 2015. Accessed January 23, 2017. http://www.us-organization.org/position/documents/TheIdealandEthicsofUbuntu04-09-10.pdf