Kawaida and African Spirituality

There continues to be a great deal of fervor among our people as the search for ways to be African in the world renews itself with each generation. Kawaida Theory offers a number of critical insights into these questions.

Particularly, the urgent questions pertaining to African spirituality are taken up in Kawaida, identifying several basic areas of concern: ethical practice, the cultivation of wisdom, and service to one’s community–one’s people.

Kawaida’s approach to African spirituality articulates the important ways that African culture compels us to exist in the world as morally upright, intelligent and reflective, and with a deep sense of responsibility to reshape the world on behalf of our people and our future.

Tradition or modernity

Many years ago, when at the Sankɔfa Conference, Baba Agyei Akoto observed that one of the primary tensions in the lives of African people is the struggle between tradition and modernity. He argued that many of our people have grown estranged from our traditions as they have progressively embraced the dominant Western paradigm, and with it, its notions of progress and universality.

This tension is dramatized in wonderful fashion in Julie Dash’s film, The Daughters of the Dust. In the film a Gullah family prepares to move to the mainland. The struggles surrounding the move were not merely logistical, but also epistemological and ontological as the relevance and perseverance of the African way was an indelible issue to be confronted. Thus, the Gullah Islands represented the spatial locus of tradition, while the mainland represented modernity’s locus—and their potential estrangement or alienation from tradition.

I fear that this drama has not only played itself out in the lives of African people, but that it continually plays itself out the world over at least for the past three or more centuries. We are confronted by a social and political order, ultimately a cultural order that decries tradition, our tradition as anachronistic—that it is outmoded, dated and irrelevant. And while we have not universally ventured towards the setting sun (that is the Western horizon) as the presumed apex of human possibility, it possible that most of us have been fundamentally decentered due to the disruption and destabilization of African life as a result of the Maafa. Thus, much of what has survived as our tradition, is often fragmentary, or worse corrupted.

It should be noted that this malaise has not only been visited upon us, but upon much of humanity, who have also witnessed an intergenerational weakening of their cultural moorings, thus leading to calls for various forms of re-indigenization, of which our own struggle for re-Africanization may also be understood.

Before proceeding, I should elaborate on an operative definition of tradition. Elsewhere I have attempted to problematize notions of tradition that ascribe to it a static quality. As such, “Tradition is a moving target. We seize upon one of its transitive states, claiming to have captured the essence of a thing, only to glimpse a temporally and spatially contingent phenomenon.” Tradition, can be considered as the collective cultural productivity of a people as it unfolds through time and across space that is reflective of their asili, that is their core cultural values, beliefs, practices, and so on. Marimba Ani employed the term asili in this manner in her work Yurugu. Here I am arguing that tradition is not merely what people were doing “back then”, but rather that tradition entails past, present, and future practices that that are consanguine with the asili of a culture.

Consanguinity is, I argue, is critical in discerning the continuity of tradition, as it, like all else in reality, is subject to incessant change. Thus, if we are to consider African people’s movement through time and space, “tradition” has been variable in form, yet I argue constant in essence. Jacob H. Carruthers’s discussion of the significance and symbolism of speech in African cultures from antiquity to the present captures this. Such an analysis can be applied to a range of bodies of cultural activity including food production and preservation practices, theology and ritual, language, kinesthetic practices, and so on.

Cultural transmission and its adaptation and adjustment is one of the principal means whereby tradition is sustained and adapted over time. Fu-Kiau offers a wonderful portrait of this in his work Kindezi: The Kongo Art of Babysitting. He captures the ways in which such processes animated the texture of daily life. Thus, in the traditional society, cultural transmission was embedded in the day-to-day practices that sustained the community. Its disruption, as in the case of our Maafa1, has been achieved via both the dismantling of many of these communal structures and also subjecting various community members—especially children—to a form of mis-education2 designed to facilitate European dominance. European dominance requires, not merely the eradication of communal infrastructure, but also the appropriation of the process of socialization. Absent this, those tendencies within the traditional culture which might compel the revitalization and renewal of the culture and the restoration of sovereignty could provoke sustained resistance to European dominance. As such, tradition—which represents a kind of societal trajectory towards one’s ancestral traditions is supplanted by modernity—a societal trajectory towards the Western model of society, one which necessarily devalues the former, while idealizing the latter. All of this occurs while ignoring that modernity has been achieved, in large part, due to the disruption and decimation of the aforementioned tradition, in addition to negating a deep engagement with tradition as a repository of wisdom and solutions for many of the challenges confronting us.

Ultimately, while it is important to note the possibilities within tradition of supporting processes of re-Africanization, it is also necessary to acknowledge that this process is not without difficulty. At that same gathering, Baba Agyei Akoto said that “Everything is broken.” Thus, many of our systems have been dismembered, making our fragmented memories of our past a mirror for the state of our cultural infrastructure. What protocols have we devised which enable us to reach across the chasm of disruption in order to restore the African way? Are we resolved to make a home for ourselves within the promise and possibility of the African way? Or have we been seduced by the myopia which suggests that nothing is either possible or desirable outside of modernity?

Our answers to these questions inevitably animate actions, vectors towards the future.


1. Maafa is a Swahili that translates as disaster or calamity. It is a term that Dr. Marimba Ani offered to describe and identify the interrelated processes of slavery and colonialism, and their legacies.
2. Mis-education is a term coined by Dr. Carter G. Woodson to describe a formal process of socialization focused on perpetuating the dominance of Europeans via the utilization of African accomplices whose socialization via schools has prepared them for little else.

The secular and the spiritual

Theophile Obenga advanced an interesting argument regarding the degree to which Kemetic ethics were secular in essence and practice, particularly when one looks at the concerns about civil ethics, or ethics pertaining to good governance in Kemet. He writes, “Egyptian morality was, in this sense, civil and secular, profoundly focused on the life of the community.” However, it should be noted, as Jacob H. Carruthers has argued, that these ethical ideals were contextualized within a cosmology wherein Maat was a seen as a fundamental organizing principle of the universe. In fact, one might argue that there is a tension in the characterization of the Kemetic paradigm as “secular”. There was really no true separation in their worldview, so this language of “secular” versus “spiritual” is insufficient.
In many respects, the conceptualization of ethics in Kemetic society is indicative of an effort to express the consubstantiality of beingness, that is that one’s say, speech, was reflective of the ideals of the society, while also reflecting the basic order of the cosmos–hence the interrelationship between medew nefer (good speech) and medew netcher (divine speech) captures the inextricable connections between the mundane and the cosmic in the Kemetic worldview.
The idea of an ordered cosmos, or stated in a more Kemetic fashion, the principle of Maat, is not unique to the Nile Valley–though it is our oldest example of it. We find similar ideas among other African cultures who described an orderly rather than chaotic universe.
In fact the Kongo paradigm, which has gained a great deal of popularity due to the pioneering work of Dr. Fu-Kiau, offers a very intricate and sublime model of space and time that captures in magnificent fashion basic aspects of African ontology. Like other cultures, we find that the Kongo attempted to model the universe in the design of their cities and towns. This is an example of how such cosmological notions contributed to the prevalence of fractal geometry in African cultures.
In short, the African worldview sought to capture the seamlessness in all things–humans, nature, character, the cosmos, government, family, and so on. Thus, building on Carruthers’s work, much of the cosmological discourse offers dynamic representations or “dramatizations” of human experience. Thus the life of the society and the cosmic backdrop were conjoined, as humans sought to reflect cosmic ideals in their daily lives.

The Deep Thought of Jacob H. Carruthers on African Spirituality

Jacob H. Carruthers stated that within African spirituality we do not find a “ritual of dis-alienation”, that is a ritual to restore the connection between humanity and the divine. We do not find this because humanity was conceived as divine.
He explained that the practice of African spirituality in kmt was concerned with the practice of mAat–order, truth, righteousness. mdw nfr, or good speech was a means of this practice. mdw nfr when elevated to its highest form, became mdw nTr, or divine speech.
The centrality of mdw or speech within the spirituality of kmt was linked to the conceptualization of humanity’s maximal development. mdw was the mediator between thought and action. A controlled tongue reflected an ordered mind and moderation in action. As speech was a means of personal development, Carruthers stated that the person who had achieved their full potential possessed siA–exceptional insight, hw–a commanding tongue, and hkA–the ability to manifest their will in the world. These were not magical qualities but simply the consequence of self-mastery, that is living mAat.
Thus, Carruthers articulated a vision of African spirituality as a means whereby we 1) reoriented ourselves in time and space, 2) drew from the deep well of African wisdom and applied these lessons in our lives, 3) reclaimed an African worldview, and 4) transformed ourselves. Ultimately he posited that “We’re not going anywhere without African spirituality” or that our journey through the desert will be unending so long as we remain mired in the fundamental alienation of this culture which seeks to nurture the values of the wasteland within us.
In African spirituality Jacob H. Carruthers saw a path out of the desert, to a fertile valley, and to the restoration of African civilization.

Rehabilitating the deficient notion of Africa and African culture

Given the conceptual malaise that we face as a people, that is our being centered in the paradigms of other peoples, we have to be discerning regarding those knowledges which informs our work among our people. Some of us are deepening our alienation, rather than countering it.
The expression, “African solutions to African problems”, is not a mere abstraction when we seek to manifest it in all that we do. When we make African cultural knowledge primary we accomplish three things. First, we affirm the viability and legitimacy of African knowledge. Second, we teach others about African culture by empowering them to draw from it. Third, we rehabilitate the deficient notion of Africa and African culture which so afflicts the minds of our people.
For my part, I have attempted to be discerning regarding how I position African knowledges in my work. This has been with respect to the combat arts (as in teaching Capoeira), languages (as in promoting Swahili and mdw nTr), history, philosophy, and so on. It has not always been easy, but it has been and continues to be very necessary.

Entangled endeavors

The process of re-Africanization, the need to heal ourselves, and the work of reality transformation are all interrelated. There is no disjuncture or hierarchy therein. They are concomitant endeavors, coterminous in their ends and implications.

What must be remembered is the critical need to draw upon African paradigms in these endeavors. As Jacob. H. Carruthers stated, “We cannot move our people by borrowing our foundations from other people.” This means that definitive movement consistent with our intended restoration of an African worldview, requires a deliberate engagement with African knowledges.

Many of us, like Sinuhe, have created homes for ourselves in foreign lands, but ultimately we must “return to the Black land”, that is reclaim our ancestral paradigms as a means of informing our cultural reclamation, our healing, and the transformation of the world.

“What is my ‘tribe’?”

A couple of weeks back Dr. Kwame Zulu Shabazz related a conversation that he had with a continental African regarding the question of the ethnic origins of Diasporan Africans. Dr. Shabazz was asked to identify his “tribe”, and his inability to do so produced some bewilderment in his interlocutor. His experience and discussion of it can be found here: http://twitter.com/kzshabazz/status/1004033728094638082. However this raises a number of interesting questions regarding the issue of Diasporan Africans and our identification with extant ethnic groups on the continent. A late comer to the conversation, I stated that folks seek to answer the “What is my ‘tribe’?” query using three means: DNA testing, divination, and simply “laying claim” to a group to whom one has some kind of affinity or attraction. I would like to briefly explore this question, that is “What is my ‘tribe’?” along with its implications.

It should be noted from the outset that “tribe” is problematic nomenclature for African ethnic groups. However, I will anchor my remarks to it for the sake of this discussion, given that this is the context in which this query was framed. Do note that terms such as ethnic group, society, people, or even nation are better descriptors of African peoples who are often discussed under the heading of “tribes”.

The most obvious reality, and this is borne out in the studies of the genomes of Africans in America, is that we are an admixed population, that is we possess genetic ancestry from a variety of African ethnic groups. This same research reveals that some places feature populations who possess a greater proportion of ancestry from specific African regions. Examples of this would include the presence of people with significant proportions of Akan ancestry in Jamaica and parts of the Virgin Islands. Other studies have suggested that the Igbo and Yorùbá (who possess notable genetic similarities) comprise a significant portion of the genetic makeup of many Africans in the United States. However, even in these cases, some degree of admixture is generally still present. As such, Africans today who are descended from enslaved Africans generally possess ancestral linkages to living groups such as the Bakongo, Fulani, Ewe and other Gbe-speaking peoples, Hausa, Akan, Yorùbá, Mandé peoples, and so on.

This admixing is paralleled by the cultural syncretism that emerged among Africans in the Diaspora, that is the intermixing of cultures from various ethnicities resulting in the formation of various “new” African cultures in the Americas. Brazil, Haiti, Cuba, Trinidad, the United States, and other parts of the Americas evidence the contributions of many African ethnicities. Brazil is an interesting case in point where the fighting traditions of Bantu peoples contributed to shaping Capoeira and Yorùbá and Bakongo spiritual traditions gave rise to Candomblé. Haiti also shows this same pattern, featuring Bakongo-influenced iconography, a spiritual tradition with significant influence from the Fon and other Gbe-speaking peoples, as well as the Yorùbá. The point is that preceding the question of “What is my ‘tribe’?” for Diasporan Africans, is the question of “Who are Diasporan Africans?”, a query that reveals various populations of African peoples who are essentially a genetic and cultural composite.

Elsewhere I have written that “The longing for home is most acute among a people dispossessed of one.” Here I was using home to refer to a place of affinity, belonging, one’s foundation in dimensions that are both spatial and cultural. Thus the question of “What is my ‘tribe’?” is most notably a question of home, and this has not been an idle query. In fact there have been several means that Diasporan Africans have utilized in response to it. In my response to Dr. Shabazz’s thread I stated that divination, DNA testing, and a sense of affinity have been bases of ethnic group identification that have been utilized by Africans in the US.

The first, divination or the revealing of one’s “ethnic root” occurs in consultation with mwaguzi (diviner) of the traditional African spiritual traditions. This special type of “reading” is intended to identify the particular ethnic group from whom one’s mzimu (“soul”) descends. Central to this process is the idea found in various West African cultures that the mzimu reincarnates further down the clan line, creating and maintaining continuity between the living mtu (person) and their wakale (ancestors).

The second, DNA testing has grown in popularity in tandem with advances with genetic genealogical research. The most advanced service, the one that has been customized specifically for Africans in the Americas, is African Ancestry, whose database contains 33,000 samples of mitochondrial (mtDNA) and Y-DNA from various African and non-African groups. Their service essentially identifies extant populations who share DNA with their customers. According to African Ancestry, the top five groups that they match test-takers with are Mende, Tikar, Fulani, Yorùbá, and Temne and the top five countries are Sierra Leone, Cameroon, Nigeria, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal. It should be noted that there is a great deal of overlap between these top five groups and countries as shown in the table below.

Country Ethnic group
Sierra Leone Mende, Temne
Cameroon Fulani, Tikar
Nigeria Fulani, Yorùbá
Guinea-Bissau Fulani
Senegal Fulani

For those who receive one match, this may indeed satisfy the “What is my ‘tribe’?” question. However, research on the African American genome and its matches to African haplogroups (specific clusters of mtDNA and Y-DNA) often reveal matches to multiple groups, thus possibly complicating such a question. Also, it should be noted that while these types of DNA may be useful for obtaining some degree of specificity in terms of one’s genetic ancestry, they also represent a very minute portion of one’s DNA, thus basing one’s conception of one’s “tribe” on such a small sample of one’s larger genetic profile may or may not be problematic.

The third, affinity or attraction, appears to be based on a sense of connection to some extant African ethnic group and is not necessarily based on the two above instruments of investigation. Some people express feeling a strong connection to specific groups. This feeling may be based on a number of tangible and intangible things, but nonetheless provides a type of attraction.

Years ago, in my own quest to answer this question I availed myself of the services of a mwaguzi, who told me that my mzimu descended from the Ewe people. At some point this knowledge became the basis of further study and investigation into this group’s utamaduni (culture) and kale (history). Three features of the Ewe experience that struck me was the centrality of migration to their history, the absence of the formation of a centralized Ewe state along with the kind of political relations that existed between these, and the open-texturedness of Ewe culture with respect to their absorption of influences from other peoples—especially the Yorùbá and Akan. My occasional use of “day name” was also partially informed by this knowledge given that the Ewe has adopted this naming convention from the Akan.

More recently, I turned to DNA testing to revisit this question in the hopes of gaining a fuller understanding of my family’s history. My mtDNA matched the Tikar, Hausa, and Fulani of Cameroon and the Bubi people of Equatorial Guinea (my Y-DNA is non-African in origin). In my studies, I have focused on the language of the Hausa and the philosophy and history, particularly the intellectual history of the Fulani. The Hausa language is one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa. Like the Swahili language, it possesses many Arabic loanwords, which has also been useful for me in terms of informing my word recognition. Also, the Fulani’s contributions to the intellectual tradition in West Africa has been notable and inspiring. The Fulani were prominent among the scholars at Timbuktu, which is inspiring given my current profession, and that I am carrying forward this intellectual tradition.

Further, while I cannot say that I have felt a connection to any particular African group, I have been inspired and attracted to the cultures of various groups—the Igbo, Akan, Yorùbá, Bakongo, as well as the ancient Nile Valley. Thus, I have been and continue to be drawn to the wisdom and history of our people in ways that are both general and specific.

In closing, I think that the question “What is my ‘tribe’?” will be a recurring one due to our people’s continued estrangement from our land of origins, and with this, our history and ancestral traditions. I maintain that our response to this query must ultimately be reconciled alongside a conception of a Pan-African identity, that is an identity that recognizes the diverse African heritage of Diasporan Africans, while also seeking substantive connections to extant African cultures that enrich our culture and also provide the healing inherent in regaining a sense of historical continuity. Furthermore, I think that our efforts to answer this question can be enriched by each of the above methods as both the first (the “roots reading”) and third (affinity and attraction) align with the epistemologies of traditional Africa, while the second provides a useful tool in the reconstruction of African Diasporan genealogies. Thus I am not proposing one over the other, but rather elaborating upon what each potentially provides in both answering this question, but also transcending it.