Discernment

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

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