The idea that we should approach African traditions as ways of being capable of transforming the consciousness of our people is a critical imperative. However re-Africanization is not merely a project of psychological reorientation, but is also an effort to re-pattern the world.
I am convinced that when we are on the path, when we are doing the things that we are supposed to be doing, we are consistently presented with reminders of the correctness of the direction in which we are moving. I received three such reminders in the last two days.
Reminder one: Today while working at my wife’s community training farm, a six year old boy asked me, “How do Africans fight?” I found his question intriguing, not only that he asked it of me, but that he posed this question at all. I am not entirely sure why he posed this question to me. Maybe he overheard me talking to his mother about teaching Capoeira at his school years ago, and understood what I was talking about. Maybe he presumed that as an African man I should know something about this. I did start to build on his existing knowledge base of Kiswahili, so maybe he figured that I might know something about fighting too. In any event, I deeply appreciated his question, a question that I did not think to pose until I was a young adult.
I told him that there are different ways that Africans have approached fighting and that I could show him some. I asked him if he wanted to know something related to kicking, punching, or stick-fighting. He said punching, so I showed him something. If he’s serious, I may teach him some basic elements of the arts whenever we see one another in-between farm work.
Reminder two: Similarly, a brother who attends my Capoeira class with his daughter told me that he intends for her to be a fighting arts practitioner, and wants for her focus to be specifically on Capoeira, given that it is an African art. I was intrigued by this. He has studied multiple arts, and sees Capoeira as not merely a matter of technical application, that is the process of fending off violent attackers, but also as a matter of affirming one’s cultural identity. In this way, Capoeira can be understood as a combat art that also embodies the kinesthetic dynamics of several African cultures, thus it is the embodiment of a distinctly African philosophy of movement. It also represents the sprit and tactics of African resistance in the Americas.
Reminder three: A brother who attended the mdw nTr conference in October told me that he had been so inspired, that he intended to teach his then unborn daughter mdw nTr. Today I saw him and his young daughter. He told me, consistent with his earlier statement, that he speaks to her in mdw nTr and proceeded to speak do so. I also spoke to her in mdw nTr. My wife claims that she perked up when she heard the mdw nTr, but I can’t confirm this.
That this would happen the day after African Languages Day was most inspiring for me. While I do study African languages regularly, I have struggled to find time to study of late. However, yesterday my studies were inspired. While riding the train I read about and practiced (silently) two African languages. African Languages Day gave me the opportunity to affirm something that I know I am capable of, using our languages on a regular basis to communicate complex ideas. To my understanding, the greatest challenge that we face is one of transmission, that is of creating new speakers of these languages in our communities in the African Diaspora. Solving this problem is one to which I will continue to devote my time and energy, as we cannot truly communicate about an African worldview if such a discourse is mediated in an alien language and from a culture characterized by fundamental alienation.
Our people once they know that they are an African people, they subsequently want and desire to ground themselves in African things, to understand their reality from the paradigms of their ancestors, to reclaim our languages, to practice our fighting arts, and to—in all areas of life—be African. This is more than just a matter of identity, but is one of solving the paradigmatic problem implicit in liberatory struggles—that is one of decolonzing the minds of the people as a means of enabling them to win the physical struggle which is for land, their lives, and the future.
There are some deeply troubled people in our midst who have unfortunately sought healing in the toxic recesses of social media. Healing is a community vocation, Fu-Kiau reminds us of this. However our communities cannot fulfill this role if they are echo chambers that merely reinforces our isolation and deepens our alienation.
Functional communities are those that affirm the dignity of our humanity while acknowledging the reality of our suffering. These communities remind us that healing can be achieved and encourage us not to desperately cling to pain as some sort of anchor. It is true that pain can shape us, but when held too longingly, it can hurt us. It can warp our humanity. In his novel, The Healers, Ayi Kwei Armah writes, “Pain too long absorbed dulls intelligence. Pain endured, channeled for energy, used for conscious work aimed at ending the source of pain, sharpens intelligence.” When we affirm the possibility of healing and loosen our grasp on pain, we open the door to healing’s actualization.
Healing then becomes our embracing the possibility of transcendence, and communities can support this work in numerous and constructive ways. Functional communities can remind us of, again, the dignity of our humanity, and that of those around us. Functional communities can remind us that our historical experience as Africans in America has been one of surviving unrelenting oppression. Healing communities can remind us that such oppression, does, as it is intended to do, warps humanity and engenders dysfunction. Communities remind us that healing is not merely a matter of healing the individual African person, but that it is, again, a community vocation. Critically conscious healing communities remind us that we must heal ourselves by eradicating the basis of our suffering–oppression.
What is meant here by critical consciousness is a degree of discernment which enables one to understand the social and historical factors which have been consequential in shaping the present. Critical consciousness demands that we consider the role of power in shaping society. The power dynamics that have animated our lives and the lives of everyone that we have ever known were firmly established during various stages of conquest and enslavement over the last five centuries. These were historical circumstances that reduced African people to objects of capital, charged with laboring to produce capital. And when that era came to an end, Africans continued to be objects of coercive control subject to debt peonage, voter suppression, containment, rape, and execution in varied forms including lynchings. This era transitioned into one where Africans exist, still as objects of coercive control and racialized containment, and who are socially constructed as a social malignancy–a violent disease, a plague for society, or in the view of some a source of terror within our own communities.
Critical consciousness demands that our analysis always consider the broader constructions of power, and central to this, the production of ideas which seeks to mask its operation in our lives. Thus, a critically conscious person must ask and seek to answer the question of whose interest are served by obscuring the source and causes of dysfunction as it exists in our community? When these sources are masked, we attack one another, rather than the real enemy. A critically conscious must ask how we might effectively address these problems in a manner that eradicates dysfunction by eliminating its structural causes–the system of oppression in which we live, the evolutionary descendant of the system of chattel slavery and colonialism that so malformed our ancestor’s humanity. A critically conscious would recognize that, among other things, we must create the social systems that enables us to be self-determining. That creating the institutions that enable us to feed, clothe, heal, house, educate, and defend ourselves are the most direct and logical response to our continued dependency upon an oppressive system. In fact, the very work of building these systems is the work of restoring community. Ultimately, we must remind ourselves that for all of the dysfunction of our communities, we are ultimately dealing with communities that are the legacy of terror, a legacy that is ever-present. Thus we are not dealing with or residing within self-determining communities, but communities that are, in many respects, the residue of colonialism.
In closing, healing is possible. It begins with us, is augmented by community, and must lead inexorably to reality transformation. For those wishing to journey further down this path Fu-Kiau’s Self-Healing, Power, and Therapy, Armah’s The Healers, and Ani’s Let the Circle Be Unbroken are good resources to consult. Each argues vociferously for the role of African culture and social structures as tools of healing, and within this, for the role of paradigmatic knowledge in healing’s conceptualization and actualization. Angel Kyodo Williams’s Being Black is also beneficial. So too is Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. These two texts discuss the mind as a site of healing, arguing that our perceptions of reality often exacerbates our suffering. That our own personal quest for greater clarity and awareness, is one that, in fact, augments everything that we do. I would also strongly recommend the deeply insightful Essential Warrior by Shaha Mfundishi Maasi as a potent discourse on healing. He argues that warriorhood and healing are entangled states of being, and that “The purpose of warriorship is to develop an enlightened being who is a human vortex of positive energy, having attained the core of perfect harmony”. He adds that to become a “true warrior one must become ‘nkwa ki moyo’ a vitalist, one who heals the ills of the people.”
This essay emerges from at least two things. Recently, I watched a rather engaging talk by Dr. Ama Mazama of Temple University, on the importance of Africans rejecting European names. In her talk, she also highlighted the work of her organization, Afrocentricity International, in renaming African people. Dr. Mazama’s talk can be viewed here: Naming Yourself: The First Act of African Agency.
Also, a while back I read an article advocating that Africans in the U.S. should, en masse, abandon the names of their slave owners. Though the article failed to clarify this, this is an old notion. The Black Power era saw a flowering of this kind of thinking and is evident in the cultural nationalist formations like Us, the Congress of African People, and the Council of Independent Black Institutions. This sentiment was also visible among various parties within the New African Independence Movement and the Black Panther Party, particularly the New York chapter.
We would also do well to remember that certain African naming traditions survived for a time in the diaspora. It is not uncommon to discover 18th and 19th Century Africans with names that are derivatives of Kofi (such as Paul Cuffee) or Kwadwo (as in Kojo or Cudjoe), each of which emerged out of the tradition of the Akan peoples, who would name children based on the day of the week that they were born. In some instances, other African names from other cultures were retained, such as Mingo, Juba, and so forth (Stewart 1996).
The Black Power Movement represented the emergence an explicit discourse around re-Africanization, that is the paradigm and practice of African Americans seeking to reclaim aspects of their ancestral traditions that had been lost under the savage duress of enslavement. It also entailed, the exploration of African American cultural productivity as distinctly expressive of various Africanisms.
Early on, these naming practices drew upon the cultures of various groups such as the Swahili, Akan, Yoruba, and various West African ethnicities. Arabic names were often adopted as well, given both the extensive presence of Islam in Africa, in addition to the fact that Islam was a potent ideological force for those seeking to break with Western culture, including Christianity in the U.S. In the 1980s and 1990s, other cultures became prominently represented in these naming practices including Kemet, or ancient Egypt.
One particular tradition which emerged within the Black Power movement and its various formations, was the practice of names being given to members of organizations by elders to youth or other members of the community. For instance, in Chicago’s Shule ya Watoto and related formations founded or co-founded by Baba Hannibal Afrik, names would be bestowed upon youths and other community members who had demonstrated their commitment to African self-determination. This was a practice that persisted from the early 1970s until the 2000s. In fact, the author of this post was named by Baba Hannibal in the year 2000.
Baba Hannibal’s process consisted of consulting with family members and friends who were familiar with the would-be recipient, reflecting upon his own observations of the individual, and then searching for names that were both descriptive of the person’s character and nature, in addition to names that articulated aspirations that would both distinguish their character and express their potential impact on the family and community. He would draw upon names from throughout the continent, employing the type of Pan-African approach to naming that was typical from the Black Power era.
Baba Hannibal’s method demonstrated a core concern expressed by many people within this community of those engaged in re-emergent practice of African culture, what some have simply called a New African culture, which is that names should be bestowed within community by elders or persons of authority who can speak to the integrity and character of those named. The name was not meant to merely replace a European (or other non-African) name, but to express as clearly as possible the true nature of the person named, and to illuminate as best as possible the path to which they should aspire. In this way, these advocates of re-Africanization reflected the Swahili proverb which states, “Mpe mwana jina akue”, which translates to “Give the child a name to grow up to.”
I agree with this position. The process of re-Africanization emerged in the context of communities, more specifically within the context of formations committed to African self-determination. More than just a theoretical orientation, this was also conceived as a body of practice, one that cannot be fully actualized by isolated, atomized individuals, unmoored from collective values and obligations.
However, while I would consider the above necessary in the adoption of most names, there is at least one tradition that has relevance for those seeking to adopt a name and are not presently within the context of a community where such a desire might be supported.
Names as Moral Obligations
As stated, various peoples in West Africa have naming traditions wherein individuals are named, in part, based on the day or other circumstances of their birth. This is present among the Akan, Ewe (which has been borrowed from the Akan), and others. The Akan tradition is, however, most well-known. Other traditions, such as that among the Bambara, Hausa, or Swahili are quite notable.
In many respects, I have considered these names, especially the Akan names, given their popularity among African Americans, as names to which one is already entitled to utilize. Each of us was born on a day of the week, and in that way, each of us already has a kradin (literally “soul name”), should we choose to embrace it.
However, while I think that these names exist as resources that African people in the Americas can draw upon in their quest for re-Africanization, I maintain that these names carry with them moral obligations. That is, the name is not merely a signifier of the individual, it also represents a connection to a particular cultural tradition. This connection is not a one-way conduit, where one receives that which one desires without any reciprocal commitment. I maintain that this reciprocal commitment necessitates that one aspires to exemplify the highest ideals of culture. In the simplest terms possible, this means that one should not engage in behavior which is injurious to the community, reflective of bad character, or otherwise reflective of a lack of intellectual maturity. This is not to suggest that traditional African societies were moral utopias, places where no wrong was ever committed. We know that this was not true. However, we are also aware that the moral discourse of traditional African societies is one of the most compelling, rigorous, and communally-focused available to us. These attributes are especially notable given that these are also our ancestral traditions.
The Akan culture, like all other African culture, holds certain core values to be sacred. What I will offer below is a very succinct treatment of these concerns. For those wanting further guidance, consult Gyekye’s African Philosophical Thought.
One value of the Akan culture, which is perhaps most significant as a basic moral framework, is their ideal suban, which translates as character. Like many others, character is a central cultural element. The significance of this lies in that character and its refinement is firmly situated in the realm of the social, that is that one is ultimately judged or assessed by one’s community. Moreover, it is understood that one’s community would require that one exemplify the moral obligations considered necessary to the collective welfare, which can be easily synthesized by what Dr. Anderson Thompson calls the African principle, which is “The greatest good for the greatest number” (Thompson 1999). Therefore, one must query if one’s actions represents that which is best or optimal for the health and functioning of the community as a whole? Does it engender that which contributes to the community’s maintenance and advancement? Does it provide the proper template whereby others might emulate in the creation of a truly enlightened condition?
We can see the expression of the Akan people’s concern with character in two places—their didactic literature and their iconography. With regards to the former, there are two notable proverbs that juxtaposes suban (character) to beauty. One proverb states, “Ahoɔfɛ ntua ka, suban na ɛhia”, which translates as, “Beauty does not pay debts, good character is what is necessary.” Another states, “W’ahoɔfɛ de wo bɛkɔ, na wo suban de wo bɛba”, which translates as, “It is your beauty that takes you there, but your character that brings you back.” What both of these proverbs expresses is that while beauty is not without some merit, it is not the ultimate signifier of one’s value to the community. Beauty here refers to that which makes us appealing and attractive to others. Thus, beauty is something which often attracts others to us, and in this way, its value can be said to be external to the human being, that is something that is projected by society upon the individual. This contrasts with the nature of suban, as this is what the individual projects outwardly, it is the manifestation of their true nature, that which reveals who they truly are. Whereas superficial beauty may mask one’s inner nature, suban (character) is always revealing. This is why what matters most, according to the Akan tradition was character.
Another example of this is the Adinkra symbol sesa wo suban, which literally translates as transform your character. This symbol reminds us of our capacity to perfect our character, to change it, and in so doing, to truly change ourselves. Sesa wo suban reminds us that we are, as ever, unfinished, still becoming. It compels us to strive to be that which we desire to be, knowing that the will to transform ourselves is potentially limitless.
I maintain that to take on an African name, is to also embrace the personal challenge to exemplify the loftiest ideals of African cultures. Here I have offered a brief treatment of one such culture, the Akan and their concept of suban, however Africa is replete with moral insight and knowledges which hold the promise and potential to inform our ways of being in the world if only they are applied.
Next, I offer a brief list of African naming traditions based on days of the week. These are detailed in the tables below. The first lists female and male Akan day names, along with the attributes associated with the person born on each of these days. The second lists other female day names. The third lists other male names. All of these names come from the Akan, Ewe, Swahili, and Hausa peoples. Also, there are variations with the spelling of the names listed below. The spellings and pronunciations of all of the Akan and Ewe, and some of the Hausa names can be found in Julia Stewart’s 1,001 African Names. Other Hausa names were obtained from Ibro Chekaraou’s Mù Zântā Dà Harshèn Hausa.
Akan day names
|Day||Female names||Male names||Attributes|
|Sunday||Akosua, Akosia||Kwasi, Kwesi||The born leader|
|Monday||Adwowa, Ajua||Kwadwo, Kojo||The peacemaker|
|Tuesday||Abena, Abla||Kwabena, Kobina||The risk taker|
|Wednesday||Akua, Aku||Kweku, Kwaku||The sweet messenger|
|Thursday||Ya, Yawa, Aba||Yao, Kwao||The pathfinder|
|Friday||Afua, Afia||Kofi||The dreamer, the wanderer|
|Saturday||Ama, Amma||Kwame||The sage, the wise one|
The attributes of the Akan day names affirm the basic goodness and essentiality of each of us to the community. Whether this is in the leadership of the Sunday born, the boldness of the Tuesday born, the wisdom of the Saturday born, and so forth–each of us are valued and valuable in terms of the good that we potentially represent to those around us. Thus, Akan kradin (as with African names in a very general sense) evidences a complex web of social obligations, which seek to maximize the growth, development, and capacity of both the individual and the society.
Other female names
|Sunday||Akosiba||Ladi, Ladidi, Ladiyyo|
|Monday||Adzowa||Tine, Tine, Tani, Atine, Altine|
|Tuesday||Abra||Talata, Tatu, Talatu, Tanno, Talle, Talai|
|Friday||Afiba||Jummai, Jumma, Juma, Yar Juma|
Other male names
|Sunday||Kosi||Danladi, Ladiyyo, Lahadi||Jumapili|
|Monday||Kodzo||Tanimu, Danliti, Altine, Dantani||Jumatatu|
|Tuesday||Komla||Dantala, Tatu, Talata, Dantalle||Jumanne|
|Wednesday||Aku, Koku, Kowu||Danbala, Bala||Jumatano|
Names for Times of the Day
Finally, I offer several names that are based on the circumstances of one’s birth, such as the time of day that one is born. These names were derived from Chekaraou (2008) and Kiswahili Lugha Yetu: Mwanzo Mpya from the Simba Tayari and the Swahili Institute of Chicago.
|Hantsilo||Nahantsi/Hantsilo||Born during late morning|
|Tarana/Ranau||Narana||Born at midday|
|Tadare/Dare||Nadare/Maidare||Born at night|
|Name||Male or Female||Explanation|
|Layla||Female||Born at night|
|Nuru||Female/Male||Born at daylight|
In closing, while it is commendable for Africans in America to want to divest themselves of the culture of their oppressors, it should also be recognized that such a process is on-going. Decolonzing one’s consciousness means more than simply adopting an African name or wearing African attire. It also means seeking and operating from an African worldview—a way of seeing and being in the world consanguine with the values, norms, ethics, and knowledge of African societies as they existed from classical antiquity and prior to their cultural penetration by the emissaries of Eurasian empires. Moreover, such a mission is not something that can be separate from reality transformation. We must accept that our minds cannot be free, as long as our bodies remain oppressed. Jacob H. Carruthers has addressed this quite clearly:
The process of Africanization and transformation cannot be separated neatly into two stages-they overlap. To transform the world according to an African-centered worldview means establishing a new African culture and a new African world civilization. We have to restore the African value system. Rather than continually struggling to make European-centered value systems more humane, we have to replace those value systems with one that is African-centered. We have been dealing with the alligators, we must now face the possibility that the solution to our problems may require that the swamp be drained. Too few of us have prepared ourselves to deal with this possibility. (Carruthers 1994)
Carruthers, Jacob H. 1994. “Black Intellectuals and the Crisis in Black Education.” In Too Much Schooling, Too Little Education: A Paradox of Black Life In White Societies, edited by Mwalimu J. Shujaa, 37-55. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Chekaraou, Ibro. 2008. Mù Zântā Dà Harshèn Hausa. Madison, WI: NALRC Press.
Gyekye, Kwame. 1995. African Philosophical Thought. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Stewart, Julia. 1996. 1,001 African Names. New York, NY: Citadel Press.
Thompson, Anderson. 1999. The African Principle Essay Series. Chicago: African World Community Press.
Tayari, Simba. 1994. Lugha Yetu: Mwanzo Mpya. Chicago: Swahili Institute of Chicago.
This essay was updated on June 9, 2018.
Of course culture has been a core concern of a number of African intellectuals in this country. This has been more than something born of an an undue preoccupation with questions of identity, but has been centrally concerned with questions of epistemology and ideation.
Who are we? What sources inform this knowing? What special contribution might our cultural distinctiveness offer in our efforts to both envision and reshape the world in which we live? How does our degree of cultural grounding facilitate our ability to be discerning, that is critically engaged with the universalist creep of ideas ideas that are not only alien to our ancestors’ cultures, but also potentially corrosive to that which we seek to (re)establish. I fear that in our fervor to embrace increasingly shallow notions of progress, we are constantly stripping ourselves of the potential to know and move from a cultural center of our own, one requiring no sanction or approval from others.
I think of this, not only in relation to, but occasionally because of the spectacles of confusion that abound in our communities. The almost daily sight of young men walking about, pants sagging, shouting expletives in unison with the sounds streaming through their headphones, walking through the L-train selling marijuana, and seemingly bereft of an evaluative criteria of manhood outside of the empty and chronologically-determined manhood of this society is troubling. Of course this is nothing new, our confusion that is. This society has been devised to perpetuate it, to render it normal, desirable, and inescapable.
However I do not despair in the face of these things. This is not because I believe in some grand destiny where we will inevitably transform our condition, but because I see some of us, many of us doing this work using tools such as Capoeira, rites-of-passage, study groups, agriculture, language instruction, meditation, and so forth. It reminds me that processes of transformation do not necessarily begin on a scale that is grand equal to their aims. Their beginnings might be quite humble, their progress slow but inexorable. We too know this. We know that “Aendaye polepole hana budi afikile”, that is that “the person who walks with calm and care will arrive without fail”. We will arrive, at that place to which we desire to be, one wherein the reclamation of our culture and the restoration of our sovereignty are ends, and from there to even greater works which lay beyond. Works animated by the vision of sp tpy and whm mswt, that is the actualization of the cosmological and sociological ideal of a truly enlightened society.
I would assert that the cultural crisis that we face as a people is born of our subordinate political, economic, and cultural power.
Political power is the instrument via which a group’s will is affected upon society. It is manifest in a people’s capacity to establish rules and protocols, that all members of a given society are answerable to.
Economic power is the system that a group utilizes to propagate, sustain, and refine their worldview via the material and non-material expressions thereof. Systems of resource exchange, extraction, processing, and distribution, in addition to the provisioning of vital services fall under this domain.
Cultural power is the tool which a group utilizes to institutionalize its ethos, demarcate its bodies of practices, conceptions of historical knowledge, and worldview from competing forces, and the intergenerational transmission of such to subsequent generations.
The superordinate position of Europe and America vis-a-vis the African world community not only accounts for our subordinate state in the present, but our difficulty to reconstitute ourselves culturally in the wake of the withering legacies of slavery and colonialism. Thus, while culture is the domain that should inform a protracted struggle for self-determination informed by a “grand theory of the future” (to quote Dr. Anderson Thompson), we are largely bereft of economic and political power, thus making such a cultural vision fragile due to its lack of a powerful institutional basis to support and sustain it over time. Thus those few individuals, who due to their own constitutions, some inexplicable serendipity, or the circumstance of living in such a situation as this take up such work we are often limited in our output, to say nothing of our capacity to scale up such work. Even for those that do take on this struggle, sustainability, vision, and conceptual clarity remain as daunting challenges.
One of the most interesting aspects of the revitalization of African languages among African Americans has been that these languages have been used as vehicles of revolutionary political, economic, and cultural discourse prior to having become institutionalized as daily means of mundane communication. Examples abound, such as ujamaa, sankɔfa, aṣe (axe in Brazil), Htp (Hotep), asante, abibifahodie, mAat (Maat), kujichagulia, and so forth. While these terms have entered the African American lexicon, they have become islands of African cultural practice in that most often we lack even a rudimentary fluency in the languages in question.
While our use of African terminology (including greetings and the like) is a very positive development, we must go the necessary step further of institutionalizing these languages as tools of daily communication. Of the languages featured above (Kiswahili, Twi, Yoruba, and mdw nTr (Medu Netcher), Kiswahili’s existing status as an international language make it the most attractive as a Pan-African language; Twi and Yoruba (to say nothing of Igbo, Kikongo, Wolof, and so forth) are important as languages which facilitate cultural (re)connection or re-Africanization given the West and West-central African origins of most African Americans; and mdw nTr is best positioned to serve as our classical African language, providing an epistemological framework that will aid in the decolonization of both ourselves as well as the language(s) that we adopt.
It should be clarified that I am not arguing that these languages are destinations unto themselves, rather that they are vehicles that might facilitate our movement from where we presently are towards where we desire to be. As such, the movement beyond our present use of African languages towards greater fluency may facilitate a range of unanticipated developments. The Maori of New Zealand have found that the revitalization of their language has led to a renewed interest in their indigenous technologies among other things. We might “discover” models of governance that aid us in our organizational work and professional lives. We might reclaim models of economic organization wherein women controlled major sectors of economic activity as a means of ensuring their self-determination–which helps in the larger ujamaa project that we are engaged in. We might acquire paradigms of marriage that are beyond the relatively superficial bases that are normalized in the West, which often leads to the formation of unstable family units. We might put into practice methods of struggle that augments the depth of our vision and refines the intelligence of our methods. We might devise new ways of understanding ourselves, our community, and our movement through time and space. In short, the serious study of African languages could be nothing less than revolutionary.
I just watched film Whale Rider for maybe the 10th time. I watch it from time-to-time it to remind myself of certain ideals that I have committed myself to, and how these are expressed in the stories of other people who are seeking to heal themselves in the wake of the tragedy of conquest and oppression that has established the “modern era”.
Two things that stood out to me this time was that the character Koro, though perceived as harsh and stubborn, did not see himself as acting in his own self-interest. He saw himself as one who labored for his people’s survival. This was especially evident in his interaction with his oldest son, where when asked how he was doing, he responded that “We are alright”, not referring to himself singly, but to the whole community. He saw no separation in his welfare and theirs, and as a result was under immense pressure to find a new leader, which he believed was the solution to his people’s troubles.
The other thing that stood out to me was that there was no emphasis on the context of colonialism in the film. One can interpret this many ways, but I think that this was done to emphasize that their identity as a people was not based on the arrival of the British Navy. Their history as Maori people did not begin with colonization. It began in time immemorial. Unlike many African Americans, they did not begin their history at their nadir. For us this is symbolically represented as the year 1619, and next month we will witness an abundance of presentations about our past that begin in this unhappy year. As an aide, I’ll also be doing some lecturing next month, and I assure you that I won’t be starting with Africans on a slave ship. It is true that we have to tell and re-tell our history, especially the story of the Maafa, but our history cannot start there. We cannot know who we are as a people if our history begins at the point where our capacity to control our destiny was at its weakest.
I always enjoy the end of this film because it emphasizes that the path of a people into the future will necessarily be a synthesis of their traditions and their dynamic responses to the present. I paid particular attention to the last line in the movie: “I’m not a prophet but I know that our people will keep going forward all together, with all of our strength.” I hope that this is true for the many peoples of Earth, those whose past and ancestral wisdom may yet illuminate the form and character of a better world.
The goal is progressive perfection and the teachings thus express the assumption of human perfectibility. As noted above in the section on ontology, this conception of progressive perfection is best expressed by the concept of ḫprt or khepert the perpetual process of becoming, perpetual striving, going through stages of moral achievement, self-mastery, reciprocity and all the other virtues or excellences (iḳrw, mnḫw, nfrw). Again, this anthropological concept is more aspiration than announcement of final achievement and evolves from a concept of progressive perfection rather than one of static perfection. In a word, it is an unfolding and becoming at ever higher levels, not a finished state of static completion.
-Maulana Karenga, Maat: The Moral Ideal in Ancient Egypt
I watched the PBS documentary Language Matters last night and was particularly struck by the efforts of native Hawaiians to preserve their language. They believed that without their languages, they would cease to exist as a distinct people.
While we have been stripped of our ancestral tongues, we, like any other people require a language that affirms our culture and our humanity. A language reinforces a sense of identity, a sense of tradition, even a sense of political destiny–this is why languages are such a prominent part of many nationalist movements around the world. Language revitalization has been a prominent feature of the efforts of many groups engaged in campaigns of self-determination such as the Basque (France and Spain), Maori (New Zealand), Welsh (UK), and so on. Language becomes a way of not only marking group identity, but of reinforcing the notion that a people has a shared history and destiny distinct from other cultural groups.
While Africa is home to more language diversity than any other place on Earth, and our ancestors doubtlessly spoke a myriad of languages, most African languages are more or less ethnic languages–that is the language of a single group. The exception to this are languages that have become diffused as the second language of a wider population. Some languages have become “lingua francas” within a single territory. Asante Twi and Wolof are examples of ethnic languages that have become diffused in their respective territories, Ghana and Senegal respectively.
Kiswahili and Hausa on the other hand have become diffused internationally, as each is spoken across territories and ethnic groups. Hausa speakers can be found in Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Chad, and Burkina Faso. According to Ethnologue, approximately fifteen million of Hausa’s over forty million speakers speak it as a second language
As the official language of Tanzania and Kenya, and as a second language in parts of Uganda, Mozambique, Congo, and elsewhere Kiswahili is perhaps the most effective example of an African language that has become more or less ethnically neutral as the vast majority of its speakers use it as a second language (approximately eighty million of its estimated ninety eight million speakers according to Ethnologue). Moreover, its adoption by many speakers (or aspiring speakers) in the African diaspora, and its common association with Pan-Africanism adds a degree of conceptual or ideological import to Kiswahili that is absent in the broader perceptions of other African tongues. For instance, its association with various African liberation movements as reflected in common slogans such as “Uhuru sasa” (Freedom now), “Tutashinda bila shaka” (We will conquer without a doubt), “Elimu kwa kujitegemea” (Education for self-reliance), and terms such as kujichagulia (self-determination), imani (faith), ujamaa (familyhood), umoja (one-ness or unity) and so forth all capture the degree to which Kiswahili has been embraced as a language of liberation.
For these reasons and perhaps others, Kiswahili is perhaps best positioned to serve as a primary African language in the diaspora. It is not to say that other languages should not be studied. They should. The growing proliferation of Yoruba and Akan among diasporan Africans is both encouraging and interesting, so too the study of mdw nTr (Medew Netcher), the language of ancient kmt (Kemet) or Egypt. Yet despite this, Kiswahili’s broad diffusion, diversity of learning resources, development as a suitable tool for technical communication, ability to express ideas that are philosophically and conceptually germane to African cultures and communities, and relative neutrality make it a very attractive and viable candidate as the primary African language of the diaspora, in addition to being an auxiliary language for the African continent itself.
One feature of the film Language Matters was the strategy adopted by native Hawaiians to diffuse their language in the 1960s and 70s. They focused on educating small children to speak native Hawaiian. Linda Tuhiwai Smith has discussed a similar initiative among the Maori that centered on children as language learners given their facility for language acquisition. I believe that such a strategy is highly instructive for Africans in America that are desirous of seeing an African language such as Kiswahili becoming more widespread. While the Black Power era saw the diffusion of Kiswahili among Africans in America, the depth of this diffusion has been mostly limited to single terms and phrases. Thus it is not uncommon for someone to have knowledge of greetings such as “Habari gani?” (What’s the news?) or “Hujambo?” (How are you?), or to use statements of affirmation or negation such “ndiyo” (yes), “hapana” or “la” (no), or even “sijui” (I don’t know), to refer to familial roles such as baba (father), mama (mother), kaka (brother), or dada (sister), or to refer to concepts using the language such as the “Nguzo Saba” (the “Seven Principles”, as created by Dr. Maulana Karenga), “asili” (“essence” or “seed” as popularized by Dr. Marimba Ani’s book Yurugu), and so forth. What has been lacking has been an effective diffusion of knowledge sufficient to promote greater fluency in the language.
The movement from rudimentary linguistic knowledge to greater fluency begins with the requisite will and desire, and continues with the formation of a suitable institute devised to carry forth this charge on as broad a scale as possible. Such an institute can then coordinate the development of a body of highly-trained individuals who have attained a high degree of fluency in the language, the development of curricula for different age groups in the community, and the creation of an educational infrastructure in the form of classes and institutes. From this nucleus can also spring forth literature and other media designed to aid language learning. While the first item requires a substantial investment of time and effort, the second requires an understanding of effective language learning strategies for children and adults. The third necessitates a range of resources, both technical and spatial enabling knowledge to be diffused. For instance, the use of the internet as a vehicle of language learning cannot be understated. Dr. Obadele Kambon’s Abibitumikasa has become the premier African language learning institute with courses in Asante Twi, mdw nTr, Wolof, Yoruba, Kiswahili, and other languages. This resource and others should be effectively utilized. In the Chicago-area groups such as The Swahili Institute of Chicago , the Kemetic Institute of Chicago, and the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations Midwest Region are fine examples of what grassroots language institutes can aspire to accomplish (the latter two promote the learning of mdw nTr). Each of these organizations has also developed teaching and learning materials.
In closing, the diffusion of African languages in the Americas in fact is an act of cultural reclamation, a decolonization of the language of those whose estrangement from their ancestral homeland has made the quest for linguistic empowerment all the more fervent. The last fifty years illustrate the degree to which African languages have served the ends of spiritual enlightenment, scholarly inquiry, political education, and casual discourse. This process, despite its uneven outcomes to date, has been one that remains pregnant with possibility as it offers a path towards a potential decolonization of the African mind, a simpler means towards international communication within the global African community, and a mechanism to engage more fully with the deep thought of African culture as these are conveyed by language. As such language is a vital component in the process of Re-Africanization, but its effective utilization towards such an end can only be maximized via a greater degree of organization than what has yet transpired.
To this end, the creation of a Taasisi ya Kiswahili kwa Waafrika Merikani or a Swahili Institute for Africans in America will be a necessary step in this process. This must be followed by the creation of a scholarship fund and institutional connections to facilitate the training of a first generation of instructors. The third stage will be the creation of a body of instructional resources followed by the establishment of a network of instructional vehicles in the form of Saturday schools, after-school programs, rites-of-passage programs, and other mechanisms to teach primarily children, in addition to adults. This fourth stage should occur parallel to the fifth, which is the diffusion of literature (i.e., comics, fashion magazines, political education materials, scientific articles, art publications, news organs, and so on in the language so as to utilize it as a conduit of information. These steps are, I maintain, a process that can lead to both the institutionalization of Kiswahili (or any other African language) in the African diasporan community and its diffusion over the span of time.