African Belief System Reveals Special Links With Land
By Osman Njuguna, African Church Information Service (Nairobi), 14 August 2000
Nairobi—In the book Person, Divinity and Nature: A modern view of the Person and the Cosmos in African Thought, the author, Nigerian Dr Chukwunyere Kamalu has addressed himself to the concept of the African philosophy and the world-view that goes with it.
His major challenge in the 218-page volume, is to try to convince those who think otherwise—that the African philosophy and the consequent world-view that goes with it—does exist and more so like other philosophies among the people in the world over.
Under the topic, Validity of African Philosophy, the Nigerian scholar, states, for example, that whether African belief systems constitute philosophy may seem an important debate but it has preoccupied modern African philosophers at the expense of modern studies examining the belief systems.
This is not to say that nothing has been learned from the debate, but much discussion could have been circumvented and time usefully spent researching into the actual body of African thought rather than having subjective discussions around the theme of whether or not there is such a thing as African thought which satisfies western definitions of philosophy.
After defining philosophy as a search for the meaning or explanation of existence, Kamalu says many other people including Africans do not emphasise deductive logic but have inherent in their systems of thought another form of reasoning which might be termed dialectical reasoning,which is based on the idea of a concert of opposite concepts.
In discussing Earth and Land in African Thought and Practice, the Nigerian scholar emphasises that as implied by their world-view, agricultural practices of the Africans involve a great respect for the soil.
Many African peoples practice various methods of minimum tillage and even a void the use of certain tools of the soil to avoid damage, he notes, adding that African land-users have struggled since ancient times to conserve soil and water and maintain soil fertility at acceptable levels.
He says a wide range of indigenous African soil and water conservation systems exist. In African thought the tie with the land is organic and in many traditions it is symbolised by the link of the person with the land through his or her umbilical cord.
This is because, he observes, at birth it is a common for the new born child's umbilical cord to be planted with a seed that will later grow and he/she builds up a relationship with the tree.
Since his/her umbilical cord has become part of the tree the two ( person and tree) are like brothers/sisters. He says that this practice has survived in the Caribbean (e.g. Barbados, Grenada) and is widespread in Africa (among the Ibo of Nigeria, Zulu of Southern Africa, the Baganda of Uganda).
The author further observes that when European missionaries first came to Africa, they supposed that the African people had no notion of a supreme. This, he adds, could have been due to the fact that shrines, images, prayers or other forms of direct reference to the Supreme Being were rare.
He also explains that the idea of the transcendence of the Supreme Being is given a concrete mythological expression through tales of how God came to leave the world and retreated into the sky.
The scholar points out that although colonialism has severed the links between land and community in Africa and thereby removed the Earth as a central organising force, there is nothing to prevent modern Africa re-establishing the link with the Earth God and utilising the notion of the nature goodness/power implicit in African conceptions of Maat and the Earth Goddess as an organising concept.
Under the topic Complementary Opposites in Ethics and Morals, Kamalu says in many traditional African societies, the principal of justice is embodied by the Earth. He says in ancient Africa, truth, justice and righteousness are personified by the ancient Egyptian goddess, Maat. She is the embodiment of natural law and represents the principle on which the society and cosmos are founded.
On Number, Destiny and Divination, the author states, for example, that with the influx of Western culture less traditional practitioners are being trained and many are dying off taking vast stores of traditional medical knowledge to the grave with them.
He says something needs to be done urgently to reverse this trend at African governmental level, as today young people apprentices are not arising to take up the roles of traditional healers and specialists. Rather, they are trained in Western medicine which largely disregards traditional practice.
He also maintains that it would seem that Western medicine cannot replace fully the traditional practitioner in the near future due to the fundamental differences in the approaches of African and Western medical practices.
Kamalu further notes that today the African world-view is a living phenomenon. Despite the continual dispersal of African peoples to other parts of the world, despite the ravages of colonialism and the onslaughts of both Christianity and Islam, African religion has survived, he says.