African Culture and Symbolism: A Rediscovery of the Seam of a Fragmented Identity


Andrew Ifeanyi Isiguzo





            In the book, "Writing for Your Life", Deena Metzger states that "self discovery is more than gathering information about oneself." She continues, "In the process of... discovering our story, we restore those parts of ourselves that have been scattered, hidden, suppressed, denied, distorted, forbidden, and we come to understand that stories heal." Since time immemorial, individuals and communities have turned to the arts for a sense of identity and history. It is tthrough the arts that many still find a map to self-discovery. Given the nature of man as a cultural animal, man is able to make representations of his cultural identity through symbols in form of arts, language, myth., rituals, names, to mention but a few.  The nexus of this study is necessitated by a relatively simple question about the cause of changes in cultural symbols and identity. We wondered why a relative few garner enormous success while the vast majority of others are relegated to the growing heap of product failures.

            African culture, since colonial inversion, has experienced rapid change. The contemporary African culture is merely a mixture of traditional elements and alien features. As a matter of fact "...the African today is a living confluence of cultural rivers, the major rivers being, on the one hand, the traditional culture with its tributaries of religion, social structure, language, values and world view, and, on the other hand, the Christian -Western culture (and other alien cultures including Islam ) with its own tributaries" (Theophilus Okere, "African Culture: The Past and the Present as Indivisible Whole", in Identity and Change: Nigerian Philosophical Studies,p:10) Africa identity is in crisis as the authentic cultures are almost vanishing. There is an urgent need to restore those parts of  ourselves that have been fragmented, distorted or corrupted, and strengthen the resilient ones that are still in practice all over the continent and in diaspora.

My aim in this chapter is to examine African cultural identity crisis and find ways of healing it through symbols discovered in different African cultural setting. The focus is to discover the rallying point of African cultures first and then move towards relating the various African symbols to it. Many authors (African and Western) have had different strands about the pivot that swing the course of African identity. Some called it communalism, while others called it egalitarianism or paternalism. But none of these concepts can exclusively interpret African world view as found in religion, social life, language and art. We need a concept that embodies African community consciousness and solidarity, at the same time expresses African religion, politics and language. These are the gamut of African identity and any attempt at a retrieval or revivification of the culture in African symbols must consider these shades of African cultures.


WHAT IS SYMBOL?           


            Symbol is something such as idea, object, conventional or non conventional that is used to represent something else. It could be abstract or not. Abstract symbols are symbols that do not depend on their concrete material substance. These are abstract entities that are capable of abstracting themselves, freeing themselves, purifying themselves from their possible concrete substance. (P. Moyeart: Worshipping of Idols and Images, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven Unpublished lecture note 2004). This explains the so called "intellectual leap". The clearest examples of abstract symbols are mathematical symbols and names. You can refer to numbers by “ABC”, by "123" or by “+_" ad infinitum. It does not matter the choice of symbols you are allowed to replace them as long as the internal coherence is suspended. But in the aspect of names, proper names, this can be approached from two sides, as an abstract symbol or not. A name of a person can be replaced at any time that makes it abstract symbol. But if you see it that there is a strong link between the reference and the referent- between the name and the person to make it impossible to change it once it has been give, then it is no more an abstract symbol. To see a name as a concrete symbol brings it closer to what we can call sacred. This was however criticised by J. Fraser in his "Golden Bough” as he questions why someone's name can't be sacred. Unfortunately, I will not go into his argument in this study. If names are abstract symbols, so also mathematical numbers, it means there is an existing gap between the profane and the sacred, and the link between the name and the referent is completely extrinsic.  To say that name is a concrete symbol means there is no gap, just in the same sense as you can touch the person or touch a body by using his name, for example, when someone plays a word game with your name.

            The demonstration of abstract and concrete symbols leads us to the triadic evaluation of symbols in Western culture which consequently influenced the interpretations of missionaries and colonial officials who found there way in different parts of Africa from early part of the nineteenth century to the second quarter of twentieth century. By triadic I do not mean Charles Sanders Pierce's illustration on semiotic but the triadic demonstration of levels of persons found in Hegel, August Comte, Freud and J.G.Fraser. This is a basis where people put together three kinds of persons, groups, in the evaluation (judgement) concerning symbols. The philosophers did not use the same terms to explain their claims, but they are common ideas which shall group as first, the primitive; second, children; and third is Madness. Those three groups are used as examples of people who are still at the level of crypto-symbolism.  In the primitive culture, they have something to do with symbolism, there is an awakening sense of symbolism, but it is not completely realised. The problem with this group use of symbols is that the sensation awakened by the symbol is not strong enough to lead it to abstract or make abstraction of the difference that exist or the gap between the reference and the referent. The primitive sense of symbolism is deficient that is why the fail to make meaning out of the symbols and lose it the moment the use it. Hegel in his Philosophy of history divided three different worlds of existence as childhood of spirit, adolescence spirit and major spirit. Hegel characterizes this stage as one of consciousness in its immediacy, where subjectivity and substantiality are unmediated. Hegel discusses China, India, Persia and Africa specifically and suggests that these cultures are unhistorical" and "non-political", but rather are subject to natural cyclical processes. The Greek and Europeans he put in the second and final stages, respectively. There is a mixing link between subjective freedom and substantiality in the ethical life of the Greek polis, while the Germans and the rest of Europe who occupy the final stage have in them attitude to reflection and make good use of abstraction hence tension between the two principles of individuality and universality ensues, manifesting itself in the formation of political despotism and insurgency against it. Hegel is telling us that the primitive (Childhood) is the state of those people who are not capable of distinguishing between the object and the real thing signified. Though they can abstract, after all, they can use names, they can speak, they have language, but in the presence of the referent they lack the sense of difference. Like Wittgenstein said they can kiss the symbol, touch it, yet they are not able to develop their abstraction to the level of differentiating the image or name from the person.

            Children are in the same state as those primitives but they have some future.  In the beginning of their development they are on a very low level of symbolization, says Freud..  They use symbols in the sense that they can replace a person with a puppet.  Small children can make that replacement.  That’s a kind of symbolization.  In the beginning when they are very young, they are at the very moment they are using a puppet as a symbol for someone else they confuse both.  They are intellectually not completely developed.  Which means according to some psychologists a child is not capable of making a distinction between a puppet and his mother. This is wrong because it is like saying that we derive distinction whilst it is originally given. This is the claim of psychologist like Piaget and Colberg.  I will not go into this argument here. We can read Sigmund Freud explanation on the knowledge distinction in the child in the second Chapter of "Beyond the Pleasure Principle"(Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 1920)

 It’s the same mistake about so many approaches of hallucination. So many psychologists will say that when a person has a hallucination s/he is confusing a kind of image with the real.  A real object, that’s not true.  In a hallucination no one is confusing anything.  This means a person who has a hallucination knows very well that their hallucination is radically different from the ordinary object that he can perceive.  He must not confuse that. This could be found also in Edmund Hurserl.

So, do children have to learn something?  Yes they have to learn something but to learn is not to make that transition from indifference to a difference that’s not the point.  What we do have to learn is to develop our sense of symbols.  And to learn to accept that to use a symbol for my rage is nearly as efficient as a direct expression of my rage, that’s what I have to learn.  To accept that it can have the same value, that to kiss the photo of my beloved has the same value nearly the same value as kissing the person.  It is as satisfying, nearly as satisfying, as kissing the person himself.  That’s the point.  Every time that we are under the pressure of strong passions, a deep suffering, deep love, or a deep hate, our sense of symbols will come under pressure too.  If I am losing the person I really love then it will be very hard to accept symbols.  And to find some relief of myself in the presence of a symbol and sometimes my aggression is that intense and my indignation is so strong that symbols are not strong enough to catch, so to speak, my aggression.  And instead of killing a person in a puppet, instead of torturing the person by using a puppet, my aggression is so strong that I have to torture the person himself.  But that does not mean that I have to learn to connect the distinction between the person and the symbol.  So it’s a cognitive process of the emotions.  This is the approach many people to deal with emotions.  And how do we deal with emotions?  We deal with them in symbols. 




            African world view is replete with symbols. African symbols are “sources of insights into African orientations to life" (N.K. Dzobo "African Symbols and Proverbs as Sources of Knowledge" in Person and Community: Ghanaian Philosophical Studies, I. eds. Kwasi Wiredu and Kwame Gyekye, CRVP.Series II. Africa, VOL.1, 85. Dzobo distinguished signs and symbols in relation to the degree of qualitative information that is conveyed through them. "While signs provide simple information, symbols are used to communicate complex knowledge."(ibid.86-87) Given the diversity of the continent and the attendant whimsical changes in the cultures of the people of Africa, it becomes so difficult to have a uniform classification of symbols symbol systems in the country. However, I will take few examples from one two countries to illustrate my point here. In Ghana, there are six major groups of symbols, said Dzobo. These six groups are adinkra symbols, stool symbols, linguistic staff symbols, religious symbols and oral literary symbols. Each of the symbolic group have information to convey concerning the way of life of the people at every situation they are presented or the history of the society it represents; Adinkra, for example, is a Twi word and derived from one of the popular national cloths of Ghana called adinkra, which means "to say goodbye". The cloth is adorned with black colour background and many artistic such as Owu atwedee, "the ladder of death, everybody will climb it one day to go to God". It is a traditional mourning cloth won in many communities in Ghana at funerals and memorial services to commensurate with the bereaved family and equal send forth the dead person to the land of ancestors.(Ibid. 89-94)

Colour has symbolic meaning in African culture and each colour conveys peculiar information when won or displaced at significant places or situations. The black colour is a symbolic colour for funerals in almost all parts of Africa. It is the official mourning cloth at funerals especially the one that involves a person who died at unripe age-not the death of an old member. The white colour is a symbol of purity and joy, which usually won at funerals especially the type that involves a dead old member. The differences in colours of cloth at funeral services convey different messages albeit they are similar situation, but not taken as the same culturally. One, the death of the young member, is always painful because it is believed that the one has not accomplished his task in the land of the living to give him easy passage to the land of the ancestors. It is in fact taken as a double tragedy on the deceased and the bereaved. The former is going to suffer land of the land of the spirits, which may cause the spirit appear to the relations in form of ghost in the land of the living No bother want to see the ghost of his dead one because of the unpleasant sight that comes with it. The dead of the aged member, on the other hand is a well come death, and the living make merriment to commemorate the decease and perform rituals to herald his easy passage to the land of the ancestors. Often times, where the dead lived a good life and loved by many, the members also wish one not only easy passage to the ancestral world, but show readiness to welcome him into this world again-this informs the African belief in reincarnation. (I.Onyewuenyi, African Belief in Reincarnation) The red colour is a spiritual colour and has a very powerful religious significance. It is the colour of the cloth used to adorn the table in the shrine. For example, in Igbo land, my own ethnic group, the Benins and Yorubas in Nigeria, the red colour is worn is worn by chief priest of the local shrine whenever he is at the shrine perfuming his duty or at the King's palace or any public place where he is called up to perform rituals or sacrifices to the gods for one purpose or the other. This colour is significantly marked out for the Eze muo or Dibia, "the spiritual king or the native doctor" respectively.




African people eat and live religiously, said Arthur Leonard. This means that traditional religion is the center of African Identity. Unfortunately, the desire for tradition religious practices started diminishing when the first European missionaries set feet on African soil.Forms of religiosity may differ, but all traditional societies practice one form of religion or another.  . Arthur Leonard once wrote about them that "They are... a truly religious people of whom it can be said as it has been said of the Hindu that they eat religiously, bathe religiously, dress religiously, sin religiously... (the) religion of these natives is their existence and their existence is their religion.” This observation is true of every human society in so far as the dominant ideology has a religious character, as does happen among traditional communities. We see this in the case of the Africans in their daily lives, in their social ritual, in the numerous monuments and shrines that dot every compound.

As soon as you approach the typical religious object, you are overawed. Is it the shrine, the evil forest, the cave, the river, the tomb of the ancestors! These evoked feelings of dread and reverence. The moral code was hallowed. In short the sacred has indeed become the profaned. Like the Greek gods deserting Olympus, the African traditional deities are deserting the traditional shrines. But where have they gone and who has chased them away?

The forces responsible for the apparent demise or progressive disappearances of our traditional gods, our deities and venerable ancestors, followed in the wake of our colonial conquest by Europeans, although it is arguable that without our colonial experience the same process would have come about eventually. Mankind's intellectual, scientific and technological development is not the monopoly of any race or culture. Sooner or later, the religious phase in mankind's intellectual, scientific and technological development, as August Comte observed, was bound to yield to a dominant metaphysical and then a scientific phase. Another way of putting it is to say that the forces of modernity would have set in sooner or later.

The historical forces which can be held responsible for the fate of our traditional religion include:

·         Western education, philosophy, science and technology which have increased our knowledge of nature and its laws.

·         Western religion, with its ideological campaign against traditional religion and culture.

The process was of desacralization and secularization which Max Weber called the process of increasing rationalization of life.

The same process can be looked at from the perspective of the modern industrialization and commercialization of life. Everything is now the subject or object of business. Everything is vendible. Nothing is sacred any longer. The sacred Long Juju of Arochukwu (At the northern part of Igbo land-the ethnic group the make up the eastern Nigeria), very famous and dreaded by foreigners and natives alike, had been converted into a business outfit, an instrument of garnering' or extorting wealth from people even before colonialism. The defeat of the Igbo by British colonial forces may be seen as the victory of one religion over another, the defeat of one god (the traditional) by another, namely, the white man’s god.

Culturally, it is as if the traditional African script of "submit to family and community authority and immerse yourself in and partake of all group values and norms" was rewritten during the colonial period. Through force, Western education and missionary proselytization, the colonialists subordinated traditional African authority and the values and norms of African communalism in the minds of Africans. This new anti-African script argues Nyasani (1997), remains deeply imbedded in the minds of contemporary Africans to the point that they:


Have adopted and assimilated wholesale whatever the West has to offer. The end result is not just a cultural betrayal but a serious case of self-dehumanization and outright self-subversion both in terms of dignity and self-esteem. Indeed there is no race on earth that abhors its own culture and is so easily prepared to abdicate it and flirt with experimental ideas which promise no more than vanity, to a large extent, like the African race.... Africa is simply overwhelmed and decisively submerged by the never-receding tide of cultural imperialism (1997:126-128).


Psychologically, Nyasani argues that the Africans' "natural benign docility" contributed to and exacerbated Africa's widespread social and cultural demise via Western acculturation. He argues that "it would not be difficult to imagine the ripe conditions encountered at the dawn of European imperialism for unbridled exploitations and culture emasculations which left many an African society completely distraught and culturally defrocked. Indeed the exploiting schemers must have found a ready market glutted with cultural naiveties for quick but effective alienation" (1997:113-114). The post-colonial era has been no different, Nyasani says, in that contemporary "black Africa is painfully crucified on the cross of blackmailers, arm-twisters and their forever more enslaving technologies and each nail of the cross belongs to the economic aid donor nation" (1997:96)!

Perhaps we can best understand what has happened to out traditional religion from the perspective of man’s world getting transformed as his productive forces improve. As we probe and understand more of the laws of nature, we have less need for superstitions and mysticism. As we improve on our instruments of production and can explore and turn inside out the caves, the burial grounds and evil forests and, in their place, build our cathedrals and mansions; as we cross the mountains, rivers and seas with our technologies, build our tunnels, our bridges and flyovers; as we fly high into the skies, we push the gods farther into distant horizons, away from familiar terrain. But wherever the gods may be, the important thing is that we can deal with our environment, without offending them, or violating taboos.

Whichever way we look at it, the once powerful and dreaded deities and gods – Amadịọha/Kamalụ, Igwe-ka-Ala. Ibina-Ukpabi (Long Juju), Ala, Imo, Osimiri, Agbala, etc. – have lost their power and sacredness. They have lost their divinity. Yes, "the mighty have fallen." But perhaps they are not fiat on the ground yet, and may not be for quite some time. Fustel de Coulanges, has observed that:


The Contemporary of Cicero (the Roman Orator) practiced rites in the sacrifices, at funerals, and in the ceremony of marriage. These rites were older than his time, and what proves it is that they did not correspond to his religious belief. But if we examine the rites which he observed or the formulas which he recited, we find the marks of what men believed fifteen or twenty centuries earlier. (The Ancient City, .14.)


In the same way, there is hardly any rite of our modern Christian religion which does not have counterpart in traditional religion. Indeed, traditional religion has captured modern Christianity. Both the older denominations and the newer sects are now completing as to which can be seen as the most indigenous in approach and which best projects the native spirit in its appeals. As a matter of fact, those Christian priests who ran foul of their orthodox faith when they advocated a synthesis of the Western and traditional elements in religion, must now feel vindicated as they watch recent developments in our religious observances.

The greatest negative impact of Western colonialism on our society was the attempt to uproot and destroy the entire fabric of our culture and our religion which was dubbed pagan, and to impose indiscriminately Western religion on our society. Our people were weak and so easily succumbed to the force of imposed Western religion and as a result acquired a colonial mentality.

Those who decry the systematic and uncritical destruction and neglect of traditional religion and culture, do so not solely from the point of view of cultural nationalism or from a metaphysical or epistemological point of view. The identity of a people, as has often been maintained, is a function of their history and culture. Any nation and any people without such an identity deriving from their history and culture lack the basic ingredients of stability in national character.

As T. U. Nwala observed in Igbo Philosophy,


There could be no better comparative analysis of the theology of the two religions – Christianity and African traditional religion. Today, there is no longer any doubt as to whether the traditional African possesses a religion or not. His religion is no longer seen as that of paganism and devil-worship; nor is his culture any longer the devil's work, nor even are his ancestors any longer held to dwell in hell as was hitherto the fashionable view among Christian religious leaders.


Moreover the Christian world-view and traditional world-view share common basic characteristics, both being transcendental, mystical, authoritarian, ritualistic, and held as sacred, based on faith full of myths and festivities, as well as having a code of conduct. The authorities of the Roman Catholic Church had several decades ago recognized the authenticity of traditional religion. Consequently, during Vatican II, the Church "advocated for norms and rules for adapting the liturgy to the genius and traditions of the people."

The difference between Christian and traditional religions is more of a cultural difference. The Christian world-view, theology, ritual and moral codes are embedded in a different cultural and historical reality. In fact when we eliminate the more astounding superstitions of traditional religion, we shall have a religion purer and more authentic than contemporary Christianity. Christianity has ceased to be the religion of Christ: "It is now the religion of Western Capitalist society. It now sees the world in the eyes of the industrial capitalist society and defends it even though it may verbally criticise it.' (T.U.Nwala, Igbo Philosophy, p. 236.)

In the eyes of the modern Christian, the world is nothing but a stock exchange and the Christian, no less than the Moslem, in Nigeria today sees his mission on earth and destiny as nothing other than becoming richer than his neighbour. The Ministry has today become a veritable commercial career. As Marx, himself a Jew observed: "the god of the Jews has been secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the Jew's actual god." (Writings of the Young Marx, p. 206.) He went on to state that: "Christianity arose out of Judaism, it has again dissolved itself into Judaism." p. 247.

The African traditional religion is not quite down and out. Its original influence may have waned quite tremendously owing to forces which we have examined above. The transference of allegiance from traditional religion to Christianity was made easier because they share certain common articles of faith, a common ritual and common codes. Their world-views,, logic and morals, as stated above, have common characteristics. Indeed, Marx was right when he observed that any two religions are "different' stages in the evolution of the human spirit, as different snake skins shed by history" and we must “recognize man as the snake 'that wore them . . ." If the adherents of these religions see them for what they are, "they will no longer find themselves in religious antagonism but only in a critical, scientific, and human relationship..." The snake that wore the skins called religion can, if it likes, try putting them on again, though one skin mode is not exactly like the other.

As to whether traditional religion and its gods, the ancestors are surviving or reincarnating, we can only refer to the facts as they manifest themselves today, namely, that the forces of modernity, of Christianity, secularization, science and technology have not succeeded in rooting them out completely. This is because that religion was not a separate and autonomous aspect of life. It was part of the totality of man's existence and sprang from the social and material conditions of his life. It was part of the meaning which life has taken. And since what was put in its place (i.e., Christianity) was itself a religion, with the essential elements – faith, the sacred, the supernatural, myths, ritual, moral codes, etc. – then what we find today is an adaptation of the social and cultural practices of traditional religion. This is why such deep-seated beliefs embedded in the religious practices of the people – belief in life as a continuous process (with adjunct beliefs in reincarnation, life-after-death and importance of male issue, polygamy, ancestor veneration, divination, title-taking, masquerade, secret societies, traditional medicine, religious healing, etc. – are still surviving in one form or the other.

The call for a synthesis of traditional religion and Christianity which was made by well-meaning clerics (for example, Canon Ilogu) has gone beyond the realm of logic. It is now a cultural fact. Christianity is fast adapting itself and giving very cultural element a Christian garb, a development which leads to cultural bastardization. The Aladura sects are strongest in this process of synthesis and transformation. The orthodox religious denominations and sects are fast adopting the Aladura forms of religious expression in order to remain relevant to the peoples' cultural sensibilities.

The religion that has been strongest in trying to capture the spirit and practice of traditional religion is the Godian Religion which began as neo-traditional religion. The advocates have best heeded Canon Ilogu's advice and have gone on to systematize the theology of traditional religion by providing it with a philosophical base, a creed, enlarging the corpus of Saints to include venerable local deities and the ancestors. Godianism takes its standpoint from traditional religion, whereas the thousands of Christian sects which spring up almost daily and in every backyard take their standpoint from Christianity. They lack a cultural philosophy and merely eclectically adapt African and European elements as it suits them. Some of them still remain hostile to traditional culture.

Godianism began as a nationalist and protest movement, as a rejection of Western colonialism and its imported religion. It soon developed into: "a bold and unique effort 'to give traditional religion a systematic interpretation in the face of Christian and Islamic influences and in the face of the realities of the modern age". It has become the evidence of the creative genius of the modern African it tries to incorporate certain Christian structures in its worship and theological expression.

As we observed, the problems which face the modern African in general in particular are larger than religious domination. These problems are largely moral, economic and political. In the face of the persistence of these problems, religion, be it Traditional, Christian, Islamic or even Aladura or Godian, has proved utterly impotent. It is even more important today as it ceases to be a sacred affair but the worship of mammon, of private property and wealth rather than God. These problems hinge on the sorry fact of inequity in our society, the death of democracy and democratic norms at national, state and local levels. Today the battle for democracy, for social justice and equality rages in our society in and outside the walls of churches and temples.

As a matter of enculturation, the “New Yam festival" of my people the Igbo, an annually event celebrated to herald the harvest season in August,  rejected as profane or idolatry by the Christians has been transposed in the Church. The usual ritual practice performed by the Eze muo at the traditional shrine with the king and elders in attendance, where a fowl is slaughtered with the blood sprinkled around the shrine and used to perform sacrifice to the gods, is now performed by the Catholic priest or pastor at the various Christian churches. The sacredness of the shrine has now been transferred to the sacredness of the Christian temples. This informs the degree of crisis and corruption that meet African culture all these while. It is now time to heal and revive the shattered identity for the seam to emerge, because Onye na eweghi ihe arimama di ka onye nwuru anwu,A person or a people with no identity is as well as dead.




            To seam means to suture together that which was dismembered or fragmented. Sometimes it may involve two different things that were never together, and in other times it would require to join both the dismembered part with the new members to form a whole. Often times the dismembered part of the whole may not be found useful any more to the new body, for example, to join old piece cloths dismembered as result of weakness of the linings caused by wear and tire, may dismember as son as it is joined or may not for even with the new member pieces of cloths. African Identity has been corrupted and needs urgent and serious attention to seam the fragments together. This process is going to incorporate the new ideologies already adopted by the African people as comparison with the resilient cultures which religiously provide the symbolic meanings of African culture.

African scholars' approaches outside the social sciences have been theoretically and methodologically eclectic and intended to protect and liberate Africans, not dominate or control them. For example, Kenyan medical doctor and author Kihumbu Thairu (1975) offers a personally challenging approach that focuses on the need for Africans to rediscover who they are, independent of their assimilated Western values and ways of thinking and behaving.

            African people are community conscious beings and give symbolic meanings to community life. Ubuntu (a Zulu word) serves as the spiritual foundation of African societies. It is a unifying vision or world view enshrined in the Zulu maxim umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu, i.e. "a person is a person through other persons" (Shutte, 1993:46). At bottom, this traditional African aphorism articulates a basic respect and compassion for others.  It can be interpreted as both a factual description and a rule of conduct or social ethic. It both describes human being as "being-with-others" and prescribes what "being-with-others" should be all about.  

South African philosophy professor Augustine Shutte (1993), citing the Xhosa proverb umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu,writes:


This (proverb) is the Xhosa expression of a notion that is common to all African languages and traditional cultures.... (It) is concerned both with the peculiar interdependence of persons on others for the exercise, development and fulfilment of their powers that is recognised in African traditional thought, and also with the understanding of what it is to be a person that underlies this.... In European philosophy of whatever kind, the self is always envisaged as something "inside" a person, or at least as a kind of container of mental properties and powers. In African thought it is seen as "outside," subsisting in relationship to what is other, the natural and social environment. In fact the sharp distinction between self and world, a self that controls and changes the world and is in some sense "above" it, this distinction so characteristic of European philosophy, disappears. Self and world are united and intermingle in a web of reciprocal relations (1993:46-47).


In contrast to Gyekye's mutually enhancing understanding and Shutte's idea that the community empowers and inculcates "personness," Nyasani (1997) possesses a far less egalitarian view of the individual in African society. According to Nyasani, the African individual hardly knows how to act outside the context of his community's prescriptions and proscriptions. For Nyasani, the existence of the individual in African society is “quasi-dissolution into the reality of others for the sake of the individual's existence" (1997:60). For him, "everything boils down to the 'me' in the 'we' or rather to the survival of the self through the enhancement and consolidation of the 'we' as a generic whole....Thus, in Africa, the individual will go to all lengths to ascertain the condition of the corporate 'we' and to play his part, if necessary, to restore the balance of wholesomeness" (1997:81-82).

            According to Nyasani (1997:56-57), African, Asian and European minds are products of unique "cultural edifices" and "cultural streams" that arose from environmental conditioning and long-standing cultural traditions. Within the African cultural stream, Nyasani claims are psychological and moral characteristics pertaining to African identity, personality and dignity. Makgoba (1997) goes further and argues that throughout the African Diaspora peoples of African descent:


Are linked by shared values that are fundamental features of African identify and culture. These, for example, include hospitality, friendliness, the consensus and common framework-seeking principle, ubuntu, and the emphasis on community rather than on the individual. These features typically underpin the variations of African culture and identity everywhere. The existence of African identity is not in doubt (1997:197-198).


Regarding personality characteristics he believes to be inherent in the African mind, Nyasani identifies and discusses sociality, patience, tolerance, sympathy and acceptance as:


areas in which the African mind seems to reveal itself in a somewhat dramatic way. It reveals itself through what may rightly be called a congenital trait of sociality or sociability. It further reveals itself as a virtuous natural endowment of patience and tolerance. And lastly it manifests itself as a natural disposition for mutual sympathy and acceptance. These three areas then appear to serve as important landmarks in the general description of the phenomenology of the African mind (1997:57, emphases mine).


Caught in a social pyramid characterized by a one-way vertical authority structure and a two-way horizontal family and communal support system, the African mind, beset with superstition and destabilized by Western acculturation, is relatively unlinear, uncritical, lacking in initiative and therefore "encapsulated," says Nyasani. This, Nyasani (1997) insists, has been extremely negative for Africa, especially in terms of the African individual's creativity and ability to innovate:


(W)hat we experience in the practical life of an African is the apparent stagnation or stalemate in his social as well as economic evolution.... It is quite evident that the social consequences of this unfortunate social impasse (encapsulation) can be very grave especially where the process of acculturation and indeterminate enculturation is taking place at an uncontrollable pace.… By and large, it can safely be affirmed that social encapsulation in Africa works both positively and negatively. It is positive in as far as it guarantees a modicum of social cohesion, social harmony and social mutual concern. However, in as far as it does not promote fully the exercise of personal initiative and incentive, it can be regarded as negative (Nyasani 1997:130-131, emphases mine).


Nyasani (1997) identifies the traditional African family as a setting wherein the vertical power structure of the society is introduced and sustained as predominant over the freedom of individuals. For Nyasani there is a "fundamental difference between the traditional African child and a child in the Western culture. The child in Africa was muzzled right from the outset and was thereby drilled into submission to authority from above" (1997:129).


Within the communal context, Nyasani (1997) argues that Africans exhibit an

"endemic and congenital trait of what could be described as a natural benign docility generally brought about by years of blind social submission and unquestioning compliance to the mystique of higher authority that reigns surreptitiously yet effectively in all black African societies in varying degrees. This benign natural docility is generally regarded as positive, legitimate and virtuous strictly within the context of a traditional social regime" (1997:113, emphases mine).


Community norms, he says


"are merely received but never subjected to the scrutiny of reason to establish their viability and practicability in the society.... Maybe, it is because of this lack of personal involvement and personal scrutiny that has tended to work to the disadvantage of the Africans especially where they are faced with a critical situation of reckoning about their own destiny and even dignity" (Nyasani 1997:63-69).


Steven Shalita (1998), Kampala bureau chief for The East African, the sub-region's premier English weekly newspaper, blames the colonial past, in part, for African passivity and complacency. He argues that a


"passive attitude to life is common in many parts of Africa, where most people are satisfied with the minimum. Many Africans prefer to engage in subsistence farming rather than farming for profit and even then, they wait for some bureaucrat to tell them about food security to save them from starvation when drought strikes. … This complacency by ordinary people can partly be blamed on the colonial legacy which put such emphasis on government. It caused them to believe that government owed them a living and if things went wrong, why then government was to blame and must find a solution" (1998:10).


Ubuntu is the seaming line that joins the fragments of African cultures. This is magnificently confirmed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in these words, "A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole." Every one has the assurance that where you lack is where I gain and where I lack is where you gain. No one is entirely more important than the other. No man is complete or is capable of satisfying his life desires without in one way or the other dependent on the other, as life is made up of complimenting each other for personal and societal goals. This African communalism, this the seaming line of African identity where the individual is immersed in the community and derives his personality only from the community.




The sacredness of Land in Africa makes it very significant in African life. At ceremonies, in the shrine, during rituals, land is always admonished by sprinkling liquid (wine or blood) of animals to appease the gods of the land. In the same manner, through proverb, the Igbo say an ebuzo zuta ala ma choba ute, or a na etugwuru ala ma bia dabiri (It is the usual practice that one own a secure a space before acquiring a bed to sleep on, or You must find a seat before thinking or relaxing on a chair) The importance of land is here again emphasized. It will be foolish of one to spend money on properties where the one has no place to put. More foolhardy it is a where some desires to own a house, but has not thought of a space of land to erect the building.

Having come this far and having discovered the seam of African Identity, I see it wise then to discuss the future of African identity in global interaction. The world is closing in trying to form a global village, a public space were every culture we interact to dialectically to straighten its identity. Unfortunately, there is not yet a smooth playing ground for all culture, though the space appears so wide yet the dominant cultures exert some much influence on the weaker ones. If the purpose of globalization is to come true, all cultures must meet in an open and free space, as illustrated by Habermas. Any attempt by stronger cultures to prove mightier than thou and do not adopt the method of give and take or be open  and see the other as a free agent that has right to the space as she does, the goal of globalize will be a mirage.

We can not divulge the possibility of conflicts and friction that may emanate in the course of interactions; it is required in dialogue to assume ignorant while at the same time hold tenaciously to personal views until proved otherwise. All African cultures must interact communally as one voice in a shared space of solidarity, care for each other and not play the second fiddle any longer. The character of passivity to matters involving other cultures and any African community should be looked into with one eye which is the symbol of shared humanity expressed in the philosophy of Ubuntu.



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