African nations last weekend celebrated 50 years on the foundation of the Organisation of African Unity. Watani sees it is as a good occasion to revisit our African roots
A new book to hit the shelves, published by Dar al-Hurriya in Cairo, is Africanisms by Antoun Yacoub Mikhail, former dean of the Institute of Coptic Studies. As a simplified study focusing on aspects of the rich and varied African culture and folk legacy, the value of this work goes way beyond its relatively small size.
Dr Mikhail knows Africa well: he spent 20 years in Ethiopia, where he taught at the Theological College of the Holy Trinity. Among his students were several notable priests including His Holiness the late Abune Paulos.
The Dark Continent
In the first part of the book the author discusses the rich heritage of the continent and how it came to light after being in the shadows for centuries. The reason for this isolation can be attributed to Western occupiers, who labelled it the Dark Continent not only in reference to the colour of its inhabitants’ skin, but also to imply that they and the continent were void of civilisation, culture and history.
Such racist concepts were further fuelled by the European colonisation of Africa, to justify the harsh policy towards the locals, and by Arab slave traders who used such claims to justify their immoral practices. The stereotypes were rehashed by missionaries who attacked African religions and accused them of savagery and unrighteousness, and later by filmmakers to increase box office revenues.
Many factors relating to the nature of African societies also contributed to the establishment of these ideas. These included the prevalence of tribalism, abject poverty, lack of education and harsh geographical conditions as well as the diversity of languages and dialects, not all supported by a written alphabet.
The changes in African societies started gradually and progressed slowly at the hands of the missionaries who painstakingly translated the Bible and liturgical books into African languages and worked on expressing them in a written form. This change was accompanied by the Back-to-Africa movement, which started in the United States in the 19th century and encouraged Afro-Americans to return to the homeland of their ancestors. This led to the founding of Liberia in West Africa, where many freed slaves from the US were relocated.
The idea of forming an African Association (later called the Pan-African Association) to promote the union of African nations emerged towards the turn of the century. The first Pan-African congress was held in London in 1900, and its first statement addressed the uniqueness of the African culture based on principles different from those of Greek culture. It also shed light on the different aspects of this culture such as music, dance, sculpture, architecture and languages. Seven other Pan-African congresses followed in 1919, 1921, 1923, 1927, 1945, 1974 and 1994.
In 1915, the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH), later renamed the African American Life and History (ASALH), was founded to research and disseminate information about African culture to the global community. Another African association, the All-African People’s Conference (AAPC) held the first meeting ever for African leaders on African soil, in Accra, Ghana in 1958 with the aim of enhancing and reinforcing the unity of African cultures.
Dr Mikhail explores the religions of Africa, which much like most scripture-based religions have their own set of sacred ideas leaning towards oneness in divinity. The African is often described as incurably religious. He has bestowed a soul upon the inanimate and imagined it, just like himself, as having a life that is hiding behind its external appearance. Hence, he believed that the tempest was in fact an evil soul capable of hurting him, and the same thought applied to all other natural phenomena.
During the 1950s, a group of 12 missionaries studied African gods and discovered more than 200 of them across 18 ethnic groups. Noting their surrounding environment, the missionaries saw these gods as proof that man tried by instinct to interpret the natural phenomena around him.
Art: the continent’s soul
The author goes on to describe the art of Africa as a true reflection of the continent’s soul. African art is closely connected to religion and a means of expressing belief and ritual through sculpture, relief and painting. The magnificent murals and reliefs on cave walls are the oldest form. Executed on limestone, sandstone and granite, they depict scenes of everyday life such as hunting, fighting, and cattle and wild animals including jaguar, elephant and giraffe, and trees and plants in addition to religious characters and men and women performing common chores.
One famous characteristic of African art is the extensive use of masks. Although there are more than 1,000 tribes, only a hundred or so are renowned for their mask-making skills. Whether a mask is used for ritual, ceremonial, social or entertainment purposes, Africans believe it is sacred and that divine power resides in it. Masks are usually brightly painted but are often abstract and scarifying to convince the spirit to inhabit them. The wearer usually complements his mask with accessories made of animal fur, fibres, raffia, tree bark, feathers, shells, small pieces of metal and animal horns. It is believed that the wearer of the mask loses his human identity and turns into the spirit represented by the mask, hence gaining significant magical powers. According to tribal beliefs, the main purpose of the mask is to represent the spiritual world in a concrete form.
Totems are another characteristic of African art. This is a sculpture made of wood, leather or pottery and represents an emblem chosen by the tribe, usually depicting an animal, bird, plant or even an inanimate object. Each tribe has its own totem which is fashioned into small amulets worn by tribesmen as necklaces to protect them from evil.
African artists have made statues from time immemorial; the oldest known dates back 2,000 years. Liberia is famous for its small statues made of clay extracted from the Niger River Delta and mixed with wood granules. Most human statues represent ancestors, deceased tribal chiefs, gods or spirits of nature.
Music and dance also hold an important part in the everyday life of African societies and are used as an integral part of religious rituals as well as entertainment. The vivid dances are rooted in the beliefs of the different populations, who learn to dance and sing as a matter of course. Singing and dancing are a means of expressing emotion and a language of communication; dances are usually performed in group with or without musical accompaniment. The professional dancer enjoys a special status within his tribe and is indispensable in celebrations and special occasions.
The Supreme Being
The second part of the book looks to the basics of African religious thought. The author first explains the idea of a “Supreme Being”, a belief that has always been central to African religions. The concept of God was therefore not strange to Africa; African people knew by instinct, and even at a young age, the existence of an all-knowing, omnipotent supreme being. This led them to know about the existence of God before any scriptures were offered to them.
Dr Mikhail goes on to describe Africa’s version of the Creation and how God turned away from the world because of man’s sins. These myths were communicated from one generation to the next by word of mouth because of the absence of written language. They generally tell stories of supernatural powers, gods, heroes and ancestors, and are usually the fruit of a fertile imagination and are taken very seriously. African myths, especially those involving the creation of man, vary from one tribe to another but agree that man was the last step in creation. According to the mythology of the Nandi people of Kenya, the supreme deity created a male child but, in an attempt to find him a companion, he put him to sleep, retrieved one of his ribs and used it to create a girl. But when the children grew up and had children of their own, the reproduction process angered the deity who told them to go away and to suffer sickness and death.
Rite of passage
The idea of death is discussed in the third chapter. For the people of Africa, death is the second rite of the rites of passage; it is considered a crossing from life to death. Although African religions define death as involving only the body, they do not provide a clear explanation for death except that it is a consequence of a mistake that a person or an animal has committed. It is also believed by most African religions that the soul stays alive after the body dies and the departed retains his or her existence in the afterlife.
The last chapter of the book discusses magic and medicine. Magic was practised in Africa on a very wide scale, and studies show that tribes mixed the real and the imaginary and used magic as a way to control the forces of the unknown and to assist them in the different fields of life.
31 May 2013