African Concept of Human Personality

In this post I shall briefly explain how our African ancestors conceived of human personality and personhood. First of all, our ancestors were ideologically both creationists and evolutionists. They believe that the supreme God (Mawu) and his servant gods created the universe and everything in it. Man was created as an imperfect being and kept in a cave. Initially he could not speak but could only growl or make grunting noises like an animal. With time man emerged out of his cave and acquired human qualities such as bipedal locomotion, speech, thought, reason, conscience and virtue etc. This implies that the earliest man was probably a hominid. This concept contrasts sharply with the Christian creation story at Genesis 1, where everything was said to have been created almost instantly and perfectly. How then do we explain genetic defects such as premordial dwarfism, hunchbacks etc. and when I was Little I knew a man with twelve toes and twelve fingers. I bet all this people will wish they were not “perfect.”

Within African setup, when a baby is born, he or she is considered a non human visitor until after eight days. If the baby dies before the 8th day no funeral was held and no one was expected to cry or weep. The idea is that the baby is an animal – comprising pure ID (Instinctual Drives in freudian terms) and not fully human yet. Within the child’s ID is the mother’s blood, the father’ spirit and a soul from God. So the child is formed by three components coming from three different sources. The child’s life, as he survives and grows, is perpertually animated by these three factors. When he or she grows old and eventually dies, he loses the blood and spirit which he acquired from his parents but his soul is not lost. It returns to Mawu (the Supreme God) who is believed to dwell beyond the stars. The servant gods that dwell among the people and take possesion of animals, trees, rocks and rivers are never called “Mawu” but rather “Trorwo” meaning deities.

Please note that the practices described here are carried out by the Ewe tribe to which I belong. Different tribes have different ideas and practices though the differences are not very drastic. Also there are two forms of African personality: Indigenous African personality lived by our ancestors and contemporary post colonial personality emphatically espoused by Kwame Nkrumah, Leopold Senghor, Julius Nyerere etc. which stems from indigenous roots. 

Metamorphous Agents in the African Universe

The indegenous non-westernised African cares not much for the significance of celestial bodies. It’s clear from where the sun rises every morning and where it sets. It’s clear whether it’s a full moon or it’s half or a crescent. But he makes no clear connection between these objects and an evolving universe. There was never a sun god or a moon god in any African tribal theological constructs. Instead, concerntration was on immediate surroundings – the trees, the rivers, the sea, the animals and rocks etc. In fact they believed in something which could be immedietely experienced such as peace, love, success, fertility, health and they had gods of such attributes. We could say that everything in African world at the time was a social construct. Objectivity was still subject to interpretations.

Mythologies, fables and fairy tales involving animal characters informs us that our ancestors sensed a connection between humans and animals long before genetics descovered that. Their actions guided by animalistic totems implied that they viewed the animal society as an extension of the human society. All organisms are possessed by a life force called ‘spirit’. Spirits could take possesion of anything they desired. Even today the typical indegenous African considers certain animals as an embodiment of spirits or higher ancestral beings. A bird standing at the window could be an anamorphous spirit agent visiting the family and carrying a message. Ofcourse this notion is completely fallacious to the scientific mind but there are interesting observations similar to those supplied by the theory of evolution. This concerns the metamorphosis of organisms. Whereas Darwin’s theory claims that phylogenesis is gradual and takes millions of years, our ancestors believed such transformations are instantaneous. But bottom line is transformations do occur.

These ideas extend even to what we call the world of ancestors, the netherworld or hades or the grave which we all dread. To the African the world of the dead is not far. It’s like a basement or an area below the deck of the ship of existence which one could shuffle anytime in a spiritual sense. Therefore our dead ancestors are not believed to be really dead, they have just changed form from physical to spiritual. The spiritual forms the substructure for the physical. The interesting thing is that these ancestors do not wait to rise in the future and save the living. Instead, they rise everyday, they metamorphose into other creatures everyday, they aid and guide the living everyday. A cat, a bird or a lizard or even a beetle etc. are not just animals one could disregard and exterminate. They are all metamorphous agents having a connection to humans. As someone who likes nature I find this concept more inspiring.

“Beasts of No Nation”

“Beasts of No Nation” is a 2015 feature film co-produced by and starring Idris Elba. It was shot mainly in Ghana. It seems to me in this modern times, that for a movie to be critically acclaimed it must have at least one of these three ingredients – sex, drugs or violence. Apart from the violence it portrays, the film together with many other similar ones like “Blood Diamonds” further damages Africa’s image by reinforcing the negative perception that people have about Africa.

The supposed beasts which the movie talks about turned out to be black Africans – child soldiers chanting, shooting civilians, throwing bombs and making a mockery of their own culture and traditions. This is what the average outsider already believes about Africa – a continent filled with bullets and bombs flying about in all directions – a dark continent where travelers and investors enter at their own risk. But is this really the whole story? Do people who have actually been to Africa give such accounts?

Many countries in Africa have never experienced civil war and are very peaceful yet rarely will a foreign film portray anything akin to that. Although living conditions in Africa, like anywhere else are not perfect, most African communities are very united and peaceful and typical African youths rarely do drugs. Suppose it was a movie portraying any city life in Africa, then of course we know every city in this world has its fair share of thuggery and violence – which is even something localized not continent wide.

Most people speak well of the artistic direction of “Beasts of No Nation” and I also think it’s really good, even better than “Blood Diamonds” but those who researched and wrote the story did not dig deep. There was violence and hooliganism in almost every scene. I guess it was all about commercial appeal and the box office, but not to correct any misconceptions about Africa although Idris Elba is a Sierra Leonean – Ghanaian by ancestry. I do perfectly understand the commercial appeal part of the whole project because the biggest challenge to filmmaking now is funding.