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. 


The Conscious and The Unconscious

ID and ego

As we can see, of the two regions of the mind, the unconscious is the largest and a true representation of the person – except in the case of the rationalist. The conscious (ego) is simply a “rewiring” of the unconscious and through which one perceives the physical world. We can think of the unconscious as soil and the conscious as a tree that grows on the soil. The tree, the fact that it emerges in adulthood, owes its growth and strength to the soil and although it is prominent, it ultimately, is serving the interest of the soil (unconscious).

Freud and Jung often presented the conscious (ego) as a separate entity but to me, it appears to be an extension of one entity – whereas one region has to do with the inner world and the other the outer. Rationalists concern themselves with only reason and therefore the conscious, and they reject the supernatural and therefore the existence of unconscious. But the unconscious is very powerful, we owe all our mental energy to it. In fact even the ego, no matter how large it is, owes its energy to the unconscious and is easily crashed when it loses the backing of the unconscious. At one time, Freud retorted: “More people believe in the existence of the virgin Mary than in the existence of the unconscious mind.”

A collapse of the unconscious spells the end of one’s life. Of course, most people now believe in the existence of the unconscious but the delusion here is that, because the unconscious is difficult to understand the fact that it communicates in symbolic language, they believe the conscious mind is actually in charge. Yes it is, but only superficially. This scenario reminds me of a local watchmen who, whenever his boss is not around, posses as the boss and often succeeds in deceiving and taking advantage of young female visitors….but it’s only a matter of time that the true boss will be known.


Years ago,

When his soul was still young

Arrows were shot at him.


Wherefore he fell

And lay on the ground helpless.

Many more arrows flew in like rain drops.


And he lay face downwards.


They thought he was going to die


And they said, “let us bury him

For he will never live again.”

But there emerged a second soul


Out of the first – littler but stronger (a split)

And this little one dragged him into a lair.

Where he stayed until he became a man.


Now, every day he sees those who shot at him.

And he tells them: “Hey you owe me an apology.

You wounded me many years ago with your arrows.”


But each time they answer, saying:

“Who are you? We do not know you. We never shot at you.

Even if we did we were trying to protect you.”


hearder image