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. 

Is Religion “Emotional Positivism?”

 

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Rastafarianism is a religion that emerged in Jamaica in the 1930s. Their membership has grown into millions all around the world. Its popularity was made possible by legendary reggae musician Bob Marley and many others. Marley often praised their king, Ras Tafari, in his songs and advocated the daily smoking of marijuana and the growth of dread locks. Rastafarians believe in most of the teachings of the Bible; they also believe in reincarnation. Although Christianity is now the predominant religion in Sub Saharan Africa, the red, yellow and green in many African national flags is derived from the Ethiopian flag.

One of the major criticisms I have always heard as regards Rastafarianism is that they worship a dead Ethiopian king. They call him “His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie,”  “The king of kings,” and “The Lion of the tribe of Judah.” And many people despise them for that. Rastafarians still consider the African continent their true home and the “promised land.” But why descend harshly on them? Aren’t all the prophets of other religions dead yet still being worshiped? Is Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Confucius not dead yet are still being worshiped? Why criticize Rastafarians for worshiping a dead Ethiopian king? I think the difference here is that the said king – prophet of the Rastafarians – was a black African coming from Ethiopia.

The Rastas, as they are called, believe the Ethiopian king to be the direct descendant of King Solomon and Queen of Sheba in the Bible, thus Emperor Haile Selassie being the last prophet after Jesus. His Leadership qualities are also praised worldwide. But what does Rastafarianism teach us about faith? Why the Ethiopian King? These are the key questions we need to ask. To subject religion to logical analysis is a waste of time. The source of all religions is emotions.

Religion is the direct opposite of logical positivism. It is positivism embedded in the emotions and I will tell you why. When Mussolini of Italy invaded Ethiopia (Then Abyssinia) for the second time in May 1936, the Ethiopian king, Ras Tafari, initially went into exile but returned five years later and with the aid of British forces successfully repelled the Italians. This was a major “undoing” for all sufferers of the slave trade. Many Africans, especially in the Caribbeans, were very joyous and they believed that the king could not possibly be human. Therefore in my understanding, to have a positive view of every experience – to focus on the victories not the failures – to allow positive energies but not the negative, all in re-channeling of the emotions to a good use, that is what constitutes a personal religion. Organised religion still remains a hoax.

To live with the knowledge that one was taken from his homeland as a slave and sold to work on a plantation is a really painful thought. It even creates spiritual problems. But if now it was said that the Ethiopian king had been able to crash the Italians, an imperialist nation, then the Emperor must indeed be an incarnate of God. This, I believe, is the brief psychological journey that led to this new religion. It is an inspirational story attempting to “undo” a grave harm and it is no different from stories of exile and triumph in the Bible. Ethiopia remains the only nation in Africa that has not been tainted by colonialism.

As regards marijuana as a sacred herb, it is always said that everything God created is good. If the herb was not good would God have caused it to germinate? According to Rastafarian doctrines, many governments have criminalized marijuana because it makes people rebellious to authority. All governments aim at controlling the masses and marijuana, as a herb of enlightenment, obstructs that. Hence it is illegal to smoke marijuana in most countries.

Babylon (a metaphor for the civilized world of evil, exploitation and domination) will eventually fall to pieces and all Africans scattered abroad, as a result of the slave trade, will return to Africa and be ruled by a single union government. This is a Rastafarian prophecy. Let’s see if it will be fulfilled. But for now, please let’s leave the Rastafarians alone. All religions have their faults.

 

In 1963, The Ethiopian King delivered the following speech to the UN: (an extract which inspired Bob Marley’s hit song “War” in 1976)

 

“……On the question of racial discrimination, the Addis Ababa Conference taught, to those who will learn, this further lesson:

that until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned;

that until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation;

that until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes;

that until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race;

that until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained.

And until the ignoble and unhappy regimes that hold our brothers in Angola, in Mozambique and in South Africa in subhuman bondage have been toppled and destroyed;

until bigotry and prejudice and malicious and inhuman self-interest have been replaced by understanding and tolerance and good-will;

until all Africans stand and speak as free beings, equal in the eyes of all men, as they are in the eyes of Heaven;

until that day, the African continent will not know peace. We Africans will fight, if necessary, and we know that we shall win, as we are confident in the victory of good over evil.

The United Nations has done much, both directly and indirectly to speed the disappearance of discrimination and oppression from the earth. Without the opportunity to focus world opinion on Africa and Asia which this Organization provides, the goal, for many, might still lie ahead, and the struggle would have taken far longer. For this, we are truly grateful.”