Religious Studies - 4 pages at least


, f&[email protected]~' t01la?/~ ». ~~ ~ MEMORYANDTHE


In the African and Diaspora Experience

!edid6(J Tom Spencer-Walters

Bedford Publishers, Inc. ) Mil


Veenstra, Tonjes and Hans den Besten. 1995. Fronting. In Arends, Jacques, Pieter Muysken, & Norval Smith (eds). 1995. Pidgins and creoles. An introduction. Amsterdam, John Benjamins, 303-315.

Williams, Wayne 1976. The so-called relativized and cleft predicates in Krio: One step closer to an understanding of creolization. In Paul F. Kotey and Haig Der-Houssikian, eds., 467-78.

Wyse, Akintola. 1989. The Krio ofSierra Leone: An Interpretive History. London: C. Hurst & Company.



Bumuntu Memory and Authentic Personhood: An African Art of Becoming Humane

Mutombo Nkulu-N'Sengha

In Central Africa, humor artists remind us that "Africans have become capitalists without capital and nationalists without nation." This popular sense of humor uses laughter to convey how the loss of memory of ancestral values has plunged Africa into a dramatic existential condition, fraught with alienation, estrangement, and petrification of the mind. The crisis we witness in African politics, the failure of economic development, and the widespread social corruption are due to this loss of memory about the meaning of being human. In this chapter, I intend to demonstrate that African tradition offers enough sapiential resources to overcome such a crisis. In this context, I intend to explore a vision of the dignity of the African conception of personhood. I shall use the Bumuntu memory to retrieve such a vision and to bring into relief what in Africa is viewed as the authentic mode of being human. In so doing, I will explore the notions of historical consciousness, historical memory, and cultural memory through the analysis of traditional literature in both its oral and its written sources.

I shall proceed as follows: after a brief excursus on the loss of Bumuntu memory, I will articulate the importance of cultural memory and oral tradition in Africa. This will lead us to the central theme: the notion of Bumuntu, i.e., genuine personhood in Africa. In so doing, I will highlight the African attitude toward the individual and the community (i.e., the Fadenya-Badenya paradigm), toward government and democratic 'values, and finally, toward foreigners andforeign religions. I shall conclude with a reflection on "Bumuntu Memory in the Age of Globalization." It should be noted from the outset that my vision of African (or Bumuntu) personhood comes largely from my memory of the Luba tradition in which I was raised


Bumuntu Memory and Authentic Personhood

in Central Africa, and the values that were instilled in me by my parents and elders in various villages of Lubaland.

Status Quaestionis During the colonial and postcolonial eras, Africa has known phases of

incredible political grotesqueness that have produced ubuesque dictators, rocambolesque kinglets, and monstrous warlords of Caligulan proportion. But it would be un-African to overlook other political phases in the long, intricate, and variegated historical development of Africa over more than three thousand years, or to confuse the corruption of some rulers with an overall African conception of power. Likewise, it would be illogical to use the brief episodes of the Rwandan genocide, the Liberian civil war, or the Congolese war to argue that African culture and spirit are essentially antithetical to peace, justice, and love. To do so would be to succumb to neocolonial tales and grids of interpretation which are only a pale hobgoblin of a rocambolesque cultural amnesia. Historical consciousness and cultural memory remind us that Africa has produced a set of values that are useful for solving the current social crisis. As Georges Balandier and Jacques Maquet acknowledged, "African wisdom is not merely a convenient expression; it is something that exists. It is a collection of unique precepts that enable the people of traditional Africa to settle as harmoniously as possible the disputes that mar human relationships" (Balandier 336). This wisdom is contained in Bumuntu memory.

The Loss of Bumuntu Memory and the Death of Africa Hampate Ba, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, and other thinkers have often reminded

us that in Africa the death of an old person is viewed as a burning library, for it constitutes a tremendous loss of the memory of ancestral wisdom. In particular, this wisdom includes the memory of the art of being human and humane, or what I shall refer to in this chapter as the "Bumuntu memory." In fact, in 1978, in one of the first systematic elaborations of an African liberation theology, Monsignor Bakole wa Ilunga (a Catholic bishop) observed that "If our ancestors could return and see what is going on in our society, they would not believe they were in Africa, nor would they recognize their descendants." Why? Because, Bakole explains, "We are far from being true Africans.... [T]here is nothing authentic about the way in which the masses and the leaders of society, especially in the cities, are living today.... That shows how far we have lost our grasp of deeper

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meaning and of the values that supported the life and ways of our real ancestors" (Wa Ilunga 17). One of the causes of this loss of memory is the rise of a new school-the modem civilization of writing brought in a colonial context.

Reflecting on the dramatic loss of freedom and cultural amnesia caused by the colonial process, Cheikh Hamidou Kane captured this issue of the loss of memory in his philosophical novel, L 'aventure ambigue. After their defeat by the colonial forces of France, the Diallobe people met to reflect on the causes of this defeat and to make a critical decision: Should they send their children to the new school of the White man? And what does such a new education imply for the future of Africa? La Grande Royale (the most Royal Lady, and sister of the chief) observed, first, the dramatic challenge to the worldview of African value system: How could the aggressive foreign forces win when their behavior was clearly morally

. wrong? She then thinks that African children should be sent to Europe and to the school of the European conquerors to understand the reasons for the African defeat, to learn this strange "art de vaincre sans avoir raison." Conquering the conquerors' fire will enable Africans to better defend themselves. Moreover, both the chief and La Grande Royale observed that the weakness of African episteme could be remedied by the school of European conquerors. After the speech by the Most Royal Lady, the chief made his observation:

If I do not tell the Diallobe to go to the new school, they will not go. Their houses will fall into ruin, their children will die or be reduced to slavery. Extreme poverty will be entrenched among them, and their hearts will be filled with resentment. .. If I told them to go to the new school, they would go en masse. They would learn all the ways ofjoining wood to wood which we do not know. But learning, they would also forget. Would what they would learn be worth as much as what they would forget? I should like to ask you: can one learn this without forgetting that, and is what one learns worth what one forgets? (Kane 45-50).

What the chiefs and La Grande Royale's strains of thought exemplify is not merely the loss of African traditional knowledge or history, but something more fundamental: the loss of Bumuntu memory, i.e., what it means to be an African, to be a genuine human being.

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The Importance of Memory and Oral Tradition The fimdamental dilemma that has faced Africa since the colonial era

has been how to embrace Western modernity without losing African values of personhood. As Bakole put it, it is only by restoring the historical consciousness and memory ofancestral wisdom that Africans can reconcile Western modernity with their authentic identity. It is the goal of this chapter to contribute in some modest measure to the recovery of such a Bumuntu memory. However in a world where writing is considered superior to oral tradition, the restoration of African memory begins with the acknowledgement of the profound value and validity of oral tradition, as the ancient Egyptians did, despite their use of hieroglyphic writing.

In discussing the importance that Africa accords memory and oral tradition, it is worth remembering that Jesus did not write the Bible and that almost all the major sacred texts of the world existed for years, decades, and even centuries as oral tradition. Religion was sustained by memory rather than books. But let us examine a better case: the crucial African legend told in ancient Greece by Socrates and recorded by Plato in Phaedrus. This is a tale about the importance of memory. The famous father of Western philosophy tells us that it was the African God, Thoth (i.e., Theuth) who invented writing. Theuth, Socrates says, the patron God of the Egyptian city of Naucratis, was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic, calculation, geometry, astronomy, draughts, and dice. However, emphasizes Socrates, his most important discovery was the use of "grammata" (i.e., letters, writing). The most significant part of this narrative is not so much that Africans invented writing, but rather that they considered its different uses and concluded that writing should not be overpraise(' for it has some serious limitations on the path of knowledge and wisdom. According to Socrates, when Theuth came to Thamus (i.e., Ammon), the supreme God and king of the land of Egypt, praised his inventions, and expressed the desire that the Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of them, Thamus carefully analyzed their uses, praised some, and disapproved of others. On the invention of writing specifically, Theuth offered the following praise: "This invention, 0 King, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; I have discovered a remedy fpharmakon: potion, medicine, drug] both for the memorY and for wisdom." To which Thamus offered the following astonishing reply:

o most ingenious [technikotate] Theuth, the parent or inventor of an art is not always the best judge of the utility or inutility

of his own inventions to the users of them. And in this instance, you who are the father ofletters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a power opposite to that which they in fact possess. For this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it; they will not exercise their memories, but, trusting in external, foreign marks [graphes], they will not bring things to remembrance from within themselves. You have discovered a remedy [pharmakon] not for memory, but for rem inding. You offer your students the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom. They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality. (138-139)

In the West, since the time of ancient Greeks, writing became the mark of distinction between civilized people and savages. Knowledge and civilization came to be equated with writing. Subsequently, the oral tradition and the culture of memory were regarded as an infirmity of the mind that should be overcome. For centuries, a Western tradition going back to ancient Greeks held memory in bad repute and glorified the written word. The very origins of history, civilization, and humanity itself were identified with the invention of writing. Civilizations based on writing were glorified and societies based on oral tradition were deemed savage, primitive, barbaric, and ignorant. And yet, for Africa, the knowledge of the book is in some cases viewed as inferior. I hear from friends in Munich, Paris, Rome, London, and many parts of the United States that what, as Africans, we need from the West is merely science, technology, and modem ways of organizing the economy; but if we want to know what it means to be a good and genuine human being we have to go back to Africa and learn from our village elders. This view does not stem from delusional romanticism. It is grounded in the incredible pitfalls one encounters in Western societies and in the reality of humane values that, in Africa, sustain a life of dignity, meaning, and purpose despite rampant poverty, war, and weak political institutions.

Bumuntu Memory: The African Concept of Memory

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After centuries of disparaging "oral tradition" and learning based on memory, we now witness an emerging interest in the civilization of the spoken word, an interest increased by the overwhelming impact of digital technologies and television on our society. Most importantly, the very faculty of memory that sustains oral tradition is now of great interest to scientists. Indeed, new disciplines of neurosciences have emerged and nowadays research on memory is the.focus of thousands of scientists and students worldwide. From most major dictionaries, encyclopedias, and writings by scientific experts we learn that memory can be defined as "the mental faculty of retaining and recalling information and past experiences" or as "systems, representations and processes in living organisms that are involved in the retention of information." Or, "the act or capacity to remember." At the same time, we learn from this research that "memory" is a complex phenomenon that is difficult to define in dogmatic formulas. It is not the intention of this chapter to address all the arcane nuances and forms related to the definitions and taxonomies of memory as revealed by brain research. We shall limit ourselves to a working definition or rather, a perspective useful for our approach to Bumuntu tradition. More specifically, we are interested in the African understanding of the nature and importance of memory.

The first question one must confront is where to find sources necessary to understand the African vision of memory. The primary source is, of course, memory itself. In the present chapter, I make use ofmy own memory, what I remember about African culture in my early stage oflife, i.e., the first twenty years of life in Lubaland, where I was exposed intensively to an oral tradition. The second source is the abundant literature on memory and African culture produced by anthropologists, historians, Africanists, missionaries, linguists, and other scholars (see, e.g., Roberts and Roberts). Some of these written sources are the dictionaries written on African languages and civilizations. The lexicographers of African languages have explored the various words used for memory and the complexity of their semantic fields. Regarding the language of the Baluba people, there are two works of great significance: Gillis's Dictionnaire Francais-Kiluba and Van Avennaet and Mbuya's Dictionnaire Kiluba­ Francais.

It appears from these sources that memory plays a crucial role in Luban understanding of what it means to be human. Memory not only has an anthropological significance, but also a cosmological and metaphysical origin. As creation myths point out, memory stands at the very origin of the universe. Indeed, the Baluba commonly refer to the supreme creator of

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the universe as "Leza Malango" (Almighty Intelligence). Such an attribute means that for the Baluba, the creator of the universe possesses omnipotent thought and knowledge. God is believed to be supremely intelligent because he knows yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He knows everything and there is no forgetfulness in him. This means that intelligence includes memory. For the Baluba, memory is not a passive faculty, nor merely a storehouse. Memory is the dynamic glue that holds all the cognitive faculties coherently together. This is why the Luba lexicon that refers to memory comprises a plethora of terms covering a vast semantic field. Words such as malango, lute, and tunangu, which are commonly used to refer to memory, show that, for the Baluba, memory implies not only retention and reminiscence (lute), but also reflection, thinking, deliberation, judgment, discernment, and circumspection (tunangu, malango). Indeed memory implies knowledge, powerful mind, great spirit, and most importantly, absence of forgetfulness. It is the knOWledge that is not forgotten that makes humans function normal1y. Memory is the foundation of the three pillars of personhood: thOUght, language, and action (or behavior). Memory is the glue that binds our being together. Without memory, no one can speak or think properly. Without memory of learned behavior and wisdom, no one can know how to behave properly. Without memory, the mind is empty, the spirit dead, and the being (Muntu) becomes a thing (Kintu). Without memory, no one can be ful1y humane. Memory sustains our humanity and personality. And the recovery of African memory means the recovery of our very humanity.

Bumuntu Memory and the African Concept of a Genuine Human Being

The literature produced over the last five centuries by Western historians, anthropologists, missionaries, novelists, and other scholars has largely presented Africa as a land antithetical to humanity itself Our libraries are still replete with stories of cannibals, witch doctors, naked savages, and bloodthirsty kinglets. One can scarcely find anything positive written about Africa or Africans in modem Western scholarship. Most books on African religions focus on rituals, witchcraft, fetishism, cannibalism, and polygamy almost never on moral principles. If we open the index of more than ninety percent of the books published on Africa, we never find a serious rubric on ethics, democratic values, or human rights.

However, althOUgh the conceptual apparatus and paradigms invented during the colonial era still continue to shape postcolonial scholarship in a

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subtle-and sometimes overt-fashion, over the last three decades, the process of the decolonization of knowledge that began after World War II has gained momentum. It is now widely understood that, as Leo Frobenius put it several years ago, "the African is civilized to the marrow of his bones, the idea of a savage negro is a European invention." Most importantly, as Roger Bastide put it, "there is in Africa, an entire civilization of spirituality comparable to that of wood carving" (Bastide, Le Candomble de Bahia, cited in Zahan 126). This dramatic paradigm shift found its clearest recent expression in the words of Pope John Paul II. In 1994, during the first African Synod of Bishops held in Rome, Pope John­ Paul II acknowledged that despite all the crises occurring in Africa, Africa has produced a fundamental wisdom that can contribute not only to the articulation of an African solution to African problems but also could enrich humanity as a whole. In his document, "Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation," he articulated some of these positive values:

Although Africa is very rich in natural resources, it remains economically poor. At the same time, it is endowed with a wealth of cultural values and priceless human qualities which it can offer to the Churches and to humanity as a whole.... They are values which can contribute to an effective reversal of the Continent's dramatic situation and facilitate that worldwide revival on which the desired development of individual nations depends.

The Pope went on to specify these African values:

Africans have a profound religious sense, a sense of the sacred, of the existence of God the Creator and of a spiritual world. The reality of sin in its individual and social forms is very much present in the consciousness of these peoples, as is also the need for rites of purification and expiation. In African culture and tradition the role of the family is everywhere held to be fundamental. Open to this sense of the family, of love and respect for life, the African loves children, who are joyfully welcomed as gifts of God. The sons and daughters of Africa love life ... The peoples of Africa respect the life which is conceived and born. They rejoice in this life. They reject the idea that it can be destroyed, even when the so­ called "progressive civilizations" would like to lead· them in this direction. And practices hostile to life are imposed on

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them by means of economic systems which serve the selfishness of the rich. Africans show their respect for human life until its natural end, and keep elderly parents and relatives within the family. African cultures have an acute sense of solidarity and community life. In Africa it is unthinkable to celebrate a feast without the participation of the whole village. Indeed, community life in African societies expresses the extended family. It is my ardent hope and prayer that Africa will always preserve this priceless cultural heritage and never succomb to the temptation to individualism, which is so alien to its best traditions. (Browne 245)

The very leader of a Catholic Church that for centuries disqualified African spirituality as devil worship, paganism, or Satanism declared that Africa is endowed with priceless human qualities. The discovery of these priceless hwnan qualities is what we refer to as "Bumuntu memory." These qualities are not learned from academic volumes. Rather, they are transmitted from generation to generation by way of memory. It is a memory enhanced by rites and rituals, celebrations and festivals. In the follOWing, I shall explore the fundamental question: What does it mean to be a genuine hwnan being in Africa?

African personhood can be defined in a variety of ways. Important insights can be gained by examining man's attitude vis-a-vis I) the ethical principles of good and evil, 2) the individual and the community, 3) women, 4) children, 5) persons with disabilities, 6) foreigners, 7) religion in general and foreign religions in particular, 8) government, 9) economy, and lO) nature. All this is embodied in the cultural memory expressed in African proverbs. Proverbs play a crucial role in the oral education of people in the path of wisdom. There are over a thousand written collections of African proverbs, and scholars estimate the sum total of African proverbs at over a million. This is an incredible body of wisdom. Proverbs are the repository of the most precious philosophical and religious ideas of Africa. Proverbs are memorable sentences of traditional wisdom reflecting a keen observation of hwnan existence and conduct and a long experience of life throughout the ages. African proverbs transmit fundamental values of life. They deal with, among other things, education, moral teaching, the concept of God, marriage, government, relationship between individuals, and the meaning of life and death. Proverbs are a particular form of a literary genre. They tend to be compact statements of wisdom expressed in

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a poetic and enigmatic fashion. The meaning of a proverb is often hidden, cryptic, or elliptical. They can take various modes of expression. Some take the form of a short maxim, dictum, adage, aphorism, or apophtegm. Or they may take the form of a riddle or even an allegory, legend, or song. The words for proverbs among the Baluba (nkindi, bishintshi) emphasize the esoteric and enigmatic aspect of their message or meaning. Among the Akan, "ebe" (pI. mme), the word for proverb, is etymologically linked to "abe" (pI. mme), the word for palm tree. It highlights the richness of its meaning in reference to the tremendous wealth of a palm tree, which produces palm oil, palm wine, palm-kernel oil, broom, salt, or even soap. Because these products are a result of a process of distillation, the proverb stands as a refmed product of the reflective process, the result of an elaborate and complex thinking process that involves a higher level of imagination and a synthesis of human experience. Like palm-kernel oil or palm wine (which are not obvious to the eye as the juice of the orange), the meaning of a proverb is deep, profound, hidden. It is not obvious or direct. To better grasp the meaning of a proverb, one must dig deeper in his thought. Proverbs are excellent didactic sayings and precious storehouses of ancestral wisdom and philosophy. They clearly exemplify the power and beauty of African oral tradition. By endorsing a symbolic, metaphorical, and poetic form of language, proverbs skillfully abstain from direct talk. In so doing, proverbs help smooth tensions and enable people in conflict to debate issues while avoiding ad hominem attacks. Thus, painful issues can be discussed without anybody feeling directly vilified. In this way, proverbs are not merely didactic, they are a powerful tool for conflict resolution and peace making. And in so doing they teach us what it means to be human in Africa.

The following is a brief survey to illustrate the value of the wisdom of African proverbs. The first category of proverbs deals with the nature of proverbs themselves and the issue of knowledge and wisdom. The Fulani teach that "a Fulani will lie but he will not make a lying proverb." This vision illustrates the normative and transcendent nature of proverbs as reliable source of wisdom. This wisdom is understood as available to all, for as two Akan proverbs have it, "Wisdom is not in the head of one person" (Nyansa nni onipa baako ti mu) and "Wisdom is like a baobab tree, a single person's hand carmot embrace it." In a world where the use of knowledge for negative or harmful purpose is rejected as mere witchcra~ the Baluba teach that genuine knowledge is to know how to live in harmony with our fellow human beings (Bwino bonso ke bwino, bwino I kwikala biya ne Bantu). Thus, Africans value not just any kind of

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knowledge but that "knowledge-wisdom" called by the Baluba Bwino. By applying this wisdom to specific areas of human existence, we can examine human nature, moral conduct, and ethics in government.

Anthropological proverbs teach that a genuine human being is the one who succeeds in maintaining that delicate balance between individuality and the sense of community, for a genuine human being is, in the beautiful expression of the Mande, a Fadenya-Badenya (an individual and collective being).Thus numerous proverbs teach emphatically personal responsibility: "Vidye wa kuha buya nobe wa mukwashako" (God gave you beauty and good character but you must help him, by taking care of yourself and constantly cultivating your virtues [Luba proverb]). To a lazy person, the Baluba throw the following proverb: "Kalele Kadia Tulo." (Let the one who sleeps eat his sleep). And to one who hates hard work, another Luba proverb says: "Kwamwene malwa udye bufumu?" (If you want to be a king, you must first learn the art of suffering and hard work). Likewise, the Ifa corpus of the Yoruba teach that each individual must use his own hands to improve his own character ("Owo ara eni, U. afi I tW1wa ara enii se"). Good character is emphasized as the very essence of personhood, as a Yoruba proverb explicitly puts it: "Iwa rere I'eso eniyan" (Good character, good existence, is the adorrunent of a human being).

This notion of personal responsibility stems from an acknOWledgement of the sacred nature, and therefore the dignity, of each individual, for as an Akan proverb has it, "All human beings are children of God, no one is a child of the earth" (Nnipa nyinaa ye Onyame mma, obi nnye asase ba). To those who suppress individuality, many proverbs remind them of the uniqueness and dignity of each individual in the eyes of the ancestors. "Human beings," says a Chewa proverb, "are like sand out of which one cannot make a mountain." (Wanthu ndi mchenga saundika). Likewise, the Baluba emphasize the value of individual privacy: "Munda mwa mukwenu kemwelwa kuboko, nansha ulele nandi butanda bumo" (No one can put his arm into another person's heart not even when sharing the same bed). And

yet the individual is advised to value the community: "If you do not let your neighbor have nine," says an Akan proverb, "you will not have ten" (Woamma wo yonko antwa nkron a, wo nso wonntwa du). Respect for the community emphasizes a particular kind of respect for people with disabilities: "Do not laugh at a crippled person," warns a Luba proverb, for "God is still in the creating process" (Koseha lemene Vidye muntanda ukihanga). It also commands hospitality and respect for the stranger, for as a Luba proverb put it, "your guest is your God" (Mwenyi obe I Leza obe).

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These are some of the critical values that define a genuine human being or




a Muntu, a person of Bumuntu. To be more specific, there are three …