African values and the myth of African tradition

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By Dr Tafataona Mahoso

IN my teaching and writing, there is a historical reason I do not use the term African tradition and prefer to use ‘African values’, ‘African philosophy’ and ‘African living law’.
What the majority of Madzimbahwe perceive and believe to be the body of African traditional values or simply African culture are the remnants of a colonial caricature, a colonial stereotype, a colonial bogeyman, jointly created by a trinity of colonial institutions for the benefit of the imperialist and the white settler.
The trinity consisted of the missionary church assisted often by anthropologists, the colonial and imperial academy led by anthropologists and the colonial state using its native commissioners.
This bogeyman called ‘African tradition’ was the joint product of aggressive demonisation by the three white forces or institutions and it played a pivotal role in justifying slavery, colonialism and imperialism.
What remains today as African customary law is the product of the successful demonisation and debasement of the African.
As Richard Bell says in Understanding African Philosophy:
“The whole issue of race was introduced into Africa, beginning with both the Western and Arab slave trade.
‘The history of civil society in colonial Africa is laced with racism’, remarks Mahmood Mamdani.
Mamdani goes further to argue that such racism became institutionalised with the introduction of (so-called African) ‘customary law’ where black Africans were set apart and given a different set of ‘laws’ for their customary practices from ‘civilised society’.
‘Customary law,’ was however, the creation of the colonial state and it was the colonial state that oversaw the local or customary authorities.
This, in fact (Mamdani) argues is the precedent of South African apartheid and was well established in both French and British colonial rule long before it was ‘official policy’ in South Africa.”
What this meant was that the elements which were identified, selected and reinterpreted as customary law and African tradition were those that were found not to threaten white rule and domination or those that would, in fact, help to entrench and enhance white domination by making it seem natural, inevitable, justified and beneficial to ‘natives’.
To this day, so many years after independence, the idea of African tradition is based on the following assumptions which many Africans themselves have come to accept without question:
l That tradition is the opposite of modernity and modernism.
l That African indigenous knowledge, wisdom and creativity are all ‘traditional,’ meaning that they are reactionary, retrogressive and oppressive while Western white values, knowledge systems and laws are modern, progressive and modernising.
l That African values lack dynamism, openness and internal self-introspection, which means Africans always need external intervention for them to ‘change’.
l That all African values and practices became obsolete as soon as white society intervened in African affairs and those which refused to go obsolete at the time of white intervention must at best be treated with suspicion and fear until they are proven to be viable and good through confirmation by whites or by white-sponsored organisations.
l That even in contemporary society, backward ideas in general and the oppression of the girl-child and women in particular must be explained as taking place in the ‘traditional’ sector and they arise because of the survival of this ‘traditional’ sector.
Serious contradictions arise from the framing and definition of African tradition as well as from the practices based on the assumptions outlined in the preceding:
l The first contradiction is that this African tradition is supposed to be obsolete, dead and useless and yet it must also be presented as so potent, enticing and dangerous that the church, the academy and the whole body of Roman Dutch and English law must be mobilised and remain vigilant against it!
l The second contradiction is that the colonial and neo-colonial forces claiming to stand for progress, enlightenment and knowledge end up promoting African retrogression, ignorance and mythology in a situation of self-fulfilling prophecy.
The churches mobilising against African Heritage Studies in the new curriculum do not know African philosophy, African living law and they prefer that they and their children should never know.
That is the real meaning of their fight to keep these subjects out of the curriculum.
That is the purpose of banning.
In other words, the colonial state, the apartheid state which perpetrated settlerism and bolstered imperialism in the name of enlightenment actually helped to deepen, to entrench ignorance, mythology and mysticism among Africans precisely because these tragedies made the whiteman and his institutions look superior and have a mission to save a supposedly savage and ignorant people.
Backward ideas as well as ignorant and harmful practices among colonised Africans were encouraged or tolerated by whites because they helped the whites to prove a point, to justify their presence among Africans.
The Bantustan or Tribal Trust Land as a colonial enclosure was to contain and disperse the stupendous potential power of united Africans.
‘African customary law’ curio arts and colonially edited African folklore were also forms of original African creativity turned inward to be re-interpreted as means by which natives were to despise, denigrate and diminish themselves for the benefit of the white voyeur.
African creativity was therefore reduced to the production of curios to keep the settler and his touring Western cousin curious and amused.
Yet in their autonomous originality, African living law, architecture, astronomy, sculpture, art, song, poetry and dance were about being fully human in the universe and about the whole universe of awareness, that is addressing the human, physical and ecological universe of the African.
But the Bantustan, Reservation, Tribal Trust Land, ‘customary law’ and curio arts as colonial structures were no longer supposed to be about the whole universe, but about the ghetto and being in the ‘kraal’ of colonial enclosure.
That was why the African liberation movement at its best and in its best form, reversed the settler’s inward-turned weapons of dis-selection and enclosure while stopping these from being just about each other and against each other in the compound; in order to make them address the entire human and physical universe again.
‘Tinoda Zimbabwe neupfumi hwayo hwose’ was a double address: We love Zimbabwe in its entirety; heritage, history, wealth and soils; we demand the reclamation and redemption of Zimbabwe in its entirety heritage, history, wealth and soil.
That potential power of the African in the colonial enclosure of the Bantustan to become fully human again in the universe has always frightened the Native Commissioner as colonial law-giver, the crusading missionary, the donor and imperialist.
African philosophy, African living law and African creativity would address the entire human universe again and expose slavery, colonialism, imperialism, capitalist plunder and white hedonism for what they are.
This is why the African ngoma (drum) was banned from white space in colonial Africa, in North America and in Latin America.
Despite the message of Psalm 150, ngoma, hosho, mbira and African dance were banned from the missionary sponsored churches.
It took a whole generation of cultural struggle to bring ngoma into the colonial church in Zimbabwe.
Mbira remains banned.
Chimatende disappeared with the dispersal of African young men into forced labour camps, missionary boarding schools and WENELA.
The churches ignored the very Bible they claimed to represent, when it says:
“Praise God in his sanctuary;
Praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
Praise him with lute as harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
Praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
Praise him with the loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord.”
The South African author-philosopher Jordan Khush Ngubane in Ushaba saw philosophy in the African ngoma.
In Ushaba, Ngubane wrote:
“When the African beats the drum (ngoma) he (she) talks to creation; he sets up the vibrations which give meaning to life.
An African theologian, trained in Europe, recently delivered a sermon in the Anglican Cathedral in Cape Town and stated that the drum constitutes the key into the understanding of the African; that it is his Bible, his theology and his ritual all rolled into one; that when he beats the (ngoma) drum, God arises in him.
He (the theologian) told his white audience that what the white Christians need most is to cultivate the capacity to respond to the elemental message of the drumbeat; to grasp the implications of the truth that when the African beats the (ngoma) drum, he issues a command to creation; in the elemental harmony which makes him human.
That was communism.
A fortnight later, the theologian was banned; it became a crime for him to preach from any pulpit or to attend any gathering of any type or to have anybody in his house other than members of his immediate family, his doctor or lawyer, of course any policeman. (Jordan Khush Ngubane, Ushaba, p 181).
In this ban, the missionary church and the colonial police state colluded.
This is the context of the current noise supposedly opposing African Heritage Studies against Bible Studies in the national curriculum. not know African philosophy, African living law and they prefer that they and their children should never know.
That is the real meaning of their fight to keep these subjects out of the curriculum.
That is the purpose of banning.
In other words, the colonial state, the apartheid state which perpetrated settlerism and bolstered imperialism in the name of enlightenment actually helped to deepen, to entrench ignorance, mythology and mysticism among Africans precisely because these tragedies made the whiteman and his institutions look superior and have a mission to save a supposedly savage and ignorant people.
Backward ideas as well as ignorant and harmful practices among colonised Africans were encouraged or tolerated by whites because they helped the whites to prove a point, to justify their presence among Africans.
The Bantustan or Tribal Trust Land as a colonial enclosure was to contain and disperse the stupendous potential power of united Africans.
‘African customary law’ curio arts and colonially edited African folklore were also forms of original African creativity turned inward to be re-interpreted as means by which natives were to despise, denigrate and diminish themselves for the benefit of the white voyeur.
African creativity was therefore reduced to the production of curios to keep the settler and his touring Western cousin curious and amused.
Yet in their autonomous originality, African living law, architecture, astronomy, sculpture, art, song, poetry and dance were about being fully human in the universe and about the whole universe of awareness, that is addressing the human, physical and ecological universe of the African.
But the Bantustan, Reservation, Tribal Trust Land, ‘customary law’ and curio arts as colonial structures were no longer supposed to be about the whole universe, but about the ghetto and being in the ‘kraal’ of colonial enclosure.
That was why the African liberation movement at its best and in its best form, reversed the settler’s inward-turned weapons of dis-selection and enclosure while stopping these from being just about each other and against each other in the compound; in order to make them address the entire human and physical universe again.
‘Tinoda Zimbabwe neupfumi hwayo hwose’ was a double address: We love Zimbabwe in its entirety; heritage, history, wealth and soils; we demand the reclamation and redemption of Zimbabwe in its entirety heritage, history, wealth and soil.
That potential power of the African in the colonial enclosure of the Bantustan to become fully human again in the universe has always frightened the Native Commissioner as colonial law-giver, the crusading missionary, the donor and imperialist.
African philosophy, African living law and African creativity would address the entire human universe again and expose slavery, colonialism, imperialism, capitalist plunder and white hedonism for what they are.
This is why the African ngoma (drum) was banned from white space in colonial Africa, in North America and in Latin America.
Despite the message of Psalm 150, ngoma, hosho, mbira and African dance were banned from the missionary sponsored churches.
It took a whole generation of cultural struggle to bring ngoma into the colonial church in Zimbabwe.
Mbira remains banned.
Chimatende disappeared with the dispersal of African young men into forced labour camps, missionary boarding schools and WENELA.
The churches ignored the very Bible they claimed to represent, when it says:
“Praise God in his sanctuary;
Praise him in his mighty heavens!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
Praise him with lute as harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
Praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with sounding cymbals;
Praise him with the loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord.”
The South African author-philosopher Jordan Khush Ngubane in Ushaba saw philosophy in the African ngoma.
In Ushaba, Ngubane wrote:
“When the African beats the drum (ngoma) he (she) talks to creation; he sets up the vibrations which give meaning to life.
An African theologian, trained in Europe, recently delivered a sermon in the Anglican Cathedral in Cape Town and stated that the drum constitutes the key into the understanding of the African; that it is his Bible, his theology and his ritual all rolled into one; that when he beats the (ngoma) drum, God arises in him.
He (the theologian) told his white audience that what the white Christians need most is to cultivate the capacity to respond to the elemental message of the drumbeat; to grasp the implications of the truth that when the African beats the (ngoma) drum, he issues a command to creation; in the elemental harmony which makes him human.
That was communism.
A fortnight later, the theologian was banned; it became a crime for him to preach from any pulpit or to attend any gathering of any type or to have anybody in his house other than members of his immediate family, his doctor or lawyer, of course any policeman. (Jordan Khush Ngubane, Ushaba, p 181).
In this ban, the missionary church and the colonial police state colluded.
This is the context of the current noise supposedly opposing African Heritage Studies against Bible Studies in the national curriculum.

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