Ode invited Baffour Ankomah, chief-editor of New African magazine, to explain Africa’s wisdom to the rest of the world.
A friend in Prague forwarded me one of those ubiquitous e-mails that are sent and re-sent to everybody around the world who happens to have an internet account. Headed “What makes you an African”, it was meant to be a joke. But what predictable humor this was! The joke highlighted all the usual pessimism, exaggeration, and misunderstanding about Africa that make it so imperative for Africans to tell their own stories. Indeed, for Africans to boldly assert that our native continent has much to teach the rest of the world.
Apparently, according to the email, there are 16 things you do that make you an ‘African’:
1. You unwrap all your gifts carefully so that you can re-use the wrapper.
2. You call a person you’ve never met before uncle or aunt.
6: You almost always carry overweight baggage when travelling by plane.
9: Nobody in your family informs you that they are coming over for a visit (uncle, wife, sis-in-law, two nephews and a neighbour have camped at home).
13: You never have less than 20 people to meet you at the airport or see you off even if it is a local flight.
16: When you are young, your parents buy you clothes and shoes at least two sizes too big so that they will last longer.
This email seems to be laughing at traditions that represent some of Africa’s strength. The jokester here doesn’t seem to understand the philosophical underpinnings of why Africans “always carry overweight baggage when travelling by plane”.
“I am because you are” is the core belief of many of the continent’s peoples. So, going home to Ghana from London, I carry “overweight baggage” to bring things with all the folks back home.
“I am because you are” is the foundation of most African culture, affecting everything from the healing arts and family life to politics. It is at the heart of a number of lessons that Westerners could learn from Africa, which I describe in the pieces that will follow.
The African roots of democracy
History says that Ancient Greece gave Europe democracy. And the Greeks got their democracy from Ancient Egypt. What history usually fails to add is that ‘these Ancient Egyptians’ were black people who later migrated south when they lost their empire to invaders from Asia. Time for a fresh look at traditional African democracy and how it might help overly-legalistic Western nations untangle their political woes.
Recent academic researchers have traced the migration Egyptians to various regions of Africa, including parts of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, where the Akan people (of which I am one) carry on democratic traditions go all the way back to ancient Egypt.
“African democracy” which is practised to this day in villages and towns across the continent, is different from “Western democracy” in many respects, and may explain why Western democracy (imposed on Africa by colonialism) is still struggling to succeed in Africa, after decades of effort.
In African democracy, for example, there is no organised opposition. Power is arranged like a pyramid. At the top is the king who exercises supreme authority, assisted by his council of elders and sub-chiefs. In this arrangement, as practiced by the Akans, ultimate power flows from the people at the base of the pyramid to the top where the king sits. This is unlike what evolved in autocratic European monarchies.
An Akan king or chief, for instance, has no power except that given to him by the people. He is usually enthroned for life, but the duration of his reign is contingent on how good or bad he performs as a king or chief. If he is a good king, he stays. If he is a bad king—who oppresses the people, acts against their interests and tradition—he is overthrown, by the people, using the laid-down constitutional means.
There are no written constitutions in African democracy, but everyone knows their role in the state and community. Laws, likewise, are not written but are known by all. Because the laws are not wrapped in high-sounding language—so high that you need a lawyer to interpret them or represent you, as in Western courts—administration of justice in the African system is a straight-forward affair. It works this way: After summons have been served on you, according to the laid-down rules, you go before the “court of the people” represented by the king or chief, his council of elders and someone who might be thought of as a sage in the community. Witnesses are called and cross-examined by all assembled, after which a jury is selected to consider the verdict.
The verdict of the jury is publicly announced, and fines and penalties are duly apportioned according to the severity of the offence or crime. If the case is heard before a lower chief, there is an appeal system that goes on and on until the case finally comes before the king, where the verdict is final. Compared with the Western system, administration of justice in the African system is rather inexpensive, and therefore everybody is truly equal before the law. You don’t even need “legal aid lawyers” to use the system.
African democracy has a lot to teach the world about decisionmaking. Minor day-to-day decisions are taken by the chief or king in consultation with the council of elders. But major decisions affecting the community are taken by the people—all the people. The job of the king or chief then becomes only the implementation of the decision taken by the people. (Thus, in the African context, Tony Blair could not have taken Britain to war in Iraq when the people did not want the war.)
In the African system, for example, if a village wants to build a school, the chief calls the whole community to the village square under the trees (with a week’s notice or so). That is our legislative body, like a city council or parliament. Wide and passionate discussions are held on the subject of a new school that day. Everybody is free to voice an idea. There is no organised opposition party, but opposing views are strongly and freely expressed within the rules and norms of the community. Nobody is arrested or silenced for expressing opposing views. The chief or king is the last to speak, but that doesn’t mean he has “the last word” in the sense of Western culture. At the end of the day, a consensus is almost always reached, to be implemented by the chief or king using the established rules.
Despite the severe assault on Africa’s traditional democracy by colonialism and its latter-day incarnation, Western democracy, the African system is still alive in villages and towns across the continent. Remember about 70 percent of Africans still live in rural areas where this system is common.
Thus, in Africa, trouble with “democracy” starts at the national level where African democracy has been supplanted by Western systems(with all the confusion that comes with organised opposition, media propaganda, vote-rigging, winner takes all elections, and the rest). African democracy has always worked in the rural area because, principally, most Africans are communalist. The eternal philosophical tenet of “I am because you are” is our supreme guide. It connects everything African. It means “without you or the community, I am nobody or I don’t exist”. Therefore, we share our lives—wealth and all. “Community-thinking” thus becomes our organizing principle.
We are family
In Africa, family does not mean man, woman and two children. Family still means man, woman, children and the extended family, made up of hundreds of members. This stands in sharp contrast to spreading alienation and purposeless in the modern world.
The extended family is extremely important in societies where Western-style social welfare benefits do not exist. Again, the principle of “I am because you are” applies. This ensures that the family or community share the wealth within it. The more fortunate members give freely to help the less well-off members. It is a sacred duty. I help you, you help the next man or woman, the next man or woman helps the next man or woman, and so the wealth goes round and everyone, at least, has something to hang on to—even with our so-called poverty.
This is why in many African countries, they say the “people are magicians”. We share our wealth and sorrows. That’s how we survive even under the severest of economic conditions.
Although increasing Westernisation in many parts of Africa today (especially cities) has brought the spirit of individualism, the eternal “I am because you are” philosophy still holds on. And so does the magic. Unlike in the West, where old age is associated with uselessness, in Africa old age means wisdom. “Grey hairs” are revered and their experiences are put to good use by the community.
If I needed some advice on marriage, I would go to my grandma or grandpa (or my dad or mom), instead of reading a self-help book or calling a help-line where, for you all know, the man or woman at the end of the line might not have married before.
The dreadful concept of “Old People’s Homes” is not known in most of Africa. Elders continue to live at home. They are cared for by their children or family members, and, therefore, suffer little isolation or loneliness.
The revival of ancient healing
Western science has supplanted traditional medicine throughout Africa. But healing herbs and plants used for centuries may still hold the key to humanity’s health. In the days when Africans knew nothing of Western medicine, people relied almost entirely on African herbs, plants, tree barks and roots for healing purposes and often lived to a ripe old age. When I was growing up in Ghana, there were a number of very old people who were said to have swallowed herbal medicines in their youth for longevity. It could have been a myth, but they did live a long time.
All the statistics from the World Health Organization, UNDP and other international agencies, and general observation on the ground in Africa itself, show that life expectancy is becoming shorter and shorter. In fact Africans are dying younger today than in the days of their grandparents.
It is, therefore, a matter of great concern that now when Western medicine has almost supplanted traditional African methods of healing, we hear that Africans are, indeed, dying younger compared to their grandparents. Thanks to colonialism and Western-style education, most Africans today treat their traditional medicine with utter contempt. In a huge and diverse place like Africa, you will find few, if any, Western-trained African doctors prescribing African herbs to their patients. They may prescribe Chinese herbs, but never African. Yet Western pharmaceutical companies are making billions of dollars a year scouring Africa, taking away the herbs, plants, barks and roots that have been shown effective, and turning them into pills.
In my village in Ghana, five huge Nim trees that stood in the village square used to be our “pharmacy”. We used them to treat malaria (Africa’s biggest killer), yellow fever and many other ailments. People from other villages came and plucked as many leaves and bark of the Nim trees as they needed. Last year, when I went home on holidays, the Nim trees were gone. A Christian preacher (a Ghanaian who claimed to be a “prophet”) had arrived from nowhere and urged the uprooting of all five trees because he claimed “evil spirits” were using the trees as a meeting place where they plotted harm to the villagers.
You can imagine my fury when I heard this story. Not only had this “prophet” deprived our village of its beauty and character (the trees gave the village a sense of uniqueness), he had also destroyed our “pharmacy”. Now people must travel three miles down the road to the nearest Nim tree. Until Africans learn to appreciate the healing powers of herbs and plants, until we understand why many of our grandparents’ generation lived so long, modern Africans will continue to have even shorter life spans. The lesson for the world here is that we cannot turn our backs on nature, and no matter what science will throw at us in the way of pills, the herbs and plants of Africa and elsewhere in the world hold an important key to humanity’s health needs.
The life of the land
Maintaining its agrarian heritage, Africa is ahead of the West in organic farming and in recognizing people’s vital links to the land. Despite huge advances made in industrial development since independence, Africa is still made up largely of agrarian societies. Agriculture is the largest employer, even though many development experts don’t understand that an African peasant farmer is not an unemployed person. Give or take a few countries where a good percentage of farming is mechanised, agriculture in most of Africa is still done through the old, hard, manual labour. The good news is that African agriculture is predominantly organic, giving the continent a huge comparative advantage at a time when Western consumers are going back to organic food and, in the process, shooting up prices. In the long run, Africa stands to gain more if it can resist the urge to use fertilisers and pesticides and work instead at improving their centuries-old methods of organic production.
In Africa, farming is not just an economic activity, but a spiritual one as well. Most religious rites and festivals across the continent are directly linked with the agrarian cycle – land preparation, planting, the rains, harvesting and so on. Agriculture is built into the cosmology of most African cultures. During religious rites and festivals, prayers and food are offered to the gods and ancestors as a way of entreating them to give us even more bountiful harvest next year and the year after. Once again, the connection is the principle of “I am because you are” (or in the case of the ancestors and gods, “we are because they were”). If most Africans are separated too far from their agrarian roots, there will be a huge void in their lives.
Baffour Ankomah is the editor-in-chief of New African, a monthly magazine that publishes alternative news about Africa. Ankomah, who was born and raised in Ghana, works with the editorial staff in London.