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Introducing the way of companions – Myth, history, philosophy and literature: The African record

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By Ayi Kwei Armah

This book of 302 pages by Ayi Kwei Armah, published in 2018, is an eye-opener hidden from so many. A tragedy for the youth especially. It reveals a vicious circle, or Plato’s cave as one may call it, that deserves to be broken up. And better late, than never, for Africa and humanity to keep rising in dignity.

Learning is life-long. Basic education in public or mission school exposed the African condition, but failed to provide adequate guidance on improvement for the benefit of all. What is to be done with this lingering confusion, or anomie, author Mr Kwei Armah citing another, Elder Wole Soyinka. Here one is reminded of the anti-colonial frustrations expressed by another author, late Chinua Achebe, in Things Fall Apart.

Back to the source. African history is continuous, and long, thousands of years before the arrival of Arabs and Europeans. Credit to research work done by Pa Cheikh Anta Diop. It is on the basis of these deep roots of Africa and humanity that we must nurture the tree of life in dignity. Credit to another great mind on African soil, Pa Amilcar Cabral. Education and organization are key in this regard.

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The author states in the intro that it is about “knowledge from the most ancient of the world’s historical traditions. That tradition is African.” Why has this ancient eye-opener eluded African children?  He responds: “Because African children of today get their knowledge from the Academy… a European institution imported into Africa to help achieve a purpose of central importance in the maintenance of European control over Africa’s intellectual and material potential ….”  

“Africa has no history … the voice of Hegel… Africa entered history when Europeans or Arabs arrived to show us their way… the voice of Marx. Another says that African history is oral history, and that African literature is fundamentally oral. That is the voice of European racism ….” The logic of interest, not reason, lies behind this false narrative. In page 12, the author explains:

“… Africans are not encouraged to find out what is true about ourselves, our ancestors, our society, our land, and our environment. These reasons are related to a stark historical reality: for millennia, Africa’s population has been under attack from societies convinced that to live well, they have to push others into penury and slavery…. Europeans came to Africa as conquerors. That is the academic name for armed robbers.”

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In order to disguise the occupation for robbery, and for ease of administration, the Academy is established as a civilizing mission to “persuade Africans, either that we had no history, or that our history went back just a few short centuries … we Africans would need to borrow the history … of our conquerors, in order to make our way into the future.”

Sadly enough, this falsehood is also propagated by some Africans. All the more reason for this new colonial condition to be changed for the better. “Today, … the African ruling elite speak routinely of … African emancipation and well-being. But in their practical behaviour they choose to maintain the same academic educational system … originally designed for African enslavement.”

It cannot be retooled cosmetic-style, but needs to be redesigned for African liberation. The youth need an inspiring model into the future. “Creativity flows freest when it’s rooted in confident knowledge of oneself, of one’s personal narrative, and of one’s ancestral history.”

Key concepts from the African tradition

The source is from “the first recorded attempts humans made to understand the nature of the universe, of human life, and of existence in general… ways in which a society can organize itself … to improve life for all society.” Nwn – chaos, or disorder, that is complex enough to contain “the potential for the emergence of order.” Later day dialectics without the racism.

The energy needed for movement, or transformation principle, is Kheper – “the concept of beginnings, of innovation, of dynamic motion away from inertia.” Away from the anomie or confusion described earlier.

Humanity also emerged from this interactive process that gave birth to the universe. “Each human being therefore contained both the inertial substances of Nwn, and the creative capacities of Kheper.” We are all born equal, endowed with the ability to create a more humane society, in the past, now and tomorrow.  That is to say, humanity in general as Remich; and intelligent self as Rekhyw.

Communication and gender balance

The African literary record reveals communication through myth, the use of ancestral spirits. The Recorder, or Measurer was Jehwty, who “argued that to live intelligently, it was useful to acquire and to sustain the habit of counting, … as a practical, routine way of life.” It increased understanding for the farmer, cook, sculptor, textile weaver, and for all in order to achieve the “improvement of life for the whole of society.”

The oral tradition, or language, boosted cooperation into far-away places. It became “possible for large groups to cooperate in the accomplishment of tasks too great … for small groups.” With the spoken word, came its image, the hieroglyphic process: “the origin of the art and science of writing – language recorded as imagery.”

African literacy “was already an ancestral tradition before the start of the first monarchical dynasty, over five thousand years ago.” And the ancestral spirit tied to this innovation worked with a balanced gender grouping: Two sisters, two brothers. The Maat sisters, Ast and Nebthet, were responsible for balance in things vital, including truth, beauty and justice in social relations. 

Such foundational cooperation, based on combined skills, “produced ancient Egypt, … resulted in life-changing innovations in agriculture, medicine, architecture, law, the arts and the sciences.”

“Work, for these ancestral spirits of Africa, was not a curse. It was a natural activity logically inseparable from life… their cooperative African society…” We must endeavor to understand, and to share these values as did brother Asar, or Osiris. The group so constituted was the Shemsw, meaning companions, or extended African family unit. This was thicker than blood, based on “shared thinking”.

There were other groups, in particular the one including younger brother Seth, “attracted to the techniques of violence and warfare.” Patient, cooperative methods were “distasteful”, and were overthrown by Sethian methods of violence and intrigues some 5,500 years ago, after a long co-existence.

It is, therefore, an instructive African tradition to learn from. Not to mystify, but to provide knowledge “leading to an egalitarian world, entirely different from the injustice we live under now.”

The State

We have witnessed “the rise of the centralised state in Africa three millennia and three centuries before the birth of Christ … a tree conceived in violence, born in war, nurtured on human blood. It has been phenomenally wasteful in resources … in the service of institutionalised inequality.”

The author further elaborates that society moved from the Maat philosophy of shared prosperity to one based on Sethian division into “a privileged minority, the monopolists of violence, riding in comfort above the pain of a disenfranchised, dispossessed, disrespected and dehumanised majority.”

Cooperation

The antithesis to the state becomes the way of the companions, the house of life or Per Ankh. It is “the oldest organization set up for the education and initiation of the young into self-knowledge, into knowledge of society, and into knowledge of the universe.”

Its time-line? It is “an African institution older than the academy, older than Islam, older than Christianity, older than Judaism ….” It was designed for sharing and spreading Maat values of persuasive cooperation, truth, justice and social balance, “for all humans.”

The use of mythology in this regard was well-established. Elder Soyinka was cited for his Myth, Literature and the African World. Self-expression through mythical figures to not only endure, but to shape society, the universe.  The purpose of this reference in the book is not to mystify, but to reshape African consciousness based on knowledge from ancient African times, “embracing all humanity ….”

Stolen treasure

“By claiming to have invented these rational, self-renewing processes, European colonial thinkers seized a reality that existed thousands of years before the rise of their power, fenced it off, stamped on it their brand of ownership, and called it theirs.” The treasure of knowledge thus stolen, akin to robbery of pirates on the high seas, was “older than European antiquity – knowledge about the state of the world thousands of years before the rise of Greece and Rome ….”

Own liberation                                                                                                                        

Today, Africans have no excuse for not using the acquired knowledge to advance African liberation, based on the Maat philosophy of inclusiveness. Pa Amilcar Cabral was exceptionally on this path before the European colonialists, assisted by African traitors, assassinated him.

The European liberal promise of “the pursuit of the good life” has largely “proved enormously profitable to … European society.” Therefore, the so-called Western way cannot serve African society equally, and time has taught us that bitter lesson. “They are now determined to stall an influx of persons from other societies seeking to improve their living standards by migrating there.”

European-dominated societies, like the “United States of America, Canada, New Zealand, Chile and Argentina are now determined to maintain that status of domination. But six centuries ago there were virtually no Europeans in those places.” This colonial conquest “was always a deeply racist process … sometimes ending in outright extermination.” It does not matter which “camouflage” name is used, the obnoxious content remains the same: “modernisation, development, globalisation, humanitarianism.”

Not just Africa, “all continents paid a forced toll.” But, the author emphasises, “Africa has paid a steep price … Slavery. Empire. Colonialism. Apartheid. Structural adjustment. Globalisation.” This has seriously depressed the “living standards, self-esteem and well-being of Africans.” Such looting needs to be stopped for Africa to prosper, by none other than the African people themselves, as their own liberators.

This awareness is the outcome of attempts at “saving Africa for centuries”, while “palpably impoverishing Africa….” It is an expression of the principle of liberation, rooted in African history.

M. Sajo Jallow – Commemorating empowerment for women, the cradle; for youth, the future; and both for humanity.

March, 2023.

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