Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Africa's Long March

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Africa's Long March

Article excerpt

There is much for the West to learn from the original art, religion and society of black Africa. But first of all Africa must learn to believe in itself.

"When your friends do not tell you the truth, ask your enemy and pay him to tell you" MALINKE PROVERB

FOR an African, taking a view of European civilization poses two problems at the outset. The first stems from the extent to which he or she is imbued with European culture. For myself, I went to a European school and I write in a European language. Each day 1 live, function, and (thanks to the European media) think like a European. How can I stand back far enough to take a genuinely African view of this civilization? Europe's economic, political, military, technological and intellectual strength nowadays allows it to make its culture universal. Nothing totally escapes its influence or the ideas behind it. As they say in my village, I shall have to dance and watch myself dancing at the same time. And that is no easy matter.

The second problem is how to define African culture. That vast continent contains several Africas and hundreds of cultures: hence a myriad possible views of European civilization. For the sake of simplicity I shall divide Africa into two, a Muslim Arab area and black Africa, and confine myself to presenting the black African view of European civilization. For this purpose we need to examine the main features of European cosmogony and religion, and compare them with their traditional African counterparts.

Starting with Gods, the European God and the black African God have one feature in common: each of them is a single God who created the world. It was only after they had completed this tremendous fundamental task that their functions became differentiated. The European God is a God revealed to humankind by prophets, and those who have heard the Gospel have a duty to spread it to the world. This God ascended into heaven, but before doing so He left humankind in sole charge here on Earth. He granted human beings a soul, and put the whole universe at their disposal. He can use them as he wishes, even if it means destroying them. Humankind is free and at the same time a prisoner, since it is God who governs everything here below: it is God who marks out the path everyone must tread. When a person dies that person disappears for good, is recalled by God forever.

So much, in brief, for the essential features of European culture. They still exist, although after the Renaissance Western thought tended to become secularized and decided to separate itself from religion. But the axiology, the system of moral values and the ontology, remained linked to Judaeo-Christian ideas. This Judaeo-Christian conception of the deity is common both to Europe and to the Muslim world.


The black African God is a natural God. He has revealed himself to no one. He sent no one to preach the good word, did not become flesh, and asks no one to make him known. He will not sit in judgement after death. He ascended into heaven, like the European God, but will stay there for good. He no longer concerns himself with the world or takes an interest in what happens here below. Less unjust, he gave all his creatures (things, plants, animals and men) souls, or "Powers" as black Africans say. Life is essentially a constant struggle between these powers. As an animist priest from Casamance explained to us: "In the beginning was Power. God, the supreme power, created all power by infinitely diversifying his own. God created all energies at one stroke, and life on Earth is now no more than an interchange of powers, willed and planned by God. Man intervenes in the structure of the world by words and sacrifices, since in this way he can ask God to move powers about. This is why the world is at the same time both completed and inchoate."

For black Africans language is not merely an instrument of communication: it is the expression par excellence of the power of Being, the release of life forces. …

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