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The African way

05 November 2012, 12:26

“Let us solve African problems the African way, not the white man's way,” president Zuma was quoted as saying at the opening of National House of Traditional Leaders in Parliament. "They tell you they are going to change facts. They will never tell you that these cold facts have warm bodies," he said.

Understandably, many concerns have been expressed. In our modern culture, unlike in traditional African cultures before they were influenced by the West, we have generally lost the art of listening. We react immediately from our own prejudices, rather than truly trying to understand what the other person is trying to say. I also reacted that way when I read president Zuma’s words, yet almost simultaneously I also realised that he may have been trying to say something very important. The key for me were the words, “They will never tell you that these cold facts have warm bodies.”

What I heard was something to the effect of, “The western approach tends to deny our humanity; let us reclaim it.” When I heard that, I thought: so true. Former president Thabo Mbeki often made a similar plea by pleading for a return of uBuntu. Steve Biko made a powerful plea for black South Africans to reclaim their sense of worth.

I am convinced that this deep yearning for the lost heart of Africa underlies much of what is happening at the political front in South Africa today. Perhaps we whites – and blacks – would do well to react less and try to understand more?

Malidoma Somé, author of the phenomenal book The Healing Wisdom of Africa, was kind enough to write a foreword to my book From intellect to Intelligence: A Radical Natural Human Alternative. The following comes from this foreword:

“The encroachment of modernity into the most remote parts of the earth has resulted in a most intriguing dilemma.  On the one hand, the ‘underdeveloped’ cultures have become hypnotized by the glitter and promise of modernity’s technology, grasping whatever might ease, for the moment, the hunger and suffering often caused by the very technology that has created such scarcity through greed, politics, and basic disregard for human life and disrespect for the natural world.  At the same time modernity, never feeling satisfied with its relentless conquest of the world’s resources and marginalization of many of its peoples, feels the pangs of the soul’s deep hunger for something so basic, so elemental, that it is no longer recognizable to the psyche of the modern person.  Each wants, on some deep level, what the other has, and neither knows how to cull the best from its own gifts to offer for the reconciliation of all life on this planet.”

When I did some tourism development in Lesotho some time ago I tried to convince both government official s and locals that the primary tourism attraction of Lesotho is the fact that it still has people living in relatively traditional ways. Many Europeans are desperate to experience genuine traditional living (as opposed the often plastic imitations offered to tourists). Westerners have a deep longing to experience the soul of Africa.

I doubt that I had much success. Government officials often felt that, having just left ‘the bush’, they had no need to promote it. They wanted casinos and hotels, of which there are plenty in South Africa. So indoctrinated in the belief in the inferiority of African culture were the locals too, that they could simply not believe that their traditional ways could offer anything of value to foreigners.

What I am talking about, however, is the true heart of Africa as so beautifully expressed in Malidoma Some’s book The Healing Wisdom of Africa.

I believe it is true that some African cultures were much more humane in the past, that they often (but not always) lived in harmony with nature and themselves, and that western colonialism has destroyed most of that. However, one reason for the success of the West has been the readiness with which Africans have succumbed to the “glitter and promise of modernity’s technology”. Many Africans love to imitate America. At great cost we introduced a European education system which has been described as a “Rolls Royce in a squatter camp”. It failed dismally. And how African are luxury German cars, suits, computers, cell phones, firearms and the like?

The result has been the crumbling of the inherent fabric of black society, like that of so many other indigenous cultures. The powerful attitude of uBuntu that maintained the integrity of traditional African cultures virtually does not exist anymore. To want to return to a traditional African judicial system in the context of heavily westernised rural communities where uBuntu has been virtually eliminated and the people have lost contact with their roots will not undo the ‘facts’ of the white lawyers, nor restore the ‘warm bodies’ of African culture. To the contrary: without the context of uBuntu, it is likely to realise many of the worst fears expressed by the opponents to Zuma’s idea.

A return to the wisdom of Africa, as Malidoma Somé calls it, on the other hand, a wisdom that recognises the humanity in all of us, can greatly benefit both South Africa and the rest of the world. Such a return would indeed be highly recommendable. Let us not mistake the form for the content.

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