Global Citizen Journey’s first years brought us to Africa where we learned many lessons and expanded our awareness and capacity as global citizens. The two articles below give a powerful context to this work.
Healing the Africa within us
by Ben Okri
(This article appeared in Ode issue: 16 (September 2004)
“Africa has been waiting to be discovered with the eyes of a lover.” Ben Okri declares his love to Africa.
Heart-shaped Africa is the feeling centre of the world. Continents are metaphors as much as they are places. And a people are spiritual states of humanity as distinguishable in what they represent as lilies and roses and daffodils.
Have we forgotten what Africa is? Africa is our dreamland, is our spiritual homeland. There is a realm inside every human being that is Africa. We all have an Africa within us. And so when the Africa outside is sick with troubles, the Africa inside us makes us ill with neuroses. The sheer quantity of neuroses, of anorexia, of inexplicable psychic illness in the world is possibly indirectly due to the illness, the troubles in Africa. We have to heal the Africa in us if we are going to be whole again. We have to heal the Africa outside us if the human race is going to be at peace again in a new dynamic way. There is a relationship between the troubles in a people and the troubles in the world, in the atmosphere. The troubles of Africa contribute immensely to the sheer weight and size of world suffering. And this world suffering affects everyone on this planet, affects children and their health, affects our sleep, our anxiety, our unknown suffering; for it is possible to suffer without knowing it.
And so we have to heal our Africa within. We have to re-discover the true Africa, the Africa of laughter, of joy, of originality, of improvisation, the Africa of legend, of story-telling, of playfulness, the Africa of brilliant colours, the Africa of generosity, of hospitality and kindness to strangers, the Africa of immense compassion, the Africa of wisdom, of proverbs, of divination, of paradox, the Africa of ingenuity, and surprise, the Africa of a four-dimensional attitude to time, the Africa of magic, of faith, of patience, of endurance, of a profound knowledge of nature’s ways and the secret cycles of destiny.
We have to re-discover Africa. The first discovery of Africa by Europe was the wrong one. It was not a discovery. It was an act of misperception. They saw, and bequeathed to future ages, an Africa based on what they thought of as important. They did not see Africa. And this wrong seeing of Africa is part of the problems of today. Africa was seen from a point of view of greed, of what could be got from it. And what you see is what you make. What you see in a people is what you eventually create in them. It is now time for a new seeing. It is now time to clear the darkness from the eyes of the Western world.
The world should now begin to see the light in Africa, to see its sunlight, to see its brightness, its brilliance, its beauty. If we see it, it will be revealed. We only see what we see. Only what we see, what we see anew, is revealed to us. Africa has been waiting, for centuries, to be discovered with eyes of love, the eyes of a lover. There is no true seeing without love. We have to learn to love the Africa in us if humanity is going to begin to know true happiness on this earth.
We love the America in us. We love the Europe in us. The Asia in us we are beginning to respect. Only the Africa in us is unloved, unseen, unappreciated. The first step towards the regeneration of humanity is making whole again all these great continents within us. We are the sum total of humanity. Every individual is all of humanity. It is Africa’s turn to smile. That will be the loveliest gift of the 21st century: to make Africa smile again.
Then humanity can begin to think of the universe, even the most remote stars, as its true home.
Ben Okri is a Nigerian writer living in London. His book The Famished Road won the prestigious Booker Prize. Okri is among Africa’s most renowned writers. He wrote this article exclusively for Ode magazine.
The world according to ubuntu
This article appeared in Ode issue: 16
‘I am because you are.’ This widespread African teaching reminds us that you cannot be human alone.
The African equivalent to Rene Descarte’s famous dictum, “I think, therefore I am,” which is the foundation of much modern Western culture, is called ubuntu and goes something like this: “We are, therefore I am.” Or: “I exist to the extent that others acknowledge and respect me.” This philosophy can be found throughout the African continent. Traditional African culture – with its emphasis on rites of passage, different generations living together and respect for one’s ancestors – is based on the principle that you cannot be human alone. You need other people to be fully alive.
Nearly all African languages have a word that defines the individual person (umuntu) and a word that places a person in his social context (ubuntu). The concept of ubuntu rests on the idea that people exist by the grace of the community to which they belong and that they are important to the degree to which they take responsibility for the other members of that community. Your identity is not shaped so much by an inner quest, but by entering into a purposeful relationship with your community.
The prevalent modern idea that “the ends justify the means” would never apply in ubuntu. Lenin once declared, “it is not wrong to cheat, lie, break promises or even destroy human life if it is ‘for a good cause’.” By contast, ubuntu resolutely states, “he who kills, kills all of humanity. He who saves a life, saves all of humanity.” This philosophy assumes that every person is capable of evolving to a higher plane, and that the essence of humanity is the talent to live in peace with your fellow human beings.
Compassion is key. And Africans are known for their ukwenana, which means that you give or share something without expecting anything in return. Along the same lines is ukusisa, a type of investment in which wealthy people sacrifice something for those less fortunate. A family can give up a cow or a goat, which would give a poor member of the community the opportunity to achieve economic self-sufficiency. Ukusisa doesn’t embarrass the recipient but makes him more a part of the community. Instead of saying ngiyabonga, or thank you, the recipient says ume njalo, which means: “may you stand forever”.
Ubuntu is not only a philosophy, but also practical guidelines for everyday use. It can be as simple as knowing how to greet someone. In Zimbabwe’s Shona language a morning conversation would go something like this:
“Mangwani. Marara sei?” (“Good morning. Did you sleep well?”)
“Ndarara, kana mararawo.” (“I slept well if you slept well.”)
As far as money goes, Africans believe that the only relevant form of wealth are assets that are visible and help the community. So a well-padded bank account says nothing and is therefore worth nothing. “Work” is also approached differently compared to most western societies. In South Africa there’s a word for “work”, that is umsebenzi, which literally means “helpfulness”.
Ubuntu teaches us the art of being human. And you don’t have to be African to put this into practice.