Traditional African Philosophy And Its Value In Contemporary Society

Updated: Nov 7, 2020

I would like to look at one area of African Philosophy, which I think, if understood and utilised, could be an effective contribution in reinstating good values into our society, particularly among our young people. Before I go further, I must state that this might be a controversial topic for some of us who treat the topic of African traditions as a taboo. Many African descendants stay well clear of anything to do with Traditional African Philosophy, because of the negative stigma that was placed on it by white invaders. In Jamaica where I am from, you just have to say "obeah" and the response will either be fear, ridicule or indifference – and rightly so because obeah is mostly used to do evil. There is a misunderstanding where Traditional African Philosophy is associated with indigenous African religion and indigenous African religion is associated with obeah. Obeah is the use of spirits (ghosts) to do evil – witchcraft. Evil is evil whether it is the use of ghosts or the use of the Bible. The Bible was used to enslave Africans and take their land. Traditional African Religion is belief in the supernatural. 

Belief in the supernatural is very effective. Christianity is the largest religion in the world and what would Christianity be without belief in the supernatural? Belief is the second strongest element of the human mind - the first is knowledge. Believing in the supernatural is the foundation of the indigenous African society. The Akan religion in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, believe in an all-powerful God who was out of the reach of mortal man. Man therefore needed intermediaries to reach God. These intermediaries are the spirits. The ancestors are the good relatives, who have died and gone on to join the spirit world. Not everyone that dies becomes an ancestor. Ancestors were citizens of high moral standing who in death become intermediaries and act on their descendants' behalf. Ghosts are evil spirits while the ancestors are good spirits. The ancestors are believed to be still with the community and are still active in the life of the community. This becomes a belief, as over time, there will be no one alive who personally knew the ancestors (when they were alive). For example, no one alive today has physically met or knew Toussaint Louverture, but we believe and know from written records that he existed. Africans taught about their ancestors from childhood education straight through to adulthood. They celebrate them through initiation rites, ceremonies, stories, songs, dances, at work, at play and through all aspects of life. Through all these forms, the ancestors stay alive and continue to teach, inspire, lead, guide and protect their descendants. When we cease to acknowledge and celebrate our ancestors they are eventually forgotten and that is when they die.  

We hear the proverb – “belief kill an' belief cure”. This was and still is a fact in many African cultures that are not totally over-run by Western thought. In these communities, their belief is their reality. They believe in good and evil and they believe that evil will be punished. This belief/reality is tied up intrinsically with the ancestors and the spirits. Friends from Ghana conveyed to me what their elders told them. Before modern Christianity went to Africa, if someone stole your property, the elders would call the community together and ask for the property to be returned within a given period, or there would be serious consequences. The property would be returned because every individual in the community believed in the power of the ancestors to punish evil. Being the opposite of the evil spirits in obeah the ancestors contribute to the development of order among their families and their communities – they are good role models.  

With the replacement of indigenous religions with the European brand of Christianity in Africa, it was taught that if you have done something wrong, ask Jesus for forgiveness, and then believe or have faith that you are forgiven and the wrong you did would be wiped away. Now people steal and do all manner of evil and escape punishment. Within this process, the African ancestors have lost their power. It becomes too easy for the wrongdoer to escape punishment and the order within the African universe is turned on its head, so now there exist confusion and lawlessness. The strength of the African belief system is destroyed.  

In the work of Kwasi Wiredu, a Ghanaian philosopher, entitled "Toward Decolonising African Philosophy and Religion", he says the following: 'Where two religions are in question, in this case, the indigenous African religion and Christianity, the suggestion that religion is a matter of faith is clearly incapable of explaining a preference of one over the other. Moreover, ordinary common sense dictates that one should not jettison what is one's own in favour of what has come from abroad for no reason at all. It is, accordingly, difficult to see the faith defence as anything other than the rationalisation of an intellectual inertia born of an early subjection to evangelism, that is to say, a colonised condition of the mind.”  

My understanding is that the evidence proves that indigenous African religious beliefs have 

served the African community well in the past. What can we learn from this? What is the value of African Philosophy in contemporary society?  

I think it starts with that little word, ‘belief’. As most predominantly black countries in the west approach sixty years of independence, we need to resurrect belief in our people and belief in our youths. Belief starts in the mind and can grow into something stronger, which can transform lives. I will explain this by looking at one of my ancestors and National Heroes – Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Marcus was an ordinary child who started as a thought in his parents' minds. Through self-belief that was painstakingly developed into self-knowledge, he grew to be a powerful world leader. If we did not have the history books to teach us the Garvey story, we would not believe that one black man could have had the impact that he has had throughout the African world and especially in the USA, at a time when Black people were hanged for being black. Now in death, Marcus Garvey has reached more people than he could have ever reached alive and has given us self-belief and self-knowledge. 

That is the power of our ancestors – to bring belief to their descendants, which can ultimately lead to self-knowledge. In Jamaica, we have seven National Hero ancestors, but we have thousands of family and community Ancestors. They are not with us physically, but they have a duty to us that is even more important than when they were alive. They are extending their hands to us to connect us to our higher selves and the God within us. They are our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, etc. – our blueprints.  

How can you keep your Ancestors alive and make them of value to you? Teach the good values and respect that you have learnt from your Ancestors to your children, and show the same to your family, community and everyone you meet. If your Ancestor made a valuable contribution to the community, organise a fun programme for the community in their memory.  

Think of your Ancestors constantly and feel their presence. Always remember the good things they have done for you. Hear their voices motivating you and do not only believe but know that they are still doing the good things they once did in your life. They are alive in your memory and in your life.  

Speak to your Ancestors just as you did when they were physically with you and hear their reply. They always care for you and would never give you any advice that would hurt you.  

Speak about your Ancestors with your family (especially your children and grandchildren) and friends. Feel their presence and see their smiles.

Celebrate your Ancestors' special day (birthday, etc) by having a special meal with family members or by yourself. Feel the presence of the Ancestor with you. Make a pledge to follow your Ancestors' good example in everything you do. Keep on display in your home, photographs or something of your Ancestors to keep them alive and make them welcome.  

Use and protect the property and things that your Ancestors have left you with respect, as you would have done if they were physically here.  

Keep in mind at all times that we are here only through the blood, sweat and tears of our Ancestors and God working within them and through them.  

I have many ancestors who inspire me, but I have chosen two Ancestors who teach, inspire and guide me. My family Ancestor is my Aunt who I grew with and my community Ancestor is the Hon Marcus Mosiah Garvey. These Ancestors speak to me constantly and I see their faces, their smiles and their tears. My Aunt, through her quiet determination, my many memories of her and the difference she has made in my life. I try to emulate these characteristics. Marcus Garvey, through his words of wisdom (Book: The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey), his duty to others and his steadfastness even in the most difficult of circumstances.  

If each child was given one ancestor at birth and the values of that ancestor is impressed on that child's mind. As that child experiences success in her/his growing up that is inspired by her/his personal ancestor, pop-stars or criminals might cease to be such strong role models. The Ancestors are the foundation of African Philosophy. They are only the foundation, but we all know that a building is only as strong as its foundation.

Written by B.O.E member, Author ans Artist Opio Yaw Asante.

Find his work at here

You can also purchase his novel Off the Edge from amazon here

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