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        Bert hamminga Language, Reality and Truth: the African point of view

An article on these issues published as a chapter in in: hamminga, B. (ed.) Knowledge Cultures. Comparative Western and African Epistemology (Poznań Studies in the Philosophy of the Sciences and the Humanities, vol. 88) Amsterdam/New York, NY: Rodopi, 2005, more about this book,  Publisher's information http://www.rodopi.nl

ofonda nk' okaka, joi nta fondaka
what rots away is a fallen tree, a word does not rot away
(Mongo proverb)

Key bantu terms    muntu (pl. bantu), magaraomuoyo (pl.emyoyo), kintu (pl.bintu), hantu, kuntu, muzima (pl.bazima), muzimu (pl.bazimu), kizima, nommo, wilful forces

Contents:Language As A Method Of Power Transmission The Disadvantages Of Writing The Basic Structure Of The Universe As Transpiring From The Grammar Of Bantu Languages Bintu And Bantu The Conjuring Mode Non-verbal Language "Seeing" And "Hearing" Music Dance Visual Design Digression on Sad Developments Conclusion: Language, Reality and Truth Postscript: Philosophy or Anthropology? Acknowledgements Key bantu terms Literature

Language As A Method Of Power Transmission      next header 

After having studied the basic principles of logic and doctrines of philosophy of science, I felt very sure of their basic validity. I considered it to be obvious that now I should be able to convince easily adherents to all kinds of irrational beliefs and methods of belief acquisition, such as astrologists, card readers, media, and especially their "clients" as you have them around in western countries. I vividly remember the shock of my utter frustration when I experienced from my own conversations with such believers that philosophy of science did not, in my hands, turn out to have that power. And this was in contact with western people often grown up without such irrational beliefs, having acquired them individually in the course of their lives, often merely by reading some books, the words of which apparently appealed so much to them that my arguments taken from philosophy of science could not lure then back into rationality. I discovered myself unable to use philosophy of science as a "force".

The power of language. To Africans, language is a force, its power is used by every speaker. With some people, its power is larger than with others. Mbiti, J.S. (1969)  notes that the words of parents, for example, carry "power" when spoken to children, especially when spoken in moments of crisis: when blessings they "cause" good fortune, success, peace. When they are curses, they can cause al kinds of misery and sorrows. To explain this to westerners I like the metaphor of the photon: light is generally believed in the West to be an energy, transmitted in series of energy packets called photons. African speech is like western light, and its words are the photons. The speaker sends them to hit you, and they change your energy level. Sometimes upwards (for instance with messages of agreement, encouragement, good news, blessings), sometimes downwards (bad news, criticism, insults, curses). The effect of words may be reasonably small, but they may also lift you in the air, your feet floundering, or knock you down. You can emit such packets too, and this leads you into an energy relation between communicating people. Many western artists find inspiration in the African idea of language as a force. Many western authors show awareness of this "photon" aspect of words.

An ironic but famous example is a passage in Thomas Mann's Zauberberg, where a charismatic heavyweight Dutch wheat-trader Peperkorn arouses thrill when at table in the dining room of a Swiss sanatorium by just now and then saying things like "oui", or raising his glass and say "� la vie". Everyone hangs at his lips trembling, and Mann describes in detail the regrets of the Chinese tuberculosis patients at the neighbouring table who did not know French, after which the author wonders how big would have been their surprise had they been given a Chinese translation.

In Africa, words can even save your life or kill you.

The Disadvantages Of Writing        next header   previous header

As Africans, we consider it a dignity to be able to write and calculate. Traditionally, writing was not a vital part of our ways communication, and we did not calculate very precisely according to western standards. The western way of writing and calculating, however, confronts us with a major and not often fully appreciated difficulty that requires some explanation.

If at some moment we are together orally on something that is or should be done, then later on, if things change we will still be together. That is easy when months and years might vary not so predictability in their number of days, debt is seen as a relation of friendship more than some amount of animals or services, and when sun, moon and rain are the only objects to mind if you think of time. In such happy circumstances, it is not difficult to slightly change, if necessary, what we were together about. Actually, nobody would even consider it a slight change (at least not publicly). Prudent use of sloppiness serves our highest value of togetherness. This useful instrument of sloppiness is beaten off our hands by writing and calculating, by money, clock and calendar. Most of our national leaders try to keep money as sloppy a thing as it can be, we ignore clocks as much as possible, although we now are proud to have them, and even the calendars issued by our most respected journals must, by western standards, be treated with suspicion, but this only reduces, not eliminates the damage done to the effectiveness of prudent sloppiness in maintaining togetherness. To us, it seems an insult to correct someone, let alone a powerful man, by referring to a piece of paper displaying an agreement or a calendar, or a ticking little engine on your wrist. This is not the way we traditionally interact. It is impolite.

Om�kul� t�yon�: om�to n'�yon�: an elder (boss) never makes mistakes, it is the younger (inferior) who makes mistakes (proverb 759 in Ensambo edh' Abasoga, Cultural Research Centre).

On the Uganda New Vision calendar of 1999, the one month stopped a day short of the end, and the weekdays of the succeeding two months had to be renumbered by the user, though again one month later weekdays and date matched again.

On New Years Day, January 1st, 1998, I was leaving an inn on Mount Elgon (Uganda, near the Kenya border), where I had stayed for the night. While writing the bill, the owner asked me: what is the date today?

After going through incredible efforts to collect twelve documents for my Ugandan motorcycle driving licence I finally visited the Revenue Office to receive the license. I handed over all twelve documents and my passport. "What's your name?" it was asked.  Of course all twelve documents carried it, many more than once.

The interesting volume Endogenous Knowledge, Dakar: CODESRIA, 1997, edited by Paul Hountondji, known for defying the beliefs in a specific stance of African culture concerning literacy, has a table of contents that contains most of the articles of the book, but in different order and with different page numbers.

In the days before the Iraq war of 2003, United States intelligence produced a document proving that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein had made an attempt to buy raw uranium as a yellow cake from Niger. The document was immediately generally dismissed as an obvious forgery: its bore a childish signature and a wrong date.  Of course, it could have been a "forgery" in the western sense. They abound in African archives. But so do genuine documents bearing childish signatures and wrong dates. Moreover, the African criteria for what is "genuine" are different from the western ones, "genuine" roughly being understood as: made by the powerful people in charge, "false" as: not endorsed by the powerful people in charge (where the question whether they previously signed it is deemed largely irrelevant and impolite (hence dangerous) to ask.

Any attempt to derive power from reminding you of the words written, in the past, on some paper is not according to our etiquette. "You promised me…" is being rude. The other person is your friend, you should show trust in his memory of what has been agreed upon. If he does not come with the expected, forces have displaced him. It is impolite to confront him with this weakness, his inability to counter these adverse forces. And such adverse forces abound. Every day. Everywhere. To have your agreements on paper is potentially shameful for any of the parties who is to defect. Usually both will defect. It is normal. We bantu have some power, but not much. Anything can interfere. So the paper may be there, as a solemn exotic westerns sign of friendship, but we are not going to read it and ponder what it could mean if someone would speak these words to us, let alone refer to what it exactly says when problems arise. When problems arise, you solve them as friends.

So words should be heard if they are to have power. Written symbols are dead words. Words that ceased to be. They are scrap yard items. Or even better: written symbols are no words at all. Genuine words are forces leaving a muntu and going into another muntu or non-muntu force in nature. Words are sent off and received packed in sound, but it is the contents that counts, a piece of the basic substance of the universe: power.

As a philosophy teacher in Jinja I was astonished by the ease and clarity of speech by students. In carrying out an assignment to speak in class about a subject, they directed themselves in a lively and forceful way to the public. Most of them did not carry any notes, some had a tiny paper with some words. I have not observed any shyness. Their words seem to come right from their gravity centre. The talks were high above the level of European students. Very clear and very instructive for me as I was less acquainted with the subjects.

As a philosophy teacher in Jinja, I was asked by a young student to help him finish a paper for another philosophy course on my computer. I agreed curiously. It dealt with the history of scepticism. It briefly treated all sceptical doctrines in the history of philosophy. While typing, I found some statements on some philosophers that I did not properly understand. So, I asked the student: what does this mean? His answer: "I did not have time to check the meaning of those words".
What the student transpired to have been doing is concocting his paper by copying sentences from philosophy textbooks and encyclopaedias, like copying paintings.   Now, in dealing with me, something surprising happened to him: I was not looking at his paper "as a painting", but directing myself to him personally, I spoke words he had written on the paper, adding I did not know what they meant. He had not regarded it, and persevered in not regarding it as part of his assignment to check the meaning of the words he was painting -at least, that's what I made of it- on his paper.

This is not to say that a piece of paper with words can have no power. Anything can be used as a power package: a sound sequence, a bow, a leopard skin, a monkey bone. So also a piece of paper with words on it. But the words written on the paper will not transmit the power invested in the paper. You should bring it in the circumstances in which it is designed, by the muntu who created it, to exert power upon something. Then you will experience its power. The power it has comes from the word spoken by the muntu while creating it, not from what someone may have written on it.

A good example of such powerful paper is money. The purchasing power of money, especially of paper money, has made many western nineteenth and even twentieth economists wonder a lot and write thick books to "explain" it. To Africans, this power is a completely standard natural phenomenon, just as it is completely natural that weak leaders create weak money (local currency) and strong leaders create strong money (hard currency).

200USH.jpg (17585 bytes)

But 200 Uganda shilling (as shown above) is not 200 Uganda shilling because you can see, written on it, that number 200 and the Bank President's signature. It is 200 Uganda shilling because the leaders told it to be 200 Uganda shilling. And its power is equal to the power of two chicken eggs.

The price of a chicken egg in Uganda is 100 USH (in the year 2000), no matter whether the egg is big or small, old or fresh, bought right from under the chicken's back side from a country farmer or in a town shop. From 1995 to 2000, inflation was about 5% annually but the chicken egg did not take part in it: in 2000 it still was worth 100 USH everywhere under all conditions. I did try to buy for less, but even considerably increasing quantity demanded did not help. I tried to sell for more but never was able to strike such a deal.

If while employing the next piece of such paper money you find it has less power, this informs you about the power of the word of its creators in the capital.

Up: Reservations about writing

The Basic Structure Of The Universe As Transpiring From The Grammar Of Bantu Languages        next header   previous header

Alexis Kagame (La philosophie Bantu Rwandaise de l'�tre, Brussels: Academic Royale des Sciences Coloniales, 1956) undertook the effort to explain the logic of the bantu world view from the basic classification of nouns in bantu languages. These are four: muntu (pl. bantu, person), kintu (pl. bintu, impersonal force), hantu (position including time), kuntu (mode, way of being). Thus, all concepts can be given their category. All entities are forces capable to exert power on other forces. So, the world is a transforming sum total of forces exerting power on one another, thus increasing and decreasing each others power. What follows is a mix of Kagames findings and my personal experience in Busoga, Uganda, inspired by Kagames approach.

 willagen.jpg (8271 bytes)"Bantu", "humans ", includes every person who lives or ever lived. It hence includes dead ancestors (bazimu), also called spirits. Dead humans continue to wilfully interfere with the affairs of the world.

Hence, who is dead, still is. To be dead is just one way of being. About Patric Lumumba the Congoleze often say: "Il a raison", which I heared one day erroneously corrected in translation on BBC world service by: "He was right". No, ancestor Lumumba, though dead, still is, hence, is right.

Besides the muntu, there is one other kind of wilful agents: an omuoyo (pl. emyoyo). Emyoyo are spirits, but not spirits of ancestors (not bazimu). They are not born to have a human life before becoming a spirit, but spirits right from "birth".The omu-emy class is a class of what could best be called "near humans". Their singular prefix is roughly identical (omu, omw-) to that of muntu, only in the plural they are different (emy- versus aba). These near human spirits act in the world like bazimu (dead ancestors), and likewise have to be kept appeased, but usually they are more powerful. They have bodies of some kinds of animals, like snakes and leopards, or alternatively, use such animals by some kind of remote control, but also often are "seated" in in trees and rivers. Such rivers often have been given birth by human (muntu) mothers. Animal-emyoyo are protected, even saved with danger from precarious situations like being trapped in a 10 m deep latrine (as I was told concerning a leopard by a witness). The words "tree" and "river" are in this near human omu-emy class, as well as the words for different types of trees and rivers, and most things made of wood.
Though they are near humans, emyoyo (spirits born as spirits) are sharply divided from buzimu (spirits of dead ancestors) in one aspect: buzimu als always invisible, emyoyo always have a visible "body" or seat. Humans and near-humans together we shall denote with "wilful forces". Quite logically, Lusoga language, for instance, has two words for "everyone": buli muntu, referring to muntu, humans only, and buli omu, referring to really everyone, that is, including emyoyo. As a philosopher, having been told no word exists, I wish hereby to suggest a modest extension of Lusoga: omu (pl. aba) could meaningfully denote all wilful agents, "persons", including the spirits born as spirits (the emyoyo).

Bintu (impersonal forces) are for instance: utensils, plants, animals. These are forces created by a muntu (every non-muntu force is created by a muntu) and at their disposition for their survival.

Hantu is every force that has to do with the space time co-ordinate. "Here", "there", "now" and "coming" are forces in themselves. When some force is "nowing", this means that the force "now" is exerting power on it. Hantu denotes that family of forces.

Hantu makes it easy for Africans to understand modern string theory of physics.

Examples of Kuntu (mode, way of being) are forces like cold and beautiful. In Luo language for instance it is said that water "colds" and a woman "beautifuls" (Burgman), meaning that the force "coldness" is exerting power on the water, and the force "beauty" is exerting power on the woman, which again is transmitted to the person feeling this coldness and seeing this beauty.

Another Kuntu is laughter. Amos Tutuola writes in The palmwine drinker: "In this night, we got acquainted with the laughter itself, because after every one of them had stopped laughing, laughter itself did not stop. It went on for two more hours. And because the laughter had to laugh about us this night, my wife and I forgot our suffering and we joined the laughter, because the laughter had an extraordinary voice that we never heard before in our lives. How much time we spend laughing with the laughter we do not know, but we only and exclusively laughed about the laughing of the laughter, and nobody who had heard it laughing, had been able to duck out of laughing, and somebody who would have continued to laugh with the laughter would have died of his own laughing or would have fainted, because laughing is the trade of laughter, because laughter feeds itself with laughter. Finally, we asked the laughter to stop laughing, but it couldn't." (Tutuola Amos, Der Palmweintrinker, (1952) Heidelberg 1955. p.40, my trl.)

Bintu And Bantu        next header   previous header

When a muntu makes a kintu, such as a bow, a hoe or a necklace, words (hereafter referred to as nommo, in Lomongo : j�i, pl. ba�i, in Lingala: liloba, pl. maloba, in Lusoga: ek�bon�, pl. eb�bon�, in Luganda: ekig�mbo, pl. ebig�mbo) are spoken to charge the kintu with the power that it needs to perform its function.

Camara Laye writes about his father making a golden ornament. The diviner used to be present. "During the process he [the diviner BH] started speaking faster and faster, the rhythm became more and more possessive….he took part in the work in a special, almost direct and effective way. It seemed he enjoyed my fathers happiness of creating something successful and beautiful and made no secret of it; enthusiastically he grabbed the snares, got excited as if he was my father, as if the work took shape under his own hands" (Laye, Camara, Einer aus Kurussa (1953), Zurich 1954, p.36 my trl.).

Karen Blixen in Out of Africa (p. 255): Once in Meroe I saw a girl wearing a five centimeter wide leather bracelet, completely covered with turkoise miniature beads, all of them of slightly different color and with a green, light blue and ultramarin reflection; it seemed to breathe on her arm, as a result of which I would like to have it and send Farah to her to buy it. After having put it on my arm it turned out to have died. It was nothing anymore, a cheap peace of trappings I had bought.

The same kind of thing holds for plants and animals. They are creations, not made by God but by bantu and emyoyo using nommo, the "word". Nothing can be that has not been given a name by some muntu or omuoyo. Of course, making something like bougainvillea or elephant is not what an ordinary muntu deems himself capable to. But powerful spirits (ancestral spirits and emyoyo spirits) must be or have been capable to do that, because only wilful forces can create bintu. Bantu and emyoyo, "persons", living and dead, are the only wilful forces, using the other three types of forces as instruments by organised release of their powers for their purposes, sometimes good, sometimes bad. Other forces (kintu, hantu, kuntu) will neither start to exert power by themselves nor even by accident. Hence, when something happens, always some bantu or emyoyo have "done" it.
The verbs "making" and "creating", should not be taken is a very technical sense.With things like DNA technology is only related insofar for instance making a baby, free of in vitro fertilisation docters in white coats and test-tubes, just by making love, centres around a DNA process. But if people can make children without much effort in pleasurable conditions, which should be conceded by everyone, making rivers, elefants, bougainvillea and the other things you see around you must be a piece of cake (at least for ancestors and emyoyo).

Everything, bantu included, comes from bantu and emyoyo. This complete reduction of causality to the intentions of wilful forces is an astonishing deed of abstraction.

Everything results, and only results from the intentions of wilful agents.

This does not mean that

Every event that happens has been intended by some wilful agent

because, first, events often are unintended results of "fighting" agents none of whom gets exactly what he wants. And, second, events often are unintended side effects of actions of agents whose intentions have no reference whatsoever to the event. Many African tribes have a saying roughly like "Where elephants walk the grass is crushed". "Elephants" then stands for wilful agents, crushed grass being the unintended side effect of their wilful actions.

Bantu know the difference between living (trunc: zima) and being dead (trunc: zimu). Persons, animals, and plants plans can be alive, but they can also be dead. Other forces are dead by their nature, like stones, clay and other materials. A living animal or plant (a kizima: impersonal, non wilful living force) is a body unified with a shadow. When it dies, body and shadow separate and disappear by natural demolition. On death, the kizima stops both to live and to be.

Not so with a living human (muzima)! When a muntu stops living this muntu does not stop to be. Before death a muntu is a muzima (living human), after death he is a muzimu (dead human). When a baby is born, it is not yet a muntu (person), but a living kintu (kizima, impersonal living force). It becomes a living person (muzima) only after its father uses nommo to call the child's name. If the baby dies before its name has been spoken by the father, there will be no mourning because no person (muzima) has died but only a kizima. In naming, fathers use their power to make persons of their little new born impersonal forces by using language as a force acting on the baby. The name of the baby is an energy packet containing magara, the power inherited by the baby from the ancestor whose name it got. "Calling the name" hence should be understood as asking the name (that is the ancestor's power) to come. On "arrival" of the name, the baby becomes muntu. Magara is not soul, let alone the soul of the ancestor, but a "starter's pack" of the specific muntu power of this ancestor. If an ancestor is known to be very powerful, you can be sure many babies shall get his name.

This nommo-idea is also supported by Tristram Shandy's father in Laurence Sterne's The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (Volume I, Chapter XIX, York, published by the author, 1760). The intelligent reader's understanding of the matter can benefit from thrice fully and carefully reading this subtly composed Chapter.

Nommo makes your baby a muntu, but it also makes a king. The tribe of Mepe (Ghana) found that visiting Dutch unemployed Henk Otte is "inhabited" by their late king Ferdinand Gakpetor, the grandfather of his Ghanean wife. He was crowned, and during the crowning ceremony of the Dutchman the priests suddenly called the name Ferdinand Gakpetor. Otte: "When I was called by this name, people got hysteric, they started to scream and cry in excitement. This name caused outright ecstasy" (NRC Handelsblad, Guus Valk, 18-01-2000 p.3). This exstacy was - the report does not confirm to me whether Henk fully understood this himself -  aroused by the actual arrival of the spirit of the late great Ferdinand Gakpetor, "fertilizing" Henk with his ancestral power.

As a muntu you were created by your father, who was created by his father etc. That means that by yourself your are nothing. You are just a cluster of ancestral power. If you speak, some of that power is radiated. Your words are packages containing ancestral power.

Janheinz Jahn (Muntu, D�sseldorf etc.1958) reports that Matip, asking Cameroon children what is a blackboard was usually told: "that is the black wall on which you talk with the dead" (Matip, Benjamin, Afrique, nous t'ignorons, Paris 1956, p.11).

There is no thought of a law of conservation of ancestral power, that is, if somewhere power is gained by a muntu of kintu, then somewhere else power would be lost. You do not necessarily yourself lose the amount of power you transmit. There seems to be unlimited power in nature, but it can only be obtained by power transmission to you from other bantu and emyoyo.

If a muzima (a living muntu) dies, the muntu becomes a dead muntu, a muzimu. The muntu died like a kintu does, but does not cease to be (as bintu do). Bazimu lie buried on the family plot, not far from the house. They stay around, give advice, quarrel, get angry on people, have to be appeased, they behave just as they did while living (so the muzima who were close to them in life know very well how to deal with them), are integral part of the clan, deserving respect just as they did while still living. As a muntu, you will never eat or drink something before having dropped something on the ground. That is a libation to the ancestors. Choking is generally regarded as a sign that you forgot to drop your libation. So: the dead ancestors are there, directly around you. Every day, always. Just like your living family members.

The kintu-muntu distinction as a language classification of nouns has some exceptions, though. One type of plant is in many bantu languages not in the kintu class but in the same class as emuoyo: the tree. And one type of complex object also is often an exception: the river. Trees and rivers not only have bodies, you know, they even move and whisper. Trees even have a shadow. Trees and rivers may become hantu (the time-place force) of a muzimu or an omuoyo . Hence, in bantu languages, trees and rivers typically are found in the same grammatical noun class as omuoyo.

In Lusoga for instance, tree is omuti (pl. emiti) and river omugga (pl. emygga). But, to be honest, this language omu-emi noun class contains some items of which I have not yet obtained a satisfactory explanation, such as time, rope and latrine. (Korse, P. A Lusoga Grammar, Jinja: Cultural Research Centre)

This is one of the features that created the western misunderstanding of Africans as "animists" believing "everything has a soul". In fact Africans do not have the primitive western superstition of believing in "souls" at all.

The Conjuring Mode        next header   previous header

The whole system of forces is set into the motion of power transmission by means of power exertion by nommo, the word. The nommo, the word, is an "energy packet", wilfully sent by a muntu or emuoyo. All power a muntu disposes of comes from nommo sent to him from other bantu and emyoyo, either directly or through the medium of other forces (kintu, hantu, kuntu). You have no means to create power by yourself. The only way to obtain power is "heritage", gift, from bantu of your genealogical tree: father, grandfather and all ancestors to any degree or from an omuoyo. To make your ancestors feel you deserve the power they can give you, you observe taboos, you obey  rules, you obey powerful bantu, you pray, you clap, you sing, you make music, you dance and you sacrifice.

I know of no better way to explain the idea of nommo than Janheinz Jahn did in his Muntu, by selecting and explaining words from Ogotomm�li (Written down by Griaule, Marcel, Dieu d' eau, Paris, 1948) We shall follow Jahn literally for a while:

" 'Nommo', Ogotomm�li says, 'is water and glow. The power of life that charges the word, flows out of the mouth in vapour which is water and word'. Nommo hence is water, glow and semen in one word. Nommo, the power of life, is the liquid as such, is a unity of mental-physical liquidity that gives life to everything, permeates and affects everything. 'The power of life of the earth', Ogotomm�li speaks, 'is water. Equally, the blood is coming from water. Even in stones you find this power, because humidity is in everything.' And since man is master of the art of the word, he is the director of the power of life. He is receiving this power through the word, speaks it to other people and thus implements the meaning of life. That is why Ogotomm�li says: 'The word is for all in this world; one should exchange it to make it coming and going, because it is good to give and take the powers of life.' Even engendering a person, resulting, as it does, not only in a physically, but at the same time in a spiritually living being -muzima- is not merely an engendering by semen, but at the same time an engendering by the word. In his plastic language Ogotomm�li puts it thus: 'The good word goes, also if received by the ear [a genital as well, as Ogotomm�li states elsewhere, because it receives the fertile semen of the word], directly to the genitals and turns around the womb like the copper spiral does around the sun. This water-word yields the humidity necessary for procreation and keeps it level, and by means of this humidity nommo lets a water-semen cell penetrate in the womb. It changes the water of the word into semen and shapes it like a human, incited with nommo…..

All efforts of mankind, every movement in nature is rests upon the word, upon the life-creating power of the word, that is water and glow and semen and nommo, that therefore is the power of life itself. The word liberates the 'clotted' powers of the minerals, prompts plants and animals into action, hence stimulates bintu, the things [I prefer 'impersonal powers' to 'things' BH] into meaningful behaviour. The word of the muntu -and muntu comprises living humans, the dead the spirits and the gods- is the effective power causing the movement of 'things' [his quotation marks suggest that Jahn is not too happy with 'things' either BH] en the continuation of that movement. All the other action is only addition. Amma, 'the big progenitor', created the world by the semen of the word.

For everything happening in the world, for fertility and drought, for disease and recovery, for good luck and bad luck therefore, some muntu is responsible; a human, a dead person, an orisja. The diviner tells you where the word causing the misfortune came from, the medicine man knows the counter-word which is stronger and thus can avert the misfortune, the disease. All so vehemently defamed magic practices rest upon the practice of nommo.

No 'medicine', 'talisman', 'magic horn', not even the poisons work without the word. If they have not been given words, they have no meaning. Just by themselves they are capable of no activity whatsoever. Only the intelligence of the word releases the forces and make them work. Substances, minerals, juices are nothing but the 'vessels' of the word, of nommo. Nommo is the concretum by which the abstract principle magara realises itself"……

…..The word as such is not charged with feeling, it does not contain ideas, neither is it an idea, nor an image in the European sense. It is only the vocal representation of an object and has no cultural value as such. It is the muntu who gives the word a cultural meaning, by turning it into word-semen or image. If an African replaces one word with another and makes an image of this word in the same way he did in his original language, he retains the essence of his original language, the creative transformation of the spoken. Not the vocabulary, but the way in which the language is treated is essential to the language of his land of origin. Kuntu, the way in which, is an independent force. The character of the African culture finds its expression in kuntu. "

That means that what makes language to an African language is its use in the African way. There is no restriction on the sound sequences employed; they could be taken from any language, English included. It is the power transmission that that counts. They come from the speaker who controls the art of African speaking. Language is a force. But that is only because muntu supplies power to the language. The muntu is the source of the power. Thus the word, the medium of speach, is interpreted as the "packet" or "container" or "(blood)vessel" that persons employ to send the energy around that keeps the universe moving. And it is the only way power in the universe is transmitted. And transmission of power is actually all that is happening in the universe. Compared to that, what westerners call language obviously pales into insignificance.

Ogotomm�li explains why water is not kintu, not in this class where you find animals, plants and stone. All watery forces, like rivers, channels, brooks, are in Lusoga at least, the omu emy class.

Herakleitos "...water becomes soul" (36). "For the soul, it is passion [or death], to become humid... " (77).

This does not mean that in African belief, whites do not use language as a force. Quite contrarily, Africans normally assume that whites do use language as a force, like they do themselves. This gives rise to a host of misunderstandings: the technical power of the West is lightly assumed to come your way in the word of any white crook of any western christian sect.

Language fertilises, Ogotomm�li says. That humid fertilising semen of language is not the kind of thing that you allow to dry on paper! And being fertilised is a thing you want to be done to you by your loved ones from nearby, in this splendid sexual organ, the ear, and not a thing you allow to be done to you by someone you do not know, someone far away or even long dead. In the West we nowadays do in vitro fertilisation in cases of unavoidable medical necessity. Likewise, the African nowadays sometimes reads written words (say, the manual of his new TV). Born out of necessity. To be avoided as much as possible.

Language. Speaking. Every muntu speaks roughly the way the God of Jews, christians and Muslims spoke when creating the earth: "Let there be…". That is, your words transmit power that you use to realise your intentions. This "Let there be…" mode of speaking might be called the conjuring mode. The only difference between African bantu and the idea of God in religions originating from the Jewish is that the amount of power you have as a muntu is considered to be little. It is what your ancestors have been able and willing to give you. As a muntu, your speech is essentially conjuring. God, as conceived by bantu, is not a person (muntu) and hence does not conjure, does not transmit power, does not use the word (nommo). In most tribes, a muntu does not pray to God. He prays to bazimu and emyoyo: ancestors and other spirits.

Every father can, as we have seen, put the force of magara in his kintu baby, turning it into a muntu by giving the baby its name.

Westerners hearing a song like this on a CD

will not easily hear the power of the words. That is because it is sung in a recording studio. The words are not given power by the singers. Hence the song is meaningless in the African sense (it has only meaning in the western sense: the "dictionary meaning" of the words). But when you hear it in a local language standing with the singers in the burning sun when the rain time is late it will be different. If you have not lost all your feelings in your western upbringing, you will feel the punch the words give you. You will easily understand that often the rain indeed comes….

When you are on the road and ask how to get somewhere, and how far it is, you will always hear: "it's not far". That is meant to be a service: saying this will make it not far. If yet it is, they still use the little power they have available in your interest, which is very kind. And surely they have given you courage (power), at least until you discover you'll not be there before dark… It is wrong to infer from it still being far that people were lying. What they did is try to help you by saying "it's not far" in the conjuring mode.

Non-verbal Language       next header   previous header

"Will you do it?"
"I'll do it."
And then it's not done, westerners often complain about Africans.

Though word, as nommo, is central to African physics, to properly feel what specific force is in the words spoken by an African one cannot limit oneself to merely being open to the semantic content, the "dictionary-meaning" of the words that are spoken. In receiving power from a muntu, you should open yourself to the muntu in his entirety, not only to the semantic content to which the knowledge of vocabulary resident in your brains map the words spoken by the muntu. If you shake a muntu's hand, you should feel this hand carefully. The hand speaks. You should "hear" it. And one might need pages of words to write what some hand sometimes said. The body speaks. In Africa, learning to speak with your body is at least as demanding as learning to speak with your mouth and vocal cords. The dance is a method of expression that everybody is supposed to master just like speech. So African communication primarily involves feeling ("hearing"), and in addition to that watching too.

If muntu I'll-Do-It makes a relaxed and balanced impression, you can trust it will be done. But he may radiate some lack of determination. That means he may sincerely hope he will be able to do it, but he is not sure. The phrase "I'll do it" is conjuring mode: he shows his willingness to use the power of his words to influence the circumstances in favour of the job being done. But he is not sure whether his power will suffice for it being done. There are stronger forces around, the power of which might displace our path. Thirdly, muntu I'll-Do-It may radiate outright despair. He may feel almost sure he will be unable to do it. But you never know, good luck for both of you might be around the corner and unexpectedly or even miraculously allow the job to be done. So he uses the force of his words to say: "I'll do it", even though at the same moment he feels almost sure the force of his words will be insufficient for the 'wish' ('conjured event') to realise. Thus, he still does for you what he can! In such a case, a westerner will normally misinterpret the gesture and defame the speaking of the sentence "I'll-do-it" as lack of sincerity where actually it is an act of extreme solidarity against the odds.

As is well know from psychology, an important aspect of the development of children is the refinement of motoric control. At first a baby does not seem to have a lot of detail in its body movement: is moves arms and legs almost as entire wholes, is has no control over individual fingers, and the repertoire of sounds is more controlled by pressure of the breathing muscles then those muscles it will later use to speak words. Yet, everybody knows, babies talk. And mothers understand them very clearly. At this stage, you can move a baby to any culture, and there will be no problem.

The next stage, far before words, let alone meaning of words gets controlled, facial language starts to develop.

Little children rely so much on facial expression that I can be with bantu children for hours without realising we control only a few common words. Our bodies and faces do the talking. Then we play, they bring me fruit, take me to the cows. Western children do the same: they do not rely heavily on the semantics of language. White adults, though, if they are from the southern tribes of Europe often simply neglect you if they judge your control of their language to be insufficient. White adults from the Germanic tribes tend to feel highly embarrassed when having to deal with someone whose language is not controlled by them. Adult bantu, having alternatives to words, are usually much less embarrassed and both ready and able to find a way through.

An African community is a togetherness that is very tense and close, densely connected by streams of energy packets. When they clap with one hundred, you hear one single clap, as if they are connected by the kind of neurones that within a human or animal body perfectly harmonise the movements of the body's muscles. The perfectly regular clap sequence is the "basic sentence" of power transmission medium in Africa.

In the basic clap, the hands meet as perfect mirror images (left), so not skewed in the western way (right). Function of the basic clap comes close to the lines or blocs on western bloc notes, or the units of a western graph, or the pixel of a computer screen. We know a weak version of it as the "count" used in playing written music.

Left: symmetric clap, power creating (Pa!)

Right: skewed clap, power consuming (Bfff)



Westerners clap at the end of a performance. The public is charged by the performance and through clapping, they discharge: "Bfff, bfff, bfff….. ". The skewed clap is power consuming. "Applause" is unknown in traditional Africa, for the simple reason that African clapping is charging: "Pa!, pa!, pa!…". Needless to say, the hand is a voice that speaks just like mouth and vocal cords. As a voice, the clap fertilises the ear. And the ear feeds again the clapping hands with power. African clapping starts a resonating standing oscillation (see below) and is not, like it is in the West, the changeover to a relaxed after concert dinner.

If you watch dance in Africa, even the bodies as a whole seem to be interconnected by ultra sophisticated wireless communication media. These media all are forces. The movements of the body in the dance are ultimately defined on the basic clap. What in the West is called "language" is not the conjuring power transmission but the mere exchange of semantic information. In Africa, that is only one subsidiary aspect of language, and of communication generally.

For whites the other aspects could best, for a start, be called "non-verbal modes of expression": music, dance, theatre, sculpture, painting. In Africa, these forces do the same as verbal language: transmission of power from one muntu to another, directly or indirectly over bintu, hantu and kuntu. Just as language is not "art", dance, theatre, sculpture, painting is not "art" in the western sense: amusement for some who have money and think they have "taste". It has nothing to do with such kinds of artificialities; in Africa, it is the real thing: the channelling of power, the fundamental physics of the universe. It is the sole condition for survival and vitality of every muntu. It is through these channels that power reaches you that ultimately determines how successful you will be in life. That means: how successful you will be in acquiring a rich and steady supply of food, shelter, wives and children. This is illustrated by the fact that almost all African languages denote "good" and "beautiful" with the one and the same word, a word that usually really should be translated with "of quality" or "effective" (in Lusoga and Luganda: obulungi, see  Jahn p. 165,  Kagam� p. 385).

Seeing And "Hearing"        next header   previous header

In attempting to understand what whites could best call "non-verbal" communication, we at the same time find another reason why letters written on paper have no power almost anywhere in Africa:  feeling, smelling and hearing fall under one general category of sensing, for which almost invariably the same word is used as for hearing proper. (like ndoka in Lomongo, okuwulira in Lusoga and Luganda). This general African category of non-visual sensing we shall denote with Hearing (capital H). The other category is pretty much what whites call seeing. The power mainly comes to you by Hearing. And you transmit power mainly by making it Heard. The visual, though important, is secondary. So, for instance, the visual representations of words have no power for a muntu who just receives the paper on which the words are represented.

David Lamb, among the first group of journalists entering Uganda president Idi Amin's house after his escape to Libya in 1979 found huge stock piles of unopened letters of foreign ambassadors, ministers and presidents.

Karen Blixen (Out of Africa) about her young Kikuju cook: "His memory for recipes was awesome. He could not read en did not know English, so cookbooks had no value to him, but he piled up everything ever taught to him, with the help of his own system that I never got hold on, in his unattractive head. He named the diverse dishes after some event on the day he had learned to make them, so he spoke of the sauce of the 'lightning that struck in the tree', and the sauce of 'the grey horse that died'".

A blackboard's signs kan get nommo, meaning, though written: by the words the teacher speaks when the signs are written, and by the sounds the chalk makes while being used to write on the blackboard. 

Only one thing is purely visual: the shadow joining the body of some force when it starts its life, and leaves it again on death. Both a muzima and a kizima are unifications of body (Hearable and visible) and shadow (only visible).

Bazima get, in addition, that third force magara when their fathers name them with nommo.

In the West, you have seers, visionaries. Not in Africa. Diviners are Hearers (that is feelers, smellers, ear-hearers).

Once I consulted a diviner to ask what I should do about the nine year old daughter of my sister who was afraid to go sleep alone. His procedure was to grab around in a heap of shells, his staring, not-seeing eyes only stressing his concentration on his feeling. A few days later a spirit was reported to have traveled to Holland and to have arrested two fish shaped evil spirits in the bedroom of the girl. I called the girl to tell her. That indeed solved the problem. Completely.

At christmas, huts and houses have paper hanging at walls and ceilings, cut in beautiful forms by means of folding, cutting and then unfolding again. The paper used is old school notebooks. Thus I had the opportunity to read a lot of math-work done by the children. They learn a lot. Up to differentiation and integration on high school. But I saw no graphs, no pictures at all. Only formula's.

Basoga (South Eastern Uganda) do not count days, they count nights. Asked whether this means that to Basoga nights are more important than days, the answer given is unambiguously yes. And the reason is that when its dark you procreate, the most important thing in life. This is another angle from which the visible is considered secondary.

Most important rituals are in complete dark. Visiting spirits make themselves heard and felt to nightly visitors of pitch-dark shrines. Light, that is vision, disturbs.

In African dance, Hearing and making Heard is the most powerful engine of power generation, you Hear the rhythm of drums, you Hear your own body moving with the rhythm of the drums, you Hear the dead and the spirits coming by the way your body unifies which the rhythms.

The primary explanation of the western stress on seeing as opposed to Hearing (big H) stems from the western tradition, pervasive at least until the 70's of the last century, and still preached in many quarters to discourage bodily interaction among adolescents. The result is a widespread pathological substitution among adolescents of feeling with vision, creating an undue overconcentration on how people look and a vulnerability to sexual overstimulation by watching images. Once such habits are acquired in adolescence they become part of someone's basic character, and once such characters dominate a society, its culture becomes a culture one sidedly leaning on the visual.

"Having the music", to many western people means having the piece of paper on which symbols are written that allow those who are capable to motorically processing these visible symbols to produce the sounds intended by the composer. Also, in the West there is frequent talk of the "color" of a sound (e.g. in orchestration), while the typical African, it is my hunch, is likely to find, the other way around, the "sound" (or "feeling") of a color a more powerful expression.

The worrying shift, in the West,  of stress towards the visual at the expense of the Hearable is being aggravated by the developments in communication techniques: literacy, especially the stress in early education on learning to read has a clear role in it, but  once relations (far from only working relations!) are maintained over the internet, the visual - pace all amusing sounds a computer can make - has finally conquered the exclusive right to stear the compass of the western mind.

All this amounts to a primacy, in African culture, of what in the West is called intuitive understanding of fellow humans (and animals). In the West, this is often considered to be a "female" virtue. After some good exercise one can experience, in a mixed group of westerners and Africans, astonishing examples of inferiority of the former as compared to latter in intuitive understanding.

No wonder, then, the African dominance of Hearing as the means of inquiry contrasts in quite a remarkable way to the western paradigm idea's of science, distorted as they are by the idolatry of the visual: western scientific observation is typically illustrated with visual examples like seeing some liquid turn red or blue, seeing a pointer at some number, seeing at which mark of a measuring rod some object ends. If what one observes is actually a sound (animal studies) or rhythm (heart rhythm), things seems to get seriously scientific only after such non visual observations are visualized in oscilloscopes, heart films, pictures of frequency statistics etc. This primitive leaning upon visual impressions can be found even in western "scientific" research on human beings: strong western currents in human science like behaviourism attribute primary importance to what one can see. The main type of observations one can do on humans: feelings and intentions, are thought to lack suffici�nt "objectivity". As a result, at western universities the study of the human being is usually left to those who neither have a lot of understanding of it nor wish to gain any.

Be this as it may, it should be clear that in a type of society like the classical African where the willful subjects (humans and spirits) are the movers of the world, Hearing (big H) is the main thing you should be able to, and seeing is decidedly secondary. As a result there is no idea, like in many other cultures, of "religious" phenomena being "transcendental". The "transcendental" features only in answers to questions of those who regard "invisibility" as an primary problem. Where one relies on the "Hearable" rather than the visible, everything is simply here in this world and there is no need for a "transcendental". Neither is there any African notion resembling the modern western scientific remnant of the problem of the transcendental, the problem of "theoretical terms". 

Music       next header    previous header

If we pass over the border of verbal and non-verbal expressions as whites conceive it, one can think of going from speech to music. In Africa, however, there is no distinction between speech and music. A muntu can speak on a drum, a snare or a horn just as well as when he uses his mouth and vocal cords (or, for that matter, his hands). And when he uses his mouth and vocal cords, he always makes music. Bantu languages are rhythmical and tonal. White frames of speech are made of consonants: you usually still understand the sentence if you only have the consonants: Wht frms f spch r md f cnsnnts. You will not get away with the vowels only: ie ae o ee ae ae o ooa. In bantu languages, this is the other way around: the vowels make up the frame. Obviously, bantu distinguish many more vowels than are distinguished in western languages. Learning to speak a bantu language is a musical education.

When I first met one of my brothers in Uganda, he introduced himself to me as "Stsj�rtsjie Man". That's what they called him. "Stsj�rtsjie" turn out to be derived from "security". It's the vowels of the word that count to this brother of mine, and the "e" and "i" of "security" are not even considered to be real vowels. Left with a damaged card, whites would rather be stuck with s c r t m n than e u i y a. But a Musamia (muntu from Samia tribe) like Stsj�rtsjie Man would no doubt prefer � ie a. He went through all this trouble of learning to say "stsj" only to be counted as a member of the English speaking community. To himself, it means little.

When a muntu sings, he does the same as when he speaks: power generation. Singing just adds to the power. 

Platoons of running African soldiers sing: singing words is more important fuel for running than unhindered breathing!

drumming.jpg (19418 bytes)All African traditions know the drum language, though less and less people speak it. Whites often erroneously consider this as a type of "Morse code". But the drum tones really consist of rhythmic sequences of timbres closely related to the ones you would Hear when the muntu uses his mouth and vocal chords instead. Drum makers and players acquire esteem according to the degree they can make the drum sound like a muntu. Whites tend to think drums have "no tone". But it is tone, all the different tones that you can play on one and the same drum that makes a drum to what it is designed to be: a word generating and re�nforcing power. A mouth.

Photo above right: the author joining the drums with his self designed "recoprano" (European recorder with reed powered soprano saxophone mouthpiece).

Dance       next header    previous header

dancing.jpg (40675 bytes)I have done some dancing with Africans and it is my clear impression that to them, dance starts as a reinforcement of a tonal rhythmical movement created by clapping and voice. Drums is the next item to add.

Photo right: the author learning some dancing from experienced drum artisans in Bufulubi (Busoga, Uganda). Mzee (head of family) himself is doing the drumming (far right in the foreground). There is no teaching by slow motion rehearsal of steps while counting and other "brainy" things you find on western dancing schools. You just start and are "loaded" by the other dancers.

Clapping makes you at the same time both feel your own clap in your arm muscles and hands, and hear it with your ear. Those two types of Hearing reinforce each other in the course of events that will follow.

For this reinforcement the symmetric clap is far more effective than the western skewed clap.

Drumming and singing likewise makes you sense both the sound producing movements of your body and the vibration of your ears that results from the sound you make. You are together with people. There is mutual fertilisation and self-fertilisation. Bodies synchronise. The medium of synchronisation is not the visual but the Hearable: your own body, and the rhythmical power it receives through sounds. To enforce this process of synchronisation and fertilisation, people start dancing. Dancing creates internal body signals: you feel the rhythm of your own movement, you feel how your body starts not only to resonate rhythmical power entering it, but also to resonate its own movements.

What finally comes about can best be compared to what engineers call a "standing oscillation", the kind of forces that can destroy a bridge when a platoon of soldiers passes if marching synchronically (that is why before a bridge the command "out of step" should be given). At a certain moment in this process the complete standing oscillation is attained but the bridge of the African dance is designed to endure. It will not collapse. It will keep on vibrating with oscillation of increasing amplitude. The dancing radiates an enormous energy, yet neither players nor clappers nor singers nor dancers feel they spend any. It seems to them they finished their work by lighting the fire, it spreads and deepens by itself. Their bodies seem to move automatically, do not anymore feel like their own, their bodies are "used" by the dance. The dance itself has become a force that makes people float around effortlessly.

Needless to say these powers radiated by the force "dance" must come from bantu and emyoyo. Usually the dancing is thought to be a complex of many powers, coming from many rhythms and even many metrics (polyrhythmics, polymetrics), and every rhythm is a force sent by a spirit who makes you move according to that rhythm. In polyrhythmic dance different dancers are "possessed" by different rhythms, they are conceived to be "mounted" by different spirits.

There is no better way to get convinced of the completely literal truth of the basic bantu language structure and basic bantu power and force philosophy relative to bantu reality than to join them in clapping, singing, drumming and dancing.

It made early missionaries very afraid (for the hidden power in themselves their  God makes them fear to bring out), so in liturgy, every move in the direction of the standing oscillation is abhorred. In the beginning they were afraid of any drumming whatsoever. Nowadays, drumming gets more common among christian and muslim zealots, but only regularly on quarter notes, sometimes eighths, sometimes even daringly skipping one note in the measure, but you will never hear the really powerful skips, such as on the one or the three. If Modern African christian church music would be taken seriously by Africans it would transmit a disastrous weakness and destroy vital power so much that it would take its visiting believers the whole rest of the week to recover from. But for this and other reasons traditional bantu power allows the Middle East religions to be resident in the outward bounds of bantu conciousness only. Bantu vital roots span dimensions completely lacking in every type of Middle East religious conciousness.  The two can relate to each other only due to the Machiavellism Africans feature as soon as it come to practical and superficial things like in what temple to worship, and what rules to follow in worship, dress, and other matters relevant the image outsiders are meant to get.

Westerners have the party dance where two people feel each others movements and move together (and where the typical western man feel clumsy and shy) and the art-dance on stage, where a group of trained professionals worked hard to memorise a choreography and others watch its performance. African dance has little to do with art dance: if as a muntu you do not join the dancing you sing and the least you do is clapping. You are always part of it and I have to disagree here with Janheinz Jahn who claims the "most African and Afro-American dances are dances to watch, even if the public participates". No! Dancing is to generate and call power with the help of everyone around, and the least of purposes is to drag everybody in. There is no strict dividing line between performers and watchers, as far as there is, it changes position continuously. You might be "public" at one moment. In terms of ancient Greek theatre this "public" is more choir than public; there is not really a concept of "public". A few seconds later you might be the "main actor". The basic thing is being together and allowing some moments for everybody to be in the centre. Everybody! Power reveals itself to you through your Hearing senses (that is feeling, smelling and ear-hearing), not visually. These Hearing senses also signal when you clap, sing, drum and dance, simply different stages of essentially the same activity of power generation and reception.

In stepping from speech to music and then to dance, nothing essential changes in the nature of communication: it remains by nature a process of power transmission from bantu, living and dead, to any other force, increasing or decreasing the addressee's power and vitality. What, roughly, increases is the power loads transmitted. On average, music carries more and dance carries most. Music and dance add power to an act of power transmission.

Visual Design       next header    previous header

With visual design we enter a part of African communication far less important than visual design in the West. Though you can Hear a mask or an image by touching it, and you see people doing that a lot, this is not what it's made for. It's made to be seen. Vision, though very important to find your way and catch an animal, is not a medium of power transmission.

In the dance, a muntu dancing a rhythm is "mounted by" the spirit of that rhythm. Without a mask that would be clear enough, nevertheless masks representing this spirit are often made by a wood engraver and worn by the dancer specialised in that spirit. It adds to the impact of the spirits power. Also, the spirit might feel insulted if no trouble is done to prepare a beautiful mask for him. He may stay away or restrict himself to a weak show.

This is not a disappointment from an amusement point of view. The spirit may protect against negative forces that are a threat to life itself. We do not deal with trifles here, these often are matters of life and death.

There are four basic types of (mask) dances:

  1. Where the spirits come and ride dancers.
  2. Where the dancers please spirits by performing for them
  3. Where the dancers are performing actors representing a spirit who does not come.
  4. Comedy, entertainment and satire

The next step is that you may wish a spirit to be near you. You might decide to promote that by ordering a sculpture of it to put into your house. This brings us close to writing, because writing is just one type of visual design. A sculpture is nothing if nobody gives it power. Janheinz Jahn explains this with great clarity:

It is the word ….that makes something a different power from what is was before, to what it should be: an image. The name giving determines what is expressed. The woodcarver makes a little sculpture while he says: 'This piece of wood is Erinle'. … Next, he makes a second sculpture while he says: 'This piece of wood is the king of Ondo'. It could well be that the two sculptures are indistinguishable. Yet, the first is Erinle and the second is the king of Ondo, because not the shape, but name giving through nommo determines what the sculpture represents. African sculpture does not display individual expression or psychology because those individual aspects are not attributed by the chisel but by the word…..

Now suppose the woodcarver made and named a series of indistinguishable sculptures and named them, but they got mixed up. …..The sculptures have lost their force and can regain force only by renaming….The user can also deprive an image of its "face" by saying: 'You do not mean anything to me anymore'….This explains why Africans treat sculptures deprived of their faces without care. (I freely followed Janheinz Jahn in his Muntu).

Now think of such a thing as a business contract. As a piece of paper shaped by a writer it is in the category of kintu. It can be named: "this is my friendship with by brother XXX". But it can be deprived of its face. Who is its user? If both parties are user, they should agree on the name. Anyway, its shape does not matter, visual shape is not individual in Africa, or, stated differently: naming can never be done visually, so the paper representing the contract could just as well be blank!

Papers with written words are bintu that can represent individuality only by virtue of name giving: nommo. But the nommo is the exclusive force attributing the individuality, so the paper has no individuality in itself. Its individual representation is "granted" and can be withdrawn.

The same holds for amulets, objects carrying powers against different kinds of evils and misfortunes as a result of being charged by a diviner. The amulet, a stone, bone, piece of skin, tooth or whatever, is by itself kintu. The diviner loads it with power by means of ancestral and spiritual nommo. If you fail to pay, he'll remove it and your amulet is the same old worthless kintu again.

There frequently is an exception to the rule that the dead forces of nature, such as stone, water, minerals, animal skin are kintu if unnamed. The exception is wood. A tree can have been named by a spirit as its "seat". Because it is named already, special procedures may be needed to make a mask or sculpture made from it represent some muntu.

Digression on Sad Developments         previous header     next header

As a result of the technical power of primitive western savagery, nowadays, one finds some very worrying developments in Africa: adopting the tokens western culture is a fashion in the elite: pretending to be a visual reader of meaning, one likes to wear glasses.

In some African circles power is not anymore generated by dance.   Once, in an organised school festivity that I attended, a woman chief inspector came in, being handed over several tens of sheets of paper by her assistant, taking her glasses (with 0 diopter glasses due to her completely healthy eyes), and started to read: "Kampala, the twenty second of ….. nineteen ….. It is my task to ….." and so on and so forth, this lasted for almost an hour. Bantu are very good in quietly sitting, and waiting till something they do not understand is over, especially when the people going through the ceremony are thought powerful. This time however, after some forty minutes, the hall started to mumble a little.

Nowadays, you can find the richer bantu (with western suits, mobile phones and private cars) in churches clapping skewed (!), the way they see the westerners do.

Conclusion: Language, Reality and Truth         next header    previous header

From the African point of view God, or the Universe, is Power. The Universe consists of forces. They classify in

  1. Wilful forces, here denoted by "omu" (pl: "aba" or "emy"). There are two kinds: bantu (humans, alive and those who are dead, spirits), and b) emyoyo (non human spirits)
  2. Kintu (non-person forces), including animals, plants and chemical substances (but water is in the omu emy class).
  3. Kuntu (how forces). If some force finds itself in the modality standing, living, being dead, the respective how-force has acted on it.
  4. Hantu (where forces). If some force is at a certain place at a certain time, the where-force of this place-time has been acting on it.

Language from an African point of view is power transmission. Words are power packets sent to an addressee. Though power can be transmitted from any kind of force to any other kind of force in any of the four categories, only bantu and emyoyo can be ultimate intentional causes ("starting points") of power transmission process. Reality might not perfectly meet the intentions of any the wilful agents who make it in the struggle for life. But Reality is entirely the -partly unintended- result of actions with intentions by wilful agents. Truth is not a "passive" correspondence of statement with fact, but

All Truth is actively realized by wilful agents using their power in vital competition.

The more powerful you are, the bigger will be your share of Truth. A power transmission process can be complicated and work highly indirectly though many, even uncountable mediating forces of any of the four categories. A muntu should not expect to be able to keep track of more than a very tiny part of it.

In this universe of power transmission muntu feels completely dependent of what others are willing to give him. He constantly directs himself to forces where he is likely to be the benefactor. He is using the little power he has to get some more, like bait might make you catch a fish.

One of the methods of "bait producing" power generation frequently used is resonance: creating a standing oscillation, in the way a platoon of marching soldiers can destroy a bridge. This is done by enforcing speech with the help of clapping, singing, drumming and dancing (in roughly that order of intensity).

There is no law of conservation of power. A muntu has no such thing as a stock of power that necessarily diminishes when he transmits some to others. When you transmit, this might cost you power, you may afterward just want to sit and to sleep, you may be hungry (eating refuels you with power of course), but it may even make you feel good, satisfied about what you have done, make you feel strong and increase your vitality.

Most acts of power transmission are quite understandable to westerners, who are used to do the same in their lives, only naming them less appropriately, some others the white can get used to without much effort. In most "magic" there's little magic.

Power transmitted enters the ear or the addressee. Or rather the Ear, including ear, smelling sense and feeling sense. The Ear is a genital. The eye is useful but not a genital. The only essential task of the eye is seeing whether a body has a shadow. If it has, it lives. Any visual design will represent only after being told by the spoken word of a muntu what it is. Nothing can have an "objective" meaning of its own. When the bazungu (foreign humans) introduced his written letters on paper, they naturally fell in that category: visual designs that get meaning only after the user has told to the visual design what is represents. Like any visual design, written words can have no meaning in themselves.

Since the visual is, in classical African culture, decisively secondary to the "Hearable" (hearable, feelable, sensable), the idolatry of visual observation as the empirical basis of science as practised in the West is fundamentally alien to it.

In essence, speech, music, dance and imagery is all the same. Power is the thing you need in life. There are many types of power you need: knowledge, health, energy, agility, shrewdness, rain, food, children and so on. You get it from other bantu and emyoyo by power transmission: speech, song, music, dance. So African poetry, music and dance are closer to western knowledge (and western transmission of knowledge, like science, schooling and training) than to western art.

And that is the reason why I had to devote so much attention to what is erroneously called African "art". By far the most things thought by westerners to be "art" in Africa are certainly not. It is westerners who have pushed their most talented communicators: singers, musicians, dancers, actors, painters, sculptors, writers to the sideline of their own society by calling them "artists" and putting them and their work at special places where people seldom come, and only in the in the less serious part of their time called "leisure time". In traditional Africa, talented communicators are in the centre of society. They are in charge of perpetuating the power transmission to where it is needed: those who still have to gain vitality and power, the young, those who for some reason lost power (like the sick) and in general to anyone who could use some more, and who couldn't?

"Musicians" like Bob Marley, Fela Kuti and Lucky Dube, no African will be tired to explain the westerner, are, to the African, much more than musicians in the western sense of the word. To call them "musicians" is to focus on the vehicle of communication rather than on what is transmitted.

It is often noticed that beautiful pieces of "Art", made by Africans with great effort, can get treated without any care, say to fill a roof hole or to burn. That visual design kintu has been someone, but lost its face, hence its value. Only who cherishes the visual as meaningful in itself, on its own, without name giving by nommo, could hang such a thing at the wall and enjoy looking at it. To the African, it simply is no one and hence of no other value than the kintu value of its materials.

The question can finally be asked whether not even the word as a sound must be given a name by nommo, before it can carry power. It might even be that the word, seen as a concept with an established meaning in a language might be considered kintu as long as not given a name by nommo. I have thus far not been able to find ways to conclusively test these hypotheses.

Postscript: Philosophy or Anthropology?

The problem westerners have in trying to understand the bantu world view originates from some  primitive ideas on language and truth prevailing in western culture, religion, philosophy and science.

There is a general belief in "objective" facts, facts independent of persons. By references to these "facts" their is a widespread belief that facts can be described. That such descriptions can be neatly translated from one language in another. Hence there is believed to be a generic literal description of the facts that is literally "translatable" to any natural language. As soon as the White notes deviant references to what he has conjured as "fact", such deviant references are thought to be "symbolic descriptions" at best. So the western superstition amounts to a belief in an objective distinction between real and symbolic description. If westerners conclude that some other culture deems something literal that according to western believe can only be taken symbolically, this culture is called "primitive". Hence studying and explicating the African world view is thought by westerners to be anthropology, while studying and explaining western world view however is thought to be something else: philosophy. The issues dealt with in philosophy and anthropology are the same, but in philosophy one discusses the validity and tenability of the ideas studied. Anthropological work is thought to restrict itself to bringing to light some culture's world view and its coherence without arguing whether one should commit or dissociate oneself from the views studied.

This restriction of human awareness to semantics, its ensuing truth-falsehood and facts-fiction dichotomies concisely depict the primitive epistemological savagery resulting from the impersonal objectivity icon of western culture. This is why western people understand little about themselves, make fundamentally wrong decisions in their lives, why there is an epidemic vulnerability to the evil forces telling westerners, through all communication media available, what they should think, want and be.

To understand Africa properly, western concepts like theory, language, art, science and religion should best all be left home, if this were possible, which it unfortunately isn't for those raised in the West.


My thinking on the subject has been influenced by the books of Temples, Mbiti, Kagam� and Jahn than any references can reveal.
In real African life, I am endebted to the King of Spirits, now my brother, Nabamba Budhagali and his brothers, now my brothers.
I received active help and correction from Father Piet Korse, director of the Cultural Research Centre that was so kind to adopt me as an associate. Its field workers Mama Jane, Patric Kaluba en Tabetha were of great help in philosophical research using the Lusoga language and their private experiences as Basoga, not shying away from my sometimes embarassing questions.
Many Basoga, too many to mention all, have helped me a lot. Miss Margaret and Mzee, the Kafuko family, Faith, Aunt Frida, and philosopher, writer and artist Kyakulaga ‘Zon of Bugembe, whom I am proud to have found all by myself, after hearing him talk with great expertise on the art of making the catapult.
We are all together now, never to part again.

Key bantu terms   

Singular  Plural  English
muntu   bantu   human being (dead or alive)
magara   power that a new born baby obtains from its name ancestor when its father names it with nommo
omuoyo emyoyo non-muntu spirit (river, seated in tree, or sending animals)
kintu bintu impersonal force (sometimes unfortunately translated as "thing")
hantu   spacetime force (where-force)
kuntu   modality force (how-force)
muzima bazima living muntu
muzimu bazimu dead muntu (muntu-spirit)
kizima   living impersonal force
"omu" "aba" New lusoga word invented by the author to denote:  person, subject, wilful force (there are only two kinds: bantu and emyoyo), see explanation
nommo   word (sound sequence carrying power from a producer to an addressee)



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