Bert hamminga Power: the African point of view        <planned addition Goto: Questions>

Power: the African point of view.
By Bert hamminga
Cultural Research Centre Jinja

The history of analysing the world -or universe- in terms of its fundamental constituents is a standard subject for students of the history of  Western philosophy.  Those fundamental constituents got different names in different times, such as atoms, monads, modi, molecules, elements, quarks and strings. As a contribution of African traditional thinking to this European history (which of course it is not), African philosophy  adds to this the force. From the traditional African point of view every "thing" is a force and all results from power exerted by forces. That goes so far as to make the term "thing", as in "everything" misleading. "Everyforce" were better.

Personal power

willagen.jpg (8271 bytes)The world consists of forces that exert power on one another. The main forces are personal or wilful forces. Wilful forces exert power in attempts to realise intentions. The class of willfull forces consists of living humans, dead humans, and spirits born as spirits. Dead humans do not live, but exist and exert personal power on events in the world, just like spirits borns as spirits. Dead humans are also called spirits. The impersonal rest of the world, stones, water, fire, plants, etc., are forces that obtained their existence and power from wilful forces. Some impersonal forces are intended creations of some wilful force (the making of a hunting bow), others are unintended side effects of the intentional acts of some wilful forces (potholes in roads, and restaurants at their sides), yet others are the result of the struggle between rival wilful forces, wilful forces with counteracting power (weapons, judicial courts). Every impersonal force is "created", it has been "charged" with power by the acts of wilful forces, even in the case few, even if none of the wilful forces are much pleased with the result. Every impersonal force, ranging from the hoe used to plough to the mountains and celestial bodies is the result of an acts of wilful forces. After creation, it is a force in its own right, exerting the power it has been charged with on personal and impersonal forces.
As a human being, you should always be alert: to avoid getting affected by adverse forces, and to profit from forces working your way. One can feel to have fairly reliable expectations on what powers forces will release and when they will do so, like one tends to think with respect to the sun and moon, but one should always remain attentive: you never know for sure what forces will do, and there is an abundance of stories about unusual and capricious behaviour of forces often thought to be reliable and regular.

A reasonably good model for the place of man in the world is the way big birds like vultures and marabus soar and circle in thermals, or the way sailors use wind and stream to reach their destination: the acting forces earth, sun, moon, wind and water are immensely complicated, their power is immense and we are no match to it. All we can do is use the little experience we have to make use of these powers when our shrewdness tells us  we can and to keep clear of them when they expose us to dangers (marabous and vultures do not usually fly in the early afternoon when hot air causes heavy turbulence). 

Employing useful and avoiding harmful forces is the art of life. Skill and shrewdness are basic African values. Hard labour is not. On the contrary: if you find yourself working hard, this is a clear sign that you are moving against the stream of forces around you, which is never a good idea: you go with the stream or you hide, but you never work yourself against them for a long time without a justifiable expectation of a considerable bounty. Think of all such toil to be in vain, which it, in this utterly capricious world, might very well be! And even worse: forces with such heavy powers as you appear to labour against might not appreciate at all your attempts to defy them.

Power (such as rain, hunting game, money, children) is ultimately given to you by wilful forces that intend your personal well being. The basic human habitus is that of attentive and respectful waiting for the favours of such forces.

Power in the African sense should be thought of as everything that can enhance or diminish a persons vitality. Vitality is defined in the practical terms of food, shelter, procreation partners, children. African philosophy is properly to be called vitalitarianism. In this sense traditional Africans are vitality maximisers.

forcepow.jpg (40059 bytes)What can you do? All power comes to you from forces (see illustration right), personal (living people, ancestors) and impersonal (animals, food, tools). Since all power, in a kind of tree shape  ultimately comes from wilful forces, you should know the forces around (for knowledge, of course a force itself, click here). Once you know which personal forces influence your scene, it is your task to understand how not to displease them and how, possibly to appease them by rendering services that might be appreciated. This you do to powerful living people, powerful dead people and spirits. You can do so by giving valuables (with respect to the dead and the spirits this is libation) and by display of your positive attitude, which you can do by using the forces language, music and dance. The tactics is nicely described by "bait-producing": you give some in the hope to receive, but since those to whom you give and to whom you show your positive attitude are much more powerful than you, the hope is that even the smallest positive action from their side will carry you way to your targets.

In the partial ordering structure of the power tree above right, activities of "bait-producing" are short term "upstream" efforts. Examples are making a tool (a force, such as an arrow or a lion tooth to improve your hunting by hanging it around your neck), that will provide you with a forces that will charge you with additional power: the game. And it also suppresses the loops you get when, by libation (sacrifice), you prompt your ancestors to give powers to you or to a force that is favourable to you.

If you do not live in a world of "things" but in a world of forces, like the traditional African does, you live in a world where everything is active. The idea of rest in ancient Greek physics, as a state to which everything tends "if no forces act", looses meaning if everything is an acting force itself. Galileo's and Newton's generalisation of this Greek concept to inertia and to Newton's first law could from the African point of view be considered to be a slight improvement because if no forces act upon a "thing", at least continued uniform motion in a straight line is considered possible. The genuine African position is that forces transfer power on other forces all the time, past and present intentions of wilful agents result in new forces, forces changing their behaviour en exerting power on each other in new ways. The universe is just as human as your family, only bigger. There is no way to isolate forces in "scientific" experiments and determine the inexorable laws governing them. Next time, new rulers are likely to have come who will no doubt have changed the laws to suit their purposes. Nothing unassailable can be known about power. And knowing is not so much an analytical-observational affair but a matter of intuitive feeling and understanding, largely through non-visual sensing. Not: I see, but: I feel.

But you can know something about a force. If an African does not know some type of object, he will not ask "what is it?",  as someone does who thinks in terms of things, but "what does it?" as someone does who thinks in terms of forces.

One day one of my hosts drew my attention to a curious metal construction on his veranda. It had been stolen a week ago. The thieves had been chased by the neighbourhood, and had been caught. As is usual, a considerable part of the thieves' bones and joints were crushed on the way to the police office.  The police, used to such situations, borrowed a pen and set out to file a report, but there a serious problem arose: neither the thieves nor their apprehenders had the faintest idea what the stolen object did.  My host, the owner, was called to provide the redeeming word: the thing presses fruit.

In the West we have "visionaries", often equipped with cards and glass sphere to watch. Africa has no visionaries but "feelers". Illustrative is the African deviner who tries to find the source of your problem by grubbing, without looking at it at all, in a heap of shells.

Social power

Right after birth you already seem to be an able handler of power: your mother does not like  you to cry, and if you do, she will find the reason of your displeasure long before you are able to find it yourself. If you are feeling well, you reward her by being soft and supple, but if you want something, you simply turn hard and stiff. Because the extreme skills of your kind, most mothers perforce develop sophisticated strategies to establish at least a workable equilibrium. This interplay is the origin of social power. If it were possible to negotiate with wasps, the amount of sugar we would need to keep them at bay would not really be disturbing. Fortunately, babies are unlike wasps: though it takes quite some effort, they can be made like us. The motives that make us do so can be many and elevated, but self-preservation alone would almost suffice.

What happens next differs over cultures, but it can, everywhere, be described as an ever changing balance of power where the baby takes over more and more functions of the mother in detecting causes of pleasure and displeasure, and being taught means to seek the former and avoid the latter. The most important pleasure is mother love and the petty emoluments that go with it. The most important displeasure is the withholding of it to different degrees. By teaching the child ever more complicated conditions for mother love, the mother changes the balance of power. Motherhood is fundamentally negotiation (the kind of thing you can not do with wasps).

What babies think of their mothers is, apart from what mothers tell you about it, hard to find out. It is generally believed that their thoughts are roughly the same anywhere in the world: your mother is the universe, a universe that you should express your wishes to, many of which, the basic ones even,  shall be honoured. You appeal to the universe, and you are heard and redeemed! The only thing you have yourself is the ability to make such appeals. The great religions of the world all have their own way to make adults persist in this baby perspective.

By contrast, what mothers think of babies and how they deal with them is highly culture dependent. That is why the power relation between mother and child develops differently in every culture. In traditional African thought, a new born baby is no more than an animal. Only when its father names it after an ancestor, it will become muntu, person. If it dies before being named, there will be no mourning. Naming is the transmission of some of the ancestral power of the dead person whose name the baby will carry. The father is a force sending, by naming, an ancestral starter's pack, so to say (as a first approach, it is not a bad idea to think of a name as a charged battery). Once you are muntu, you will, even after death, continue to exist. The ancestor of your name, a dead, but existing person, will remain attentive to you, you will pray to the ancestor, and the ancestor will continue transmitting power if and when he or she sees it fit. Of course, the same has happened to your mother when she was born, so inside mother and child works the power of a big family, sometimes in happiness and harmony, sometimes in conditions of variance in all kinds of degrees. In a sense, you are nothing but this big family. You yourself, individually, are nothing. You are a force created in the tribe, endowed with power coming from other forces in the tribe.

tree_zo.jpg (83632 bytes)Africans like to compare the tribe with a tree: the roots are the dead but existing ancestors, the trunk consists of the adults, the branches, leaves and flowers are the children. Right, you see such a tree. To stress the tree quality, as you see, part of the  bark and bast of the original peace of wood has been preserved. This makes clear where in African thought, lies the centre of social power: you can cut leaves, flowers, even branches. Yes you can even cut the trunk, and new trunks will rise from the roots. The power is with the ancestors  and it is transferred consistently upward to the furthest end of the longest branches.

Children returning from school with wisdom unknown to elders constitute a major source of philosophical embarrassment.

Women and power

In most African tribes, as a woman you marry outside your family but inside your tribe. Women become part of their husband's family. that is where they go. They thus are lost to their own family, which is compensated in commodities and cattle. As a woman, you marry to a family, not only to a husband. You will start praying to your husband's family's ancestors. If your husband dies, you will normally become the wife of one of his brothers. Woman are generally considered to be less powerful than men, even though some women gave birth to rivers like the river Nile!

In some African tribes, the man moves to the woman's clan (a clan is a set of related families). This does not mean in such tribes women are more powerful than men. There, clan leaders are men from other clans who married into that clan by marrying one of its women. In such matriclans, this makes you a candidate for clan leadership.

Political power

Traditionally, there was no way to distinguish political power from social power: families form clans, clans form the tribe. Tribes often consist of loosely connected clans or even single extended families, that only deal with one another on common issues, such as pasture land and intermarriage. But many tribes have a king. There, the family tree model is maintained: the king is considered to be the "father" of his people, that is the one who gives life to everyone. "Living in a society means sharing in the life of the sovereign" (Kanyike, p. 49). But of course even kings are created forces that do nothing but pass on power received from his roots: "Kings do not create powers, it is the powers that possess kings" (Mworoha, p. 191).

Going above tribe level, traditionally, tribes might dominate other tribes, but such domination was limited to favourable terms in all kinds of dealings, as with ground, cattle and women. Western domination led to multitribal governmental organisations. That was the start of "politics", quite something new in Africa: negotiation in a state of power balance. Behind the facade of state politics tribal (ancestral) thinking rules and explains the outcome of political processes. Pervasive tribal loyalty makes it socially hard for any officer or politician to propose for some job someone not of his own tribe. Political negotiation, despite the plethora of liberal, socialist, Muslim, catholic and protestant labels, consistently takes place along tribal lines. Political power, like all power in Africa, rests on the ancestral roots in the ground. Unconventional kill or cure remedies to uphold workable structures of political deliberation, like forcing all counteracting tribal powers to remain in one party, as President Museveni did in the late nineties, should be judged with the African force and power structure of the universe in mind.

Kanyike Mayanja, E. The Power Factor in African Traditional Religions, Philosophy Centre Jinja

Mworoha, Emile (1977) Peuples et Rois de l'Afrique des Lacs, Dakar: Nouvelles Editions Africaines .