The African Worldview

It is easy to look around at Africa and see it solely through white western eyes. Those are the only eyes I’ve ever had after all. As Africans look around at their land though, they more often than not see things in a completely different manner. Whether or not we are willing to admit it, the culture we grow up in greatly influences how we see the world around us. It shapes how we approach problems. It defines our ethics. It determines our values. All of our interactions and ideas about the world around us are influenced by this lens which is commonly called a worldview.

As I’ve already mentioned, the African worldview is different (vastly different, in fact) from my white American one. Those differences, when not addressed, cause much unneeded conflict. Further — as we try to approach and see transformation to some of the vast problems afflicting this great continent — we must keep the African worldview in mind. Transplanting a western worldview doesn’t (and won’t ever) produce the desired change. In truth, it exacerbates the problem more often than not.

So what broadly is the African worldview?

For one thing it is cyclical in nature. The physical world isn’t the starting point or final destination but merely a temporary existence. The real home is the afterlife, which souls periodically step out of to come to earth. It can be compared to the grass that grows and is burned off. After a good rain and some sunlight, it comes back seemingly exactly the same as it was. Or take the sun. It disappears every night but then shows up again in the morning. Life is visible yet all too often invisible. It’s physical yet deeply spiritual. And ultimately our primary residence isn’t here but in that spiritual place.

Because of this endless cycle the points of transition are extremely important. They mark movement from one residence to another and then back again. Pregnancy, birth and death are sacred moments often ritualized and ceremonialized. The lack of the these movements — sterility and impotency for example — are seen as some of the greatest curses.

And as a cyclical view of life implies, reincarnation is seen as the normal mode of life. In every birth, a soul leaves its home and takes up temporary residence here on earth, yet again. Names are often common as they represent not only the present life but all of the lives lived. Dreams and visions and the consultation of witchdoctors are necessary ventures in determining the name of the soul coming back to life.

As already implied, the African worldview necessitates a high degree of interaction between the spiritual and physical world. Spiritual beings” (most often souls at home) are seen not only as real but as omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. They are the source of all that is — both good and bad — and physical life is held subject to them.

And communication between the different worlds is common. The physical calls upon the spiritual through invocations, sacrifices, prayers and the aid witchdoctors just as the spiritual calls upon the physical through signs, dreams, visions and witchdoctors. Some of the spirits are good and some are bad, just as some people are good and some are bad.

In everything — harmony must be maintained. Harmony must be maintained with the spirits. It must be maintained within family units. It must be maintained with in tribes. Everyone must be responsible in this; nothing is more important than honor. There is nothing worse in fact than seeing family or spirits dishonored. In this solidarity with one another is incredibly important. It’s not a matter of what I have — the issue is what you need. All property, all monies, all food, all shelter, all everything is available to those that have need as they have need. It’s a way to maintain honor. It’s a way to maintain ancestral heritage. it’s the way to maintain life.

As previously mentioned this worldview stands beyond and even against the one in which I was raised. There is a lot within it that makes me raise an eyebrow. There is a lot within it that I wouldn’t want to live out (and some I might). But to understand Africa — to understand truly its problems and begin to develop solutions — you have to understand its worldview.

I’m not going to be prescriptive at the moment but I do plan to write more in the coming days regarding a few of the implications of such a worldview. For now it’s something to chew on and consider — not to judge but to understand.

June 22, 2015


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