Community in Africa: Wisdom from Our Common Motherland

Much of the commitment to and analysis of community that we find in the work of Howard Thurman and Dr. King derives from their African roots.  As African scholar Dr. Molefi Kete Asante puts it in The Afrocentric Idea and African Intellectual Heritage:

prior to the interaction with the European and Arab populations that invaded Africa, the idea of race was nearly nonexistent; however, the concepts of community group, clan, family, and ethnicity did exist.

Mothers and children in Kargi, a remote nomadic settlement in Kenya. Photo by Ian Macharia on Unsplash

Values were grounded in community, including ancient beliefs in resurrection and life, reincarnation, matrilineality, the value of children, “and the ultimate goodness of the earth.”

Dr. Asante recognizes community as being at the core of African belief systems.  We are in the universe and it is in us; there is no separation between us and nature, between life and spirituality or spirituality and religion.

Asanti sees the deep teaching of community among African people as connecting to the principle of harmony. 

Among the Yoruba, the goal is always to restore harmony….Harmony and peace, societal and individual, come from the right ordering of the earth through an appeal to Ifa” (sacred texts).

Community embraces the ancestors–not only those from the past who are present as spirit but also those not yet born who are to come on the scene in the future.  That is why all ritual begins with libations to these ancestors.  They are part of any prayer service.  (Is this unlike the prayer “all our relations” that Lakota people pray whenever they pray?)

Parents and children of Kemgesi Village, Tanzania, celebrate the commissioning of their protected spring constructed by the village with the assistance of CARE Tanzania. Photo by USAID Biodiversity & Forestry on Flickr.

There is a personal harmony that must be developed “because an undisciplined person creates disharmony within the society.”

Becoming human is the task at hand, and “one becomes human only in the midst of others,” that is, in community.

The development of personal powers that are inherent in us means our harmonizing with and becoming “in tune with the rhythm of the universe.”  This happens, among other places, at community rituals and celebration.

“Dancing.” Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash.

Asante names a secret to African-American spirituality.  It is this:

While we recognize the individuality of the responsibility, we know that it cannot be carried out without others.  We can reach our own transcendence, but never without the help of other. 

In joining in collective expression of power, true spirituality is manifested. 

I am no longer myself, I am a transpersonal being at this moment….It is joy ineffable, because I am in tune with the feelings of others.

Five key points toward understanding the concept of Ma’at in ancient Egypt. Uploaded to YouTube by Voices of Ancient Egypt.

A key concept in African religion is Maat, which Asante defines as “the influence of right and righteousness, justice and harmony, balance, respect, and human dignity.” Maat is about living out the harmony or balance and shared interdependence we find in creation itself.  “In all cases the ideas of religion [in Africa] kept the societies close to the fundamental principles of harmony between humans, humans and the environment, and humans and the spirit world.”

In this rich term Maat, we can easily recognize the concepts of Justice,  Compassion and the Common Good that form the basis of authentic community and hold the key to common survival.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths, pp. 89f., 392.

Banner Image: A modern interpretation of the goddess Ma’at by Amaranta Celena Colindres. Photo by wiredforlego on Flickr.

Do you see “restoring harmony” as an important value in today’s political and environmental crises?  When you think of “ancestors,” do you include not only those who came before, but also those who will follow?  Do you see examples around us today of how an “undisciplined person” creates disharmony and havoc and chaos for others?

One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faiths

Matthew Fox calls on all the world traditions for their wisdom and their inspiration in a work that is far more than a list of theological position papers but a new way to pray—to meditate in a global spiritual context on the wisdom all our traditions share. Fox chooses 18 themes that are foundational to any spirituality and demonstrates how all the world spiritual traditions offer wisdom about each.“Reading One River, Many Wells is like entering the rich silence of a masterfully directed retreat. As you read this text, you reflect, you pray, you embrace Divinity. Truly no words can fully express my respect and awe for this magnificent contribution to contemporary spirituality.” –Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit

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2 thoughts on “Community in Africa: Wisdom from Our Common Motherland”

  1. Avatar

    Imagine you were born in 1900.
    When you’re 14, World War I begins and ends when you’re 18 with 22 million dead.
    Soon after a global pandemic, the Spanish Flu, appears, killing 50 million people. And you’re alive and 20 years old.
    When you’re 29 you survive the global economic crisis that started with the collapse of the New York Stock Exchange, causing inflation, unemployment and famine.
    When you’re 33 years old the nazis come to power.
    When you’re 39, World War II begins and ends when you’re 45 years old with a 60 million dead. In the Holocaust 6 million Jews die.
    When you’re 52, the Korean War begins.
    When you’re 64, the Vietnam War begins and ends when you’re 75.
    A child born in 1985 thinks his grandparents have no idea how difficult life is, but they have survived several wars and catastrophes.
    Today we have all the comforts in a new world, amid a new pandemic. But we complain because we need to wear masks. We complain because we must stay confined to our homes where we have food, electricity, running water, wifi, even Netflix! None of that existed back in the day. But humanity survived those circumstances and never lost their joy of living.
    A small change in our perspective can generate miracles. We should be thankful that we are alive. We should do everything we need to do to protect and help each other

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