Ancestral Wisdom Across the Seas Part 1
By Professor Opoku Asare
“Mu kala kintwadi ya tubu i mu zinga” (Bakongo proverb)
The man in touch with his origins is a man who will never die. We tend to ignore our history and wisdom heritage as a esult of the relentless indoctrination by others and our own ignorance of the African past and the immense contribution Africa has made to world history and civilization And, as a result, most of us have accustomed ourselves to think that copying others in practically every aspect of life is our only option. But our ancestors warned us against the danger of copying and depending on others when they said: “The one who is fed on other people’s food is hungry; and the one who is clothed in other people’s clothes is naked”. The people from whom such profound and incomparable wisdom originated cannot be easily ignored, for the wisdom heritage of our ancestors is the thumb without which we cannot tie the knot of our advancement and progress as a people. As our ancestors said: “One cannot tie a knot without the thumb”. Our ancestors held wisdom in high esteem and placed it above wealth, strength or power. But wisdom, in their candid opinion, must be practical not theoretical, and this idea was underscored in the proverb: “Wisdom is not like gold dust that it must be tied up and hidden”. At a time in our history when gold dust was the medium of currency, people wrapped their gold dust in animal hide and kept it hidden in a safe place, and away from public view. This is not how wisdom should be treated, it is expected to be brought out and applied to daily life in the solution of problems, and those endowed with it should use it and not hide it and behave foolishly. Wisdom normally comes with age and that is why the elderly are respected. Our ancestors said: “Everybody has been a child before but not everybody has been an old man or woman”, to underscore the wisdom and experience that come with age and contrast them with youthfulness and inexperience. But wisdom is not restricted to the elderly, for even children are not devoid of it, as the Ananse story about how wisdom came into the world tells us. Ananse put the gourd containing all the wisdom in the world on his belly, as he tried unsuccessfully to climb the tallest tree to hang it on top so that no one would have access to it. But it took his son, Ntikuma, to suggest that if he put the gourd on his back instead of on his belly he would find it easier to climb the tree. Our Maasai ancestors also expressed the same idea in their proverb: “The old have wisdom but so do those yet to come”. Our ancestors who crossed the Atlantic involuntarily and in chains on crowded ships, brought their ancestral wisdom with them and it was this stupendous and mature wisdom that helped them to endure the terrible hardships and cruelties that would have broken the back of peo ple devoid of impregnable strength and unyielding tenacity. For, after all, Africans are the only people the Europeans could not exterminate – the Indians of North America and many of the aboriginal peoples of the Americas, the Maoris and many others were virtually wiped out. Even apartheid was overcome by Africans in South Africa and the Africans are using their ancestral wisdom through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to resolve the urgent matters facing the new nation, instead of resorting to Nuremberg-like trials.It was with wisdom, as I have said, that our ancestors here in the Americas countered the unremitting oppression they had to endure. From their ancestral wisdom they knew that: ‘All human beings are the children of God, none is a child of the earth”. They also knew that: “There are no boundaries in human flesh”. On the basis of these fundamental and abiding ancestral ideals, our ancestors who endured slavery in the Americas, fought against formidable odds to demand their freedom and equality with all others, and contrary to what others may claim, they did not learn freedom from their ruthless oppressors. They were not ignorant of their ancestral wisdom about the worth of the human person. Centuries ago, their ancestors said: “It is the human being that counts. I call on gold, gold does not respond. I call on drapery, but it does not respond. It is the human being that counts”. The human being has value above all material things and that is why our ancestors laid down a tradition in which wealth is not determined by the amount of material things a person has but rather by the number of people a person has around him or her, and happiness is linked directly to the amount of attention and love a person receives from others.
This article first appeared in Amandla March 2003.