Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Myths of Africa

Many legends speak of a "Golden Age," a time and place where things were better than they are now.  These lands of truth, justice and prosperity were laid low by some form of catastrophe or error, leaving those descended from the survivors to make their way as best they can with scraps of the old knowledge and memories of a glorious past.  In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve walked with God until that whole apple misunderstanding; in the pre-Christian Europe of Pagan lore wise women made vegetarian offerings to the Triple Goddess until the evil Patriarchy ushered in the Burning Times; Edgar Cayce spoke of how conflict between the good Sons of the Law of One and evil Sons of Belial led to the sinking of Atlantis.

According to one popular version of the Golden Age legend, Africans created civilization, only to see it wrested from their grasp by conquerers. Since that time, Africa has been held down by racist forces, who feared the power of their culture and their magic. In place of the peaceful spiritually advanced kingdoms of ancient Africa, we now have a bloody reign of looters (white and black) seeking to exploit the continent's vast resources. Only by recapturing the wisdom of the past can we hope to break this cycle of destruction and heartbreak. It is a convincing narrative, given the horrors wrought by the Triangular Trade and the many abuses of colonialism in Africa. It provides a useful counterbalance to the prevailing myths of black savagery and inherent African inferiority. But, like all myths, it can lead us into dangerous territory if we mistake it for factual truth.

One of the issues with this worldview is its promotion of an overarching "African" culture. Africa is an enormous and enormously diverse continent. There are currently 521 different languages catalogued within Nigeria alone: the label "African Traditional Religion" encompasses an even more varied selection of beliefs.  French anthropologist and scholar René Basset noted in 1910 that even among the linguistically homogenous Berbers there was a considerable variation in religious and spiritual practices.  The Dogon of Mali,  the Akan of Ghana, the Masai of Kenya - their lives, cultures and practices vary widely. While Victorians (from Blavatsky to Crowley and beyond) sought to find the One True Religion which underpinned all spiritual practices, we may do better to recognize and treasure the differences in our faiths.

Still another problem is the way many of these tales privilege urban and militaristic cultures. Egypt, Yorubaland and Daome all helmed far-flung empires and fielded impressive armies. But they were also guilty of expansionism, imperialism, slave raids and many of the sins we decry among the Western colonial powers. In trying to find an antidote for colonialism, we concentrate overmuch on those cultures which engaged in its excesses. This blinds us to the wisdom which may be found among the less "civilized" peoples of Africa. We might learn a great deal about low-impact living in harsh environmental conditions from the !Kung of the Kalahari Desert or the Afar nomads of Ethiopia.  Are their achievements less impressive because they do not involve great feats of construction and conquest?

One of my favorite aspects of African Diaspora religions is how human the gods and spirits are. They are a mirror of our world, with all its tragedies and triumphs, all its beauty and flaws. To reduce that cosmology and history to a bland utopianism is to lose that glorious reflection. To envision Africa as a lost paradise is to misunderstand it as badly as those who see it as a bestial pit of savagery.  To paraphrase Harold Golden's famous quote on the Jews: Africans are like everyone else, only more so.  Like the people living on the other continents, they have scaled the heights and plumbed the depths of experience. Their lives reflect our own in their sweet successes and their glorious dysfunctions: instead of seeing them as an Other to be alternately emulated or scorned, we might do better to view them as fellow sufferers from the human condition.