Africa is a continent with unique philosophies that can make the world a better place. Malawi needs to tap from the past to answer some crucial questions of the present and the future.
Some 20 Mandinka boys of West Africa were about to become men, to pass through the last part of the rite of passage called initiation.
But the boys had to master the knowledge of their tribe. That was Africa of centuries ago. Some of the issues had to do with wealth, marriage, family and war. The story of Africa’s past titled Roots, in book and film, is powerful.
“On how many sides should you surround an enemy in war?” Asked the Kintango or initiation teacher. “Four,” answered one of the initiates. “Wrong,” said the teacher, adding: “Never completely encircle your enemy. Leave him some escape, for he will fight even more desperately if trapped. The aim of war is to win, not to kill.”
This wisdom is unique to Africa. It is a kind of philosophy that US President George Bush and his friend Tony Blair have not mastered. The aim of war is to win, not to kill. But the war in Iraq is about killing, not winning.
The idea of killing as is the case in DR Congo, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Burundi, Central African Republic and Darfur—the shame of the continent—is not African. These are conflicts that have a heavy alien influence that is using unpatriotic Africans. The challenge for Africa is that some people are willing to be used, even abused, to kill fellow Africans.
The Mandinka boys also learned that battles should start in late afternoon, so that any enemy, seeing defeat, could save face by retreating in the darkness.
The idea of long wars is not African. Almost all African wars—typical African wars—in history were brief. Wars lasted less than a week, no more than two weeks. This idea of a war that seems endless as is the case in Iraq is not African.
Often a war between African tribes lasted hours. The wars of Shaka Zulu were brief. The problem was that he fought so many wars and his army became tired. That wars should start in late afternoon and let the defeated enemy run away under the cover of darkness, with his dignity intact, is truly lacking in today’s world where people are defeated physically and psychologically in broad daylight.
Contact and dialogue is typical African. People used to talk to each other, often away from masses. Secrecy is typical African. Sensitive issues were kept in secret to keep concerned people’s dignity. All in all, the understanding was that even the defeated have dignity.
It is a lesson that Nelson Mandela got in his boyhood, that enemies should be defeated with their dignity.
“I learned my lesson one day from an unruly donkey. We had been taking turns climbing up and down its back and when my chance came I jumped on and the donkey bolted into a nearby thorn bush. It bent its head, trying to unseat me, which it did, but not before the thorns had pricked and scratched my face, embarrassing me in front of my friends. Like the people of the East, Africans have a highly developed sense of dignity, or what the Chinese call ‘face’. I had lost face among my friends. Even though it was a donkey that unseated me, I learned that to humiliate another person is to make him suffer an unnecessarily cruel fate. Even as a boy, I defeated my opponents without dishonouring them,” writes Mandela in his book Long Walk to Freedom.
This wisdom is for the people of Africa and the East and this is what has made Mandela the world’s greatest man now living. Apartheid was evil in all senses. But when Mandela came to power, he did not embarrass the white South Africans who perpetrated apartheid.
He extended forgiveness to people who had just been oppressing him and his people. Mandela invited the whites into a government of national unity. This is one great thing that Mandela got right. It is a lesson that has stuck with him from childhood days, from playing with animals.
Which is why children should be left to play around with friends, even if it means away from home. The challenge is that today’s world is so unsafe that once children play away from home, parents fear they may be defiled.
This is wisdom that President Robert Mugabe missed. He has worked to embarrass his enemies, the white Zimbabweans who grabbed land from black Zimbabweans using untold force. The idea of getting back land was good. But the means were wrong. Mugabe should have asked for wisdom from Mandela. Evil for evil is not African. It is alien, strange among the people.
If Mugabe had been kind yet tactful like Mandela, Zimbabwe would not have been in the problems as is the case now. The eye-for-eye or tit-for-tat approach is working against him. What Mugabe forgot is that the whites are the owners of tit-for-tat and they have hit hard at Zimbabwe.
The tit-for-tat is bringing squabbles that seem to have no end. Saddam Hussein was evil but hanging him without dignity was also evil.
The US and Iraq should have learned from Africa of the past where capital punishment went with dignity. The story of Sikusinja ndi Gwenembe summaries it all. Once Sikusinja confessed that he had killed his younger brother, Gwenembe, the elders of the village ruled that Sikusinja was not fit to exist in society. He was to face death sentence, but with honour.
It was all normal, a day of hunting. All men went out into the bush and Gwenembe was among them. Then, an antelope appeared. One man hit at it.
Gwenembe ran to finish the animal. The few who knew the ‘plan’ ran to the other side. Two or three men ran together with Gwenembe and hit at him. He cried. Then silence. He was no more. The rest of the village heard that Gwenembe had gone missing while hunting. In their minds, he died a manly death, in the bush while hunting. That was dying with dignity; in secrecy, of course, which was typical African.
The same was for Nigeria where Ikemefuna, that boy captured in a short war, was to be killed. He was not hung like Saddam.
Ikemefuna was taken by elders into a forest where he was killed with a machete and life went on for the rest of the people.
Opening fire at people in public is not African. Keeping children without parents away from home, in their own places called orphanage is not African. In Africa one is never an orphan because there is always a family—what some call extended family system—that takes over the responsibility of looking after children whose parents died.
Announcing that ‘we have assisted so and so or orphans with this and that’ is not African. Fighting cultural practices like chokolo, kupita kufa and fisi in a way that brings shame to their custodians is not African. That is partly the reason the war against these is not successful enough to show results.
Longtime ago, when some 20 Mandinka boys were about to become men, to pass through the last stage of the right of passage called initiation, they learned wisdom of the people, wisdom of Africa.
This is the wisdom lacking in what are turning to be modernised societies. One real way of making Malawi a better place, especially in matters politics, is to go back to the wisdom of the people, wisdom of Africa.
“...when we are at our best, history and heroes enable us to look ahead, not backward,” says Jon Meacham, editor of Newsweek.
History, true history of ourselves, is what Africa needs today.