Did Africans produce a written language?
March 20, 2002
Letters on religion
In your columns two men of African descent have been making contributions to Afro-Guyanese intelligence: Mr. Accabre Nkofi and Mr. Eusi Kwayana. [ please note: links provided by LOSP web site ] They give the impression that they must have gormandized a roomful of ancient manuscripts on African religious practises. But in my research I have not found that Africans had produced a written language, a cultural or a religious dispensation. Apart from European books and other bits and pieces produced by Europeans during and after the Atlantic Slave Trade there is no evidence to this effect. William Bosman, a Dutch slave factor, was among the first who wrote on African religious attitudes during the l7th century. No matter how black people love their ancestors or revere their memories they cannot dispute the fact that a big time spiritual heavyweight, a man of the dimensions of Buddha, Confucius or Mohammed or Jesus Christ did not apper among them. Whatever religion was there it was in the form of tribal customs, ancestral worship, the worship of trees and stones, snake worship, the adoration of the ocean etc. Every African tribe did their own thing within tribal or traditional concepts. In today's world, especially among the Black Americans and other people who have a vested interest in promoting black culture, ancestral glamorization is constantly taken to insensible degrees. If Africans had produced a dispensation how is it that they abandoned it so easily for Christianity or for Islam? I would deny that force produced such wholesale conversions to Christianity as is being done all over West Africa. I would further deny that threats keep so many tens of millions of Africans under the banner of Islam, Africans embraced Islam and Christianity because these were easy options at the time The Yorubas, of Nigeria, the biggest tribe in Africa,are being slow-poisoned by Pentecostalism. The Ibos of Nigeria, the second biggest tribe, are Roman Catholics to a man. African expatriates seem obsessed with a glittering past. We want to know that we sprang from a line of luminaries and heroes. We want to boast of traditions and a religion going back a long time. Mr Nkofi and Mr Kwayana are men of good intentions and committed to do a good job but they will do a better job if they endeavour to tell black people the truth about themselves. Yours faithfully, Prince Michael Editor's note: We have sought a response to the foregoing and set out below a reply from Dr Kimani Nehusi.
What I hate is ignorance, smallness of imagination, the eye that sees no farther than its own lashes. All things are possible ... Who you are is limited only by who you think you are. [From the ancient Egyptian Book of Coming Forth by Day]
For some time now the letters pages of Stabroek News have featured an exchange of opinion and information on matters of spirituality, religion, history and culture that contributors believe to be vital to the well being of various groups of Guyanese. One of the most important developments in today's world is the undertaking by increasing numbers of Afrikans, especially but not only in the Diaspora, to educate themselves about their past, which is an important part of the world's history. Many other people, including Europeans, have joined this movement. Guyana has not been bypassed by these developments. Much good work was done by ASCRIA in the 1970s. Today ACDA, PAM (Guyana) and other organisations seek to carry on this work. The predominant view of Afrika and Afrikans as permanently crippled and historically backward has been dealt decisive blows by information and conclusions that are new to most.
It is now clear that the notion of backwardness associated with Afrika, and the fact of economic and technological underdevelopment on the continent and among Afrikans as a generality, have both been created by some Europeans as part of the colonial project. But while some people have rehabilitated their views about Afrika and indeed about the world others have remained stuck in the world view that ultimately supported the enslavement of Afri-kans and the underdevelopment of the continent. Some letters appear to sum up entire aspects of particular debates and are therefore valuable indicators of the outlook of their authors and others who share such views. This appears to be the case of the letter of Mr. Prince Michael, which appear in the foregoing letter.
Mr. Michael claims not to have found that Afrikans produced a written language, a cultural or a religious dispensations and his very next sentence tells us why: "Apart from European books and other bits and pieces produced by Europeans during and after the Atlantic Slave trade there is no evidence to this effect. William Bosman, a Dutch slave factor, was among the first who wrote on African religious attitudes during the 17th century". Mr. Michael's focus is only upon some Europeans at the time of their enslavement of Afrikans. It appears significant that he relies upon the word of William Bosman, a European enslaver of Afrikans, a person who was a direct participant in the worst crime in human history and a person who therefore had a direct motive in the denial of Afrikan humanity. This is the person who Mr. Michael produces as an authority upon Afrika and Afrikans. Readers may wish to consider if there is any logic in relying upon the word of one of the worst kinds of criminals when trying to arrive at an estimation of the history and character of that criminal's victim.
If Mr. Michael had taken the trouble to consult and interrogate a wide variety of sources and views, there is a good chance that his mind would have been liberated from the very narrow confines of the 'intellectual' company he keeps, knowingly or unknowingly. Mr. Michael will certainly do well to begin with the works of some of his fellow countrymen, Guyanese who have become authorities on Afrika and Afrikans and are correctly respected, sometimes even revered, in many parts of the world. Norman E. Cameron published The Evolution of The Negro in two volumes in 1928 and 1931, right in Georgetown by the Argosy Company Ltd. and connected Afrikans with the Ancient Egyptians, who were indeed Afrikans. George G. M. James' Stolen Legacy (1954, reprinted many times) has become essential reading for anyone who wants to know the true basis of Greek achievement, which James shows to be the Afrikans in Kemet or Ancient Egypt, the first civilization in the world.
This was Egypt before its current demographic domination by Arabs, who moved there en masse only in the seventh century of the current era, capturing Cairo in about 1650 AD, long after the Pharonic age. Walter Rodney's "How Europe Under-developed Africa" (1972, reprinted many times) and "The Groundings With My Brothers" (1969, also reprinted many times) are extremely influential works. Ivan Van Sertima has authored and edited no less than thirteen (13) books that overturn various aspects of white supremacist 'history' and was called by the US Congress to testify on these matters. Jan Carew's most influential publication in this area is "Fulcrums of Change" (1988). Clinton Crawford's "Recasting Ancient Egypt In The African Context" (1996) has also been instructive to many. This writer has, with Ian Smart, edited "Ah Come Back Home: Perspectives on The Trinidad and Tobago Carnival" (2000) and provided a chapter which shows that the Carnival was first celebrated by Afrikans in Ancient Egypt, from where it spread to other parts of Afrika and to Europe, then to the Americas.
The most recent work in this area by a Guyanese was edited by Dr. Crawford and is entitled "Ebonics and Language Education of African Ancestry Students" (2001). John Rickford, another Guyanese, contributed a chapter. Another chapter provided by this writer -another Guyanese - shows the genetic relationship among the Medew Netjer (Ancient Egyptian language, commonly called Hieroglyphs), modern Afrikan languages on the continent and the Afrikan language of the Diaspora called Ebonics and commonly known as Creolese, broken English etc. It is a great pity that this prince remains untouched by these kings of knowledge from his own backyard. Authorship of these works does not make Guyanese any better - or worse - than anyone else. But a familiarity with any one of these works would have served to enlighten Mr. Michael on at least one topic in the vast area of Afrikan history and would hopefully have permitted him to question any 'facts' rather than accept them blindly. Such a common sense disposition would set anyone on the road to a greater understanding of the matters upon which Mr. Prince Michael pronounces. These works by Guya-nese authors amount to a very minute fraction of the studies that overthrow the stereotypes to which Mr. Michael contributes. There are myriad other works by numerous other writers, both Afrikan and non-Afrikan, who have taken up the battle against the mental affliction so obviously suffered by Mr. Michael.
Mr. Michael says that Afrikans never produced a written language. Perhaps a quote from my chapter in "Ebonics and Language Education" provides an appropriate answer: The myth that Afrikans do not possess a scribal tradition is exploded by the very fact of the Medew Netjer, which is the first language ever to be written in this world. Further, a number of other Afrikan scripts demonstrate a writing tradition of considerable extent. These include the ancient Moroetic script of Nubia, the Ge'ez and Amharic scripts of Ethiopia, and from more historically recent times, the Manding script in Senegal and Mali, the Vai script in Liberia, the Mende script in Sierra Leone, the Bamoun script in Cameroon - the Nsibidi script in Nigeria - [and] - the Afaka script invented by Afaka, a maroon from Suriname. To maintain the fiction that Afrikans do not possess a scribal tradition is effectively to maintain that the inventors of writing could not and did not write. (p.60). Additionally, the writing system of the Benin and Edo people of southern Nigeria has been brought to this writer's attention since the above was published. Beginning over 5, 000 years ago, before anyone else, Afrikans have therefore deployed writing for a variety of purposes: spiritual texts, mathematics, literature, accounts; indeed almost anything that writing is used for today. Papyrus, from which the word paper is derived, stone (for carving), bone, bark and leather were some of the materials used to write upon. Mr. Michael can be so confident that '... a big time spiritual heavyweight, a man of the dimensions of Buddha, Confucius or Mohammed or Jesus Christ did not appear among [Afrikans]' only because he knows so pitifully little.
It is clear that Mr. Michael's view of Afrika and Afrikans is based upon a very limited knowledge of Afrika and Afrikans. Ausir, whom the Greeks called Osiris, was the world's first risen saviour, 5,000 years ago. Murdered by his brother Setekh, whom Greeks called Seth, from which modern Europe gets Satan, Ausir's dismembered body was put together again by his wife Auset (Greek Isis) with the assistance of her sister Nepthys. Ausir is temporarily rejuvenated enough to secure a posthumous paternity with the birth of his son, Heru (Greek Horus). Ausir becomes King of the afterlife and acts in judgement of the soul of everyone. His son Heru becomes temporal king. Besides being the obvious prototype of Jesus and His passion, this ancient Egyptian story shows the high regard Afrikans had for women.
Mr. Michael should note that women were equally 'big time spiritual heavyweights' in Kemet, where, like the rest of Afrika when undisturbed by outside influences, women were generally valued equally with men. It is almost certainly significant that Mr. Michael does not include women among his august group. This is consistent with the male dominated non Afrikan cultures and religions which serve as his model. Putahhotep, Kagemni, Kheti, Neferti and many other ancient Egyptians were spiritual heavyweights. So too were Ogotemmli of the Dogon in modern day Mali and numerous others from other parts of Afrika. From Kemet we must also note Imhotep, a name which means 'He who comes in Peace', the first multi genius known to the world. He was an architect, builder of the first pyramid, a medical practitioner and the real father of medicine if there is such a thing, for Hippocrates like many other Greeks including Pythagoras, was schooled in Kemet by Afrikans in the very first universities in the world. Imhotep was also the Prime Minister of Egypt and a sage. He was deified in Greek tradition as Asklepios. Pharaoh Akhenaton introduced monotheism to the world over 1500 years before Jesus Christ. All of these Afrikans were, in Mr. Michael's parlance, big time spiritual heavyweights.
It is a pity that he appears not to know them, for such knowledge totally undermines his vision of the world. The Ten Commandments are a precis of the Declarations of Innocence which were an integral part of Nile Valley spiritual system. Many passages from the Bible are copies from Nile Valley writings that existed long before the time of the Bible. There is compelling evidence for the conclusion of some authorities that Buddah was one of those Afrikans who lived in India from long before the advent there of the Aryans and who provided many of the bases of Indian culture. An enquiring mind, which unfortunately is not to be associated with Mr. Prince Michael, ought to ask some obvious questions of documents easily available to all. For example, what happened to Jesus Christ between the ages of 13, when he disappears in the Bible, and 33, when he reappears to begin his ministry? Other authorities say that he was in Kemet (Egypt) and India, where he learnt much that he applied later in his career.
Does Mr. Michael know that when the Prophet Mohammed, Peace be unto Him, fled from Mecca and Medina he went to Ethiopia, where he learnt some important things in discussions there with Afrikans? Certainly, Christianity, Islam and Judaism are built upon principles and often upon practices first observed by Afrikans in the Nile Valley thousands of years ago. These include the ideas of the infinite and so not completely knowable Creator, Resurrection, Hea-ven and Hell, Divine Judgement of the soul, the creation myth, divine conception, the trinity, and others. All Mr. Prince Michael's big time spiritual heavyweights turn out to have been at least heavily influenced by Afrikans. It will require more space than is available in this entire issue of Stabroek News to merely outline these religious borrowings and influences from Afrikans. Mr. Michael reduces this tradition to 'tribal customs, ancestral worship, the worship of trees and stones, snake worship, the adoration of the ocean, etc.' with every tribe doing their own thing. The above is enough refutation of this partial and severely limited view of Afrikans. However, it would be good to ponder upon what Christians do in relation to Jesus and the saints. Are these latter not ancestors who are worshipped? And what do practitioners of Islam do with regards to the Kaba, the most sacred object to all Muslims?
Does Mr. Michael know that the Kaba is a black stone? For those who, like Mr. Michael, suffer from this cockeyed view of the world, Afrikans worship 'idols' while others have 'religious icons'; Afrikans have 'cults' while others have 'sects'; Afrikans worship a multitude of gods while others have one god and a number of saints. The examples are not confined to 'religion'; they are almost inexhaustible. In each one of these instances the only real difference between what Afrikans are said to do or have is the perception articulated in the terminology, not the material reality. In the worldview of Mr. Michael and his kind, when Afrikans do something it is negative, degenerate; when the same thing is practiced by others it is quite okay. It is Mr. Prince Michael's prejudice that constantly leads him into this contradiction.
Mr. Michael, like many other defenders of a racist conception of the world, may wish to deny that Arabs and Europeans forced the great majority of Afrikans into the 'acceptance' of Islam and Christianity. But apart from the numerically few Afrikans who went over on their own volition to the oppressors of their people, mostly for economic gain, history is quite clear that such a conclusion is grossly erroneous. Quite apart from the many wars fought by these two peoples against Afrikans it is also known that conquering Arabs and Europeans made it well nigh impossible for Afrikans to survive without becoming converts to Islam on the one hand and Christianity on the other. Arab and European dominance in every area of life was enforced: culture, language, economics, politics, etc. For example, taxation was heavier on non-Muslims in Muslim controlled areas. 'Education' has been well known as a way of imposing Arab and European values upon Afrikans. The history of Afrika was outlawed, only the distortions of the defenders of oppression and exploitation was propagated as fact. Arab and European priests imposed 'Muslim' names and 'Christian' names upon Afrikans. These are really Arab names and European names. Their imposition upon Afrikans illustrate the real intentions of most of the priests. Practices such as this illustrate how these two religions were abused for ungodly purposes, for how can one's culture matter to a universal divinity, which is what Muslims claim for Allah and Christians claim for their god? This cultural genocide served to destroy and or compromise Afrikan identity, the Afrikan world view and the identification, defense and promotion of Afrikan interests.
The results of this process of mis-education and faulty socialisation is seen most clearly in the hideously deformed personality type Guyanese will recognise as the Afro Saxon: those Afrikans who run from their race and try to achieve the impossible and become more European than the Europeans. Franz Fanon, an Afrikan born in Martinique, has written profoundly upon the resulting mass psychological illness in Black Skin White Masks. This condition was not undiagnosed by Guyanese. Martin Carter called it "A question of self Contempt' and also referred to it as "the scorn of [the] self', which he linked directly to "the oppressor's hate'. These and other works that examine this illness ought to be recommended reading for Mr. Michael. Mr. Michael dwells near to the truth when he says that 'African expatriates seem obsessed with a glittering past. We want to know that we sprang from a line of luminaries and heroes. We want to boast of traditions and a religion going back a long time.' The only trouble here is that it is not all Afrikans in the Diaspora but a few who appear to suffer from this obsession. Yet this writer would rather have a thousand Afrikans obsessed in this way, bad as that would be, than have only one Mr. Michael. The reason is that the obsession to which Mr. Michael points is the result of Afrikans moving to reclaim their history, themselves, their future. Mr. Michael, on the other hand, elects to remain bound by ignorance and intellectual destitution.
It is true, though, that Afrikans can indeed boast about this glittering past, this line of luminaries and heroes, these traditions and a religion going back a long time. Some have done. But that is only part of the truth about Afrika. Like any other group of people, Afrika has had its vagabonds, its misfits and its failures. But Afrika has achieved far more than most people have been permitted to know or recognise. The one fact that Afrikans are the first people of this world is of tremendous significance. It means that Afrikans were the only people on Earth when history was begun, for Afrikans were the ones who began human history. It is also known that Afrikans were the inventors of civilisation and so gave humanity its humanity. Similar facts have been advanced to decisively refute white racist myths about Afrikans in a number of aspects of human endeavour and achievement: mathematics, language, medicine, agriculture, architecture, etc. Unprejudiced scholarship is demonstrating that Afrikans, especially in the Nile Valley, provided the basis and prototypes of much of what has been passed off as Greek and western civilisation.
Mr. Michael uses a few facts to try to advance his argument and while one is expected to be fairly brief in a letter column it is clear that his 'facts' are very noticeably few, in fact, pitifully so. Yet it is not merely the 'facts' employed by this gentleman that cause such grave offense. Below these lurks something far more dangerous and disturbing. It is the values and world view of the most bigoted, racist and destructive of forces this world has ever seen. It would be fair to sum up Mr. Prince Michael's position as being that Afrikans have achieved little or nothing compared to other people. Besides, he makes it known that it is his research, and while we do not know the circumstances of Mr. Michael it remains true that his comments place him in the company of those who committed the Maafa: the holocaust of Afrikans, the largest crime in history which continues unto this day, as is demonstrated by Prince Michael's condition. Part of the crime is that the criminals try to deny it. These are the worst white supremacists or racists, for such were and are the beliefs of the enslavers of Afrikan people, those who committed genocide against Afrikans, Native Americans, the Aboriginies of Australia and other peoples. This was the core of Nazism of Hitler's Germany, the Ku Klux Klan of the USA, apartheid of South Afrika, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and other places in the world.
It is evident that this gentleman's vision of the world is limited by the severe limitations of his sources and is securely bound by eurocentrism and white supremacy: a racist view of the world which pretends that Europeans are responsible for all or almost all human achievements and that, conversely, other peoples have achieved little or nothing. Once someone accepts this dangerous nonsense then the inescapable conclusion is that Europeans are inherently superior and 'others' are inherently inferior. This is the intellectual and ideological basis of European enslavement of Afrikans and colonisation of Afrika and other, vast areas of the earth; some of the biggest crimes in human history. Europeans could not practice genocide, steal and destroy while admitting that their victims were equal to them, for that would have destroyed any semblance of legitimacy in the colonial project. They therefore undertook a vast campaign of defamation of their victims. They propagated the lies that the rightful owners of the land were not there (hence the unsavory notion that Columbus and others 'discovered' many lands in which people were already living, sometimes with technological, social and other achievements not yet achieved by their European contemporaries), that they did not really own the land, that they were not there, that they did not know the value of their resources, that they were not humans or were an inferior branch of humanity. In order to 'prove' this alleged inhumanity or inferiority of peoples subjugated and exploited by force, Europeans produced 'history' that was ethnically cleansed of Afrikan achievement and basically distorted, denied or undervalued the achievements of all other peoples. Every institution in Europe and European dominated lands became involved in the propagation of this racist world view: the church, the academy, the press, the law, etc. etc. After a while it became self- perpetuating. Europeans as well as non Europeans were and continue to be victimised by this scourge of humanity, so that vast numbers of Europeans and non Europeans believe in this alleged superiority of Europeans and the alleged inferiority of non Europeans.
Many people believe that the dangers posed by colonialism ended with the attainment - or granting 'of flags and anthems and the physical retreat of Europeans from positions of political power in 'formerly' colonised countries. Part of the great tragedy of countries like Guyana - and many others in the colonised world' is the continuing predominance of a self perpetuating system of values based upon this racism that constantly upholds and reproduces the inferiority of the great majority of the population. And because people believe that they are inferior, whether or not they are conscious of it, they indeed become inferior. You are who you think you are or have been made to think you are. That is one reason why that particular wisdom saying of Kemet is planted at the top of this response to Mr. Prince Michael.
The affliction of Mr. Michael is at the very basis of the condition at which he scoffs: the apparent inability of Afrikans to launch self sustaining development for themselves, their families, communities, countries and continent. Yet is it known that Afrikans in the Nile Valley (Kush, Kemet, Ta Seti) organised the first civilisation in the world and remained at the forefront for at least two thousand years. Ghana, Mali, Songhay, Kanem Bornu, Monomatapa and others were also world class Afrikan civilisations. There is therefore a contradiction between the lowly condition of Afrikans everywhere and the ability and achievements of Afrikans as demonstrated in the Afrikan past. Afrikans are not innately inferior; their condition has been caused. And the cause is the Maafa, the continuing holocaust which has historically destroyed Afrikan institutions and which today denies most Afrikans self knowledge, a positive self image, a positive self concept and the resulting self confidence to aim high, work hard and succeed on their own and in their own traditions.
Development is a very complex process that is notoriously difficult to define accurately. But more and more experts are now agreeing that cultural independence and authenticity is an essential ingredient in this process. The Japanese, Chinese and Asian 'Tigers' have all demonstrated how important it is to acquire concepts, technology, etc. from outside but apply them creatively to one's own culture and environment in general. This suggests - some will say proves - that the loss of cultural self and of history condemns a people to permanent dependence and underdevelopment.
Mr. Michael's views show signs of this condition. Completely circumscribed by a world view ultimately handed down by the prejudiced he merely repeats what has been propagated by the prejudiced. A really independent people will have to do better. They will have to see the world with their own eyes. Everyone has a world view, an ideology, a framework of values through which they perceive the world and react to it. This is so whether or not the person is conscious of it or chooses to state it openly and clearly. Part of the trouble with Mr. Michael is that he is most unlikely to be aware of the origins and functions of his world view. Many people remain securely imprisoned by the world view handed down from many centuries ago by some of the worst criminals ever in the world, completely unaware that often what they see in the world, and almost always how they perceive and react to it, have been predetermined by this system of values invented by mass murderers, crooks and their accomplices to serve their own purposes.
If Mr. Michael were alone in his views his letter would not be so disturbing. But many Guyanese still suffer from the same or a similar condition. For example, many Afrikan Guyanese and Indian Guyanese still believe racist and racial stereotypes of each other that Walter Rodney showed were derived from the same sources as Mr. Prince Michael's affliction. Mutual prejudice cannot be the best basis of secure communities where people live mutual respect each day. The beginning and best basis of a secure community is a self which is secure in identity, in self image, self concept, in who one's ancestors were and in who one is. The truth about the world is therefore the ultimate starting place of the best security. This is the task of all freedom loving peoples everywhere. Perhaps Guyanese should check to ensure that the education system, media, etc. play a healthy role in this investment in a secure common future.