The visitor to an African sculpture exhibition, particularly if unfamiliar with this type of art, is in for a variety of reactions. The initial one is almost certain to be incomprehension or even repugnance because of a certain strangeness and crudity to the Western taste, still largely weaned on the ideals of Praxiteles. On second look, however, such feelings slowly give way to an appreciation for the spare and quintessential elegance, and the objects begin to exercise a fascination at first hard to explain. Finally, perhaps, comes the intuition that these are not mere artistic expressions after all; rather the makers, whether they wrought in wood, bronze, ivory or simple clay, have attempted to portray the metaphysical concepts of their people. Having reached this conclusion, one begins to wonder in earnest what primal truths, what trends of thinking, have become crystallized into the material objects before us.
A little study of the symbology does give some insight into the background of the artwork, but it reveals even more about the way in which the African sees himself in relation to the cosmos, the hierarchies of gods and ancestors, to his fellowmen and to the myriads of other life forms that in their totality make up the rainments of mother nature. There is, for instance, the frequently recurring statue of a woman and her infant which she holds on her lap or carries on her back. Used as we are in every European school of painting and sculpture to depictions of the Madonna and child, this may seem easy to relate to. But the stylized image tells us not just of the glory of young motherhood, sacred or profane, but, on one level of interpretation, of the eternal flow of generations. Woman is the gateway into life; yet at the same time the old and the new find in her a crossroad, for the babe clinging to her back — who else is he but one of the ancestors, only recently returned to the world of the living?
It goes without saying that one cannot generalize about a continent as vast as Africa with its countless different populations. Nevertheless, there are certain common denominators. We can say, therefore, that in the main the African regards life as a circular path of constant transition from one stage into another — death not excepted, for in this chain of changes it follows as naturally and gradually as the others, It is also recognized that incarnation does not take place suddenly and only at birth but that the individual needs several decades, yes, as long as he lives, first to develop his physical forces and faculties, then to attain psychological and intellectual maturity, and finally to express his spiritual qualities. Therefore, the more he advances in age, the more fully human he becomes, progressively realizing his potential.
Generally speaking, this also is the working principle of the African institution of initiation. There is a great deal of literature on the subject, and on the surface much about these rites of passage may strike us as primitive or even savage. No doubt a certain amount of degeneracy has crept in. Nonetheless, whether conducted by peoples who have lost the keys to their ancestral wisdom, or by those who have preserved them, all such initiations have as purpose the increased mastery of oneself. At the same time they are an aid in dealing with the identity crises that can be caused by the awakening of hitherto latent aspects of the human awareness. In our own society it is commonly known that the onset of puberty is often an unsettling experience, while the transition from adolescence into man- or womanhood may bring its own difficulties. Tribal life had established methods of helping young people cross these thresholds and become integrated into the community, preparing them for their roles as husbands or wives, or as parents. Unlike many of the young in our culture, under this regime no one enters upon the serious responsibilities of adulthood without adequate information and training, or without having had a chance to prove himself. Also, during such learning periods sacred lore and other traditional knowledge are passed on.
In some African societies this type of instruction is not confined to youth. With the Dogon, for instance, it begins in childhood and continues throughout life. The Bambara go through a series of initiations protracted over decades, targeted to expanding the consciousness of the initiant. The first initiation he undergoes as a child will teach him self-knowledge, while the second induces investigation into knowledge itself. The third in the series deals with the relationship between body and soul, man and woman, good and bad; the fourth is devoted to the mysteries of human nature, the duality of body and spirit and the subjects of judgment and conscience. In the fifth the student will acquire knowledge about man's relationship with the earth, the sun and the stars, about the nature of the seasons, fauna and flora. During the sixth initiation the candidate concentrates on the spiritualization and divinization of his own nature. (Dominique Zahan, Religion, spiritualite et pensee africaines, pp. 208-9.) At the end of this, man the microcosmos has found his rightful place in the macrocosmos. All the tests and trials have served to discipline his body and psychological apparatus, and the insights gleaned have brought him closer to becoming more fully and truly human.
The concept of life-long development is also reflected in the age group system in which over the years the contribution the individual makes to society shifts in quality from physical strength to mental acumen and moral integrity, culminating in the mature capacity of judgment that is the fruit of long experience. In Tirikiland in Kenya, for example, a boy has no responsibilities until he is ten. Then, until his early teens follows a period of initiation and training. Between his later teens and his thirtieth year, he is rated as a young adult with some responsibility, From 30 to 40 he will serve as a warrior and from 40 to 55 as an elder warrior who governs. Men from 55 to 70 are judicial elders who preside over law courts. On reaching 70, they are by no means retired but come into their own, for this age group has the final and legislative authority. At the age of 85 a man will be promoted to the rank of the very old, no longer required for active duty. (Basil Davidson, The African Genius, pp. 84-5)
As among nearly all traditional peoples, here too the older generation does not become a useless appendage kept in comfortable isolation but is held in honor and asked to share its garnered wisdom. The most aged, moreover, are often regarded as links with the dead who are living on the next plane of consciousness. As such, they are extremely important to society, since much of the earthlings' weal and woe depends on the goodwill of the departed. For when people die they become ancestors who, though no longer in a physical body, are still within the ambiance of the living and work for their benefit. Sometimes they appear spontaneously to their relatives, for example to voice their complaints about inadequate funeral arrangements; on other occasions contact has to be established by priests or diviners when the survivors wish to consult them on difficult decisions. As they are closer to the gods or God, they will intercede with the higher powers on behalf of family or clan. Without their help the harvest might be poor or there might be a lack of offspring, for they are deemed to play an important role in the procreation of man, beast and plant. Therefore they receive libations and sacrifices and are venerated as long as there are people who remember them by name. John S. Mbiti classifies this type of excarnate beings who still participate in community interests as the living-dead. (John S. Mbiti, African Religions and Philosophy, p. 32.) Once forgotten, they lose their personality and, with that, their ties with the living. Gradually they then fade into spirithood and, according to Mbiti's views, remain there — elevated above the human kingdom yet, save in exceptional cases, never becoming gods.
There are other opinions, however, regarding the soul's destiny after death, for some researchers feel they have evidence indicating that many Africans believe in a reentry into the world of the living after a period of rest and assimilation. Ideas differ widely as to the supposed length of stay on the other planes, and what part of the human constitution is reborn. Also, such concepts may not exactly match the teachings on reincarnation of the Hindus, for instance, or, for that matter, some of the too personalized notions currently prevailing in the West. To the Africans the flow of life is much like that of a tree whose leaves will drop of in the autumn and turn to dust (and even leafmold eventually finds its way back into the tree) but their life-force returns to the trunk, only to manifest again in the foliage of another season. Nor do they exhibit the type of dismay one always senses in the Orientals about the necessity of rebirth. In spite of the suffering inherent in the human condition, the Africans greatly prize earth existence with all its opportunities and have no longing for a speedy nirvana.
The Akan of Ghana are an illustration in point. Their philosophy teaches that man is part of the divine Source, with whom he is in direct touch and from whom he has received his nkrabea or "message," the ultimate destiny he has to fulfill. Obviously this is something that cannot be done in one lifetime but requires a series of lives, during which the good he has done in each earth existence is, like a bank credit, carried over into the next. Reimbodiment is not regarded as an atonement for sins or to work out evil karma; for he
returns, imperfect, certainly, or he would not need to return, . . . imperfect because his fullness in goodness is not complete. It is like a man who dips a bucket in a deep well. The weight of the bucket when lifted up from the well would tell whether it is full of water or not. If it is felt to be light and not full, down goes back the bucket for a second, and may be a third and a fourth dip, until the weight assures the man the bucket is full. So is the soul's coming forth and going back to the source. He is not lifted up and taken into service with the source until his bucket of nkrabea is completely filled with good — until the destiny of the soul is fully realized. And then it is a glad homegoing for the fully integrated soul. The return of a soul to earth is not therefore like a condemned criminal to be hanged, but more like a little child ready to learn more and do better. — J. B. Danquah, The Akan Doctrine of God: A Fragment of Gold Coast Ethics and Religion, p. 82
Early in this century, P. Amaury Talbot discovered that in the greater part of Southern Nigeria people believed in what for lack of a better expression he termed an "Over-Soul," a "spark of Divinity, or a monad," which "sends down emanations through various planes and finally on to the earth." (P. Amaury Talbot, The Peoples of Southern Nigeria, 2:279) These "emanations" on our manifest plane clothe themselves with vehicles of varying degree of spirituality and go their long course of evolution to bring out their innate possibilities to the full. With the Ibo, this "over-soul" is called the Chi, a fragment of the great god Chukwu, which is said to manifest a portion of itself in several human entities at the same time, a concept suggestive of the idea of the monad of modern theosophy sending forth its children monads.
With these Southern Nigerians too, reincarnation is not a gloomy prospect, for although they admit that present wrongs will have to be balanced out now or in some future life, and man's path can never be without sorrows and misfortunes, they believe in the "justice and wisdom of the governance of the world. Injustice and ill-fortune are only apparent and not real, and, if they have not been fully deserved by some action in this, or a past, incarnation, will be more than compensated later on." (Talbot, 2:18-19) Generally speaking, the law of causation and effect is accepted by the Africans in a natural way for, as with the ancient Greeks, they see no such thing as inanimate nature: every tree, stone or stately flowing river has its indwelling deity. Nor are the planes above our own and their inhabitants entirely unknown, since many people still have innate "supernatural" gifts and thus can see into these more ethereal spheres whose range of frequency is imperceptible to the ordinary eye. In this grand totality of enlivened nature, visible and invisible, every single part acts upon all others and in turn is acted upon, The concept of karma, therefore, does not have to be especially defined as a theoretical law as it is rooted in reality, nor are its effects felt to be something inflicted upon oneself as by an outside agency, for
nothing happens by chance. . . . A man does not experience sickness or misfortune by fortuity; the wind does not blow nor the lightning flash by chance. God is to be seen in every act through the medium of one of his agents. All the forces of the world are directed by intelligence, the accomplishment of the supreme will. — Talbot 2:27
The Bushmen claim the very blades of grass will make an accusing sound to someone who walks over them and has committed some very bad deed.
In the chain of being the human kingdom occupies a central position, with the minerals, plants and animals on the one hand, and the forces of nature, the spirit world, the gods and the most high absolute, on the other hand. Human beings are not alone, however, in their pursuit of growth and perfection, for the Africans believe that all parts of the collectivity strive towards this same goal. The three lower kingdoms which are, in a sense, man's servants, in spite of their more lowly status, are not excluded from this scheme of things, for there is among the wise or initiated in Southern Nigeria a general credence ". . . in the evolution of man from a stone up to divinity." (Talbot, 2:279) And we may safely assume that the same thought is alive in other parts of the continent. As for the hierarchies above man, not too much is mentioned about their evolutionary processes, although here and there we do find confirming evidence.
Among the Akan is the belief that the individual, through his endeavors for moral progress, strengthens the community while, conversely, the evolution of the community opens the door for individuals of outstanding quality to incarnate in its midst. Such a "superman," whether he plays the role of a great hero, statesman, philosopher, or functions in any other capacity, comes as a savior to show others the way to goodness or God or to represent a sublime idea. His chief aim is to stimulate in the group of people to whom he belongs — be it a tribe, a nation or a whole race — greater understanding so that their spiritual horizons will expand and they will embrace even larger numbers of human beings as their brothers, until there will be, one day, true brotherhood of all humanity, These saviors, so the Akan say, are often maligned and martyred because people are not yet advanced enough to comprehend their mission; but when hearts and minds are open, there is great progress on the part of the community, while the "superman" in either case benefits from the experience, for he himself is on his way toward even higher ranges of awareness.
Through the Akan formulation we clearly perceive a parallel with the theosophical doctrine of the Hierarchy of Compassion, of which Buddha, Jesus and Sankaracharya are the more widely known exemplars. A class of beings elevated above common humanity, though still making use of bodies of flesh and blood when the need arises, they are a prototype of the ideal human each of us hopefully one day will become — a prototype deeply embedded in the consciousness of nations of all times and places, and which it is not surprising to recognize also in the highly ethical doctrines of the Akan. (Danquah, pp. 94-6)
These same West African people present another interesting idea for, they ask, why did Onyame or Ultimate Reality manifest? He created "the Thing" or universe through Nyankopon or Second Logos, while the Third Logos, Odomankoma, was the Hewer or Architect, both of whom are looked upon as being "greater" than Onyame himself in the sense of being more fully manifest. Could it be that Onyame felt a desire to express himself in his creation, and in turn, be known by it and eventually realize in it the Honhom or Spirit? The Akan think so and rest secure in their faith of being children of this all-embracing Being — blood of his blood, spirit of his spirit — which like man himself is on his way to greater perfection
(From Sunrise magazine, November 1977. Copyright © 1977 by Theosophical University Press)