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Armando Martins Janeira

Africa was probably the cradle of human race. The hominid and human remains discovered in the twentieth century indicated that it was in Africa that man began to cut the stone and draw the first rupestral paintings.

When we look at the African continent we realize how religion has impressed a certain homogeneity in the other continents.

It would be impossible to understand European civilization without taking into account the influence of Christianity in thought, in art, in social institutions: in the progress of history. Buddhism has shaped the fundamental character of the Far Eastern civilization, supplied its main spiritual values, which outstand among an immense variety of local and national traits. Philosophy and art in Asian countries have not existed until today but within the circle of religious reflections.

In Africa the cultural panorama is different. Without considering the Pharaonic polytheism which left no living traces, and putting aside Coptic Christianity which here presents the peculiarity - rare for a Christian religion expansive and proselytic by nature - of never extending beyond the frontiers of one single country, Ethiopia, we find Islamism spread along all the border of Africa North of Sahara, in Sudan, Somalia and Mauritania, in the Black States of Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Volta, Niger, Nigeria and Chad. To the South of the vast desert we find an immense proliferation of local or tribal religions animist in character, given to primitive, magic practices.

The traditional animist religions are now gradually disappearing, while Christianity and specially Islam are increasing their influence over the Black populations. But we notice that Islam did not penetrate as deeply in the countries South of Sahara as in the North, where it is a religion of the State. On the other hand, we see also that even when Africans are converted to Christianity or Islamism and receive Western education, they retain many of their traditional views and sentiments received from African culture and environment. (1)

Of the brilliant civilization of Egypt, which bloomed at the dawn of history, nothing remains alive today; it seems that no trace of it can be found in the culture of any modern African country, though there are African writers, like Anta Diop and Olumide Lucas who, based on linguistic comparisons, pretend to derive traditional African culture directly from the ancient Egyptians. (2)

In Egypt, besides the Pharaonic, other civilizations shone, specially the Greek, since several Greek cites were found on the border of the Nile, with the consent of the Pharaohs, before Alexander. The decadence of Egypt began with its occupation by the Persian Cambyse (525 B.C.). Egypt was governed afterwards by Greek, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks. Alexander the Great founded near the mouth of the Nile the great city named after him, which became the capital of the Mediterranean world and the center of Hellenistic culture, with is famous library of 200 thousand volumes, its museums, its scholars, its world of intellectuals and artists. The Phoenicians of Tyre founded Carthage before 800 B.C. and from two centuries later they dominated all the Western Mediterranean and expanded to Sicily, Sardinia and Spain, until the great city of businessmen was razed by the Romans in the middle of the second century B.C. .

The Arabs, starting from Arabia, invaded Africa along two ways, from the Oriental side, by Egypt and Tripolitania and from the border of the Mediterranean. The soldiers of Omar, Caliph of Damascus, entered Egypt in 640. They destroyed Alexandria in the East and Carthage in the West. From the West of Africa they crossed the straight under the command of a Berber General, Tarik, invaded Spain and advanced till Poitiers, in 732, where they were defeated, and their threat of dominating Europe definitely removed.

The conversion of the Black people to Islamism was long and not very deep. The Koranic law was never extended to them, these populations were never integrated into the Moslem world. But the Arabs have brought their arts and science, have activated the caravan trade, helped the rise of great commercial and intellectual centers like Gao and Timbuktu. The main merchandise of Arabic trade were men - the slave trade - which were brought to the Arabs by black chiefs. The slave trade enriched the Sultans of Kilua, Sofala and Zanzibar (Zendj bar, the land of slaves) and ruined those unfortunate populations. (3) This bleeding in the greatest wealth of countries, men, was accentuated when the European slave traders came, in the sixteenth century, and caused the decadence of the black peoples. Some authors put the number of people uprooted from Africa until 1832, when it was officially banished, in 100 million, others in 150 million, considering that for every slave who reached his destination about five were killed by the appalling conditions of transport.

We know little of the history of the African countries South of Sahara, of the rise of the Black empires, of their quick expansion and of their sudden decline. The history of Black Africa, the true Africa begins to come out of the most recent archaeological excavations and anthropological studies.

The influence of Egypt in the Black countries of Africa in the first centuries of our era is not yet known. In the late sixteenth century Christianity spread from Egypt to Nubia, where it resisted the Southward advance of Islam for about four centuries. But it seems that there was a fund of communion ideas in the sub-Sahara and Bantu Africa probably originated in the Nile Valley before Christianity and Islam were spread there.

In a wide part of Africa, from the Red Sea to the mouth of Senegal and from the sources of the Nile to Southern Rhodesia has developed what has been called the ‘Sudanic’ civilization. It encloses various peoples whose similarities in social life and institutions indicate a common source.

It is considered that many of the elements of the ‘Sudanic’ civilization derived from an amalgam of the Egyptian and South-West Asian influences, modified by native African conditions. (4)

The first African empire, Ghana, was established in the fourth century, probably by White men of unknown origin, along the Western borders of the Niger, replaced four centuries later by a black dynasty. In the tenth century it was controlling all Western Sudan. The sovereign of Ghana entertained a magnificent court and had an army of forty thousand men armed with bows and arrows; his kingdom enjoyed great prosperity, based on an important trade of salt, gold copper and horses. One hundred years later Ghana was destroyed by the Almoravids, whose conquest was of short duration.

After Ghana came the empire of Mali, with its capital in Timbuktu. We know little of her history until the thirteenth century. Its rulers were Muslims, submitted Ghana and made large conquests to the East. In the fifteenth century Mali begins to decline and the hegemony passes to the hands of the Songhai, whose capital, Gao, commands the area of the Middle Niger. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, Mamadu Touré formed a new empire extending over the Senegal, to the West, the Aïr and Bornu to the East, part of Sahara to the North and to the South Segu; before the end of the century this large empire, which under Touré made of Timbuktu a great and famous intellectual center, was in ruins. (5)

The historical knowledge we have about these peoples is due to Arabic writers and scholars.

Later in the seventeenth century, we find the Kingdom of Dahomey, which lived with changing vicissitudes until the annexation of the country by the French in 1894. Between the Dahomey and the Mouth of the Niger lived a people named the Yoruba, counting more than four million.

They established themselves first in Ife. Their capital, Benin, became a remarkable artistic center between the middle of the sixteenth and the middle of the seventeenth centuries and irradiated its influence until the Camerun, Dahomey and the Ivory Coast. The terra cottas and the bronze sculptures of Benin are of a rare beauty.

The communications in the Sahara were made easier after the camel was introduced in Africa, in the third Century A.D. But to the South of the line where the virgin forest raises a barrier, the contacts among peoples were difficult. This difficulty of communications prevented Islam to spread to the South.

The history of the Bantu peoples, who occupy about one third of the continent, is little known to us. Federations of the tribes of the Loango lived between the Oogone and the Congo River; the Mani Congo lived between the Congo, Benguela and the high Zambeze; to the North and West of the Stanley Pool lived the Batekes and the Lunda occupied the plateaus of Congo-Zambeze. To the East, the area between the Zambeze and the Limpopo was inhabited by a confederation of Bantu tribes under a chief with supernatural attributes, the Monomotapa. The power of the Monomotapa extended over an area the limits of which are not known, according to some information from the Zambeze to the Cape of Good Hope. (5)

This brief sketch may help to understand the modern African physiognomy.

In a nebulous and uncertain past, scarcely recorded by history, because Black peoples had no system of writing, African intellectuals are trying to find roots and inspiration for an original African culture. The European contribution is shown in its bad points, and a past greatness much based on patriotic fantasy and lack of self-criticism and clear reason is laid as the bases of an African renaissance. (7) The history of Africa today, made by Africans, as it happened before with many Europeans and Asian countries, is in the patriotic stage. It seems reasonable to think that a truly great African thought and literature can only be built on a lucid and unemotional assessment of the past and on a serious appraisal of the living values of the traditional African cultures.

We are seeing now in Africa the remarkable example of a rising new culture lead mainly by poets. About the present state of the new African societies, the most impartial and unsuspectable witnesses give a pessimistic judgement. “The immense mass of Africans remains as they always were: distressed by diseases, exploited, starving and without hope”. “The instability, the conspiracy, the most naked poverty are afflicting the societies just born”. “The nation itself is but a juridical fiction and behind the bruised facade we can discover a society torn by nearly insurmountable contradictions”. (8)

The problems facing the new African countries, some of which unprepared for independence, are immense. To be able to face the realities of modern world they need before all to get a clear consciousness of their own individuality. And this cannot come from the “posturing and hyperbolic rhetoric of the Negritude” (9). Because the colour of human skin - may it be black, or white, or yellow - is too superficial a topic to inspire any great ideas, and those it has even inspired, were disastrously noxious and backward. Alioune Diop calls on “men of good will, may they be white, yellow or black, capable to help us to define what is original in Africa and to accelerate its integration into the modern world”. It will be the best way, according to Diop, “to overtake the mean state of racism, this evil which undermines man’s greatness, embitters his heart and stifles his soul”.

The essential sources and thoughts to nourish an African humanism were found by White sociologists and Black writers and poets, not by politicians. Black writers and poets particularly have in the short space of a few years created a wide literary movement which is bringing out the essential value of the primitive beliefs, finding the aesthetic value and philosophical meaning of the old traditions with the ambition of creating works of strong originality and of shaping up a new African culture.

The philosophy of the Bantu people and the peculiar character of their beliefs were brought out by Placide Tempels in his Bantu Philosophy, a book now famous and highly esteemed by African intellectuals. The philosophical system as described by Tempels, differences of detail put aside, agrees basically with the beliefs of other African black peoples studied later.

Tempels, a Belgian Franciscan, was the first to call the attention to the existence of a universal philosophy among Black people, of a general conception of the world, of a system of life imbued with deep wisdom. Against the current idea that Africans were “growing children”, Tempels was one of the first to observe that “we are before an adult humanity, which is conscious of its own wisdom, moulded by its own universalist philosophy”.

Against the commonly established conviction that considered them polytheist, Tempels demonstrated that it was among these primitive peoples that a most pure notion of a unique God can be found. Magic, animism and manism of Bantu peoples is based on a sole principle, the knowledge of the inner nature of living beings, their knowledge of the being, of the existence of things. This was found out through a thorough study of their language, their system of law, their ethnology. (10)

Tempels calls the Bantu philosophy a “magic philosophy”. Its supreme value is force, life force, which appears as a leitmotiv in Bantu language, in their thought, in their actions and gestures. Force, powerful life, vital energy, is what they ask from God, from the spirits of their dead, what they invoke through magic and witchcraft. The life force is the invisible and supreme reality in man. Man can capture this force from the other beings, as he can lose it by illness. Force is inseparable from the notion of being: being is that who possesses force; force is being and being is force. Force is not an attribute of being, is being itself. These primitive people are not capable of an abstract concept of nature, this is not a universal concept of being, but as being is force, all living beings and things appear to the Bantu as force: God, living and dead men, animals, plants, minerals.

  Among these different forces there is a hierarchy, a progeny. The life force endowed with will and intelligence, is muntu, man, embracing living and dead. The creator, God, is the one that has the force by himself, “the one who increases the force”, who knows every being.

There is an interaction among the existing forces of nature, as God created them and put them at the disposal of men; this interaction in which there is nothing supernatural is what we call magic.

The vital force of a man is shown in his words and gestures. Man’s wisdom is his vue into the nature of beings, of forces. The life force of a man continues after his death. There are influences, relations of forces of the dead upon the living, not on a supernatural plane, but as normal and natural fact of everyday life. (11)

In this universe of “life-forces”, supremely lively, every gesture and word of man becomes immensely powerful and significant.

The word nommo is the physical-spiritual life force which awakens all “sleeping” forces and gives physical and spiritual life (12). “It is enough to name the thing, and the sense appears in the sign”, declares the Senegalese poet Leopold Sedar Senghor. The word has a potent power of incantation: the word makes the seed germinate, the fruits grow and gives shape to the work of the craftsman. Every spoken word produces good or bad fruits. The word transforms the poet after he has spoken it. Writes Aimé Césaire: “I sometimes put lighters between my fingers, in order to enjoy the pleasure of setting myself afire all evening in fresh poinsettia leaves”. (13) For Black poets, writes Jean-Paul Sartre, creation is an immense and unceasing confinement; the world is flesh and son of the flesh; on the sea and in the sky, on the dunes, on the rocks, in the wind, the Negro finds again the velvet of human skin; in the belly of the sand, in the thighs of heaven, it is himself he is caressing; he is flesh of the flesh of the world” porous to every breeze, he is alternatively the female of Nature and her male (14).

The poem only exists truly when it is sung; words and music at once. “It is time to stop the decay of the modern world and especially the decay of poetry, writes Senghor. Poetry must find its way back to its origins, to the times when it was sung and danced. As it was in Greece, in Israel, above all in Egypt of the Pharaohs. And as it is still today in black Africa.” (15)

It is the magic power of the spoken word that awakes the “sleeping” values brought to life by the invocation.

In Africa all the arts are united, music, singing, dance and literature make a harmonious whole: they are inseparable because through them man expresses his vital force and his relations with the dead. The cult of the dead was probably the origin of African sculpture and of its importance in the life of the Africans. Hence its abundance and its high artistic achievement.

Writing and architecture did not exist in ancient Africa. Poetry and sculpture are the main arts. The aim of poetry is to give voice to names and signs, to control things and to maintain open the communication with the dead.

The African poets claim proudly that in their poems beat the rhythms of the forest drums. “Rhythm, writes Senghor, is the architecture of being, the inner dynamic that gives it forms, the pure expression of the life force.

Rhythm is the vibratory shock, the force which, through our sense, grips us at the root of our being. It is expressed through corporeal and sensual means; through lines, surfaces, colours, and volumes in architecture, sculpture or painting; through accents in poetry and music, through movements in the dance. But, doing this, rhythm turns all these concrete things towards the light of the spirit. In the degree to which rhythm is sensuously embodied, it illuminates the spirit”. A Negro, says Senghor, is first of all sense, smells, forms, colours; all his pores are open to nature. Hence his force, the spontaneity and creative power of his poetic imagination.

There are numerous writers creating in Africa, more often in European languages than in the vernacular, a new poetry and a new fiction, strengthened in the immense variety of local traditions, legends and material conditions of life; all these writers are searching in the ancient thought and long aspirations of their people incentive, matter and fresh motives of inspiration. They think to have found something very new and valuable which can give a revivifying breadth to world literature, a renewed style, a fuller sense and meaning and dazzling images to colour and animate the language.

“For who would teach rhythm to the dead world of machines and guns? asks Césaire. Who would utter the cry of joy to awaken the dead and the orphans at dawn? Tell me who would restore the memory of life to the man of disembowelled hopes.” (16)

Aimé Césaire, the Martiniquian poet, was received by André Breton into the ranks of surrealism. The poetry of “Negritude” was hailed as a high expression of surrealism, as it explores new areas of the subconscious. But Césaire and other neo-African poets were also acclaimed in the expressionist quarters for the revelation, vision and economic rhythm of their poetry.

The word “Negritude” was coined by Aimé Césaire, the chief poet of this movement, which intends to revive the primitive myths of Africa and fertilize with their poetic strength new literary forms. The movement of the “Negritude” though, was limited to the French-speaking African poets. Senghor, one of the greatest modern poets in the French language, defines ‘Negritude’ the ensemble of the cultural values of the black race” and a specific form of thought and sensibility. This concept tends to express not only a Black-African reality but also a protest and challenge to European and American culture. It was in Europe that Negro writers found the ways to express their ideas; it was in contact with European culture that the principles of ‘Negritude’ were first formulated. ‘Negritude’ pretends to be the expression of “African personality”, a true African humanism. (17) Senghor believes that ours will be the century of the discovery of the Black-African civilization. “The emotion is Negro, as reason is Hellenic”, he writes. He finds in the evocations of ‘Negritude’ some beautiful effects mingling though, the stark, virginal images from “the horrible green of the forest and his invocation.

Listen to the beating of our dark blood,

Listen to the beating of the dark pulse of
Africa in the mist of lost villages

with his European reminiscences:

My Portuguese blood is lost in the sea of my “Negritude”

Amalia Rodrigues sing, oh sing in your low voice
the Saudades of my love of yore.

Sartre attributes a transitory character to the intellectual African movement - and therefore to the ideals of ‘Negritude’ - seeing in it mostly an act of meditated rebellion against European culture.

In the English-speaking new countries of Africa poets know very little about ‘Negritude’, or even dislike it, unsympathetic as they are, in the line of their English education, to literary movements. The Nigerian Wole Soyinka ridicules it comparing it to the idea of a Tiger proclaiming his ‘tigritude’. (18) Ulli Beier and Gerlad Moore believe that the “wellspring of Negritude is running dry”.

What it looks to be really valid under the name of “négritude” is the consciousness of particular specific traits in the African culture. It looks exaggerated to talk of an “African personality” or of an underlying African cultural unity. There is no cultural unity in the culture of Europe, despite the much smaller size of this continent, and of the incidence of the same or similar historical factors, there is no cultural unity in America, despite the fact that American culture is a young one; there is no unity in Asian culture - in all of them the excellence is in variety, in richness and diversity of elements, of structures, of origins.

The South African Ezekiel Mphahlele says that a new art in Africa will arise from life itself, and not from any cult of particularity, separateness or racial difference. (19).

The same will be with culture - it will spread over a wide gamut, from the African Mediterranean of ancient Islamic learning till the forest cultures full of young imagination and old myths.

The poets truly great like Senghor, or like the tragically lost Malagasy Jean-Joseph Rabéarivelo, go beyond the local colour of picturesque images and beyond the continental or racial boundaries.

She whose feet are planted in the sea

and whose shiny hands appear

fully of corals and blocks of shining salt

sings Rabéarivelo possessed by a universal breath of inspiration. And again:

The blood of the earth, the sweat of the stone

and the sperm of the wind

which flow together in these palms

have melted their fingers

and replaced them with golden flowers

The African literature counts already a few outstanding poets; it has not yet produced a universal poet great enough to impose it as, for instance, Tagore imposed the modern Indian poetry.

But the poetic substance which they have dug up from the ancient African legend and tradition brings a tonic novelty and fresh impulse to world poetry.

By the vigour and originality of the substance, the purity and power of the symbols, the freshness and brutality of new images, African poetry is a new phenomenon which may revitalize the decadent, vague and tired phraseology of modern poetry.

African art, too, has offered the world a new fertilizing experience. African sculpture, especially African masks, have revealed unseen aspects in the plastic representation. African mask is the expression of a human truth beyond reality, it expresses more than a real face. African masks are of an infinite variety, from the strong, surly masks of the Bakongo to the round abstract geometry of the Bakota. In all of them what is remarkable is the essentially magic vision expressed in the primeval dread of the meanings of things, in the magic power of the human face.

As the poem is only complete when recited, the mask is only complete when used by the dancer; only then it calls the spirit into the body of the dancer, and dancer and mask and the spiritual powers they represent become united.

“Masks primordial and pure on the walls, distant and still so present!”
Evokes Senghor. Or then

“Your eyelashes took the position of the Eternal on the face of the statues

But around your mask floats the center living of the sea-gull”.

According to Sartre, Negro poetry “is the true revolutionary poetry of our time”.

Life force is also reflected in African music: the essential element of this music is rhythm. Rhythm is more than fundamental to African music, it is in its very core, it has a sacred quality. Drums occupy a capital part in African culture, they are kept in special huts and endowed with magic powers.

Rhythm is the beating of life, the pulsing of the sap, the solar radiation expressed in African music and dance. No doubt that African rhythm introduced in all modern music is a force, an intensity, a power of hallucination without which it would be impossible to transmit the movement and anguish of modern life.

These rich elements of the traditional art of the Black peoples have of course to be transformed and transposed into new forms in order to express the psychological needs and the actual meaning of today’s world. It was good to find such a rich variety and primordial strength, but this reservoir of virginal forces will only be valid when exploited and used for further artistic creation. (20)

The great African artists for this momentous enterprise have not yet appeared. The treasure of these virginal forces and ideas has been used in the creation of outstanding works by Western artists like Picasso, Modigliani, Brancusi, Kirchner. In music, it was the American Copland and the Brazilian Villa-Lobos who made the most original use of African heritage.

“Various European artists are closer to the African attitude to art than are many artists in Africa”, writes Jahn.

But that is not important. The African great artists will mature and will appear in their time. What is really important is that the African cultures are bringing world culture for their particular contribution, their unmistakable peculiar qualities of humanism.

12 - African contribution to Universal Culture - the virginal forces of Man: List
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