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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

4. Peace: A Religious and Moral Value

In traditional African societies, peace is not an abstract poetic concept, but rather a down-to-earth and practical concept. In ATR peace is conceived not in relation to conflict and war, but in relation to order, harmony and equilibrium. It is a religious value in that the order, harmony and equilibrium in the universe and society is believed to be divinely established and the obligation to maintain them is religious. It is also a moral value since good conduct is required of human beings if
the order, harmony and equilibrium are to be maintained.

a) Peace as Fullness of Life
It was earlier noted that the promotion and enhancement of life is the central principle of African traditional morality. The goal of all moral conduct is therefore the fullness of life. Human life is considered full in Africa when it is marked by spiritual, material, and social blessings; when the network of relations with the spiritual, human and material beings is as it should be. And this is what is meant by peace in ATR. “Peace is good relationship well lived; health, absence of pressure and conflict, being strong and prosperous...[9] Peace is the totality of well-being: fullness of life here and hereafter, what the Yoruba call alafia…[that is] ‘the sum total of all that man may desire: an undisturbed harmonious life.’”[10] If one is therefore lacking in any of the basic things that are considered essential to life in an African society (like good health, a wife or a husband, children, means of sustenance of one’s family) or if one, though possessing these things, does not enjoy a good relationship with the other members of the community (living or dead), one cannot be said to have peace. Mere material wealth or progress that is not accompanied by an integral moral life is neither regarded as fullness of life nor is it envied in traditional African societies. Any action that is capable of hindering another from attaining the fullness of life is considered a breach of peace. A selfish or unjust person, even when he or she is not violent, is anti-social and is therefore regarded by the Africans as an enemy of peace. In the Kikuyu litany of peace which we recited at the beginning, Ngai is asked for some of the things associated with the fullness of life: increase in population, prosperity not only of the people, but also of the flock and the herds, freedom from illness and a fertile land.

b) Peace as the Result of Harmonious Living
            Harmony is a fundamental category in traditional African religion and thought. No attempt is made to deny or cancel out differences, rather all effort is devoted to finding a way in which differences can continue to harmoniously co-exists. In personal life, such a harmony consists in the ability to reconcile one’s desires with one’s means, coordinate one’s thoughts, sentiments and their verbal expressions as well as the ability to discharge one’s religious and social duties. One who is able to do this will experience inner peace. In the community, harmony entails smooth relationships between persons and other beings.

The goal of interaction of beings in African world-views is the maintenance of the integration and balance of the beings in it [the world]. Harmonious interaction of beings leads to the mutual strengthening of the beings involved, and enhances the growth of life. A pernicious influence from one being weakens other beings and threatens the harmony and integration of the whole.[11]

Turning again to our opening prayer, we notice the centrality of harmony in the prayer for peace: elders speaking with one voice, tranquillity, agreement between the gourd cup and the vessel and the banishment of every ill word. These are all fundamental requirements for the realization of the peace prayed for. Since human beings come in different shapes, sizes and with all sorts of different ideas in their heads, traditional African societies go to great lengths in trying to accommodate the various opinions of their members. Africans are known for their long drawn-out village discussions (les parlabres africaines) in search of consensus. The terms “majority” and “minority” have little place in traditional African debates, since the goal is always to take everybody along in any decision that will be binding on all. And in the interest of harmony, the discussion is continued until the last sceptic has been won over. It often happens that the few who do not share the opinion of the many voluntarily give up theirs, still in the interest of harmony.

            Any person who causes a breach on the harmonious co-existence of the members of the community is made to make up for it through just reparation or restitution, depending on the offence committed. We may recall here what was said earlier about justice. In ATR peace in the community cannot be separated from justice. Peter Sarpong underlines this inseparable relationship between justice and peace within the context of Ashanti culture: “Justice produces peace… there can be no peace without justice… Peace is honourable… peace can never be achieved when you are disgraced or when you disgrace another person. People must relate to one another on equal terms.”[12]  And Theophilus Okere, writing about the Igbo goes even further. He says: “Peace is not something that happens but rather a situation that arises when justice happens. It is a happy state of things that happens when the state of things is just… the result of order and right alignment… It is not only that peace is based on justice, rather, peace is justice and justice is peace.”[13] The unwritten moral code of the Africans contains not only things that are forbidden but also things that must be done as compensation and in reparation for the injury which immoral conduct inflicts on individuals and on the society at large. Such compensation and reparation are usually based on past experiences. People are usually at a loss when a person commits a sin or an immoral act hitherto unknown in the community.[14]
            The harmony that is to be maintained for humans to experience peace is not only social but also spiritual and cosmic.

A man’s well-being consists… in keeping in harmony with the cosmic totality. When things go well with him he knows he is at peace and of a piece with the scheme of things and there can be no greater good than that. If things go wrong then somewhere he has fallen out of step… The whole system of divination exists to help him discover the point at which the harmony has been broken and how it may be restored.[15]

In many African societies, there are specific periods of the year marked out for the promotion of peace. During this period, which may last for a week or a month, litigations are suspended while quarrels and all forms of violent and unjust acts are avoided for fear of incurring the wrath of God, the deities and the ancestors.[16] This sacred period sometimes precedes the planting season and it is believed that any breach which is not adequately atoned for would lead to a poor harvest. If a person breaks either the spiritual or the cosmic harmony, the lack of peace that ensues reverts on the entire community. Sometimes individual reparations in terms of sacrifices are not enough to restore the harmony and all the members of the community are called upon to right the wrong. There is thus a strong sense of the social dimension of immoral conduct. Sin is often only apparently a private affair as the following story illustrates.

Once upon a time, a squirrel sat on a palm tree, eating palm fruits with gusto. He was so delighted by the meal he was having that he sang loudly and cracked the nuts very noisily. Under the tree, a python was trying to get some rest. Unable to sleep because of the noise the squirrel was making, the serpent called out to his little friend, asking him to be more reasonable. “My dear friend,” said the python to the squirrel, “could you please make less noise. Look, you have disturbed my sleep with the noise you are making up there.” To which the squirrel replied: “Why are you so intolerant? If you are sleeping, it is because you have had your fill. Now that I want to put something in my little stomach, you are already complaining.” “This is not a question of intolerance, my dear,” the python continued. “I am only asking you to be considerate of others. Nobody denies you the right to eat. But that does not mean you have to disturb everybody else while eating. Besides, the noise you are making could put us in some trouble.”  “Listen to that!” shouted the squirrel as it burst out laughing. He laughed so vigorously that he nearly fell from the palm tree. Then he continued: “I am here above, you are there below, and you tell me that what I am doing up here could put you in trouble down there. Come on, do not make yourself ridiculous.” There was also a cocoa-yam plant nearby. It had only one leaf. At this point the cocoa-yam leaf joined the discussion and said to the squirrel: “Yes dear, the python is right. The noise you are making could be dangerous for us all.” The squirrel, visibly irritated, shouted: “Won’t you keep quiet there? Who called you into this? If you guys want to climb up here, feel free to do so. There are enough fruits for us all. Otherwise, you should let me eat my meal in peace. Whatever I do here is strictly my business and should there be any danger, it would be only for me, not for you. Period!” Thus, the squirrel continued to enjoy his favourite meal of palm fruits, singing louder than ever before.
       At that very moment, a hunter who was passing by was attracted by the noise that the squirrel was making. Looking up, he saw the little animal, lost in his meal, oblivious of the world beyond the palm fruits. The hunter drew nearer the palm tree, took aim and with a single explosion from his gun, the squirrel came tumbling down to the bottom of the tree. As the hunter bent down to pick his game, he saw the big serpent lying nearby. He drew back sharply and with the agility of a good hunter, he quickly drew his sword and killed the python. The sudden sight of the python was sufficiently scaring even to this daring hunter. It made him perspire. While cleaning the perspiration from his brows, he thought of how to carry the dead animals, since his hunting bag was two small for the two. Then he caught sight of the large cocoa-yam leaf. With a smile of relief, he cut the leaf and with it made a neat parcel of the squirrel and the python. So it was that the noise made by the squirrel caused the death of all three: the squirrel, the python and the cocoa-yam leaf.

On the theme of peace one sees very clearly the very close relationship existing between religion and morality in Africa. Immoral or bad behaviour disturbs the peace of the community: it makes the ancestors angry, provokes the divinities and may even annoy God. This explains why “one of the main means of restoring peace in society is to find out what has gone wrong spiritually, and through special rituals to restore the state of equilibrium.”[17]
            Of all the breaches of social and cosmic harmony in traditional Africa, interrupting human life (whether one’s own or another’s), which the harmony is meant to enable and promote, is about the most serious. Life is sacred. It comes from God and God alone has the right to interrupt it at any stage. Spilling of human blood defiles the murder and the earth. There is a difficult case in some local African cultures about the treatment of strangers. Whereas the killing of a kinsman, even inadvertently, is always a grave crime, when it comes to strangers, several distinctions are made. Limited space here does not allow us to go into details. It seems however to be a widespread moral norm in Africa that one has to be hospitable to strangers, especially when they come quietly and peacefully. This is because, although kinship relations are usually clearly defined, Africans believe that all human beings are children of God. In some cultures, like among the Yoruba, it is even believed that creation took place in a definite location, Ile-Ife, and that all humans ultimately originate from there. The so-called stranger is thus sometimes regarded only as an unknown relative. Furthermore, given that divinities often take human forms to bring some important messages to communities, one is careful not to harm a stranger for fear of unknowingly harming a divinity, with all the consequences that would definitely come in its trail. African hospitality is proverbial and, with the benefit of a hindsight, some even think that it has cost Africans their continent. Nevertheless, strangers are frequently victims of kidnappings and killings, and those captured during warfare were often used for ritual purposes in those rare and extreme cases where human sacrifice was deemed expedient. Yet, human life, all human life, is still regarded as sacred. Even though some distinction is made between the killing of a kinsman and the killing of a stranger, killing, even in wars, is usually abhorred. The warrior may be hailed for his valour and for defending his land and its people, yet he is still considered defiled by the blood he spills at the war front and in some localities warriors are not allowed back into the community after a war until they have undergone ritual purification. The courageous and the brave man is admired and respected in the community because his courage and bravery may be needed when the society is threatened from outside. But to expose one’s life or that of other persons to unnecessary danger is never regarded as a sign of courage or bravery. Similarly, the warrior is also expected to be self-disciplined. No intimidation of innocent or disadvantaged persons is tolerated.
            War was usually not sought for its own sake. Even in the event of provocation by a neighbouring community, attempt was first made to negotiate and resolve the problem without resorting to armed conflict.[18] There were, of course, several inter-clan wars and raids in Africa ever before the slave trade, colonial conquests, neo-colonialism, and now globalization, raised them to dimensions never dreamt of in traditional African societies and made them permanent features of the reality of contemporary Africa. But the traditional religious view of life makes war always morally unacceptable, since it is a total collapse of social and cosmic order and harmony. Traditional Africans know this well enough. But as Sarpong rightly points out, “in the realm of moral value… mere knowledge is not power.”[19]

c) Peace as a Gift of God
            Since human beings are aware of their limitations in attaining and maintaining peace in their persons and within their societies and also aware of the fact that God is the source of universal order and harmony, they regularly turn to him to ask for peace. While recognizing their co-responsibility in this regard, traditional Africans equally believe that true peace is a gift of God. One of the main purposes of sacrifices and offerings is expiation. Expiatory sacrifices are supposed to make up for an evil act, remove an abomination, placate the deserved wrath of God, the divinities or the ancestors and thus restore the equilibrium that was disturbed by the sinful act.[20] In offering expiatory sacrifices, human beings are asking God and the other spiritual beings to intervene and help restore the peace that has been violated. “The fundamental meaning of sacrifices and offerings,” writes Laurenti Magesa, “lies in their efficacy to restore wholeness. If wrong-doing causes a dangerous separation of the various elements of the universe, sacrifices and offerings aim to reestablish unity and restore balance.”[21] Sometimes, sacrifices and offerings are made explicitly to ask for peace even when no infringement of a religious moral norm has occurred, or to ward off the evil spirits capable of harming one’s peace.
Whereas sacrifices and offerings come at intervals, prayers are very frequent indeed. And peace is a regular item on the Africans’ list of petitions.
            The following is an example of a morning prayer said by the Boran of Kenya:

O God, thou hast let me pass the night in peace,
Let me pass the day in peace.
Wherever I may go
Upon my way which thou madest peaceable for me,
O God, lead my steps.
When I have spoken,
Keep off calumny from me.
When I am hungry,
Keep me from murmuring.
When I am satisfied,
Keep me from pride.
Calling upon thee, I pass the day,
O Lord who hast no Lord.[22]

A corresponding prayer, which could actually be regarded as the conclusion of the morning prayer, is said when one retires at the end of the day:

O God, thou hast let me pass the day in peace,
Let me pass the night in peace,
O Lord who hast no Lord.
There is no strength but in thee.
Thou alone hast no obligation.
Under thy hand I pass the night.
Thou art my mother and my father.[23]

While addressing their prayers for peace to God, the Boran are not silent over the role that humans themselves must play for them to obtain what they ask of God. Calumny, murmuring and pride are listed as obstacles to peace, for they are capable of upsetting the harmony in the community.
Even when peace is not directly mentioned in prayer, it is often implied in the intentions which have to do with life in abundance and divine justice. An example of such can be seen in the following morning prayer of an Igbo paterfamilias while offering and breaking kola nut:

Olisa, the long-sighted one,
You hold both the yam and the knife,
Whomsoever you give a piece will eat.
Grant us health;
Grant us long life;
Give us food and drink.
Bless our children:
May the father train his child;
And may the child in turn take care of his father.
May it work out for everyone according to his thoughts:
Whoever thinks good, may it be good for him;
But may evil follow the one who thinks evil.[24]

Like in every other aspect of the religious life of the Africans, the divinities and the ancestors are very close collaborators of God in the administration of the universe and especially of human affairs. Prayers and sacrifices are also directed to them in order to obtain peace. Besides, since all are involved in watching over the moral order, they are also guardians of peace. “They all uphold righteousness, kindness and holiness – the very essence of peace.”[25]
            Part of the religious functions of family heads and political leaders in most traditional African societies is peace-making: settling disputes, offering sacrifices and prayers for peace. Similarly, peace-making is a major task of religious functionaries. Among the Nuer of Sudan, a sacred person with no political authority (the leopard-skin-chief) acts as the chief arbiter in settling disputes.[26] It is on this ground that Robert Rweyemamu says (and I agree):

In African traditional religions the peace-maker represents divine power on the one hand and social harmony on the other. In his person he expresses the divine origin of peace, a peace that is associated with the virtues of loyalty, honesty and trust in God.[27]

If an Igbo, a Nuer or a Dinka had been in the audience when Jesus delivered the sermon on the mount, he would have recorded the seventh beatitude in the Gospel according to Matthew as: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are [not shall be called] sons of God.”[28]

d) Peace as a Precondition for Progress
            If justice is the prerequisite for peace, peace is the precondition for progress. Africans of all creeds hardly ever talk of progress without founding it on peace. A Yoruba song expresses this in very simple and straight terms: “I want to build a home/ I want to have children… Without peace, these things are impossible.”[29] In a culture that sees progress as divine blessing, it is impossible to think of true progress in the midst of moral, social and cosmic disorder. From what was said earlier regarding peace as the fullness of life, it may appear that one who has peace already has everything and does not need to make any further progress. If one’s life is already full, nothing can be added to it. In reality, however, this kind of fullness of life is never totally realizable in this life. The Igbo have a rhetorical question that has become a name and also a proverb: “Onye ka o zuuru?” (For whom is everything perfect?) The answer is emphatic:  “Nobody!” The best that one can hope to obtain in this life is only an approximation of the fullness of life. This then always allows some room for progress. When an individual or the community has peace within, the terrain is prepared for yet more peace, and this brings the individual or the community closer to the fullness of life. This is the true meaning of progress. It is just another word for more peace. And there cannot be more peace unless there is some peace already.

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