The philosophy of change and adaptability sounds very much like a modern concept but the participants at the recent symposium to mark 50 years of Chinua Achebe’s God were forced to look back at not only what our ancestors did as regards change and adaptability, but also what they thought. It is very common to assume that a lot of African history and philosophy are undocumented simply because people are looking for them in philosophy and history books with hard dates and timelines.
It turns out that all we need to do is to look deep into the hearts and thoughts of the characters in our famous fictions. Arrow of God provides ample opportunities for that. Unlike hard-core history books that seem to aim to provide us with a unified mostly political narrative, novels like Arrow God throw a low of everyday characters at us and let us to draw our own conclusions from their personal struggles, battles, doubts and deliberations.
As we ask ourselves the most common survival questions as “what languages should we speak and how?”; “should it still be the man’s prerogative to break the kola?”; “should be fully embrace the new religions (Christianity & Islam) or go back to the indigenous religions of our forefathers?”; we might need to consult a book like Arrow of God for indigenous philosophy on change management.
Take the use of the English language as our lingua franca for instance. Despite this being a pragmatic thing to do for survival, how we go about doing so and still able to express ourselves in a way that is natural to us while maintaining the rules of the language is a different matter. The author of Arrow of God has shown us how to do that in practice and also uses his characters to teach us the philosophy of change through their speeches. In many African primary schools, pupils are made to memorise some English idioms and proverbs such as “a stitch in time saves nine” or “make hay while the sun shines”.
The problem was that these phrases were never used outside the classroom, and the reason being that they made no sense to the pupils and bore no connections to their natural environment. However, with proverbs such as “a toad does not run in the day time for nothing”, the pupils could visualise a running toad in the day and the whole message becomes very clear. “For when we see a little bird dancing in the middle of the pathway we must know that its drummer is on the near-by bush” even adds further entertainment to the speech. Perhaps this is what we should be teaching our pupils as a way of adaptation.
Still on proverbs, the characters used these to tell us about change: “a disease that has not been seen before cannot be cured with everyday herbs”; “Eneke the bird was asked why he was on its wing and he replied that men have learnt to shoot without missing their mark and I have learnt to fly without perching on a twig”; “A man must dance to the dance prevalent in his time.”; “A man of sense doesn’t go hunting little bush rodents when his age mates are after big game”.
These are deep philosophies that we need to reference whenever we think change management. These philosophies have no fancy names and the words of wisdom cannot be attributed to any particular individuals just as a lot is attributed to Socrates and Plato. This is probably due the communal nature of many African societies. It is important that we do not shy away from using metaphors that are familiar to us.
The breaking of the kola nut to open the symposium sparked a controversy when the elder that performed the ritual suggested that men are served first in accordance with tradition. The ritual was projected as the Christian equivalent of the Holy Communion, and the heated debate that followed on whether to stick to the old tradition of only men breaking the kola nut and being served first is not different to the debate in the Catholic/Anglican churches on whether women can be priests and consecrate the Holy Communion.
My immediate thought was not just on the gender equality issue but on the objects being used: kola nut versus wafers. Despite the obvious similarity between the two rituals, they are still treated as distinct. In saying the ritual blessings while breaking the kola nut, the traditionalists have even found a way ending it with the Christian “through Jesus Christ our Lord” which I find really absurd.
Have you ever heard Europeans ending a toast with those lines? In any case, if that helps people feel that they are not betraying their faith by participating in this ritual by Christianising it, that’s fine. But why not go a step further and embrace full consolidation of this ritual? Why not use the kola nut for Holy Communion? Kola nut grows locally and is said to have medicinal power. In addition, using the kola nut for Holy Communion may be the quickest way to achieve gender equality as it is a global rather than a local cause.