The Power of Symbols in African Culture

Symbols and Signs

We come across symbols or symbolic actions wherever we are. Often we are not even aware of it, and sometimes we are unable to understand or to interpret certain symbols, because we are not familiar with their meaning. Let us take the symbol of the cross, the meaning of which is very familiar for Christians, but not necessarily for Hindus or Moslems. They have their own symbols. But even for Christians, the symbol of the cross may take on various meanings. This shows us that symbols are by nature open for various interpretations.

A symbol is not identical with the object that it symbolises, because it is not like a photograph that reproduces an object accurately. The purpose of a symbol is rather to illuminate it. If a symbol is to work effectively, it has to be simplified and sharpened to a degree that reduces it to something like a sketch-map of the reality to which it is intended to serve as a guide. A symbol opens the door into a larger world. It goes beyond that what is visible and tangible. It opens the door especially to the world of mystery.

Signs, on the other hand, for example traffic signs, are not open to interpretation, but have a precise meaning: When the traffic light is red, it means that you must stop until it changes to green. A sign needs to be precise and unmistakable.

Symbols say more than words

In every department of human life, symbolic expression is the way to creative freedom. The symbol stands for openness, for pointing towards alternative possibilities, for readiness to experiment in the hope of gaining a fuller understanding of reality. Symbols are often used when words are unable to express complex realities: a deep feeling of love for a person may be expressed by giving that person a red rose. The unfathomable mystery of God is sometimes symbolised by a triangle, which has no beginning and no end. Symbols are also historical. It means they can become out of date or empty, like the wedding rings of a divorced couple.

Religious symbols

Religions make use of many symbolic actions and gestures in order to express their relationship to God: Catholics genuflect in church and Moslems bow or prostrate to show their submission to Allah. Symbols have the power to connect us to something greater than ourselves, to the unknown or ultimate. Man’s ultimate concern can only be expressed symbolically, because symbols can say more than words. In this sense, a symbol is a powerful instrument to extend our vision, to stimulate our imagination and to deepen our understanding. Without symbols, we are unable to arrive at the truth. Words alone cannot express the whole reality. People in the Western world who are influenced by an unconscious materialism, often equate reality with physical, measurable reality, whereas Africans can often see the symbolic meaning of things and events, because they are convinced that reality is more than what can be seen and measured. They are often able to see a symbolic or spiritual meaning in events like sickness, death and disasters.

The symbol has a long-established relationship with myth, which are sacred stories that define the human condition and man’s relation to the sacred or holy. Often containing a collection of symbolic forms, actions, expressions, and objects, myths describe gods, demons, human beings, animals, plants, and material objects that are themselves bearers of symbolical meanings and intentions.

In some parts of West Africa, for example, a judge might preside over criminal trials while wearing a mask to symbolize his power.

White masks among the Fang are associated with death or spirits. This type of mask is worn by members of the ngil society, who are charged with finding and punishing wrongdoers.

A Powerful Symbol: The Golden Stool of the Asante in Ghana

The enormous power of symbols can be seen in African culture. The Asante in the north of Ghana have always considered the Golden Stool more important than all the Asante put together, including the king himself, because it has always been seen as a symbol of unity among the Asante. It was in fact the symbolic power of the Golden Stool that created the Asante nation. The story goes back to the 17th century when there was no Asante kingdom. At that time there were several independent chiefdoms scattered all over what is currently the Ashanti Region of Ghana. They all owed allegiance to the chief of Denkyira, who collected gold and wives from them. The chief of Kumasi, Osei Tutu, decided to put an end to this insult and tyranny. He created the Golden Stool and convinced everybody that he had conjured it from heaven. He asked all the chiefs to give him clippings of their finger and toenails and also a bit of their hair. With this, he made a concoction and smeared the stool with it. He told the chiefs that they were, from then on, one nation with one soul contained in the stool. Throughout the history, the Golden Stool had established itself as the force of unity and power. Today the Golden Stool is housed in the Asante royal palace in Kumasi. The stool never touches the ground; it rests on its own platform or on animal skins. No one is ever allowed to sit on it. When the Asante king is inaugurated, he is lowered over the stool three times without touching it. The Asante are proud that although the British conquered their nation, they never surrendered the stool.

Kwanzaa in the USA

The need for a symbolic expression of their identity as Afro-Americans in the USA is demonstrated in the recently introduced feast of “Kwanzaa”, an African American holiday that celebrates family, community, and culture. It is a seven-day holiday that begins on December 26 and continues through January 1. The name of the holiday comes from the Swahili words matunda ya kwanza, which mean “first fruits.” The holiday’s roots are in harvest celebrations that are recorded from the earliest periods of African history. At each evening meal during Kwanzaa, family members light one of seven candles to focus on the principles in a ritual called “lifting up the light that lasts.” This lifting up means upholding the Nguzo Saba and all the other life-affirming and enduring principles that reaffirm the good of life, enrich human relations, and support human flourishing. In addition to the mishumaa saba (seven candles), the other basic symbols of Kwanzaa are the mazao (crops), symbolic of African harvest celebrations and of the rewards of productive and collective labor; the mkeka (mat), symbolic of tradition and history and therefore the foundation on which to build; the kinara (candleholder), symbolic of ancestral roots and the parent people, or continental Africans; muhindi (maize), symbolic of children and the future of African people that they embody; the kikombe cha umoja (unity cup), symbolic of the foundational principle and practice of unity that makes all else possible; and zawadi (gifts), symbolic of the labor and love of parents and of the commitments made and kept by children. There are also two supplemental symbols: a representation of the Nguzo Saba and the bendera (flag), which contains the colors black, red, and green. These colors are symbolic, respectively, of African people, their struggle, and the promise and future that come from their struggle. A central and culminating event of the holiday is the gathering of the community on December 31 for an African karamu (feast). The karamu features libation and other ceremonies that honor ancestors, narratives, poetry, music, dance, and other performances to celebrate the goodness of life, relationships, and cultural grounding.

Kwanzaa ends January 1 with the Siku ya Taamuli (Day of Meditation), which is dedicated to sober self-assessment and recommitment to the Nguzo Saba and all other African values that reaffirm commitment to the dignity and rights of the human person, the well-being of family and community, the integrity and value of the environment, and the reciprocal solidarity and common interests of humanity. One way that persons conduct this self-assessment is to ask themselves three questions: Who am I? Am I really who I am? Am I all I ought to be? In this way, they measure themselves in the mirror of the best of African culture and history and recommit themselves to standards and practices of human excellence that reflect and support those cultural ideals.

The Turkana in Uganda: Animals as Symbols of Wealth

Our whole life is governed by symbolic actions and gestures, which has strongly influenced our behavior and interaction with one another. The way we greet one another, for example, has deep symbolic meaning and differs from one ethnic group to another. For the Turkana people in Northern Uganda, animals are symbols of wealth. A person without livestock, no matter what other property he has, is poor. Their daily lives are filled with symbolic actions: They have at least ten verbs for cutting ears of humans and animals. This practice is also found among other East African desert nomads, such as the Masaai. When a child dies, its successor has the tip of its right ear cut off. The action prevents the death of other children in the family. To cut symbolizes to separate, and in this case the separation is from death. When a man is buried, his head faces eastwards and towards the rising sun, which is a symbol of life.

Our ultimate concern and our deepest mysteries can only be expressed symbolically, because symbols alone are able to express the ultimate.

Fritz Stenger, Nairobi

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