African Philosophy II

Bantu Philosophy

In this article I like to speak about the beginning of African philosophy. There always existed of course philosophical thoughts and ideas within the many African cultures. Just think about the many sayings and proverbs, which exist in all African languages. They often express the collective wisdom of a people or language group. All Swahili speakers know for example the saying: “Polepole, ndio mwendo”. Literally translated it means: “Slowly is indeed movement”. At first, this seems to be a contradiction, but it expresses the experience that things done too hastily may be counter-productive. Another example: The Babemba in Zambia say: “Kwapa takucila kubea”. The armpit is never above the shoulder. It means that a son or daughter, though they may be fully grown, can never admonish their father. Children must never be above their parents. It also means that one must never try to live above one’s means.

Although these proverbs express deep wisdom, we would not yet call it a philosophy, because philosophy is not just a collection of proverbs and wise sayings, but it is a system of thought that is written down. Let us then turn to the beginning of professional African philosophy.

Father Placide Tempels

Fr. Tempels, a Belgian missionary, who worked in the 1930s among the Baluba people in the Belgian Congo, wrote a book called “Bantu philosophy” His main intention was to prove to Europeans, that the Africans, among whom he worked, were thinking in a logical way, a fact that until then was not generally accepted. He wrote in “Bantu Philosophy” first published in his mother tongue Flemish in 1945:

“Anyone who claims that primitive peoples possess no system of thought, excludes them thereby from the category of human beings. Every day we notice that these people are by no means just children afflicted with a bizarre imagination”. [p.16]

Tempels fought against the idea, held by many Europeans, including missionaries, that Africans were like immature children, because their way of thinking was different from that of Europeans. Fr. Tempels defence of African thinking met a lot of opposition, even from his own Franciscan brothers, who thought that he had gone too far in his appreciation of African thinking.

How did Fr. Tempels describe the thinking of the Baluba?

  • First there is a belief that all beings – human, animal, vegetable or mineral – have or are forces; and that there is a constant interaction between them.
  • This interaction, which is passive and needs to be activated, unites all beings.
  • Human beings alone, by virtue of their intelligence, are able to do this. They can determine the result of the interaction, which can be either good, as in the case of protective medicine, or evil, as in the case of killing by magic. Morally bad act create disorder in the relations of forces.
  • Among the created beings, the human being stands in the centre. This includes the dead with whom the living maintain a constant relationship.
  • The inferior forces have been created by God in order to help human beings to increase their forces.
  • Wisdom then means the knowledge of these forces and of their effects.
  • The Bantu’s human behaviour is guided by their knowledge of being as force.

Fr. Tempels claimed that not only the Baluba in the Congo, but all Bantu are guided in their activities by this philosophy, of which we have only given some major points.

[To be continued] — Fr. Fritz Stenger

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