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Nature as an Extension of Self

I was born in South Africa in the mid 90’s. This was a time when the need to migrate into the city was a prerequisite for any black person who wanted even a grain of economic liberty. I use the term ‘liberty’ because I struggle to find the word that fully captures the flimsy offcuts that were, read ‘are,’ offered to black people in my country as ‘economic emancipation.’

So because of this: my life, like many of my peers, was conceived in, and designed by the city.

Before I moved to Ghana in August 2018, I had never seen what cocoa looks like when it doesn’t look like chocolate. I had been eating almonds and cashews for a good fraction of my life, thinking they just grew like the way they look in the store. Flavouring my stews with turmeric and ginger, not knowing that these spices are in fact fraternal twins that grow below the ground. Having grown up in urban and suburban Mzantsi (South Africa), I was dangerously disconnected from the natural environment to the extent that camping sounded like a bizarre form of punishment, and the ocean, well the whole water thing just wasn’t my ‘vibe.’

I can’t tell you when things began to change, I just know that one day I was okay with the idea of waking in the dark, walking a few hundred meters to find myself sitting on top of uneven rocks, and waiting for the sun to show her face. One day the idea of digging a whole and squatting next to a tree in an effort to release the remains of my previous meal seemed, well…doable. At some point I yearned for the feeling of a fresh breeze across my neck. I craved the sound of trees dancing, waves crashing, birds in dialogue.

As my informal process of initiation into the realm where nature and I are one-and-the-same proceeded, I began to notice how disconnected this journey was and would be for many people who grew up like me. I began to question whether it was natural for a black person to want to shower outside with the giant lizards enjoying the mesmerizing view of their birthday suit.

As the questions became louder and the weight of insecurity sunk deeper into my skin, I decided to go a few generations back into our collective story as Afrikan people, and explore how our ancestors perceived the relationships between human beings and nature. I wanted to know whether in fact this deep connection with nature that I and many of the people I currently surround myself with, was a product of collective spiritual and physiological inheritance, or whether it was a form of escapism; a way to distract ourselves from the confusing dynamics of the physical world.

I wanted to understand how the people who came before me, the people I am a product of, thought and understood the Doings of Nature (Ukwenziwa Kwendalo in isiXhosa, my mother tongue). I learnt that the cosmology of amaZulu of the South, the Tallensi, Igbo and Asante of West, BaKongo of the Centre and the Busuku of the East all hold the idea that the owners of land are the ancestors, and we the living are but only custodians. This entails that land is handed down from generation to generation in a fit condition for the enjoyment of not only the living, but the unborn who will inherit guardianship of our green galaxy.

It was also intriguing to come across some of the philosophies of the Akamba, a Bantu group that stretches across parts of East Afrika (Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda), to as far as Paraguay in South America. For them; the human community is made up of not only the living, but the ancestors and the unborn. In essence, when we speak of community in collective Afrikan thought, we speak of beings that we can see with our eyes, and those that are active in the realms of the spirit. What this means is that there is an environmental responsibility cast upon the living to ensure ecological balance between human beings and nature for the entire community, (ancestors and the unborn).

This conception of the human community by the various groups implies an ecological responsibility for the current generation of human beings to consider our actions for and against the natural environment, for future generations.

Our disconnect from that which is natural, has been discussed by environmentalists, socialists and Afrikanists alike. Many attribute this disassociation to the emergence of colonialism, capitalism and consumerism. Indigenous people were stripped from their land, thus taken away from that which grounds them; the center of their communities on the physical plane. The paramountcy of land cannot be reduced to a space to erect home or build a farm. Land provides food and medicine, it is a space of education; where we can learn about the natural order of beings. Through nature we learn how things grow, and how that growth teaches lessons about human nature and its interaction with itself and other beings. Our people are people who learn from what is natural as we ourselves are natural beings.

Through the process of colonisation, our people adopted the physiological and epistemological instincts of Eurocentric thought. One of the primary reactions that came with this was to, like the European; define beings outside of the immediate self as ‘things.’ Basically, animals, plants and all natural phenomena became objects separate from, and inferior to the human being.

Now you see, this system of classification was highly foreign to the collective experience of indigenous people, as told by collective Afrikan thought. For example; the Busuku of East Afrika classified their plants according to their role in the socio-ecosystem. What this means is that, plants were defined according to not only the function they played in the natural ecosystem, but also their relationship with the social system of the Busuku community. Certain plants were used as medicine, others as messengers to the different worlds.

Natural phenomena across communities of Afrikan descent is used as tools to communicate with God, our ancestors and ourselves. Animal bones are used by Sangomas (healers in Southern Afrika), as portals to view snapshots of the past, present and future, all at once. Cowry shells are used by healers in the West of Afrika and South America as mirrors of the subconscious and the under/upperworld.

Kenyan author uBaba[1] Juma writes in his book Gaining Ground (1989), “A plant is not an entity existing in isolation but an embodiment of the interrelationships involving physical, biological and social aspects of its existence.” Every part and every being has a role in the universe, to restore balance in the natural order of things. The emphasis our philosophy seems to place is on nature and the human being as complementary; two parts of a whole. Our cosmology places more value on the relationship between the two, and find it almost trivial to make one superior to the other.

Through my expedition of uncovering some of the treasures embedded in the collective understanding of the world that we have inherited, I came across the magnificent, mathematical concept known as Fractals. Simply put, this is the notion of ‘as above, so below.’ The universe is made of a series of geometric patterns that repeat themselves on different scales. For example, the spiral pattern that makes up the galaxy is repeated in the finger print of a human being, and in the natural form of a snail. The organization veins that grow on plants is similar to the system of veins inside the human body. Through their observation and connection to nature and the universe, our ancestors were very aware of these self-repeating patterns. We see this in the Uli Pictograms of the Ị̀gbò people of West Afrika, that motif the beautiful self-repeating patterns of nature. These symbols form as an archive of indigenous knowledge on how Ị̀gbò philosophy understands, learns from, and connects with nature.

The many patterns that exist in nature are present in the human body. Not only are we connected to nature in a physical sense, our thoughts and ideas can be refined and truly made profound by observing wisdom nature. I am truly grateful for the journey that has brought me towards understanding nature as a part of myself and my community. This is inherited knowledge has been harboring in my subconscious, like a dormant giant waiting for its awakening. My exploration has not even scratched the surface of the discoveries that await me. I will always be indebted to the beautiful land of Ghana for striking the match that has lit this existential baptism of fire.

I am a natural entity therefore; nature is an extension of me.

“It is a cornerstone of African ontology that nothing exists of itself: rather being and things exist in relation to other beings and things. Hence there is a dynamic interrelation between human beings and their environment.”

~uBab’oMkhulu Chukwunyere Kamalu

[1] Father in isiZulu. A way of referring to a male elder as a form of respect.

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