8th assembly/50th anniversary

Together on the Way
6.2. Africa: The Footprint of God
by N. Barney Pityana

A set of fossil footprints was recently discovered at Langebaan in the West Coast of South Africa. Paleontologists estimate the footprints to be about 117,000 years old. And are considered to belong to some one who must have been an ancestor of modern humanity. These are among the oldest discovery of anatomically modern humans. This is part of the evidence that is being discovered by archeologists and pre-historians that Africa is the cradle of humanity and the birthplace of modern people.

Set against that recent dramatic discovery of ancient or even pre-ancient humanity is the encounter of the modern European visitors, later settlers, with Africa. In the 15th century European seamen stepped ashore, set foot on African soil and met the people of Africa. Their most dramatic discovery was that these people have no religion. They had no religion because there were no signs of religiosity: no temples or architecture of sacred places, no visible places set aside as holy, no moments devoted to worship, no postures that showed recognition of the divine. These people sang and danced and beat their drums with sensuous exhibitionism.

It is not surprising, therefore, that what was discovered in Africa is not evidence of worshiping ancient humanity but the very quintessence of being human, footprints. They left their imprint on their environment. They walked to gather food, to dominate their environment and to build relationships. Humanity walks. The culture and way of life of the ancient people is not discovered through religious artifacts but through the activity of being human. Fossils of ancient animals, plant and sea life, stone tools at least one million years old with which humanity fashioned life have been found in the gravels of the western Cape. Peer's Cave at Fish Hoek testifies to human life that goes back to about 500,000 years. The Fish Hoek Man discovered in 1927 among nine human skeletons were discovered, was aged about 12,000 years old. What all this says to me is that the people of Africa walked with God and God with them. The shape of the footprint resembles the geographical features of Africa. There can be no other footprints, no other evidence of God except by being at one with the activity of the people. The God of Africa is coterminous and coexistent with the people of Africa. God has no existence other than with the people. This God is weak and vulnerable because we have known no other God. This is the God who shares our human condition because God has no other existence but ours. We have only known God in the people of our everyday experience. There are no temples, no stone architecture, no holy places, no holy dress or holy moments. The entire activity of the people, their very being was a devotion to the deity who is the creator. To understand the people of Africa, therefore, requires a paradigm shift about God and religious life. Africa IS the footprint of God.

Discourse about Africa has to avoid the temptation of two extremes: the gloom and doom about a continent in perpetual crisis, a people who have been throughout modern history the targets of exploitation, where corruption and wars are rife and where the people suffer from every imaginable malady. A world without science or knowledge. Zephania Kameeta gives us the most dramatic example of this view of Africa from Keith Richburg, an African American journalist who has done service in the troubled spots of Africa:

Talk to me about Africa and my black roots and my kinship with my African brothers and I'll throw it back in your face, and then I'll rub your nose in the images of the rotting flesh But most of all I think: Thank God my ancestor got out, because now I am not one of them.
The other extreme is one associated with the famous African American scholar, Manning Marable. Marable has studies ancient civilization of Africa. He is focused on what Africa has given to modern civilization. Africa as the cradle of humanity, the fountain of ancient scholarship and science and culture, the great Africans who have shaped the history of knowledge and civilization. Its an amazing uncovering of history from an African perspective where Africa is the subject and not the object of history and where the tools of interpretation are in the hands of the African as interpreter of his own history, the teller of his own story. The problem with this is that it fails to take account of the fact that Africa is no longer visible, it has been drowned out in the misery and suffering and exploitation that has become the lot of many in Africa today. Colonization has robbed Africa of its soul. The other problem is that one is inclined to blame everyone else for the fate of Africa except Africans themselves. Africa need not take responsibility for their condition, their politics, their economy and their culture. There are forces at work, the deus ex machina reeking its devilish power on a hapless continent and its people. This is the theory of victimology and we must avoid it.

What I am offering is a mean between the two extremes: not falling for the gloom and cynicism of her detractors or the glorification of her past by her admirers. I use faith as an interpretative tool of the heart and soul of Africa. The image of the footprints is the one that tells me that the people of Africa have journeyed and labored with God over centuries. They are the people of faith. It is the faith that has sustained them. The faith that is part of their daily and ordinary lives. It is their faith that says that God dwells in the midst of them. God walks with them and suffers with them. God is not the ultimate explanation for the people are the explanation of their environment and their circumstances. It is always interesting that African people never blame God for their suffering. Theodicy is not the philosophy of our religion. Every effect has a cause and the search for meaning and explanation means that diviners are kept in business because they can see beyond the elemental world. Evil does not just happen, it is caused; often by human evil and ultimately by evil forces beyond human understanding. Humanity has the power of good and evil.

Africans journeyed with God and God tabernacled in their midst. God was incarnate They were sustained by faith and they lived in faith. Their cosmology linked the past and the present and the future through the ancestors. The spirits of the ancestors were forever present mediating and intervening in life's fortunes. This view of life meant that African people were a tolerant people. Yes, they fought wars, had heroes and heroines. Yes, the dominant groups oppressed the less powerful. That was the law of nature. But those who lived under their protection were accepted and the stranger was assured hospitality. That explains why the people of Africa were colonized. They were accepting and welcoming of strangers. They were vulnerable to forces that failed to understand their ways of life. The religions of the world found a home in Africa. No culture was totally alien. It became part of the whole and found expression in the culture of the Continent. That is why we have a mix of cultures and religions in Africa today. The people of Africa journey with God in faith.

But this faith is in crisis and may even be the cause of the crisis of the Continent. African people are not anymore good or bad that any other people the world over. They seek better systems of life for themselves and their children. They dream of freedom, of better opportunities of life and the means to extend their life choices. They have witnessed governments and systems come and go. Powerful men have lorded it over them and when their time came they bit the dust. There is a cycle of life that is as predictable as it is inevitable. And so the faith of Africa has always been tied up with humanity. People have always shaped her fortunes. Faith is in crisis because confidence in people has been shaken, betrayed. God seems to have deserted the people of Africa. The God who instilled hope in tragedy and sustained the future is no longer in the midst of them. The people have been left to merciless ravenous forces. We have sought like the Israelites to be like the other nations forgetting that in our midst dwells the God who journeys with us. We have built walls of division and hostility one from the other; we have built armies and frittered away resources on instruments of destruction. We have turned our weapons on our own people and destroyed one another in fratricidal wars. The wealth of our nations has been bargained in the global markets with scant regard for the needs of our own people. Our leaders have stolen from us only to bank our money in Europe. We are burdened with debt. In such circumstances, the faith of the ancestors needs a re-incarnation. But we have been there before.

I said that I was merely devising an interpretative tool and not indulging in apologetics. It seems to me that that tool will take us back to the people of Africa and their faith in God. The challenges we face are threefold: eradicating poverty, establishing democracy, human rights and good systems of governance and, finally, setting standards for a moral universe.

I start with poverty not because I wish to indulge in the politics of gloom about Africa. Although I accept that Africa must take responsibility for her management of her affairs, one cannot lose sight of the fact that poverty is not a natural condition of humanity. It is man-made. It is man-made because poverty is the result of policy options that have been taken which impoverish some and enrich others. Inasmuch as poverty is man-made, so also do I believe that poverty can be eradicated. The Human Development Report 1997 puts it succinctly:

Eradicating poverty everywhere is more than a moral imperative and a commitment to human solidarity. It is a practical possibility and, in the long run, an economic imperative for global prosperity. And because poverty is no longer inevitable, it should no longer be tolerated. The time has come to eradicate the worst aspects of human poverty in a decade or two to create a world that is more humane, more stable, more just. (106)
This confident assertion is a very hopeful sign. With goodwill and the political will poverty can be eradicated. Some 220m people in sub-Saharan Africa earn less than $1 per day, 122m with functional illiteracy, 205m have no access to safe drinking water and 205m have no access to health facilities. This trend should and can be reversed within our lifetime. It can be done if corruption in the management of public resources is eliminated. Corruption is theft from the poor. It can be done if national priorities in the distribution of available resources are restructured so that there is evident bias for the poor in public policy. In other words, it can be done if there is the political will. It can be done if globalization and the curse of the markets are controlled and managed to benefit the most needy and genuine interdependence and burden sharing in trade policies is adopted. It can be done in a less selfish world. It can be done if the poor do not have to carry a crippling debt burden. It can be done. Poverty is a curse to humanity. The 1998 Human Development Report has identified trends in consumption as one of the patterns of modern life that will need to be altered if humanity can address the challenge of eradicating poverty.

The second challenge I have pointed to is democracy, human rights and good governance. Of course, poverty cannot be eradicated, corruption will not be eliminated except on the basis of truly democratic policies, and sensitivity and responsiveness to human need, in short, good governance. These aspirations express the vision of African states who in the preamble to the Charter of the OAU founded in 1963, determined that "freedom, equality, justice and dignity are essential objectives for the achievement of the legitimate aspirations of African peoples " The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, adopted in 1981, sets out a uniform and minimum standard of achievement for African peoples based on the "virtues of their historical tradition and the values of African civilization which should inspire and characterize their reflection on the concept of human and peoples' rights." In his report to the General Assembly, Kofi Annan refers to the resurgent spirit of Africa that seeks to address meaningfully and honestly the patterns of the past. Among these he mentions human rights and the rule of law as the cornerstones of good governance. An Africa committed to good governance, free participation of the people in the government of their country, an interaction between the governed and those who govern by consent, a commitment to root out corruption and to ensure accountability at all times will ensure long-term stability, prosperity and people for all its peoples. This is how Kofi Annan puts it:

Africa must summon the will to take good governance seriously, ensuring respect for human rights and the rule of law, strengthening democratization, promoting transparency and capability in public administration. Unless good governance is prized, Africa will not break free of the threat and reality of conflict that are so evident today.
Questions continue to linger about the most appropriate forms of democracy for Africa today. Since the heyday of multiparty elections, the dismantling of one-party states and Presidents-for Life since the end of the Cold War, questions abound not only about "the vitality, quality' and relevance of the kind of democratic transition that is taking place but also about its sustainability and the prospects for consolidation/ institutionalization of the reforms that have been put in place." (Olukoshi: 10) These are all legitimate questions, answers to which could help ensure a more durable political and social dispensation and one which the peoples of Africa could own and therefore defend.

My third challenge is a call to moral regeneration of the Continent and its peoples. In a sense this is an over-arching concern because it is fundamental to all our concerns. An ethical orientation of life is a necessary condition for a society based on good governance and that protects the human rights of citizens. Such a society will respond positively to the moral imperative to address the incidence of poverty and inequality. A moral society will also be the one that seeks to approximate as much as possible the will of God in human dealings and in then organization of society. The cause of Africa is never going to be served by prevailing moral relativism and selectivity. There must be some common, shared and abiding values that bind us together for all time. The mark of a great people is their capacity to wrestle with the moral challenges of their time and lay the foundations for the good society for this and future generations. We are at our most human when we display moral sensitivity. That is the mark of ubuntu, the creed that has held many Africans to an ideal that affirms one's humanity as being tied up with the humanity of others. The greatest gift we can bequeath to future generations to a world that is more not less human, more caring and more loving.

That is what the parable of the fossilized footprints tells me. It says to me that God is great not because God is powerful but because God has chosen to dwell among us ordinary sinful people. That is the hope that Africa is ready to share with the world. As the ecumenical movement returns to the great Continent since Nairobi, 1975, it will find Africa yearning for peace and more confident about the future. The Africa full of faith and hope.

Human Development Report 1997 and 1998; UNDP
Echoes: Justice, Peace and Creation 14/98; Geneva: WCC
Adebayo O Olokushi (Ed): The Politics of Opposition; Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet; 1998
Kofi Annan: The Causes of Conflict and the Promotion of Durable Peace and Sustainable Development in Africa; United Nations General Assembly; Doc A/52/871-S/1998/318.

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