One of my favorite sculptures, carved by the master carvers that we work with in the Asante kingdom of Ghana, is the Sankofa bird. I bought one for myself and consider it one of the nicest pieces in my collection. It is a pretty piece, no doubt. But the reason I love it so much is that it is a piece of African wisdom.
Although many people say that African history was transmitted only through oral tradition, there are many cultures in which stories are told through imagery. The Sankofa bird has her feet planted firmly forward facing the future. Her head though, is turned back as she takes something from her back: a seed of wisdom from her past, the collective past, the past of her people. The lesson is probably already very apparent to you; but I’ll put it as succinctly as it has been explained to me. The Sankofa bird reminds us to face the future without hesitation, while remembering the past and keeping the lessons of your past and the wisdom of your ancestors in mind.
I talk to you about the Sankofa bird because it is an essential lesson for Africa at large. We must look to our collective past and take those lessons which can help us to build a strong future. We come from one of the largest continents on Earth and definitely one of the richest; so, our natural resources and geography are always worth mentioning. But, for me, the richest part of Africa is our people and our cultural history and present.
Here is a small example from the small African nation of Burkina Faso:
Early every Friday morning in the capital city of Ouagadougou, leaders travel to the compound of the Moro Naba chief where they are seated in order of their rank. The Moro Naba, king of the Mossi people, then appears wearing red and with a horse (red is the color of a warrior). When the cannon is fired, the most senior of the chiefs pledge allegiance and the Moro Naba leaves. Then, the chiefs wait until the Moro Naba returns wearing white, a color symbolizing peace. Traditional beverages like beer and kola nut beverages are now served and then the Moro Naba makes decisions on issues facing his court.
Spectators might see a colorful ceremony with important African chiefs; but those who take the time to learn the story behind this tradition will soon understand that it is one of the most simplistic and wonderful expressions of indigenous African diplomacy there is.
Why? Why does the king wake up early each morning to face this group of leaders? The story goes much like this: Many years ago, a rival group was said to have stolen a piece of great significance to the Mossi, the largest ethnic group in Burkina Faso. The Moro Naba, was prepared to go to war over the issue. But, the local chiefs and leaders came to ask him to maintain peace despite the problem at hand. He, as a king who respected the wishes of his people, respected their wishes and opted for a peaceful solution. Therefore, this ceremony is a daily reminder of the king’s relationship with his people: they show respect to him by arriving daily to greet him and bring their issues to the court to be settled and he, in turn reminds them (via the change of clothes) that he is there to serve the wishes of the people in his kingdom.
Just imagine if the leader of a Western nation arrived each day to ask the people, in essence, if they wanted to acknowledge him (or her) another day to lead their nation. Imagine the elders and respected leadership having a direct line to the head of a nation and each showing daily that they have a sustained confidence in the other.
Frankly, I think that as we all wake up tomorrow morning, we should think of the beautiful example of the Mossi people of Burkina Faso and ask ourselves what we can do to create our own governmental system to reflect just a little of its truly democratic spirit. Is it perfect? Certainly not. However, I think that through this colorful and beautifully simple ceremony, each day all of Africa (and the world at large) can see a glimpse of the fact that democracy, in its truest form, IS an African concept… one simply has to look and ask enough questions about the pageantry to understand it.
Dear Africa, the next time you hear that “democracy is a construct of the West”, don’t listen! Democracy is as much a part of Africa as the many other beautiful parts of our diverse cultural heritage. Let us be like the Sankofa bird and gather (and share) our seeds of wisdom from our ancestors and our collective history; so that we can use them to walk into a brilliant future.