Studies in Comparative Religion
The First English Journal on Traditional Studies - established 1963
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Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 3, No. 4. (Autumn 1969) © World Wisdom, Inc.



In the article entitled "The Ancient Wisdom in Africa", which appeared in the Spring number of your journal, we read that "Africa also was once the home of a learning as profound as any in Asia can show". This opinion, although exaggerated when put in this way, is nevertheless basically acceptable, for it is incontestable that profound metaphysical ideas are to be found amongst animistic Negroes; but what is strange in the article in question is that the author damages his own thesis with ethnographic considerations which, to say the least, are paradoxical. His first informant is a Zulu medicine man; he describes him thus: "Mankanyezi was a pure Zulu, of the royal blood... He was a tall, lean man, light chocolate in colour, of a distinctly Jewish cast of countenance, without a trace of the Negroid, with the exception of his snow-white hair which was frizzled". At once the thesis of an authentically African wisdom is destroyed; for the average reader will necessarily think that the Zulus, or the aristocrats of this race, are not true Africans, but immigrant Semites, who have brought with them a white man's wisdom.

Further on the author describes a strange population encountered "in a certain large Native Reserve"; he does not say which because, allegedly, there are circumstances that oblige him "to be vague concerning dates and places"! According to the author, these people whose "features were of a pure European type", "identified themselves in all respects with their Bantu neighbours"; and they assured him that they were "Kabyles" who had come from North Africa.

Three remarks must be made here. Firstly, if these people came to South Africa before Islam, they cannot call themselves "Kabyles", because this name was given to them by the Arabs; qabā’il is in fact an Arabic word, the plural of qabīlah, which means "tribe". Secondly, if these people arrived amongst the Zulus more than a millennium ago and became assimilated into the Negro civilization, as the author affirms, they could not have kept their racial identity; in the absence of any intention to represent either a separate religion or a caste, they would have melted into the mass of the Negro people. Thirdly, if they came following the advent of Islam, it is impossible that they should have ceased to be Moslems, for it is unheard of for any Moslems of the white race to have exchanged their religion for any Negro animism whatsoever.

But let us return to the Zulu medicine man mentioned above, who is said to have had nothing Negroid about him but, on the contrary, resembled a Jew. An ethnologist will see the true state of affairs right away: amongst the Bantu, the Zulus represent a separate group, who are lighter than the Bantu in general and whose prognathism is less marked; but there can be no question of separating them from the Black race, and it needs all the lack of talent for observation characteristic of so many travellers in exotic countries to enable one to describe a pure Zulu as a pure Semite, or rather as an Armenoid type, for there exists no exclusively Semitic type. Each of the great races repeats within its characteristic framework the general or particular types of the other races, and it is necessarily so, because the human race is one; thus it is always possible to find a Mongol who will remind us of such and such a White or Negro type, and inversely, quite apart from any question of racial mixing. Be that as it may, the contradiction in "The Ancient Wisdom in Africa" is that in order to make us accept the spiritual value of Black Africans, one begins by assuring us that the spiritual men of Africa are in no wise African. Moreover, the reader will suspect that the author of the article in question is insensitive to the beauties that the Negro type can present.

Apart from such ethnographical improbabilities, the Bantu Brotherhood "founded in Egypt in the reign of the Pharaoh Cheops" likewise inspires no confidence; such a thing might just be possible in the case of the Watutsi of Ruanda, but certainly not in the case of the Zulus. And what is especially improbable is that an authentically African spiritual society should have "many disciples, not merely in Africa but in Asia, Europe and America"!

It is not necessary to go on any further.

Sept. 1969


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