Names and naming: Seeking dominion over the known world

28 Apr, 2019 - 00:04 0 Views

The Sunday News

Phathisa Nyathi

AS we descend from the named cosmic world, we shall reflect on emerging themes, ideas and observations. The first and critical observation relates to the adage, “As above, so below,” which we have harped upon in previous articles in this column. The same idea has been expressed differently; “Let thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In a nutshell the adage and its Biblical equivalent capture the essence that explains and interprets African Cosmology, African Thought and African Worldview.

The cosmic building unit is a circle. This relates to both the design of cosmic bodies and the orbits that they follow in their rhythmic cosmic movements. This is the heavenly and universal lesson that Africa gleaned from the heavens above and sought to replicate at the cultural plane on earth. In practical terms, it all translates to African artistic expressions on earth: African architecture, African dance routines and African visual traditions. The night sky is a notice board where cosmic messages are executed in order to inform human beings about the order in heaven that they then seek to replicate on earth so as to attain harmony and balance between the cosmos and the earth. This lies at the heart of divine and sacred royalty on earth.

The heavens are thus seen as influencing events on earth; from solar and moon eclipses to shooting stars. Cosmic catastrophes with earthly repercussions are written on the cosmic notice board. When the moon has a halo, Africans interpreted that as signifying presence of moisture in the atmosphere which translates to rain. The disposition of the moon may signal impending health issues at the human level. The heavens, more precisely a star as told in the Bible, reported the birth of Jesus Christ. Wise men from the East followed the star that took them to where Christ was born. The heavens have always had messages to communicate to humans.

Communication of critical messages relied on humans having the knowledge and faith to interpret the messages being communicated. A deep knowledge of the cosmos was assumed. Mere heavenly happenings or goings-on do not account for much. It is the inherent interpretations that matter. With regard to Africans and their command of cosmic phenomena, this is sadly no longer the case. They have been divorced from cosmic phenomena following colonisation and the advent of alternative knowledge and scholarship. Their lives are no longer interpreted in terms of cosmic phenomena. Impending environmental disasters are no longer detected on their radars, if at all they still have natural monitoring mechanisms calculated to preserve humanity.

Cases of a threatened environment are not readily detected. Precautionary measures are not put in place to avert impending doom. Was the angry and furious Cyclone Idai detected? Are such catastrophes detectable anyway? Idai means to love, how strange and incomprehensible it is to some to give such an erotic and seemingly peaceful name to a devastating weather phenomenon! Questions are asked why such angry and destructive weather phenomena are given female names. Indeed, naming takes place within a people’s cultural context. The earth in Africa is couched in female terms. The earth is referred to as Mother Earth, one that gives birth to life and sustains it. However, the Mother hates to be disturbed, disobeyed and disrespected. She fights back viciously and furiously. Humans, despite their technological advancement, will never cope with her fury, anger, temper tantrums and devastation.

Climate change is a depiction of a disturbed and enraged Mother Earth, where equilibrium and balance have been altered irrevocably. The sea will rise by several metres as icebergs in the polar regions begin to melt following increased amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In Britain green environmentalists are lobbying government to enforce reduction in carbon emissions into the atmosphere. When the threshold is exceeded Mother Earth will fight back to restore lost equilibrium. The culprits will be eliminated. Purveyors of environmental destruction together with the innocent will perish if equilibrium is to be restored again. Zonelwa mvu nye!

The converse of the adage, “As above, so below applies,” equally applies. It may be rendered as “As below, so above.” The named and known the world of humans are reflected in the heavens. In terms of stars, for example, there are some that are seen as representing dogs and pigs, izinja lengulube. Pigs are known to be on the receiving end from vicious dogs from whom they run away. There are stars that are so arranged as to resemble dogs chasing pigs. However, there were hardly any people that I interviewed who seemed au fait with knowledge concerning the said stars beyond their names. This was a good indicator of reduced knowledge of astronomy. This, in practical terms, translates to reduced knowledge about cosmic messages being beamed from the heavens.

A trail of stars in the night sky is named umthala. It has several stars, both small and big, giving rise to an appearance akin to cows’ milk in terms of colour and consistency. The Milky Way, umthala has been captured on woven or coiled baskets of the Tonga and the Ndebele respectively. The Milky Way has four arms and that number is accurately captured in the decorative designs of basket makers of the two communities. Our vast solar system is nestled at one of the four arms of the Milky Way. The curved nature of the four arms is accurately captured. The observed accuracy may be a pointer to a time when Africans possessed more intimate knowledge of the cosmos. Once again, we observe the tendency to name the human world after the cosmos. Part of a cow’s stomach (ulusu) is named umthala and there are observed similarities between the two. Men enjoy roasted umthala and in the days soon after independence there was Umthala Club at J Themba’s Bottle Store in Gwabalanda Township in Bulawayo name.

 The named world thus marks the outer limits of a community’s world. To name is to know. To know is to name and to have dominion over the named world. He who names the world is master of the world. The cosmos, being distant from earth, is comparatively less named than the earth. The earth, as the human habitat, is better known and that is borne out by the extent to which it is named. Those venturing to the moon will glean its attributes and, in the process, gain more intimate knowledge of it as evidenced by the names attached to various aspects and components of the moon. 

However, it is important to appreciate just how Africa names phenomena and the link he attaches between names and applicable cosmologies. A good example is how people in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands will relate weather to sexual symbolism. A measure of expected amount of rainfall, itself rendered in foetal terms, is gleaned from the size of a crack or slit in the crust of the earth. In their language, the rendition is in terms of “gumbo rasabhuku.” When the village head’s (cylindrical) leg either fits or does not fit into the crack, symbolising a female sex organ, that is a measure of predicted rainfall amount. Male (gumbo rasabhuku as expressing a male sex organ) and the female (represented by a crack in the earth’s crust) are used as measures of expected amounts of rainfall. They are thus crude measures of climate change. Similarly, the same folk will remember that when they used to go and collect firewood, they would not sweat in the manner they do now.

Just as happens among the BaKalanga, the same folk in the Eastern Highlands depict cyclonic rain as resulting from sexual encounters — with particular reference to the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) which brings together two air masses of different characteristics. It is within this context that reference to the foetus, symbolic of rain and life, is referred to. Each community unpacks climate change so that it is meaningfully understood on their cultural contextual terms. Language and terminologies applied are never universal, except that some cultures seek to impose themselves over other cultures. Each community should be allowed to name their world within their cosmological confines, using their languages in the context of known and accepted usages.

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