Language and The Colonised Mind

(Laughing Buddha, commonly used as a decorative ornament)

Here is the statue of Buddha, the Nepalese god of happiness always seen smiling and with a large belly and sagging ears. His symbol is the sun and his colour is yellow.

Now of course, if you know anything about Buddhism, you will know that it is a non-theistic religion, and that the statue you see laughing with the basin belly is not a god of any sorts, least one of happiness - even though the pursuit of happiness and the avoidance of suffering is one of the pillars of Buddhism. Rather, the statue is of a literal man believed to have attained the state of Nirvana via a path open to everyone that accepts the noble truths of Buddhist philosophy and implements them into their way of life. These truths of the meaning of the symbol presented as the statue of Buddha are easy to find with a quick Internet search, and source materials to prove it today remain indelible in the Veda scripts, the East Asian equivalent of the codex used to create what we know as the Bible today.

Not surprisingly, people that have never bothered to investigate much about Eastern religion and philosophy tend to believe that people in the region worship the Buddha and regard him as their God, a sort of Jesus equivalent in the popular Christian sense if you may. Fortunately for East Asia, the production of rice paper before colonisation meant that even with all the burning of scrolls, their stories and truths were preserved with the meaning native to the language and culture over the years. Africa, did not enjoy this advantage.

(Ogam phonological script found in pre-colonial Niger-Congo sites commonly written on stone)

As a culture focused more so on the oral tradition with written language in both iconographic (see Nsibidi) and even phonographic (see Ogam) not finding a home in mass produced means like paper, the uprooting of the culture and the retelling of its truths through the colonial lens proved to be more or less a walk in the park. You can see this when you read up on our ancestral religions on the Internet where the English language is used to explain native concepts.

It is through this Eurocentric (anglophone in Nigeria) view that Chi in Igbo land for example moves from representing divine energy to becoming a separate and conscious deity in humans. Amadioha rooted in three words Ama (knowledge) di (master) and oha (the people) - the master knowledge of people governing existence is now a man wielding an axe with ram horns for his sign and the colour red as his colour. Even among fluent speakers today, the meaning of these words are lost because they have been replaced in history and erased by lack of representation. Even in our native tongues, we know reference meaning through Eurocentric thought patterns. This means we do not derive the meanings of our words and symbols from the ways our forefathers and mothers saw it, rather, we relate to meanings only through colonial psychological structures. It is why even the sight of a carving representing Ikenga will scare the average Nigerian, but we are at home with the carving of Jesus on the cross and can buy Buddhist carvings as decorative ornaments at least.

(Carving of Ikenga holding ofo and machete symbolizing truth and hardwork)

It is something to say that the images held sacred by your ancestors ring with fear in your ears but that of Thor, Buddha, Jesus and all things foreign is welcome as divine or at least harmless. To be truly decolonized is to understand the power of language and how it relates to symbols and meanings. It is to understand that there is nothing innately evil about what is native to us. It is why we do literature that is African in meaning, even if presented in English. Because for far too long, these stories have been told to us by others with perspectives hardly in our favuor. As the great ChI una Achebe famously put it in his novel Things Fall Apart, until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter.

Alas it is time, to retell these stories, by us, for us, to ourselves and our children.