The fifth chapter of Peter J. Paris’s The Spirituality of African Peoples is titled “Person: The Embodiment of Virtue.” In it, Paris describes the dyadic personality structure in traditional African cultures. Although he doesn’t use that specific terminology, it is clearly what he is getting at with quotations such as the following, with which he begins the chapter:
An African is never regarded as a loose entity to be dealt with strictly individually. His being is based on or coupled with that of others. Next to—or behind—or in front of him there is always someone through whom he is seen or with whom he is associated. The concepts of plurality and belonging to is always present, e.g., a person is always viewed as: “Motho wa batho” (person of persons or belonging to persons). “Motho weso” (Our person or person that is ours). (101, quoting Elia Tema, “Pastoral Counseling Encounter with African Traditional Values and the Acculturation Process,” unpublished Th.M. thesis, University of South Africa, February 1979, 21)
In short, traditional Africans see themselves and others in the context of the social groupings win which they are embedded. “Though difficult for Western minds to grasp,” Paris writes, “Africans have no conception of person apart from the community” (111).
In this context, in which “personhood is socially generated and culturally defined” (105, quoting Meyer Fortes, Religion, Morality and the Person [Cambridge University Press, 1987] 250) what does it mean to speak of one’s “personal destiny”? Paris argues that the African view of destiny bears striking similarities to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Again citing Fortes,
Destiny is thought of as a component of a person’s personhood. It is supposed to be chosen by himself or herself pre-natally (while he was still “with Heaven above”) and therefore to be already effective from his birth. Destiny distinguishes and indeed creates him as an individual encapsulated in his social being but endowed with a personal variant of the normal career pattern for someone of his status, as individual as his physical appearance and personality yet, equally, like every other man or woman in his society. (105)
This precludes any radical individual autonomy in human action. At the same time, one’s destiny is not set in stone: Africans accept that one can modify one’s destiny (for good or ill) through the quality of one’s character. Therefore, moral training is of great importance.
Furthermore, and in keeping with how personality is construed in African cultures, the goal of such moral training is “that every activity should serve the good of the community” (109):
Even casual observance of Africans on the continent will reveal their deep devotion to the community’s well-being as manifested in their willingness and even eagerness to render service to the family and the larger community. In fact, one soon discovers that receiving the community’s praise is for them the highest possible reward. (109-10)
The highest moral good is to serve the common good with whatever resources one may have (111).
Conflicting Views of Liberty and Authority
One of the principle conflicts between Western and African understandings of personhood has to do with the conceptualization of individual rights with respect to higher authorities. Given both the deep commitment to community, the hierarchically structured nature of African social arrangements, and the cultural value of reciprocity of relationships among the various tiers of society, the Western concept of personal autonomy seems strange to African ears. Westerners give moral primacy to the individual and lesser value to the family and the greater community; the situation is exactly reversed for Africans.