Edward W Blyden (1832-1912) was a significant figure in the establishment of the African state of Liberia. Born in the West Indies he grew up to be a writer, politician and theologian. After being rejected by three US colleges to study theology on grounds of his race he became an enthusiastic advocate of pan-Africanism including the re-patriation of people of African descent from the Americas.
Although he was and remained a Christian, his major book (which I shall not name because its title can be offensive to modern ears) argued that Islam was a more suitable religion for Africa and Africans largely because Islam was brought to Africa by way of trade and in friendship whereas Christianity had arrived in a spirit of colonialism and with a distinct sense of white superiority over any other race.
Blyden though was one of those remarkable Africans, like Anna Julia Cooper and Frederick Douglass, who was able to distinguish Christianity as practised by domineering white people from the Christianity of the Gospels and to live his life according to the latter.
Towards the end of his life he published a number of newspaper articles on African Life and Customs which were collected into a short book of that name published in 1908. In those articles he gave an account of African civilisation as it worked in practice, one which is rarely seen or discussed and to which colonial visitors seem to have been almost completely blind.
It is perhaps an idealised picture but he describes a social life based on strong family values, albeit very different from those practised in the Christianised world. Polygamy was common but its basis was protection and successful continuation of the family, tribe and race. Social relations and conduct were subject to clear codes of law mostly enforced by local communities with widespread community participation.
He describes African people as generally hard working and able to generate livelihoods from difficult surroundings. The economic/industrial system of Africa he describes as “co-operative, not egotistic or individualistic. We and not I, is the law of African life.” He clearly considers it to be possible to be communal without being communist.
“The main business of a tribe – all families co-operating – is to provide sufficient food, clothing, house room, and all the conditions of a reasonably comfortable life for all – even the slaves – who are really domestic servants … are provided for.”
“The conditions which have secured these comforts to the African from generation to generation throughout the centuries are – first, the collective ownership by the tribe of all land and water; second the equal accessibility of these natural objects to all – man woman and child.”
He could see clearly how difficult it was, even in 1908, for people brought up under the individualistic ideas of the West to grasp let alone understand that there existed in Africa a sophisticated social and economic system completely different from their own. The difficulty persists to this day.
The African system and outlook he describes learned its lessons from a deep respect for Nature but also had its own spiritual content: “The African believes that the great Being can be approached through every object he has created, whether animate or inanimate. He can conceive of nothing that is not instinct with the Creator… He never attempts to formulate any conception of the great Creator and hence he has no theology; but that he is a spiritual being all close observers of his condition admit.” And then, “What the unspoilt educated African feels he wants is rest – rest to think out his own thoughts and to work out his own salvation.”
Here the African way touches on a universal principle.