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364 Humanity and the Environment in Africa EnvironmentalismBeforetheEnvironmentalists Kimani S. K. Nehusi ‘Treat the world well. It was not given to you by your parents. It was willed to you by your children’ (Saying from Kenya) INTRODUCTION: DEFINITION AND HISTORICAL CONTEXT The idea of environmentalism, often articulated in terms of sustainable development,1 has come into popular consciousness in recent decades as a consequence of the reckless abuse of the earth in the processes of advancing the ‘modern’, especially Western notions of development. It is normally expressed as a concern for the protection of the earth and its environment, including plant and animal species, their habitats, ecosystems and the atmosphere surrounding the planet. Similar concerns for outer space have extended the idea to encompass that aspect of the universe.2 The idea of an organised and integrated cosmos that must be treated with respect, even reverence, is not new to humanity. It is to be found in Africa from very ancient times and is especially well attested in African indigenous narratives, as far as is known, first in the society of Kemet over five thousand years ago. Its central concern with making adequate use of the present while preserving it for the use of the future announces the very definition of sustainable development.3 This idea has been continued in many beliefs and practices in living Africa, attesting an ancient, culturally distinctive and holistic relationship with the environment over millennia. However, since the Maafa or Great African Holocaust that has been occasioned by these foreign presences, the African way has been submerged, disrupted and often negated by a tide of foreign conceptions and practice of being and existence. Intellectual violence was a necessary accomplice in the physical violence of conquest and subjugation of Africa.4 Imperialism, therefore, attacked CHAPTER 21 365 and tried to erase or discredit the traditional (indigenous) African knowledge system, including the African way of relating to the environment. Foreign domination, in their manifestations as enslavement, colonialism and imperialism, and the distortion and destruction they have caused and are still causing to the history, culture and indeed the very identity of Africa, have therefore imposed upon Africans the necessary task of becoming themselves again. The response by Africans has cumulated in a grand objective of African centred scholarship. This, according to the declaration of Carruthers and Karenga, is the Research, Rescue and Restoration5 of African social history. This is a necessary direction of African scholarship which has been especially noted in the outstanding work of Cheikh Anta Diop, John Hendrik Clarke, Théophile Obenga, Ivan Van Sertima and others. Recent scholarship has stressed the critical importance of the role of identity in development.6 The fundamental conclusion is that Africans cannot develop themselves and their continent unless and until they repossess their own identity. The principal methodology employed in this essay is taken from African philosophy. In the Medew Netjer, the language of ancient Egypt, the term Wehemu Mesut connotes the ‘repeating of the births’, an idea that may be found restated later in Africa’s social history as Sankofa: to return to one’s past to retrieve something valuable for the solution of a current challenge.7 Africa must return to itself if it is to regenerate itself and benefit from its full capacities again. The alternative is to contribute, wittingly or unwittingly, to the false and demeaning notion of a primitive and underdeveloped Africa that has been perpetuated by the oppressors of Africa as a necessary ‘explanation’ of their crimes against humanity. CREATION AND THE ENVIRONMENT The creation myth of Kemet is the first known account of how the world came into being. In this story, the Supreme Divinity, called God in some languages, first created two pairs of lesser divinities: Shu (air) and Tefnut (moisture) and Nut (the sky) and Geb (the Earth). In this cosmology everything in the universe derived from the possibilities inherent in the Nun8 , or primordial waters. For the nun is the oldest substance in the cosmos. It contains all the possibilities of existence. That is, all reality everywhere that ever was, is and will be; all possible examples of anything. Included here is everything and its opposite as well as every possibility on the continuum between the two. The philosophical implications of this narrative are profound. The first creations of the Supreme Being are the earth and other natural elements: the sky, air and water (in the form of moisture – rain, rivers, oceans and HUMANITY AND THE...


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