In this personal reflection, Zimbabwean writer, activist and Earth Jurisprudence practitioner-in-training Gertrude Pswarayi-Jabson reflects on the importance of reviving Africa’s rich cultural and spiritual practices. At a time of climate change and cultural breakdown, this work represents a crucial step towards restoring harmony between humans and other species, says Gertrude.
I have just finished my morning meditation and I’m taking a bath. The water is warm, my mind is calm and I’m enjoying every drop of water that touches my body. I see each drop gathering dirt and cleansing me. It carries all that dirt and tiredness away from body. I think about the sacrifice that the water is making as each drop allows itself to participate in the complex yet simple activities that restore balance and make life enjoyable for me.
I’m about to finish bathing and my mind drifts to reflect on my purpose in life. I see the water performing its role and I wonder what my role is in the universe. How can I meaningfully participate in the gift of life and how can I be in true communion with all forms of life?
“You are attuned to healing, to restore balance and bring harmony,” says a voice inside me. My mind is quickly taken back to my childhood years.
A child is born with a gift that needs to be nurtured …
When I was young, I loved putting things in order. I enjoyed keeping my space clutter free. I had my way of cleaning and even drawing the curtains gave me so much pleasure. I loved playing with colourful fabric and seeing which colours complimented each other. In my world, everything had to be in harmony. Perfect harmony gave me so much pleasure. I felt calm and collected. That was my definition of a good life.
Besides working with my space, I also loved using my hands to create beautiful artifacts. I knitted, I worked with hair and I loved gardening.
When I was 10 or 11 years old, my mother allowed me to make my first flower garden. It wasn’t big, but in my world, it was vast. We didn’t have a lot of space so my mother allocated the space under a lime tree as my garden. She must have been tired of me digging in her flower beds and vegetable garden. For some reason, I always found myself bringing flowers from my friends’ homes and wanting to plant them. I suppose the inner me desired to be surrounded by beauty, colour and diversity.
I planted and cared for different types of flowers. All grew under the lime tree. As I watered the flowers, the lime tree received the gift of life and it thrived and gave us limes all year round. We would share limes with neighbours, friends and anyone in need of them. Working in my garden and introducing new members to the garden gave me so much pleasure. My garden flourished and my mother would take seeds from it to replant in her flower beds.
Why were no human beings as beautiful as my garden?
The need to have harmony around me extended to the human world. From a tender age I would ask why certain things were considered normal when they brought suffering to others. Looking back at my life, I realise that I have spent the past three decades fighting injustice. I have found myself being drawn to work that heals. Could it be the desire to be surrounded by harmony that has led me on my Earth Jurisprudence path?
I am drawn to work that heals the outside and the inside, the environment and people. More and more I opt to work with herbs and the plant world to heal and rejuvenate the lost human. My sons aged 12 and 5 say I am a herbalist. My husband laughs at this but when the boys get sick, he asks me what concoction he should make for the boys. Much of the time, the herbs bring so much relief that he has started talking about having a herbal garden in a food forest on our one and a half acre plot. I am yet to see the vision materialize, but he has planted many indigenous trees already and I think, in a few years’ time, our new family members will be happy and providing fruits for us and our community.
More clarity on my life path …
Today, I look at myself, I see how life has a way of leading you onto a path where you grow and discover who you are. The Universe is just waiting patiently for you to be ready to embrace yourself and to manifest the gifts you bring to this lifetime. Joanna Macy and Molly Brown aptly defined this in the title of their book- Coming Back To Life. Indeed connecting with ourselves is like being born again or being resuscitated from a near death experience, where one returns with greater purpose and a clearer focus on how to spend the remaining precious time we have on Earth. My work is to bring harmony everywhere I go.
Challenges of an African Earth Jurisprudence practitioner
Many Africans have lost connection with who they are. In our African context, elders used to perform the role of guiding youngsters on a spiritual journey. Life itself was seen as a spiritual journey. The physical world was complemented by the spirit world. That is why elders always consulted the Ancestors when making any decision concerning the community, humans and other species.
The elders understood the importance of sustaining the spirituality of the community- what Stephan Harding refers to as the Anima mundi (spirit of the world) in his book, Animate Earth. Earth is alive and our Ancestors knew this. Their role was to guide the younger generation into a higher state of consciousness that enabled them to connect with their environment, the spirit world and the inner warrior of the self. However, alien cultures and religion have robbed African communities of this valid knowledge and treasure, which connected every being in a harmonious way.
No wonder Africa is where it is. Africans are searching for answers from whatever source, yet they need to search inward to remember and rediscover who they are. So, how can we, as Earth Jurisprudence practitioners, or students learning to become practitioners of what Thomas Berry calls The Great Work, help our communities remember who they are, when our practices remain weak? How can we support our communities when we remain fragile and we do not live or walk the talk? We are being challenged to work hard, prepare ourselves adequately so that we are resilient to face the tough times ahead of us.
Africa is not poor but our people have been made to think that they are. Spirituality is rich in Africa. That is why there is this wave of people being ‘born again’ into religions that further criminalise African traditions – causing so much tension and division throughout Africa. Yet spiritual work in ancient times was aimed at restoring harmony and bringing humans and other species together in perfect Oneness.
Our work in Africa is difficult but possible. We need to focus our attention more on restoring balance our balance with Nature and rebuilding the spirituality of our people. Once the spirituality of the people is strengthened, we will find that they will have more confidence to do the other work. Everything will become much easier and many beings will be healed.
Liz Hosken, my mentor, says that African communities are traumatized. I completely agree. I have worked in both rural and urban settings and I have travelled many countries in Africa and I see the trauma in the faces of women, men and children. The men carry the burden of being stripped off their capacity to provide for the family, the women suffer more because when the men have lost hope all burdens are shouldered by them. On the other hand, the children watch in despair as their heroes crumble in front of them. The result is a disillusioned community that stops caring even for other life forms. Each man, woman or child goes their own way and they unleash their anger on the defenseless beings found in Nature. The results are massive land degradation, depletion of natural water sources, biodiversity loss and destruction of sacred natural sites, to mention a few.
An urgent need to re-activate the mind
Our people are waiting for an answer to come from somewhere. Yet the answer is within them. We just need to find ways to reactivate our minds and hearts, to reconnect with who we really are, our own spirit or calling. As Africa battles with multiple crises, our people are doing exactly what they are good at. They are tuning to the unseen world in order to cope. But is the current wave of religious activities happening in Africa the true solution to strengthening the spiritual work for the continent to survive the brutal attacks on each other and Nature? Can one connect with unfamiliar ancestors whose names we cannot even pronounce? Perhaps it is high time we break the barriers that confine us to others’ religions and begin to open our minds to a world beyond religion. Doing so will enable us to truly connect with the spirit world where we can have communion with our Ancestors who are waiting, patiently, for Africa to wake up.
The Ancestors are ready to share
The Ancestors are waiting for us to tap into the spiritual heritage they have left for us. This will enable us to connect with the Divine, where truth is absolute and where solutions to African problems are practical and realistic. Our Great Work, as Thomas Berry suggests, is to restore harmony. It is time for Africa to begin to look at everything through the wisdom, practices and spiritual eyes of our inheritance – left by those who lived before us. We are one people spread across a big continent. We are custodians of many forms of life supported by Gaia, our living Earth.We need to take responsibility at personal, family, community and national levels to ensure that everything is in perfect alignment. When perfection exists, harmony prevails and when harmony prevails, we will see all crisis ending as we return and participate fully as subjects in a sacred ritual called life.