Life Lessons from a West African Tribal Symbol

The above feature image is an archaic tribal symbol that signifies ‘unity through diversity’, or unity and oneness despite cultural and other differences. It is one of a series of Adinkra symbols created by the Ashanti people of Southern Ghana, West Africa. This particular one, with the labyrinthine name of ‘Funtumfunafu denkyem funafu‘, depicts two siamese crocodiles who, as the myth holds, constantly fight over food despite the fact that they share one stomach and ultimately derive sustenance from the same source. The lesson to be learned here is a powerful, timeless, and widely applicable one: that tribalistic quarrels amongst beings who, while different and unique in many respects, are nonetheless all ‘one’ through common ancestry and their shared dependence on Mother Earth for survival, is not only futile but ultimately suicidal. The myth always reminds me of the late Carl Sagan‘s famously insightful maxim that ‘an organism at war with itself is doomed.’ Upon learning of this symbol’s fascinating significance, one that until this day wholly encapsulates my outlook on life (as a lifelong and dedicated pupil of the ecological sciences), I became convinced that I had to have this as a tattoo. And I did just that, at the age of 16, on my right wrist (I have 7 now, all of which deal with similar themes).

The Funtumfunafu symbol is more than just an apt metaphor for social interactions; it embodies one of the fundamental tenets of ecology (and thus life itself): unity through diversity. As renowned author and political theoretician, Murray Bookchin, eloquently notes, ecological wholeness is not ‘an immutable homogeneity but rather the very opposite- a dynamic unity of diversity‘ composed of a ‘circular, interlacing nexus of plant-animal relationships (and shaped by abiotic factors such as temperature and sunlight)’. This unity is sustained through mutual interdependence and reciprocity amongst its innumerable component parts, whose unique characteristics, capacities, and modes of interaction in the aggregate become ‘more than the sum of its parts’. Diversity, whether in natural, social, economic, or political systems, is an indispensable characteristic of resilience. Diversity provides systems with an essential array of potential responses to crises, thus making them more adaptable and better able to cope with shocks and stressors. In Arctic food webs, for instance, the elimination of a top predator such as wolves, which almost exclusively control foraging populations in lower trophic levels, can bring about a near collapse of the entire ecosystem. In biodiverse tropical forest regions, on the other hand, the loss of even a few species isn’t as threatening to the stability of the whole food web because of the countless species that are available to fill newly vacant niches. Similarly, a healthy economy is one that boasts a diverse mix of businesses of various sizes and that can fill different niches. Economies dominated by conglomerates tend to be more vulnerable to chronic failings during economic downturns.

Somewhere along the complex and protracted history of human social development, hierarchy began to emerge as not only a structural but also an ideological phenomenon. Henceforth, ‘diversity’ and ‘difference’ became associated with notions of inferiority and superiority. Bookchin notes that the emergence of hierarchy began with changes within preliterate or organic societies such as divisions of labor which brought about new social roles and the consequent gradual debasement of the (female) domestic sphere relative to the (male) civil sphere ( the origins of patriarchy), and the emergence of village shamans (later to become priests) along with a similar elevation of elders to socially powerful positions as groups with a monopoly on ‘truth’ and thus endowed with a significant degree of communal authority. As human societies grew in number, size, and complexity, and as hierarchy took on a more concrete and pervasive form in the human psyche, organic society’s former emphases on kinship and ‘blood ties’, egalitarianism, oneness with nature, and reciprocity were gradually supplanted by notions of property, acquisitiveness, nature as ‘unruly’, ‘hostile’, ‘non-civil’, and the ‘external other’, and ultimately class distinctions with the emergence of cities and nation-states. Hierarchical divisions between humans along such gendered, class, and racial/ethnic lines gave rise to the domination of  ‘inferior’ groups by ‘superior’ ones (a development which history is all too vivid a testament to), a dynamic that transposed itself into man-nature relationships.

Such changes dealt a devastating blow to the archaic notions of equality, wholeness, and the value of diversity embodied by symbols like Funtumfunafu. Today, hierarchy, domination, and their insidious byproducts- objectification and exploitation- manifest themselves in their most grotesquely advanced forms through contemporary capitalism. While other socioeconomic systems undoubtedly have been plagued by the curse of hierarchy (Stalin’s Russia, for instance), under capitalism it assumes especially disastrous dimensions because of the insatiable quest for monetary gain, wherein everything has a price tag, is stripped of its intrinsic value and ‘plunged into the icy waters of egotistical calculation’ (Marx & Engels, 1848) wherein anything and everything that can be is commodified and exploited for sale in the ‘world market’. The world, in essence, is rendered inferior and subservient to the god of money, and virtually every form of social (and ecosystemic) interaction is corrupted by the egotistical buyer-seller dynamic.

The Funtumfunafu symbol on my wrist serves as a daily reminder of how far many of us (largely in the West) have deviated from our roots (physically as well as conceptually). While we may not be aware of it always, if at all, we are all connected to one another like the siamese crocodiles in the Funtumfunafu myth. What wonderful transformations could take place in the ways we relate to one another and to the natural world if we could adopt the animistic world views of the Native Americans and countless other traditional groups which view all living beings as sacred and interdependent subjects, not objects. The question of ‘how’ to bring this orientation back from the recesses of our primordial psyche will be a main theme of my PhD research, as I believe that the dissolution of hierarchy is essential if we are to survive the presently overwhelming array of social and ecological crises that have largely been created by it.

“Again I saw, again I heard, the rolling river, the morning bird; Beauty through my senses stole; I yielded myself to the perfect whole.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, Each and All

Content by Heather Alberro.

2 thoughts on “Life Lessons from a West African Tribal Symbol

  1. Sam Day says:

    Hi Heather,
    I think your research is important for all of us to address. Current world politics, social media and climate change add to the urgency of the importance.
    I would like to read the result of your research, please send me a link.

    Liked by 1 person

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