The Power of Words

The ‘word’ in West African cultures, once loosened from the lips as if drawing back the strings of a talisman pouch, diffuses a special force, the primal energy of creation itself.

To speak is to exhale an active essence, Oro according to the Yoruba of Nigeria and Benin. For the Mande — ranging from coastal rainforests to the sparse Sahel and Sahara — the spoken word embodies the occult, generative, productive power of Nyama.

Painting of faces, some listening, some speaking.
Untitled painting by Valente Malangatana Ngwenya.

With the talismanic power not only to protect but to alter the course of events, the word alone, by its very utterance, can cause change.  Nommo, the conception that life, its very actualization, rests ultimately on the word, reverberates throughout West Africa; the ancient, residual echo of the Bantu who once lived there. Among the Tiv in Northern Nigeria the concept of vital force is known as tsavand among the Fon of Benin it is seboth of which refer to ‘’the power to cause to happen.’’*

The African child until publicly named, the incantation until given voice, the art or the craft until accompanied by speech is not truly “brought forth” to take its place in the natural world. It is what is explicit, what is said, that is powerful, prolific, procreant.

The generative and dynamic power of Nommo is given full breath and breadth, in the art of dialogue and conversation, so iconic of the African continent.

“Speech is not in people’s hands. People are in the hands of speech”

—Mande proverb

The sharing of words, the vitality of conversation and dialogue — the very emanation of the productive power of Nommo, Oro, Nyama to bring into being, illuminate, affirm, heal, rectify, and to change the world — is deeply intrinsic to the indigenous cultures of Africa. Discussion is “alive”, a breathing, vibrant, ongoing interaction that animates all levels of African society. “He who tells people what he does never suffers mishap” (Igbo proverb) and likewise, “Anyone who seeks public opinion does not enter into trouble” (Gokana proverb).

“From old mouths to new ears”

Fula proverb

Painting of two abstract figures talking.
Painting by Cecil Skotnes.

If words are a measure of man, then nowhere are they given more value than when spoken by an elder, the repository of communal wisdom. An elder leads with words, as a bow guides an arrow, and for he who listens, according to the Igbo, it is as if he had consulted an oracle. Among the Efik, “The words of one’s elders are greater than amulets”.  It is from a ‘Togu Na’ (house of words) somewhere along the Bandiagara Escarpement in central Mali, that a Dogon elder’s verbs respire; the vaporous breath of the amphibious ancestral spirits (also named Nommo) that give wisdom and order to the world.

Wise and nommo-infused words in traditionally oral societies, such as those in West Africa, must be continually re-called, re-created, re-interpreted. And so they are, through the rich and resilient traditions of story-telling, myth-making, proverb-creating, praise-singing, so prevalent and exemplary in these cultures.

“The word is the horse on which proverbs ride”

— Yoruba proverb

The collective wisdom of a people, the manner in which it perceives the human condition, the codes, values, and interrelationships that bestow its identity, are given voice by the panoply of words, adages and tales that it creates. Proverbs and stories are the horsemen, the escorts, the messengers of culture, traversing generations and the boundaries of time.

“It is the story … that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind”.

— Chinua Achebe

Orature, whether dispersed by the Akan folk spirit of all knowledge of stories, Anansi, or transmitted musically by the traditional griots of West Africa, is dynamic. Unbound by the pen, words, proverbs, tales and then histories are in themselves living, ongoing dialogues … “in which the present seeks to find its roots in what is remembered, or invented, of the past”.*

When West Africa exhales, magic emerges.

Sources and Further Reading

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