Cosmo-semantics is the power arm of Engaged Anthropology.

Cosmo-semantics means "meaning of meaning of the cosmos". Cosmo-semantics captures the very meaning of the cosmos (or what African tradition says the very meaning of the cosmos is), its organization and the operations of the metaphysical laws which govern the universe, and its order.

Cosmo-semantics teaches how to use the cosmos as a tool, how to drain power from it and use it for our own protection and growth. Cosmo-semantics tries to take what is most useful in African understanding of power out of its traditional path and empirism and turn it into a power the modern can use.


Do not approach the above tale with naivete. Believe that Makumbuk knew not only that Um was in the river hole, but also that Um wanted to come out of the river hole and go live with human beings. Um is a dangerous creature. To touch him without preparation may result in your own malaise, your body turning into something that resembles the body of a salamander. Be careful. Learn to know Um and you will hold Um's power in your hand and have a clear understanding of (what is) power (for Africans).

Cosmo-Semantics introduces to a knowledge and an understanding of power, true power, the African way of understanding, mastering and using power. What is power? When in traditional Africa we say power, what are we talking about? In the above story, one minute, Kisasa sees lots of fish, crabs and praws, the next, she sees nothing. What sort of power makes that possible?

Before we begin, I'd like to anchor our discussion more and help you, reader, better grab what we'll be talking about by giving you five other anecdotes.

EXAMPLE 1: In the region of Bikok, in Bassaland, during Kamerun's independence war, a platoon headed by a French captain (let's call him "Armand") surprised a man called "Bikoy" on a palm tree and summoned him to climb down the tree and be arrested. Bikoy paid the captain no mind and continued his work. He wanted to cut down a palmnut bunch and bring palm nuts to his wife.

"If you don't come down, we'll shoot!" the captain warned Bikoy. But Bikoy continued calmly to do his work. Tired of waiting, the captain ordered his soldiers to shoot. But instead of a man, what the captain and the soldiers saw fall was a bunch of palmnuts. The captain looked at this mystery, shooked his head, and left.

Five years later, after the war had ended and the process of national reconciliation begun, the government promised armistice to the maquisards who would surrender their weapons. The day Bikoy came to the precinct to surrender his rifle, he bumped into Armand. "Where did you go that day when we shot you up a palm tree?" Armand asked Bikoy. "You can tell me. Nothing will happen to you now."

"After you shot me, did you see anything fall?" Bikoy asked Armand back.

"Yes, a palmnut bunch."

"If you had picked up the palmnut bunch, you'd have arrested me," Bikoy said and left.

EXAMPLE 2: In the region of Ndom, during the same period, a warrior called Balep was incircled by a platoon led by Commander Marguin. The order was to arrest Balep alive for the much-needed information the colonialist wanted to get from him. Balep tried to escape but when he realized that he could not, trapped as he was like a hunted hare, he did two things: 1) he invoked Gwek, his ancestor princeps, and 2) he screamed.

What happened next terrified everyone present. A lighting flashed in the perfectly sunny sky and was followed by a tremendous thunder blast. When the soldiers opened their eyes, Balep was nowhere to be seen.

Balep was subsequently arrested and spent years in prison. "They surprised me. I was not prepared when they came," he told me. One day, Marguin asked him what happened to him after the thunder blast. "I moved into a riverhole," Balep replied.

EXAMPLE 3: We suspect that Thomas Mongo was made (first Bassa and first Kamerunian) bishop of the Diocese of Douala for two reasons: 1) to get Um Nyobe to surrender to the French colonial authority and 2) to help the French pierce the secret of Ngock Lituba, the sacred Alesed Rock, symbol of the Mbog Bassa, and most important sanctuary of the Bassa people. Many times, he asked the elders' permission to enter the Rock with one or another French person, which they always refused, warning Mgr. Mongo that Judas may have received thirty coins for Jesus but neither Um Nyobe nor the Alesed Rock would be betrayed. Period. And that if they, the elders, had to choose, it's him, Mongo, that would be discarded.

One day, despite all the warnings, Mongo took Bonneau, the bishop he was to replace as pastor of the diocese, to the Alesed Rock. As the tale has it,

"Bonneau entered the Rock on two feet,
And came out on a stretcher.
He entered the Rock healthy,
And came out dying, one side of his body totally numb,
Moaning: 'Les Bassa, les Bassa, instruisez-les!" (the Bassa, the Bassa, educate them!?

Bonneau died two days later. And Mongo never knew one more healthy day for the rest of his life.

EXAMPLE 4: In the region of Eseka, a group of French soldiers entered the forest one day and wandered for a long time looking for the rebels. When the sun began to set, they met an old woman who stopped them, claimed that she was lost and that she was looking for a way out of the bush. But the regiment commander found it best to ask the woman to join them, for it was late, and that he himself will take her to safety the next day. He and his men were planning to spend the night in the forest. When he asked her name, she said: "Wenugwe."

They all ate, then built a camp for the night. A few hours later, they were all asleep. But that night appeared endless. We all have a sense of night and day, a sort of built-in clock which tells us that it's supposed to be morning. First these French armymen who had been in Kamerun for years began wondering how long nights lasted in Equatorial Africa. They looked at their wrist watches often. It was still night at four o'clock the next day.

They soon realized that something was wrong and that they were powerless in bringing back the day. So they called Wenugwe who had kept her composure all that time. "What's going on here?" the commander asked her.

"You are the one holding up the night," she replied.

"How is that?"

"I am your bride and we have yet to consommate our wedding."

The story has it that the commander began to cry, like a child, right there in front of his men. This fellow who prided himself for never having touched a native after twenty years of service in Africa, knew that his moment had arrived. What happened next between the commander and Wenugwe, the tale does not say. What it does relate to us is that the commander let go of the night and the country called Kamerun the very next day.

These stories have many elements in common. The first thing they have in common is that it's the same story. Whether it's Um, Bikoy, Balep or Wenugwe, they all seem to have the power to enchant and create illusion.

The second thing they have in common is that all these stories are accounts of situations of exception such as liberation struggles (even Um wants to free himself and get out of the riverhole), wars (freedom fighters against colonialists), heroisms, survival, and application of initiatic secrets. WHEN CORNERED, AFRICANS LOOK TO TRADITIONAL POWERS TO SAVE THEMSELVES. That's the African way.

My father who was in the medical profession, used to tell me that what people do when they are sick to get well (more rest, better diet, eating more fruit and drinking more milk), they should do when healthy (not to fall sick). If we apply the same wisdom, WHAT WE, AFRICANS, DO WHEN CORNERED (IN TIME OF WAR OR ELSE), WE SHOULD DO IN TIME OF PEACE SO THAT WAR DOES NOT COME. We have got to know our power--Um power is simply one of the many ingredients of AFRICAN POWER], master it, and use it to develop ourselves, TO FEED OUR CHILDREN, to protect ourselves and the integrity of our lands.

We must go in depth to investigate the secret and power of Um. How does Um use his power? What are the earlier circumstances which made Kisasa see fish and crabs and prawns one minute and not see them next? How do human beings apply the same secret and power to get themselves out of tricky situations?

I could share the steps that it takes to create Um's illusion (a formidable sense of impermanence) in people, the same way women exchange kitchen recipes. But it would be just that: a recipe, a trick. There is much more to this secret and power to reduce it to a trick. The Mbon Um (neophyte of Um) must understand what is at play, the meaning of this secret, knowledge and power, then learn how to apply it, become a Um-Um. They first learn that the cosmos is an artifact, a tool put at our disposal for us to use, then they learn how it functions, and finally how to use it. That's what we are going to do.

The anthropology of liberation we will be doing in this chapter explores and investigates power. Is there such a thing as African power? or power-the-African-way? What is power for the African people? What is our understanding of power? Can we use African power to develop our countries? to compete in world markets? What will that require?