Cosmo-semantics is the power arm of Engaged
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
is), its organization and the operations of the metaphysical laws
which govern the universe, and its order.
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
INTRODUCTION TO COSMOSEMANTICS
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
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."
you shot me, did you see anything fall?" Bikoy asked Armand
"Yes, a palmnut bunch."
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.
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
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
And came out dying, one side of his body totally
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
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
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.
"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
These stories have many elements in common. The first
thing they have in common is that it's the same story. Whether
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
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?
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
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?