Knowledge and Truth: Ewe and Akan Conceptions  

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This study will be based upon an analysis of the epistemic conceptions found in the everyday speech and oral literature, e.g., the proverbs and wise sayings, of the Ewe and Akan of Ghana. The paper will be concerned mainly with critical remarks, clarifications and definitions of epistemic terms. Some synthesis and interpretation of the analytical findings will be attempted in the concluding sections.

Indigenous African societies consider knowledge and truth as the key factors in living a meaningful and satisfying life; the capacity to comprehend these has been used as the principal criterion for differentiating human beings from the lower animals. A human being is therefore indirectly defined by both the Ewe and the Akans as "the being that knows things." That is to say, only humans have the intellectual faculty for acquiring knowledge and for grasping reality through the medium of ideas.

Because of this understanding of the essential nature of man, one way to say that a person is stupid is to say that "he does not know things" (Menya nu o - Ewe; Onnin hwee ade - Akan), or simply to say that "he is an animal" (Enye la - Ewe; Oye aboa - Akan). The head is believed to play a very important role in knowing, and so of a person who is not intelligent it is said that "his head is dead." (Efe ta ku - Ewe; Ni ti awu - Akan). In other words "to be human is to have a live head," that is to say, to be intellectually alert or to grasp things mentally in terms of correct principles.

Thus, to be human is to know and understand things, especially the fundamental ideas and principle of life. For this reason one proverb says, "the child who goes about inquiring to know what is happening is never an animal (fool)." (Vi-bia-nya-ta-se medzoa - la o. Ewe).

The main questions we shall address our inquiry will be:
1. What does it mean to know, or what is knowledge?
2. How do we know?
3. What are the sources of knowledge?
4. What are the categories of knowledge?
5. How is knowledge validated?

Indigenous African society is never skeptical about man's ability to know; it strongly believes that man can and does know. Therefore the question is not "Can man know?" but "How do we know"? Indigenous society is therefore concerned first and foremost with the manner of knowing.
How do we know? To answer this question we shall examine carefully the different Ewe and Akan synonyms for `to know.' There are four very important words for this, two in Ewe - nya and dze si, and two in Akan - nim and nya.

(i) To Know as Nya. The most common Ewe word for `to know' is nya, which has an object nu meaning `a thing.' Thus, the expression nya nu implies the certainty of something known; it rules out any room for doubt.
Dietrich Westermann, the celebrated German authority on the Ewe language, translated the verb nya into English as `to know', `to understand' `to be able' (Westermann, 1928). These, however, are secondary meanings of the verb nya. Its primary meaning can be translated as `to observe,' `to take a look at,' `to note,' and `to look.' These meanings of the verb appear in such expressions as:
a. Nya nusi wom viwo le da - "look at or observe what your child is doing."
b. Nya asiwo da, efo di - "Look at your hand, it is dirty!" This expression is similar to another perceptual expression, See da!: "Listen to this." The two expressions call for the use of the senses of perception. Nya nu then means "to gain knowledge by observation or seeing, by the use of the senses." Here observation is the means by which we come to know; what is known is therefore referred to as nunya, meaning `thing observed'; the result of observation then is knowledge (nunya).

This basic understanding of the verb nya is supported by its Akan use. Nya is perhaps originally an Akan word or a common inheritance. In Akan it means `to find', `to experience', `to gain', `to come by' as found in such expressions as Manya asem: `I have got trouble"; Wanya sika: "He has found (made) money"; Wonyaa wo he?: "Where did you find it?" The uses of nya in these sentences always imply that the subject of the sentences is `doing something,' i.e., `going through an experience and getting something from it.' Therefore, if the verb nya is used epistemically it implies that the subject of the verb nya is doing something - observing or experiencing something and then deriving something out of it. What is derived from such an experience is nunya (knowledge).

According to John Dewey, the process of acquiring knowledge from experience/observation has two phases: active and passive. The active phase of experience consists of trying or experimenting with something; the passive phase is undergoing the consequences of what has been done. The value of the experience lies in connecting the two phases - that of trying and that of undergoing. Dewey went on to say "when an activity is continued into the undergoing of consequences, when the change made by the action is reflected back in a change made in us, the mere flux is loaded with significance."(19) The mere action then has a meaning; and thus is knowledge.

Knowledge arises when the doer is able to connect what the first phase of experience means in terms of its second phase or consequences. The ability to deduce the correct lesson from experience is highly valued in the indigenous society. One proverb emphasizes this by saying "It is only a fool who allows his sheep to break loose twice." (Okwasea na ne guan te mprenu. - Akan.) Another proverb making the same point says: "It is only a fool (animal) who falls down twice on the same mound." (Ame le ye dzea anyi zi eve le ko deka dzi - Ewe). Observation and inference then are methods of obtaining knowledge: experience is a source of knowledge.
(ii) To Know as Dze Si (Ewe); Nim (Twi). The infinitive dze si means `to know', `to note', `to recognize'. It is used in such expressions as: Medze sii: "I have recognized him," or "I have seen him once"; it is equivalent to Menyae, meaning `I have known him'. Dze si always implies the use of the sense of sight or observation in knowing; in this sense it is equivalent to one sense of the Akan word nim meaning `to know through observing an external reality'.

To sum up what has been said so far about the indigenous method of knowing: observation and inference have emerged as the relevant methods of knowing. There are two steps involved in the knowing process: first, observing an external phenomenon by the senses and receiving the necessary sense-data from it (the experiencing phase of knowing); second, the process of organizing and interpreting the sense-data into ideas which come to be referred to as knowledge (nunya - Ewe; nimdee - Akan). Knowledge then is the end-product of intellectual processes which begin in sensation. Sensations are therefore regarded as stimuli to reflection and inference; they are the beginnings of empirical knowledge.

The Passive Way of Knowing
The method of knowing discussed above was referred to as the active method of knowing. There is, however, the passive method of knowing. The two most common terms used to represent it are le, meaning `to seize,' `to grasp,' `to encounter,' `to grip,' and wu, meaning `to kill,' i.e., `to experience passively.' Examples of their uses appear in the following expressions:
a. Do le lem: "Illness has seized me" - I am sick.
b. Do le wu yem: "Hunger is killing me" - I am hungry.
c. Tsiko le wu yem: "Thirst is killing me" - I am thirsty.
d. Tro le asii: "The god has seized him/her to be his wife; i.e., A god has elected him/her as his priest/priestess. He has experienced/known the power and presence of a god.

In all these and similar experiences the subject knows something, not by what he does, but by what happens to him; hence this type of knowing can be described as passive and subjective. The subjective nature of such knowledge does not ipso facto make it invalid because such knowledge is best verified by its positive fruits.
In the indigenous society, then, knowing is the result of two different types of experiences, one active and the other passive.

There are four main categories of knowledge in Ewe, each traceable to sensory experience as their sources. They are nyatsiname, susununya, nusronya, and sidzedze.

1. Nyatsiname usually refers to knowledge that is passed down by word of mouth. This may be described as traditional knowledge, where traditional is used to mean that which is passed down from one person or from one generation to another. Knowledge that is passed from parents and elders to the next generation and contained in proverbs and other forms of oral literature is a good example of knowledge as nyatsiname.

2. Susununya is knowledge gained from reflection. Its nature is deductive or contemplative. This does not require an immediate experience as its source, but relies on deduction from premises that have been already established.

3. Nusronya is knowledge acquired through the process of learning from formal education. Its popular designation is `book knowledge' (agbalemenunya). Nusronya is not highly valued by the traditional society because it tends to be foreign and thus is divorced from the realities of the African experience.

4. Sidzedze which is the knowledge that is gained as a result of acquiring a certain level of awareness or gaining a certain understanding of things, relations and situations. This knowledge is gained as a result of understanding things in terms of their fundamental principles. The Ewe term sidzedze, refers to insight gained through the grasping of fundamental principles. One proverb says: "Knowledge of self without sidzedze makes a person a slave." (Simadzemadze ame dokui fe ablode de wodoa kluvi ame). This is a way of saying, "The only self-knowledge that is worth having is that based upon fundamental principles." This type of knowledge makes us free.

The word nyansa is usually used to translate the English term `wisdom', but sometimes it is used to translate knowledge. I will limit its use to wisdom in order to avoid any confusion in a philosophical discourse.
Nyansa, as wisdom, is an Akan word, made up of nya and nsa meaning `that which is obtained and is never exhausted', i.e., a lesson which is learned from experience and is lasting, an important lesson from experience. Nyansa then is a special type of knowledge: it is drawn from experience and is cherished because of its value for one's life. The elders are usually credited with the ability to draw appropriate lessons (nyansa) from the various experiences of life. For this reason one Akan proverb says: "Wisdom is something we acquire through learning; it is not something we buy" (Nyansa vesua na vento). This proverb implies that nyansa is based upon a considerable experience of life. Thus, reliable inferences of this sort are usually only associated with the elders, who in Ewe are called ametsitsiwo or `the mature ones'. One proverb sums it up this way, "You get palm-wine only from mature palm trees" (De tsitsi me aha nona - Ewe). The nyansa, that is, the lessons of wisdom are stored by the elders in the proverbs and other wise sayings of the indigenous culture.

Nyansa as careful and mature lessons derived from experience cannot be regarded as sophia, i.e., a complete vision integrating the various fragmented experiences of life. Some examples of such particularistic but consistent teachings about life are found in the following proverbs:
a. "Knowledge is like a garden, if it is not cultivated it cannot be harvested."
b. "You do not keep the dish in which your neighbor has sent you food, (you return it with your own food in it)," that is, reciprocity is one principle that guides successful social behaviour.
c. "Once you get hold of a snake's head what is left is just a piece of rope," that is, the most effective way to solve a problem is to tackle it at its roots.

Having Nyansa, however, is not just being in possession of a series of guides to conduct; it is an attitude or fundamental disposition which shapes the behaviour of the person who has it. The wise men of the indigenous society (nunyala - Ewe; anyansato - Akan) are therefore not just knowledgeable men and women, but persons who have a consistent mode of response to life's experiences. In this regard they can be said to be people who practice a philosophy of life informed by nyansa.(20)
Both knowledge (nunya) and wisdom (nyansa) therefore must have a practical bearing on the conduct of life. This attitude to knowledge and wisdom is made quite clear in two Akan proverbs which say: "Wisdom is not (like) money which may be kept in a safe" (Nyansa nye sika na woakyekyere asie); and "One does not collect wisdom in a bag, lock it up in a box and then come to say to a friend `Teach me something'."
Nyansa is a highly valued commodity in the indigenous society. Indeed, it is maintained that the whole world is founded on wisdom. That is, the wisdom of Mawu, the creator, organizer and sustainer of the world, who is regarded as the source of all wisdom. An interesting aspect of the "indigenous conception of wisdom is that it is closely associated with calmness or coolness. Thus one of the praise names of God is Fafato which means `The source of coolness'. This also leads to a connection between wisdom and women. Because of their characteristic cool, calm and pacific nature, women are generally said to give wise judgments in disputes. Owing to this conception of women, traditionally before a judgment is delivered at a chief's court the elders always go into council, as the saying goes, "to consult the old lady" (abriwa) for a wise judgment. In the past the elders really did consult an old lady.

Chiefs also, because of their role as decision-makers, are expected to acquire the cool nature of women or of the gods to enable them to make wise judgments. The chief's title among the people of Benin is therefore Dada meaning `Mother', among other Ewe he is addressed as Togbui and as Nana among the Akan. These titles are associated with maturity, cool-headedness and wisdom.

Apart from the general attitude to knowledge discussed above there are some specific indigenous attitudes to nunya and nyansa. The first attitude to knowledge is that there is a limit to what any one individual can know, even though there is no limit to what can be known in principle. One proverb expresses this attitude thus: `Knowledge is like a balobab tree (monkey-bread tree); no one person can embrace it with both arms' (Nunya adidoe, asi metune o). Since knowledge is limitless, any person who claims to know everything knows nothing: "Knows all, knows nothing" (Nim, nnim - Akan).(21) Because of this attitude to knowledge a chief alone is not expected to give judgment in cases at his court, for wise and sound judgment is supposed to come from several heads: "One head does not go into council."

The next attitude to knowledge is figuratively expressed by the proverb, previously quoted, which says "Knowledge is like a garden, if it is not cultivated, it cannot be harvested." The main point of this proverb is that the individual has an active part to play in the acquisition of knowledge, or, as another proverb puts it: "Knowledge is not the gift of the gods" (Nunya mele aklama me o). Man is not born with knowledge; whatever he knows is acquired through experience and through a deliberate effort on his part to know. One proverb therefore says: "The one who keeps asking never loses his way" (Obisafo nto kwan. - Akan). The other one says: "The child who goes about asking to know what is happening will never be a fool." Lack of knowledge, ignorance, on the other hand is said to make a fool of a person (Numanya-manva de wodoa bometsila ame - Ewe). This attitude to knowledge even though it does not completely rule out a priori and revealed knowledge; it nevertheless indicates a bias towards a posteriori or empirical knowledge.

The third specific attitude to knowledge is the conception of knowledge as light and as the source of freedom. We see this attitude in two proverbs. One says "The lamp of ignorance misleads in the night" (Nu manyamanya fe akadi tra ame za - Ewe). In this proverb ignorance is likened to darkness and so its lamp cannot be expected to provide light, while knowledge is light considered especially as moral enlightenment. As enlightenment, knowledge makes the individual free and in this sense it is said to be creative of a better life. To the indigenous society therefore, "knowledge is, in the words of Dewey, "not something separate and self-sufficing, but is involved in the process by which life is sustained and evolved."(22)

The examination of the concept of truth is a logical follow-up to the study of knowledge. The main question to be examined is: What makes our knowledge claims true or false? What is the indigenous concept of, and attitude to, truth? To answer these questions we shall examine some truth terms and expressions in both the Ewe and Akan languages, especially as they are found in everyday utterances and proverbs of the people.
There are six main terms for truth in Ewe, namely: nyatefe, nyanono, nyagbagbe, nyagba, nyadzodzoe, and anukware. The last term, anukware, is borrowed from the Akan language and the remaining terms which are Ewe in origin have the root word `nya' which, as we have seen, plays a very important part in the conception of knowledge and wisdom and can best be translated here as `statement', `word', `matter' and `case'. In other words, to the indigenous mind truth is a knowledge-claim with a specific characteristic. We must search out this characteristic.
Truth as Nyatefe: The most common Ewe term for truth is nyatefe, which has been made popular by its use in Christian communication.
Etymologically, it is built upon nya. Tefe means `place' or `spot'; it is a common suffix in Ewe language, as seen in such words as Ametefe, nutefe, kutefe. Thus, nyatefe literally means `the statement/word that is at its place', i.e., a correct statement. A statement is said to be correct when it describes accurately the state of affairs as it is. Another way therefore to say in Ewe that a statement is true is to say Nya la le etefe: "The statement/word is at its place," as is usually said about the report of an eyewitness. According to the nyatefe conception of truth, a statement is true if it describes an object or event as it really is, and such statements are generally known to be made by eyewitnesses. Thus one proverb says: "Nobody doubts the death of the crocodile's mother if it is reported by the fish." This is another way of saying that the report of an eyewitness can be trusted to be true because such reports normally give accurate accounts of the state of things. For this reason when the elders at a court want to question the validity of a report they ask its author either `Eno nya la tefea,' which means literally: "Did you sit down (witness) at the place where the event occurred"? Or `Ekpo etefea?': "Did you see the place where the event happened"?

Nyatefe then is an on-the-spot-account of an event reported by a person who witnesses it. The belief is that there is a higher degree of reliability and accuracy in an on-the-spot statement than in hearsay. This, however, does not rule out the fact that there may be errors in the reports of an eyewitness; so the essence of the nyatefe concept of truth is to be found in its high degree of accuracy and reliability, not in its being a facsimile of reality. Truth as nyatefe then consists in a high degree of correspondence between the truth-claim and the objective state of affairs so stated; its validity also lies in its high degree of accuracy and reliability. The nyatefe concept of truth assumes that there are certain kinds of statements that can be made about objects, events and relations which are true because of the intrinsic nature of such realities. The truth-value of such statements is therefore determined by the nature of the realities under consideration.

Truth as Nyanono (Nyano): The second truth term is nyanono or nyano which is made up of nya and no. As no means `mother' or `female', nyano means literally `mother/female statement or word.' This is a metaphorical expression in which `mother' or `female' is used as a symbol of life, of that which creates life and promotes growth. Nyano as truth, then, means `the statement that is alive' or has a creative power, just as the woman in the indigenous thought is seen as the principle of life, creativity and growth, while man represents the principle of death and destructivness. The Nyano concept of truth emphasizes truth-value as a living, creative and productive principle. It has the power to create new situations, to promote growth and effect rejuvenation. This is a dynamic understanding of truth. So one way to say `speak the truth' is `do nyanono/nyatefe', which literally means `plant the truth', the understanding being that if it is the truth it will germinate, grow and bear fruit. Falsehood, which is called nyakudu or `dead word/statement' will not germinate. The nyano conception of truth implies its method of verification: truth is known by, and consists in, its power to create new situations and make things better.

Truth as Nyagbagbe: Nyagbagbe means the word/statement that is alive (nya and gbagbe - alive). Gbagbe is used in such expressions as nu gbagbe, meaning `living thing'. Thus nyagbagbe means `living word or statement' in contrast to falsehood, which is termed nyakuku - `dead word/statement'. Again, truth, nyagbagbe, is conceived as a female principle, a principle of life, creativity and growth. Thus truth can be described as the statement of life or life-statement. As such, truth is regarded as of the greatest importance.

Truth as Nyagba: The other term for truth, which derives from nyagbagbe, is nyagba, and is made up of nya and gba which means `first,' `distinguished,' `genuine.' `important.' Gba appears in such expressions as nu gbae: `the real thing,' or ame gba: `an important person.' Truth, then, is an important statement because it contains the word of life.
The last three conceptions of truth may be designated "the Creativity or Nyano theory of Truth." This can be said to be unique to the indigenous concept of truth. It is different from the pragmatic theory of truth in that it is not only the workability of an idea that makes it true, but its power to bring about a better human situation and continuously to improve the conditions of life. The defining characteristic of the creativity theory is its emphasis on the ameliorative nature of truth.

Truth as Nyadzodzoe: Nyadzodzoe is the fifth Ewe term for truth; it is a forensic term which is heard often in the settlement of dispute. Like the others, it is made up of two words - nya and dzodzoe which means `straight'. Truth as nyadzodzoe therefore means literally `straight statement/word;' falsehood is referred to as nyagoglo or nyamadzomadzo, meaning `crooked statement/word.' Nyadzodzoe is usually pronounced as a judgment in a dispute to mean `not guilty' or `you have behaved correctly,' but this correctness of behavior is judged on the basis of the truth or falsehood of the statements one makes about what has happened.

The straight-statement conception of truth presupposes the existence of normative standards of truth-statement which are used to measure other truth-statements. This understanding of truth as a statement that is judged to be straight by an already accepted `straight-statement' is brought out in the proverb: "It is only the liar who loses his teeth three times in his life time." Normally people lose their teeth twice in their life time, once in childhood and lastly in old age. Thus, the statement that corresponds to this fact of life is: "Men lose their teeth twice in their life time." Any person who says he lost his teeth three times is not making a `straight-statement', and no behaviour emanating from such a statement will be considered straight.

The normative truth-statement is therefore what is generally known by the society, represented by the elders, to be true in speech as well as in deed. The truth of a statement is therefore in its identity with what has been known to be the case in such matters. The knowledge of normative truth-statements is acquired through long years of experience and is passed down from generation to generation. In non-literate societies the memory is the repository of truth as nyadzodzoe.

Truth as Anukware: Anukware is an Akan word for truth, where it is spelled nokware. This is made up of ano - meaning `mouth,' and koro meaning `one', hence anokware (anukware) means `one mouth'. Truth as anukware means a statement that is made with one mouth', i.e., made with consistency and without contradiction in the description of the same reality. Internal consistency and harmony are therefore held as the marks of a true statement. Dr. K.O. Agyakwa of the Faculty of Education at the University of Cape Coast is of the view that `speaking with one mouth' rather means several people saying the same thing about a given state of affairs, so that "truth is the sum-total or consensus of what people are saying about a given state of affairs." He concludes that consistency "becomes a test for truth" which "resides in the collective mind of the community."(23)

The consistency that Dr. Agyakwa referred to as the criterion of truth is an `external' one; that is to say, the consistency is between truth-statements made by two or more people about the same reality, and not the consistency among truth-claims made by the same person about one and the same reality. This latter consistency might be called `internal' consistency and is generally required by people in establishing the validity of statements. For this reason as soon as an individual contradicts himself (which means speaking with two mouths) he is said to be speaking a lie. An individual who corroborates what others have said is confirming and not necessarily `speaking' the truth which is always first established by one person. Moreover, the ubiquity of an opinion cannot be used as a criterion of truth, because the voice of the people (Vox populi) is not always the voice of God (truth). It can be concluded then that the anukware conception of truth is the `internal' consistency and harmony that exists among statements made by the same person about one and the same reality.

This conclusion is upheld by several indigenous conceptions of falsehood. To say that `you are telling a lie' the Ewe living around Ho in Ghana say `enyi ve', which literally means, `you are an alligator lizard' which has a forked (double) tongue. `You are an alligator' is a metaphorical way of saying `you have two tongues,' `you speak with two tongues (mouths).' Another way of saying that `you are telling a lie' is `you have two heads.' As proverb puts it: "One person does not grow two heads" (Ame deka metoa ta eve o). This is a way of saying `stop contradicting yourself." Other expressions are: "There are two tongues in the mouth of a liar"; "It is the liar who grows the tongue of an alligator `His mouth is twin (two-pronged)' (Nano ye nta - Akan), i.e., "he is a liar." A local term for falsehood is venyinyi (venyenye) which means `the state of being an alligator' which is representative of those who have `two tongues/mouths.' All these expressions for falsehood indirectly stress consistency and harmony among the statements made by one and the same person as the criteria of truth conceived as anukware.
Four clear concepts of truth have emerged from the preceding examination of the indigenous truth terms. First, truth is the knowledge-claim that, to a high degree, corresponds to reality as it is. Second, truth is the identity of a new statement with other statements that have been accepted as true. Third, truth is the `internal' consistency and harmony that exist among statements made by the same person about the same reality. Finally, truth, like knowledge and wisdom, is the statement that has the power to create new and better situations of life. Truth in this sense is a dynamic and creative property of statements.

The preceding discussion shows that, even though truth has a formal aspect, it is essentially dynamic and creative. Hence, one proverb says "Truth makes things good" (Nyatefe nyoa nu - Ewe). Also "Truth is woman," as woman has the power to bring forth new life. So, truth has creative power, while falsehood is destructive and disintegrative. Therefore, if truth is ignored the result is disaster, for only truth can settle falsehood. Truth is accordingly cherished as the greatest spiritual value. As one proverb puts it, "Sebe, if truth lies in your mother's vagina and you use your penis to bring it out you have not had sex with her,"(24) which is a way of saying that truth stands at the very top of our values and all other values can be sacrificed if need be to get truth. Nothing can destroy truth; the person who loves truth will live long while the person who loves falsehood will die young, because truth is life while falsehood is death.
The ability to know, i.e., to grasp reality in terms of fundamental ideas, and the possession of knowledge are critical properties that makes one a human being in the conceptions of the indigenous society. One method of gaining knowledge of an object is through the process of observation and intellectual assimilation through the medium of ideas. The knower must detach him/herself from the reality to be known as much as possible so as to be in the position to have that knowledge of the object which can be described as nyatefe. The other method of knowing is that of making appropriate inferences from a passive experience in which one is acted upon by objects encountered.
Knowledge (nunya) then may be defined as inferences or ideas derived from experience, be they active or passive, and expressed as statements or propositions. Nunya becomes nyansa (wisdom) when it can be regarded as a complete principle of comprehension for a fairly large segment of experience. Without knowledge (nunya) and wisdom (nyansa) human life returns to animality; they are the divine creative Intelligence and Principle at work in the creation, organization and support of the universe and of life.

Ch.III from Person and Community by


Posted : 05/13/2010 5:46 pm

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