By Ali A Mazrui
Published March 28, 2004
Although Africa is rich in plants, African cultures do not appear to be particularly fascinated by flowers as they are virtually absent in art, songs, proverbs, and poetry. The floral gap co-exists with the sacred depth in the African imagination, contends ALI A MAZRUI.
The apparent under-utilisation of flowers for either art or ritual purposes poses the question of whether the love of flowers is universal or specific to certain cultures.
Flowers are relatively absent in verbal and literary art in Africa except where there has been European, Indian or Arabic influence.
Jack Goody, the distinguished Cambridge anthropologist has argued that although Africa is rich in plants, flowers do not fascinate African cultures. He contends that “The people of Africa did not grow domestic flowers, nor did they make use of wild ones to significant extent in worship, in gift giving or in the decoration of the body, but what is perhaps more surprising is that flowers, neither domesticated nor wild play so little part in the domain of design or the creative arts.”
Goody argues that African sculpture provides no striking floral designs. And even in African poetry, songs and proverbs, flowers are relatively absent unless there is a prior stimulus of Islam, Indian, or some other external aesthetic. There is a limited use of imagery of flowers in either African plastic art or African verbal and literary arts.
African languages may abound in names of fruits, but they appear deficient when it comes to the description of various stages of flowers. In most indigenous cultures there is no tropical equivalent to such range of names as, the lily, the violet, the tulip, the orchid, the daffodil. But African languages like Kiswahili are fully competitive in names of fruit: chungwa, chenzi, embe, bungo, kitoria, nazi, kanju, ndizi, kunazi, fenesi, buyu and many others.
More recent African loan words for fruit (usually borrowed from Arabic) include nanasi (pineapple) and tufaha (apple).
Kiswahili poetry has been partly stimulated by Islamic and South Asian cultures, hence the use of the flower in romance during times like Valentine or in courtship.
Using flowers as poetic imagery is now more common in Kiswahili verse than in the literature of other East African languages.
So many flowers on the equator were potential fruit in the process of formation. A planted seed begins to germinate into a plant; the plant produces a bud; the bud blossom into a flower, and the flower culminates into a fruit. Africa celebrates the end product [the fruit] rather that the intermediate stage (the flower). A cost-benefit analysis needs to be done as to whether Africa’s coolness towards flowers and Africa’s warmth towards fruit is ecologically friendly.
If indigenous African culture is not enchanted by flowers it is much more sensitive to other aspects of the natural world than Western culture is.
Sacredness in indigenous Africa is not monopolised by the human species. A baobab tree may be as sacred as a hill or a river may command reverence. Some African communities may adopt a certain animal as their totem.
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Among Africans, nature shares holiness with God. But only outside Africa would a priest seek to prove the existence of God through the existence of beautiful flowers.
In answer to the question of how this could be proven, a pastor in the 18th century England said: “Behold the rose, the lily, the violet!”
An indigenous African priest, on the other hand, would seek God in the grandeur of thunder, in the deep red flesh of the soil where seeds germinate, and in the miracle of child-birth.
The floral gap co-exists with the sacred depth in the African imagination.