Hermeneutics of trees in an African context
“The important thing is not to waste time in more or less hair-splitting debates on the specificity or non-specificity of African cultural values, but to look upon these values as a conquest by a part of mankind for the common heritage of all mankind, achieved in one or several phases of its evolution” (Cabral, 2007, p. 180).
In my paper, I will look into case studies of the relations of human communities to trees, especially in West-African traditions, and ask how these contribute to a richer understanding of the environment. What is of special interest in African environmental issues is that the meaning of trees is contested in clashes between modernisation movements, religious conversion movements, secular conservationalists, and traditionalist movements. Investigating the content of the contested – a rich hermeneutics of trees – can contribute to an understanding of the environment that could create more sustainable relations of humans to their environment.
First, I will outline which different frameworks determine the human relationship to the environment in the West-African context. These are the frameworks of secularisation, of monotheistic theology and traditionalism. Whilst conversationalists might work together with Christians, Muslims, or those practicing traditional religions, their presuppositions will be scientific and secular. Muslims and Christians understand the relation of humans to nature in the frame of a theology of creation, religious morality and the afterlife, which can conflict with secular as well as traditionalist outlooks. All parties will negotiate their interests within the framework of the global economy, ‘selling’ sacred forests as places of touristic interest, for instance, or of rare plant life.
Secondly, I will discuss two examples of cases of cutting of trees which show how the frameworks clash and make shared discourse on common human interest a complex issue. The tree as a place of contested meaning is a bearer of symbolism and signification – which is made clear in the work of geographer and Islamologist Eric Ross, especially in his work on the holy city of Touba, capital of Mouride Sufism, which represents tûbâ, the tree of paradise. While neoplatonic understandings of (spiritual) reality are predominant in Sufi theology, a shamanistic ontology can be seen to be at work in it also (as in Christian traditions).
To conclude, I will discuss how different contexts and discourses lead to contested meanings of trees. A specifically philosophical account of African views of nature, as given in a work by Michael Eze, is presented. In the tradition of Tempels and Mbiti, he proposes to adopt a holistic view of nature understood as life force. Although such an account helps to explain the spiritual meaning of trees, it suppresses difficulties arising from the clashing of frameworks. To overcome this, I make a plea for a multidimensional approach that brings the varying positions into dialogue, after first having disentangled and understood their differences and conflict.