Friday, June 19, 2015

The Manden Charter of 1222:
African Exceptionalism?

A student of mine in 7th grade once proposed to do a researched essay on the question, "When will Africans evolve?"  I took her into the hall to make her understand how limited our view of Africa is, and how the assumptions behind her question would be a wedge between her and African American friends.  She understood the implications of the word "evolved," then, but still was interested only in researching the poverty and strife that bolstered her preconceptions of Africa as a pitiable land, from her vantage point of Exceptional America.  

Today, I heard a report by Ibrahima Diane on the BBC program The Fifth Floor that I thought would open my students' eyes (link to listen).   Now that I've done a cursory search of the internet, I'm a little less excited.  Still, what I heard is interesting in itself.

From the same time as Magna Carta, we now have the Manden Charter, transcribed from oral history revealed to a French scholar by Malian griots in the 1990s.   Because its form was fluid as memory until then, susceptible to influences from modern politics and culture, we have reason to wonder if its contents have not been shaped in part by wishful thinking:  Wouldn't it be great to prove that the seminal document of Western democracy had an African twin, arrived at independently?  

So, with the caveat that something may have been gained in translation, here's a taste of what I've learned about this Manden Charter:

The document, also known as the Kurukan Fuga, proclaims the rights of individuals, even those held in slavery.  The body is only a man's dressing, it says:

But his ‘soul’, his spirit lives on three things:

He must see what he wishes to see

He must say what he wishes to say
And do what he wishes to do  
(translation by Michael Neocosmos, "The Manden Charter," The Franz Fanon Blog)

So every individual man's rights are to be respected.  We are also told not to offend "women, our mothers."

The "Joking relationship" among people of a community is also to be sacrosanct.  That is, satire is not actionable, and all are encouraged to laugh at the king.  (from a list of articles at the Wikipedia article for Kouroukan Fouga).

Like Magna Carta, some of the Manden Charter's articles refer to immediate concerns at the time of the agreement, such as the decree that "Fakombe is nominated chief of hunters," and fixing the price for a dowry as three cows.  Also like Magna Carta, this constitutional document was instantly ignored. Slavery among the Malian people continued, only escalating when Europeans got into the slave trade three centuries later.

I understand from the interview on BBC that this would have been influenced by Islamic teaching, though I see no specific references to the Prophet or to God of Abraham and Jesus.  As I'm currently reading Theology for a Troubled Believer by Diogenes Allen, I've been thinking about Allen's claim that the absolute value of the individual is an idea that cannot be derived from anything other than "revealed religion."  Philosophers and political theorists since the Enlightenment have tried and failed.   Here is the absolute value of the individual asserted in a 13th century agreement, and many more Enlightenment ideals besides. 

At the least, the Manden Charter should give pause to anyone who makes much of "American Exceptionalism."

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