On pursuit of the purpose of life: the Shona metaphysical perspective.

Author:Mawere, Munyaradzi


The question whether life on earth has a purpose or not has always been central in the history of humanity since time immemorial. It has been considered by Albert Camus (1981) to be one of the most profound and critical of all metaphysical questions. For Camus and rightly so, "whether one is optimistic or pessimistic about life; whether one is a theist or an atheist, the question has to be faced once raised" (ibid). It is a question that affects anyone of us in one way or another. Achebe seems to concur with the idea that life on earth has a purpose. On describing Africans and their philosophy of life, he affirms that "being an African is more than just a matter of passports or of individual volition" (1990) but of sensibility. For Achebe and convincingly so being an African carries penalties or obligations. Okot p' Bitek (2005) picks up this argument and stresses that in African philosophy man and the universe have their origin from God. Both man and the universe were created by God. For this reason, "man is not born free to do whatever he wants: in fact it is not desirable to be so, even if it were possible" (ibid). This is to say that an African is born with duties and obligations or responsibilities to his society and society in turn bestows rights and privileges on its members. The Shonas being part of African society hold the same view. They believe that every member of the society is useful. This is captured in their idioms like Kuwanda kwakanaka, kwakarambwa nemuroyi (the more we are the better, only a witch is against being many) and Munhu munhu (a person is a person, viz no one should look down upon others). In fact, everyone whether poor or rich, physically challenged or otherwise has a duty of service to make the world a better place to live. This philosophy of life by the Shona has also been captured though implicitly by scholars like John Mbiti. Mbiti (1969:145) describing the African traditional view of personhood notes that this can be summed up in the statement "I am because we are and since we are therefore I am". This dictum confirms that personhood in the African context is defined by reference to other members of the same community, both the living and the 'living dead' (Mawere, 2005). Besides, human nature among traditional Africans is defined through virtue and empathy such as 'love' and not merely through biological constitution. The question on purpose of life on earth thus merits serious reflection. From that said, more research has to be done to help people understand the purpose of life in the universe. So far, little or sketchy research has been done on the issue especially by African scholars. Those who have attended to it like Mbiti (1961), Achebe (1990) and Okot p' Bitek (2005), approached it variously (Nozick; 1981). And although we can infer from works of these African scholars that life on earth has a purpose, their researches do not point to a specific purpose. We can only infer but with the danger of each coming up with a different idea of what s/he thinks is the purpose of life. For this reason, some have thought of the purpose of their lives as to exclusively occupy themselves with procreation to guarantee their posterity. Covey is of this view. He argues "reproduction is everyone's duty to the future" (2008). For others like Warren, "the purpose of life is varied" (Warren, 2002). Warren identifies five different purposes of life as follows:

  1. You were planned for God's pleasure (worship)

  2. You were formed for God's family(fellowship)

  3. You were created to become like Christ(discipleship)

  4. You were shaped for serving God(ministry)

  5. You were made for a mission (mission) (ibid).

    This religious view is problematic to the extent that it raises pertinent unanswered questions for those in the secular world nor does it create adequate room for 'atheists' to maneuver. For instance, can life be purposeful outside the cosmology of the Creator? Can life and purpose be configured outside the God-man relationship? In African traditional religion where is inconceivable and Christianity is discounted with Cynicism as a western concept, how does purposeful life reconstitute itself? It seems Warren (2002) abstraction crowns as a global/universal enterprise and servitude as the ultimate purpose of life that is worth pursuing for its own good. While the aforementioned questions constitute profound subjects worth pursuing, time and space limit me to pursue them. Suffice to assert that despite its mind boggling puzzles, Christianity shares with the African culture the view that humanism is central to human-coexistence. For example, in Shona culture, older people are called 'mukoma' (brother) even if the referent is not related to former. This strikingly resembles the terminology of the early church in the New Testament where Christians call one another 'brothers' and 'sisters' That said, one is left wondering as to what exactly is the purpose of life on earth.

    For Warren (ibid), personal fulfillment, satisfaction, and meaning can only be found in understanding and doing all what God created you on Earth to do. His argument however is confusing in so far as it does not pinpoint to a specific purpose of life. On a different note, others approach the question of purpose of life with fear and trembling. Others, with puzzle! For them, life on earth is 'a gambling', mysterious, full of sufferings, diseases, wars and other odds which seem so much against human life. Thinking about the purpose of life in the face of such odds is therefore a melodrama or rather a mindless business. The whole idea of life having any purpose, therefore, has to be cast into the 'dustbin of oblivion'. However, for Frankl (1978) and indeed so, human beings are engaged steadily in the search for the sole purpose of life. It seems true that, "if a person has found the meaning sought for, he is prepared to suffer, to offer sacrifices, even if need be, to give his life for the sake of it. Contrarily, if there is no meaning he is inclined to take his life, and prepared to do so even if all his needs, to all appearances, have been satisfied"(ibid:20). If l am to share view, I am convinced that people like Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey, William Du bois, Gandhi and Nelson Mandela all pursued the virtue of human rights as their lifetime commitment for the liberty of all. In the context of the Shona people, a purposeful life denotes and is a function of leading and leaving behind a legacy of exemplary life. For instance, the Shona insist that kufa kwehose inosiya imwe (translated as when a senior woman dies, the second becomes the senior).

    To this extend, exemplary leadership is the ultimate pinnacle of societal cohesion worth harnessing for collective good. As highlighted in the preceding paragraphs, the Shona people are one group that believes that life has a sole purpose. Unfortunately, besides evidence from proverbs, idioms, folklores, not much has been done in terms of Shona literature to support this enduring metaphysical view.

    This paper directly reacts to the two views; the view that human life is purposeless and the view that the purpose of life is varied. It argues that some of the previous researches on the purpose of life like Mbiti, Achebe and Okot'p Bitek were unconvincing or rather inadequate thereby contributing to literature on purpose of life. There is, therefore, need to re-examine their assumptions and contributions in order to salvage what is 'important' to the question of purpose of life, modify, develop, reconstitute or reconstruct and carry it into the future. In this whole attempt, the piece advances the argument that though no philosophically convincing answer to the question on purpose of life has been given so far, the Shona's world view whose basis is African metaphysics and logic can help shed light on that. In this endeavor, a possible purpose of life from the Shona view point is postulated and argued for thereby contributing towards the full understanding of the purpose of life.

    The Geographical Location of the Shona People

    The term Shona refers to various linguistic dialect groups who occupy the greater part of Zimbabwe and central western part of Mozambique. In Zimbabwe, the linguistic dialect groups under the armpit of Shona the Korekore in the northern region and greater part of the Zambezi valley; the Zezuru in the central region; the Manyika in the eastern region; the Ndau in the south of the region occupied by the Manyika people; the Karanga in the southern region and lastly the Kalanga in the western part of Zimbabwe. In Mozambique, a number of dialect groups referred to as Shona but the armpit of the dialect Ndau include the Dondo in the districts of Dondo and Beira in Sofala province; the Danda in the districts of Chibabava (Sofala) and Machaze (Manica province); the Vauteve in the district of Chimoo in Manica and the Manyika who occupy the largest part of Manica province. All these linguistic dialect groups share a common language generally referred to as Shona. Though in different geographical locations, they also share most of their cultural beliefs and philosophies of life.

    Understanding the General Shona...

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