A few days ago my niece asked if, in India, we had a concept or symbol similar to that of Sankofa. This was a new word for me, and as I love to do, I immediately wanted to find out more. What I discovered was beautiful and meaningful.
The concept of Sankofa is derived from King Adinkera of the Akan people of Ghana in West Africa. The word Sankofa is derived from three words in the Akan language: San (return), Ko (go), Fa (look, seek and take). Translated literally it would mean ‘go back or return, and look’. In the Akan dialect this concept is expressed as “se wo were fi na wosan kofa a yenki which means “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.”
This reflects the strong belief of the Akan that the past serves as a guide for planning the future. While the Akan believe that there must be forward movement and new learning as time passes, they caution that as the march ahead proceeds, it is the wisdom in learning from the past which ensures a strong future.
Visually and symbolically, Sankofa is depicted as a mythical bird with its feet firmly planted forward, or sometimes flying forward (to represent looking or moving ahead), with its head turned backwards (looking to the past). The Sankofa bird is always shown with an egg in its mouth, or as turning back to take an egg off its back. The egg represents the ‘gems’ or knowledge of the past upon which wisdom is based; it also signifies the generation to come that would benefit from that wisdom. Thus, the bird graphically demonstrates the Akan belief that the past serves as a guide for planning the future.
The depiction of the bird as bending its neck with effort, to reach back for the abandoned but precious egg signifies the diligence and effort required to pay due reverence to the past, and give it its proper place in the current scheme of events.
Sankofa teaches us that in order to move forward we must go back to our roots. That does not mean that we remain in the past, but rather we use the lessons and wisdom from that knowledge, and use it to make the best of the present, and a better future. It is a way of looking to the past with the understanding that both the good and the bad have formed the present situation. The concept emphasises the value of learning not only from the good things, but also from the bad things and mistakes of the past so as not to repeat these in the future.
Sankofa embodies the spirit and attitude of reverence for the past, reverence for one’s ancestors, reverence for one’s history, and reverence for one’s elders. All indigenous cultures across the world have traditionally acknowledged and revered their elders who are regarded as the fount of knowledge, based on experience and wisdom, who can help guide the way. Sadly, in this century there has been an increasing trend to shrug off their wisdom as ‘old wives tales’. Why go to the grandparents when Google Guru has all the answers you need? An interesting contemporary initiative reminds us of the value of this wisdom.
In July 2007 Nelson Mandela marked his 89th birthday by forming a Council of Elders dedicated to finding new ways to resolve some of the world’s long-running crises, reduce conflict and despair, and foster peace. In his words “They will support courage where there is fear, foster agreement where there is conflict and inspire hope where there is despair.”
The Elders were visualised as individuals who had “earned international trust” and “a reputation for inclusive, progressive leadership”, but no longer held public office, and were independent of any national government or other vested interest.
The original Elders included India’s Ela Bhatt; Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general; Jimmy Carter, the former US president, and Desmond Tutu, the retired South African archbishop. Other members were former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland; Mandela’s wife Graca Machel, a children’s rights campaigner; former Irish president Mary Robinson, and Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen bank, the pioneering micro-credit institution.
A inspiring initiative and much-needed recognition of the need for collective wisdom of the past experience to guide the future of a world besieged with conflict, chaos, and confusion.
Sadly today, across the world, there is a dangerous trend of going back to the past, not so much to learn from it but to choose selectively from it in order to perpetuate what seems convenient to suit the political agenda or religious climate. Alternately there is also the inclination to erase all traces of the past, and build the future on a brand-new slate.
Sankofa is a gentle reminder that if even in our arrogance we overlook the gems from the past, when we come to our senses we should be humble enough to retrace our steps and make amends. As the popular saying goes, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.
There is no shame in going back to our roots. That is Sankofa, simple yet profound.
Thank you Suparna, for introducing me to Sankofa.
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. Steve Jobs