When I was introduced into the world of African spirituality everybody I met at the first ile I attended greeted me with the word alafia. Everybody said it. I use it regularly when I write or talk to people who practice Ifa. Which is why I took the article titled “Alaafia is Not an Afrikan Word Nor Does It Mean Peace” very seriously.
After reading the article I was initially angry. Here we are in the Diaspora doing our best to maintain some connection to our African heritage in America, the one place that makes it the most difficult for a black man to keep his roots, and we find out now that we may have been bamboozled into using this word as a greeting. You can’t trust anybody these days. Why am I trying to use African words anyway? Why not use the language I know best and trust the most for my communications with people who practice Ifa?
The bottom line is that I am not African. African people will let me know that I am not African. The African and the African American are kindred spirits who share ancestry. In many respects we should be working for common goals. But like many organizations of people with similar interests, there are just too many opportunities for fragmentation within the group based on things that don’t matter. Black people will divide themselves by light or dark skin, good or bad hair, right or wrong side of the tracks, professional or not, belief system, and whatever.
I have run across way too many Africans within the tradition who never bothered to educate me on the word alafia and I started to feel betrayed by each and every one. My insecurity of not being African but trying to embrace the African ways began to get the better of me.
Through my funk, I started to remember an old Cheech and Chong movie where Chong asked Cheech how to greet Hispanics in Spanish. Not one to pass up an opportunity to play a joke Chong gave Cheech an insult and told him it was a greeting. A few minutes later to Cheech’s dismay they have a minor car accident and find themselves surrounded by what looks like a Hispanic gang. Tommy Chong cheerfully gives the greeting Cheech gives him. Cheech tries to get Chong to stop and shut up but Chong just repeats it like a chant. At least I though it was funny at the time.
Without the ability to immerse myself into a true African culture it would be impossible to know what is truly African or not. Note to self: quit trying to be what you’re not, an African, and be who you are, an African American. Don’t be ashamed to greet people with hello if that’s what you know and can trust.
My consternation got the attention of Orunmila. I’m always glad to speak with Baba but it was with a little extra gladness hoping to get a little clarity on this subject.
One thing we must remember is that just about every language still used today is influenced by and influential on other languages. Just about every word in the English dialect is rooted in languages from other cultures. Latin, Greek, Spanish, French, and many more, contribute to what we mainly speak here in the United States and commonly refer to as English. A culture that considers itself part of the global community will have no choice but to submit to the influence of other cultures. Should African languages be an exception and made immune from the influence of other languages? The greeting of alafia is widely accepted and recognized as a positive welcome. Today in the Diaspora it means peace. Because it may be rooted in an Arabic word that means health in that language doesn’t mean that its current definition is invalid.
I remember a while ago the politicians of France passed, or at least tried to pass, a law to stop the influence of other languages on the French language. At the time I thought the move was pretty xenophobic. I remember when some politician in the United States wanted to rename french fries to freedom fries. I remember thinking that was stupid as well. Language will evolve. It always has and it always will. Artificial limits as to what can or as to what cannot be the evolutionary process of a particular language will not be successful.
Like most people I doubt if I will stop saying alafia when I greet people who practice African spirituality. I say it as an offering of peace. The people I greet with alafia accept it as an offering of peace. We have made a successful communication. And isn’t that the entire point of language?