Umlabalaba and the Eye of the Beholder

If you look at the above geometric figure, what do we see? For those unfamiliar with the Zulu board game known as umlabalaba, you may merely see a diagram composed of three squares of different sizes arranged such that the smallest square is in the middle, the largest square is the outermost, and the third square is in the middle. Moreover, you will notice that the squares of the diagram are apparently connected at their corners by 4 diagonal lines as well as 2 bisecting horizontal lines and two bisecting vertical lines. You might also imagine that this is perhaps the representation of a spider web, or perhaps the ceiling of a room at the top of a skyscraper.

A Zulu, on the other hand, would recognize immediately that it is a representation of a familiar game board and supply (in his mind’s eye) the 24 missing  (12 black and 12 white) tokens.   Moreover, he might compare the board to his traditional homestead where the innermost square represents the kraal where the family’s cattle are kept at night, the middle square the perimeter of the huts that encircle the kraal, and the perimeter of the third and largest square as the wall or fence that encloses the homestead. He might add that the lines represent spears or guns (isibamu) used in capturing cattle and that the (missing) tokens represent his cows and the cows of his opponent. Surely, because f his cultural knowledge, the diagram becomes re meaningful.

A learned Kemetian (Ancient Egyptian) however, might see in the diagram the image of a step pyramid as viewed from the sky. Here, the outer square for him represents the spirit, the second square the mind, and the smallest square the body. The empty (i.e. lineless) space in the middle represents the area from which Atum rose into the heavens, and the eight lines (the eight paired gods of the beginning: Heh, Hehet, Nun, Nenet, Tenem, Tenemet, Ket and Keket). The three spots or joints in each line would most certainly bring to mind the three creative forces (Heka, Sia, and Hu) Ptah used to create the universe. The twelve black and twelve white tokens may to him would represent the hours of the night and of the day respectively.  Moreover, the four sides of each square may bring to his mind the four children of Nut (Heaven)  and  Geb (Earth): Isis, Osiris, Seth and Nephtys [See my article Symbolism of Umlabalaba Board with respect to ancient Egyptian (Kemet) Cosmology  for greater detail].

That is, an observer sees an image not only with his/her eyes; but with his/her mind (cultural knowledge & experience) as well. If we consider, for example, the concept of God to be somewhat like a mirror, when we look at Him, we see the mirror but we also see the reflection of our learned cultural conceptualization of Him. Thus, the Christian sees Christ, but other cultures associate the Godhead with Shiva, Jehovah, Jah, Gitchee Manitu, Inti, etc). Thus, though the mirror is one and the same (there being only one true god), what we see (the mirror plus our reflection) is necessarily different because it represents an image created by our mind rathe than just our eyes.

This analogy can be extended to “self-esteem”. When we look in the mirror, do we see ourselves positively or negatively? If we have a grand opinion of ourselves we say “I am so beautiful”; but, on the other hand, if we view ourselves negatively, we come to the opposite conclusion. Often, for “Tropical People” we are made to look at ourselves through the eyes of the oppressor and instead of seeing something beautiful we see only ugliness as illustrated by the poem below. The name of the poem is “Lord, why did you make me Black?” and it deals with the query of a Black person with low self-esteem mainly because he is viewing himself through his oppressor’s eyes.

Lord, Lord,
Why did You make me Black?
Why did You make me someone
The world wants to hold back?

Black is the color of dirty clothes;
The color of grimy hands and feet.
Black is the color of darkness;
The color of tire-beaten streets.

Why did you give me thick lips,
A broad nose and kinky hair?
Why did You make me someone
Who receives the hatred stare?

Black is the color of a bruised eye
When somebody gets hurt.
Black is the color of darkness.
Black is the color of dirt.
How come my bone structure’s so thick;
my hips and cheeks are high?
How come my eyes are brown
and not the color of the daylight sky?

Why do people think I’m useless?
How come I feel so used?
Why do some people see my skin and think I should be abused?

Lord, I just don’t understand;
What is it about my skin?
Why do some people want to hate me
And not know the person within?

Black is what people are “listed”,
When others want to keep them away.
Black is the color of shadows cast.
Black is the end of the day.

You know, my own people mistreat me;
And I know this just isn’t right.
They don’t like my hair or the way I look
They say I’m too dark or too light.

Lord, Don’t You think it’s time
For You to make a change?
Why don’t You re-do creation
And make everyone the same?

(God answered)

Why did I make you black?
Why did I make you black?

Get off your knees and look around.
Tell Me, what do you see?
I didn’t make you in the image of darkness.
I made you in the Likeness of ME!

I made you the color of coal
From which beautiful diamonds are formed.
I made you the color of oil,
The black-gold that keeps people warm.

I made you from the rich, dark earth
That can grow the food you need.
Your color’s the same as the panther’s
Known for (HER) beauty and speed.

Your color’s the same as the Black stallion,
A majestic animal is he.
I didn’t make you in the Image of darkness
I made you in the Likeness of Me!

All the colors of a Heavenly Rainbow
Can be found throughout every nation;
And when all those colors were blended well,

Your hair is the texture of lamb’s wool
Such a humble, little creature is he.
I am the Shepherd who watches them.
I am the One who will watch over thee.

You are the color of midnight-sky,
I put the stars’ glitter in your eyes.
There’s a smile hidden behind your pain
That’s the reason your cheeks are high.

You are the color of dark clouds formed
when I send My strongest weather.
I made your lips full so when you kiss
the one you love they will remember.

Your stature is strong; your bone structure, thick
to withstand the burdens of time.
The reflection you see in the mirror…
The Image looking back at you is MINE.

The purpose of this article and of our Foundation’s “Rising Star initiative” is to make us see ourselves through our own eyes, and the preceding poem credited to RuNett Nia Ebo goes a long way into bringing this about.

Finally, if we could also see what others see when regarding anything wouldn’t life be much richer? And wouldn’t it lead to greater harmony and understanding? Indeed, yin and yang should be regarded as complimentary rather than antagonistic, for without one the other cannot exist. Let us all then make an effort to expand our minds so that the negative forces of antipathy will give way to harmony and a more peaceful co-exitance.