How We Need the Chameleon

A welcome visitor to my garden the other day was the chameleon pictured above. In Malawian symbolism and folklore, the chameleon is the messenger of life while the lizard is the messenger of death.

Few paid much attention in the 1970s when Harold Turner drew attention to the “primal worldview” and observed that its first characteristic is a sense of kinship with nature, in which animals and plants, no less than human beings have their own spiritual existence and place in the universe as interdependent parts of a whole. Within this view of the world, observed Turner, “any object of the natural environment may enter into a totemic spiritual relationship with human beings or become tutelary and guardian spirits.” This deeply religious view of the natural world results in a profound respect for the environment and a determination to relate to it responsibly, without exploitation.

Such an outlook is deeply embedded in Malawi’s traditional religion, culture and folklore. Only now are we realising how precious is this store of knowledge and awareness. When modernity was brought to Malawi by European settlers, administrators and missionaries, most of them dismissed traditional culture as representing backwardness and superstition. Full of confidence about what could be achieved through the industrial revolution, they were eager to exploit Africa’s abundant natural resources with little thought of sustainability.

Only now, when it is perhaps too late, are we realising that the industrial age that was hailed as the beacon of progress, was causing such damage to the environment that it has turned out to be the gravest threat to our common future. Only now do we realise that the arrogance of post-Enlightenment Europeans caused them to neglect and despise the wisdom that was needed the most.

Such has been the power of modernity that even in Malawi traditional wisdom has often been discounted. But it has not disappeared and now urgently needs to be retrieved. How we need the chameleon!

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