Significant Numbers in Africa

Have you ever wondered why many African cultures and traditions attribute a level of importance to certain numbers; the most common of them being the number 7 and the number 4? You must have heard the lines in texts, stories and events; ‘seven seas, seven hills, seven cities, etc’. In certain regions and locations, varying traditions plan and align their interactions, activities and livelihoods with reference to these numbers. This is a journey worth your time so sit back and enjoy this journey of discovery!

It remains undisputed that numbers are the language of our universe. Numbers fulfill many roles in the explanation of the universe. In numerology, we study the meaning and effect of numbers on our surroundings and how numbers in everyday life are spiritual mysticism masquerading as human rationality. A number can express religious facts and beliefs. This is also known as numerology. To maintain order in societies throughout Africa, numerical symbols serve as a powerful tool of indoctrination. Interestingly enough, this symbolism cuts across African societies in varying degrees and a few of these will be discussed in brief here.

We may perceive western systems as rational, scientific, and precise, whereas non-Western beliefs around numbers are not. It is also worth noting that in Africa, even numbers were associated with women while odd numbers were associated with men. The counting process in Africa is connected to the body, as numbers are communicated by hand gestures and measurements related to particular body parts.

Interesting to know, certain numbers perceived as perfect relies on the arithmetic sum of the numbers three (3) and four (4), as is very common to the Dogons (an ethnic group indigenous to the central plateau region of Mali, in West Africa, south of the Niger bend, near the city of Bandiagara, and in Burkina Faso) of the Middle Niger River region. According to their tradition, number three (3) represents man and number four (4) represents woman; therefore number seven (7) represents perfection. This is true for alchemical symbolism as well. This symbolism is used in Dogon customs every day.

The Kolokoma Ijo (people who inhabit the Nun River in Bayelsa State, Southern Nigeria, belonging to the Ijaw tribe) of the Niger Delta associate odd numbers, especially three, with a man, and even numbers, especially four, with a woman. Other African cultures believe the number seven (7), represents perfection because it unites masculine and feminine components. Yoruba (a West African ethnic group whose main areas of settlement are in Nigeria, Benin, and Togo) numbers have been counting to a million -assigning degrees of importance to certain numbers- and beyond for much longer than most Westerners.

Historically, the Kikuyu (a Bantu ethnic group native to Central Kenya, but also found in significantly fewer numbers in Tanzania), have developed suspension bridges much earlier than Westerners did in the 20th century. Mali had a unified system of weights and measurement that apparently existed alongside some of the world’s largest empires but was inaccessible to westerners.

For the Igbos (people living chiefly in southeastern Nigeria who speak Igbo, a language of the Benue-Congo branch of the Niger-Congo language family), there are numbers that are particularly meaningful and have particular significance to the daily lives and observances of the Igbo people. Each number represents some aspect of traditional Igbo culture.

For example, three indicates strength (Ikenga); four defines the Igbo market days (Nkwo, Eke, Orie, Afor), each representing a different spirit; the number five indicates affirmation when a prayer or ritual is performed; seven implies the number of reincarnations a person or man will experience in his lifetime before he dies. Throughout their belief system, these number symbols affect everything they are associated with, whether it is for positive or negative reasons. The number symbols are just as pronounced in the lobes of the kola nut. A prominent motif in Igbo folklore is the ominous number, seven (7).

Through all eras of history, African societies have developed numerical concepts that correspond to their needs and interests. Many of the African sacred languages are written and embedded in numbers. These numbers should not be forgotten or brushed off as being ordinary. So next time you interact with an African who sets his or her plans in this manner, be quick to understand why it holds that level of importance to him or her. In any case, it is important to keep in mind these symbols since they are part of the rich and amazing African culture!

Chizaram D. Ezugwu

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