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A Kenyan non-odyssey: Community and the Ogham alphabet

Updated: Sep 25, 2018


The logo for the conference in Nairobi

The first part of 2018 contains one of the strangest non-events of my life thus far. In December a lady called Sarah who manages an arts centre in Wales (where I was at the time running a Buddhist meditation retreat) asked if I might be interested in a strange proposition. She told me that an eminent Marxist scholar who was a friend of hers, needed to find a Welsh delegate - all expenses paid - for a conference in Nairobi, funded by a Chinese billionaire called Professor Zhang Shaohua. I sent an email to the address she gave me - it transpired to the Marxist scholar’s grandson Nathanael - but heard nothing back. A month or so later when I spoke again to Sarah, she enquired whether I had got in touch, which encouraged me to discover I had mistyped the original email address. This time I received a reply straight away requesting a c.v. and providing a link to the website of the organisation who were running the conference: The Organisation for the Promotion of Geoversal Civilisation, or the OPGC. The website with it’s spectacular logo, clunky flash animations, and strange cut-outs of academic figures against a deep blue background, immediately caught my imagination.


In due course I was accepted to be one of two, it turned out, Welsh delegates, and asked to submit the title for a ten minute paper fitting to the theme of the conference which was ‘Culture’. I was also sent a copy of a The Course of Geoversal Civilisation, a sprawling 386 page document, badly translated from Chinese to English in the most spectacular way, and containing the central thesis of Professor Zhang Shaohua the joint founder (in 1997) of the OPGC. Also, a much smaller 10 page document called the Resolution, condensing the message of The Course of Geoversal Civilisation, including a quotation from Albert Einstein and with particular reference to ‘Culture’. A copy of this, signed by delegates, we were told would be sent after the conference to the United Nations.


Two months later I submitted my title - ‘Community and the Ogham alphabet’. I was reminded a month or so after, that my paper should also reference the Course of Geoversal Civilisation and Welsh culture (I took this to mean in a more explicit way than my original gambit - a discussion of an Irish alphabet, markings of which are found on many stones in Wales). I was advised to begin with a quotation from the Resolution. This had suddenly become an ambitious enterprise - to link, in a tiny talk: ‘community’, or more specifically the anthropologist Victor Turner’s notion of communitas; the ancient Celtic Ogham alphabet, both on its own historical terms but also as it has been adopted by Robert Graves, and later movements such as neo-paganism; an exposition of more contemporary Welsh culture - this stumped me in particular because it is so hard to fairly represent a country; and most importantly, all in reference to a text I found inscrutable - The Course of Geoversal Civilisation. (I was also reminded this should pitched to an audience of African and Asian graduates - mediated for some by translation - many of whom might not have heard of Wales). I failed more or less; my resulting talk - which I include below - became a buttressing of these four things hastily surmised, with thinly constructed segues linking them.


The Course of Geoversal Civilisation itself seems fairly benign at first glance with a strong emphasis on tolerance and loving-kindness (I wouldn’t have given this strange venture a second thought if it wasn't for this). Here is their mission statement from their website:


Sublate traditional ideology with modern wisdom

Relieve national differences with great human Universality

Balance regional interests with global public benefit

Settle cultural conflicts with civilisation commonness


However on second glance the approach is dubious. The central thesis is that the world must become one world - ‘geoversal civilisation.’ I’ll pick the notion of a global language as an example problematic element of this. I include in full a few paragraphs of Dr Zhang Shaohua’s argument from The Course in Geoversal Civilisation:


“The history of humans has told us that the expansion of a nation is about the expansion of language at first; and the unity of a nation is the unity of language at first. By the same token, human beings living in the geoversal era must have a geoversal language in the first place, that is, to discuss, identify and popularize the “world’s first language”.


The distribution of languages in the world today is completely the product of modern Western colonialism, (I can't argue with this! - Llew) without any consideration of the quality of language itself, especially the text itself. For example, China’s hieroglyphics is the most convenient and most pictorial text that conveys the most accurate meanings in all surviving texts, thus is most qualified to be popularized among all the existing national languages in the world. Also, do the Chinese hieroglyphics and the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics have some inheritance relations unknown to men, or do the Chinese characters and the ancient Egyptian texts originate from the first civilisation of mankind - the Sumerian civilisation? Regardless of the answer, should we learn and absorb some of the pictographic features, character-making principles and phrase-building rules of the ancient Egyptian characters, so that the Chinese characters will become the best thinking tool and the easiest communication medium for our future generations or even future humans? Besides, do we need to classify Chinese characters, for example into those used for general communication and the terminology, and into those for modern communication and ancient characters, and do we need to select and reduce the number of Chinese characters? Just to name a few.


The reason that I value the significance of Chinese to the world is based on a reflection of a highly educated translator serving in the United Nations and having rich translation experience. This translator is able to skilfully speak and write more than 20 languages. She believes that according her experience of learning more than 20 languages, Chinese is the most difficult one to master. Among the languages that I have grasped, Chinese is indeed the most difficult language to learn. But the Chinese people can learn to read, write and understand Chinese, and even compose an excellent essay after the six years of learning in the primary school. So if a dedicated period of time is spent, in fact one will only need one year and a half, or three years at most to learn Chinese.


I advocate Chinese not because I am a Chinese at all. On the contrary, as the author of this course, the last thing I want to see is that “Chinese becomes the world’s first language.” The reason is very simple - I am a Chinese, and also the author of the course.


In short, relevant organizations such as UNESCO, should start “screening the world’s

first language”, and attach great importance to and engage in such task initiatively

from now on.”


However it is in Professor Zhang Shaohua’s preface that the more insidious side of this epic undertaking is first discussed:


“I plan to finish the preface with a true story. In order to explore a path to cultivate the above-mentioned new species – spirit-centered species as soon as possible, I have founded a “psychic training team” made up of 50 people aged between 5 and 65. They accept psychic training 1-3 times each day, and 1-3 hours each time. (See details in the first part of Section 4 of Chapter 4). Among them, there is a Chinese girl who is less than 13 years old and has just finished her primary school study. She neither knows nor understands what the OPGC and I am doing, but unexpectedly I found “an eight-line poem with five characters to a line” in her “psychic record”:


Realize universe spirit

Spread nine classics

Build World Government

Promote geoversal civilisation

Formulate hundred-year plan

Cultivate spirit-centered species

Plan for human migration

Pool accomplishments of previous saints


What is mentioned in the poem is exactly what the colleagues of the “OPGC” from all countries have done in the past 20 years and what I have done in the past 50 years, and what we are doing and what we will do in the future."


In truth my suspicions were aroused from the beginning, pretty much when I heard the word ‘billionaire’, but after speaking via skype for an hour with Nathanael, my fears were allayed enough that I felt that, although this might certainly be very strange, at the very least it wouldn’t be dangerous.


As it came closer to the conference I began to make preparations for my week long stay along with over one hundred and fifty other delegates at the five star Hilton Hotel in Nairobi. Another email came a week or so before I was due to fly (in response to a delegate who asked) that the dress code would be ‘business formal’. I hadn’t even considered this(!) and it sent me into a real spin as I crammed up on YouTube ‘Real Men Real Style’ style videos, traipsed unsuccessfully through King’s Road charity shops, and ended up meeting a friend of similar stature late at night in order to borrow a suit he had worn twice and bought many years before. On the morning of my flight I finished packing my clothes into a wheelie suitcase with a broken wheel I’d bought for a fiver and fixed - I thought a backpack wouldn’t cut it this time - and reached to the top of my filing cabinet for my passport. It had vanished: two times turning my place upside down didn’t help and I had no other choice but to surrender my Kenyan odyssey. The whole thing felt uncanny - I’ve never lost a passport - but of all the trips to miss out on, this one that had cost me nothing seemed to be not hugely unlucky, and emotionally I felt a mix of relief, disappointment, and the peculiar groundlessness of plans falling through. I emailed Nathanael with the sad news and asked him if he’d like me to send a video of my talk, he gracefully accepted and I believe it may have been played to the delegation on Tuesday during the conference. I include the paper, which my apologies is dull in comparison to the story that surrounds it, with an added postscript below.








Community and the Ogham alphabet


The Resolution talks about integrating ‘the philosophical thinking that there is “unity in diversity”.’ I’d like to explore a little this expression ‘unity in diversity’ and what it might mean through looking at the Celtic Ogham alphabet. I shall then link this to a sense of myth that underpins contemporary Welsh culture, and finally talk a little about community in the context of the idea of communitas from the anthropologist Victor Turner, which has some relation I think to the aspiration for realising the oneness of all humans as found in the Resolution.


So to begin with I shall say some things about the Ogham alphabet. For a talk connected to Welsh culture this might seem a bit strange as Ogham is actually not a Welsh but an Irish script originating in the 4th century or perhaps earlier.



One of the primary ways that Ogham has been preserved for us is by inscriptions that we find on large upright stones. The script is formed by a series of grooves usually down one edge of the stone. These inscriptions often just say somebody’s name, and most likely many of the stones marked graves or were indicative of someone’s property.


Although originating in Ireland, Ogham stones can be found all over the British Isles and outside of Ireland the highest concentration is in South West Wales. And perhaps it is for this reason that in my mind, as a Celtic script, I associate the Ogham alphabet so strongly with Wales.



This map shows where the Ogham stones have been found in Wales; their placement correlates to the influx of Irish settlers from the 4th century onwards, as the Roman legions began to depart back to Rome.



We find an intriguing story of the origin of the Ogham script in early Irish histories. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, it is said that before attempting to build the tower of Babel, humanity spoke one language. When God saw that human ambition had become such that they were trying to build a tower that could reach heaven, he confounded their language so that they could not understand each other’s speech, and therefore the tower was not finished. In the Irish histories it is said that shortly after the fall of the tower of Babel, a Sythian King Fenius Farsa arrived. The builders, all now speaking in different tongues, had already dispersed to the corners of the world, but Fenius sent out seventy two scholars to find them, and when they returned having studied each of the seventy-two languages, the King took the best parts of each of them to create a selected language which he called Godelic, and Ogham is the written script of Godelic which is another name for the Irish language.



The alphabet itself has a very simple and beautiful logic to it. There are 20 letters and 5 additional letters making 25 total. The letters are made by combining vertical and horizontal strokes. A less romantic description of its origin argues that it may well have derived from the Roman numerical tally system.


My primary interest in the Ogham alphabet has been as an artist and a writer not as an historian, and therefore without contradicting the historical evidence, for me it is the romantic and mythological significance of the Ogham alphabet and especially it’s poetic qualities that have captured my imagination. I first became aware Ogham when I read Robert Graves’ strange and compelling book The White Goddess. He expands upon medieval interpretations that show how each of the 20 letters correspond to a different type of tree. The five additional letters also have symbolic meaning: each relating, for example, to the sea, or to a spindle etc. Contemporary scholarship shows that probably no more than eight of the original letters were named after trees but I find the idea of each letter containing a symbolic meaning profoundly enchanting and although Graves’ research is historically problematic, I believe it is possible to appreciate his tremendous poetic sensibility simultaneously alongside more historical fact.


It is beyond to scope of this talk to enter the panoply of meanings and nuances that each letter holds or has garnered over the centuries, however we could look briefly at the first letter in the alphabet - Beithe or Birch. I choose it to elaborate on not only because it is the first letter but also because it is universally accepted that it is named after the Birch tree and is symbolic of new beginnings. The story is that the very first use of Ogham was an inscription of the letter Beithe written seven times on a wand of birch and sent to Lugh as a warning that if he did not protect her with Birch his wife would be carried off seven times into faeryland!


When contemplating both the Ogham alphabet and the concept of “unity in diversity” that we find in the Resolution, it occurs to me that an alphabet, and especially the Ogham alphabet, is an excellent metaphor for the many also being one. In order for an alphabet to work we need harmony and concord. And yet it is also critical that simultaneously each letter has a strong and distinct personality so that they can be combined in various ways to communicate meaning. This seeming contradiction is integral for an alphabet to function.


When thinking about Welsh culture, again I am confronted with this sense of the many and the one. Wales is a country of three million people, with many more that live overseas. As a country it contains tremendous diversity of culture and at the same time it is possible to discover some unifying qualities. It is beyond the scope of this short talk to really expand on this but I would like to draw your attention to one important underlying context for contemporary Welsh culture.

It is a traumatic part of Welsh history that until fairly recently Welsh people were strong oppressed by their British neighbours and rulers.



To give an example: in a school playground if a child was heard to be speaking Welsh they were made to wear a heavy block of wood around their neck called a ‘Welsh not’. The only way the child could remove the 'Welsh not’ is by overhearing another child speaking Welsh, and then they could make that child wear the 'Welsh not’ instead. This is just one example of the cruelty that

can arise when a colonial power attempts to eradicate culture.

In his essay Liminality and Communitas, the anthropologist Victor Turner explains how “Liminality, marginality, and structural inferiority are conditions in which are frequently generated myths, symbols, rituals, philosophical systems and works of art.” The British historical oppression of Wales has resulted in this kind of liminal or marginalised state for a whole country which ironically has helped to foster a tremendous sense of pride and creativity in Welsh heritage. I cannot generalise for a community of 3 million people but I can say that I have witnessed this Welsh pride many times first hand and one of the ways it is evident is in our appreciation for our Celtic roots.



Just to give a little background for this, Wales is one of six recognised Celtic states along with Ireland, Cornwall, The Isle of Man, Scotland and Brittany, and that perhaps is where the importance of the Ogham stones come in, they are a powerful symbolic link to a past that predated British rule, and indeed connect to a time when the Celtic peoples were finally loose of the yoke of another set of rulers, that of the Romans.


The title of my talk is Community and the Ogham Alphabet. Relating to community I’d like to bring in another idea of Victor Turner’s, that of communitas. Turner’s definition of communitas is self-consciously nebulous, and refers to situations where a community undergoes some kind of transitional or liminal period together in which usual hierarchical norms are loosened temporarily. One example of communitas might be a congress such as this where many people are brought together, and another might be a religious ritual such as those practiced by the Celts. Turner felt that this wide ranging concept of communitas could only be deliniated in relation to structure: that these two were mutually dependent.



Apposite to this he gives the example of Lao-Tse’s chariot wheel - the spokes of the wheel and the nave (the wood that holds the spokes together) would be useless if it wasn’t for the hole or empty space at the centre of the wheel. This empty space Turner compares to communitas, and the rest of the wheel to the structures of community that allow for communitas.


This interplay between periods of both structured and unstructured community seems important to me. Living with other human beings is inherently challenging, and yet amazingly, because of a natural propensity to being in community, we are able to do so. To once again cite Turner: ‘the notion that there is a generic bond between humans, and it’s related “humankindness,” are not epiphenomena of some kind of herd instinct but are products of “humans in their wholeness wholly attending.”’ This appreciation for ‘humans in their wholeness wholly attending’ - a reference to D H Lawrence’s poem Thought - is crucial. It is this sense of integrated awareness that forms the glue that holds an alphabet together, and also I believe is one of the key qualities of humanity that may enable us to come together as one family once again.




Postscript


The first notes of disharmony came during the conference itself when (thankful to still be in the email chain) I received an email to all participants expressing dissent from two of the delegates but with little detail. This was followed up two weeks later with another email which has made me laugh many times. It opened like this:


"OPGC THE BALANCE SHEET ; JM JULY 24TH

POSITIVE

  1. great attendees. wide range of people and interests.

  2. many interesting conversations

  3. kenya fascinating on all sorts of levels.

  4. opened my eyes to an African perspective on plenty

  5. well organised by Nathaniel K

  6. a largely free trip.

NEGATIVE

  1. it is a cult: it smells like one, it quacks like one, it is one

  2. there is a cult leader and a small group(12) of followers

  3. the leader distances himself by choice to provide mystery

  4. the ideology is unclear, hocus pocus even. Nobody, but nobody could fully explain ‘geoversal’ to me

  5. even the symbol/logo is without meaning as far as even the President is concerned."

He continues all the way to 11. at which point he concludes:


“It looked like an expensive recruiting exercise for the Zhang cult. It failed badly which was a pity for all of us who had travelled long distances to be there with high expectations. Your comments?”


This prompted a flurry of emails from the other delegates, mostly agreeing with this sentiment, but also saying how excellent it had been to meet each other despite this. I conclude with an excerpt from one of these emails that I found particularly touching:


“What is really lacking is Africa and allies of Africa failing to shape the narrative and direction of Decolonisation aggressively. Failure to make Africans more knowledgeable. As an African woman I think this is an important moment to build on this congress to rethink how best to reposition Africa in the Global community and centre African contribution to this as equals and partner with those who really understand the value of Africa. What was evident was the thirst of African academics for this opportunity.


l am ready to work with like minded people to build on this opportunity created on our own terms, with clear agenda. I am ready to co-ordinate this initiative if there are like minded people in this group. Anyone here willing to do this with ME? We should not let this opportunity pass, cult or no cult, they created a huge diverse group, and it’s now up to us to regroup and build a more democratic space to be better friends for Africa, and push for transcending colonial relations. create equal relations. What is clear is that Euro-centrism only has failed us, and there is need to rethink what can take us in better direction for the future.”


I continue to read with interest the sporadic emails I receive from the various delegates, they seem like an extremely interesting group and I hope perhaps someday I will meet them under more auspicious circumstances!

© 2018 by Llew Watkins.

Dressing up Bars. Hinterland Shift. Llew Watkins artist website.

Writing, art, sculpture.