Culture in Africa
by Wangui wa
It is easy to
forget that culture is ever evolving and we are what we are today. Some may want
to hark back to a specific historical model of culture in the eighteenth or
nineteenth century or some other period which appeals to their desires. Some may
have profound knowledge of their desired historical culture, while others may
just be armed with nostalgia which they acquired through a variety of ways.
Neither is invalid, nor undesirable.
Recently, in an
imaginary African country, some people in their mid forties and fifties have
taken to occasionally donning an animal skin to show their ‘elder’ status. Some
are probably four wheel driving drunkards, rapists, thieves or murderers living
in secluded areas of the city in gated properties with little or no connection
with their rural communities.
Others are steeped
in religious or cultural sentimentality acquired dubiously for social mobility,
acceptability or political or economic expediency. This is then promoted as “our
way of life”, as if culture cannot be contested, as if the values of tradition
and modernity cannot be put to the test to scrutinise who they serve; for what
purpose and to which ends.
Most worryingly, is
the fixing of tradition as something staid that will never change and which
condemns the majority into servitude or slavery. For me, culture should answer
the question whether it can promote and deliver democracy, equality and social
justice for the majority. A pro-people culture would bode well for peace,
justice and democracy in Africa; a culture that would enable a re-engagement
with the self that has been lacking - a re-engagement with our neighbours and
the world in ways that are powerful and which would yield tremendous wealth,
enjoyment, creativity, learning and exchange.
Instead, on the
whole, we have been living with our heads in the sand like the ostrich. But the
ostrich compensates for this behaviour in that it can run, and run very fast
when it needs to. What has struck me as absurd is a wilful forgetfulness of what
has happened to Africa in the recent and not so recent past such as the colonial
era and its aftermath. We have forgotten our heroes and role models.
In Kenya for
instance, years after independence, the question of freedom fighters sits
uneasily with the nation as does its colonial and post colonial history.
Practices which women and men have fought against such as female genital
mutilation, and entrenched views about women’s roles in society, are yet again
up for contestation. Coming from a former settler colony and having visited
several countries such as South Africa and Zimbabwe, I am struck by how
patriarchal and colonial our cultures still remain, from our means of
production, our means of consumption and our participation in the
All of these are
directed as they are at somebody else rather than ourselves.In another example
in Kenya people have been forced to wear used underwear from second hand stocks
in Europe! What happened to the thriving textile industry? It has been decimated
by cheap second hand used imports and Kenyans are wrongly forced to wear used
What happens in the name
In most African
countries and in the Diaspora, owing to the lack of attention paid to this
significant field of African culture much is done quietly on the cultural scene
through the efforts and sacrifice that individuals and small groups make. This
is true of most art forms which are produced in private and painstaking ways,
with little public support.
interested private or foreign investors such as the British Council, the French
Cultural Centre or the Goethe Institute (who see their linkages with Africa and
promotion of African culture as integral to promoting their own cultures) enable
us to catch a glimpse of what is possible! The gesture is not reciprocated!
Imagine, African cultural institutes sponsored by African governments in every
key capital of the world!
Here, in London,
where you would expect to find thriving cultural institutions displaying the
long links between Africa and the UK, you will be hard pressed if you can point
to one. The only institution which is supposed to broadly represent Africans
which has existed for a while, is one you will want to run a mile from. It is
currently shamefully closed and dilapidated after several years of struggling to
survive. Although it has played an important role in democratic struggles for
Africans on the continent and in the Diaspora, its governance remains shrouded
in mystery and secrecy and many people have gradually been put off from going
there as they do not wish their culture to be promoted in this impoverished way.
It sits there, right in the heart of the thriving Covent Garden, 200 yards from
the UK’s prestigious multimillion Opera House. This sorry state of affairs is a
travesty, to both British and African Heritage. It is a general measure of how
we see ourselves at home and abroad and how we want to promote ourselves. It is
also a measure of how we are seen by others, alienated. Changing this perception
may be the way to that much-vaunted renaissance.
instance in fashion, Ghana, Senegal and Nigeria continue to impress with a sense
of dress all their own, and what is even more refreshing is that it is not for
tourist appeal. Yet what is worrying for even these thriving economies,
heritages and creativity, is their reliance on Brick Lane or Switzerland for
lace and for designs (sold as African) but produced in India or somewhere
further away, thus creating jobs for others elsewhere.
This is all well
and good for south-south or any other collaboration. However, the question of
how the relationships are defined, the moral, social, cultural and economic cost
for Africa and the loss of the possibilities to replenish creativity is one we
must be concerned about. As they say, practice makes perfect and we have been
forever perfecting everybody else’s things which are then directed at us for
consumption whether we like it or not. There is a subtle and not so subtle
disparaging of anything home grown that does not pander to somebody else’s
appeal or taste.
What is Kenyan? Is
it the donning of animal skins and harking back to some golden era in the 19th
Century before the Europeans came? And whom is this supposed to appeal to?
What is popularised
and cheap is the man-eat-man culture of the bourgeoisie, both Western and
African which is often crude and vulgar as it is dependent on making a mockery
of the dignity of majority of the people and allowing them to forget that what
is theirs is being siphoned off slowly and sold back to them repackaged
(cheaply) at ten times the price. The mass media, often Hollywood oriented,
continues to dominate the nations’ outlooks on themselves and it is rarely kind
about who Africans are, or what our aspirations are.
Production and Alienation
But what is the
real lived experience of cultural production in Africa? I work as a translator
and challenge anyone reading this article, to name me ten African literary
translators and the titles of their books. You will be hard pressed. This
phenomenon is replicated across all cultural production, with perhaps the
exception of music by the greats - Baaba Maal, Angelique Kidjo, Hugh Masekela,
Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba and others. Ask any African which 10 books by an
African writer they have read outside academia, or who our ten leading painters,
sculptors or film makers are and you will be faced with blank faces. I learnt
this the hard way, through being a member of the jury of Africa’s 100 best
books. The majority of the books that came through the list were
foreign-published and in European languages. They were written mainly for
academic purposes and for adult consumption.
Port Louis and the Ideals
of the Cultural Charter for Africa
Such moments make
you realise that, as Africans, just how alienated from ourselves we are. This
alienation makes one wonder what happened to the OAU’s Charter on Culture and
the mandates, aspirations and ideals that brought independence to Africa.
The OAU had made a
brave attempt in 1976 in St Louis in Mauritius to define a vision for an African
Cultural Policy. The ideals then articulated still remain relevant today and it
is pleasing that this debate is set to continue in Addis Ababa, and better still
that we might live to implement it. For culture must belong to people and their
governments, as government departments will not themselves produce culture, but
My hope is for the
debate on national and regional policies to be a continuous one and the lessons
that have been learned from festivals, exhibitions, competitions, creativity and
interactions across the continent and the globe to be shared more widely.
Wonderful initiatives and models exist but only linking them and the wider
populace will make a difference. Engaging in the debate of what democratic
culture is and what it can become and its links to schooling, arts, sport,
entertainment, heritage, leisure and general socio-economic and political
production in every arena, is crucial. It should engage the practitioners and
policy makers but most of all, it should engage the consumers.
Arts, culture and
heritage are seen as a luxury, as a world apart from the real. They are not seen
as the pulse which can feed blood into the arteries of justice, peace, democracy
and development. Talent and achievement can be nourished and nurtured through
state support for arts, heritage and culture in meaningful ways. Young and old
people should be allowed to discover their heritage, and here, I recall the work
of a wonderful scholar George Senega Zake who spent most of his lifetime trying
to retrieve the dying musical art forms of East Africa as well as educate new
generations to appreciate their heritage through music. Like him, we should
become not only curators and archaeologists, but take up our responsibility to
make the past a thriving part of the present and the future.
It seems that the
task of excavating must go hand in hand with the task of creating new and
vibrant cultural industries which are pro people: sustainable and economically
viable. Projects which engage the majority and contribute to national
development and democracy, hold up a mirror to society, allowing us to see a
true picture of ourselves. Instead, we have exiled, jailed, tortured and killed
our artists by smashing the mirror into thousands of fragments because we do not
like what we see. The freedom to culture is an important arm of the freedom of
expression. It is a fundamental human right.
is what makes the humanity pulsate. One of the things about Britain is the
amount of thriving traditional and global cultures represented there. They do
not threaten what the nation thinks of its own heritage. I am thinking here of
the museums on slavery and colonialism in Liverpool and Bristol which tell
unflinchingly (although sparsely) about those chapters of British history! Such
institutions have come out of people’s struggles for these spaces, and so their
story is told, and in that way, the story of Britain is holistically present. In
similar ways, Africans must continue to strive for their ways of life, past and
present, to not to be deleted off the page.
I do not ask for
much as we look forward to the outcomes of the AU conference on culture in Addis
Ababa. I hope that the conference yields deliverable outcomes that will engage
the minds of the young and the old through modern and traditional means, through
technology, through information, communication and through travel. We have a
right to ask for as much as we wish, but equally, we must be willing to play our
part in bringing it into fruition.
A first step in
acknowledging our heritage is through its most important medium, our languages,
whether, visual, oral, physical or musical. The AU has taken the bold step of
adopting Kiswahili as the all African lingua franca.
whether the mother tongue or nation tongue or neighbour tongue, must be a
democratic tongue that allows people to express their aspirations and imaginings
without demeaning others. What is important, is that these languages enable us
to confidently excavate the past as well as yield new possibilities for today
and tomorrow. For what then are we wearing borrowed clothing?
Culture is about
dignity and self worth. It is about knowledge and confidence in knowing the
good, the bad and the ugly. In Africa, as elsewhere, culture emerges through our
understanding of this soil, its fauna and flora, through its numerous waters and
skies, through unfurling the secrets that it harbours through our ancestors, and
through us and our dreams for the future.
universally compelling in its call to a moral duty which can engage every human
being. It is a fundamental human right and a very fulfilling one. Hear the
songs, watch those films, go to those bookshops and readings. Go to those
museums, produce those crafts, participate in the production of art, consume it
or produce it. Marvel at how rich our heritages are. Marvel at the artefacts
that were looted and are stashed in vaults across the world. Feel the desire to
demand their retrieval, or share in the secrets which only a dying few can
decipher. Engage them with trips to this heritage sites of looting, physically
or through technology. Touch these totems. Let the totems or replicas be
restored and returned. There is so much that we can do and that must be
towards education are as important as the paramount questions of justice and
equality. In our own case, the question of restorative justice is one which we
must pay close attention to so that the ghosts of those genocides, holocausts,
dictatorships and theft do not visit us again. What upholds our dignity and our
humanity today has to be central. It cannot be a case of “this is how our
ancestors did it so we must do it in the same way” if this means violating
women’s rights, children’s rights, the rights of one ethnicity or the
privileging of one section of society over another. It should uplift us all into
valuing each other for what we are and for what we can become.
African Renaissance is a perilous task. When people go without food and die
unnecessarily of curable diseases; when children have no access to clean water
and basic education, then we have cause to ask ourselves who and what this
renaissance is intended for. Unless we can meet the fundamental needs of the
majority of African people, words like Renaissance (rebirth) in the face of
death for many, sound like a mockery.
Yet without being
cynical, there are many promising initiatives such as the journal Kwani, the Paa
ya Paa gallery in Kenya, Xarra, the only black bookshop in South Africa, the
various Africa wide, book, cultural, music, film and theatre festivals and many
other events that are good examples of initiatives trying to place a different
kind of culture on the map.
For me, these
institutions/events represent different ways to culture, and even then, I ask
Kwani and Xarra: where are those African language narratives? What medium is
best to disseminate these? Nollywood may hold an answer but even so, where are
those technicians and publishers, like the Henry Chakavas, the Aseneth Odagas,
the Aminatta Sow Falls, the Ayebia Clarkes and Kassahun Checoles who are brave
to risk a different kind of economy by publishing Africa? Where are those film
makers who are willing to bring the oral traditions on to our screens without
apology while making films that feed contemporary culture and document our
heritage? Where are those musicians and painters and sculptors? Where are the
beautiful ones? The reception and funding of their work, and how governments,
citizens and policy makers engage with them, will tell you even more about who
The continuity of
African Centred initiatives promise a re-awakening breed, a different breed
trying to nurture out of the postcolonial vacuum, the kind of vision that Port
Louis began as initiatives such as FESPACO and FESTAC. This vacuum was
interrupted by the abyss of repressive regimes and apartheid on the continent.
And although it is always easy to blame somebody else, those years were a
product of global culture which was vehemently anti-African. Our governments
aided and abetted the denigration of African humanity. The perilous work and
courage of cultural activists was key to restoring some sense of normality to
Africa today. So our task is to support these initiatives as a part of
and role that the traditional and new diasporic communities have played in
contributing to continuity in the face of that vacuum cannot be underestimated
in the economic and cultural value they have continued to offer. That is why we
must embrace our multicultural global heritage instead of being myopic and
ethnocentred. We must enjoy wider global Pan African heritage. In this way,
everyone stands to gain, through sharing of skills, through trade, through
promoting excellence, through dialogue, through linking the various trajectories
of culture in their new locations whether on the continent or beyond.
But further, we
must see our African culture as part of a thriving global heritage. Living
internationally as I do, I have been privileged to dip into the numerous
cultures of Africa, Asia, North or South America, Europe, Australia, the
Atlantic, the Pacific and from the African Ocean and their collaborations. I
readily eat my fufu, aloco, ‘chapoo’, couscous, tchiabu jdian, mukimo, attieke
and rice and peas as if I have done so all my life.
cultures makes you appreciate what belongs to you and also allows you to enjoy
the wealth and beauty of the human heritage of which we are a part. Global
democratic culture should be encouraged as a wealth, as it gives new
perspectives on others and on the self, but it should be done on terms which
edify, not denigrate.
must create a platform for our heritage for which they can be remembered. Our
governments must contribute to it, embrace it and run with it. Most importantly,
the everyday practitioners and artists have a moral obligation to safeguard,
nurture and defend our cultural heritage for peace, justice and development as
they have always done. For without them, there can be no culture to speak
Kenyan, Wangui wa
Goro is a public intellectual,
academic, writer, translator, and cultural promoter. She is currently the
director of Amber Cultural Productions as well as the president of the African
literary translators and subtitlers association (ALTRAS) and (TRACLA)
Translations Caucus of the African Literature Association (ALA). This
essay is herein reprinted with the author's permission.
This essay was
originally published by Pambazuka News. Pambazuka
News is the weekly electronic forum for social justice in Africa,
www.pambazuka.org (Pambazuka means arise
or awaken in Kiswahili) it is a tool for progressive social change in Africa.
Pambazuka News is produced by Fahamu, an organization that uses information and
communication technologies to serve the needs of organizations and social
movements that aspire to progressive social change.
Posted December 08, 2006