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Deconstructing Culture in Africa


by Wangui wa Goro



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.


Amnesia and Denial


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 production.

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 underwear.


What happens in the name of culture?


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.


Occasionally, 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.


Elsewhere for 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.


African Cultural 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 facilitate it.


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.


Elsewhere, culture 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.


But language, 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.


Culture is 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 done.


Our attitudes 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


Measuring the 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 we are.


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 democratic norms.


Pan-African Global Heritage


The contribution 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.

Appreciating other 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.


Our legislators 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 of.



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,   (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

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