In all sectors of life and all across the continent, Africans are increasingly looking to each other for inspiration rather than trying to imitate the West. Africa is growing in confidence, and the whole world stands to benefit, argues Chika Ezeanya.
What does Eminado mean?” a shy Rwandan teen asked me in Kigali after learning of my Nigerian nationality. My response, as I explained that the term coined by Don Jazzy meant something akin to “good luck charm”, was partially drowned out by the sound of Ugandan Eddy Kenzo’s chart-busting “Sitya Loss”.
This moment may seem inconsequential, but seen in a certain light, it is gloriously reflective of the fact that Africa is on course. Instead of inquiring about Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga or Angelina Jolie, Africans are listening to and watching their own creators. There is a deep, though perhaps yet to be openly articulated, yearning to fathom and ferret out that which belongs to the continent. From the DJ in a Kampala nightclub, the fashion designer in downtown Lagos, the tech-savvy kid on a Kinshasa street, to the politician in Kigali, the idea of African progress is gradually being rooted in a search for inspiration from within, rather than from without.
It was arguably premature to imagine this shift may have occurred earlier, in the times of Bob Marley, when he declared that true liberation for the continent could only come when people were able to emancipate themselves from mental slavery. How could Africans do that in that era when information was harder to come by? How could Africans emancipate themselves from mental slavery with the Cold War being played out across the region, amidst bullets – shot from East and West – piercing the sides of those who dared to search for their real identity?
Today’s Africans live in times of greater possibility. Information is affordable and available at the click of a button, the oppression of the Cold War has been dismantled, and the one-size-fits-all prescriptions from global economic institutions have been widely discredited – in short, Africans are waking up to the folly of repudiating their uniqueness in exchange for someone else’s folly. In a time when more and more African students have access to the hallowed halls of education either physically or digitally, and when Western knowledge has been demystified and shown to be just another variant of knowledge to be respected and studied but not deified, Africans are beginning to understand the shortcomings of trying to perform a wholesale transplant of one culture, model, or reality onto their own.
What is most progressive about this cultural renaissance is that it is not founded on a myth of self-sufficiency or isolationism. Nor is it the emotional clinging to an Afrocentric ideology in defiant reaction to some perceived ganging-up by non-African cultures. Rather, the emerging African renaissance is the result of a quest for growth and fulfilment led by inquisitive minds using whatever means accessible, whether pre-validated by the rest of the world or not. That is why a Nigerian fashion designer will use African print fabric, kente weave and Indian cotton to design a gown that partly resembles the Indian sari and Masai clothing; a Kenyan will invent wifi for the numerous matatus that ply the streets of Nairobi; a Ghanaian will invent a mobile appliance made to measure for rural Ghanaian farmers; and a Nigerian musician will combine country sounds with traditional Nigerian highlife while holding his fans enraptured.
During the Meiji era from 1868 to 1912, when Japan was forced to accept the realities of its stagnation should it continue on the path it was following, the country did not simply put its trust in foreign aid or Western powers, but chose to use its own culture as a foundation from which to borrow ideas from other civilizations in order to pursue advancement. Under the slogan, “Western technique, Japanese spirit,” several transformative agendas were put in place such as boosting support for the Institute for Western Studies, which was mandated to incorporate Western technological processes into Japan’s national identity.
Sub-Saharan Africa today is on a less celebrated, perhaps less structured and less-institutionalised path to its own authentic advancement founded on cultural dignity, but it is on it. In the area of governance, for instance, borrowed Western ideas are being incorporated into traditional governance mechanisms. Rwanda’s use of traditional gacaca courts following the 1994 genocide is illustrative. The practices of the courts were not simply copied from the nation’s past and pasted onto the current day, but modified according to prevailing ideas of justice and incorporated modern technology where useful.
Remembering and growing
The realisation is there, and it should be emphasised, that Africa’s emergence is not a question of either/or – that is, either Western or African knowledge – but both/and. No civilisation can exist or grow in a vacuum. This much is evident from the works of the musician in Dakar who fuses Serer sabar with rhythm and blues, to the policy maker in Kigali whose final output mirrors a bit of the Spanish model with a heavy infusion of traditional governance mechanisms, or the IT kid in Nairobi whose platform is borrowed from Silicon valley but whose newly-developed mobile appliance is in tune with what Kenyans need. Chinua Achebe aptly captures this idea in his commentary on the use of colonial languages to tell Africa’s stories, when he says that the “English language will be able to carry the weight of my African experience. But it will have to be a new English, still in full communion with its ancestral home but altered to suit its new African surroundings.”
Africans in every sector and field are utilising what is globally available to create and promote a new African culture. Marcus Garvey spoke such wisdom years ago, when he said that “a people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots”. Similarly, Africa’s decades of stunted growth can be partly explained by Frantz Fanon’s statement that the “poverty of the people, national oppression and the inhibition of culture are one and the same thing.”
Africans were consumers of what they did not produce whether in food, music, clothing, ideas, knowledge, science and technology. But that is changing, and rapidly, too. Disillusionment is growing with the notion that Western cultures are the sole harbingers of advancement. The failures of the IMF and World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programmes have come to wide attention. And Africans see the senseless killing of their brothers in the US and across the globe and increasingly question the moral values of their development donors. The response is an inward growth, albeit one that does not deny global realities.
Still lacking in this African project, however, is an institutionalisation of this budding awareness and cultural growth. Africa’s formal education is lagging behind in identifying and mainstreaming the continent’s own knowledge. For the most part, Africa’s curriculum appears to be stuck in the past, still beholden to its Western roots. There is therefore, an urgent and crucial need to create research and development based on indigenous knowledge.
Should Africans continue to expand within the reaches of their own knowledge, scale it up and utilise it to break down frontiers which no other knowledge can reach, the result will be the delivery of solutions to several of the continent’s and world’s challenges, challenges which Western knowledge, vast and well developed as it is, has so far been unable to solve. In that sense, it is not just Africans, but the whole world, that is waiting for the real Africa to fully arise.