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Tradition versus modernity

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Tradition versus modernity

Visiting a museum in Auckland, New Zealand, a colleague and I were impressed by a battle-ready Maori warrior, showing his martial prowess whilst doing the Hakka. 

The display was suitably intimidating. My colleague got carried away and began to over-exaggerate its efficacy, claiming a warrior could dispose of their enemies in seconds. I reminded her that the weapons had proved ineffective against European firearms, and this was the most likely explanation why the warrior was now on display in a museum, and not on the battlefield.

This tendency to romanticise the past is understandable, but it is worrying too. Traditions provide coherence and a safe place from the daily assaults of white supremacy. When faced with such Eurocentrism, it is easy to default into the alternate Afrocentric space and valorise many of our traditions and the structures that preserve them. But this means that a proper and critical accounting of the past is rarely undertaken, to sift out what is useful. The Hakka is now an important symbolic ritual that New Zealand’s rugby team performs ahead of a sporting confrontation. It is no longer a strategy for modern warfare. 

Today, African countries are largely multinational, multi-ethnic and multi-religious colonial constructs built on European ideas of the modern state. Blood and land, the source of traditional authority and legitimacy, has been replaced by civic ideas of democracy. But there remains enormous confusion about what to do with traditional leadership. 

Two recent crises have exposed this confusion. In South Africa, the Zulu King’s xenophobic comments were acted on by some of his subjects, while during the recent Nigerian elections, the Oba of Lagos, demanded that Nigerian “foreigners” to his ancestral land, should not vote according to their conscience but follow his direction as King of Lagos. Those who occupy the traditional space find it difficult coming to terms with the fluid identities and fragmented authority in the modern African state.  This contrasts with the eternal culture and values that they see themselves as the custodians of. As the bridge to the past, they see these “African” values not as traditional and conservative, but as progressive when contrasted with the imperialist-imposed present. However, recent African history, presents a powerful paradox – in reality traditional centres of power have frequently been, not the enemies of the imperialists, but their handmaidens. 

Colonisation destroyed the power of traditional kingdoms – except for Ethiopia. Having lost power, most traditional spaces lost vitality, instead they became decorative, ritualised, re-enactments of old, lost battles. They maintained their authority through their collaboration with the indirect system of colonial rule.

Many would send young people from their communities to be educated in the new locus of power.  A breach would develop between this educated generation who understood the source of western power and quickly adopted the self-same tools to challenge the colonial authorities and as part of a modernisation project. Many of this independence generation saw the old structures as backward, parochial and fearful, their power threatened by the evolving common open African civic space. The traditional space would collude with the departing imperialists to slow down the drive to independence.

Traditional structures provide meaning and an anchor in a rapidly changing world to many. How do we in turn anchor them in the evolving common African spaces that we are trying to create? In Nigeria, one of Goodluck Jonathan’s last acts was appointing traditional rulers as university chancellors. Perhaps it could be his tongue-in-cheek attempt to modernise these institutions.

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Written by Onyekachi Wambu

Onyekachi was educated at the University of Essex and completed his M.Phil in International Relations at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He worked extensively as a journalist and television documentary. He edited The Voice Newspaper at the end of the 1980s and has made documentaries and programmes for the BBC, Channel 4 and PBS.

  • Japhet Mwaya

    Thank you, Onyekachi, for your mind blowing article! Actually what you call modernity is nothing but western tradition. The problem is superiority of Western tradition over African tradition. We need to reverse the trend. We need to value our traditions. There is no such a thing as modernity, only western tradition. If we value our traditions, they will also be modern.

  • Jahrateng Skabelli

    Strictly speaking “modern” means today; belonging to the present-the contemporary period. Therefore; a Zulu King or Lagos Oba are as modern as the queen of Ingland. These modern royal figures are political animals and can thus manipulate, incite and pervert matters to entrench themselves or expand their power. This is a universal political behaviour across space & time. It is not peculiar to (African) “traditional” leadership-whatever that means!

    It is therefore almost surreal; definitely bizarre, that we Africans still have this confusion roiling in our minds. This is thanks to our Eurocentric socialization via an education that makes us believe our history began when the Portuguese came sniffing around (for easy profits from African civilizations whose gentle manners, they quickly saw as low-hanging fruit). So now we were just primitive, helpless beings so we still invariably imagine that modernity is one and the same with white culture.

    Even a notion as commonly spewed by all & sundry as “development” is synonymous with western socio-political and economic arrangements. Modernity & development is for all practical purposes being white in thought, deed and even looks (Black people worldwide are still buying cancerous, insidious, skin-whitening rubbish and Indian hair from funeral ritual shavings or hair harvests of kidnapped poor Indians). Only a proper education can get us out of this grotesque, debilitating and insidious conception.

    Even after the current Global Financial Crisis (GFC) and our observation in real time of Greece’s default, we are still unable to fashion alternatives to a system that is designed from go to ensure that Africa remains merely a quarry, fishing ground, logging post, dumping site, pleasure site, laboratory for dangerous ideas and experiments, a source of cheap labour (increasingly unnecessary with the robotic revolution unfolding exponentially) and an easy, profitable market. This is the real modernity that most Africans witness and experience but we still imagine we are improving in a linear fashion across time-a thoroughly white fantasy.

    Of course, such a scenario of modernity cannot materialize without African associates and here, to accuse “traditionalist” leaders of being collaborators of the colonial system that we ostensibly broke is rich hypocrisy indeed.

    Even a child knows that many of our most (Western) educated leaders in politics, business, science, religion etc have been as venal and opportunistic as those of our weak-minded ancestors who sold out. Let us however recall that many past and present leaders have fought for the rights of Africans to enjoy a life of dignity. Such ancestors with integrity of steel must be spoken about and taught to our children.

    In sum then, the issue is justice and freedom in modern times; which will lead to peace and prosperity for Africans. Cheik Anta Diop has said that connecting our history to ancient Kemet (Egypt) will provide Africa the proper avenue to develop our humanities (history, philosophy, economics etc). We will then cease this endless spineless confusion and obsequious dependency to the western academy which OWES EVERYTHING TO BLACK AFRICA anyway! This is not a fanciful hyperbolic assertion. Our children must know these facts.
    We live in a seriously pathological mental and spiritual place, we Africans. Is it any wonder that many have fallen prey to the idea that mere prayers to slaver- colonial sky gods from the Eastern deserts and the Northern/Western cold climes will brings into abundance (virgins/milk/honey forever) after this existence of suffering? This is childish. The solutions are known. We must clean ourselves up.

  • dunique192

    I would have to agree with Japhet. When Africa is spoken of as developing or becoming modern it means it is becoming more western and I find that problematic. I believe real modernity in Africa is the implementation of new, creative ideas that seek to capitalise on our own culture and traditions. I agree with you Mr Wambu, we do need to be a bit more objective when looking at our traditions and cultures and be willing to disregard things that do not benefit us. We should cultivate the creativity within ourselves to help our land and take ideas from cultures all over the world and not just the west.

    Being more western doesn’t necessarily equate to being better and I think this is something Africans should understand. We need more critical thinkers in leadership who can understand how to move the continent forward without feeling the need to compete with the west, this is counterproductive. We need to do what is best for the continent not what is fashionable.

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