Tradition versus modernity

Current Affairs

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 Blood and land, the source of traditional authority and legitimacy, has been replaced by civic ideas of democracy.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.

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