The arts are viewed as the outstanding conveyor of cultural beliefs, practices, attitudes, values, morals, goals and customs shared by a society. Amandine Ndikumasabo considers how can we use them to heal and bring societies together.
In all societies all over the world, culture is the prevailing human-based feature explaining people’s lives and behaviour. Culture, being a distinctive feature among communities, is also considered a strong unifying power among the people of Africa and other parts of the world.
Culture is seen in people’s arts, expressed through their language (in oral or written forms, symbols, etc.), religion, music, clothes, cooking, and in what they do. Whereas genetics are passed on by heredity, a culture is passed on to the next generation by learning.
The arts are viewed as the outstanding conveyor of cultural beliefs, practices, attitudes, values, morals, goals and customs shared by a society with the same culture. Arts constitute the expression of human creative skills and imagination, helping artists to express themselves to themselves, to their peers and communities around the continent and beyond.
How can the arts heal and bring cultures together? Arts play an enabling role through performances at festivals, games, sports and dances that bring together performers from different communities and societies.
African culture is embedded in strong moral considerations. It has a system of various beliefs and customs which every individual is expected to adhere to in order to live long and to avoid bringing curses on themselves and others.
Adultery, stealing and other forms of immoral behaviour are strongly discouraged. The proverbs warn the African against evil conduct, and that is the major source of African wisdom and a valuable part of African heritage. African culture has a moral code that forbids doing harm to a relative, a kinsman, an in-law, a foreigner or a stranger, rather than supporting them and wishing them well. In different cultural backgrounds, proverbs advocate for unity and collaboration.
For example, in Kinyarwanda: Inshuti uyikura ku nzira / “from the journey you gain a friend”, and in Kiswahili: Asiye fundishwa na wazazi hufundishwa na dunia / “He who does not learn from parents is taught by the world”; Jirani ndiye kizazi / “A neighbour is a true relative”, etc. Performances and different artistic products are used to emphasise those messages, and emphasise unity rather than separatism.
Religion in African societies seems to be the centre around which everything gravitates; therefore, religious values are respected by most of the people.
African traditional religion possesses the concept of a Supreme Being which is invisible. It believes in the existence of the human soul and the soul does not die with the body. African traditional religion believes that good and bad spirits do exist and that these spirits are what make communication with the Supreme Being possible. African religious values are unveiled in the traditional practices and in songs, literatures and other artistic contents that call for peace, unity, and request worshippers to always do good to live well and be a candidate for eternal life.
Sorcerers and diviners are seen as mediating between God and man and interpreting God’s wishes to the mortal. Religious practices are carried in assemblies led by diviners with, in some societies, the chief or king representing the Supreme Being. Religion is also seen as a unifying force.
In the traditional African society, the political hierarchy begins with the family, and each family has a head and each village has a village head. From these, we have clan heads and above the clan head, there is the supreme ruler.
To these are added government and kingdom political structures. It is commonly believed that disloyalty to a leader is also disloyalty to the nation or kingdom. It is the traditional values that a people hold which make them accord respect to their political institutions and leaders, unite them and make them resilient.
African political values stress nationalism, patriotism and heroism which can be demonstrated through sacrificing one’s life to protect the sovereignty of the nation and one’s tribe.
In Rwanda, for example, the Itorero ry’Igihugu (Rwanda Itorero Commission) is a socio-political institution nurturing bravery and social norms to all levels (from the younger to the older), where people are taught to be brave and always dwell on unity.
Sayings like: Abadashyize hamwe barazima / “Unity is the essence of survival and resilience”, and the commonly known saying: Wanga kumenera igihugu amaraso imbwa zikayanywera ubusa / “If you do not shed blood for your country, you will shed it to dogs in vain”, clearly show that all people should value the nation most, and in any case be ready to defend it.
Cultural icons play a great role in internalising the significance of political values in society members, especially the youth.
Economic values in the African society are marked by cooperation to develop together. The traditional economy, which is mainly based on farming and fishing, is co-operative in nature.
In Rwanda, for instance, friends and relatives would come together and assist in doing farm work not because they would be paid but so that in the near future, the need would be reciprocated. Ubudehe refers to the synergetic nature that makes two or more individuals pool their resources together and uplift each other economically.
They even cooperate in building houses for each other, giving cows to each other to combat malnutrition or raise family income, and so on. When any of them is in difficulty, all members rally around and helped him or her. Some sayings illustrate this: Abishyize hamwe nta kibananira / “Unity is strength”, or Abajya inama Imana irabasanga / “God helps those who help themselves”.
Though there is much good embedded in the African culture, African societies that have lost their traditional values have long been characterised by sporadic conflicts, wars, terror acts, sexual harassment and abuses, early marriages, genital mutilation, genocide and other crimes against humanity, and more recently human trafficking. All those crimes and malpractices leave behind wounds that not only destroy individual lives but also leave people with no hope for the future.
Healing through art
Artistic products and contents play an important role in the process of identifying and fighting crimes, providing healing to the victims and others, as they make space for deeper self-understanding.
Art knows no boundaries and is an intercultural and inter-generational communication tool. Audrey Azoulay, Director General of UNESCO, remarked that art can “bring us together; it inspires and soothes; and culture makes us resilient, it gives us hope and reminds us that we are not alone”.
Along the same lines, Larissa Murenzi, a young Rwandan lady who was raped by her aunt’s husband when she was between four and seven years old, noted: “I experienced a nightmare during my childhood. I tried to speak it out to my family but no one could believe it. That experience ruined my life. I lived traumatised, hating myself and always trying to kill myself.
“Later on, when at university, I wrote a book which I still have as a manuscript, pending the means to publish it. I managed to work out seven video episodes on my testimony and shared them via YouTube and other social media. From then on, I started my healing journey. I spoke out at TV and radio talk shows, also in papers. Today, I feel resuscitated and I am helping people who went through similar trauma.”
With this testimony, we see the arts contributing in healing and bringing cultures together. It is mirrored in the intercultural African motto: “I am because you are” and not “I am because I am”.
It is now the turn of African youth to do more and engage in using the arts to promote messages that help heal societies and bring cultures together, to address the challenges and problems facing the continent and find solutions.
Read more from our special report African Youth Speaks.