Some argue that an issue holding back African development is low levels of trust. Events in the aftermath of the recent World Festival of Black Arts, FESMAN III, held in Senegal, are a case in point.
In his book, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, Francis Fukuyama argues a link between success rates and the degrees of trust that exist within a society. Chinese communities around the world successfully conduct long-distance trade with little money changing hands, based on their word being their bond.
Such high-trust societies are able to exist because there are powerful social forces and codes that police behaviour. In other words, consequences are severe and sometimes people – as in Japan – would rather commit suicide once they have shamed themselves or fallen below a certain level of acceptable behaviour.
Some have argued that the single most important issue holding back African development is the low levels of trust and solidarity networks of trust that exist and the lack of shame or consequence that results when trust is breached. This lack of trust, they say, is particularly acute when you consider the relations between Africans on the continent and those in the Diaspora.
Although there is overexaggeration here, there is also a grain of truth. However, I would link the lack of trust issue to two other issues: low self-esteem and overcompensation, as the recent case of FESMAN III clearly dramatises.
FESMAN (the World Festival of Black Arts) was set up in 1966 in Dakar by Senegal’s first president, Léopold Senghor, to bring together artists, intellectuals and others, to celebrate and rebirth African civilisation on a grand scale. For years, no African country was able to afford to stage it until December 2010, when Senegal staged FESMAN III.
From reports, it was a wonderful festival that brought together artists, musicians and intellectuals to deliberate where Africa will be in the 21st century. It staged an important art exhibition, which appealed to artists from around the world, many of whom flew into Dakar to participate. Among them were UK-based leading artists Yinka Shonibare, Sokari Douglas-Camp and Zak Ove, who sent their art to Senegal for the 2-month exhibition. However, a year later their work has still not been returned. It turns out the shipping company who collected the art from around the world and sent it to Dakar is still owed £500,000 by FESMAN III (and the Senegalese Government). They won’t release the art until they are paid. Senegal, it turns out, could not really afford the festival.
Meanwhile, the artists, whose works are worth several millions, are fighting to have them returned. It is the source of their livelihood – and some are now in breach of secondary contracts to other galleries which the art should have gone to. Many are so disgusted by the behaviour of FESMAN that they have vowed never to participate in other pan-African festivals. The breach of trust is final, as is the lack of shame of the Senegalese government.
Ghanaian novelist Ayi Kwei Armah probed the underlying issues, in a brilliant essay, “The Festival Syndrome”, written back in 1985, about the failed plans (again to due money problems) to hold FESMAN III back then. He blasted the tendency towards the grandiose and posturing, and suggested it was an over-compensation for the lack of a proper cultural policy at the grassroots. The fundamentals have not been sorted out – where are the African cinemas or film distribution networks, the publishers or book stores, the art galleries, the drama theatres? Why do so many of the artists leave for the West? Instead, we indulge these grand gestures that we can’t afford.
Kwei Armah likened the big festival syndrome to different kinds of rain. You have the sudden or spectacular deluge with lots of thunder and torrents, washing away the scarce topsoil, and doing enormous damage by deepening existing galleys, making planting even harder. He calls instead for the “medupe” rain which “falls in fine, tiny drops, just a drizzle, sometimes, but falling steadily for hours on end, sometimes for days without interruption. That kind of rain makes things grow.”
Our leaders should live within our means and stop shaming themselves, and us, in the global village square.