Culture is at the beginning and the end of development
(Léopold Sédar Senghor)
Published on 9 March 2012
In every society, culturally unique ways of thinking about the world unite people in their behaviour and the ideologies they hold. In anthropology, culture is used to refer to the patterns of behaviour and thinking that people living in social groups create, learn and share. It includes a society’s arts, beliefs, customs, institutions inventions, languages, technology and values. Culture distinguishes one human group from others. Global culture developed together with the evolution of the human species. As such, human beings form an indispensable core of every culture and society.
Pan-Africanism is a philosophy based on a belief that African people share common bonds and objectives and that advocates unity to achieve these objectives. This philosophy is applicable to all black African people, of black African descent and to all people of the African continent including non-black people. One of such ‘common bonds’ is the rich and diverse African culture which when exploited effectively can bring about solidarity among African people and can be a potent tool for development.
When Africa is regarded as part of the cultural and political history of the African Diaspora, it is usually recognized only as an origin – as a ‘past’ to the African-American ‘present’, as a source of ‘survival’ in the Americas, as the ‘roots’ of African-American branches and leaves. In truth, the cultures of both Africa and the Americas have shaped each other through a live dialogue that continues beyond the end of the slave trade.
Since the 18th Century, enslaved or free black seamen have woven a living web of links among the most diverse points around the Atlantic perimeter, transporting ideas, practices and people between Diaspora and homeland. Black seamen were especially cosmopolitan in their reflections on the black experience, which they freely spread among Providence, New York, Charleston, New Orleans, Havana, Kingston, Port-au-Prince, Rio de Janeiro, Cape-Town and London. In the case of Afro-Atlantic music, much of the shared vocabulary of Afro-Atlantic dance is a shared ancestral legacy.
However, some African dance performance, such as Bumba-Meu-Boi, were introduced to the Gulf of Benin coast by Afro-Brazilian returnees and some Brazilian dance performances, such as that of the Egungun masquerade are said to have been introduced to brazil by free immigrants from West Africa and although contemporary African-American residents of South Africa are sometimes resented as interlopers, black South-African education, politics and culture generally are deeply influenced by black North-American models that were warmly embraced from the 1890’s to the 1920s. Afrikaans (also known as Cape Dutch), one of the 11 official languages of South Africa, was principally derived from the Zuid-Holland dialect of the mid-17th Century Dutch settlers of South Africa. It gained loanwords from English, French, German (through settlers) and other African languages.
Cultural platforms, such as Panafest, have also helped in transporting a number of national dance and music traditions across the Atlantic. African-American visits to the coastal slave forts have, in recent decades, become an increasingly important dimension of tourism in West-African countries like Ghana. For African-American tourists, filmmakers, tour guides and other ‘culture brokers’, Ghana’s Elmina’s Castle , to give one example, is a sombre place – ‘sacred ground not to be desecrated.’ Ghanaians, however, have a much more complex relationship with the fort that extends beyond its uses as a slave market. Hence, Ghanaian visitors, merchants and government officials envisage a redeveloped as a festive place to showcase the cultural and historical bonds that unite African peoples and their ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ of the Diaspora.
Free Africans who immigrated to the Americas have also deeply influenced African-American popular culture. African immigrants to the United States have been leaders in the articulation of Pan-African identity over the past few decades including black leaders like Rev. Jesse Jackson, martin Luther King, Andrew Young, Barack Obama, Kofi Annan, Mr. Bernard Ribeiro (the 1st African to be elected president of the Royal College of Surgeons in England), Sangu Delle (currently the Executive President and Co-Founder of Africa Development Initiative and once an 18-yr old Ghanaian at the Peddie School who was, a few years back honoured for worldwide leadership by Time Magazine). These Africans are leaders in their own respective fields and have helped in the development of their societies as a result of cross-cultural associations and are serving as role models for African people.
Because of the adaptive nature of culture, people are able to flexible and quickly adjust to changes in the world around them and this helps in the development of societies and the nations the world over. Rapid changes in technology in the last several decades have changed the nature of culture. People in the world can make economic transactions and communicate with each other almost instantaneously via the Internet and satellite communications. Trade, travel and communications take place at a much faster rate today than in times past, but contemporary interactions emerged directly out of cross-cultural contacts and exchanges with deep historical roots.
However, the successes of culture can create problems in the long run. Over the last 200 years, people have begun to use large quantities of natural resources and energy to produce great amounts of material and chemical waste. The global population now consumes crucial natural resources such as petroleum, timber and mineral ores faster than nature can produce them. Many scientists believe and have proved that in the process of burning fossil fuels and producing waste, people may be altering the global climate in unpredictable and possibly harmful ways. Thus, the adaptive success of present-day global culture of production may be temporary.
In recent years it has become apparent that dominant societies can also shape and influence the culture of less powerful societies, a process some researchers have termed cultural hegemony. Today, many anthropologists, openly efforts by dominant world powers such as the United States government and large corporations to make unique, small societies adopt Western commercial culture. This has been manifested in the negative practices of multinationals in many underdeveloped nations like Nigeria (characterised by the Exxon Mobil Oil Spillage), Ghana and Kenya. Among the negative aspects of this so-called cultural hegemony are the rapid spread of diseases (such as the recent bird and swine flu), illicit drug trade, internet crime, advanced fee fraud, terrorism and uncontrolled migration which thwart development efforts in many countries. Culture, must benefit people, at least in the short run, in order for it to transcend generations. But culture, can also be detrimental. The number of people living in abject poverty near the end of the 20th Century was larger than the entire population of the world in AD1500.
Although most people continue to live as citizens of a single nation, they are culturally engaged with the lives of people in other countries as never before. Distant events often have an immediate and significant impact, often blaring the boundaries of our personal worlds. The dialogue between Africans and African-Americans has not always produced the harmony and unity dreamt of by Pan-Africans like Kwame Nkrumah, George Padmore, W.E.B Du Bois and Edward Wilmot Blyden, but they have produced a significant transformation of political identity, religious practices and culture, generally both in Africa and its Diaspora. Unlike other Diasporas and their homeland, the African Diaspora in the Americas reflects the efforts of an enduring dialogue of mutual transformation over time and this is the result of the intergenerational beliefs, practices and habits that continue to link contemporary African-Americans to the African cultures of their ancestors.
Ghana is a country, where, perhaps, more than in any other African country, African-Americans are publicly recognized as Pan-African ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’. Even if slave-fort-tourism has not yet created an interpretive consensus, cultural platforms have enhanced Ghanaians’ interest in their own cultural history and linked diverse black Atlantic populations in projects of local West-African development. Culture is,indeed, a potent tool for development.
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