Development and the double-sided mirror

Published on Pambazuka News, by Tunde Jegede, May 22, 2013.

There is a need for a cultural rebirth in Africa as part of the radical economic and social transformation of the continent. A new African consciousness that is free from the chains of ‘colonial’, ‘post-colonial’ and ‘decolonial’ must be located in African reference points … //


One of the most unfortunate stumbling blocks of emerging from beneath the cloud of a colonial past is the lack of original and independent reference points. Geographical independence does not always signify independence of the mind or thought. After 50 years of independence the axis of our reference points for thinking in all areas of life are still essentially European. The debate of what an African consciousness is in the 21st century is still one to be had and aired.

When we think of literature is our first thought Shakespeare or Soyinka? When we think of classical music is our first thought Beethoven or the Griot tradition? I am not suggesting any over the other but simply putting forward some questions for our own personal internal reflection. From the arts we can move to the more controversial arena of religion. How is it that the St. James version of the bible and its Christianity superseded African Coptic Christianity and the legacy of the desert fathers? Why has the modern Islam of Saudi Arabia superseded the African Islam that proceeded it and which gave birth to the mosques of Medieval Mali? If both these religions are already part of our heritage why do we constantly look to outside reference points for total guidance? From literature to music from Christianity to Islam it seems we continually look outside ourselves when perhaps we should be looking within.




I was recently asked to become involved with a newly formed symphony orchestra in Abuja, Nigeria. Right now, Nigeria is at an interesting crossroads. One could say the nation is on the cusp of a new renaissance, which can be seen in the growth of the independent film and commercial music sector with a new generation of practitioners leading the way. There is a desire for expansion and a birth of new ideas and possibilities, which is only held back by a lack of expertise in certain areas. This can be identified as the biggest challenge facing the huge untapped source and pool of talent that currently resides in Nigeria and indeed the wider continent. What is needed is an institution, or academy, to target this untapped resource and provide necessary training and skills, thereby bridging the gap between potential and its realization.

A useful model to draw from what is possible with limited resources to develop such a complex institution as a symphony orchestra can be seen with the unique success story of El Sistema in Venezuela. The results and figures speak for themselves. El Sistema is a music education program in Venezuela, founded in 1975 by economist and musician José Antonio Abreu under the name of Social Action for Music. Beginning with just a handful of children at inception the foundation now watches over 125 youth orchestras as well as the instrumental training programmes which make them possible. The organization has 31 symphony orchestras and between 310,000 to 370,000 children attend its music schools around the country. Seventy to 90 percent of the students come from poor socio-economic backgrounds. The key to this development programme is that it was internal rather than external and came from within the society itself. It was about cultural development and exchange rather than the usual mindset of charity and external assistance. It is always better to learn from cases which share a similar economic and cultural circumstance and situation. For this reason I feel models and structures developed in the West are not always useful for building institutions in ‘developing countries.’

Even for a model that is tried and tested such as El Sistema, there will always have to be adaptations made to tailor to the particular needs and circumstances of the local region one is working within. Though there are many similarities culturally and historically with Venezuela and South America there are also important differences. Where they were able to use the orchestra as a central tool for their musical cultural policy, to bring together elements of their diasporic experience (from European, indigenous Indian and African influences), the form is a much more complex tool in Africa with its close cultural association with colonization. It is a matter of treading the thin line between modernisation on a world platform and the danger of leaving one’s own ancestral cultural legacy behind inadvertently in the process. A balancing act of reconciling our past with our future is necessary.

We cannot run away from our past, our history so we may as well run towards it, grasp and use it to our advantage. As a result of our ‘education’ both equally in Africa and its diaspora over the last hundred years we are steeped in Western culture and all its inherent reference points. This in itself is not a problem as it is great to be widely versed and be able to draw from a wide pallet of influences. However, when this pre-determines our intrinsic value system, which in turn shapes our understanding and perception, we lose balance in our opinion and judgment of ourselves and our world. We no longer see ourselves in the image of the Creator and the Creator in the image of ourselves. I believe if we can simply change this we can lift many of the clouds that hang over our potentially bright future.

Africa’s richest asset is its human resource. There is already a pool of talent within the continent with the will and ambition waiting to be trained and it is only a matter of supplying facilities and the expertise to realise this potential. Better still the solution to this expertise lies within our own wider community. In some parts of Africa more money is sent back to the continent from its own diaspora than in charity and world aid and yet this contribution has often gone unacknowledged and ignored as a very real tool for development. It only requires connections, dedicated networks and trust. But, which African government will be the first to really pioneer and lead such an initiative, giving it the support and infrastructure from the highest level that it would need? Could the AU provide the leadership over the next 50 years?

For me, I see a vision of African modernity, which draws from our rich cultural inheritance and traditions. It should be a 21st century African consciousness which is no longer about post-colonial or de-colonial discourse but about transcending a colonial mind-set altogether. Our existing mind-set still so often determines our daily reference points but we must move beyond. It is rather about the identification and development of a value system based on our own unique ancient principles, which have been proven to work in our favour for thousands of years. Ultimately we all need to carry our past with us into our own modernity.
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Chicago School Closings – Largest in US History, on ZNet (first on Portside), by Diane Ravitch and Mark Naison and Karen Lewis and Randi Weingarten, May 24, 2013;

Suicide by Sequester: US Feels Pinch of Erratic Spending Cuts, on Spiegel Online International, by Sebastian Fischer and Sandra Sperber, May 24, 2013: (Video Gallery).

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