Reversing Africa's Cultural Genocide

Published on 14th July 2009

While speaking speaking at a UNEP conference on indigenous culture and progress, Nigerian Prof. Wole Soyinka once observed that "Culture is the primary source of knowledge and understanding of nature.”

 

Over four hundred years ago, slave trade and colonialism crashed into Africa, destroying the continent's cultural growth. Colonialism tclosely followed and imposed a different cultural universe with its own definition of God, progress, and the rule of law. This suppressed many a healthy African value, putting Africa in a confused state of animation. African culture was wrongly branded "primitive" and "backward."

 

Earlier, 1,600 years ago at the northeastern tip of Africa, in Egypt, the great Alexandria library was razed down, seeing the destruction of Africa's stored knowledge. Africans are increasingly coming to the conclusion that their culture and traditional knowledge and experiences are dying, leaving Africa in danger of losing its already tattered past and perhaps jeopardizing the future of its values, stored in the memories of Africa's elders, healers, griots, midwives, farmers, fishermen and hunters, and thinkers remaining in a trove wisdom.

 

Africa's culture is part of the remaining 15,000 cultures worldwide. Largely undocumented, this native traditional knowledge base rdictated  by nature and observation remains the lifeline of the 2,000 African ethnic groups. Today, as Africa increasingly gets absorbed into the global system, it's 2,000 ethnic groups values are gradually dying or being sucked into modern civilization-as they disappear, so does the irreplaceable knowledge and values.

 

Over the ages, the 800 million indigenous African peoples have developed many technologies, craft, and arts. Africans have devised methods to farm plains, deserts, and valleys without irrigation and produce abundance from the rain forest running the length and breath of Africa without destroying the delicate balance that makes up the ecosystem; they have made roads from Bunce Island to Addis Ababa. They  navigated vast distances in the Atlantic using their knowledge of currents and the feel of intermittent waves before Christopher Columbus 'discovered' America. Africans have explored the medicinal properties of plants, the earth, and animals and  skillfully acquired the understanding of basic flora and fauna. A large chunk of this experience and wisdom has already vanished, and if further neglected, most of the remaining ones could disappear within time.

 

The African cultural genocide

 

Not long ago, few Africans, and the developed world, cared much about Africa's cultural genocide. The long-running attitude held that the developed world's science, with its analytical methods, had nothing to learn from indigenous African knowledge and wisdom. However, the developed world is increasingly beginning to recognize the destruction of the African environment and the fact that Africa, and the world, are losing tonnes of basic research as Africa loses its culture and traditions. One day, Africa and the world will struggle to reconstruct this volume of wisdom to secure Africa, and for that matter, the world's future.

 

With the coming of colonialism and its imposition of it's kind of development, Africans were tied to the capitalist system that encroached on Africans' land and traditions. The crisis in the riverine areas of Nigeria, as seen through the Ogoni ethnic group's campaigns against not only their share of petrol dollars from their ancestral lands but also the destruction of their environment by multinational oil companies, attest to the fact that the present situation goes beyond basic issues of ancestral land rights and money into contentious issues, such as the individual rights to decide between traditional and modern ways. Africa's native knowledge is disappearing as locals are stripped of their land and youths believe their traditional ways of life are out of date and irrelevant.

 

The rural-urban and periphery-metropolitan pull is making the crisis difficult to contain. By being lulled by the highlife, bright images of the United States or France (as Sierra Leoene's TV journalist, Sorius Samura's documentary- Exodus of the African reveals) African youths have turned away from their elders, breaking an ancient but fragile chain of oral traditions. It is difficult for the African elders to convince youths whose heads are spinning with images from abroad that they are better off learning herbal medicine than rush to Britain for the fruits of "civilization," even though this may mean menial job in a teemingly stuffy city. Any view contrary to this is seen as hypocritical and condescending.

 

Already, the United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP, warns in its report on the disappearance of traditional knowledge that, "Nature secrets, locked away in the songs, stories, art and handcrafts of indigenous people, may be lost forever as a result of growing globalization."

 

According to the UNEP, there are 5,000 to 7,000 spoken languages in the world with 4,000 to 5,000 of these classed as indigenous. More than 2,500 are in danger of immediate extinction and many more are losing their link with the natural world. At least 234 indigenous tongues have vanished for good. Africa alone has 1,800 languages out of the world's 6,000. The indigenous Turkana ethnic group in Kenya's northwest risk losing generations worth of knowledge. The Turkana's language, which holds vital secrets about the environment in which they live is dying-they plan their crop planting around the behaviour of birds such as the ground hornbill and green wood hoopoe, which they revere as prophets of rain.

 

According to Ken Hale of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, if languages disappear, traditional knowledge tends to vanish with them. Individual language groups have specialized vocabularies reflecting native people's unique solutions to the challenges of food gathering, healing and dealing with the elements in their particular ecological niche. By Hale's estimate, only 300 indigenous languages have a secured future.

 

When this situation happens among Africa's 2,000 ethnic groups, their immediate tragedy is the loss of the knowledge, traditions and soul of their culture. The painful outcome is as psychological as is real. In various hospitals throughout Africa, health officials are encountering patients who have been mistreated for variety of ailments with traditional medicines. The problem wasn't the medicine but the dosages. As old African healers die off, people try to administer traditional medicine themselves or turn to healers who have partial understanding of what their elders knew.


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