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Reconnecting global African community through history, culture
By Kabir Alabi Garba
Friday, November 21, 2008
THE disconnect between Africans living on the continent, estimated to be over 900 millions, and their brethrens, over 200 millions, spread across all nations of the world, manifests in all aspects of human existence. It is physical, sociological, psychological and spiritual. Also, it is no less political and economical. The diabolical effect of this misfortune reflected mostly in the underdevelopment, also in all ramifications, that has continued to ravage the continent, and thus, relegated Africa to the back seat of development, in spite of Africans' immense contribution to the creation of the 'modern world'. But with the realization that culture has always been the foundation that stimulates growth and advancement, efforts are being made not only to rescue rich cultural heritage of Africa from extinction, but also to mobilize "all aspects of our lives for the development and progress of the people."
The International Colloquium on Teaching and Propagating African History and Culture to the Diaspora and Teaching Diaspora History and Culture to Africa held last week at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil pushed the debate on African cultural renaissance forward. Organised by the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC), Nigeria; and the Special Secretariat for Promotion of Racial Equality (SEPPIR), Brazil, the five-day conference brought together peoples of African descent discussing the present state of knowledge about African history and culture. They also examined processes of transferring this knowledge in terms of teaching curriculum, identified the problems confronting it while appreciating its relevance to contemporary developments in Africa and the Diaspora.
In collaboration with such organizations as Pan African Strategic and Policy Research Group (PANAFSTRAG) ; Institute for Afro-Brazilian Studies (IPEAFRO); Palmares Cultural Foundation, Brazil; the State University of Rio de Janeiro; as well as Association of African Historians, the colloquium was in the pursuit of CBAAC's mandate of making Nigeria the arrowhead in the preservation, promotion and propagation of African cultural heritage. As a parastatal under the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and National Orientation, CBAAC's vision is to be the foremost agency to encourage, initiate, facilitate and coordinate the retrieval and restoration of the natural and cultural heritage of the Black and African peoples for the purposes of protecting, preserving and projecting them for enhanced understanding and appreciation. The centre came into existence in 1979 following the successful and epoch-making hosting of the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC '77).
From Monday, November 10, 2008 when the conference was declared open by the African Union (AU) Ambassador and Representative to the United Nations, Amina Ali to Friday, November 14, 2008 when the curtain fell on the international colloquium, there was a re-enactment of pan-Africanism with scholars from across the globe, over 25 in number, revisiting some of the ugly experiences suffered by the peoples of African descent but with emphasis on how to explore both the past and present to engender glorious future for African global community. Amina Ali underscored the significance of the theme, saying "history is now on the side of Africa" urging participants to make use of "this golden opportunity" to advance the course of Africa, positively. History, she said, was what brought people into Diaspora and therefore, they had no choice but to know their history. Amina praised Nigeria for establishing CBAAC which has continued to promote African heritage with the organization of the conference. "If we Africans know where we are coming from, we should know what our culture portray, but if we fail to know our history, we can't stand and be proud of our heritage, and face challenges of life," said Amina.
To the Secretary of PANAFSTRAG, retired General Ishola Williams, the conference was to challenge Africans abroad to take their rightful position in the efforts to put the continent on the path of progress. According to him, it would be in the interest of the continent for Africans abroad to be conscious of where they were coming from. He also emphasized the need to forge a united front of Africans all over the world in order to stimulate putting concerns of the continent on the front burner of world affairs. In his remarks during the opening rituals penultimate Monday, Director of CBAAC, Prof. Tunde Babawale, who represented the Culture and Tourism Minister, Prince Adetokunbo Kayode, thanked the Vice Chancellor of the State University of Rio de Janeiro, Ricardo Vieiralves de Castro for his contribution to the successful hosting of the conference. Babawale also praised Castro's passion for African ideas, history and culture.
The CBAAC boss attributed the choice of Brazil as the host country of the colloquium to the country's profile of being home to large population of black people outside the continent of Africa. "Brazil has the population of 184 millions, and over 60 per cent of this figure is black. Besides, Brazil took a pragmatic step ahead in 2003 when the government promulgated a law making the teaching and propagation of African culture and history mandatory in all primary and secondary schools in the country. This kind of commitment is hardly found, even in some countries in the continent of Africa. The choice of Brazil is well informed," noted Babawale. But the strength of the conference lied in the attraction, especially to the opening ceremony, of the foremost pan Africanist and champion of Afro-Brazilian movement, Prof. Abdias Do Nascimento who gave the keynote address on "Africa and the Diaspora in Brazil." His speech set the tone for the exploratory and expansive discussion that characterized the five-day outing.
Featuring about 100 papers by scholars from all the continent of the world, the theme of the conference was elaborately treated under five different sub themes namely: Historicising Africa and the Diaspora with Prof. Bahru Zewde, Vice-President, Association of African Historians, but represented by Prof. Anthony Asiwaju of African Regional Institute, Imeko, Ogun State, Nigeria as coordinator; African Values, Ethics, Religion and Spirituality with Prof. Felix Chami, University of Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania who is also General Coordinator, African Archaeology Network as the group chair. Politics of Teaching African and Diaspora History/Curriculum Development and Implementation was the thematic focus of the third group paraded Prof. Nuhu Yaqub, Vice Chancellor, University of Abuja, Nigeria as the coordinator. He stood in for Prof. Doulaye Konate-Mali, President, Association of African Historians who was unavoidably absent.
The fourth group on Challenges and Prospects of Developmental Relationship between Africa and Diaspora had Dr. Matlotleng Matlou of Africa Institute of South Africa as coordinator; while Prof. Akinwumi Ishola of the Department of Linguistics, University of Ibadan chaired the group that examined African and Diaspora Music, Drama and Theatre. Interestingly, each of the five groups featured more than 25 paper presentations in the course of the five-day colloquium. The debate that followed some of the presentations were not only thought-provoking, the imagination of all participants were fired as they went away with a full load of information and enthusiasm to keep aglow the pan Africanism consciousness ignited by the conference until the desired goal is realized.
Earlier on Tuesday, November 11, 2008, before the workshop approached was adopted for the examination of issues slated for the conference, the renowned Pan Africanist and former Jamaican Ambassador to Nigeria, Dudley Thompson, who is presently coordinator of the World African Diaspora Union took participants through the pan Africanism movement in the 70s through 90s detailing some of the obstacles encountered in the process. While the presentation of Runoko Rashidi on Global African Presence confirmed the unprecedented spread of Africans to all corners of the universe, Prof. Femi Ojo Ade's exposition: Global African Identity: Past, Present and Future underscored the fundamentals of the colloquium insisting that "if Africa wants to participate as partner on the global stage, then, first and foremost, as Marcus Garvey, another betrayed leader, stated: 'Africa for Africans, at home and abroad."
The Professor Emeritus at St. Mary's College of Maryland, United States of America described the colloquium as a platform where "Africa meets her Diaspora. The colonized and the enslaved, branches of the same bastardized, pulverized baobab tree (and note that we insist on using the present tense), come together to lick our wounds and to mull over past and present and, indeed, future strategies for survival in a global village where we remain on the margin even as the old and current masters try to assure us of our centrality as major participants and partners in an enterprise crafted by their cunning selves to continue to exploit us."
Prodding further into the significance of the gathering, Ojo Ade said, "Africa meets her Diaspora, but it would be best to state that Africa comes together as an extended family, based upon the concept of community essential to our culture. Thus, we would reduce, if not eliminate, divergences that too often made us play into the hands of civilized detractors dealing symbolic death-blows to our efforts to rescue our culture and civilization from extinction.
The renowned scholar lauded the deep involvement of Brazil in the programme. His words: "It is significant that Africa meets here in Brazil, the last country to officially abolish slavery (1888); that the one delivering the keynote address is Abdias do Nascimento, Brazil's, and more importantly, Africa's proud son and one of the militant and committed voices and hands of Pan-Africanism. "
On history as the driving force behind the colloquium, Ojo-Ade said, "as we cast a glance at our history and heritage, it is noteworthy that the movement of liberation and revival and renaissance, is a long, twisted process the ebb and tide of which have often led us backwards, instead of forward, due to so-called propagators of progress better named managers and manipulators of a modernity bent upon keeping Africa at the bottom of the ladder." The history of Africa, Ojo-Ade recalled, "has been told by outsiders, indeed, masters in their majesties' services." Now, he insisted, "is the time for a rescue mission." The objective of the gathering, according to him, "is to use history as weapon, by revealing its underbelly of lies and half-truths, that is, the fiction recounted by the other, and positing the facts as lived by the millions, continental and diasporic, the vast majority of true children whose voices and version are often overwhelmed by those of the minority of collaborators promoted by the masters. "We are aware of the birth of African elite, the chosen few groomed in the colonial school to become cultured and civilized, while the mass of people, left behind in what is considered ignorance which, in reality, is lack of knowledge of the ruse called education, the cunning facilitating corruption, and the acumen to coin and concoct projects of power and privilege on the back and blood of the oppressed majority."
Marshalling a direction for the discourse, Ojo-Ade admonished that "As we examine and explicate our history and heritage, let us be clear that, in this critic's opinion, a holistic approach is necessary; for, within our culture and world-view, existential synthesis calls upon us to construct the community with all hands on deck, that is, making sure that all aspects of our lives are brought together for the development and progress of the people." In other words, he cautioned, religion and culture should not be viewed and valuated distinctly from economics and politics, "just as the sciences and technology ought not to be seen in opposition to the humanities."
He painted the dilemma confronted the continent and its siblings succinctly. "History, for better or for worse, repeats itself, as they say. In our own condition of the enslaved-colonised, it is a circle of confusion and conflicts, and our heritage, rather than being a continuum of complementary configurations, is often a bundle of contradictions, with the encouragement of those that work twenty-five hours out of twenty-four to ensure that the Middle Passage remain a space of separation, a sea of suffering and self-hate and suicide, rather than a bridge of new beginnings built upon concrete components of affirmed and confirmed communal strength, and a civilization from which many have borrowed with no acknowledgement. Such is our dilemma."
Ojo-Ade described globalization as hidden agenda of 'civilized nations' to keep Africa perpetually, as "point of departure of raw materials and destination of finished products," just as he took a swipe at what he termed imported religions labeling them as "weapon of mass destruction. " However, African religions, he asserted, "are more anchored in human relationship with nature, in our ability to cope with the mysteries of the spiritual realm, and to live decently in community and survive as human beings."
In the incisive presentation of 34 pages, the renowned historian also spoke on the issues of race and politics at global levels as they impugn on the personality of African people. His concluding remarks were pointblank: "It is Africans' responsibility to re-visit and retell history, inclusive of the Diaspora. It is the duty of Africans to learn of the Diaspora and not allow the Middle Passage to be the cemetery of a culture that needs to be revived and sustained if blacks intend to be more than providers of raw materials for the global village."
The colloquium scored a point in the assemblage of informed speakers and informed listeners reflected in the ease at which the salient points buried in the voluminous presentation were extracted. Essentially, the conference stressed the need to understand the history of some specific localities, groups and communities to engender a more comprehensive understanding of African history and culture. Not only that, it was also observed that reparation which is a global human rights issue has not been settled and despite its denial by African and non-African apologists, the momentum is unquenchable.
The conference also carpeted the Western media organizations for their continued portrayal of Africa negatively. This stance, participants argued, has distorted the image of a continent that has been so brutal assaulted by slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism. Emphasised also is disconnect between African ruling elites on one hand and the masses of the people on the other. This, they said, has created anti-development sentiments. Development goals, participants noted, would amount to little, except they ensure freedom from want, poverty and unemployment and valorize key priorities such as feeding, clothing, housing, education and health, as well as the provision of the opportunity to make life changing choices.
The conference decried the abandonment of the Lagos Plan of Action by the African Union, describing such attitude as disservice to holistic and human centered development in Africa. The relevance of African spirituality, participants observed, could not be overstated, insisting that African religion, philosophy and metaphysics could provide direction in building morally healthy, egalitarian and progressive African societies.
Other observations made in the course of the conference included the fact that the major problems confronting Africa include but not limited despotic and corrupt leadership; that the problem of teaching African history and culture in the Diaspora is closely associated with inadequate and less equipped manpower; the marginalization of African communities in Argentina and Brazil and the denial of their basic human rights; that African creative and performing arts could play pivotal roles in identity affirmation, construction and re-construction among peoples of African descent; that Western writers have neither been able to capture the basic components of the African consciousness, nor understand the nuances of African culture especially language; that African languages including metaphorical properties such as poetry, music, proverbs are still under-developed, little appreciated and less consulted as sources of traditions, values and mores; that the teaching of African history in the Diaspora is a step in the right direction but lacks appropriate curricula for the study of African history across the Atlantic; and that Africa's abundant literary resources have yet to be fully utilized to move the continent forward because African leaders lacked the necessary political will.
In deed, the conference underscored the fact that women and children are the worst victims of Africa's leadership crisis and violence. Noted also was the potency of indigenous languages and folklore as veritable tools for the propagation of global African culture.
The colloquium saluted the courage and foresight of Africans that stimulated the development of mechanisms that enabled them to survive and preserve salient aspects of their culture in spite of the agony of slavery. There was a consensus that combined forces of slavery, colonialism and westernization distorted and perverted African ethical, moral and value foundations. Participants noted the difficulties associated with visa acquisition, air travel and language as some of the impediments to more interactive relationship between Africans on the continent and peoples of African descent in the Diaspora.
Arising from these observations therefore, the following short and long term action plans are recommended:
* That the teaching of African and Diaspora history, culture and indigenous knowledge be made compulsory in African institutions in the first instance, and be supported by the African Union, Organisation of American States, regional and national associations, national governments and non-governmental organizations in Africa and the Diaspora.
* That the Centre for Black and African Art and Civilisation, the African Institute of South Africa, Afro-Brazilian Studies and Research Institute and professional association in collaboration with the African Union organized a series of workshop on African history, culture and indigenous knowledge on governance and development for African legislators and policy makers.
* That academic linkages with institutions providing instructions in African history, culture and indigenous knowledge be expanded to strengthen the mutually beneficial interactions among African worldwide in any part of the world.
* That the 1993 Abuja Declaration as further reinforced by the Durban resolutions of non-governmental organizations on reparation be resuscitated and re-adopted for implementation.
* That in developing blueprints for African political stability and economic development, there must be a paradigm shift to the appreciation of African traditional spiritual, ethical and moral values.
* That new research institutes be established and existing ones adequately funded to carry out more engaging research activities to deepen our understanding of and expand the frontiers of knowledge in African history, culture and indigenous knowledge.
* That African artistic productions be functional and reflect authentic African values.
* That African states, corporate bodies and non resident Africans utilize the principle of self reliance to provide resources for meeting the objectives of this declaration; when possible resources will be sought from other interested parties.
Other scholars who participated in the conference were Prof. Toyin Falola from Texas, USA; Prof. Benjamin Olatunji Oloruntimehin of Ajayi Crowther University, Oyo, Nigeria; Prof. Sylviane A. Diouf of Centre for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, USA; Antoinette Tidjani Alou, Universite Abdou Moumouni in Niamey, Niger Republic; Artwell Cain, Ace Advies & Foundation for the formation of multicultural Cadre, Tilburd University, The Netherlands; Prof. Kofi Anyidoho, Director, CODESRIA African Humanities Institute Programme, University of Ghana, Legon-Accra, Ghana; Regina Marques de Souza Oliveira, Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Sao Paulo, Brazil; Silvio Roberto dos Santos Oliveira, Universidade do Estado da Bahia, Brazil; Prof. John Ayotunde Isola Bewaji, University of West Indies, Kingston, Jamaica; and his wife, Mary Bolajoko Bewaji, Regional Director, Jamaica Library Service, Kingston; and Denise Barata, Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro among several others. The list was quite long and inexhaustible. But the heavy intellectual bent of the colloquium did not diminish its tourist value as guests took off time to visit some landmark locations - black settlements- within the former capital city of Brazil.