Categories: News Date: Apr 22, 2017 Title: Cultural Identity and The African Writer UWE Africa Week 2017
Keynote Speech delivered on Wednesday 29th March 2017 at the University of West England
I am delighted and honoured to honour the kind invitation by Dr Emmanuel Adukwu to participate in the Conference. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr Emmanuel Adukwu and his UWE Africa 2017 @ UWE Bristol Team for inviting me.
On the subject of “Cultural Identity,” I would like to begin by quoting from Aloys Ohaegbu’s theory of culture.
Culture is vital to any living and growing human society within a specific cultural group as food and water are to a plant.
In other words, Culture is the Oxygen of Life!
It is, as it were, the soil into which a peoples’ consciousness of their existence and “otherness” and its contribution to the ‘Universal’ must firmly dig into its roots if it is to survive.
People without a culture are people without identity and therefore bound to face the danger of being swallowed up by other foreign more dynamic and dominant cultures.
This grave risk has for long been looming over the African Continent where Western European cross-cultural breeding – from slavery to colonization and neo-colonialism has operated with a dislocating, if not pernicious effect on indigenous African cultures.
In the face of this disturbing situation, no one can wonder why so much emphasis is at present, being laid on the assertion of black African cultural identity by African intellectuals and men of culture. This legitimate reaffirmation should not in anyway be seen as a tendency towards cultural ethno-centrism or the total rejection of other useful foreign cultural values.
Far from it!
In order words culture is what we are…
But I ask as an African Publisher, why is having a cultural identity so important?
-It is important because it acts as a way of preserving history and provides individuals with a place where they can coalesce and feel as sense of belonging.
An emotional glue if you will…
It is established when a group of people continually follow the same sets of social norms and values as those of their forebears. In other words re-enacting the behaviours and practices of their ancestors.
What are the things that make up African Culture then?
In Ngugi wa Thiongo’s collection of essays titled Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African literature (1986), the Kenyan writer and postcolonial theorist puts language at the centre of his debates on resistance to domination and self-determination. He believes that language and its constructive role in national culture and history is central to a peoples’ sense of themselves.
Ngugi also believes that the choice of language and the use to which language is put, is central to a peoples’ definition of themselves in relation to the natural and social environment and indeed in relation to the entire universe.
(As an aside…)
In African culture (before the arrival of written narratives) linguists were and still are, highly regarded especially at royal courts where their linguistic dexterity becomes the main vessel for channeling important communication to the community.
So at naming ceremonies, weddings, funerals and traditional chieftancy ceremonies – linguists (or Okyeames as we call them in Ghana) are regarded as the stars or griots who carry the message either orally or in song and delivered in a manner that makes it more accessible and meaningful to the community.
Culture is made up of the values, beliefs, underlying assumptions, attitudes and behaviors shared by a group of people. Culture is the behaviour which results when a group arrives at a set of generally unspoken and unwritten rules that enable them to work together and binds them as a unit.
Cultural identity then can be said to be deeply embedded in the languages that we speak, the names we carry, the clothes we wear, the way we wear our hair, the food we eat, our music, our oral traditions with its rich proverbs, in our written narratives and in the way we structure our governing values. These transmit the images of the world contained in our cultural universe - our identity.
In this regard, I would like to draw on African writing as a way of (to paraphrase Ngugi – Moving the Centre… in his work titled Moving the Centre: The Struggle for Cultural Freedoms, 2008) by demonstrating how African cultural identity has evolved and been shaped by our writers, especially in a modern written context.
According to Achebe: ‘every human culture in the world seems to create stories (narratives) as a way of making sense of their world.’
“…The modern African writer is to his indigenous oral tradition as a snail is to its shell. Even in a foreign habitat, a snail never leaves its shell behind” (Solomon Iyasere in Oral Tradition in the Criticism of African Literature).
Chinua Achebe once famously said that if you want to know about a peoples’ history, culture and identity, look at their literature. (By the way, he also said you should look at their plumbing…)
Achebe said; “I believe it is important not to write anything on Africa without some kind of commitment, some kind of message, some kind of protest…because there were people who thought we didn’t have a history. And so what we were doing was to say we do have a history – and here it is…”
Achebe’s writing (especially his seminal novel Things Fall Apart first published in the Heinemann African Writers Series in 1958) is probably the best example of cultural affirmation in action.
Simon Gikandi said; Achebe is recognized as one of Africa's most important and influential writers and his novels have focused on the ways in which the European tradition of the novel and African modes of expression relate to each other in both complementary and contesting ways.
Achebe's novels are informed by an important theory of writing which tries to mediate the politics of the novel as a form of commentary on the emergence and transformation of nationalist identity which constitutes the African writer's epistemological context.
Achebe's aesthetic has been over-determined by the changing discourse on representation and national identity in colonial and postcolonial Africa. His anxious quest for a postcolonial aesthetic is predicated on his belief that narrative can enable the writer to express an alternative ordering of things opposed to the realities imprisoned by the imposing Western domination.
In order words, if speaking is difficult to negotiate, then writing offers an alternative space much, much freer than speech.
There is less interruption, the written text is granted its intimacy, its privacy and its creation of a world, its proposals, its individual characters, its suspension of disbelief.
The book is bound, circulated and read. It retains it autonomy much more than the oral situation.
Writing therefore offers a moment of intervention.
On his rejection of the art for its own sake school of thought, Achebe insisted that art has a social value and function and the artist has a role to play in social change. He saw the writer as a teacher, moral voice, truth-teller and social critic (In his Essays titled: Morning Yet on Creation Day, Anchor Press, NY, 1975 and Heinemann: 1982).
Instead, Achebe embraces the conception of art as being at the heart of African oral traditions and values and he believed that "Art is, and always was, at the service of man.... Our ancestors created their myths and told their stories with a human purpose; any good story, any good novel, should have a message and a purpose…" He saw the storyteller as the guardian of the word and memory…
The power of the story lies in the hands of the storyteller and to see oneself only ever reflected through the eyes of another is to view the self through a distorting lens. This is the shared experience of all those whose place in history has been marginalized. Thus storytelling then becomes a space for resistance!
Achebe's novels offered us a close and authentic picture of the past and present African life with all its imperfections, pains, pleasures and puzzles with an immediacy and force. As he affirmed, Achebe’s mission was to convey through his novels that:
“African people did not hear of culture for the first time from Europeans; that their societies were not mindless but frequently had a philosophy of great depth and value and beauty, that they had poetry and above all they had dignity."
These sentiments remind of me of a saying by another black writer - the African American writer Toni Morrison who wrote and I quote:
“If anything I do, in the way of writing novels, isn’t about the village or my community or about you, then isn’t about anything. And that is to say yes! The work must be political…
Like Achebe, writing for Morrison is not an indulgence in some private exercise of the imagination that fulfills the obligation of ones own dreams.
Morrison sees her works as resistance to literature and a re-visioning and re-claiming of a history that has gone through a great deal of objectification, distortion and erasure.
The best art, according to Morrison, is political!
She observes that, it is the writer’s business to make his or her art unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.
She emphasizes that her role as a black woman writer is critical, for historically Africans were seldom invited to participate in the discourse even when they were its topic.
In conclusion; we must resist attempts by others to define us and our history!
Culture reaffirms us and re-enforces our sense of our identity and our place in the world. It is the single most important marker of our common humanity.
However, culture is not static – it is an ever-changing phenomenon that must be open to change. Embracing change is a critical component of a culture’s survival that must be accepted as part of the natural order of things…
For instance, I personally believe that the so-called African culture of female genital mutilation (or FGM) must be permanently banished!
As the Nigerian Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka said last week at the Paris Book Fair; “…It is not the real estate that defines a nation or a people, it’s a history and a culture…
©Nana Ayebia Clarke MBE
Ayebia Clarke Publishing Limited
Banbury, OX16 1FR
For further about Ayebia visit our website at www.ayebia.co.uk
"...Only the story... can continue beyond the war and the warrior. It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story...that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence. The story is our escort; without it, we are blind. Does the blind man own his escort? No, neither do we the story rather, it is the story that owns us and directs us. --Chinua Achebe, Anthills of the Savannah (1987)