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Manifestation of culture and national liberation in Africa today

Thursday 23 January 2014, by siawi3

António Tomás*

2014-01-22, Issue 662


Amilcar Cabral rejected the notion that culture is primordial, immutable. He was not only interested in change, or how culture changes, but in how this change could be produced. For him then the nationalist liberation movement could point to the direction national culture could be moved.

More than in any other geographical location, culture has occupied a particularly privileged place in Africa. The reason for this has not only to do with the cultural diversity of the continent. National liberation movements, whose political and military action was instrumental for the emancipation of a number of African countries, are part of the explanation.

So if culture was part of the process by which these countries became independent, culture has also to a great extent been part of the ways in which these countries define themselves in the postcolonial moment. Put differently, if national culture was primordially defined in teleological ways, as the imagination of a given community, for instance, we still use the same kind of vocabulary, that of nationalism, to talk about culture in the postcolony.

The relationship between culture and nationalism is at heart of state formation in Africa. It is not a coincidence that this topic has occupied the brightest theorists of nationalism in Africa, especially, for the purpose of this article, Amílcar Cabral and Frantz Fanon. They have not only thought of culture in the context of their strategies for the liberation movement, but they have also set the stage for the ways in which we still talk about culture in Africa today. Both of them were not saying the same thing, since they departed from different theoretical perspectives, and the difference are important here.

Fanon did not have a particularly informed perspective on culture in the moment he joined the Algerian revolution. His preoccupation with culture was pretty much about the future, about the becoming of the nation. The culture the national movement should care about was the outcome, in a dialectical sense, of the various cultural aspects involved in the struggle. But he also pointed to the fact that the national movement should have an understanding of the desirable culture it wanted to foster. [1]

Cabral would agree in a number of points. However, Cabral was more of a Marxian. He did not conceive of culture as something immanent, but as something that was itself the product of change. His primary concern was with the modes of production, which, in his analysis, was reflected in culture. In other words, culture was the particular configuration of the modes of production. For Cabral, then, changing the modes of production would ineluctably imply cultural change. This is the context in which he defined the national liberation movement as a factor of culture.

The question here revolves around the problematic of nationalism and the modes in which this political horizon (emancipation, sovereignty) has impacted on the modes in which African countries became independent. Nationalism was defined in terms of culture, and the modes in which discrete cultures could aspire to self-determination. From then on, the question of the relationship between nationalism and culture became ingrained in the ways in which Africa could anticipate emancipation.

This question was particularly relevant in Africa, where cultural diversity was not only a fact, but it was itself the tool through which Africa was subjected to various forms of colonialism. Mahmood Mamdani has brilliantly shown the extent to which ethnicity in Africa is a colonial construct, in the sense in which traditional authorities were inscribed and reinforced by the colonial state. [2] By the time African nationalists started to articulate the desire for self-determination, the only vocabulary available was that which had been bestowed by colonialism. Anthropology has played an important role in this process. The importance of anthropology in this regard was not only in providing the conceptual tools for the understanding of cultural boundaries, but in furnishing the only vocabulary for understanding culture in the ways in which it was conceptualized by the fathers of African independence. They thought that the only way to build the nation was through the amalgamation of discrete cultural manifestations into something they called national culture.

One of the aspects of Cabral’s reflection on culture that should be retained is the fact that he saw the downside of this approach. He was himself a product of Portuguese colonialism, a colonial citizen who could barely speak any African language by the time he went to Portugal to pursue his higher education. By then, he led the cultural movement among African students in Lisbon whose end was the ‘re-africanization of the spirits’. He would change his mind when immersed in the everyday lives of the people who joined the struggle for liberation in Guinea and, in his writings, he would alert militants to the negative aspects of culture. This is perhaps the best way to start understanding Cabral’s positions on culture. He does not agree with the point of view that culture is primordial or immutable. He was not only interested in change, or how culture changes, but how this change could be produced. For him then the nationalist liberation movement could point to the direction national culture could be moved. [3]

These ideas still inform the way culture has been understood in the context of the postcolony. Culture, or the making of the national culture, has been seen as the glue that keeps these disparate realities together. This explains, for instance, the number of mega-events that have been organized by many states in Africa, such as the FESTAC hosted by Nigeria in 1977. [4]

The implications of such an understanding is that we are still concerned with the same kind of conceptualization. To use a Freudian language, we have not killed the father yet as far culture is concerned. Put differently, when it comes to culture we are still in the throes of Cabral and Fanon. Fear of state fragmentation in Africa is the reverse side of the construction of national cultures. National culture, then, through the crystallization of different aspects of cultural manifestation, or the imposition of an exclusive language in the whole country (colonial languages, for instance), is still the process by which these peoples of many of these countries are meant to stay together.

This approach, however, raises a number of conceptual questions. David Scott has forcefully argued that in looking at the narratives of emancipation by evoking romance as the main mode of emplotment (which conceives of emancipation as a sort of happy end), we are operating in the problem-space opened up by those who thought in the past of the future we inhabit now. [5] In my opinion, the way out of this is to insist on the critique that aims to disentangle, on the one hand, national projects led by African states in the name of fostering a national cultural identity, and the role of the social scientist, which should lie in the critique of the construction of these fictions.

One of the consequences of such an approach, in terms of the ways in which a number of cultural phenomena have been dealt with in Africa, is that nationalism, or the construction of the nation, is mobilized as the umbrella for understanding a number of cultural manifestations. In other words, a number of cultural practices that should be dealt with on their own are seen as part of the ways in which Africans imagine their nations. For instance, I, myself, have done some work on the Angolan musical practice of the Angolan youths called kuduro. In a great deal of what has been written on kuduro, and other similar rhythm is Angola, what worries me is the extent to which this is being mobilized to say something about the construction of the nation. As if kuduro, which circulates in many other locations, and links the national to the international, could be evoked to say something about the construction of national identity in Angola.

The problem I have with such an approach is with the fact that we haven’t worked out yet ways in which we can understand those cultural manifestations in their own terms, without the reference to nationalism, or the construction of national identity. The fact that the construction of the nation, or the amalgamation into a whole of a number of discrete cultural manifestations, is to a greater extent the master narrative through which we understand a number of cultural practices has prevented us from understanding them on their own terms. Only by doing this, we may escape the ways in which culture was conceptualized either by colonial anthropologists or by African nationalists such as Cabral and Fanon.

* António Tomás is currently Research Associate at Makerere Institute of Social Research and Ray Pahl Fellow at the African Centre for Cities at University of Cape Town, South Africa. He is author of a biography of Amílcar Cabral - the English version will be published by MISR book series in 2015.

[1] Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 2004.
[2] Mamdani, M., Citizen and Subject, 1996.
[3] Cabral, Unity and struggle, 1979.
[4] Scott, Conscripts of modernity, 2004.
[5] Ibid.

Apter, A., 2005, The Pan-African Nation: oil and the spectacle of culture in Nigeria, Cambridge University Press.
Cabral, A., 1979, Unity and struggle: Speeches and writings, Monthly Review Press New York and London.
Fanon, Frantz., 2004, The Wretched of the Earth, Grove Press.
Mamdani, M., 1996, Citizen and subject: Contemporary Africa and the legacy of late colonialism, Cambridge University Press.
Scott, D., 2004, Conscripts of modernity: the tragedy of colonial enlightenment, Duke University Press.