February 26, 2011

African Culture and the Emerging Global Morality and Civilization


The following paper was originally presented at the Society of Research on African Cultures (SORAC) Conference on Internalist and Externalist Interpretations of African Culture and History, Montclair State University, New Jersey, November 2002.  Keynote Speakers included acclaimed African historian and author Professor Ali Mazrui and American University economics Professor George B. N. Ayittey, author of Indigenous African Institutions (1991) and other books on Africa.

African Culture and Its Influence on the Continent’s
Internal Initiatives and External Relations[1]

James E. Lassiter

This paper examines the writings of African scholars[2] and commentators on what they regard to be widespread sub-Saharan African cultural values and processes of social and psychological adaptation.  A consideration of these values and processes is, I believe, the best place to begin a new and more successful search for solutions to Africa’s problems.[3]  From their writings it can be concluded that in order for African societies and nations to function, sustain themselves and prosper, a balance must be maintained between the forces and needs of social groups, individuals and leaders.  Unless such a balance is consistently maintained over a significant period of time, African societies neither function effectively nor sustain themselves in the face of internal change and exotic influences.  Further, without this balance, African nations will not succeed in addressing their major problems of insecurity, poverty and under-employment and fall further behind economically in the global community.  This paper provides a detailed consideration of the forces exerted by African social groups, the needs and responses of individuals, and the role of African leaders who exercise authority.  Suggestions are made for achieving and maintaining a balance between these entities and processes.  Suggestions are also made for re-focusing the study of African social, cultural and psychological characteristics and the application of this reinvented approach to helping solve practical problems on the continent.

Africa’s Biggest Problem is its Solutions

Consideration of social and cultural factors too often takes a back seat to political, economic, diplomatic, legal and military approaches when it comes to identifying and addressing Africa’s problems.  It often appears that the proponents of these preferred approaches, inside and outside Africa, believe that if they can devise an appropriate political theory, financially stimulate African economies in just the right way, bind the instruments of African governance through international law or conventions, draft an air-tight treaty or establish military control or a regional balance of power, the problems of Africa would at last be solved.  Granted, many of these solutions have helped some of the nations and peoples of Africa.  However, it is apparent that after over four decades of independence that unifying political theory, binding legal language, Nobel Prize-winning economic formula, diplomat-led peace initiative or key military stratagem has not been found and Africa’s problems have remained the same or gotten worse.  In fact, since independence, many African leaders, foreign development “experts”, international donors and lenders, and arm-twisting diplomats have inundated the continent with development white elephants, crippling debt[4] and thereby impeded African achievement or contributed to African societal collapse.  Despite their carefully worded espousals of good intent and partnership, all have helped bring Africa into the 21st century rife with poverty and under-employment.  Clearly, new internal and external approaches to Africa’s problems are long over-due.

Long-standing and widespread sub-Saharan African cultural values and adaptive social strategies are largely unrecognized, under-appreciated or ridiculed by many African and most non-African thinkers as harmful stereotypes or as having no basis in ethnographic fact.  However, traditional[5] African thought and behavior have and continue to exert significant influence in AfricaAfrica needs better leadership and a better understanding of its long-standing and widely-shared values and adaptive strategies, and how such knowledge can positively influence internal African political and economic activity and protect against harmful foreign interventions.  South Africa, for example, was freed in 1994 less by political, economic, diplomatic and military efforts than it was by the force of one man’s personality and leadership, and his balanced application of ancient and widely-held African cultural principles – the primacy of the group, the necessary freedom and dignity of every individual and the just and humane exercise of authority.  That man is, of course, Nelson Mandela.

African Psychological Characteristics

Lending credence to the existence of sub-regional African processes of thought and world view, Professors Ali and Alamin Mazrui, in their most recent attempt to place Kiswahili language as a crucial element in East Africa's political and economic development and ultimate multi-national integration, refer to the East African mind as follows:  "The psychology of living together is also undergoing a change - and Kiswahili is part of the new East African mind in communion with the modern world"  (Mazrui and Mazrui 134).

More broadly, Kenyan philosophy professor Joseph M. Nyasani believes that "in the same way reference is made to the Greek or Roman civilization, it must be quite appropriate and legitimate to refer to a particular strand of mind that is quite peculiar to Africa and which shapes the prevailing conditions or permits itself to adapt to those conditions (51-55).  According to Nyasani, African, Asian and European minds are products of unique "cultural edifices” and “cultural streams" that arose from environmental conditioning and long-standing cultural traditions (56-57).  Within the African cultural stream, Nyasani claims, are psychological and ethical characteristics pertaining to African identity, personality and dignity.

South African former Deputy Vice Chancellor at the University of the Witswatersrand, Professor M. W. Makgoba, goes further and argues that throughout the African Diaspora peoples of African descent "are linked by shared values that are fundamental features of African identify and culture.  These, for example, include hospitality, friendliness, the consensus and common framework-seeking principle, ubuntu, and the emphasis on community rather than on the individual.  These features typically underpin the variations of African culture and identity everywhere.  The existence of African identity is not in doubt", says Makgoba (197-198).

Although a strong vertical authority structure and equally strong horizontal family and communal support system had obvious benefits in traditional African settings, it gave rise to a mind-set among African individuals that Nyasani insists has been and continues to be extremely negative for Africa, especially in terms of resisting Western acculturation.

African Society and the Individual

Two of the African scholars surveyed regard African concepts of the individual and self to be almost totally dependent on and subordinate to social entities and processes.  Kenyan theology professor John S. Mbiti, for example, believes that the individual has little latitude for self determination outside the context of the traditional African family and community.  He writes:  “Whatever happens to the individual happens to the whole group, and whatever happens to the whole group happens to the individual.  The individual can only say:  'I am, because we are; and since we are, therefore I am'.  This is a cardinal point in the understanding of the African view of man” (Mbiti 1969:109).

Nyasani also identifies the traditional African family as a setting wherein the vertical power structure of the society is introduced, imposed and sustained as predominant over individual freewill.  Community norms, he says, are “merely received but never subjected to the scrutiny of reason to establish their viability and practicability in the society.  ...  Maybe”, Nyasani speculates, “this lack of personal involvement and personal scrutiny has tended to work to the disadvantage of Africans especially where they are faced with a critical situation of reckoning about their own destiny and dignity” (63-69).  For Nyasani, the existence of the individual in African society is a "quasi-dissolution into the reality of others for the sake of the individual's existence" (60).  For him, “everything boils down to the 'me' in the 'we' or rather to the survival of the self through the enhancement and consolidation of the 'we' as a generic whole.  ...  Thus in Africa, the individual will go to all lengths to ascertain the condition of the corporate 'we' and to play his part, if necessary, to restore the balance of wholesomeness” (Nyasani 81-82).

Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Gyekye, however, believes that African individuals, though originating from and inextricably bound to their families and communities, nevertheless possess a clear concept of themselves as distinct persons of volition.  It is from this integrated sense of personhood and communal membership, he says, that African families and communities expect individuals to take personally enhancing and socially responsible decisions and actions.  Although he accepts that the dominant entity of African social order is the community, Gyekye believes "it would be more correct to describe that order as amphibious, for it manifests features of both communality and individuality.  …  African social thought”, he continues, “seeks to avoid the excesses of the two exaggerated systems, while allowing for a meaningful, albeit uneasy, interaction between the individual and the society" (Gyekye 1988:31-32).  Agreeing with Gyekye, the late Senegalese philosopher and head of state Leopold Senghor regarded traditional African society to be "based both on the community and on the person and in which, because it was founded on dialogue and reciprocity, the group had priority over the individual without crushing him, but allowing him to blossom as a person" (1966:5).

Along this same line, South African philosophy professor Augustine Shutte citing the Xhosa proverb umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu (a person is a person through persons) writes:

This (proverb) is the Xhosa expression of a notion that is common to all African languages and traditional cultures.  ...  (It) is concerned both with the peculiar interdependence of persons on others for the exercise, development and fulfilment of their powers that is recognised in African traditional thought, and also with the understanding of what it is to be a person that underlies this.  ...  In European philosophy of whatever kind, the self is always envisaged as something "inside" a person, or at least as a kind of container of mental properties and powers.  In African thought it is seen as "outside", subsisting in relationship to what is other, the natural and social environment.  In fact the sharp distinction between self and world, a self that controls and changes the world and is in some sense "above" it, this distinction so characteristic of European philosophy, disappears.  Self and world are united and intermingle in a web of reciprocal relations (46-47).

Foreign Influences and African Responses

Many of the authors surveyed argue that the African individual's response to overpowering foreign influences has been and remains derived from a personal strategy he uses for survival, well-being and, he hopes, advancement within his community – that is, unquestioning acceptance of authority and conformity to social norms.  Therefore, the larger external world and its influences, like his family and communal milieu, present the African individual with an additional and more formidable set of circumstances and requirements he is conditioned not to challenge, is increasingly dependent upon and to which he must submit, he has been taught to believe, for his individual well-being.

Beginning in the colonial period, the traditional African social script of “submit to family and community authority and immerse yourself in and partake of all that group values and norms allow” was devalued by the colonialists but at the same time used by them to subjugate Africans.  Through force, Western education and missionary proselytization, the colonialists subordinated traditional African authority and the values and norms of African communalism and individuality in the minds of Africans.  This anti-African script, argues Nyasani, remains deeply embedded in the minds of contemporary Africans who have “adopted and assimilated wholesale whatever the West has to offer.  The end result (has been) not just a cultural betrayal” he argues, “but a serious case of self-dehumanization and outright self-subversion both in terms of dignity and self-esteem.  ...  Africa is simply overwhelmed and decisively submerged by the never-receding tide of cultural imperialism” (Nyasani 126-128).

Regarding the impact of Westernization on the African community, family life and individuals, Preston Chitere (see Kimani 1998), a Kenyan rural sociologist, offers the following observations regarding the current state of the African family in Kenya, a state or condition that exists in many other sub-Saharan African nations.  He writes:

The effects of capitalism are already being felt in our families.  Individualism in society is increasing.  Even families in rural areas like to operate in isolation, and those who offer any help are keen to help their immediate families only.  The (conjugal) family is becoming more independent.  The loss of community networks and the development of individualism have resulted in (increased occurrences of) suicide, loneliness, drug abuse and mental illness.  The communal system is breaking down.  The extended family had certain functions to perform, for instance, to reconcile couples at loggerheads with each other, but this is no longer the case.  It is no one (else's) business to know what's happening in one's marriage today (Kimani 1).

When indigenous African cultural values and social strategies, as described by the writers surveyed, are impacted by Western interventions, the overall outcome for Africans has seldom been favorable.  However, and this is important, we will see later that these same traditional African values and strategies also contain solutions to Africa’s current problems and its future.

Internal Initiatives and Traditional African Culture

Nationalistic initiatives in Africa also contain lessons for the internally-generated problems that Africa has had over the past four decades.  They show that many founding fathers of African independence and subsequent leaders 1) looked outside not within traditional African culture for models for national development and most often chose either socialism or capitalism; 2) selected exotic models for national development because they thought they were superior to indigenous African models, ancient or yet-to-be invented and tried; 3) failed to fully analyze, and if they did, ignored the appropriateness of socialist or capitalist models for long-standing African values and adaptive strategies; and 4) imposed, through their Western education, charismatic personalities and sometimes by force a foreign way of national life that their countrymen were preconditioned to unquestionably accept and submit to, using Nyasani’s submission framework of analysis.  Tanzania, Zambia, Ghana and Guinea come to mind.

The emphasis of Africa’s leaders at independence on exotic models for national development and the methods they used - an over-emphasis on vertical authority often supported by ethnic favoritism – had three major consequences.  First, it sustained the encapsulation of African thinking and encouraged a disdain for African ways of organizing social and national life, again using Nyasani’s framework.  It also delayed the emergence of indigenous African approaches to democracy such as that currently being tried in Uganda and elsewhere on the continent (see Museveni 187-195).  Second, it set a precedent for top-down authorities who came to power later.  Finally, it planted bitter seeds of resentment among under-empowered groups and in the hearts and minds of insightful, ambitious African individuals.  Among them were intellectuals, soldiers and common African men and women who chose to follow them in revolt against those who they once revered as fathers of their respective nations.

Once it became clear that the founders of the newly independent African countries were unable to deliver on their campaign promises and the conversion of their post-colonial economies from extraction to production had stagnated and many times failed, people sought through revolution to correct the subordination and abuse of African communal values and individual accommodation and well-being.  Unfortunately, their means was to depose the founding regime and replace it with yet another authority-focused leadership that once more suppressed the needs of social groups and shunted the will and needs of individuals.  What followed was the debilitating cycle of coups and counter-coups of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s throughout much of Africa.  In some African nations such as Liberia this brutal process continues and elsewhere, such as in Sierra Leone, it seems far from over.  Tragically, Somalia and Ethiopia still reel in chaos and poverty, respectively, from the imbalances their leaders have imposed on their peoples.

The Future of Africa

Kenyan medical doctor and author Kihumbu Thairu (168-169) argues for a future of greater regional integration through educational and cultural exchanges within and between African nations.  This, he says, will bring into the open pan-African cultural similarities, promote more widespread understanding and tolerance on the continent, and contribute to greater overall African unity. 

Professor Gyekye believes there are many “cultural values and practices of traditional Africa (that) can be considered positive features of the culture and can be accommodated in the scheme of African modernity, even if they must undergo some refinement and pruning to become fully harmonious with the spirit of modern culture and to function most satisfactorily within that culture” (1996:174).

Ghanaian philosopher Kwasi Wiredu believes that broad patterns of traditional African thought, though in need of clarification, correction and reconstruction (1996:150), remain discernible and of contemporary relevance.  Contrasting African and Western thought, he writes:

(T)here is no dispute about the richness of traditional African thought.  A study of that system of thought, moreover, discloses conceptual options that contrast in philosophically instructive ways with many of those embedded in Western philosophy.  Thus, although no continental unanimity is assumed, traditional conceptions of the cosmos in many instances involve homogenous ontologies that cut across the natural/supernatural opposition in Western philosophy.  God is conceived as a cosmic architect of the world order rather than its ex nihilo creator, and mind as a capacity rather than an entity.  The associated conception of human personality, though postulating a life principle not fully material, is still devoid of any sharp dualism of body and spirit.  That conception also has a normative dimension which incorporates a communalist and humanistic (as distinct from a religious) notion of moral responsibility into the very definition of person.  At the level of the state this went along naturally with a consensual philosophy of politics based on kinship representation under a kingship dispensation.  How to adapt this understanding of politics to current African conditions is one of the severest challenges facing African philosophy today (1995:156).

Citing the late Kenyan Odera Oruka’s work on “sage philosophy” (see Oruka 1991 and 1997), Wiredu accepts that “there are now among traditional folks in Africa original philosophic thinkers not unduly influenced by foreign philosophies.  They can criticize aspects of the communal philosophy and of any foreign philosophies they have encountered, and put forth fresh ideas of their own” (Wiredu 1995:150).  “These,” Wiredu continues, “are the present-day exemplars of our ancestral philosophers” and the work begun by Oruka is “one of most important developments in post-colonial African philosophy” (ibid.).

The emphasis on Africa's traditional past as found in the writings of the African scholars reviewed in this paper, however, is not without its African detractors.  Kenyan philosopher D. A. Masolo, for example, finds little in Africa's traditional cultural past that can be applied to the present and future of the continent (1995).  In fact, he strongly opposes certain forms of inquiry into the matter (see Masolo 2000). 

Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Appiah likewise has little regard for “traditional” African culture.  For him, most concepts of African ethnic groups and their centuries old values writ large are products of colonial thinking and are therefore not valid reference points for establishing African identity, unity or social and political action.

Appiah, in fact, views pan-African identity only as a very recent creation for supporting political activism, regional alliance building and African unity.  For him, African identity is a malleable modern concept that must have meaning for its subjects and must be protected and continually reshaped.  It is something Africans, not non-Africans, create, safeguard, change and use to their advantage (Appiah 176-177). He writes:

To accept that Africa can be in these ways a usable identity is not to forget that all of us belong to multifarious communities with their local customs; it is not to dream of a single African state and to forget the complexly different trajectories of the continent’s so many languages and cultures.  “African solidarity” can surely be a vital and enabling rallying cry; but in this world of genders, ethnicities, and classes, of families, religions, and nations, it is as well to remember that there are times when Africa is not the banner we need (180).

Congolese philosopher and cultural anthropologist Valentin Y. Mudimbe agrees with Appiah that what may have been these broad pre-colonial patterns of traditional African thought, values and behavior were deeply obscured over five centuries of European colonial contact.  He also argues the colonialists and their “anthropological discourses” sought to etnocentrically classify and portray all non-European peoples in terms of  “otherness”.  In doing so, the colonialists in Africa were “responsible for producing marginal societies, cultures and human beings” (Mudimbe 1988:4-6).  This marginality, Mudimbe writes, “broke the culturally unified and religiously integrated schema of most African traditions” (1988:6) to an irretrievable degree.

More pragmatically, Kenyan social commentator Mwiti Mugambi argues that the future of Africa can only be forged from accepting and mending the sociocultural present.  He believes that what African scholars should do is “deal with the issues that are afflicting our society such as violence, corruption and rising costs of basic needs, rather than waste time on the issue of ‘Africanness’.  ...  (T)he effects of Westernisation are here to stay and the faster we adapt to living with them the better for us and the generations to come” (Mugambi 3).

Finally, Sam Mwale, Kenyan journalist and commentator on African public policy issues, writing on U.S. president Clinton's 1998 visit to the continent, believes that the former U.S. head of state's references to an "Africa that works" and an "African Renaissance" per South Africa’s Thabo Mbeki were premature.  Mwale argues that, yes, the nations that Mr. Clinton visited have, in fact, instituted significant reforms; however, "Africa does not work" in three of Africa's four largest regional economies - Nigeria, Kenya and Congo-Kinshasa.  Mwale believes that a true renaissance can only be said to have occurred when fundamental changes in how African societies operate have taken place.  That "economic development on the continent is taking place in a cultural and philosophical vacuum.  The cultural foundations of virtually all African nations remain undefined - an unrefined mish-mash of traditional, colonial and neo-colonial cultures and identities.  From this have often arisen the clan, ethnic, racial and religious fault-lines that have been the bane of independent Africa" (Mwale 23).  For Mwale, an Africa "that works" would show signs of reversing the crushing conditions of poverty and low economic opportunity under which over eighty percent of Africa's people now live.  Regrettably, according to Mwale, not one of the countries mentioned as "working" has as its first budgetary priority solving these two most basic of problems – poverty and under-employment (ibid.).

Mwale's solution to Africa's future lies in the emergence of ethnically pluralistic societies on the continent.  He argues that “despite the wonderful talk of an African renaissance, there is no evidence of attempts to evolve an all-embracing culture which allows a healthy expression of diversity.  Without a mosaic (national) culture that provides room for co-existence, there cannot be an inclusive political philosophy that allows all to become stake holders in government.  Neither can there be a moral order - upon which all development is predicated - without a solid cultural foundation.  ...  Africa's post-colonial trauma results from institutions, governance and economic development models without any cultural underpinnings” (ibid.). 

Applying the Study of Culture and Social Adaptation to Africa’s Problems

The cultural foundations Mwale prescribes, I believe, must be based on traditional African values and social strategies.  In this way all become stake holders and a balance among societal forces becomes the moral order by which each African nation may achieve stability and prosperity.  Human beings simply cannot live exclusively in the present and prepare for the future as, for example, Appiah and others recommend.  That is, without identifying and building on cultural foundations from Africa’s past that influence African lives today.  I believe Appiah and company are wrong when they suggest that we abandon inquiry into traditional thought and behavior and its vestiges in the present – that Africans should only live in the present and chart the continent’s future based on social forms and solutions borrowed mostly from the West or invented de novo.  For this approach is precisely the same path most African nations have been taking since independence and the net result in terms of achieving social stability, self-sustaining development and poverty reduction has in most countries been negligible.

I believe distinct African patterns of thought and social processes have and continue to exist, and that they can be described and learned from in a manner free from Western-created distortions about the continent and its peoples.  They also have great potential for helping solve many of Africa’s contemporary problems.  But such studies and applications will only succeed if they are allowed to proceed free from accusations of neo-colonialism, racism, Eurocentric bias and stereotyping.  Given Africa’s seemingly perpetual state of under-development so far, it is time to move to a total openness to all approaches that may help solve the continent’s problems.

In light of the numerous merits to be found in the African scholars' and writers’ efforts surveyed here, I have and continue to encourage among African and non-African scholars a reinvention and expansion of African ethnology and crosscultural studies.  In making this recommendation I am not calling for a resurrection of the former typical personality, national character or levels of modernity studies.  Let them rest in peace in the dustbin of bad social science.  On the contrary, I believe that to the particularistic core of social science inquiry must be added an inter-disciplinary, non-judgmental and non-stereotypic approach that focuses on the full range of African core values, cultural themes and regional and sub-regional processes of social and cultural adaptation.  The descriptions and insights derived, however, must be firmly grounded in the credible data of history, particularistic ethnographies and other case studies.

The first step in this direction is to look at what a wide range of African scholars and thinkers are currently focusing on.  This paper has attempted to do this.  The second step in the reinvention of African ethnology is to investigate the validity of specific claims of pan-African and sub-regional traits and adaptive responses. The assertions made by the African thinkers surveyed here suggest the following new areas of research:

1.        Have traditional African authority structures and powerful communal norms and sanctions given rise to certain psychological traits as described by Nyasani (113, 130-131)?  If so, do these traits continue to put Africans at a disadvantage when confronting non-African cultural influences?  Or, is Gyekye (1988:31-32) closer to the truth in asserting that African communalism allows for and demands individual expression and accountability, and that the causes of Africa's cultural maladaptations are to be found elsewhere?
2.        Are Appiah, Mudimbe, Masolo and Mugambi correct in insisting that the solutions to Africa's problems and its future are not to be found in Africa's traditional past, rather in addressing the problems of the present using contemporary methods?
3.        Is Nyasani (51-55) justified in insisting there is such a thing as a sub-Saharan African "mentality" or "psyche" that arose from and reflects a long history of adaptation and acculturation?  Is he justified in positing the existence of European, Asian and African "cultural streams and edifices" (Nyasani 57)?  If so, is there anything in such an approach that can be applied to solving practical problems on the continent?
4.        Mazrui and Mazrui (1-3) argue that Kiswahili has promoted "detribalization" in East Africa in the sense of "declining 'ethnic behavior'".  Yet, they say there is "stable or even increasing ethnic loyalty in terms of emotional attachment".  Do ethnographic and other sources support this?  If true, how widespread and intense are these ethnic "behaviors" and "loyalties"?  What are they comprised of?
5.        Are assertions made by prominent Kenyan social commentator Philip Ochieng about Luo cultural origins and values valid?  Has Luo “cultural arrogance” undermined their pursuit of political power in Kenya, as Ochieng believes?  How do Luos view their history and culture vis-a-vis other ethnic groups in the sub-region?

The third step is to appropriately disseminate the findings and applications of this new African ethnology as widely as possible throughout all levels of society in Africa and elsewhere.

Regrettably, eminent Western scholars such as social anthropologist Eric Wolf continue to encourage scholarly inquiry along the narrow path of particularism in order to "take much greater account of heterogeneity and contradictions in cultural systems" (7).  Ideas about regional patterns of cultural, social and psychological adaptation will indeed remain "perilous ideas", as Wolf calls them, if we continue to follow his advice and avoid these broader processes that in fact define our common humanity and have potential for increasing global unity.  The current mainstream emphasis on particularistic studies of cultures, ethnic groups and social topics, by itself, tends to enhance uniqueness and separateness in people’s thinking,  This, in turn, encourages ethnic groups, societies and nations to stand proudly apart.  Some say it also contributes to an imbalance favoring individualism to the detriment of communal responsibility and involvement.  What is worse is that when particularism is overemphasized without counter-balancing studies of the broad patterns of cultural adaptation that unite us, we risk increasing cross-cultural ignorance, cultural arrogance, xenophobia and isolationism which lead to increased inter-cultural misunderstanding and international conflict.  Perilous ideas, indeed!

Conclusion

The dynamic balancing of the forces exerted by groups, individuals and leaders is found in all societies, and is expressed uniquely in the various societies of the world.  In sub-Saharan Africa, indigenous efforts to maintain this balance had for millennia prior to colonial contact provided a time-tested and widely adopted general formula for successful social and cultural adaptation.  It allowed for survival and resulted in a great diversity of sophisticated modes of living that were uniquely yet similarly expressed throughout the continent.  Though these ancient African values and strategies proved well-suited to a relatively isolated continent, they have been either ignored, deplored or distorted by colonialists beginning in the 15th Century; and misunderstood or exploited by some African leaders from independence to the present.  However, these same traditional African values and life strategies have nevertheless withstood the “discoveries” of explorers, the guns of invading armies, the self-declared truths of exotic religions, the teachings of Western education, the restrictions of development assistance, the distortions of European scholarly discourses, the national mismanagement of certain African leaders and the advice of some modern scholars to ignore them.  I am convinced of their existence, past and present, and that their value to Africa’s future is indisputable.

The future for Africa lies in making every effort to prevent traditional African culture from continuing to be ignored, deplored, distorted and exploited, internally and externally.  As there have been successful European, Asian and American social and cultural accommodations to the constraints and problems of the nation-state and global community, so must there also be successful African accommodations.  African nations will never prosper or achieve their rightful place in the global community by borrowing and applying European or other regions’ solutions to social, national and international problems on the continent.  A new beginning based on African values and their attendant social and psychological strategies is needed.  Hopefully, from this new beginning new African visions and foundations for “national culture” will arise in each Africa nation that, when realized, will sustain stability and prosperity in their respective societies.

Scholars should freely pursue a full range of understandings of African culture and cultures, the broad processes of regional and global cultural adaptation, and how such knowledge can be used to improve human living conditions on the continent.  Particularistic studies of cultures, groups and sociocultural topics, alone, are not enough.  The refusal of scholars to attend to these broader aspects of human cultural adaptation, whether from fear of violating political correctness or infuriating their colleagues at the academy, is a significant matter.  It tends to draw attention away from the world’s common humanity and destiny, and impedes understanding of on-going global cultural processes of utmost importance.  However, all of us must ensure, by every means possible, that when such broad social, cultural and psychological studies and understandings are undertaken and arrived at, they are not used to legitimize stereotypes, injustices, or malevolent struggles for political power and dominance in Africa and elsewhere.

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Wolf, E. R.  “Perilous Ideas:  Race, Culture, People.”  Current Anthropology 35(1) (1994):1-12.

Notes

1 The opinions and conclusions expressed in this paper are solely those of the author.  They in no way reflect or otherwise represent the policies or official positions of the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service or the U. S. Government.  The author currently serves as INS Senior Refugee Program Officer for Africa and the Commonwealth of Independent States in the INS Office of International Affairs in Washington.
2 The African scholars focused on in this paper include the following:  Senegalese Leopold Senghor; Ghanaian Kwame Gyekye; Kenyans John S. Mbiti, Kihumbu Thairu and J. M. Nyasani; and South Africans Augustine Shutte and M. W. Makgoba.  The selected works of the writers surveyed in this paper span a period of thirty-five years and come from three of the continent’s major sub-regions - West, East and Southern Africa.  As such, they are regarded to represent significant scholarly efforts to describe and/or analyze African cultural and psychological traits and processes of cultural adaptation.  Other key African writings examined include that of Ghanaians Kwame Appiah and Kwasi Wiredu, Kenyans Ali and Alamin Mazrui and D.A. Masolo, and Congolese Valentin Y. Mudimbe.  In limiting the scope of this paper to the works of scholars from Africa I am not discounting the efforts of Western scholars and others who continue to make significant contributions to the study of African ethnicity and identity.  I have simply deferred for the time being placing my findings within a broader contemporary intellectual context that includes non-African scholars writing on African ethnicity and identity.
3 In referring to “Africa’s problems” I in no way view the peoples and nations of the continent as one entity with multiple problems.  There are 53 nations in Africa populated by 800 million people comprising nearly 2,000 ethno-linguistic groups.  Although I argue that there is a certain commonality of problems throughout sub-Saharan Africa, it should be understood that solutions to these problems must be specific to individual nations and societies.
4 “The hemorrhaging of  resources from African countries to repay foreign debts is the single  largest impediment to the continent's development and economic independence.” USA/Africa: Sign-On Letter to U.S. Treasury Secretary, May 13, 2002, Africa Policy Information Center (APIC), Washington, DC.
5 For the general purposes of this paper, I have employed the following working definition of "traditional African culture":  generally widespread sub-Saharan African core values, beliefs and norms for social behavior as they existed prior to European contact; and as they currently exist, especially in the rural areas and to a lesser extent in the urban areas of Africa; and from and upon which many, if not most, thought processes and behaviors of contemporary sub-Saharan Africans are derived and based.

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