Writing the Struggle – Our condemned cultures
In the past weeks, this column has dealt with the issue of culture used as a tool to destroy or enhance a people’s freedom.
Chinua Achebe aptly described African cultures as being at a crossroads while Amilca Cabral went to great length to illustrate how the oppressors made sure that the oppressed have no culture, which simply translates to identity.
Cabral argues that culture when summed up creates history and that once a people’s culture is destroyed, there won’t be any history to talk about.
In the case of Africa, the oppressors destroyed the continent’s history by making the oppressed believe that their cultures are either evil or backward.
This is exactly why Chaka is not seen as a conqueror but a ruthless tribesman who wantonly killed and drove out other tribes. Compare Chaka with Napoleon who is described as Napoleon the Great.
And when our children are taught history lessons, they will admire Napoleon more than they would do Chaka because of how each conqueror is treated in cultural and historical terms.
Today, our women die to be thin because, according to Western culture, beauty is in being slim. African cultures elsewhere admire big women.
This week, another great son of Africa, Frantz Fanon takes another dimension to how culture contributes to a whole person and how the destruction of such equally leads to lost generations.
In his speech delivered at the Congress of Black African Writers in 1959 and included as a chapter in his book, “Wretched of the Earth”, Fanon states that colonial domination “disrupts in spectacular fashion the cultural life of a conquered people”.
The speech titled, ‘Reciprocal Bases of National Culture and the Fight for Freedom’, Fanon further says that most oppressed people easily allow their cultures to die because they negate “national reality by new legal relations introduced by the occupying power, by the banishment of the natives and their customs to outlying districts … by expropriation and by the systematic enslaving of men and women”.
“Every effort is made to bring the colonised person to admit the inferiority of his culture which has been transformed into instinctive patterns of behaviour, to recognise the unreality of his 'nation', and, in the last extreme, the confused and imperfect character of his own biological structure,” Fanon writes.
Consider this: Your grandfather dies and when his spirit returns, Christianity declares it an evil spirit but Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead after three days yet is seen as having overcome death.
It’s neither here nor there that your grandfather comes back in spirit and that Jesus Christ is said to have risen in his physical form – the bottom line is both died and came back.
According to Fanon, the laughing stock among the oppressed peoples are those within the intellectual group who “throws himself in frenzied fashion into the frantic acquisition of the culture of the occupying power and takes every opportunity of unfavourably criticising his own national culture, or else takes refuge in setting out and substantiating the claims of that culture in a way that is passionate but rapidly becomes unproductive”.
“The common nature of these two reactions lies in the fact that they both lead to impossible contradictions. Whether a turncoat or a substantialist, the native is ineffectual precisely because the analysis of the colonial situation is not carried out on strict lines.
“The colonial situation calls a halt to national culture in almost every field. Within the framework of colonial domination there is not and there will never be such phenomena as new cultural departures or changes in the national culture.
“Here and there valiant attempts are sometimes made to reanimate the cultural dynamic and to give fresh impulses to its themes, its forms and its tonalities,” Fanon points out.
Just like Cabral, Fanon also says when the oppressor condemns a culture and a people keep on it, this action is viewed as resistance to domination.
During the war of liberation for Zimbabwe, for example, the guerrillas believed that the spirit of Nehanda Nyakasikana and Sekuru Kaguvi – the doyens of the first Chimurenga – always led them.
This belief came from what Nehanda is said to have prophesied shortly before she was executed. It’s said Nehanda said her bones would one day come alive to fight back.
This cultural aspect – the belief in the power of dead – was seen by the oppressors as a threat. It was for this very reason that mbira as both an instrument and music were banned in Rhodesia.
It’s not only in Zimbabwe where the spirit of the dead was called upon as a pillar of strength but in South Africa too where the deaths of Robert Sobukwe as well as many others was exhorted in times of great need.
So in order to destroy the spirit of rebellion, the oppressor makes sure that the cultural aspect of it which gives people a common phenomenon dies first.
And we have allowed this to happen in Africa. But culture does not die completely because when a people fight back to regain their freedom, they still dig deeper into their core beliefs.
• Next week, we will see what happens when people scour their conscience for the remnants of culture for self actualisation.