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Rethinking Africa’s Cultural and Commercial Footprint


Culture and Commerce

24/7 the world spins on the trade in culture of some kind. You are wearing someone’s culture right now. You went to an Italian restaurant last night? Well that is someone’s culture. You enjoyed some Sushi for Lunch? That is also someone’s culture. You are planning to see X-Men: Days of Futures Past? Oh yes! That is someone’s culture and history. Look carefully at the history in it. While we make ahistorical films and think that art and culture are exempt from politics and economics, the Rest of the world got these things figured out thousands of years ago. Now, when you want to buy African culture, they not only own theirs, they own ours also.

Cultural Footprint

How do we measure the weight of our cultural presence in a globalized society? How does Africa’s unique cultural capital fare in the face of globalized cultures? We can look at the global accommodation given to our individual cultures. What impact does Africa and African people generally have on the wider world? What value does Africa represent as a separate body?

One measure of the level of destruction on Africans globally is the mass dis-ownership of culture. From domain names to grocery stores in the African world communities, it doesn’t matter if you are in New York or Nairobi, Bridgetown or Bamako. Most of the products which are branded or dealing with Africans remain in the hands of our non-Africans. Like avoiding an elephant in the middle of downtown New York, Whites have an amazing way of talking around the subject of economic ownership in this department.

The value assigned to Chinese culture and Islamic culture can be seen everywhere by the international accommodation these cultures are given. Despite Ethiopia (ኢትዮጵያ) being the cultural gem of Africa, its dominance beyond its borders (Ethiopia and her Diaspora) is extremely limited. A look at Internet technology shows accommodation for all scripts. DVD subtitles come in many languages including non-Latin scripts from Hebrew to Simplified Chinese, Arabic and even Hindi. But rarely any Amharic, beyond Ethiopian Airlines and the NHS in the UK. The commercial value of African languages is linked to the volume or market value of African speakers purchasing DVDs, accessing in-flight services, etc.

If you book a flight on-line, you can select Kosher (despite Jewish people being a serious minority at 13 million: less than the population of Lagos), Moslem meals {sic}, etc. These cultures have global accommodation due to their cultural and economic dominance. The economic “value” of Jews is reflective in the cultural accommodation they are given globally. The economic “value” of Muslims means that all over the world you find accommodation for the Islamic diet, not to mention that one-fifth are Muslim.

The reason for the low position of African cultural dominance however is another issue. The legacy of colonialism and slavery has left Africa in an endless rut. While the Asian sub-continent crawls forward, Africa is caught in a desperate loop. The only exception is South Africa. The condition in South Africa is nothing more than a Southernmost European colony. South Africa is geopolitically global because of its European population and their economy. Thus all over the world, Afrikaans, despite being a minority language is more accommodated for than Zulu. Internationally, South Africa is not culturally shaped by the majority African population.

Agency in South Africa is also not the design of African politicians who manage this Southern European plantation. The cultural footprint of South Africa is expressed almost exclusively via White European cultural agents. In Kenya, the “Kenyan culture” that the world celebrates is not the product of African agents, but the product of European agents and their “lens” on what is and what is not Kenyan culture. The beautiful mask and ornaments sold in airports are filtered aspects of Kenyan culture and Africans are generally absent from that process.

There is a direct relationship between the economic success of cultures and their physical presence in global societies. It can be used to measure the impact or the global footprint cultures make. The indirect de-emphasis on accommodating Africans is by no means a racist plot, but a measure of the outward extent of African presence in the real world also.

If Africa tomorrow became an economic giant, these markets would naturally re-orientate and accommodate African culture. DVD manufactures would include Hausa in the list of languages to capture the Hausa market. Just like Chinese restaurants in the UK realized that serving Halal (حلال‎) food increased their market share, if African dress is demanded by all African elites, as opposed to the fitted Western suits of Italian designers, overnight markets will shift to accommodate this trend. New economic opportunities will globally emerge for makers of these garments. The entire African industry will be stimulated. So there is a strong relationship between cultural agency and market forces and then ultimately the cultural footprint of Africa in a globalized world.

In terms of engaging culture as a business, Africa is asleep or late to recognize new opportunities and move into its own cultural niches before they become dominated and controlled by others. Almost every major organization rooted in “doing” something for Africans or “saving” Africans from something is European dominated. Most cultural products sold as African include Africans as bottom recipients in the economic food chain.

African-Americas are very famous for hip-hop. The world sees the African stamp on this genre. Some individual rappers get rich from it (0.00001%) but who gets wealthy from it? Who shoots the videos and owns the labels? Or the record shops? The clothes they wear? The cars they drive? Africans created the jazz but they did not write the history or own any aspect beyond some royalties. The entire jazz creation has done more economically for European Americans than African-Americans.

Going Nowhere

In an independent African run site survey that queried “are we better off today, compared to yesterday,” seventy per cent of the people recognized “we are worst off today but richer.” The glorious efforts in America in the 60’s, under segregation, had more elements of self-determination and agency than today. Wade in Senegal gave Asians $28 Million to build an African monument. The Zulu cultural department had no problem, nor saw a conflict of agency when they gave a White-Boer artist R3 million to build a statue of the warrior Shaka Zulu. The artist made it look weak but they let him try again. 10,000 years of sculpting and crafting the African artist is never seen “valuable” enough to be given the opportunities to represent African culture. Neil van Schalkwyk says his firm had sold 1.5 million vuvuzelas in Europe since October 2010 and expected sales of up to 20 million rand ($2.6m; £1.7m) over the course of the South African 2010 football. Brandon Bernardo of the vuvuzela.co.za website told Reuters news agency that they could churn out at least 10,000 instruments a day. So the musical cultural icon of South Africa profits everyone but the native South Africans. Africans are blowing it but someone else is owning it.

Search the internet, and look at popular sites to do with African people and see who and what is in control of it. When you go to see Zulu dancing in South Africa, it is rarely owned (if ever) by African people. The themes are African, the aesthetic is African but the ownership is 100% White. Pick up a CD in the airport in Kenya featuring African music, again products made by Africans but not owned by Africans. A large format table book on “tribes” of the Sudan is written by two Italian women.

With the rise of China, this issue of ownership of culture has not only impacted Africa but also most of the world. With economic might, cheap labor, China has the infrastructure to capitalize on anything it puts through its monster production systems. An interesting case in point is the Arab Keffiyeh. Today, this symbol of Palestinian identity is now largely imported from China. With the scarf’s growing popularity in the 2000s, Chinese manufacturers entered the market, driving Palestinians out of the business. Even Jews in Israel are trading it on Ebay (Despite many Zionist protesting its sale in the USA, as it symbolizes Palestinian self-determination).

This is the reality of globalization where cultural property, if not properly managed can freely be appropriated by other non-related cultures. China has its eyes on everything African; aesthetic, fabric, art and music. They have the economic power and the distribution muscle to dominate the market at the expense of everyone else. The challenge is how in a free market does Africa protect its culture from exploitation?

Spanish flamenco, a music of Spain with deep Moorish influences is now so popular in Japan that there are more Japanese experts and scholars on the subject than in all of Spain. This has to be stated to show that it is not a one way racial situation.

Clearly one solution is to first capitalize on it and put it on the international market. But the rate of Westernization going on in Africa means the value of African traditions products are diminished. Hand crafted chairs replaced by cheap plastic from China, beautiful African art replaced by mass produced IKEA type paintings. The local art dies and has no foothold locally let alone globally. China has the distribution, the labor, the business models to dominate. Africa, slow to capitalize, has zero resistance.

Economics, Ownership & Agency

Culture is a commodity which has a fiscal trade value. Some hesitate at this type of point of view but when someone gets on a plane and visits the Pyramids, there is an economic value to the cultural artifacts of Egypt. When someone visits the historical sites in London, there is a value attached to those which the British government invest in with a business mind-set.

The monuments in Ethiopia generate millions of revenue for the Ethiopian government and create entire economies. When you go out for dinner and want to “Taste India, ”you are adding to the cultural capital of Indian food and thus Indian culture. The hundreds of Ethiopian restaurants across Europe are doing the same thing. They are capitalizing on the cultural capital of Ethiopia.

Steven Shalita (1998), Kampala bureau chief for The East African, the sub-region’s premier English weekly newspaper, blames the colonial past, in part, for African passivity and complacency. He argues that a “passive attitude to life is common in many parts of Africa, where most people are satisfied with the minimum. Many Africans prefer to engage in subsistence farming rather than farming for profit and even then, they wait for some bureaucrat to tell them about food security to save them from starvation when drought strikes. … This complacency by ordinary people can partly be blamed on the colonial legacy which put such emphasis on government. It caused them to believe that government owed them a living and if things went wrong, why then government was to blame and must find a solution” (1998:10).

By Alik Shahadah

'Alik Shahadah is a master of the Documentary format and progressive African scholar. Shahadah uses film for social revolution. He is a multi-award winning recipient including the rare UNESCO award for his critically acclaimed film on slavery 500 Years Later. He is best known for authoring works, which deal with African history, social justice, environmental issues, education and world peace.

Courtesy: African Holocaust.