Monday, December 6, 2010

Institutionalizing our Cultures

I had an interesting discussion with a Nigerian (Yoruba) friend the other day about the intrinsic differences in the way different tribes and ethnic groups relate to each other in Nigeria versus Ghana. Let me make it clear that I believe there’s tribalism everywhere. Even among people of the same tribe there iseven sub-tribe tribalism. Needless to say human beings will always try to find a reason to be different or see themselves as better than another set of human beings.
My conversation with my Nigerian friend went something like this:

Me: I read an interview the other day where Wole Soyinka (the Nobel Prize winning Author and advocate for democracy and the voice of the people in Nigeria) said he considers himself a Yoruba Man first before a Nigerian. That‘s very interesting! Considering he is such a prominent figure in Nigeria. You won’t hear that from a prominent Ghanaian of similar importance to the country.

Nigerian Friend: Well, I can understand where he is coming from.

Me: Well, until that mindset changes I really don’t see this country moving forward. Because seems to me that Nigerian Nationalism is just non-existent.

Nigerian Friend: Well, he’s a man of another generation but I really don’t see Nigeria having an Ibo President. He will probably let the Ibo people declare an independent Biafra state.

Me: Really?

Nigerian Friend: Yeah! And besides I just think we are different people. Yoruba culture is very different. We respect our elders. No matter where you see an older person you have to bow. Ibo people just don’t have the same hierarchy and respect for their elders.

Me: Wait a minute! So are you going to condense the whole Yoruba culture to the way you choose to show respect for your elders? Are you telling me Ibo people don’t respect their elders as much as Yoruba people do? I think you are mistaking the form and fashion of the culture for the substance of the culture.

Nigerian Friend: No, it’s like you’re asking me to basically take the Christ out of my Christianity.

This conversation got me thinking about our cultures in Ghana (and Nigeria and Africa in general). How can we institutionalize our cultures beyond the pomp and pageantry, and the symbolism of years-gone-by? Should we be concerned that our kids know how to wear Kente Cloth from Bonwire and Agbozume or that they respect their elders and read and are proud to speak our languages?

Chicago is said to be a city of neighborhoods, we have the Ukrainians, Polish, Italians, Greeks, and Chinese in their own neighborhoods. These ethnic groups have gradually over the years built schools and institutions where their kids learn their native languages at an early age. I have met people who were born and bred in Chicago of Polish parents who have never stepped foot in Poland but speak fluent Polish. Chicago is also home to a huge Ghanaian community that dates back to the early 1960s (and maybe earlier) but we have no institutions whatsoever.

I am amazed when prominent and very wealthy Africans beat their chest and say I’m a proud Yoruba, Ashanti, Ibo, Ewe etc with significant bank accounts around the world when their children cannot speak their own language.

For example, why is the Ashantehene (with all due respect) driving around the city of Kumasi in a Bentley (nice car!) when the only University in the Ashanti Kingdom is the one Nkrumah built? How about sponsor some Ghanaian historians to write volumes of books on the History of the Ashanti Kingdom and its people instead of the books written by foreigners we still study today? How about sponsor some historians to write the History and Evolution of Highlife Music so our kids can read and be proud of their forefathers? Why are the only castles in Ghana still slave castles the Portuguese built in the 14th century? Have you seen Versaille, Taj Mahal, and Buckingham Palace? It’s not too late.

What are we doing to preserve and institutionalize our cultures?