Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Traditional" Africa

   What comes to mind when you think of Africa?  Most of us have ideas that were influenced by the remnants of the colonial mindset of  19th century Europe.  Even though we may be sympathetic about the African people, our concepts of their culture may be inaccurate.

   The colonial mindset of Europe (and later, America also) was based largely upon the assumption that they possessed a superior knowledge in all things of importance.  Secondly, there was the belief that Africa had no history or culture worthy of note before the arrival of white men.  The scientific, military, and economic achievements of western civilizations had given Europe a very high opinion of itself.  "Social Darwinism" had put their own cultures at the top of the evolutionary ladder and African cultures towards the bottom.  There arose the view that Africans were primitive people sunk in uncultured barbarism, remaining stagnant, neither going forward or backwards for untold centuries.  Thus Africa became commonly viewed as the 'Dark Continent".

      After World War I, a genuine interest and respect for the various African "traditions" began to rise in some of the colonizers. However, administrators began to draw lines on maps to assign people groups to a particular territory based upon these"'traditions".  Laws based upon these traditions were developed and codified by which these people must conduct their lives.  Where there had formerly been hundreds of independent people groups with ever shifting kingdoms and traditions, were now just fifty or so states with fixed boundaries and customs.  A great deal of the supposed cultural boundaries were invented by the colonial administration for their own convenience.

   We should understand that traditions are not static; they persist as long as some benefit is evident.  No tradition lasts forever.  Change and adaptability is a part of what it means to be human.  Think about our own culture.  Is it the same as it was in 1940?  How about in 1840, or back in 1540?  Just as with any culture, African culture has also been in a state of fluidity.  Yet "by creating an image of Africa steeped in unchanging culture, the colonizers condemned the continent to live in a reconstructed moment of its past, complete with natives in traditional dress, wild animals, and pristine landscapes". ( John Reader, "Africa, a Biography of the Continent")  This image has hindered Africa's development for generations.

   Let us neither denigrate nor glorify one culture over another.  Both the Western and African cultures have much of value to teach each other.  However, are WE open minded enough to learn the truth about African history and culture?   We should be challenged to reexamine our concepts of Africa, realizing that much of what we subconsciously accept for granted may be inaccurate.  Do some serious research if you are able --  you may be surprised at what you learn.

May the peace of Christ be with you.

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