Grace Jones, Island Life (album cover). Courtesy © 1985 Jean-Paul Gaude

9- Self-contained cultures

We think Black Culture -like any culture- has no sense without the whole rainbow of cultural colours. The Berber or the Ashanti are today integrated into modern culture without leaving their identity; unlike those isolated groups living in the deep jungle that were trapped in the "unlivable", most West Africans along the Atlantic are industrious people. The sea allowed them to fish; salt and minerals, gold and cooper, helped them to interchange goods; a reasonable rich soil enabled the practice of agriculture inland, far enough from the coast, and not close to the jungle.

Le Marché (market) in Dakar, Senegal, circa 1920, postcard.

As seen in the postcard above, markets were scattered all over Africa, with several interchange methods and currencies, mostly in main cities, like in the Middle-East. Before the arrival of the White man, a market in Africa was basically identical to a street market in Europe, with similar weighting balances and scales, made in Africa (in the Empire of Mali).

Anthropological Factors

While trying to define Négritude, it is necessary to understand certain aspects that differentiate African cultures from African civilizations; the latter expose highly developed institutions organized through differentiated types of govern in charge of defence, commerce and infrastructure in relation to a large territory. This is known as primary system.

Complementary to that, the secondary system is the repertoire of specific rules that frame and control tasks and survival activities related to trading, building, communicating. Kingdoms and Empires have both complex primary and secundary systems. Small tribes and nomads only have primary systems (estaablished authorities), and relatively simple.

German philosopher and sociologist Hans Freyer* (1887-1969), founder of the Leipzig school (University of Leipzig, 1930's), was a lucid conservative thinker full of wit -whose work is inspirational for open minds and who fortunately managed to detach himself from incipient Nazism, described how secundary sustems are used in modern societies: by following endless reglaments, protocols, defined by management, critical path, and mathematics.

These secundary systems were refined and perfectioned by the Roman Empire and the Renaissance but they also existed in Greece and Persia. Via Egypt they reached Mali in the 9th century. The secundary systems indicate what, how and when to do a specific task. Which secures the achievement of material, economical and technical goals, but tends to alienate the human being in the process.

Africa had a dozen civilizations: Egypt, Carthage, Axum, Numidia, Nubia, the Empire of Ashanti, the Empire of Ghana, the Empire of Mali (highest cultural achievement in Black Africa, paralell to the European Middle Ages), Songhai Empire (after conquering Mali), Kingdom of Zimbabwe and Kingdom of Kongo, these last two with intermediate levels of cultural development. All of them, in different degrees, had primary and secundary systems. Division of powers, law, currency, taxes, archives, and so on.

Smaller cultures trapped in the jungle strip, in fact more than 3.500 tribes mostly organized around larger ethnic-linguistic groups**, only materialised primary systems. This is a common denominator of all recorded archaic cultures; secondary systems were not present (yet), still their function was replaced by animist cults, that dictated people's destiny in more or less authoritarian way. How alienated they lived is hard to know, not even by listening to oral traditions and stories. But considering the lack of literacy, undeveloped human rights and free thinking limitations observed in those tribes by both established African cultures and Europeans, the appreciation of the good savage inspired in Rousseau*** seems to be no more than a literary accident. It is impossible to progress in the jungle.

And yet, modern Man manage to industrialized most of the planet, following the knowledge originated in Summer (4000 BC), Babylonia (2000 BC), Persia (500 BC), Greece (500 BC), Rome (753 300 BC), Middle Ages (900), Mali (1300), the Renaissance (1500), Illuminism (1700), and Industrial Revolution (1800 onwards). Science, particularly useless and obsolet till the beginning of the 20th century, finally advanced in all fronts, dominated the atom and we went to the Moon in 1969.

At the same time, it seems we created an alienated society thanks to our dramatic detachment from Nature, consumerism and social apathy.

Technology & Identity

In recent decades some African countries built reasonable commercial facilities, ports, and infrastructure started to be developed. However, unlike other cultures in Europe, Asia or America, Africans seem to keep their identity while using any kind of new technology, including digital; within possibilities, they use all available technology. But do they need the West because of technology? African adopted it (we all do) before their needs.

If something keeps together Black African cultures is not only family relations, traditions, cults, but also something more intangible or invisible. We say "if" because from the West we tend to aggrupate what in reality cannot be hold together. A Somalian has nothing to do with any Bantu group.

Nevetheless, in Africa as a whole there are some cultural constants. It can be described through social anthropology, and has to do with why they do things, not only how. The way they approach life, work, nature and develop human relations, forms a self-contained world; diaspora and contemporary factors have changed that: traces of that aspect remain in us, for generations. 

For instance, the Wolof from Senegal think differently, time is different for them, they move quietly... until their women dance frantic Sabar on the beach for hours, following the loud hand and stick male's drums; Wolof walk and talk very differently from the way any Black American does, also different from any Bantu (Swahili, Xhosa, Zulu).

In Black Africa, each ethnic group has been reasonable detached from their neighbours, and, not to forget: Africa is the biggest continent and even with 1 billion inhabitants, the less populated in relation with its area of 30.1 million sq km.

Comparative History

Two and a half thousand years ago the differences between tribes in Europe and Africa were not relevant; but we can deduce in the latter a particular balance between cultural marks, differentiating one group from the others but yet, there are certain aspects that holds them together... but certainly, it is not skin complexion.

In Europe the differences were apparently less evident, for instance, between Goths and Germanic Tribes but later, compared with the Romans, the differences become evident. Rome, the highest cultural and technological Civilization in ancient Europe, marked the path for what we are today. He have nearly identical institutions (executive power, ministers, parliament, judiciary, civil, penal and commercial laws, international relations), economical systems (banks, interests, taxes), academia, architecture, and so on.

Kano State drumers (percussion event) Nigeria, circa 1965.

At first sight, African groups seems to be less permeable to foreigners, but, recalling the memories and travel logs of hundred of English and French explorers, most of the ethnics were friendly to meet foreigners, till the level of teaching them to speak their languages and traditions, with the exception of the deep jungle. The diversity of dialects, culinary traditions and cults is considerable, including Habitat, but most of them are gathered by a general extremely rational approach to Nature -today we would say ecological- that makes them experts in survival under extreme environments: impossible desert, dry open prairies, dense jungle, and cohabiting with wild beasts and all imaginable insects. This sort of "self contained quality" based on ways of relating with nature rather than exploiting it, is stronger in Africa than in other continents and it is still enhanced by proud people; particularly from those that inherited cultural patterns from Kingdoms or Empires, but till certain extent from most ethnic groups.

If the westernisation observed in Africa in the last two hundred years has to do with a logical and expected cultural levelling, the same observed in other parts of the world, almost everywhere, and how this affects cultural identities is subject to debate. On the other hand, there are political or ideological clashes in many parts of Africa, mostly because of extreme Islam (North), old tribal conflicts (Nigeria, Rwanda), and foreign interests (oil in South Sudan).

We cannot assure till which extent Africans are loosing identity because of using contemporary extensions (electricity, mobility) and information (media, tv, internet, mobiles, apps), they are fully integrated to the world, as much as they can: they want to be. In the Americas the situation has evolved in a positive way: compared with half a century ago, there are no major differences between White and Black middle class families; though it is a fact that still the majority of imprisioned people in the US are Black, which shows a dramatic unsolved social situation, in a country that became, like the rest of the world, sadistic and violent, mostly because of media and drugs.

The Digital Factor

There is a new factor: digital media. A deeper analysis based on observation and debates within the African academic community, should help outsiders to understand this phenomena, which is the main change the world is facing since the discovery of electricity: the speed of information has reached its limit (light speed), but thanks to virtuality, its storage capacity seems to be almost infinite.

Le "Nungesser et Coli" de Costes et le Brix, Première traverse de l'Atlantique Sud, St. Louis du Sénégal, Octobre 1927.

At the times of the exploration of deep Africa, which was simultaneous with the first carthography works, information had the speed of ships and horses; at the time of the Railways, the speed of the telegraph; at the time of the photo above, the speed of planes. The picture was taken hours before French WWI heroes Charles Nungesser and François Coli took off from Dakar to link Africa with South-America by plane, and tragically disappeared in the ocean. Today, information travels at the speed of light.

During the 60's the great Canadian thinker Marshall MacLuhan anticipated that things were changing dramatically all over the Earth, mostly because we were entering the last step of conceivable information technology, the digital era; he was right.

Zaire Lunda, playing the extraordinary Madimba Xilofon. Percussion was also a communication system between groups. circa 1960.

What we cannot state yet is how many further changes the medium, spreading information at the speed of light, will provoke in the world. The news are not promising. We are not positive about the evident consequences of detaching from materiality. Could Africa save the reality? Maybe it is already doing so.

* Hans Freyer (1887-1969) was a conservative German sociologist and philosopher. His early works influenced the German youth movement. He managed to react against the early Nazis. In 1925 he founded the sociology department at Leipzig. In 1929 Freyer wrote Soziologie als Wirklichkeitswissenschaft (Sociology as a "Science of Reality"), inspired in the term used by Max Weber (German economist and sociologist, he wrote The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1904), looking for the origins of sociology, saying that it came from the philosophy of history and requiered the assitance of science to understand society's evolution.

** Rousseau, Jean-Jacques (1712–78), French philosopher and writer, he believed that civilization ruins the goodness of human nature, only to be compensated by participating in democratic politics. Works: Émile (1762), The Social Contract (1762).

*** In alphabetical order: Afar and Amhara (Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia), Ewe (Kwa language from Ghana, Togo, Benin), Akan or Twi (Ghana and south Ivory Coast; also the Kwa language spoken in two dialects, Ashanti and Fante), Ashanti (Akan spoken by people from central Ghana, former Empire), Berber (Sahel), Dogon (Mali), Dinka (Sudan from Nile), Fang (Bantu dialect from parts of Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon), Hausa (Northern Nigeria, Chadic language from Niger), Hutu (Bantu speaking from Rwanda and Burundi), Ijaw (), Kongo (Bantu language around Congo River), Maasai (Nilotic language, Tanzania and Kenia), Mandinka (Mande language, together with Malinke, Mende, and Bambara, from people in Senegal, Gambia, and Sierra Leone), Pygmies (Mbuti and Twa peoples), San (Bushmen, Khoisan languages, South Africa), Shona (Bantu languages, southern Africa), Somali (Cushitic language, from Somalia, Djibout, parts of Kenya and Ethiopia), Tutsi (Watusi, Rwanda and Burundi), Wolof (language from Niger–Congo, people from Senegal and Gambia), Yoruba (Kwa lanuage from Nigeria and Benin), Zulu (Nguni language of people from South Africa province of KwaZulu-Natal). 

Read the next chapter, Africa's First Gift to the World, here.


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