'Impoverished' Africa offers cultural gifts to the world

Thom Blair, Online Columnist

It evokes images of poverty, ignorance and disaster. Globalisation and technology wreak heartbreak and broken economies. Yet Africa's living cultures are notable for their contributions to social knowledge say a new wave of authors and museum curators.

Ancestral aphorisms give insights into African philosophies of life, say Danielle and Olivier Föllmi in African Wisdom 365 Days, London: Thames and Hudson. They reflect an all-encompassing view of life: how things started, how social structures work, and how to remain mentally healthy.

The authors reveal untold treasures of exemplary teaching and inherited wisdom of African people - from the Himba shepherds to the Peul nomads, from the deserts of Namibia to the forests of Rwanda, and the savannah of Cameroon.

Moreover, the cultural well-springs of African heritage are evident in the works of the giants of literature, Cheikh Anta Diop, Léopold Sédar Senghor and in the poetics of Alioune Diop, Aimé Césaire, and Marcelino Dos Santos. Homage to Africa appears in the works of modern writers such as Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiongo, and Mariama Bâ. Political leaders like Amilcar Cabral, Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Nelson Mandela have all explored their linguistic and cultural roots. And, idioms of freedom abound in literature, the popular arts and music in every traditional African and European ex-colonial language.

The biggest surprise is that meaningful images of African life, of places and people, are combined with sayings that make you think. Oral traditions of the Bambara, Bantu, Koi Koi (the so-called  'Bushmen'), Kikuyu, Mandingo, Mossi, Swahili and Wolof peoples all express the sentiments of self-discipline, community bonding, and honouring the ancestors.

Aminata Traore, a contributor, sees the gathering of villagers as the embodiment of African community organisation. "In the local assemblies, the relations between men and women, young and old, between different ethnic groups and religions are re-examined, prejudices challenged, discrimination discouraged, and conflicts defused".

Anyone taking the time to surf the net will discover that this heritage  — particularly of the Yoruba, Kongo and Mande peoples - resonates across the African Diaspora. Witness the altars of the Santeria and palo mayombe in Cuba, candomble in Brazil and Vodun in Haiti. Consider the voices of historians, anthropologists, dancers and musicians such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, Richard Wright, Eslande Robeson, Katherine Dunham, John Henrik Clark, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Scott Joplin and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

The curious surfer might come upon the groundbreaking proto-type of the Museum of African Art that curators say promises to add texture to the New York Africa art scene. To be situated on the edge of Harlem at 110th and Fifth Avenue, it will complement existing African holdings in the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and the Museum for African Art. Speaking of which, an extraordinary exhibition of the arts of the African Eternal Ancestors attracts thousands to the renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is said that Africa is a poor continent; that people cannot eat. But arts, languages and cultures are its soul. This social knowledge identifies the continent, its people and cultures, as important contributions to humanity.

* Thom Blair is editor and publisher of the Chronicleworld website http://wwwchronicleworld.org