By Breyten Breytenbach
Opening remarks for The ARTerial, Conference on Vitalizing African Cultural Assets Gorée Island, Senegal, 5-7 March 2007
Dear friends and colleagues,
I present my remarks under the heading of "Imagine Africa" because some time ago we here at the Gorée Institute decided to make this phrase - or concept and, of course, aspiration - the blue line running through all our deliberations and activities. You will see the commitment on most of our documents.
What do we intend to convey by such a line that may sound like a form of escape?
First, obviously, that we need to see Africa as it is - in all its brutality, excesses, riches, horror, humiliation, poverty, despair, squalor, posturing and display, beauty and creativeness. And this is a function of the imagination because we must make leaps in order to accommodate, in useful fashion, the complexity of the continent and from there draw sustenance for continued creativity.
Often there is a willful misreading of the reality we live in - for racist or paternalistic purposes to justify the fact that Africa is in effect left to wallow in non-development, or else to see it as an exotic and slightly dangerous object of folkloristic pity mixed with excitement; or again, the misreading may be self-serving because we Africans wish to continue portraying ourselves as victims of history.
So, to start with, we believe it is possible and very necessary to see the continent as clearly and therefore as imaginatively as we can. In the process we realized that we must ask questions. Such as: What, if anything, are the characteristics we share and collectively call 'African' from Cairo to the Cape, from Dakar to Mogadishu?
Are we talking history? Culture? Economics? Race? Or just this sad space between potential and shattered dreams?
Is the vaunted 'sameness' or 'difference' perhaps only in the eye of the outside beholder? We live in a bedlam or a beggar's paradise of supposedly autonomous nation-states. Are they viable or even useful? What do they correspond to? Is there any state on the continent, South Africa included, that can look after the legitimate expectations and needs of its citizens?
Let us go deeper: What are the contents - the rights and responsibilities - of citizenship for us? What is our definition of 'common purpose', 'common good' or even 'public good'? How much value do we put on the individual human life? Who does Africa in reality belong to?
What is the status and the protection of the hundreds of thousands of people moving across the continent from war zone to refugee camp, from poverty to peril, or even - as only too many do by any imaginable means - out of Africa altogether? Now, when it would seem that there is a general 'retraditionalization' of people - how do we read the phenomenon in terms of 'globalisation' (which is world consumerist capitalism) and 'modernity'?
What values did independence and liberation bring? What happened to those values?
Have we been living in borrowed clothes? Is there a peculiarly African way of articulating and administering power, let alone sharing it? Do we have effective checks against the abuses of privilege? What is the weight or the influence or even the sustainability and mandate of our civil society structures? What have we changed for the better since the 50 years of Ghanaian independence?
More precisely, what is the impact of our creators and observers, those whose very purpose of being is transformation, our community of artists? In other words - what has African imagination contributed to our understanding of what we are doing to one another and to the world?
These questions are rough and broad and I know that many answers exist and can even be demonstrated. But how honest are we in our answers?
A second dimension of our need to "Imagine Africa" is simply the recognition of the relationship between the imaginary and the real. I take it as common cause that part of the human condition, maybe the essential flame, is the process of imagining ourselves to be. We are who and what we are only in becoming.
We survive; we live because we try to conceive of the nature and the purpose of being. Our consciousness is constant invention or the recognition of what we may be, bounded by the possible.
Maybe this is not so unique to the human condition.
After all, do birds not imagine their territory and perhaps also the nature of their being through flight and song? Animals come to an experience of themselves by movement leaving traces as markers of memory.
It could be that life is awareness because it knowingly strives for imagining existence and thus questioning the sense and finality of the process. Leaving traces of ourselves, as in creative productivity, could then be seen as part of the definition of consciousness for us as well.
We know that in order to progress we must stretch for something just out of reach - if only for a life that will be more compassionate and decent than the cruelty, paranoia, greed, narrow corporatism or narcissism we mostly indulge in and find such ample justification for. And so we dream.
There's the personal dream to come to terms with the inevitability of being finite; there's the communal one of justice and freedom upon which we hope to secure the survival of the group. And then there is the dimension of moral imagination. This brings me to the third reason, for us, to "Imagine Africa."
How do we understand the terrible morbidity of young people in some of our cities - Monrovia, Freetown - dressing up as gaudy and tattered child brides with wigs and rouged faces to go out and kill indiscriminately?
How and since when did the AK47 become the instrument of initiation into adulthood?
How do we explain the maiming, the senseless mayhem, the raping of infants, the greed and the graft, the cynicism of our rulers, the absence of accountable governance buried under special pleading, the decay of our public ethics, the profound corrosion of individual and collective self-esteem because of our supposed victimhood?
Is it because our societies are stalked by death - endemic poverty and the plague of Aids? Or can it be because we never delivered on the dreams of liberation and emancipation?
I would postulate that we of this generation suffer from a massive failure of moral imagination.
Instead of responsible freedom we substituted self-enrichment and entitlement linked to cowardice, bad faith, the corruption of dependence, and that glorification of impotence or of posturing expressed as political correctness, where our languages were gutted of texture and colour and we posited our shrill interventions on the mumbo-jumbo of 'healing' and 'closure', changing the terms we use for looking at the objectionable in the hope of thus repressing horrible realities.
In some instances we even went through the sinister farce - or are still indulging in it - where 'confessing' to torture and repression is intended to lead to an absolution supposed to bring about 'reconciliation'. This must be a prime example of practising the hypocrisy of religious motivations as snake oil for social leprosy in order not to lose the essential: the power and the privileges of the rich and those whom they co-opt.
Anything, any show, any stuffed bird - but the firm commitment to proceed from our shared humanity to identify what is unacceptable and bring about justice!
What 'horizon of expectations' are we proposing to the young? How do we interpret the flight of at least 35,000 young people this last year, in pirogues and cayucos - with probably another 10,000 perishing in the sea or in the desert along the way - for a Europe where, at best, they will be shadow people?
This country just now saw the electoral victory of the candidate of populism and corruption and manipulation - which, concurrently, meant the rejection of that political caste identified with secular modernity.
To the south of here, we have a president pretending to cure Aids by the laying on of his healing hands - but only on Thursdays and just ten patients per month. And these ruling elites, the plunderers, the only act in town, are found all over Africa.
I want to quote to you from a recent newsletter by Tajudin Abdul-Raheem - one of the last Pan Africanists, also the Deputy Director Africa for the UN millennium campaign; in this letter he took a look at the present crop of African governors for life and of death and with the insight of long experience he came to the following assessment (I'll condense his words):
One: They come as liberators but the longer they stay in power the more they become oppressors, intolerant of dissension or even discussions within their own political and military formations...
Two: The vanguard of the masses slowly become the vanguard of the ruling party or clique and soon degenerates into the vanguard of the leader...
Three: They usually come with big dreams and enormous commitment to the masses, but the paraphernalia of power, the glitz, the pomp and pageantry and all the trappings take over... Add to that the institutionalised culture of sycophancy: jungle fatigues soon give way to the best of Saville Row suits, Gucci shoes, Rolex watches etc. The 'comrade' has now 'arrived' and will be in no hurry to vacate the State House which he ridiculed not so long ago...
Four: A ruling group that had been held together for many years by shared ideology and perspectives are more and more built around the personality of the leader, his family, in-laws, freelance opportunists and other cronies...
Five: The interests of the party, the government and the people become indistinguishable from the whims and the caprices of the Leader... To oppose him is to oppose the people.
Six: The progressive changes they have brought about in the country become 'gifts' from a benevolent leader to his hapless citizens...
Seven: Most of them were revolutionaries who began their political careers and rebel lives as firebrand anti-imperialists but soon became converts to the free market and are now new best friends with the imperialist countries, especially the USA and other Western powers...
Eight: These former revolutionaries who espoused Pan Africanism now resign themselves to 'better managing' the neo-colonial state and are soon engrossed in competition rather than cooperation with their former comrades... Liberators become looters and occupiers...
Nine and Ten: The twin evils of these leaders becoming both victims of their militaristic means of getting and retaining power, and wallowing in external validation by the same Western powers who not that long ago praised our erstwhile dictators as 'moderate'.
With no coherent, shared political project; with little job opportunity in the offing; with families falling apart; with Western consumerist appetites forced down their throats; with estrangement and obscurantism haunting them like sombre fires - what kind of "Imagine Africa" can we hold up to the young?
You may now ask, what does my litany of despair have to do with the aims of this conference? We at the Institute believe it is possible to imagine Africa differently, and certainly culture is one way to go about it. But our struggle for light and ultimately our success will be at the cost of brutal honesty, of questioning all the holy cows and taboos, and of remaining engaged to stay the course.
It is clear from the thorough way in which the conference was prepared that we will visit and describe the cultural situation as it is, and identify the causes for the absence of viable and sustainable cultural spaces and practices.
Maybe we will be able to make a useful distinction between the so-called 'culture' of entitlement by which cultural manifestations are hijacked by the new hegemonists of the party-state in their attempt to rewrite history - often funded by the private sector hoping to secure their stranglehold on the economy - supposedly for the benefit of the majority but in fact to camouflage the absence of real transformation, as opposed to those actions and expressions of creativity that must always challenge and undermine the power and the pretensions of orthodoxy.
Creativeness, in our case, if it were to be not only the celebration of lies but truly enriched by our environment and the lives of ordinary people, will of necessity give offence to the powerful.
The new horizon we propose must be shaped by questioning all assumptions of legitimacy and 'historical truth', or the glib justifications of nation-building and purported majority rule; it cannot afford to succumb to the dictates of the lowest common denominator.
In art, ethical clarity (which is not the same as certainty) is the prerequisite for keeping our tools sharp and effective. It is also our specific expression of solidarity with all those who are oppressed. As cultural practitioners we just cannot afford to assume, for instance, that market ideology is a moral imperative. All of the above implies, I think, an ongoing awareness of the nature of awareness and accountability.
I know we are here to promote better practices in assuring a sustainable cultural environment, and how these practices and systems may contribute to viable economies. But I also hope that this conference will underline the extent to which cultural creativity participates in the shaping of personal identity, and thus of responsibility and dignity.
I hope we can recognize how vital it is to understand and promote the progressive dialectic between, at one end, the riches of diversity and their expressions and, at the other, the over-arching and shared goals of national and historic entities. At this interface of reciprocal and mutual shaping the culture of transformation appears. And Africa is rich first of all because of its diversity.
Take the issue of national languages as contribution to this dialectic. A writer like Kenya's Ngugi wa Thiong'o has made it clear to us that language is more than just a means of communication; it is the essence of our being, the very core of our soul as African people and (I quote) "the medium of our memories, the link between space and time, the basis of our dreams."
One's mother language, any language, is the living repository of the experiences of the people from many origins and stations who gave tongue to it over the ages. It is the tool we have for transforming our understanding of the world we live in, by shaping its expressions.
For Ngugi using and promoting the mother tongue is not simply a reaction against the supposedly economic pragmatism of globalisation; it is more about resurrecting the African soul from centuries of slavery and colonialism that left it spiritually empty, economically disenfranchised and politically marginalized. Ngugi believes that when you erase a people's language you obliterate their memory.
And people without memories are rudderless, unconnected to their own histories and culture, mimics who have placed their knowledge-of-self-and-other in a "psychic tomb" in the mistaken belief that if they master their coloniser's language they will own it and be allowed to sit as equals at the dinner table to use it as fork, however clumsily.
It is not easy to eat crumbs with a foreign fork. Such a people, because of their alienation, will become dangerous to themselves and to others. Like hooligan parrots.
The continuity and constant evolution of one's language is also the connection through which one can understand and assume responsibility for one's actions. Borrowing the feathers of the master in order to look like him is a ploy to move away from one's own responsibility for history, perhaps from the banality of evil as Hannah Arendt understood it.
When you lose the transforming tool of your own language, which resonates from far deeper than mere parrot learning, you lose the capacity for accessing the true dimension of events and thus the ability to comprehend the banality of evil. You deprive yourself of the means of fully understanding and assuming the moral circumstances from which such evil arose.
That is when, Arendt argues, we start to generalise and think of criminals as monsters. There can be no collective responsibility, she says; if that were the case we would deny all true and verifiable accountability and thereby evacuate the problem.
Ultimately it is not just a cop-out; one can see how such an approach helps to constitute the environment in which genocide may occur. Indeed, we cannot deal with crime if we elevate it as some collective monstrosity. I therefore hope that this conference, besides promoting the practical environment of development, will also recognize the absolute importance of that which perhaps cannot be quantified - memory and imagination.
We here at the Gorée Institute have always believed that concepts and practices of democracy (or democratisation, because it is a conduct and not necessarily a state), development and culture overlap to thus profoundly define one another.
That is why we identified ourselves from the outset as a Centre for promoting Democracy, Development and Culture in Africa. The aesthetics of interacting with the environment, of experiences morphing through art into objects and processes of beauty, constitute the ground for ethical consciousness. Beauty - however we conceive of it (but we always recognize it) - is a way toward accessing ethical values.
Conscience flows from consciousness; the other way round would constitute moral dogma.
Let me conclude with something less harsh and arduous. Islands are places of wind - of passage, exchange, becoming other. In fact, islands are enactments of permanent moving. Here, where there is the creolisation of awareness-being which some pompously call 'culture', one is changed. (Maybe the I-land irrevocably splits one-ness; the parrot has only the wind to imitate!) Remember that 'purity' is the opposite of integrity. Islands, like this one, are also places where one may, paradoxically, be cured from an intoxication with power.
I have three wishes.
One: That we may find productive ways of working toward establishing a rosary of such islands all around and over the continent as havens of fearless confrontation and creativity where strong winds may blow, as outcrops of a Middle World that will not be defined/defiled by patriotism and pomp and the corrupting addiction to power. That we can then, from these offshore spaces of 'democracy' work toward better harmonising our means through the building of partnerships.
Maybe we can call these ships!
Two: That each one of you may wish to imagine a flag to be raised to the memory of wind and the force of imagination. A flag is the shaping of wind, both its veiling and the unveiling.
Three: That this meeting may be deeply disturbing in its questioning of all assumptions and platitudes of 'truth', and thereby happy and satisfying.
And - if I may be greedy and add a fourth wish - that we may from now on avoid the frustrating 'way forward' cemeteries where too many problems are laid to rest under the cold earth of good intentions and nice-parrot resolutions.
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