Monday 28 September 2009

Indigenous Culture, Africans and the Double Standard

When immigration is colonisation, why are Africans allowed to preserve their indigenous culture and ask whites to leave, but whites are denied the right to prevent immigration and protect our indigenous cultures as to do so is racist ?

IV. The Taboo

As she oversaw the mass planting of trees, Maathai steadily realised the ripping up and hacking down of the forests is only a symptom of a much-wider problem – one that was crippling Africa. "The disease remained. What made our leaders treat their own country like it was a colony, not something they were part of? It was the same disease that causes corruption and very bad leadership." There was something wrong in how African societies worked – something so deep and puzzling that she has just written a whole book trying to figure it out, called The Challenge For Africa. She touches on many problems, from global warming to unfair trade policies, but the most intriguing section is one that breaches a taboo about Africa – the fact that most Africans identify not with their country, but with their tribe.

"Colonialism destroyed Africans' cultural and spiritual heritage," she says. "Any culture is accumulated knowledge and wisdom, built up over millennia. It tells you how to live in your environment, how to understand life. All our accumulated knowledge was wiped out in just a few years. It wasn't written down, so it died with our elders. Now it is lost forever." This had many effects: "Before, there was something deep in our culture that made us respect the environment. We didn't look at trees and see timber. We didn't look at elephants and see ivory. It was in our culture to let them be. That was wiped out." Part of her work is trying to restore that lost sense of respect for the ecosystem – one that has been proved essential by science.

But this erasure of African culture also left another wound, one harder still to rectify. "It left us with a terrible lack of self-knowledge. Who are we? This is the most natural question for human beings. What group do I belong to? Where did I come from? We no longer had an answer." They were told to forget what came before. In Kenya when the British invaded, there were 42 different tribes – or "micro-nations", as she prefers to call them, because it removes the taint of "primitivism". These old identities were supposed to be abandoned for an identity that consisted of lines arbitrarily draw on a map by their European killers. "The modern African state is a superficial creation: a loose collection of ethnic communities brought together by the colonial powers," she says. "Most Africans didn't understand or relate to the nations created for them. They remained attached to their micronations."

The result has been "a kind of political schizophrenia. Africans have been obscured from ourselves. It is like we have looked at ourselves through another person's mirror – and seen only cracked reflections and distorted images." They have been told to adopt identities like "Kenyan" that make no sense to them. "It is impossible to speak meaningfully of a South African, Congolese, Kenyan or Zambian culture," she explains. "There are only micronations. But we are still living in denial. We are denying who we are."

The result is that when a leader comes to power, he doesn't try to govern on behalf of his people – and they don't expect him to. He delivers for his own tribe, at the expense of the others. "What they call 'the nation' is a veneer laid over a cultureless state – without values, identity, or character," she says. The mechanism of democratic accountability breaks down: the leader is not expected to serve his people, but only a small fraction of them. Elections consist of different tribes fighting to hijack the state to use in their own interests. The system of winner-takes-all democracy – where you need 50.5 per cent of the vote and get 100 per cent of the power – encourages this, and will never work in Africa, she says.

Maathai believes there is a way out of this – but it is absolutely not to pretend tribes don't exist, or to urge people to simply overcome these identities. "We have been telling people to transcend their micronations for so long, and it hasn't happened. They are urged to shed the identity of their micronations and become citizens of the new modern state, even though no African really knows what the character of that modern state might be beyond a passport and an identity card. It doesn't work." The tribal violence in Kenya last year after the election was, she says, even more proof.

She wants to find another route. Instead of a melting pot that pretends all identities will merge into one, she wants to create a salad bowl – one where every piece is different, but together they form a perfect whole. "Instead of all attempting the impossible task of being the same, we should learn to embrace our diversity," she writes in the book. "African children should be taught that the peoples of their country are different in some ways, but because of Africa's historical legacy, they need to work together ... The different micro-nations would be much more secure and likely to flourish if they accepted who they are and worked together. In my view, Africans have to re-embrace their micronational cultures, languages and values, and then bring the best of them to the table of the nation state."

In addition to conventional parliaments, she says that in each African nation there should be assemblies bringing together all the different tribal groups, modelled on the United Nations. There, they could find common ground, and negotiate areas of disagreement. "It is the only way to heal a psyche wounded by denial of who they really are," she says. Every African should rediscover and feel comfortable in their tribal identity, and feel it is properly represented in the political structures of the state. Only then can they share and live together, she believes. That way, everyone will feel they have a stake in the state all the time – not just when one of their men has managed to seize the reins.

She discovered this sense of calm when, in her forties, she rediscovered her Kikuyu roots. The Kikuyus had regarded the trees and Mount Kikuyu's glaciers as the closest thing they had to a sacred being, something worthy of respect. She too found value there, rather than in the dessicated texts left behind by the colonialists. "When they erased our culture, we were left with a vacuum, and it was filled with the values of the Bible – but that is not the coded values of our people."

But isn't there a danger that you are romanticising past cultures and the equally-irrational beliefs that went with them? Weren't these cultures also committed to keeping women separate and subordinate? Isn't your great achievement to break with the traditional subordination of women? She nods. "Culture is a double-edged sword," she says. "It can be used to strike a blow for empowerment, or to keep down somebody who wants to be different. There are negative aspects to any culture. We should only retain what is good. We were taught for so long that what came before colonialism was all bad. It wasn't. We were told our attachment to the land was primitive and a block on progress. It wasn't. We had a ritual – ituika – through which leaders were accountable to their people and could be changed. And people took what they needed but didn't accumulate or destroy in the process. Those are values we need to rebuild in Africa."

She suddenly leans forward and says: "That is the way we will save the rainforests, and prevent global warming!" She is going to follow this goal with the same feverish intensity that drove her from a mud-hut to the Nobel Prize, and enabled her to stand firm through beatings and imprisonments so she could knock down a dictator. Can will-power and a relentless focus on the solution pull us through the climate crisis as it pulled her through a tyranny?

Before I can ask this, she stands up. "Now I must finish packing. My flight is so soon, and my clothes are all over the room!" In a whirl of bright green, she laughs and limps off through the lobby. She has a slightly pained gait, the result of too many nights sleeping on the floor of damp jail cells. She turns back and waves with a strange bend in her back – as if she is still weighed down, after all this time, by the ghost of that single felled fig tree she failed to save.

"The Challenge For Africa" by Wangari Maathai is published by William Heinemann Limited. To order a copy at the special price of £18, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

this reminds me of the white liberal do gooders who protest the rights of amozonian rainforest tribes from colonisation and exploitation. yet in the next breath assume that any white person who wants to protect their same culture and heritage are neo nazis.