A cultural foundation for communicating reconciliation in Africa

By  on March 09, 2005

Many an observer, like Ali Mazrui (1994:134), has noted that Africans have a ‘culture of tolerance’ and a ‘short memory of hate’ that makes of them ‘people more sinned against than sinning’, people keener to forgive and forget than to exact restitution and rehabilitation. Not even apartheid and its monstrous indignities would push Africans to go beyond ‘truth and reconciliation’ with those who for decades debased and violated their humanity with little compunction. As president of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Archbishop Desmond Tutu acknowledged this when he wrote: ‘We have been humbled and deeply touched by the nobility and generosity of spirit of those who, despite so much pain and anguish, have amazed the world by their willingness to forgive the perpetrators of all these dastardly deeds of darkness’ sponsored by apartheid (Tutu, 1996:v).

The spirit is no different towards internal divisions among Africans. Although the continent is marked by conflicts and wars, some of which have occasioned horrendous massacres and extreme suffering, the doors are never closed to reconciliation. Thus the question, what is it in African social set up and institutions, in African cultures, customs or belief systems, that privilege dialogue and reconciliation, when normal logic would expect more radical attitudes? What explains this tendency to forgive and forget in Africa? Why is such high premium placed on reconciliation?

My argument is that the answer lies partly in notions of personhood and human agency shared broadly across the continent. Where other societies have opted to enshrine individual freedom at the detriment of collective aspirations, African communities have tended to seek ways of reconciling the individual with his/her community. I touch only briefly on this culturally informed idea of reconciliation here, given that space does not allow me to explore these mechanisms in detail. But I have discussed this in greater detail elsewhere (cf. Nyamnjoh, 2000).

Most Africans see agency not in terms of dependence or independence, but interdependence. Too much of the theory of agency elsewhere merely asks about the empowerment of the individual and the extent to which individuals are creators or creatures of the social structures wherein they operate (cf. Giddens, 1993:705-731; Cohen, 1987; Davies, 1991). Hence neglected is the central question: How are individuals able to be who they are - agents - through relationships with others? The same holds for communities. Here the question is: How do communities as corporate bodies articulate and defend collective or group interests in a world of hegemonies of all kinds? In Africa, agency is open to individuals and groups alike, and discussions of it should not be limited to the empowerment of the individual alone, but extended to include how the quest for individual fulfilment negotiates conviviality with collective interests which may include but are not limited to their cultural dimensions.

Conviviality as employed here, refers to a negotiated understanding between different or competing agents. English dictionaries are agreed on what convivial and conviviality mean. An individual, a group of people, or an atmosphere is said to be convivial when festive, gay, and sociable. The connotation is one of good company where enmity and gloom have no place, and where an individual or group can legitimately afford to be merry, jolly, cheerful, hearty, genial, friendly and jovial. In a convivial setting, one can risk a glass too many and be hilarious in extreme, without fear of being taken advantage of, because one knows that one is in good-fellowship, that one is secure, that one is part of a whole imbued with the spirit of togetherliness, interdependence and intersubjectivity. Conviviality thus stresses empowerment for individuals and groups alike, and not the marginalisation of the one by or for the other.

In our quest for ways in which communication could be used to promote reconciliation, we should provide theoretical space for agency that guarantees not only individual rights and freedoms, but also that reconciles these with the interests of communal and cultural solidarities (which interests are more than just the composite of many individual interests). A reality which, in the case of Africa, is one of a ‘mix between the individual legacy of liberalism and collectivist legacy of ethnicity’ (von Lieres, 1999:143). Ferguson talks of a ‘full house’ of cultural styles that combine the local and the cosmopolitan in the same space as survival strategy (Ferguson, 1999:82-122), especially given the constraining reality of Africa being at the fringes of global consumer capitalism. Not only does this reality provoke or reinforce survival strategies where there is ‘no fixed divide between self and other’, but also an interconnectedness that is marked by continuous centrifugal and centripetal pressures within and among nations ‘to assert and elaborate particular identities’ or ‘to create broader, more universalistic alliances’ for strategic purposes (P. Werbner, 1997a:248-249). In a context where individuals and groups are more than contingent hybrids, where the fascination with boundaries and belonging makes the experience of hybridity ‘disturbing and shocking for some’ and ‘revelatory’ for others (P. Werbner, 1997b:22), and where marginality limits action and creativity for both individuals and groups, discussions of agency should be informed by the reality of the creative quest for survival on the ground. Discussions of agency in Africa should provide for a context in which influences from different historical sources have been creatively synthesised into a new reality that is less one of autonomy or dependence than interconnectedness, an interconnectedness that starts in the home and extends into the world at large. In other words, creole/pidgin/hybrid reality such as the accounts depicted in Karin Barber’s Readings in African Popular Culture (1997), calls for hybrid/pidgin/creole ideas of agency as it calls for new notions of community and conviviality.

As Jean-Pierre Warnier (1999), individuals are not entirely under influences, at the mercy of external forces from within or outside the society to which they belong. Individuals exercise a certain amount of freedom and rationality in their daily actions, and must make decisions and choose between different paths even in the most confining of social worlds. When acting in the society, individuals, in order to achieve their goals, must however take into account and provide for the actions of others. Achievement, in other words, is always within and as part of, or on behalf of a group of people who legitimate and recognise that achievement. In this regard, culture and identification play an important orientational role by providing repertoires and representations for individuals to draw from, in order that they may act in concert with expectations recognized by their groups. By accepting these repertoires, the individuals affirm their belonging while acting on their own behalf, even in matters of conflicts of power and interest that oppose them to other actors. Thus culture could be likened to a compass that facilitates action without necessarily determining it. In this sense culture is the capacity to bring to play references, frames of action and communication. It is a capital of incorporated habits that structure the activities of those who possess it. Culture is the whole repertoire of action, language and styles which enables a person to recognise their belonging to a given social group and to identify with the group in question, without necessarily being confined by it.

Importance of cultural identity

Discussing agency calls for scrutiny of the importance of cultural identity in the lives of individuals and groups. Traditionally, anthropologists have tended to see cultures as unique, and as being geographically or socially localised. Culture has also been seen as a factor of identification for groups and individuals and of differentiation from others, as well as of orientation of social actors in relation to one another and to their environment. Culture and tradition are, however, not frozen or stagnant as the individuals and groups that partake of any culture or tradition actively shape and reshape this in their daily endeavours. Cultures change because they are enmeshed in the turbulence of history, and because each act, each signification, each decision risks opening new meanings, vistas, and possibilities. In order to stay faithful to their role as orientation or compass, cultures must integrate change, which by no means entails throwing the baby out with the bath-water.

Few changes succeed in the form of a clean sweep, the total replacement of what is there with what is new. There is always something old in the new even if the new cannot be reduced to the old. With accelerated flows and interactions of diverse cultural products as a result of globalisation, it is important to re-examine whether it makes sense to continue talking of individuals and groups as belonging to given cultures like fettered slaves and zombies, or confined like canned sardines.

If cultures are subject to influences from without and tinkering from within, and to reformulation in accordance with historical contexts, what does this say of culturally specific conceptualisations of agency? Within the context of globalisation, it is possible for a single individual to assume multiple identifications that draw from different linguistic, cultural or religious repertoires, depending on the context (cf. R. Werbner, 1996; Barber, 1997; Warnier, 1999). If cultures prescribe behaviour and beliefs, and if an individual or group is exposed to competing cultural codes or styles in this way, should we talk of identity in the singular in relation to that individual or group - especially as cultures take a lot of time to be transmitted, assimilated or undone? What do we have to say about agency inspired by drawing from multiple cultural repertoires? How do individuals and groups come to terms with the fact that identity in the age of globalisation is not determined solely by birth nor entirely by choices made by individuals or groups?

Communication for reconciliation in Africa has everything to gain by drawing from the interconnectedness of peoples, cultures and societies through individuals as products, melting-pots and creative manipulators or jugglers of multiple identities. This understanding has been impaired by the stubborn insistence on Identity (in singular and with a capital I) even among academics. The tendency has been and remains to essentialise, that is: ‘to impute a fundamental, basic, absolutely necessary constitutive quality to a person, a social category, ethnic group, religious community, or nation’; ‘to posit falsely a timeless continuity, a discreteness or boundedness in space, and an organic unity; or ‘to imply an internal sameness and external difference or otherness’ (P. Werbner, 1997a:228).

In the fondoms of the Cameroon grassfields (an area where I have done extensive ethnographic research), one comes across sayings that show an appreciation by people of the area for the individual as a social being.1 On one of these, I focus my discussion of agency as interconnectedness and conviviality. A child is one person’s only in the womb.2 But this statement has more than one meaning, and sometimes could be quite ambiguous. Its most common usage reinforces the idea of the individual as a child of the community, as someone allowed to pursue the fulfilment of his/her needs but not his greed. You belong to your mother exclusively only when still in the womb. Once delivered, you are expected to be of service to the wider community, first to incorporate your father, and then to extend your network of mothers and parents to include even the childless, and to bury your greed along with your umbilical cord. Your creativity, abilities and powers have got to be harnessed in order to be acknowledged and provided for. Agency has meaning only as domesticated agency: the freedom to pursue individual or group goals within a socially predetermined frame that emphasises conviviality with collective interests at the same time that it allows for individual creativity and self-fulfilment. Social visibility or notability derives from (or is facilitated by) being interconnected with others in a communion of interests. You are not expected to decline rendering service to this or that person, because they are not family. Even the passing stranger from a distant land should benefit from your sociality. In other words, this statement is an invitation to parents to endow their children with the necessary community spirit, so that the rest of society could share in the child’s successes and good fortune, while relieving the immediate family of the burden of dealing single-handedly with the child’s failures and misfortunes. Because of the vicissitudes of life, it pays to be modest about personal success and measured in one’s ambitions, given the tendency towards temporality, transience or impermanence of such individual success.

Through domesticated agency the collectivity shares the responsibility of success and the consequences of failure with the active and creative individual, thereby lightening the pressure on individuals to prove themselves in a world of ever diminishing opportunities even for the most talented. Domesticated agency does not deny individuals the freedom to associate or to be self-reliant, initiative and independent, but simply places premium on interdependence as a check against the possibility of dependence in the light of the impermanence of independent success. Achievement is devoid of meaning if not pursued within and as part of and on behalf of a group of people who recognise and endorse that achievement. For only by making success collective could individuals make their failures a collective concern as well. It is a statement that emphasises negotiation, concession and conviviality over maximization of pursuits by individuals or by particular groups in contexts of plurality and diversity. Acknowledgement and appreciation would be reserved and room created for excellence especially for individuals who demonstrate how well they are ready to engage with collective interests. Individuals who refuse to use their endowments towards enhancing their community, are most likely to be denied the public space to articulate their personal desires, and like Cinderella, find themselves dependent on external agents and muses, or confined to singing their little songs in their little corners: ‘In my own little corner in my own little chair I can be whatever I want to be.’

In a context where most settlements still suited the resilient anthropological idea of communities and cultures as geographically homogenous and bounded units, and at a life stage where individuals stayed fairly close to home, it was easy to see and perhaps become confined by this first meaning of a child is one person’s only in the womb. However, as schooling, the search for a better life at the various centres of modernity, and the nation-building efforts of the central government increasingly led individuals to break free of the limitations of distance and isolation, and also provided for competing instances of social control, it became increasingly clear that there was or could be another interpretation to a child is one person’s only in the womb. This second meaning acknowledges that even infants in the grassfields, like the Beng babies in Côte D’Ivoire Alma Gottlieb has studied, are perceived to be highly conscious, and ‘accorded a high degree of agency’ in both a biological and an intellectual sense (Gottlieb, 1998:131). It also points to the fact that a child could outgrow social structures, culture, identity or community of origin to become something more. Or simply, that a child could stand at the margins of its own culture and community, playing a delicate balancing act of endorsing and questioning at the same time, and taking advantage of little concessions (openings) here and there to foster its own ends and ideas of belonging. Just as the fact of having been of the womb can never be refuted, a child could never completely erase the impact of its society, culture or identity of origin, although being always able to add onto it (in an often creative and original manner) influences from elsewhere or from its very own genius.

Conclusion

This article sketches the role media and communication could play in fostering reconciliation in Africa. It argues that media institutions and practitioners could learn from a widely shared cultural tendency towards conviviality and interdependence in Africa. The article therefore challenges frequent impressions in literature that agency is an undifferentiated phenomenon in any society, open to some and not to others, and those who have it must prove their independence through conflictual and antagonistic relationships with others and with society. It also challenges the parallel impression that imputes agency to the West and celebrates the Westerner and his/her impact on the rest of the world where tradition and custom are portrayed as obstacles to individual progress and achievement. It argues against such reductionist views of agency, and acknowledges the fact that agency may take different forms, and most particularly, that it is construed and constructed differently in different societies, informed by history, culture and economic factors.

Agency in most African societies is both individual and collective, and involves a lot of negotiation and concessions by the individual and the communities to which they belong both at the micro and macro levels. It is important to understand how agency is recognised, fostered and contained in various localities, in order best to comprehend the interaction between globalisation and local communities on the one hand, and the creative processes of negotiation, straddling, interconnectedness, hybridity, intersubjectivities and multiple identities of peripheral societies or their elements in the diaspora in the postcolonial era. The future of communication for reconciliation in Africa lies in us reconciling ourselves to this fact, and to the lessons that indigenous African cultures could offer in this regard.

Notes

1 In the western grassfields of Cameroon, Kings or Chiefs are known as fon, so by fondoms here I mean kingdom or chiefdom.

2 In Bum: ‘wa wuta mogk mo ke wulah’ and in Kom: ‘wayn wul mo’nin go’ilva’.

References

Barber, K., (ed.), (1997), Readings in African Popular Culture. James Currey: Oxford.

Cohen, I.J., (1987), ‘Structuration Theory and Social Praxis’ in: Anthony Giddens & Jonathan Turner (eds.), Social Theory Today, Polity Press: Cambridge.

Davies, B., (1991), ‘The Concept of Agency: A Feminist Poststructuralist Analysis’ in: Social Analysis, No.30, pp.42-53.

Ferguson, J., (1999), Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt, University of California Press: Berkeley.

Giddens, A., (1993), Sociology, Polity Press: Cambridge.

Gottlieb, A., (1998), ‘Do Infants Have Religion?: The Spiritual Lives of Beng Babies’ in: American Anthropologist, Vol.100(1):122-135.

Mazrui, A., (1994), ‘Development in a Multi-Cultural Context: Trends and Tensions’ in: Ismail Serageldin and June Taboroff (eds.) Culture and Development in Africa. The World Bank: Washington. pp. 127-136.

Nyamnjoh, F.B., (2000), ‘A child is one person’s only in the womb’: Domestication and Agency in the Cameroonian Grassfields. Paper presented at Ph.D & Post-doc seminar on Personhood and Agency in African Studies, University of Leiden, 27-29 September 2000.

Tutu, D., (1996), ‘Preface’ in: Biko, S., I Write What I Like. Ravan Press: Randburg. (pp.v-vi).

Von Lieres, A., (1999), ‘Review Article: New Perspectives on Citizenship in Africa’ in: Journal of Southern African Studies. Vol.25(1):139-148.

Warnier, J.-P., (1999), La Mondialisation de la Culture. Editions la Découverte: Paris.

Werbner, P., (1997a), ‘Essentialising Essentialism, Essentialising Silence: Ambivalence and Multiplicity in the Constructions of Racism and Ethnicity’ in: Pnina Werbner & Tariq Modood (eds.), Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism, Zed Books: London (pp.226-254).

Werbner, P., (1997b), ‘Introduction: The Dialectics of Cultural Hybridity’ in: Pnina Werbner & Tariq Modood (eds.), Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Anti-Racism, Zed Books: London (pp.1-26).

Werbner, R., (1996), ‘Introduction: Multiple Identities, Plural Arenas’ in: Richard Werbner & Terence Ranger (eds.) Postcolonial Identities in Africa. Zed Books Ltd: London. pp.245-270.

Francis B. Nyamnjoh (PhD) is Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Botswana.


March 09, 2005
Categories:  Media Development

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