African Identity and Globalisation

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We should be talking about recreating the world instead of conforming to globalisation. The Senegalese author Boubacar Boris Diop calls for a resistance to globalisation by African creators.

In the early 1990s, the young Burkinabe director, Idrissa Ouedraogo made the now-famous statement, « I am not an African filmmaker, I am a filmmaker. » Since then it has become common for African novelists, painters and musicians of the new generation to refer to themselves as citizens of the world to break away from negritude. In my opinion, it is no coincidence that this attitude coincided with the end of the Cold War. Coming from « black African » creators, these statements very much broke with the previous decades, during which African intellectuals seemed to be solely concerned with reconstructing the Black identity that had been waylaid by centuries of slavery and colonisation. Why did their successors suddenly want to reject their roots so vehemently? The « patricide » may have been a means of survival. The fall of the Iron Curtain both signified the decline of the communist world and heralded a shift from inter-state economic relations to a global economy. Concerned that they might miss a major turning point, the young African cultural creators refused to be bound by a discourse that could be considered dated, or the product of hang-ups.
This was a sign of the times. It was as if the death of ideology – always spoken of but never proven – signified the death of thought itself, and globalisation was the measure of all reflection, to the extent that some saw it as a « new obscurantism ».
Nevertheless, accusing globalisation of being the source of all evil seems a little excessive. Artists from all over the world have even thought it capable of fulfilling their dream of a peaceful, homogenous world. They started referring to other artists from all over the world in their paintings, films and writing, which gave them a new sense of direction and provided the stimulation for artistic modernity.
For probably the first time ever culture – now a veritable industry – was making artists rich and providing a decent living for millions of others.
However, the openness of this shrinking world masks a far more austere reality. The genuine artists have been replaced by faceless managers who readily sacrifice the inherent meaning and originality of their works to the god of profitability. The only means of fuelling this vehicle to false sentiment is by convincing the customer to consume their lightweight mass-produced and easily replaceable products.
Furthermore, globalisation excludes so many individuals and so many poor countries that one might wonder whether it is not somewhat illusory, or, even worse, a lie. Despite some very real advances, access to knowledge and technical know-how is still very unevenly distributed. In a world where 20% of the earth’s population shares 85% of available resources, 855 million people can neither read nor write and 820 million people are constantly hungry. Preaching about information highways to people who do not even have electricity is a little bit cruel!
If a rich country like France has such a need to proclaim a « cultural exception » to protect its film industry, how much worse must be situation in Mozambique, Madagascar or Cameroon. These three countries belong to a continent that contributed a mere 1.7% of world exports in 1997, compared with 41% for Europe, 66% for the United States and 7.8% for Japan alone. In such countries, poverty creates a cultural divide quickly filled by multinational companies, with the result that African artists are tempted to stray from their chosen path to sell their works on the global market.
It has to be said that they do not always have cause to complain. The African music industry, for example, has gained some very real benefits from the new situation. Because music is at once personal and universal, as well as being highly mobile, it is responsible for several impressive success stories. However, fame does not come cheaply and, international success prompts others to follow by adapting African sounds to international – and largely Western – tastes. The fact is that the big African musicians become popular at home once they have received the seal of approval from foreign audiences. Strong presence in what Warnier calls the « media trap » is enough to guarantee their fame and fortune. Everyone knows the rules of the game and, in a business where money is more powerful than art, the musicians themselves are more than a little cynical about the situation. They know full well that in the not necessarily subtle dosing methods required in « World Music », it is important that they target a distant clientele seeking exoticism above all else. It is difficult to determine whether this is a good or a bad thing. After all, the music industry provides both work and dreams for thousands of young Africans and gives millions of others the impression that they are the actors in a kind of global modernity. The nicest aspect of globalisation is the fact that young people from all around the world can communicate with ease in a musical language virtually unintelligible to adults.
However, far more serious harm has been done to the film industry in Africa. The newly independent African states made film policy a priority, producing films and ensuring their distribution more or less effectively. Filmmakers like Sembène Ousmane, Lakhdar Amina or Med Hondo expressed, even in their opposition to the governing regime, a vision of hope for the nations under reconstruction. The arrival of Hollywood mega-productions and European films that have monopolised the small screen put a considerable spanner in the works and structural realignments, which translate into hefty cuts in the cultural sector, have overturned the rules governing cinematographic production. Between 1992 and 1999, eighteen of Senegal’s 38 cinemas were shut. In Algeria, where just three films have been made since 1995, there were only 20 cinemas operating in the year 2000, down from 400 in 1986.
Today, Africa’s film industries are almost entirely controlled by foreign interests. France continues to finance films produced in its former colonies through the Ministry for cooperation. Claiming the same francophone solidarity, private French and Canadian producers have taken control of the industry. This has completely transformed the choice of subjects and esthetical approaches of the most talked-about African filmmakers of the moment. Their films, created with Western festivals in mind, are very rarely ever shown in cinemas in West African cinemas. While the films are made by African directors, their gaze is foreign. In some cases, there has even been a sort of confiscation of creativity, whereby the director finds their initial scenario gradually being replaced until they become a mere namesake. Even the « director’s » film crew is often made up of European technicians hired by the producer these days.
Although filmmakers from elsewhere also have to put up with this kind of shameful situation, in Africa the stakes are cultural, not economic – control over the images projected of Africa also guarantees political and social control.
At first impression, the book industry does not appear to have withstood at all. In Senegal, (which, along with the Côte d’Ivoire, is one of the rare francophone African countries with a relatively viable industry) there are only two bookshops worthy of the name for a population of seven million. French publishing groups like Havas, which acquired Senegal’s Nouvelles Editions Africaines in 1999, have bought out the major publishers in the two countries.
However, we should not forget that while globalisation has aggravated the book industry crisis in Africa, it is not solely responsible and it has had a much lesser impact on the educational market than on literature in general. Since works of literature are generally written in so-called « international » languages, they should attract a far wider audience, yet the few Westerners who read African books are often attracted to the culture rather than the authors themselves. The fact remains that a Norwegian or Italian interested in Africa more readily approach African culture through music, theatre, dance and film festivals than by reading novels or poetry.
All the same, it is not necessarily such a bad thing that African authors have difficulty penetrating global markets – since they cannot live by the pen alone, they are free to take aesthetic liberties and spend more time on their writing.
However, we should not simply sit back and accept such a regressive situation. The fact that we no longer hear of the great African voices of the past, as in the days of the journal Présence Africaine, is significant. The Nobel Prize awarded to Wole Soyinka in 1986 would seem to mark the end of an era. The African book market was far greater in the days when you could find the likes of Tutuola, Beti and Langston Hughes in the same anthology. In those days, books were translated shortly after publication and Senghor, Achebe and Richard Wright were famous right across the continent. Today, French intellectuals know nothing about Chenjerai Hove or Ayi Kwei Armah and it would be pointless trying to compare Chamoiseau, Gloria Naylor and Tanella Boni.
By de-legitimising solidarity based on skin colour and common historical hardship, globalisation has divided the African author’s public and further reduced a readership already heavily eroded by a decreased purchasing power. Thus, more novels are being published in Africa than poetry collections in order to attract foreign readers, since they are the only ones who can still afford to buy books. The winner of the Renaudot 2000 prize, Ahmadou Kourouma, said in 1998 of his book, En attendant le vote des bêtes sauvages, « I favoured European readers – in several places I explain the logic of magic, which is different from the European mentality ». These kinds of problems have driven a great many African authors to London, New York or Paris. While some were forced to flee from violent regimes, others have simply chosen to live nearer to their public. Authors who speak about an Africa that they no longer know are unfortunately the only ones heard by the rest of the world… and listened to in Africa! It is striking that the great living African authors – whose works are studied in schools and cited among the classics – no longer appear in the media, in particular in French-speaking Africa. Although they are still writing, their works differ to the image of today’s Africa favoured by the all-powerful Western literary institution. Their « crime » is to have great strength of character and to no write about the latest hot topic.
The impact of globalisation on African literature varies according to the language and ulterior motives of the ex-colonial powers. Unlike Britain, France is still obsessed with preserving the French language and sees all French-speaking authors as accomplices in the fight against the spectre of the supremacy of the English language. On the other hand, English-speaking writers are not hindered by this rear-guard war. By choosing English as their working language, they gain access an enormous potential readership that is almost naturally cosmopolitan.
Nevertheless, even they cannot expect to conquer the world if they neglect the African continent.
In film, literature and music, a good response to globalisation would be to turn its own weapons against it by creating an inter-African market. While private local companies should largely be responsible for this kind of endeavour, such an initiative also requires political support.
Poverty and ignorance form a self-fulfilling cycle that an accurate understanding of culture’s contribution to development can help to break.
In fact, new strategies are already being tested. Sembène Ousmane joined forces with a petrol company for his latest film, Faat Kine, and other directors have had varying success in seeking funding in South Africa and Nigeria.
As far as the book world is concerned, Nouvelles Editions Ivoiriennes, a publishing company based in Abidjan launched the Adoras collection in 1998. For the past two years, the Ivoirian collection, which is based on the model of Western romance novels, has received a constant supply of works from local authors under pseudonym. The short love stories are sold at ridiculously low prices and have been a huge success – Canal France International has even adapted several for television. In the same way, popular literature from the famous Onitsha and Kinshasa markets has greatly benefited from globalisation. In Nigeria, such novels are written in Yoruba and Haoussa, and target an exclusively local readership. In Dakar, thanks to the librairies par terre project, people can buy the complete works of Shakespeare at an unbeatable price.
Such responses to globalisation may seem paltry but they at least prove that the trend is being reinterpreted and that societies can survive it without demurring entirely. Culture is also a human response to the arrogance of dictatorships, both economic and political.
Is it any surprise that over the past decade nationalistic factions have become stronger and more violent than ever? Any artist worthy of the name intuitively knows that he is nothing and has nothing to say until he accepts himself. The African identity blends no better into the world market than any other identity. It is not by denying themselves but rather by « persevering in their being »(1) to use Kane’s words, that African creators will have something relevant to say. We should be talking about recreating the world instead of conforming to globalisation.

(1) Translated from the French text that appeared in Africultures, issue 41.///Article N° : 5254


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