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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 47

Africa, African Diaspora and the Prospect of Global Cultural Dialogue

Tuesday 11 November 2008, by M. OLABIYI BABALOLA JOSEPH YAÏ

Mr Chairman,

Distinguished Elders,


Dear Friends

Bharat ki yatra par âna, meré liyé ek sapné ka poora hona hé. Meré mann mai Mahatma Gandhi aur Rabindranath Tagore ké liyé aapaar shraddha aur sam-mân ki bha van hé. Mujhe yahaa âkar bahoot khushi ho rahi hé.

In this international year of languages, it is indeed a pleasurable duty to great you in an Indian language, even at a risk of hurting your ears.


Allow me to thank the India International Centre for inviting me to address this august audience. This is indeed a great honour and a challenge. For all Africans of my generation who were nurtured with the sayings of Mahatma Gandhi, Tagore, and the Upanishads, and therefore have, in the words of Octavio Paz, the great Mexican poet and ambassador to this land, some “Glimpses of India”,1 coming to India is equivalent to a pilgrimage in the cradle of wisdom.

A proverb of my country says:

Go to your neighbour’s farm; there you will discover that you should put your father’s farm in proper perspective, which is the beginning of wisdom.

I therefore wish to register my sense of deep gratitude to all of you, particularly to Dr Kapila Vatsyayan, my friend and representative of India to the Executive Board of the UNESCO, who certainly understands how elated and intimidated I feel this afternoon.

As an overture to my remarks, I have found no more inspiring relevant and melodious notes than a poem of the most illustrious Baul of modern India. Let Tagore speak of Africa:

In an insane time, the long, long past,

when the creator himself gravely displeased himself,

destroyed his own creations over and over again,

the ocean with its angry arms, snatched

away a piece of the eastern earth,

and called it Africa….

Alas, Africa of shadows,

your human face remains unknown

to the darkened vision of contempt.

They came

Human hunters all.

The iron chains,

and claws sharper than wolves.

Their pride blinder than your sunless forests.

The barbaric lust of civilised men

revealed in ugliness of their own


Only a poet from India, like Tagore, rich in poetic sedimentation spanning millennia, could have captured the African condition in such deceitfully simple, but rhythmic and beautiful words so reminiscent of the verse of our African village bards.

The words of Tagore are echoed in a poem aptly titled “A Salute to the Third World” by Aimé Césaire, undoubtedly the most powerful contemporary African poet, from the African Diaspora:

I see Africa multiple and one

vertical in the tumultuous upheaval

with her flab, her nodules,

slightly to the side, but within reach

of the century, like a backup heart.

I would like to particularly draw your attention, to the following line in Tagore’s poem:

Your human face remains unknown.

Similarly the key lines in Césaire’s poem are

Vertical in the tumultuous upheaval……..

slightly to the side, but within reach

of the century, like a backup heart.

I generously quoted these two poets because they are visionaries and, above all, because they so beautifully, if pathetically, set the problématique of my lecture.

Indeed Aimé Césaire gave us the key to unknotting the problématique in his famous poem, significantly titled “Out of Alien Days” which it is hard to resist quoting in its entirety.

My people


out of alien days

on reknotted shoulders will you sprout a head really your own and your word

the notice dispatched to the traitors

to the masters

the restituded bread the washed earth

the given earth


when will you cease to be the dark toy

in the carvinal of others

or in another’s field

the obsolete scarecrow?


when is tomorrow my people

the mercenary rout

once the feast is over

instead the redness of the east in the balisier’s heart

people of interrupted foul sleep

people of reclimbed abysses

people of tamed nightmares

nocturnal people lovers of the fury of thunder

a higher sweeter broader tomorrow

and the torrential swell of lands

under the salubrious plow of storm.

I would like to surmise that both Tagore and Césaire are asking us to discover or rediscover the “unknown human face” of our respective cultures and civilisations. It is after—and only after—we answer this vital question of “who am I”, the question of our being-in-the world, that we could possibly visualise the lineaments of the kind of globalisation we want or deserve.


Perhaps at this juncture, I should confess or make explicit the human interest implicit in the title of my lecture. We are all familiar with the assertion by Jürgen Habermas, to the effect that any knowledge harbours or hides some human interest. If the few words I am about to offer in the next minutes have any claim to knowledge, their human interest or, in Lucien Goldman’s words, the “hidden god” inspiring them is as follows:

If we really desire and hope for a globalisation with a human face, we must endure that cultures are its driven force or engine. Homo economicus as exemplified by all brands of capitalism has failed or is failing before our eyes. For humankind to survive, it must invent, perhaps, a variety of sustainable developments cemented by cultures; in this context philosophies and worldviews of Africa, India, and Precolumbian Americas are essential ingredients. Together, they constitute what Césaire called the “back up heart” of humanity. In my opinion, they hold the strongest and surest redemptive potentials for humankind.

In this regard, when I refer to Africa, I mean the sum total of African cultures as sedimented for millennia in philosophies, wisdoms, ways of being and doing things as well as ways of relating to otherness. That Africa, epistemologically as well as methodologically, should be contrasted to the Africa that resulted from the Berlin Conference (1884-1885) and the resulting partition of the continent, which I would like to call the “problematic Africa”. The latter matters, no doubt, and I certainly do not want to be perceived as one of those irrationally nostalgic Africans who desperately propound and promote some version of “passéism”.

But in all fairness, problematic Africa, as widely publicised in the media with its HIV-AIDS, famine, and so-called “tribal wars”, as the only characteristics of the continent, cannot be taken as paradigmatic of the African way of being.

In fact, precisely because the problematic Africa, including the alienatedly Westernised elite that is at the helm of affairs in most African states, is yet to “cease being the dark toy in the carnival of others”, it would be insulting to our ancestors to consider it as a legitimate representative of the continent. Afropessimism rhetoric notwith-standing, a continent whose cultures have demonstrated ample evidence of resilience despite four centuries of slave trade and a century of colonialism and neo-colonialism deserves the benefit, not of the doubt, but of hope.

At this juncture, it is appropriate to introduce a ’’protocol of discourse’’. No language is ideologically innocent, certainly not so the imperial languages. We must therefore be very careful when we use such imperial languages as English or French to analyse African phenomena and social institutions. This is because, often times, as the poet Tzara put it, ’’we have displaced the ideas and confused them with their names’’.2

Perhaps one of the most urgent tasks of ours and the next generation of Africanists, by which I restrictively mean those who are committed to the understanding of the past, present, and future Africa for the defence and promotion of the interests of African children on the continent and in the Diaspora, as opposed to those who prey on Africa for a living, is to effect a thorough termino-logical, epistemological, and hermeneutic over-hauling of the field. It is sad, and scientifically unsound, to uncritically “inherit” and endorse the conceptual tools forged by one’s oppressors’ organic intellectuals to discourse on oneself and one’s realities. This task is a long-term agenda that will restore African terms and African languages as the media of scientific discourse.


One such term that needs critical examination by African scholars, is “globalisation”.

At a seminar on “Globalisation and Indigenous Cultures” in Tokyo some years back, I told an amazed and incredulous Japanese audience that we Africans have been very active in the globalisation process before them. For, although we have been somehow forcefully precipitated into the process through what Basil Davidson so aptly termed “the curse of Colombus”, that is, the Atlantic slave trade, Japan decided to open itself to the capitalist West only in 1868, with the Meiji Restoration. Likewise, African cultures were “globalised” through the Tran-Saharan Arab slave trade. Hence, African cultural traits can be found in Mediterranean Europe, with Saint Benedetto il Moro as emblematic representative in Sicily. Even the European hinterland was not immune to African cultural traits. We may recall the ancestor of Pushkin, the great Russian poet and founder of Russian letters, who hailed from a village in what is now called the Central African Republic.

The most massive engagement of Africa with other cultures is undoubtedly in the Americas. To understand the nature of this engagement, we must bear in mind the African concept of culture.

I shall be particularly concerned with the Yoruba culture, in which the “culture”, that is, the set of characteristics proposed to a community is called àsà. This same word may apply also to an individual, in which case it describes his or her personality and habits. The word àsà derives from the verb sà, which means to choose, discern, discriminate, select, sort. When it is applied to a community, it describes a set of collective behaviours normally expected of individuals who have chosen it consciously and responsibly. In other words, in principle, àsà cannot be imposed. Since àsà brings in the notion of choice, it can be said that Yoruba culture is part of a tradition open to innovation. What has not been the object of a collective choice is not part of tradition. Indivi-duals, professional groups, lineages, ethnic groups, etc., have their own àsà, each forming a set that can be pictured as a chain with inter-sections. In Yoruba culture, as oriki (which means approximately, oral praise or heroic poetry) shows very clearly, the plural character of identifies goes without saying.

Faced as they were with the hostility of their New World environment (inhuman work in mines and plantations), making a selection among the flow of cultural traits proposed by tradition took on for the Africans every appearance of a nece-ssity. The African traditionalists of the New World must have learned, probably in a few decades, to choose in their respective traditions which cultural traits and values to retain in toto and which traits of other cultures to choose to forge the admirable syncretism that we know today which is, it must be stressed, Afro-American before it is Afro-Christian. As Aimé Césaire reminds us in this poem Transmission, “forces are not exhausted that quickly when one is only their puny trustee”.

Thus, generations of Africans dumped in the plantations, mines and cities of the colonial Americas experienced their common condition as a “misdeal to negotiate step by step, with it up to them to discover each water hole” (Césaire). Research is needed on this aspect as well, indeed, as on the notion of “seed”, in the sense in which the Soninke of Mali and Senegal speak of the “seed of the word”. Beyond roots, a useful concept but one which harbours the danger of fixity, it is the seed of African cultures that we ought to be analysing. Césaire made this point in verse when he wrote:

Let us take up again

the useful patient path

lower than roots the path of seed

the summary miracle shuffles the deck

but there is no miracle

only the strength of seeds

depending on their stubbornness to ripen.

It is, above all, through their philosophies, religions and attitudes to life and death that African cultures give us the best example of their “stubbornness to ripen”, when is also a stubbornness not to die.

Their concept of culture thus allowed Africans in the homeland and in the American Diaspora, to invent an original notion and practice of the nation. An individual belonged not only to the nation of his or her country of birth (Latin natus) but also to the birthplace of the deity he/she worshipped. Multiple nationalities, a tardy invention in Europe, were thus a common practice in West Africa.

What matters in the definition of nation in Africa and in the African Diaspora is not so much the place where one was born (Latin natus, the etymological root of nation). It is rather the set of values this place stands for, or the set of values invested in it by conscious agents. This is why Africans may claim or desire several nations without any sense of contradiction. It is indeed possible that one’s ori (“inner head” = diety of personality, idiosyncrasy or destiny) suggests or selects one’s nation, by divination for example.

One of the main reasons for the survival of African cultures, especially African religions, is the activation of the principle of àsà, that is, the right to initiative, even in the midst of the hardest and inhuman conditions of slavery. As Jean-Paul Sartre put it, what is important is not what they make of you, but what you make of what they make of you. This explains that we have such Afro-Christian syncretic religions as Candomblé, and Santeria, in which Jesus Christ is insignificant. It is a significant fact that such essential features of Christianity or Christology as ’’original sin’’, ’’redemption’’, and ’’Messiah’’, are conspicuously missing in those religions. Clearly, Africans in the Americas have selected (sà) in their masters’ religion those aspects that are compatible with their worldivews. Like the religions they evolved from in the African homeland, these are devotions with no dogmas, proselytising missionaries or crusades. Therein lies their strength and potential for nurturing a healthy cultural dialogue in the age of globalisation.


Ladies and gentlemen,

I am no orientalist, but I do know that African cultures and the cultures of India are convergent. The two cultures are largely based on very similar “weltanschauungen” . For millennia, they have emphasised the oneness of existence, the harmony between gods, nature and human beings. ’’The spirit of India has always proclaimed the ideal of UNITY..., it comprehends all things with sympathy and love,’’ said Tagore in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech. They both believe in the formula “I am because we are” . The word “We” here includes the totality of those who exist and the yet to be born. As a result of the expansion of capitalism, African and Indian cultures have been in contact in South Africa, Mauritius, Guyana and the Caribbean. There have been no cases of clashes based on or inspired by worldviews. We have to conjecture that the largely peaceful coexistence of the bearers of African and Indian cultures is the result of the convergence of these cultures. Yet, we have to admit that in all these countries, it was a case of culture contact under surveillance. The hegemonic Judeo-Christian states, ideologies and cultures set the conditions of the contact with its cohort of racism, prejudices and hierarchisation of cultures and people. No doubt those were not the ideal contexts for a healthy cultural dialogue. Yet, despite those adverse conditions, dialogue did occur. In Trinidad, for example, the syncretic African religion called Shango has included gods of India into its pantheon. Carnival is another obvious locus of Afro-Indian cultural dialogue.

The challenge today for African cultures and Indian cultures in the homelands and the Diasporas is, on the basis of their convergence, to activate the core values of these cultures as the first threads in the communal weaving of a new universalism.

African and Indian cultures are, I am suggesting, challenged to give shape to Rabindranath Tagore’s ideal of a new humanity “where the world meets in one nest” (Yatra visram bhavatyekanidam). This suggestion lays no claim to any messianic responsibility bestowed on them by divine order.

By accident of history, African and Asian cultures have been forced into exile and have suffered the agony of colonialism. Their bearers have reacted with the least humanly possible aggressiveness, animosity and resentment to the colonial West. More important, both cultures have, by and large, offered a metonymic, as opposed to metaphoric, response to the engagement of Western culture. This in my view qualifies them for potentially becoming the wisdom nucleus with the capacity to recognise in other cultures those elements that could drive our humanity back to what Tagore once termed “the moral orbit”, a sine qua non condition for a newly appeased humanism and a globalisation with a human face.

Perhaps, the time has come for a new cultural Bandoeng that could trigger a vaster, deeper and healthier cultural dialogue. Let me briefly elabo-rate all the newness of the suggtested “new cultural Bandoeng”. It must avoid the well known Manichean but philosophically and historically untenable posture that pits an imagined “West” as the quintessential “other” of its colonial discontents. Another feaure of the new cultural Bandoeng is its inclusiveness. Not only is the idea of the West as the “absolute other” of “the rest of us” unacceptable to the proposed cultural Bandoeng, but the latter must actively seek to identify and to federate within the West cultural elements and agencies that have been undermined, repressed or ostracised, precisely because they kept insisting on the “moral orbit” dimension of humankind. We should always bear in mind the wise observation of Tagore in his celebrated essay ‘The East and the West’:

… we often come across the Western sailor, the Western soldier or the big bosses of offices and the Bar; but alas! The Man of the East never meets the Man of West.

This suggestion of a new cultural Bandoeng is predicated on the assumption that all cultures, whatever the vicissitudes of their respective histories and trajectories, always hold specific treasures of humaneness. It is precisely the hope of all men and women of goodwill that the Man of the West and the Man of the East (who, in Tagore’s acceptation, no doubt transcends the borders of the geographical East) will at last meet and contribute their diverse cultural gems to a new universal civilisation, through what Senghor once termed ’’un rendez-vous du donner et du recevoir’’ (give and take rendez-vous). As can be seen, this app-roach is a far cry from that expressed by Samuel Huntington’s theory of globalisation, if ever they deserved that appellation.

I expect some politicians to mount an ultimately facile criticism of such a project, dismissing it as an exercise in abstract, disembodied culturalism. Amartya Sen has convincingly dealt with this kind of objection in his “Identity and Violence”. Besides, culturalism as a concept derives its validity from the colonial or neocolonial context and lacks legitimacy in the context of African and Indian worldviews.

To be sure, there are felicity conditions for a true dialogue. Paramount among them is the establishment of institutions for the study of African cultures in India and, reciprocally, the creation of centres for Asian languages and civilisations in institutions of higher learning in Africa.

An additional crucial felicity condition is democracy which includes economic democracy. Embedded in our culture are traditions of democracy and discourses on its practices. In his book mentioned earlier, Amartya Sen said while discussing colonialism in Africa and the situation of democracy on the continent: “…there is in fact, a long tradition of participatory governance in Africa”; he also stressed “the important role and continuing relevance of accountability and participation in the African political heritage”. Our duty is to (re-) discover and (re-)invent those traditions to suit the diversity of our modern globalised world.

Surely the potentials are as vast as the challenges.

In conclusion, allow me to borrow the words of the poet Césaire again:

The hour of our inner self is at hand.

(L’heure de nous-mêmes a sonné.)


1. Vislumbres de la India.

2. In ’’Approximate Man’’.

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