Safeguarding Traditional Culture and Folklore in Africa

J. H. Kwabena Nketia
International Centre for African Music and Dance
University of Ghana School of Performing Arts
Accra, Ghana

The African Regional Seminar held at the University of Ghana from 26 to 28 January 1999 followed the format of similar seminars on the UNESCO 1989 Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore. A synthesis report of twenty-seven completed questionnaires was presented after the formal opening of the seminar. Supplementary country reports and observations were then presented by the participants from the different countries before the issues outlined in the 1989 Recommendations were opened for further discussion.

Although references to aspects of Africa’s material culture, such as masking traditions, were made, the major concern of the seminar was with Africa’s intangible heritage, in particular all forms and expressions of culture cultivated and transmitted by oral tradition and practice, such as music, dance, drama and pageantry, folktales, legends, myths, and other forms of verbal art. These generally occur as events, that is, as something that may be heard or perceived while they last, but which cannot be touched or handled like objects outside their contexts of occurrence or the memory of those who create or perform them.

It was noted that African societies attach a great deal of importance to these traditions because particular forms serve as a medium for the expression of individual and group sentiments and thoughts as well as repositories of history and traditions, while also serving, as in other cultures, simply as creative expressions that may be enjoyed in their own right in recreational, ritual, or ceremonial contexts.

Because such cultural forms and expressions are organized as an integral part of the way of life of African peoples, particular forms may change or disappear when the institutions or lifestyles that support them are modified or abandoned. This process was greatly accelerated in the colonial period wherever new institutions, formal Western education, trade, and industry were established. New values were progressively adopted in such contexts by those who accepted new religions, new economic pursuits, and new lifestyles. In post-colonial Africa this process of change has continued to be aggravated by rural-urban migrations, the impact of the media, and global pressures. Accordingly, while many traditional cultural forms still exist in many communities, especially in the rural areas, there are others in which such traditions have been eroded, weakened, or replaced by new or completely foreign usages.

It was evident from both the synthesis report, the supplementary country reports, and the comments and discussions that followed these observations that awareness of the importance of traditional expressions has increased considerably in Africa itself since the attainment of independence from colonial rule and the intergovernmental Conference on Cultural Policies in Africa held subsequently in Accra in 1975. Hence it was generally recognized that the conservation, preservation, and dissemination of expressions of the intangible heritage must continue to be an important component of the cultural policies of African nations, in view of the fact that this heritage often represents the particular way in which the members of an African community or society express their own cultural identity. But of even more critical importance than this is what it provides as blue prints in terms of knowledge, techniques, and resources for the construction and reconstruction of contemporary African cultures. Accordingly the contemporary relevance of traditional culture and folklore was discussed at some length, since awareness of this might provide additional incentive for the collection, conservation, and dissemination of this heritage on a systematic basis.

It was noted that interest in Africa’s intangible cultures has grown outside Africa itself, both on account of their value as sources of aesthetic enjoyment and the challenges they present to the creative imagination. Because of this, audiovisual recordings of expressions of these cultures undertaken at first by a few individual collectors, scholars, and recording companies have become an enterprise from which the culture-bearers themselves derive little or no benefit. It seems, therefore, that contemporary Africa cannot sit back and ignore the need for the legal protection of intangible cultural items from commercial exploitation.

While every African country can create its own legislative instrument, experience shows that this cannot be effective without reference to an international convention, and the preparation of inventories of such material. As existing copyright conventions do not provide for intangible items of cultural heritage transmitted by oral tradition, there is a need for not only a new set of legislative measures for the legal protection of intangible forms of culture but also the transformation of these forms through mechanical means of recording into tangible products.

In light of the foregoing, the safeguarding of traditional culture and folklore was viewed at the regional seminar as a practical issue that must be approached from the realities of the African situation rather than the academic concerns of professional folklorists and archivists that pervade the UNESCO Recommendation. It must take into account the need to counteract the aftermath of colonialism and build on indigenous traditions, including all forms of traditional knowledge and techniques that have survived the impact of colonialism, the rich heritage of languages and oral literature, customary law and practices, traditional institutions, and Indigenous systems of thought, all of which must of course be examined with particular reference to their relevance to specific contemporary contexts of application. There is the need to build bridges between traditional African cultures practiced on the basis of ethnicity and contemporary forms guided by linkages beyond those of ethnicity, bridges between the old and the new, Indigenous and foreign, the literate and the non-literate custodians of culture, always bearing in mind the dynamic nature of the socio-cultural situation in Africa and the fact that the present represents the bridge between Africa’s past and the future.

To facilitate the safeguarding, conservation, and dissemination of the intangible cultural heritage as well as its legal protection, there is a need to build inventories of traditional culture, using the technical means now available for this purpose.

It became clear at the Regional Seminar that these are issues that need further thought and examination as well as practical measures for dealing with them. They call for far greater attention than many African countries seem to have given them, for the gap between knowledge or awareness of the 1989 Recommendation and the urgency which its implementation required became evident in many of the reports that were submitted. Many countries seem to have relied solely on the European concept of festivals for the promotion of consciousness of national identity without also exploring and extending the approaches evident in traditional African festivals. As far as conservation is concerned, many countries do not seem to have gone beyond the random collections and documentation that have emerged out of research projects carried out by individuals and institutions such as regional documentation centers or African Studies Institutes and some social science and humanities departments of local universities, or media houses in need of materials for broadcasting and television, etc. There is a general lack of coordination or concentration on the systematic investigation and collection of the materials of traditional culture and oral traditions as a defined cultural policy at the national level.

It became clear also at the Seminar that the institutional models in terms of which some parts of the UNESCO Recommendation were formulated substantially do not exist in Africa or are at variance with the realities of the African situation. Many provisions of the 1989 Recommendation have not been implemented because of lack of appropriate infrastructure, manpower, and material resources.

As far as methodology is concerned, it was felt that instead of the old “extractive” approach that allowed field collectors to take what they wanted from communities and store them in their archives, a more interactive or community-based approach should be developed and used in Africa for safeguarding traditional culture and expressions of folklore. This process would not only stimulate renewed interest in the community in their own heritage but also ensure that copies of what is recorded, and later classified and archived remain in the community for purposes of reference and as a resource for education and other practical purposes. It may give a new boost to oral tradition where it is dead or dying, for in Africa, the oral modes of cultural transmission will continue to have validity wherever group life is sustained. Indeed one can see it at work in contemporary contexts except that it is servicing contemporary popular culture or cultural trends and innovations. We must find ways of bringing it back to the service of traditional cultures through the formation of heritage clubs that establish other lines of cultural transmission through new networks of social relations that go beyond those of households, lineages, and systems of kinship. This will ensure that what is recorded, classified, and archived in national and local repositories will bear a palpable relationship to living traditions and will not eventually become the materials of a dead and forgotten past.