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A look at African culture and literature

Staff Writer

Published: Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, February 7, 2012 00:02


Photo Illustration by M.C. Neal/Prospectus News

Professor Ibrahima Ndoye takes a break during office hours on Jan. 25, 2012. He teaches as many as six courses a semester, many involving African culture and history.

Often characterized in the Western world as primitive or inferior, the cultures and traditions of Africa are, in actuality, vibrant and rich. While Africa is experiencing political strife and modernization, both of which detract from the practice of many of its traditions, African culture is alive and well.

"It is, however, important to realize that one cultural practice somewhere does not mean that everybody does the same thing throughout the continent. Everything varies according to ethnic groups," said Humanities Professor Ibrahima Ndoye.

"Going back to the 1930's, the most important thing Africans—African intellectuals—have done is the birth of the Negritude Movement," Ndoye explained. "The Negritude Movement rewrote the history and the culture of Africans. The creation of the Negritude Movement helped change the perception of Africans projected through colonial literature."

The stereotype of the diverse peoples of Africa originating from inferior cultures was propagated by colonial literature. Following the creation of the Negritude Movement, this stereotype caused problems for Africans in a very different way.

"From that point on, there were issues of cultural identities, as many Africans had been educated in Western schools and institutions. It wasn't promoting the values of the African continent," Ndoye said. "African authors up until the late 1960's were beginning to write with pride and recognition of African culture for the sake of validation of said cultures. They then presented their cultures without sugar-coating them for the sake of validation…basically they presented with pride African culture to resolve the issue of identity crisis that had befallen the continent." One excellent example of the way African authors began to present their cultures with pride was the depiction of Okonkwo in "Things Fall Apart," by African author Chinua Achebe. In the novel, Okonkwo is presented as an uncompromising man, which Ndoye describes as a "Man of pride, contrary to the initial description of Westerners of Africans as ‘big children.'"

Great strides have also been made in Africa in the areas of music, literature and theater. One point of interest concerning the fine arts of Africa is that while the Western world often characterizes the African people as possessing primitive cultures, African artists have always mesmerized it.

"Today in the Western World, African music is very valuable," Ndoye said. "These (African musicians) are artists who are recognized worldwide." Some of the most recognizable figures in the African music scene, such as Papa Wemba, Youssou Hdour of Senegal and Salif Keida of Mali, have become prominent members of the World music scene.

On the topic of theater and literature, Professor Ndoye said, "There are major works of literature which are performed worldwide, such as ‘The Lion and the Jewel' by Wole Soyinka from Nigeria. It addresses the clash of modernity and traditions in Africa."

The conflict between the cultural traditions and ways of the African people and the encroachment of modernization has resulted in a number of changes in the way every day Africans live their lives. Given the ready availability of libraries, cell phones, the internet, and other modern conventions, Africans shifted from a strong oral tradition to written texts as a means of transmitting information from generation to generation. The perception of elders in African society as a wellspring of information has likewise decreased. While polygamy, arranged marriages and both male and female circumcision are still practiced, they have become less common or the societal view of them has changed. Polygamy for instance has become less common due to fewer men being able to support multiple spouses, and while males are still circumcised, it is no longer considered a rite of passage.

One crucial aspect of African culture is the importance of the nuclear and extended families. When asked about how important family is, Ndoye responded, "More so in Africa than any place else. If that's how it is in America, you can believe that it started in Africa. Extended family is extremely important. Cousins, aunts and uncles may even live in the same household. Family is the most essential aspect of African life."

However, with the rise of modernization and the spread of Western ideals in Africa, even the nuclear family is "under threat" according to Ndoye, because young couples living in rural Africa will often leave their extended families for the cities. Still, in spite of the political strife and other factors that plague Africa, it would be a mistake to assume that Africans are without a strong culture rich with traditions.

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