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Why Africa must discard borrowed robes and embrace its rich cultural resources

A tourist market in Ivory Coast. Africa needs to harness its rich cultural and linguistic diversity to drive its development. EPA/Legnan Koula

Many people in Africa believe that “development” is essentially about embracing a European or North American way of reading and interpreting the world. More recently many have taken an equally unhelpful path of glorifying Asian models. This is often referred to as the “Look East Policy”.

From these perspectives “development” is seen in purely economic terms. It’s measured on the basis of GDP, gross national product and similar indices.

But not everything about development in every society is economic. Instead, the measures of development must be seen as having multiple dimensions – among them cultural, social, linguistic and religious ones.

The late Ugandan professor Dani Wadada Nabudere reminded us that Euro-North American scientific knowledge and theorisation is unable, on its own, to explain everything. This was because of a

great deal of uncertainty in the way we understand the world, as well as in the way human beings understand each other in different environments and cultural contexts.

Following on Nabudere, I propose that one of the ways by which Africa can overcome problems of underdevelopment is by using its abundant linguistic and cultural resources. This requires breaking away from perceiving development as being connected to the use of ex-colonial languages such as English, French and Portuguese.

The point is that creativity and innovation are guaranteed when they are communicated in languages that are best understood and widely used by the majority of local populations. In particular, Africa’s diverse linguistic and cultural resources hold enormous potential for creativity and innovation. There are between 2,500 and 3,000 languages spoken on the continent. These are massive resources. They can and should be the key drivers of sustainable development and social progress.

What’s missing from development paradigms

What’s missing from popular conceptions of development is an appreciation of culturally-specific concepts on how to live life and live it well. African people can use the power of their imagination to innovate and to contribute to their own social progress. They can do this by leveraging their diverse linguistic capabilities and centuries old cultural and experiential resources.

Innovation and creativity stem from people expressing their deepest values and thoughts through language, culture and local knowledge systems. It is through language that they form new realities and destroy old ones. This is also known as social progress.

It’s, indeed, through language that people inform identities and transmit senses of being in ways that open up opportunities for them to read and interpret the world on their own terms. They do so using those cultural and communication resources that they understand best.

Development is not only economic and political. It’s also cultural and linguistic. Wherever there’s development it has to show immediately in aspects of people’s every day social and cultural life. This finds expression through their every day lingo, both spoken and unspoken. This is because meaning – like values – is open-ended. It changes. It’s full of complexity and bound up with the historically and culturally embedded.

This complex and dynamic nature of culture is the one that forms the basis for creativity and innovation.

For the African people, the cultural embeddedness of development can be seen in the achievements of numerous African states and communities that thrived before disruptions by Euro-North American patterns of thought and biases.

Africa before the white man

Several anthropologists, archaeologists and historians of Africa (including European ones) have documented indisputable evidence which indicates that African people had produced hydrologists, prospectors and geologists through their understanding of the material environment. All this happened prior to European arrival.

On the mining side in particular, Africans – for example, those in the Zimbabwe plateau –- had experts who had a clear idea of where to look for gold and copper in the subsoil. Its craftsmen worked the gold into ornaments with tremendous skill and lightness of touch.

Also as early as the 11th century, the people of the Zimbabwe plateau were already involved in large-scale external trade with Arab and Indian traders at the Mozambican channel of Sofala. There were several other similar pre-15th century civilisations across the African continent. These were in places such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Nubia, the Maghreb, the Western Sudan, and the Inter-lacustrine Zone.

At the turn of the 15th century, their levels of development were comparable to those of many parts of Europe at the time.

These early African societies achieved their high levels of development by leveraging the diversity of local languages, cultures, traditions and philosophies of life.

Discarding borrowed robes

No society has ever made significant and meaningful advances in development through the use of borrowed robes. There is no doubt that Africa has much to learn from Northern and Eastern models of development. But the continent stands a better chance of making major progress by not relying solely on imported models.

Rather the solution lies in a smart integration of these with homegrown, Africa-centred philosophies that are rooted in endogenous linguistic and material cultures. This will enhance the unlocking of local creative capabilities and potentials for innovation.

African local knowledge systems should become the growth engine that promotes a new dynamic evolution instead of simply imitating Western or Eastern models of development and social progress.

This article is a significantly condensed version of the author’s recent paper Southern Development Discourse for Southern Africa: Linguistic and Cultural Imperatives published in the Journal of Multicultural Discourses.

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