If you have watched Midnight in Paris with Owen Wilson and enjoyed it, chances are that just like me, you are aware of artistic and intellectual eras. For those of you less fortunate (really guys, this film is good), it’s a film that sees the protagonist transported in time from the 2000s back to the 1920s and later to the early 19th century. On his journey, he runs into writers and artists like Hemmingway, Dali, Toulouse-Lautrec, and others. Through his experience of these past eras, he gains insight in understanding how every era colours the past with nostalgia to create a preference over their present. But his resolution in embracing the present isn’t what concerned me.
Photo Credit: theculturetrip.com
As an African writer, I couldn’t help but imagine the film juxtaposing the setting to make it somewhat African: perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to be transported back to the sixties to have a drink with Achebe, Ekwensi or Nwapa...or I can just track down Wole Soyinka today (I have already shared a drink with J.P Clark so that one is off the list). Going any further than that becomes problematic because we do not have a documented art and literary culture. When you think about it, old African art does not even bear artist signatures, and are only identified by date and region. Some argue that this is because in the African artistic tradition, ego plays a much smaller role, and artists expect the young to do grow and replace the old with their own creativity. Chinua Achebe for one holds this view. Another point of view is that Africans just didn’t have good means of decimation, as paper technology didn’t spread on the continent until quite late, compared to Asia and Europe.
Whatever school of thought you belong to, it doesn’t erase the issue that until today, we continue to fail at organising our intellectual culture in any manner that is impactful on the culture and society. In fact, one may argue that our current intellectual culture is only an adoption of whatever is popular in the Western intellectual space. It isn’t surprising that the Biafran war is still recent history, but we try harder to address racism in our intellectual spaces than to address tribalism...and oh, we don’t exactly experience racism on a daily basis, nor does it find any bearings in our legislation.
Another obvious import is feminism. Now this is more relevant to the culture, but can we really advocate for feminist values in a society yet to separate church from state in regards to culture? Yes, Nigeria is a secular country on paper, but none of that has stopped the widely supported regressive homophobic laws we have in place.
In the West, documentation exists to mark intellectual movements from the era of Antiquity with the likes of the pre-Socratic and post-Socratic philosophers. You still can’t take a philosophy course without learning about the Socratic method. After the fall of Europe into the Dark Ages, the Renaissance is recorded as a re-emergence of the old intellectual culture and after that, the Enlightenment before we navigated Modernism, Post-Modernism and the current movement described by some as Atemporality. In Africa, we speak of the Post-Colonial movement, which many reject as a real movement, because it can be understood as the African response to the Post-Modern movement, where the notion of authority is challenged and cultural relativity is introduced to debase Western culture from its seat as the objective “better” culture others were to use to set their standard. So really, the rejection of European superiority was actually introduced by Europeans themselves in what would later be popularly known as the Frankfurt School.
Taking a leaf from a country like Japan, one may be tempted to argue that the problem is colonialism. After all, Japan and Nepal (as it stands today) are the only two countries that never had to deal with any sort of imperial domination. Japan of course was briefly overrun after the Second World War, but that barely lasted and by 1945, Japanese identity was already solidified in their culture through documentation. But on further investigation, it becomes obvious that while Japan was not colonised, the Japanese, much like the Iranians in their Golden Age, knew to convert information from other cultures to their language before synthesizing what they needed into their culture. Even the Europeans whom we often assume to have invented philosophy (thanks to popular narratives) clearly built their culture on the works of the likes of Zarathustra, and while it isn’t openly publicised, Eastern philosophy has also played a huge role in influencing Western thought.
To adapt already existing intellectual knowledge to a culture, two things are always required: access to the desired information, and institutions developed for the organisation and syndication of the information. Unfortunately, many African states while with access to information did not develop lasting institutions for proper syndication and continuation. Taking Nigeria for example, one only has to take a look at the state of our tertiary institutions, the state of the average public library, the lack of debating platforms and the shortage of galleries and publishing houses to put our position in context.
The result of this lack of organisation and syndication of intellectual thought puts us in a place where upcoming generations are disconnected from the intellectual works of thinkers before us, and even more disturbing is that it gives the power of intellectual validation of African writers to the West. There are many Wole Soyinkas in your local bar, and if the West didn’t endorse Chimamanda, at best she would be just another Igbo woman that writes good prose.
Photo Credit: aljazeera.com
It is my core belief that a country’s intellectual development can be best measured by the performance and output of the institutions and industries associated with intellectual endeavoors. It is the bedrock of all development, challenging the citizens to be more than just a reactive participant in matters of culture and legislation. It instills the attitude that breeds respect for ideas over the material, and in Africa where material wealth is buried in the ground we walk, the need for the intellectual prowess to match it is the key to finding our place in the grand scheme of things.
For one thing, we should be concerned that till date, we are unable to extract the oil we sell with our own technology and are constantly forced to outsource it. China has managed to reverse engineer every equipment they can get their hands on, and in the words of our parents we must ask; do they have two heads?