Wednesday, 28 November 2007

Dutch Wax as a Symbol of African Identity


Colourfully ornate Dutch Wax or Wax Prints are big business for women traders appropriately referred to as Nana-Benz in West-African countries such as Togo, Benin, Nigeria and Ghana by virtue of the affordability of the German car. The intriguing history of these mobile canvases of art-work ubiquitously reputed to be the quintessential African fabric and a proudly-adorned symbol for African solidarity / black consciousness is perhaps not that well recognised. Originally a cheaply produced imitation of Javanese batik by the Dutch in the 19th Century in a bid to penetrate and in an oh-so-colonial way take over the market, and unsuccessfully so might I add, the Dutch Wax prints landed a more favourable market in the Gold Coast (as the Europeans called it then). The rest as they say is history. Today, in West and Central Africa and further afield in metropolises like Nairobi or Cape Town, Wax Prints have been embraced as a fashionable, back-to-the-roots attire, effortlessly reflected on the streets, catwalks and glossy women’s magazines.


Interestingly (well, at least for the techno-enthusiasts), the misleading name Dutch Wax or Wax Prints was a fabrication (excuse the pun) intended to compete with the hand-made Javanese batiks that were laboriously depicted with the use of wax. Apparently the Javanese women drew the motifs on woven cloth as a form of meditation – how beautiful is that! Conversely, the European machine-made fabrics used dye-resist resin to design the motifs. The Dutch Wax "brand", however, is used to this day and sought after in colourful stacks of folded textiles in market stalls as a symbol of quality. Initially a unique commodity as the sole European production purely for export to the African market, this is now changing with production as far as China and closer to home in Ghana and Nigeria. Naturally, the lower prices of the Chinese-made fabrics have raised a lot of concerns for local producers as has the contestable quality in some instances, for consumers.


What is fascinating is that this once upon a time purely European production was quickly appropriated, embraced and integrated as a means of self-expression. It is a possibility that this was only so because the Dutch were viewed as well-meaning traders as opposed to colonial masters in their West-African niche. Therefore trading with them as opposed to the British for instance, was probably a rebellion of sorts. Regardless, despite its history, this style of fabric has been integrated and achieved local meaning in the design and hierarchy of its styles that it is unquestionably African. This is perceptively asserted in an interview with Nina Sylvanus, a social anthropologist from UCLA, simply but ingeniously with the phrase “the use is its meaning”. An example to illustrate this is that spaghetti’s origins are inarguably a copy of Chinese noodles since the days of the Italian explorer Marco Polo. However, no one would query spaghetti as authentically Italian. On a complete diversion, I was intrigued to stumble across Dr Sylvanus’ work and can not imagine the looks I would have got from my parents had I proclaimed I would be embarking on a PhD to research The Fabric of Africanity. Actually, who am I kidding - even if I knew people were actually researching this, I would not have dared. It simply would not have crossed my mind as an option...And then we are left wondering why non-Africans appear to be more interested in examining and documenting our culture? Alas, that is a topic for another day.

Friday, 9 November 2007

When Old is Not Gold

Since early childhood, as I suspect in any African home, we grew up with the mantra “respect your elders”. This has been inexorably engrained in my brain, like a moulded figure in dried cement, and frankly is a decent code to live by. Whether aged 10 or 40, no well-mannered younger person would hesitate to give their seat up for an older person or allow them to be heavily laden with luggage. When speaking to an elder (with exceptions of course e.g. playful grandparents), the eyes along with the tone of voice drop and a humble posture adopted. In later life, when the younger person is of working age, they tend to the elder ones’ needs with love and respect. A connection to Ancestral veneration is apparent, which is characteristic to African Spirituality, widely practised prior to the bush fire-like spread currently dominant religions such as Christianity and Islam. In traditional communities, upholding elders with high regard was standard practice - not only did they possess wisdom from their many years on earth, but they too would soon be joining the realm of the Ancestors in the spiritual plane. (I will address African Spirituality in a separate post)

My great disappointment in my nurtured idealist views when I became an adult, was the realisation that older people in my circles that I was supposed to respect by virtue of their age, were making judgements or carrying out actions that were in conflict with my own values. How then could I respect such a person? As an African in the Diaspora who is a statistic of migration patterns and globalisation that have reasonably contributed to the creation of multicultural societies, the pluralism of my identity - and I suspect for others in a similar situation - can be as much of a blessing as it can be a curse. There are certain overt traditions that we continue to live by whilst others that remain tacit, that can be a source of conflict, both with yourself and with people in your circles. Some of these traditions that I am alluding to are not explicitly defined; they are implicit in people's demeanour and responses. In some instances I tread with caution and figure it out as I go along. One of my dilemmas has been how to handle interactions with older people who demand respect when I feel that they do not deserve it based on their discourse or behaviour. Interestingly, respect may be defined in a myriad of ways, depending on your environment. For example, not speaking unless you were spoken to was a code of conduct that my high school teachers during my eventful stint in a Kenyan national boarding school sneeringly enforced, and got me into trouble numerous times until I learnt that the definition at home was not in tandem with the one at school. Although it is so clich├ęd to dwell on hindsight as the best teacher, I can look back with 20-20 clarity that those teachers were forcibly demanding respect as opposed to gaining it from us. The concept of a Kenyan boarding school is far too complex to go into, but although it wasn’t apparent at the time, it was certainly character building! Someone must be blogging on it before lights out…I digress.

What then is the answer to how to uphold your own values without being ostracised in your community for speaking your mind, which is (wrongly) translated to being disrespectful of your elders ? How do you handle Auntie or Uncle so-and-so who grates you with racist / tribalistic / sexist / homophobic / just plain ignorant comments that proliferate one of the many –isms and does not allow room for an open discussion? After a number of failed attempts to respectfully explain my views to an apparently disinterested elder, my strategy is now avoidance at all costs. And if we happen to bump into each other at an event, family or otherwise, I say a quick hello and exchange nicieties (if at all), followed by a swift exit. Shame isn’t it?

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

The Arts as a Tool for Self-Preservation: The Plight of the Saharawi of Western Sahara

In any struggle against oppression, the arts express the irrepressible core of who we fundamentally are. The arts provide a tenacious platform that reinforces identity and propagates a message that permeates beyond physical or tacit borders. The arts convey the feelings that arise from the depths of our very being and converts them into a visual or auditory illustration, that allows others to experience them. By seeing and /or hearing the expression of self, we momentarily grasp a fragment of another's soul. In other words, the arts foster the human connection. Although artists express their pain and their joy from their individual perspectives, in an oppresive environment they concurrently create a focal point that breeds unity and determination amongst the oppressed and are knowingly or unknowingly the voice of a community and even a nation to the outside world. Consequently, the power that an artist potentially has within their reach can be viewed as a threatening force to any oppressor.

In my childhood, I vividly recall the late 70's / early 80's government-imposed detention without trial and banning of books by the renowned Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who later went into exile in the UK and the United States. At that age, I could not comprehend why writing stories about Kenyans and more so in a Kenyan tongue, should be regarded as a political weapon that could instil fear in the then President Moi. Artists present the truth – their truth to the masses in a language that captures our attention and imagination, by speaking to us at a level that is beyond cerebral comprehension and assimilation. Ngugi has been an adamant and much acclaimed voice in the face of neo-colonialism and an avid campaigner of the use of African languages.

Colonialisation, however, has not yet been put to bed and Western Sahara has been fittingly coined Africa’s last colony. With a similar thread to the occupation of Tibet by her neighbour China, Western Sahara has been occupied by the Kingdom of Morocco since the Spanish withdrawal and handover to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975. The UN has its hands tied due to vetoes by France and USA in the UN Security Council, whose support for Morocco is supposedly intended to combat Islamist extremism. And that is only part of the story of the chronology of the Saharawi struggle... As a consequence, multitudes of Saharawi refugees live in camps in the Algerian desert and Morocco continues to have authority over the Saharawi people. Sandblast, a London-based charity, has organised the Sandblast Festival 2007 that will stage Saharawi artists in order to create global awareness of the plight of the Saharawi. They seek justice. Will you listen?

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Pseudo-Scientific Racism Rears its Ugly Head....Again

Watson and Crick became household names for their Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough in the 1950's that revealed the structure of DNA as a double helix of its base pairs. This has been cited as paving the way for the rapid advancement of genetic research and indeed the Human Genome Project, which sought to map the DNA sequence (genome) of human beings. It is therefore terribly disconcerting that James Watson had the audacity to unashamedly and unjustifiably claim that Westerners are intellectually superior to people of African origin, as published in The Independent newspaper (17 th October 2007).

It is apalling that a scientist globally held in such high regard, propagates eugenics theory which unsurprisingly bears no evidence, when empirical evidence is the foundation for any scientific declaration. Unequivocally, Watson is exhibiting his personal prejudices and disguising them as scientific fact. Unfortunately it is farcical fodder like this that further propagates baseless racist ideology. The concept of race is a superficial social construct, with no scientific basis. These unjustified theories were historically used to fuel racist ideology and were ludicrously applied to justify colonialisation and the horrific and inhumane acts, of which trading Africans as commodites in the Slave Trade and the atrocities of Nazi Germany are perhaps the most widely recognised.

Let us come back to the basics -- are we not just one species - Homo Sapiens? Admittedly there is diversity in our species and pluralism in our individual identities. However, how this can be categorically used to create baseless hierachies misquoting genetics, more so by the supposed intellectuals in society beggars belief. Well, there you have it - even Nobel Laureates can get it so wrong.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

"Going Native" Reality Shmeality

Reality TV made an irrevocable impact on the British public with the advent of Channel 4' s social experiment, Big Brother. Years on, it appears that reality TV has "gone native", with programming such as BBC2's Tribe, Channel 4's Meet The Natives, amongst others jumping onto the bandwagon. It readily begs the question- is this the noble use of TV programming to offer a platform for profound and meaningful debate on the human condition or purely a desperate attempt to capture audiences in a society that is desensitised from an overwhelming abundance of information? Despite the positively well-intentioned testimony by Tribe's presenter, Bruce Parry, I fear the answer lies in the latter. It is curious that the undoubtedly marketable, carefully selected names of the afore-mentioned TV series depict the reality TV "stars" with terms that come with baggage and are not used descriptively in the so-called civilised global North. They leave a bad taste in my mouth; reminiscent of the tone in Conrad's infamous Heart of Darkness, which unapologetically portrays the "dark continent" of savages. And so I am left wondering if this play with words conceals a sinister message to the audience. With names like that, who was their target audience anyway? I daresay it seems to be marketed as an exclusive chance for the modernised of the 21st century with a possible entrenched nostalgia for the long-gone days of the Empire to "go native", much like a khaki-clad colonial explorer, and to observe the far-removed realities of the dark-skinned natives from the safety and comfort of your cosy living room.


Both TV series vaguely depict a resemblance to anthropological enquiry (a social science which has redeemed itself from its colonial and ethnocentric past), where an outsider joins and fully participates in all aspects of the day-to-day lives of a community. Suffice to say, anthropology sets out to connect the significantly long (at least a number of years) subjective experience of the observer to the bigger picture, in order to answer the overarching question of what it means to be a human being. In both these series, they portray the experiences without contextualising them, or indeed asking meaningful questions derived from the observations and their relation to the UK, for instance and the larger scheme of things. With respect to Meet the Natives, this is eloquently elaborated on by Dr Luke Freeman on the Channel 4 forum, Origination.


Channel 4 claims to have turned the tables round by giving the Pacific islanders cameras to record their experiences of life in the UK. How Channel 4 can make this claim begs belief when they then turn their cameras on them. Although no one has announced it, it is glaringly obvious that someone in Channel 4 thought it would be bemusing entertainment to bring over the people of Tanna (an island of Vanuatu) who revere the Queen's husband as a god. The core objective of these men's visit was to seek an audience with Prince Phillip and report back to their Chief. Suffice to say, no one's faith should be questioned and their belief system should be regarded with respect. Of note, Channel 4 does not at any point relate this to Tanna's history and the adaptation of the local culture to colonial subjectification, a response that transpired elsewhere in the world. That aside, I was horrified when these men from Tanna were subject to the tucking into a well known fast food brand's fried chicken bucket, purpotedly as an experience of British life - was this really necessary? One word comes to mind: trans-fats.


In Tribe, the presenter Bruce, has been warmly welcomed into a number of societies in Africa, South America, and elsewhere, with open arms. In one episode where he was in a village of the Dassanech people in the Omo Valley, in the environs of Lake Turkana in Southern Ethiopia, Bruce was initiated with the other young men of the village. Any African will tell you that this is indeed a great honour that was bestowed upon him and I wondered how seriously the BBC (and Bruce) take the irreversible impact they have on the lives of the people that they fleetingly visit, camera in hand. For after Bruce leaves with his entourage, life there will never be the same. It is not to suggest that these people do not have any exposure to people from the West. What I am alluding to is the genuine generosity and open-heartedness that these people undoubtedly have. I was saddened to see Bruce's adoptive mother in the village talk about her son (Bruce) with such genuine affection, more so when the time came for him to depart. It is my hope that Bruce et al hold these interactions and relationships that they form with utmost respect, that goes beyond what makes good viewing.


Why is it then that this type of programming appeals to the masses? Is there a perceived sense of oh-my-god-would-I-do-that?, when Bruce sheds off his jeans, t-shirt and hiking boots to parade bare-foot, semi-naked and adorned with body paint before he ventures off with his fellow men to hunt for their dinner? Or is it that globalisation is turning us all into boringly predictable hybrids and that this programming provides us with a unique chance to curiously peek with an unattached demeanour, into the "unspoilt" and rapidly fading cultures of the world? Whatever the case, clearly, this advent of reality TV into the fashionable quickie exploration of non-Western cultures draws a fine line between education and exploitation. The immediate ethical issues that need addressing are where the profits from filming tribal holidays go and before they are replaced by the next fad, how can these TV programmes / cultural voyeurism be used a worthy conduit that highlights the regretable plight of historical and present-day exploitation, and in many cases extinction, of indigenous people across the globe. The charity Survival International is an advocate for sustaining the endangered indigenous ways of life in the face of so-called development.