African Culture, Knowledge and Experience

Jude Uwalaka


  1. The phenomenon of culture
  2. The conditions of the possibility of culture
  3. African culture in crisis
  4. Shaping African culture with knowledge and experience
  5. Puritanistic approach
  6. Iconoclastic approach
  7. The role of education and culture
  8. Conclusion
  9. Endnotes

The Phenomenon of Culture

I will join the majority of anthropologists by adopting the classic definition of culture given by E. B. Taylor, for whom culture is that “complex whole which includes knowledge, beliefs, art, moral, law, custom and any other capabilities or habit acquired by man as a member of society”.1 In culture one finds the values, norms, belief and meaning which make life within a specific community possible and meaningful.

From the point of origin, culture is the product and construction of man, who by nature is a cultural being. So culture is neither a generic social heritage nor naturally given reality, but something super-added to the effects of nature by the agency of the human will and reason. Thus all of culture in the best sense is an expression of human freedom and human creativity. No one is born with culture, but we are born with the potentialities for the development of culture. According to H. R. Neihbuhr, Culture is the product of the hand and mind of man.

Since man does not find in naked nature a home, he was destined to provide for himself a home. Thus culture is understood as the construction of artifacts upon nature in order to create a human habitat; hence culture is “evidently l’ensemble and totality of human efforts, achievements in the course of this struggle for existence and survival amidst the unfriendly militating forces of naure”.2 Culture then is that through which people as humans become more human3 ; it is the peak of expression of man’s creativity and his capacity to break out of natures narrow bonds. In fact, as Vatican II Council document puts it, culture refers to all those things which go to the refining and developing of man’s diverse mental and physical endowments.4

From these, one can infer that culture has both moral, physical, spiritual and material dimensions for culture means how we human beings can create a whole history of ways of life and how we develop different ways of facing the question of meaning of personal existence. No wonder knowledge, values, and religion are integral parts of any culture.

Between religion and culture there is a close relationship. According to Christopher Dawson, in all ages the first creative works of culture are due to a religious inspiration and dedicated to a religious end.5 Men look to their different religions for answers to the unsolved riddles of human existence. What is man? What is the meaning and purpose of life? Where is genuine happiness found? If culture is the spiritual form society takes, its values are the bases.

Knowledge, however, is a very important element of culture. It is an attempt to understand the world and man’s existence in the world, but not an attempt of a purely theoretical kind. It is ordered to the fundamental interest of human existence. “Understanding should show us how to be human, how man is to take his proper place in the world and respond to it in order to realize himself in his search for success and happiness.”6 Knowledge gained in culture gives rise to a praxis which encompasses the dimensions of values and morals. The insights, values and morals of culture are always within the context of a human society or community and are used to shape the community itself. We are dealing here with the basic ideas and ways of life which give society its identity and bind it into a unit, that is, the elements that hold together the soul of a nation.

The Conditions for the Possibility of Culture

The question is: what actually makes it possible for man to produce culture? Why is culture possible, since it is not given by nature?

The first is man’s capacity for thought and reflection, that is, the possession of reflective consciousness. This enables man to solve problems; it involves the capacity for abstraction, conceptualization, generalization, ideation, anticipation. Man forms the beginning of schemes, plans and devices. He could use tools devised for a purpose and according to pre-conceived plans. This is the capacity of invention. For, according to Benjamin Franklin, tool-making involves a planned modification of natural objects based on the previous knowledge of the effect. The capacity to make tools equally presupposes the power of forethought and foresight. Cultural development especially technological development, results from the capacity of invention which lies in not merely reacting to the environment but having foresight of anticipation, thinking beyond the immediate. This could be called imaginative power which situates man in a future which is not yet realized, which is not mere adaptation to an immediate need. In short, tool-making is a product of man’s imagination in order to respond to the challenges of his environment.7

The capacity for foresight and reflection helps man then to be productive and transcend his immediateness. This culture is man’s potent means of adaptation to his environment. It is vital to see that the concept of homo culturalis rests and depends upon the concept of homo sapiens. In other words, human culture is made possible by the innate power and ability of man to imagine, speculate and, especially, think. In fact, for Bertrand Rassell, civilization is a manner of life due to the combination of knowledge andforethought.8

The second fact for the emergence of culture is Human freedom. A comparison between animal constructions and those of men will indeed show that only those of men display real objects artificially created. This and the process of perfecting on the basis of regulating corrections at the level of behaviour indicate a naked liberty or a big liberty on the part of man with regard to genetic potentialities and biological facts. This shows that the emergence of culture is a process which cannot be reduced to mere genetic potentiality: culture is due to certain novelty which appears by the display of certain behaviour, which results from the free activity of man’s spirit and will. Creativity is a product of freedom.

To have the fullness of culture we need something which relates to free expansion, something above necessity. As an author said, God created us in freedom, in goodness and in love and our cultural creativity is born from that gift.

There is also the factor of symbolization that is man’s capacity to make symbol. Man is a being capable of speech; he can use language, he can symbolize. By the use of symbols man selects out appropriate fragments of his past and present conveying the momentary present into an imagined future. With this man plans and learns how to imaginatively manipulate events and things in order to find means of controlling them, to create and recreate words of his own that have no existence except in his mind.

Since the ability to speak or to communicate through the spoken word is man’s greatest medium for building the community. It fosters mutual understanding, communication and deliberation. In short, speech is the origin of fable tradition, the treasure house of increasing knowledge for transmitting knowledge from one generation to the other. Language renders possible the accumulation of experience and a storing of achievements secured by the members of the community.

The possession of culture is made possible again because man is a historical being. There exists a link between man’s historical consciousness and his possibility of foresight. To speak of culture is to imply historical evolution and development. Man receives the achievement of his predecessors as a gift (datum). “He tries to perfect them by adding his contributions. In this way culture stands in the dynamic stream of time…..A culture’s historicity means its ability to progress and this depends on its ability to be open and to allow transformation through encounter”.9

Finally we have to note that a cultural expression can emerge which was not initially a direct product of willed-deliberate act of man, but rather as an intended consequence of human action. Some rules and practice that emerge in society can be traced to such origins. This means that culture includes the more conscious levels of artistic and intellectual growth but also the more ordinary level of lived culture, those “new forms of living” including “mass culture, from which arise new ways of thinking, acting” and of social communications.10

Our analysis of culture and the conditions of its possibility could lead us to some preliminary observation namely that cultures share in the perfections and imperfections of man, of the particular horizon and geography of its origin: of the state of knowledge, of its historical emergence. It bears the contingency and fallibility of all man’s productions. So Paul Poupard was right in calling culture a specific horizon which a person acquires through identifying consciously with a precise human community and which offers its representation of the past and its vision of the future.11

African Culture in Crisis

African cultures have suffered the fate of the African man in history. They were for a very long time denigrated, bastardized and vulgarized on the account of colonial and imperialist influences.

So as Africans were fully defeated militarily and technologically, as were their cultures and cultural idiosyncrasies profoundly challenged in terms of their language, manners, standards of beauty, law, leadership, education and religion, for better or for worse.

From the three great African writers – Achebe – Things Fall Apart; Ngugi – Weep not Child: and Laye Camera – The African Child, the author’s biography of an African boy – we see three young African youths, Nwoye, Njoroge and Camera respectively, who were products of traditional African societies but found themselves in a process of “modernization” to which they must adjust, however, painfully. A change had come to Africa that was to challenge the very fabric of African society and culture. One remembers the famous statement of Chinua Achebe in his Things Fall Apart: “The white man…, has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart”.12

The crisis in African cultures today can be examined from the following view points:

  1. a) The crisis of relevance: Many elements and cultural expressions in the African cultural world seem to refer to a world that no longer exists, to an audience that no longer listens. African culture appears, to parade obsolete techniques.

As author writing on African societies says: “The culture they have created present unmistakable weakness. They are primarily effective on the level of human groups of limited extent and living in relative isolation, on this scale, they excel. They have lacked those techniques for handling of space which are favourable to unification. They have also lacked the literary apparatus indispensable to the administration of large concentration of people”.13

The traditional village systems of communalism, egalitarianism and hospitality are under strain in the modern African urban centres. With the power of Western media, the taste of African people have been changed, in many other areas, it appears that many elements of African traditional cultures are becoming less attractive or even quite unknown to most African peoples especially the younger generation.

  1. Following naturally from the crisis of relevance is the crisis of meaning.
  2. The third is the crisis of authenticity: there is a confusion in the African cultural universe.

The western educational process has created in the African elite certain distortions which make them uneasy with the African cultures but yet not white enough to be welcomed in the white man’s cultural universe. They hold in both hands at a time, contradictory values and belief systems without any integration. Probably this is what Franz Fanon called “Black skin white masks”.

Thus, all this boils down to the problem and crisis of cultural authenticity. How do we reconcile African traditions with Western “Modernity”? How can one be African and-Modern?

  1. The corollary to this crisis of authenticity is then the crisis of cultural identity and the crisis of direction. What must Africans do? How are Africans to come to terms with their historical experiences made up of the colonial heritage and traditional or indigenous heritage? That is, how does the African survive in the present environment with his dual identity, tradition and modern? For an author said: “it is observable that while traditional values derived from historical cultural and religious experiences of the people have remained wide spread and potent, they have not been harnessed for the day-to-day operations of our political life”.14

In the final analysis the issue is, how can our African cultures be salvaged from their present state of inertia or stupor and inferiority complex? How can they reinvent themselves? How can they be modernize if need be, without losing their originality? How can they be made to respond to the contemporary imperatives that challenge the African society? How can African cultures and traditions become a foundation for meaningful development in Africa in the present scheme of things?

Shaping African Culture with Knowledge and Experience

Our discussions above on culture shows clearly that knowledge and experience are the building blocks of any culture. In culture, man’s existence in the world, an understanding which is not merely theoretical and individual but geared towards the fundamental interests of human existence. In short, it is the search in which the community takes the lead. Thus knowledge or experience in culture encompasses the whole areas of man’s existence: hence in knowledge we could talk of scientific knowledge, moral knowledge, religious knowledge, traditional knowledge and social knowledge. Invariably, all cultures have some stake in distinguishing truth from error wisdom from ignorance, and the path to knowledge from the path to ignorance.15

Given the appalling and confused state of things in the continent – cultural distortion and economic crisis – it is not questionable whether our cultures should be reshaped or reinvented or rather reinvigorated with knowledge and experience. The problem is whose knowledge? Which knowledge? And whose experience? And which experience?

These and other questions have led to various theories in epistemology, cultural anthropology and ethics such as cultural relativism which claims that no culture is better than any other, that every culture is as good as every other. There is also anthropological relativism. What we have are Italians: Russians, Igbos etc. We have no human nature. We only have cultural beings.

Epistemological relativism holds that, because the beliefs human beings accept very so much from one culture to another, there is little possibility, if any, for productive dialogue among cultures hence the impossibility of trans-cultural justification.16

However the universalists argue that some goods are universal and human and not merely local in character. In this light, Philippa Foot argued that, granted that it is wrong to assume an identity of aim between peoples of different cultures, nevertheless there is a great deal that all men have in common …..17 And for M. Naussibaum there are “features of humanness that lie beneath all local traditions”.18 These features of humanness, according to john Paul II, are the “measure of culture and the conditions ensuring that man does not become the prisoner of any of his cultures.19

We will reserve further commentaries on these portions later; perhaps it will be necessary to say that, while there is no one culture which beliefs could be said to be the measure of truth, and goodness for all cultures, yet it is more than reasonable to observe that some cultures may have better and even a true perception of some truths in some areas than others.

Since our discussion is with respect to African cultures with reference to knowledge and experience, let us see the responses already offered with respect to shaping our culture with knowledge and experience. Four approaches and lines of action can be underlined: The Puritanistic approach or cultural integrism; The ICONOCLASTIC approach or WESTERN MODERNISM; The anarchistic approach or cultural anarchism: and CULTURAL complimentary or inter-culturality.

Puritanistic Approach

The first attitude is what can be called integrism or neo-traditionalism, although a fundamentalist attitude. This aims at a type of cultural Puritanism, immune from all extraneous and foreign contamination. In short, it is a kind of cultural isolationism. Members of this group seek the salvation of Africa as well as kits traditional values, which it tries to revitalize and renew.

For neo-traditionalism, African culture was only suspended by colonialism which was only an interim event, and so, the African identity or culture was only in a state of suspended animation and could now be re-animated to continue its career unaffected by the colonial interruption. Hence the need to recover the pre-colonial past as African authentic and true self-discovery. Proponents of this view include Blyden, Fanson, Cahral, earlier Mazrui, Mbonu Ojike (Boycott the Boycottables).20

Other proponents in religious field are: Kinhangiusm, Kinwadi and Mwuguism etc. M. Ela finds this also in the ideology of Blackness and perhaps in the extreme, Negritudinists interiorize an idyllic picturesque presentation of traditional life through textbooks intended to explain the exotic custom of the black peoples to foreigners. In the name of traditions and of authenticity these people point-to past as a very glorious achievement free from all conflicts and full of order, stability and harmony.

In this respect an Afro-American, writing to his fellow black Americans, says: “Many of us remake the past to suit the needs of present, imagining that we descended from African Kings and Queens or that the land our fore bearers left behind was the same kind of earthly paradise of the late Alex Haley’s Rod.” This romanticism, however, can draw the veil more tightly over our eyes. For us, Africa is not so much a lost continent as an imagined one.21 Cultural integrism should transform the black man or the negro into a civilized hero.

The cultural nationalists, as many of them were called, want to demonstrate that contrary to historical and anthropological distortions by colonial and imperialist forces, the African before, during and after colonialism has a culture and rich civilization values that should be respected and recognized by all. Each race, according to them, was unique and had an independent destiny and contribution to make in world civilization. The greatest danger for an educated African is that he could lose his African genuine.22

Thus, confronted with the challenges of the contemporary world, which demand for action, the purist radically refuses any creative dialogues by insisting on the standards of the past which he sees as a way of saving African heritage from the disruptions of the iconoclastic colonial era.23 So for this group, the Euro-American world poses a threat to the state systems of the black and African world24

Okonkwo the warrior patriot in Achebe’s Things Fall Apart qualifies as the hero of these cultural integrists. Okonkwo is recalcitrant, too inflexible, too backward, a cultural draw back in his strong desires to maintain his anachronistic culture and standards of living. He believed too much in his own ways to forced into another person’s institution including schools, churches etc. To Okonkwo, his Ibo-culture was the truth.25

Each state has cultural traditions which can be used to develop their national substance. The power over one’s world and oneself is an implication of the autonomous cultural development. Hence the necessity to research into the cultural and African world substance. The African world thus recognized and evoked must not be only a contrast to the European world but “must also be dramatized as the context of a new history of those who now consciously re-affiliate with it”.26 Cultural integrists insist that Black and African peoples should no longer be subjected to educational processes which are greatly flavoured with western civilization, but should study the tradition of their ancestors to know the institutions and values which are peculiar to “Africa which consequently must be retained. In the philosophical parlance, the proposal of cultural nationalists is represented by ethno-philosophers. Ethno-philosophy conceives African philosophy as a description of a communal thought as opposed to seeing kit as a body of logically argued thoughts of individuals. It is premised on the assumption that there is a metaphysical system that embodies traditional wisdom, the institutions and languages of Africa. Many of these can be thrashed out from the myths, folktales, beliefs, proverbs and languages of the African cultures.27

Not all are comfortable with the proposals of cultural Puritanism. Certainly no one today can deny the rich potentialities of the African past which accords with the UNESCO decade of cultural development decade of cultural development (1988 to 1997), which is aimed at drawing attention to the necessity to search for solutions to various social issues by looking inwards to the indigenous culture and traditions of the various peoples of the world. However, the call to adopt the ideologies of cultural integrism or neo-traditionalism has been heavily critiqued.

First and foremost, it abstracts from the reality of African society today at the threshold of 21st century. It fails to realize that African history, whether or not we like it, is irreversible in as much as colonialism had already made some permanent trademarks and profound changes within African society. To opt for cultural purity, or neo-traditionalism, and return to the pre-colonial past is to falsify African historical experience and to deny all that has happened in the 5oo years of contact with Europe: the adoption of the Nation-state and Western education and western value system, Christianity, and Africa’s integration into the world economic order and so on.

As Luke Mbefo clearly pointed out, to reject colonial legacy totally in preference for the traditional status quo is unreal. A complete rejection of the western world involves the loss of western technology which has proved very effective in the transformation and modernization of the continent and the world. Without mastering western technology, even in its transferred form, Africa would return to pre-modern condition and would run the risk of greater exploitation by materially stronger nations seeking markets and raw materials.28

Surely, the Western protean spirit and protestant ethics with its indispensable emphasis on work and effort devoted to changing and bettering man’s physical environment are a necessity in any part of the world today. This contrasts with the workings of the traditional society, where the material organization of life has been taken as given. But one can say that nature is very largely accepted as impenetrable by reason. It can be a mystery which can be manipulated beyond very narrow limits in answer to human needs. According to traditional thinking, the highest wisdom lies in the effort to keep things as they are, to preserve rather than to create. Wisdom is to wait on providence and follow in the ways of the fore fathers, ways of life compatible with great serenity, great dignity, profound religious experience and great art but not with the accumulation of material wealth for society as a whole.29

It has been observed that, faced with difficulties of existence, Africans tend spontaneously to return to the ancestral traditions, to the altars and sacred groves, to back water springs, to all the means of protection that have saved them through centuries of collective living. But in a world dominated by science and technology, one does not wish to act upon the real through ritual translated as backwardness; hence some see traditional African religion as tainted with obscurantism and retrogression.

Whatever truth may be in this traditional set up, there are some who argue that the age of the black Orpheus, of sterile narcissism has come to an end. In our confrontation with the great empires of finance and industry, those impregnable fortresses of capital, we need something more than music and dance. The quest for authenticity through rhythm can be a perilous pitiful event for contemporary Africa.

It has been pointed out that African cultures should not blindly call for ‘drumbeats’ to celebrate their golden past; the so-called golden culture that was brought at its knees before the military might of few white men. A culture that facilitated the enslavement of millions of her youth or easily got over politically and economically could not merit the kind of praises puritans are instigating: “It was the same pervasive trait of the same culture that enabled space groups of Europeans to subjugate large masses of Africans population and keep them in subjugation for many years.”30 In short, some see the integrist legends as an attempt to dwarf one’s attention from the problems of its present and hopes after future.

It has equally been shown that traditional thought or practice is not unique to African cultures. It is claimed that most of the so called traditional practices and values like communalism, a spirits filled world were in the pre-scientific Europe.31

So the preaching of any sort of cultural isolationism, which gives the impression that Africa has no common heritage with the rest of humanity, is an indirect perpetuation of racist writers, who claim that Africans cannot adapt to a higher civilization. There is a basic interconnectedness in the expression of human intelligence. Human beings, under different times, and in different places and at different times express the same thoughts with similar modes, without any direct association. No wonder Julius Nyerere, a well known Africanist, warned: “It would be absurd to imply that… pre-colonial Africa was an ideal place in which the ‘noble savage’ of Rousseau live his idyllic existence. The members of this solid unit were not more ‘noble’ than other human beings…”32

Many others claim that while there are a good many cultural integrits who are truly motivated by the desire to promote indigenous cultures, there are others, especially corrupt politicians, who advocate traditionalism for selfish reasons. Some of these, in the name of cultural authenticity, manipulate culture for selfish power domination. In the name of tradition people are told that unconditional submission to absolute power is justified even though it leads to repression and torture. The clearest evidence was the Zaire of Mobutu Sese Seko. Under guise of the ideology of cultural authenticity, Mobutu Sese Seko appropriated all the power and money of the people in the name of African way of life.33

The ethno-philosophical discourse has equally been seriously criticized for upholding an oral folk philosophy which authority lies in its purported antiquity, not in the quality of the reasoning or evidence that sustains it: it is a philosophy that is usually unable to treat critical activity as disinterested.

All we have been saying boils down to the fact that, while no one could in all honesty demand that the African cultural heritage be in any way marginalized, yet the African crisis of authenticity will never be solved by an extreme position in the name of cultural Puritanism, which preaches that we pay deaf ears to the realities of our times.

Iconoclastic Approach

The other extreme position antithetical to neo-traditionalism is cultural iconoclasm or unrestricted westernization. Africa is filled with many Europhiliacs, who see western civilization and culture as the highest attainment of man. These agree with writers such as F. Hayek, Wallerstein and Armold Toynbee who regard the western civilization as the apex of man’s cultural achievement. They ignorantly imbibe the theories of naturalists like Condoret (1743-1794) and evolutionists like Hurert Spencer (1920-1903) and Charles Darwin, whose writings led to the idea that Western cultures are the highest achievements of man; they introduce a hierarchy among cultures of which some are inferior to others. Thus today people are defending a mono-cultural world, a world culture which is nothing but culture of western liberal civilization. Proponents of culture inconoclasm argue that any culture that does not assimilate itself into this universal machine will be eliminated by the invisible hand of the selection process. This is the myth of Eurocentricism, the preponderant myth of universalism and objectivity. Thus, some African elites who lay claim to political, scientific and cultural authority and superiority, thanks to their western education, think that Africans should conform to standards imported from abroad, and at the pretext of universalism, consider western education, think that Africans should conform to standards imported from abroad, and at the pretext of universalism, consider western culture as truly representative of universal standards. It is a position which accepts the dilution of the African personality into the systems of values and structures of the Western culture.34 It is just absurd, as Achebe implies in his Things Fall Apart, to try to Europeanise every aspect of African culture.35

There are many other Africans who have tasted alternative life-styles and found the foreign better than the traditional way of life. These call for the substitution of Western culture with its civilization for ‘Africanism’ or the African way of life. Having been trained in Western ways, they become “new men” prepared and willing to become agents of change and demonstration.

The new merchants, the new administrators, the Western formed Elites, who now exercise demonstration effect on the people seemed to live better, live longer and more materially satisfying lives. The local people saw that this was so, and aspired to be like them or at least their own children ought to be like them. African philosophers, like Kwame Appiah, propose to dismantle the specious opposition between “us” and “them”, the West and the Rest. For some it means immersion into a raceless society36.

This fascination with the Western life style and culture is best typified in a report by Balendrier about a person (one of those early Western trained elites) whom he met at the government information service at Brazzavile during the colonial period. This man in an essay wrote, “European dress represents the most perfect form of beauty over achieved by the aesthetic sense of man.” He went on: “We advocate the expansion of western civilization throughout Africa.” Balendrier commented: “This whole hearted conviction conceals fundamental and surprising anxiety. It reveals a profound doubt as to the intrinsic value of African civilizations, in terms of institutions, beliefs, languages and arts.” The Western trained elite shows a refusal to accept himself as a negro with his individual irreducible characteristics, his cultural riches to defend. He reveals a fear of being identified with those who symbolize the sate of “savagery”. Hence he “advocates a headlong flight towards a foreign civilization.”37 This fascination and longing for whatever is European still represents the dominating attitude of the African elite today. Many are convinced that the African culture. The white man himself is seen as a spirit, the model and quintessence of a true human being, whose values must be assumed without much ado. The white man posited himself and his culture as superior, and African elites chorus them thus.

While European culture posited herself as the ideal, Africans and their cultures become their opposite, both in their epistemic and value systems that play out in other contrasts like rationality and irrationality; religious savage and civilized, 38 and so on. Every beautiful thing came to be identified with the white man; good road (ama Bekee), good food (nri Bekee), good job (oru Bekee). Thus the iconoclastic approach advocates a process of total Europeanization whereby the world has gone mono-cultural, all people are called upon to adopt one universal culture. Therefore, all attempts should be made to install process of radical de-Africanization. For, according to Barbara Ward, Western civilization has brought forward five revolutions which are thrusting the old static subsistence economics to the back waters of the world. Thus, many argue that for Africans to survive, they must imbibe the five revolutions namely: intellectual revolution of materialism, the political revolution of equality, and above all the scientific and technological revolutions which come from the application of savings and the sciences to the whole business of daily life.38 The Westernized African as aptly portrayed by the African writer – Okot P. Bitek – in his Song of Lavino and song of O’Col. Lavino lashed at O’Col for abandoning his ancestors and culture. O’Col was prototype of westernized African iconoclast, very pessimistic of Africa: for him, there is nothing in the African past to regret all we have is backwardness in technology, anachronistic clinging to outmoded forms of government and medicine. He will not go back. Lavino assigns no merit to his ancestors. He would rather destroy the homestead uproot the pumpkin: a total rejection of his traditional culture.40

Critics are, however, quick to point out that to opt for pure Europeanization of Africa is to squander African historical civilization and obliterate the unique historical riches and the genius of a people. This will be a destruction of the wealth and memory of Africa. In this case, our independence would have been futile; all the fight about decolonization will be wasted because Europeans would have been more qualified to make us truly Europe. And as Franz Fanon would put it, “then let us leave the destiny of our countries to the Europeans. They will know how to do it better than most of us. “Thus the elimination of a country’s riches and varied cultural heritage in the name of oneness and of a Western-inspired form of progress, which is commercial and consumption-oriented, is naïve. It may result, in the long run, in the creation of a sterile, shapeless and colourless society that has the elements of neither tribe nor a nation.

Surely, the slavish imitation of the West in all facets of life will rub the African of his nationality and identity, and will eventually turn him into a slave of an alien world and with an alien way of thinking. Chinwezu blamed this kind of attitude on Western education which has conditioned Africans to see and interpret reality, even their own existence and world realities, in Western men’s terms. He declared:

It was a mis-education which under the mystique of ‘modernizing’ me into some ‘civilized’ condition had worked to infect me with an intellectual meningitis that would twist my cultural spine and rivet my admiring gaze upon Europe and the West. It is a miseducation which sought to withhold from me the memory of our true African past and to substitute instead an ignorant shame for whatever travesties Europe chose to prevent as the Africa past….. It was a miseducation which, by encouraging me a low esteem for and negative attitude towards things African, sought to cultivate in me that kind of inferiority complex which drives a perfectly fine foot to strive to militate itself into a left foot, it was a miseducation full of gaps and misleading pictures…. It sought to train me automatically and habitually to employ the colonizers view point in all matters, in their strange belief that the racist imperialist, anti-African interest is the universal, humanist interest: all in the strange belief that the view defined by their ruthless greed is the rational, civilized view.41

It has been observed by critics that life is more than the selfish, individualistic economism and consumerist culture of the West. So these critics warn that the intellectual colonization and the flooding of the African world with books, literature and films that diffuse only Western culture are dangerous to the African youth; for it inculcates “Western consumption – to live according to the western model of society which is above her means.”

Even people are beginning to question the so-called scientific and universal values and truths in Western culture, skeptics culture and not therefore a party to this reconciliation. They are antiestablishment and therefore anti-culture or counter culture. Cultural complementarity or inter-culturality recognizes that for the enabling and ennobling of any culture it requires both indigenous and exogenous factors.

As cardinal Ratzinger said “….Culture‘s historicity, its movement in and through time embraces in openness. As individual culture does not just live its own experience of God, world and man. Rather, by necessity, it encounters on its way, and must come to terms with, other cultures with their typical different experiences. Hence to the extent to which it is open or closed, internally broad or narrow, a culture comes to deepen and refine its own insights and values”.45

The violent and forced acculturation brought about by colonialism and imperialism is an aberration, so also is cultural isolationism.

The superiority of the complementarist approach as a way of shaping our cultures is predicated on the following observations:

  1. i) Every culture is a product of man and also shares in the imperfection of man.
  2. ii) Every culture arose within a specific spastic-temporal horizon, therefore in origin, it is limited. It is limited with respect to total shock of knowledge in circulation in the human world: hence it shares in man’s anthropological ignorance.

iii) Human beings are essentially the same everywhere Anthropological relativism is a fallacy. There are of course areas of differences and yet there are a lot of communalities.

And as an author said, “There is nothing-culture-bond in the great evils of human experience…”46 The discoveries made by any culture is potentially destined for others. Not one cultural form of life encapsulates human existence or possible human existence for our understanding of the world. We live in our worlds.

Human and cultural contacts and interactions are part of the cosmic dimensions of our being. The problem of colonialism is not that other races or peoples or cultures met our people and culture, but the manner, the violence, the submission or exploitation which ensues.

  1. iv) Africans must today recognize certain inevitabilities: our historical encounter with the West, whether for good or for worse, is irreversible.

The world to which colonialism or imperialism has brought us is not the world our ancestors lived in: but a world which has become a global village. So we cannot, in the name of authenticity, revive structures and practices which no longer have any relevance.

The best in a people and for the people are not necessarily in the past; the contrary is the fallacy of romanticism and cultural Puritanism. Even our ancestors will shudder that, at times we try to give an air of finality and undue reverence to their practices without a necessary critique; after all, their cultures and practices and their development were relative to the level of knowledge available to them. This is not to relegate our past for merely historical interest, but to have a critical attitude to it. Surely, “We need our past, we need our present for the future. We need a meaningful and relevant past which is a past which can meet with the challenges of the present and is able to open up a vista for survival and progress for the future. The past must be modern and contemporary to be relevant and liveable, that is a past which sheds off its archaic toga, a past which favourably responds to contemporary critique, the basis of its legitimacy and acceptability”.47

  1. v) It will be a great service to our culture and to the African man if, due to anger, or in the name of cultural integrity, we do not shut ourselves to the important values and achievements of modern science and technology. We will only do this to our peril. African cultures were subdued due to superior technology of the white man, in the world of economic globalization and competition and other conflicts; we cannot afford not to appropriate the opportunities which modern technology can afford. And in all these, we have to be selective in deciding what to adopt, and what not to, without forgetting other attendant consequences of human actions. Ratzinger was right, though some exaggerations, when he said:

Whoever looks more closely can easily see that there can be no simple return to the past. For it is not only the case that the convergence of mankind towards a right community with a common life and destiny is unstoppable because such an inclination is grounded in man’s essence but also because the diffusion of technological civilization is irrevocable. It is a romantic dream to want to preserve pre-technological Islands in the sea of humanity. You cannot enclose men and cultures in a kind of spiritual nature reserve…. For in reality modern civilization is not a mere multiplication of knowledge and know how. It deeply encroaches upon the basic understanding of man, the world and God48.

Modern civilization has changed standards of behaviour. It has altered the interpretation of the world at its base.

History offers us lesson in this respect namely the experience of China and Japan. For example in 1956, Moa Tse Tung, talking to the music workers said: “The things which you study are useful, but you should master both western and Chinese things, do your utmost to master Chinese things, do your utmost to study and develop them with the aim of creating our own Chinese things with characteristic natural form and style. If you grasp this basic policy, your world will have a quiet future.”49

One thing striking from Moa’s statement is that a country must have a culture and technology and educational policies, which will help it capture the enemy’s weapons and discover its secrets, its techniques and use to one’s proper benefits. So cultural development or empowerment requires a political will and policy to that effect.

The Role of Education in Culture

Education is an important enterprise in shaping a culture with knowledge and experience. The school remains a very important place of gradually inculcating sound values and promoting culture. A culture of rational enquiry and evidence, imbued with religious and humanistic values is quite important. It is not because rational evidence is the only method of legitimate enquiry or the acquisition of knowledge. It is however, necessary if we are to rid our culture of superstitious and paralyzing fears; our people should be able to know and believe that there is no devil in the forest or rather that the devil’s home is not in the forest.

To benefit from our culture, we must promote research. This is necessary in order to develop a philosophy of progress, not a philosophy which thinks that our ancestors have discovered the whole truth, or have got a divine sanction to their stories and myths. We are not talking of philosophy which engages in unwarranted assertabilities – ndi ebe anyi na si, but a philosophy which, talking cognizance of our culture as raw material, challenges and interrogates in order to offer response to the yearning for the African man for meaningful existence in the human search for the truth. The answer is not got a prior in tradition. Socio-cultural life is a journey into truth to which tradition can only offer an unphilosophical starting point.


We cannot end this piece without relating culture to truth. No culture exhausts the truth. We see truth always from a particular point of view which constitutes our situation, in relation to the whole, anyway. Hence our cultural efforts, practices and knowledge are susceptible of being reviewed, completed and perfected with the encompassing horizon of human existence.

Even in our particularities, we judge with an eye to the universal, to the absolute for we are never prisoners to particularity. For, despite our conditions: cultural, historical, and limitations it is always possible at all levels to distinguish the truth from the false, between a better approximation and less good approximation. No one, no culture grasps the whole; the myriads of insights and forms build a kind of mosaic displaying their complementarity and interrelatedness.

In order to be part of the whole everyone needs everyone else: white or black, Igbo or Irish. Man approaches the unity and wholeness of his being only in the reciprocity of all great cultural achievements. Hence the need for dialogue and unity in research, critical spirit, rigour and openness. Despite our diversities, there is a fundamental affinity, when knowledge and truth are pursued with integrity and generosity.

Perhaps it will be necessary to end with two observations which recapture the spirit of this paper. The first is the voice of time. Cesaire once declared: “I have different idea of a universal (provincialism) not at all. I am not going to entomb myself in some strait particularism. But I don’t intend either to become 1st in fleshless universalism. There are two paths to doom: by segregation by walling yourself up in the particular, or dilution by thinning off into the emptiness of the (universal). It is a universal richness with all the particulars, there are the deepening of each particular the co-existence of them all”.50

In that sentiment of unity in diversity, difference in complementarity. I finally close with my dream and wish that African cultures in the twenty first century “should be the ‘defining moment’ for Africa and African peoples: it should be the period in which Africans had better synthesize the various global cultures in Africa, and proceed to Africanize the globe as Europe and Japan have Europeanized and Japanized the globe; but for Africa to Africanize the glove, it has to infuse its known into the stream of world opinion of technology, economy, social and political ideas… with a force commensurate with it potentials.”51

References 1. E. B. Taylor, Primitive Culture (New York: Haper and Row Torchs Books, 1958), vol. 1. 7. 2. F. Oguumodede, “What is African Culture? A Philosophical Response” In Nigerian Cultural Heritage ed. E. Ikenga-Metuh and Olowo Ajoade (Onitsha: Imico Pub. 1990), 23 3. Pope John Paul II, Adress to UNESCO Paris, 2nd June, 1980. 4. Vatican II, Guadium et spes no 58. 5. C. Dawson, Religion and Culture (London: Sheed and Wand, 1948), 50. 6. J. Ratzinger “In the Encounter of Christianity and Religious, Syncretism is not The goal” in I’OSSERVATORE ROMANO No. 17, 26th April, 1995, 5. 7. Aristotle, De Anima, 1, 2, Noo. 19-20. 8. B. Russekk, In Praise of Idleness (London: Allen and Unwin, 1976), 119 9. J. Ratzinger “In Encounter of Christianity and Religious, Syncretism is not the goal” in I’OSSERVATORE ROMANO No. 17, 26th April, 1995, 5. 10. Vatican II, Guadium et spes No. 54. 11. Paul Poupard, ‘Religion and culture in the Contemporary World”, an L’OSSERVATORE ROMANO No. 33, 9,-15th August, 1995. 12. C. Achebe, things Fall Apart (Rawcett Crest, 1969), 153. 13. G. Ballandier, Ambiquous Africa, Cultures In Collision, trans Helen Weaver (Discus Books, 1976), 261. 14. L. Mbefo, The Reshaping of African Traditions (Enugu: Spiritan pub. 1988). 15. Paul K. Moser et al, The Theory of Knowledge: A Thematic Introduction (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1998), 5. 16. M. J. Perry, “The Relativist Challenge and Related Matters” In Human Right Quarterly 19(1997), 501. 17. Philippa Foot, “Moral Relativism,” In Relativism Cognitive and Moral, eds. Jack Mailand and Michael Krausz, 1982, 152, 164. 18. M. C. Naussbaum, “Non Relative Virtues: An Aristotlian Approach” In the Quality of Life, ed. M. C. Naussbaum and Amartya Sen, 1993, 242 –b 267. 19. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Veritatis Splendore, No. 23. 20. Ali Mazru, “European Explorations and Africans Self-discovery” in Journal of Modern African Studies 7, 4 (1969), 661-671). 21. Jack E. White, “In African – American Eyes”: In Time International Sept. 7, No. 10, 140 (1992), 38. 22. R. C. Okonkwo, “Cultural Nationalism in the Colonial Period” In African Philosophy: An Anthology, ed. Emmanuel I. Eze (London: Blackwell Pub. 1998). 258. 23. George Nganga, “New Religious and Africa Personality” in African Humanism-Scandinarian Culture, a dialogue ed. Torben Lundback, 43. 24. Moyibe Amoda, Festac Colloquim and Black world development Evaluation of Festac Collowuim, Agenda Lagos Programme 1997(New York: Third Press, 1978), 35. 25. John K. Marah, African People in The Global village: An Introduction to Pan-African Studies (New York: Univ. Press of America, 1998), 173. 26. Moyine Amoda, FestacColloquim and Black world development Evaluation of Festac Colloquim, Agenda Lagos Programme 1997, 43. 27. P. H. Coetzee and A. P. J. Roux, eds. The African Philosopher (London: Routledge, 1998), 89. 28. G. E. L. Mbefo, The Reshaping of African Traditions, 94. 29. Burbara Ward, The Rich Nations and the poor Nations (New York: W. Norton and Co., 1962), 43 – 45. 30. Wirendu K. “How not to compare Africa thought with Western” in African Philosophy, ed., Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (London: Blackwell Pub. 1998), 193. 31. Wirendu K. “How not to compare Africa thought with Western” in African Philosophy, ed., Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze (London: Blackwell Pub. 1998), 193. 32. J. Nyerere, “Freedom and Unity: A selection from Writing and Speeches, 1952-1965,” 12. Cf. Jean-Marie Making: “Of the Good Use of Tradition,” in Post Colonial African Philosophy. A Critical Reader., ed. Emmanuel C. Eze (London Basil Blackwell Pub. 1997), 16. 33. Kwame A Appiah, in my Fathers House Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (London:Methuem, 1992), 91. 34. George Nganga, “New Religious and Africa Personality” in African Humanism-Scandinarian Culture, a dialogue, ed. Torben Lundback, 43. 35. C. Achebe, Things Fall Apart (New York: Balantine Bools, 1990). 36. Kwame Appiah, In My Father’s House, Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford Univ. Press), x. 37. George Balendrier, Ambiquous Africa, 251. 38. Emevwo biakolo, “Categories of Cross-cultural Cognition, and The African Conditions, “The African Philosopher Reader, eds. P. H. Coetzee and A. P. J. Roux (London, 1998), 2-11. 39. Barbara Wand. The Rich Nations and the Poor nations, 41. 40. Okot Bitek Song of Lawino and Song of O’Col (London: Heinemann, 1984), 131. 41. Meriene Van Niekerk, “Understanding Trends in African Thinking – A Critical Discussion,” in The African Philosophy; Critical Reader, eds., B. H. Coetzee and A. P. J. Roux, 65. 42. Sandra Handing, “Is Modern Science an Etho-science? Rethinking Epistemological Assumptions” in Post Colonial African phikosophy A Critical Reader, ed. Emmanuel C. Eze (London: Blackwell Pub. 1997), 44. 43. Thomas Elynn, “Rekindle Humanity’s love affair with Scienceand Technology”, in free inquiry 14 (Fall 1994), 14. 44. J. Ratzinger “In the Encounter of Christianity and Religions, Suncretism is not the goal” in I’OSSSERVATORE ROMANO No. 17, 26th April 1995, 5-6. 45. Hampshire, S. Innocence and Experience, 1989, 90. 46. J. Uwalaka, “Inclusive Humanism” a paper presented at the International Philosophy Seminar Bigard MemmorialSeminary Enugu: 29th April – 3rd May, 1998. 47. J. Ratzinger “In the Encounter of Christianity and Religions, syncretism is not the goal” in I’OSSERVATORE ROMANO No. 17, 26th April 1995, 7. 48. Quoted from S. Schram. Moa Tse Tungi Unrehearsed Talks and Letters 1956 – 1971 (Harmindwoth, 1974), 90. 49. Aime Cesaire, Letter to Maurice Thorez, Paris: Presence Africaine, 1987), 15. 50. John K. Marah, African people in the Global Village: An Introduction to Pan African Studies, 139.

Our Motto: "United in Research for Positive Change", summarizes the objectives of this great institution. IRI is an international organization that is registered (RC1621015) under the Laws of the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Contact Info


© 2024 Igwebuike Research Institute