Tuesday, June 24, 2014

African Solution - To Traditionalize or Modernize?


I think part of the problem with Africa is that we haven't been able to modernize our traditional institutions to respond to challenges of our times. Instead we have opted to kill them altogether and reproduce Western-designed ones in a copy-and-paste fashion. It makes us culturally hollow and brings about lack of cultural values from which innovation and confidence can be cultivated. I believe some of our political behaviors can easily be understood if we bring culture into the equation. 

Why are strongmen still revered in African politics? Well, my question is can our traditional institutions provide us with answers to this question? My answer is, of course, yes! The Chinese have managed, in a way, to do this. We need to add the African characteristics to our politics and development agenda. As it stands now, we are so busy trying to produce flocks of 'westernized societies' inside Africa. 

My thesis is part of the reason we have failed is the implicit resistance by our people. They are Africans through and through, they won't budge at our attempt to Europeanize them. Note that Europeanization is NOT modernization. I can argue that few among our elites know this!


Once you “modernize” the “tradition” it is no longer a tradition. It becomes a modernity, which is un-African, and disastrous. Why not “traditionalize” the “modern” to fit the “challenges of our times”? Whose times are they? Whose challenges are we talking about?

Is it possible for us to think beyond the traditional/modern binary? When colonialists came, they dubbed everything that existed in Africa traditional. By tradition was meant unchanging/static, backward, ahistorical, dark etc. Thus, we must be aware that our discourse itself is not autonomous. It keeps reproducing the epistemic structure that we seem to be attacking (See Partha Chattrejee’s Nationalist Thought and Colonial World; and Valentine Mudimbe’s The Invention of Africa).

The traditional African systems in most parts of this continent had no “strong men”, be it at household or societal level. The “womanization” of the African female is a colonial import (Oyerenke Oyewumi, The Invention of Women), just like the despotic leaders that we are now referring to as strongmen (Mahmood Mamdani, Citizen and Subject). They are products of modernity, codeword for capitalism.

In Tanzania, one of the most patriarchal and despotic “tribes” (yes, a tribe too was a colonial invention) today are probably the Kurias. However, Abuso’s (1980) A Traditional History of the Abakuria: C.A.D. 1400—1914 reveals that pre-colonial territorial societies in Bukuria were not a “tribe”; nor did they have despotic rulers.

As for precolonial state formation in Bukuria, the earliest administrative units among the Kuria were kin-based. As the society grew up, thanks to the population increase and fusion of different splinter groups, a more complex system of administration developed. Thus, from clan rule, the Abakuria developed a territorial rule. Each territorial community formed its own system of administration, which was independent of other territorial communities or provinces (“omugai”). There was no federal government that united all the Abakuria.

Two hierarchies of power existed in each province: the spiritual hierarchy, led by the Omuraguri (literally, medicine man) as well as the temporal hierarchy led by the Omugambi (the dreamer-prophet). Both the Omuraguri and the Omugambi were the two most important figures in the Iritogo(the territorial Council of Elders), the supreme decision-making body of the province. While Omuraguri was in charge of religious matters, his consent was needed for the Omugambi to declare war. The Omugambi “was appointed to his post by the people’s consensus… and they could as well remove him if they were dissatisfied with his services”. His office was checked by both the Council and the dreamer prophet: As such the Omugambi “was just a spokesperson; he gave no binding orders” (Abuso 1980, 163).

From the above explanation we can see that the pre-colonial African “tribe” was not static. It was dynamic, changing from one form to another, be it in terms of composition, culture and political systems. As for political systems, we can see that they were not tribal in any sense of the word. They were territorial, embracing everyone who was willing to be a loyal member of the territorial community. A person in charge of administrative matters was not an absolute ruler, for there existed mechanisms of checks and balances (See also Mamdani, M. 2010. Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror; Usman, Y.B. 2006. Beyond Fairy Tales: Selected Historical Writing of  Yusufu Bala Usman;and Vail, L. Ed. 1989. The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa. ).

The imposition of colonial rule changed everything. “The colonial administrators” argues Abuso (1980, 15) “had a policy of putting the colonised communities into confined blocks called ‘tribes’, which might not necessarily have existed before. Such a confinement made the people be much more conscious of their identity of ‘tribe’ as opposed to their own neighbours who were of different tribe. Societies and communities which had perhaps hitherto taken their existence for granted soon regarded themselves as ‘tribes’ different from other groups. In such a way the ‘tribe’ of Abakuria was created”. The colonial government installed new chiefs who had absolute powers, and who were directly answerable, not to their people, but to the colonial administration. The mechanisms of checks and balances, such as the Council of Elders and the dreamer-priest, were dismantled to give the new chief despotic powers.

Our problem, I think, lies in the uncritical embracement of modernity, even when we claim to be against it. We have been imprisoned in the colonial discourse and we do not show any effort of salvaging ourselves. In Hind Swaraj, Mahatma Gandhi chastises modernity and blames Indian problems on “railways”, “doctors” and “lawyers” introduced by the British. India’s future, according to Gandhi, lies in the past! We have to go back to where the British found us. Is it possible? If at all possible, is it plausible?


 Yours is a critique of the classic theory of modernization, which I also share. The theory essentially attempts to Europeanize/westernize the rest of the world in a one-size-fits-all style without paying attention to cultural and historical contexts of societies. It is ridiculous, the thought of it. 

I am talking about this aware of the proposition that there are 'multiple modernities'- meaning there is no single model of modernization. 

I also do not believe in the traditional-modern dichotomy. I believe that modernization is cyclic, not revolutionary. As such, traditional elements are an integral part of modernity. They mingle. 

The idea of going back to the drawing board i.e the past/tradition does not mean we go there and stay there! The traditional is a frame of reference from which we abandon the bad, cherish the good and transmit it to our generation, and use it to respond to the challenges of our times.  

Saying we can't mordenize the traditional is to dismiss it's fluidity and development. You are deductively assuming that the traditional is static, a fallacious era already committed by Western proponents of the classic theory of modernization.



Karibu kwenye ulingo wa kutafakari kuhusu tunapotoka,tulipo,tuendako na namna ambavyo tutafika huko tuendako/Welcome to a platform for reflecting on where we are coming from, where we are, where we are going and how we will get there

  © Blogger templates 'Neuronic' by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP