That “Africa was a cultural wasteland, until the Europeans sowed the seeds of civilization on her cultural barren shores” amounts to no culture in this geographical entity inhabited by people until the Europeans brought them the way of life. It is tempting to want to be subjective rather than being objective in discussing this topic, but bearing in mind that the Europeans are as rational as the Africans, one cannot but try to detach self from every sentiment in order to appraise and come out with substantial arguments with regards to the subject matter.
Africa is of the continents of the world where Homo sapiens inhabit. It has been a stage upon which the drama of human development and cultural differentiation has been acted since the beginning of history. Yet, no continent has suffered: mistreatment; misunderstanding; misrepresentation; misinterpretation and have been misreported either in people’s conversation or on the mass media. The African continent has been described as synonymous to famine, drought, barbarism, peoples without culture until the Europeans in their magnanimity brought civilization to them. These amongst others are the opinions of many Eurocentric thinkers and ideologists. Yet, the fact remains, that the African like the European have eyes, hands, organs, affections and passions; laughs when tickled; angry when provoked; searches for food and security; reasons and judges.
Like the Europeans can be murderous, hypocritical, rude, polite, selfish and loving so is an African capable. In whatever ways, the African as well as the Europeans are subject to the same laws of nature. It stirs equivocation in attempting to place superiority of one over the other. Thus, this work shall however, try to clarify the conceptual terms in the topic of debate as well as provide answers to the pertinent questions there in: What is Culture? What is Civilization? Had Africa any culture or civilization before her interaction with the Europeans? What are the seeds of civilization sown by the Europeans? To what extent do these seeds pay the African? From facts gathered, the work shall evaluate and draw a conclusion.
THE CONCEPTS OF CULTURE AND CIVILIZATION
In his work, African Culture and Civilization, S. A. Ajayi presents culture as the established pattern of behaviour among a people that embraces every aspect of a man’s life and experiences. He refers to culture as a perceived way of life or the totality of all human efforts and achievements in bid to struggle to survive the prevalent opposing forces of nature. Culture comprises all about man’s ideas, behaviours and products. It finds expression in a people’s language, philosophies, institutions, arts, architecture amongst others. In fact, while everything created by God is nature, everything made by man is culture. However, many people from varying backgrounds have viewed culture differently. In the Western world, culture is limited to ideas, values, and attitudes. While Africans view it as the preserved traditions or ways of life of the forbearers and ancestors. This therefore is responsible for the reason why people tend to equate some aspects of culture of a people such as traditional dances and music, arts objects, traditional institutions, rites of passage such as marriage, birth, initiation, burial and the likes to mean the totality of culture.
Technically speaking, Edward Burnett Tylor employs culture and civilization as complement of each other. According to him, “Culture and civilization, taken in its wide ethnographic sense, is the complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”. Having observed the various definitions of culture, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2002, defined culture as a “set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a society or a social group, encompassing, in addition to art and literature, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”. And culture vary from one people to another, as such it is relative across peoples and places.
Therefore, it would be inappropriate to use the culture of one people as a standard to judging another. A people’s culture develops, and this development makes up the people’s civilization and history. Civilization is an on-going process as man continues in his bid to conquer and control his immediate environment for aesthetic, cultural, religious, social, economic, and political advancement. In a nutshell, civilization refers to the social advancement that occurs in a given society be it in terms of technological advancement, progressive changes in folkways, education, leisure, family life, customs, beliefs, and more.
CULTURAL VIEW OF AFRICA BEFORE EUROPEAN CIVILIZATION
J. E. Casely-Hayford, (1922), an African (Gold Coast) Nationalist said of Africa that “Before even the British came into relations with our people, we were a developed (cultured) people, having our own institutions, having our own ideas of government…” Casely means to say that Africans did not need to encounter the Europeans before developing their culture. To say a people that lived for several millennia as recorded in books of history had not the way of life amounts to suspicion. Africa is occupied by many distinct human populations of a great complexity of cultures. They and their history, culture and civilization are inseparable. This is “because their history is the record of what they did, thought and said; and their culture and civilization are the totality of ideas, concepts and values that characterized their societies”. The indigenous peoples of Africa are culturally diverse as evident in the variations in the elements of culture across Africa.
However, there are some common elements in the core African values. Like all societies experience, Africa is no different that the level of civilization across the continent differs. Twenty five (25) centuries ago “Egypt was capable of producing wealth in abundance because of mastery of many scientific natural laws and intervention of technology to irrigate, grow, food, and extract minerals from the subsoil” while other parts of Africa employed bows, wooden clubs in their exploration. The reason why civilization was uneven amongst peoples when left on their own can partly be dependent upon the environment in which they evolved, and the ‘superstructure’ of the human society. This implies that as humans battled the material environment, they created forms of social relations, forms of government, patterns of behaviour and systems of belief which together constituted the superstructure which was never exactly the same in any two societies.
However, there existed interaction between the elements of the superstructure. For instance, the political and religious patterns affected each other and were often entwined. Whenever we try to discuss pre-European African past, many concern themselves to knowing about the existence of African ‘civilizations’. This flows from an attempt to make comparisons with European ‘civilization’. This however is not the context in which to evaluate the so-called civilization of Europe.
The activities of the European capitalists from the period of slavery through colonialism, fascism and genocidal wars in Asia and Africa instigate suspicion to attach to the use of the word ‘civilization’. Western racism which became more pronounced in the 19th and early 20th centuries came to promote the prior unfamiliar predisposition in which the peoples of the Western world saw “civilization” as their exclusive feat and equated to it entirely mean the Western culture. To them any way of life other than theirs amounted to uncivilized or at best semi-civilized life.
EUROPEAN CIVILIZATION IN AFRICA: AN ABSTRACT OF ITS “CULTURAL SEEDS”
The 19th century witnessed most colonization of Africa by various European powers. It was apparently to bring enlightenment to the ‘dark continent’. Over a century has passed by; it seems to Africans that colonialism amounts to material exploitation, cultural expropriation and anthropological insolvency. It is obvious today that Africans have “benefited” indeed from the cultural seeds of European civilization; for they speak their languages, wear their clothes, bear their kind of names, drive in automobiles made by them, and drink their champagnes. These “benefits” otherwise known as cultural seeds of European civilization have brought upon the African, gross ego distortion; he is stripped of his self confidence. In fact, he has been dehumanized. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o says: “the cumulative effect of the experience of slavery and colonialism is tantamount to a cultural bomb. The effect of this cultural bomb is to annihilate a people’s belief in their names, in their language, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves”.
Furthermore, to corroborate the position of Ngugi Wa, an American Journalist writes of the African experience: The colonialists left behind some schools and roads, some post offices and bureaucrats. But the cruelest legacy on the African continent was a lingering inferiority complex, a confused sense of identity. After all, when people are told for a century that they’re not as clever or capable as their masters they eventually start to believe it. In the words of an African renowned author and poet, Chinua Achebe in his magnum opus: Things Fall Apart (1959), Achebe says “the white man has indeed put a knife on the things that held Africans together and they have fallen apart’.
In his contribution in the work edited by Byron William (1982), Eileen Egan’s “Refugees: The Uprooting of People as a Cause of Hunger”, Egan says: “much of the post-colonial history of the continent of Africa could be recorded in the calligraphy of agony traced by refugees as they crossed and re-crossed new-made frontiers. The nations which sprang up at the wake of the “scramble for Africa” were heir to colonial errors in drawing borders. The borders carved out in faraway Berlin, cut across tribal, religious and linguistic groupings and also joined groups harbouring immemorial enmities. This is a major cause of civil wars and hostilities which have occurred in such countries as Nigeria, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Guinea, Zaire, Uganda, Chad, Sudan and Somalia. The greater numbers of refugees in Africa come from some of these countries.
Having expounded the concepts of culture and civilization and its evidence in human societies, it then becomes palpable that prejudice and perhaps ignorance of what culture entails, predicated the derogatory assertion against Africa. It may also not be far from fact that for a people to hold that Africa had no civilization until their contact with the Europeans could be as a result of their lack of knowledge of the African continent with her cultural wealth. The assertion made by early European explorers, that Africa was a jungle until her contact with Europeans can be said to be unsubstantiated. Even before the birth of Christ, the Noks in Nigeria were already casting iron and producing terra-cotta. Trans-Sahara trade was already on when William the Conqueror ruled England. It is worthy of note, that several historians of Africa have it that when the first Europeans reached Benin in the fifteenth century: many years before Columbus set off for the Americas, they found a highly organized kingdom with a disciplined army, an elaborate ceremonial court, and artisans whose work in ivory, bronze, wood and brass is prized throughout the world today for its craftsmanship and beauty, one that is comparable to what was then found in Europe .
How then can a people without culture be organized and creative? The answer is looming in the air as evident in the quote by Walter Rodney (2005). He presents the description by the Dutch visitors to Benin, thus: The town seems to be very great. When you enter into it, you go into a great broad street, not paved, which seems to be seven or eight times broader than the Warmoes Street in Amsterdam… The king’s palace is a collection of buildings which occupy as much space as the town of Harlem, and which is enclosed with walls.
There are numerous apartments for the Prince’s ministers and fine galleries, most of which are as big as those on the Exchange at Amsterdam. They are supported by wooden pillars encased with copper, where their victories are depicted, and which are carefully kept clean. The town is composed of thirty main streets, very straight and 120 feet wide apart from infinity of small intersecting streets. The houses are close to one another, arranged in good order. These people are in no way inferior to the Dutch as regards cleanliness; they wash and scrub their house so well that they are polished and shining like a looking glass
In the spirit of objectivity, unless the Eurocentric minds have a different meaning yet to be conceptualized of culture and civilization though, or are able to establish the foundation that these terms are exclusive reserves of the Europeans, their assertion of Africa remains a defamation.
This work has tried to conceptualize civilization and culture; it did not find these concepts as exclusive reserves of a particular people or race. It therefore leaves one in a puzzle why supposed elites such as David Hume, A. P. Newton, Harry Johnson, Margaret Perham, Trevor Roper and others would view Africa as no good until her contact with Europe. Harry Johnson opines that before the arrival of Europeans, tribal Africans were barbarous people who had never advanced beyond the first step of civilization.
If these “elites” have knowledge of history, the experience of the Dutch visitors to Benin in the 15th century would have put right their thinking. In my opinion, if there is anything the Europeans’ arrival brought, it definitely could not have been cultivating a virgin African land with the seeds of European civilization. It perhaps could be the sowing of darnel in the vibrant plantation of Africa cultural heritage.
Scholars are not intellectual fraudsters. For anyone to qualify to be a scholar, he must separate himself from all emotional sentiments, free himself of all prejudice, racial injustice and deal squarely and be unbiased in dealing with a subject matter. On this basis, one may begin to wonder whether world acclaimed elites as David Hume, Trevor Ropers, A. P. Newton and others can be referred to as scholars. And for many academic loyalists who do not read between lines ideas presented in books or propagated through other means, here is a clarion call to retrace the right path employing the apparatus of objectivity so as not to be caught in the celebration of falsehood.
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