Monday 11 November 2013

Just because it's Western doesn't mean it's better

Growing up in Nigeria in the 90s, very little was done to encourage any sense of ‘Nigerianness’ or patriotism. Buying locally made products was seen as a sign of poverty and bad taste, and some even thought speaking any of the indigenous languages was a sign of illiteracy.

We were actively encouraged to be more Western and pride was found in mundane things like speaking with an American accent. Many of my contemporaries went on to struggle with their sense of identity as it proved almost impossible to marry Western ideals with West African realities.

Just because it's Western doesn't mean it's better

Fast forward to the present day and a lot has been done to foster patriotism. Boasting Africa’s largest movie industry and one of the most vibrant music industries in the world, young Nigerians now proudly support these locally made products without any fear of denigration. But the battle is not yet won. There is still a lingering sense of Western superiority by default, not only in Nigeria but across Africa.

For many years, the image of Africa beamed across the world was that of poverty, war and corruption, sprinkled with something about great wildlife. The old rhetoric of helpless Africans needing the help of well-meaning Westerners has become the accepted narrative. So much that many Africans have even come to accept it as the undisputable truth. Many, as a default reaction, now automatically turn to the West and Western ways for solutions to all problems, without any consideration for context or the reality that an ideology is not perfect simply because it is Western.

For example, trade liberalisation, an initiative pioneered by The World Bank and IMF to boost trade between the developing world and the rest of the world, reportedly cost sub-Saharan Africa $272 billion between 1985 and 2005. Imports went up but there wasn't much change in terms of exports. Had this not been the case, the countries affected would have had enough extra income to wipe out their debts and still have more than enough left over. In the process of implementing trade liberalisation, African women, traditionally involved in small scale entrepreneurship, were also systematically side-lined, severely affecting their role and contribution to rural communities. But despite this, and the absence of any signs of improvement, many African commentators still insist that trade liberalisation is the right way to go.

I believe it is time for Africans to lose the inferiority complex and bang the drum about their culture regardless of whether or not it conflicts with Western ideologies. Japan and China provide a great template for how to do this whilst ensuring progression and modernization.

Japan, for example, seems to have been able to achieve both modernization and the preservation of its distinctive culture. They have adopted a brand of cultural adaptability that has allowed them to learn from other cultures and adapt them to their own purposes. There have been some changes, as with any other culture, but not at the expense of the values their society was founded on. The absorption of Western science, technology and learning has been done over the years with open eyes and honest evaluation, not blind acceptance.

In the name of enlightenment, many cultures in Africa face the threat of extermination under the heavy strain of Western powers who are taking advantage of ongoing struggles. It can even be said that many parts of Africa are in the middle of a second wave of colonization that is both subtle and ruthless at the same time.

There is so much more to be said on this topic but the fact of the matter is that no culture or ideology is perfect. Every culture has its plus points and negatives and it would be grossly unfair to only speak of the positives of one while only speaking of the other’s negatives.

The saying goes that ‘Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid’. To judge Africa according to Europe is unfair at best and at worst, malicious. If we judge Africa on what it does well and not on what Europe does better, maybe we will then be able to see what it has to offer its people and in turn the rest of the world.

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