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Challenge of Culture in Africa: From Restoration to Integration

Friday 26 November 2010, author(s)-editor(s) Bernard Nsokika Fonlon

This book was first published as a two-part essay in 1965 and 1967 in ABBIA – Cameroon Cultural Review – under the title “Idea of Culture”. Its main argument is that indigenous Africans cultures must be the foundation on which the modern African cultural structure should be raised; the soil into which the new seed should be sown; the stem into which the new scion should be grafted; the sap that should enliven the entire organism. This culture, the object of imperialist mockery and rejected, needs rehabilitation. However, such rehabilitation of African culture cannot be a mere archaeological enterprise. It will not answer to dig up the past and live it as it was. Not only is African culture not without its imperfections, times change and African culture must adapt itself, at every turn, to the changing times. In restoring African culture, it is imperative to steer clear of two extremes: on the one hand, the imperialist arrogance which declared everything African as only fit for the scrap-heap and the dust-bin, and, on the other hand, the overly enthusiastic and rather naive tendency to laud every aspect of African culture as if it were the quintessence of human achievement.

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ISBN 9789956578986 | 96 pages | 203 x 127 mm | 2010 | Langaa RPCIG, Cameroon | Paperback

1 Review

  • Challenge of Culture in Africa: From Restoration to Integration 29 January 2012 09:55, author(s)-editor(s) Peter Midgley

    This is a timely reprint of an eloquently argued essay on culture in Africa. The questions Fonlon asks and the challenges he poses are as relevant now as they were at the time of publication as a two-part essay in 1965 and 1967.

    In the first part of the essay, we find the roots of arguments later expounded by the likes of Valentin Mudimbe and Anthony Kwame Appiah. When we encounter Fonlon writing that the “black man is the most despoiled of all mankind” (p.37), we immediately see traces of Fanon; at other times, the rhetoric is reminiscent of Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery. There is little doubt that Fonlon’s essay has informed the discussion of cultural practice in Africa since the early sixties. Certainly, contemporary scholars would baulk at some of Fonlon’s grander claims, but they would also do well to consider the rhetorical practise of the time. In the end, questioning the claims is not as helpful as reconsidering the importance of the issues he raises.

    Fonlon draws heavily on his own classical education for metaphors and examples. When he speaks of the “ancients,” he speaks of the ancient Greeks rather than African ancestors and this is one area where contemporary scholars will take issue with him. The growing emphasis on Indigenous Knowledge pushes against the earlier scholars’ readiness to call on European thought. Still, the richness of Fonlon’s knowledge and the ease with which he makes the past he calls on relevant to the present is breath-taking.

    When Fonlon pleads for education, he means a very conservative, classical approach to education. However, if we look beyond such instances of conservatism, we encounter radical analyses of class and the ownership of he means of production. Tracing Fonlon’s ambivalence through the essay is fascinating. He offers a pointedly Africanist reading of class and production, yet seems to be oblivious to the fact that he turns so readily to European history to create his vision of an African future. This is precisely what Ngugi would later analyse in depth in Decolonising the Mind.

    Fonlon quotes Césaire with the same ease that he quotes Tacitus. But quoting Tacitus, who in his Annals was often sympathetic to the colonies and to the barbarians who resisted Roman advance, is a considered choice. He draws on specific moments where Tacitus talks about Britain as a colony and about the resistance of the locals against their colonial overlords in Rome. The parallels are painfully obvious. It takes a while for Fonlon to meander through these classical pastures, but when he does arrive at his destination, it all leads to the crucial point that Africa’s past glories did not collapse in a void—this was the result of 400 years of slavery and colonial exploitation.

    This is a fine essay that is highly recommended for anyone interested in African intellectual history.

    Peter Midgley
    University of Alberta