The African Union (AU) has declared 2021 the ‘Year of Culture, Arts and Heritage’. PSC Report spoke to Professor Hamady Bocoum, Director of the Museum of Black Civilisations in Senegal about the initiative and the role of culture in promoting peace in Africa.
Why was it important that the AU dedicate its theme of 2021 to arts, culture and heritage?
This is something the cultural world has waited for. For a very long time we thought that the AU was a club of heads of state and that nothing more interested members.
But throughout this year, all involved in culture have realised that the AU is now acknowledging a fundamental dimension of integration because people first and foremost are about culture. It is through culture that we promote integration and it is through culture that we can erase the political borders inherited from colonisation.
This is something very important, which shows that the AU has a very good vision. Everyone must engage with the organisation on this issue because the greatest resource of Africa is its culture. Natural resource wealth is one thing, but what unites a people is culture and, as unity is achieved through the people, it is fundamental to make culture, arts and heritage priorities.
How, practically, can African actors support the promotion of arts, culture and heritage on the continent?
It is first about support. In life we don’t live just on bread; we live on culture. If we live in societies looking only for bread, I think we become automatons. Alongside bread, perhaps even before bread, we must support culture and the arts.
The best way to do this is to ensure that there is a real African market for arts and culture. This involves multiple exhibitions, multiple biennials and multiple cultural actions. It entails promoting heritage, providing information on heritage and possibly registering the most important sites on the UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation] World Heritage List.
I also think that Africa should have its own independent heritage list. This would not compete with the World Heritage List, but allow African countries that have in common several heritage sites to enhance them. Thus middle-class Africans – especially young people, students and schoolchildren – can discover and know this heritage so that it is promoted, protected and enhanced. It can also boost the tourism industry in their countries.
How else can arts and culture contribute to the development of the ‘Africa we want’ described in AU Agenda 2063?
The year 2063 is a bit far away. But everyone is saying today that the coming century is Africa’s, so I think in reality we have what we need to succeed. In my country [Senegal], almost 80% of the population is under 25, so we have youth in addition to the diverse raw materials that the world needs. We also have intelligence (Africans are not ignorant) and creativity. So if we really believe that this is Africa’s century, we need Africans at the heart of creativity, including artistic.
Personally, I have no fear of this not happening when I see the biennials in Africa, the creativity the dynamism and the bubbling around the arts and culture. I am not talking only of Africans on the continent, but of the African diaspora. I think that Africa is showing the direction in creativity, in dreams and their fulfilment, and in achievement.
For this reason, I think that those involved in culture are doing their job and that states should support them. It is necessary that the AU, but also sub-regional bodies such as ECOWAS [Economic Community of West African States] and UEMOA [West African Economic and Monetary Union], give culture prominence. It is culture that helps us better understand conflicts, violence and radicalisms and how to neutralise them.
How can African arts, culture and heritage foster and promote a culture of peace and tolerance across the continent?
In my opinion, it is very important to consult history. Through a work such as that of Cheick Anta Diop on the cultural unity of Africa, we realise that what unites us is infinitely more important than what divides us. We also learn that each time people meet in Africa, instead of creating conflict and confrontation, we create kinship that allows dialogue and consultation. We do not conflict with each other but we dialogue.
There were very few wars of conquest in Africa, among Africans, before the modern period. In the past, Africans did not go to war with each other. They met, of course, and there were certainly conflicts, but above all they had a dialogue.
Africa has developed what we can call the civilisations of encounter and dialogue, which, in my opinion, should be revisited. It is through revisiting this history, this African culture, to show that we have been the precursors of civilisations of encounter and dialogue that we will better understand what is happening to us. I think conflict and confrontation are much more Indo-European values than African values.
I know of very few sectors, if any, in Africa, especially in ancient Africa, where war and confrontation were the only means of settling disputes. In Africa, we have had a lot of dialogue, we have done a lot of synthesis, we have held a lot of meetings. And it is not by chance that we invented the palaver tree under which we discuss anything and everything to try to find pragmatic solutions.
How has culture contributed to peace and reconciliation processes in Africa?
In Senegal, we had a lot of problems in Casamance, with liberation movements and violence for more than 30 years. The military and the rebels clashed, then the cultural actors entered. They said to the belligerents … listen, we are all the same. Groups such as the Serer, the Mandingo went to the south to the Diola … carrying a similar message … ‘linear kinship gives us the right to ask you to calm down’.
Today Senegal is resolving the issue of Casamance by using, among other things, the vector of culture. I think this is valid all over Africa because when you map Africa, you have a number of cultural layers where people have met and been able to live together.
The Fulani, for example, are present from Dakar to Djibouti and they cross the entire Sudano-Sahelian strip. They have always had a dialogue with other populations, whether sedentary or nomadic. Why is the problem arising today? First because we accepted the political borders drawn up in Berlin [Berlin Conference]. Then there was climate change, which brought people who lived in the plateaus down to the rivers, as in the Dogon country. and along routes to new pasturelands.
To resolve these challenges, we have the cultural resources to put parties together, discuss and dialogue. And I think that if Africa wants peace, it will not gain it through arms, but through culture, dialogue among cultures and reconciliation. Culture is, consequently, extremely important. Look at the very recent and very political example of Côte d’Ivoire. Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara, fought, there were lots of deaths, but where is the solution?
It is in dialogue, encounter and reconciliation, which I believe are in the DNA of African civilisations. We are always ready to meet, to dialogue. Nelson Mandela, when he took power in South Africa, didn’t say we are going to get revenge. He said we are going to tell the truth and we are going to be reconciled.
Such an example is a very important model that Africa is giving to the world. The future is not in confrontation and in war; it is in dialogue, in recognition and respect of the other, and in the civilisation of encounter.