What the AU can do to promote arts, culture and heritage

The African Union (AU) theme for 2021, focusing on African arts, culture and heritage, is slightly off-topic. Recent AU themes included ending conflict (2020), the plight of refugees (2019), the fight against corruption (2018), empowering the youth (2017) and promoting gender equality (2015, 2016).

This year’s theme was proposed by former Malian president Ibrahim Boubakar Keita, deposed in a coup in August 2020. Arguably, Mali is one of the African countries best placed to champion such a theme. It has a rich and undervalued cultural heritage – from the Touareg nomads in the desert north, Timbuktu and its ancient scrolls, and the Dogon sites near Mopti and Djenne to the Bambara culture with its rich history and ancestral belief systems.

Yet in the era of COVID-19, at a time of economic hardship and continuing strife across the continent (including Mali, on its knees due to terrorist attacks), is this something the AU can successfully take up? In the bigger scheme of things, ‘Arts, culture and heritage – levers for building the Africa we want’ is not a priority for most AU member states.

Catalysts for socio-economic development

The documents outlining the theme of the year, presented at the recent AU summit, recognise the devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic. They emphasise ‘the role arts, culture and heritage can play as catalysts for the socio-economic development and integration of the African continent’. The project timeline set out by the AU includes events to promote African music, fashion design and visual arts. 

African arts and culture could certainly be used as a vehicle for economic development, notably in promoting the revival of tourism in a post-COVID-19 era. In-country tourism has also become a lifesaver for the tourism industry in many countries. Making citizens more aware of their own heritage at a time they cannot travel abroad is one of the hidden benefits of the pandemic lockdowns.

Making citizens more aware of their own heritage at a time they cannot travel abroad is one of the hidden benefits of the pandemic

Valuing the contribution of indigenous strategies and remedies in the fight against illness and disease is another issue not widely acknowledged in discussions on Africa’s resilience to the pandemic.

The continental institution can also help to speed up existing AU projects such as the Great Museum of Africa and promote African languages, as well as lobby for the protection of artefacts.

With the necessary buy-in and cooperation from organisations such as the United Nations Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which is already on board, the AU could use its convening power and networks to weigh in on key issues, such as boosting efforts to have African artefacts returned.

The Great Museum of Africa in Algeria is one of the flagship projects of Agenda 2063 and could contribute to preserving and showcasing the continent’s history and artefacts. The upgrading of museums across Africa, which UNESCO has been championing, should also flow from this.

Barring a few, museums on the continent have not received the investment and attention they deserve. In 2015 UNESCO outlined recommendations for ‘rethinking’ the museum in Africa and training museum employees to promote a more holistic view of the museum and its role in society.

The language debate

Promoting African languages is a controversial issue and a topic of debate both in many continental institutions and at country level. Should English, French or Portuguese be promoted to encourage communication, modernisation and effective connections with the outside world? Or should mother-tongue education be supported at school and university level, in government and in the production of literature and arts?

The elevation of Swahili as one of the official languages of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in 2018, for example, still needs to be backed up by resources, political will and practical implementation to make it a reality. More will certainly be needed at the level of the AU, where this debate is far from settled.

This is despite the adoption of several plans of action and institutions dating back to the early 2000s. The African Academy of Languages was established as an AU institution in 2005 by former AU Commission chairperson and former Malian president Alpha Oumar Konaré. 

Protecting Africa’s cultural goods and recovering artefacts from Europe stolen during the colonial era have gained more recognition in the last few years following a promise of restitution by French President Emmanuel Macron.

A special commission led by scholars Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy recommended that around 90 000 artefacts be returned to Africa – a proposal that received a lukewarm reception in France. So far just a handful of objects have been returned to Benin and Senegal.

However, the AU can use its voice to put more pressure on European countries, including the United Kingdom, and strive to make this a continent-wide issue. Stopping the harmful trafficking that is making Africa lose so much of its precious cultural heritage should also be a priority.   

It is not only about the economic value of promoting and selling African arts and culture or about fighting illicit trafficking

Yet it is not only about the economic value of promoting and selling African arts and culture or about fighting illicit trafficking. In his acceptance speech as the new AU chairperson on 6 February, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Felix Tshisekedi described arts, culture and heritage as ‘the heart of the African Renaissance’.

He quoted former Senegalese president and renowned poet Léopold Sédar Senghor, who said ‘culture is the beginning and the end of all things’. The theme for 2021 ‘is an opportunity to return to our roots,’ he added.

COVID-19 has shown that African countries have more to gain by relying on their own structures and regional solidarity than on assistance from elsewhere. With the necessary investment, the AU theme of the year, although difficult to implement in practical terms, could be a key moment that sees the acceleration of pride in Africa’s rich culture and heritage amid a world in crisis.

Photo: Folklore arts of East African nomads/Wikimedia

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