Before Westernization, traditional African institutions were the driving force behind its growth and development. However, in a sharp twist of action, these institutions are gradually being neglected for the emergence of a supposedly civilised society.
While every institution is bound to experience change in its course of action, it is worrisome that a total ‘erosion’ of our customs and traditions is fast becoming the order of the day; rather than an embellishment of our existing practices.
Even though we have been warned of the dangers of abandoning our roots, our negligence is gradually leading to our loss of identity as Africans.
Therefore, it becomes imperative that our heritage propagation become a priority if we are to save our traditions from being totally eroded.
Africa in Birago Diop’s “Vanity”
The poem “Vanity” was authored by Birago Diop, a Senegalese poet and storyteller. His works have been instrumental in his rise as one of the finest African francophone writers.
In this poem, Diop carefully highlights the essence of being “African” and the need to preserve our societal ideals. The diplomat, a renowned veterinarian and a leading voice of the Negritude literary movement, believed that the tenets that formed the base of traditional African institutions should not be sacrificed on the altar of civilisation.
Diop also holds high regard for the dead, as he believes that, even at death, they take on the essential role of watching over us. In stanza one, Diop asks some rhetorical questions:
“If we tell, gently, gently
All that we shall one day have to tell,
Who then will hear our voices without laughter
Sad complaining voices of beggars
Who indeed will hear them without laughter?”
People’s reaction to our predicament as a continent is an issue to be pondered on. However, it is safe to say that our present predicament results from our own doings, and one begins to wonder if we even have any right to complain about our challenges.
Diop compares our voices to those of beggars, which shows Africa’s sorry state. We are now accustomed to borrowing, and our dependence on foreign aid is fast becoming a norm, if not a necessity.
Diop further asks in stanza too:
“If we cry roughly of our torments
Ever increasing from the start of things,
What eyes will watch our large mouths?
Shaped by the laughter of big children
What eyes will watch our large mouths?”
Our ailing continent needs urgent care, and this is evident in the reports of insecurity and poverty across several countries therein. It is needless to start complaining about our present state if we are not ready to get things right.
Most of the challenges faced right now are perennial issues that have been neglected over the years. Do we still wonder why no one is ready to help us? It is simply because we have refused to take the bull by the horns. Diop went further to apparently reveal the cause of our predicament, saying:
“What heart will listen to our clamouring?
What ear to our pitiful anger
Which grows like a tumour
In the black depth of our plaintive throats?”
Our anger about the challenges facing us is seen to be growing like a tumor. One begins to wonder who would listen to someone with self-nurtured pain. We have failed to heed the advice of our ancestors and have become the architects of our own troubles.
Diop wondered if there was anyone emotional enough to pity Africans in this state. Instead, we have only been courted by pretenders who come as helpers, but they are only looking for an avenue to milk us dry by taking advantage of our self-imposed pain.
Sometimes, we go ahead and label our traditions as “primitive.” We also use other terms like ‘outdated.” This makes one wonder if all our traditional practices are harmful. In the following stanza, Diop describes how we disregarded advice:
“When our Dead come with their Dead
When they have spoken to us with their clumsy voices;
Just as our ears were deaf
To their cries, to their wild appeals
Just as our ear were deaf”
During the colonial period, the rapport between our ancestors and the colonialists made them see what lay beneath westernization. They cried out to us to beware of their antics, but we were too busy to hear. We thought we could figure it out on our own. We were less concerned about what would become of this unholy alliance.
Alas, just as Diop puts it in Vanity:
“They have left on the earth their cries,
In the air, on the water, where they have traced their signs
For us, blind, deaf and unworthy Sons
Who see nothing of what they have made
In the air, on the water, where they have traced their signs.”
Our ancestors have done their bit. They made mistakes, and they warned us about them. The traces of their struggles are evident for all to see; unfortunately, we have not taken heed.
Chinua Achebe was right when he said, “The white man is very clever.” He came quietly and peaceably with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won over our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. “He has put a knife to the things that held us together, and we have fallen apart.”
Now, we are described by Diop as unworthy sons. Children are meant to protect the legacy of their parents, but we have only allowed ours to be taken away from us and replaced with something alien.
“And since we did not understand our dead
Since we have never listened to their cries
If we weep, gently, gently
If we cry roughly of our torments
What heart will listen to our clamouring,
What ear to our sobbing hearts?”
Our disobedience to the instructions of our ancestors has led us to our present state. If we then continue to complain or weep, we will get no help, as the solutions to our troubles lie within us. Doing the necessary and accepting our responsibilities remains the only way out of our demoralizing situation.
Our unending desires for the values and civilization of the West must be put in check; we must begin to look forward to advancing our own African tenets that will be pivotal to our growth and development.
Trading blame at this point is not the solution, but a rallying call to all Africans to embrace their customs and traditions remains the only pathway to sustainable growth and development. Just as Kwame Nkrumah would say, “The forces that unite us are intrinsic and greater than the superimposed influences that keep us apart.”
For how long shall we cry? For how long shall we complain? We do not have to wait for Godot to save us. We are our own messiah! Our traditional institutions remain the bedrock of our development.
Just as Henry Johnson, Jr. once said, “Africa is for “Africans,” and on those premises, only Africans can change Africa.” Westernization will not do it.