Black Panther: Lessons for the Diaspora

 At this point I’m not even sure if there is a need to put any spoiler alerts in this post – we’ve all seen the epicness that is Black Panther by now (if you haven’t on a serious note, look away now).

Since it’s release, Black Panther has initiated a number of conversations about race, culture and identity and I am honestly so here for it. Why? Because amongst all the Twitter rants and threads, thought pieces and articles what we are doing is having conversations amongst ourselves.  I believe engagement amongst Africans and the African diaspora (Afro-Latinos, Caribbeans, African Americans, African Europeans) is so important for our development and with the help of social media, it is becoming more and more of an occurrence. The Black Panther movie is just one of the most powerful catalysts for this type of engagement so far.

The purpose of this post is really just to put my thoughts and feelings on some of the debate I’ve seen online in writing. Overall, I believe the feelings of pride and empowerment in its many forms that the Black Panther movie has brought about are justified, positive and something to be embraced.

African traditional wear as ‘cosplay’

One of the main features of the Black Panther phenomenon has been the wave of African pride, particularly amongst African Americans. This has seen cinema-goers across the globe dawning African traditional wear. Plainly the Black Panther movie has become synonymous with African pride. We’ve all seen the images of cinema-goers doing the absolute MOST – from Dashikis and African drums to Coming to America costumes and Egusi Soup in the cinema (the MOST).

Opinions about this trend have been divisive. On one side many people (Africans in particular) are not impressed and feel the wearing of their traditional cultural wear has been reduced to nothing but ‘cosplay’ and that such trends are similar to the scenes of any other Marvel movie. This is understandable. The narrative around Africa and its cultures have not always been this complimentary. In fact, many first-generation Africans who grew up in the West often recall being bullied for their backgrounds and it is common knowledge that amongst the African diaspora embracing one’s connection to Africa has historically been met with reluctance, to say the least, and even straight up denial of one’s African roots. So for it to take a fictional African country created by Hollywood to ignite one’s pride I can see why this would be problematic…

 

Firstly though, in my opinion, any film with a mostly black cast (and black director) that is not about slavery, struggle or gang violence is something to get hyped about! Representation of the kind displayed in Black Panther is something to get hyped about!  I think this is particularly relevant within the African American context. Living in the world that we do,  every one of us as Africans will continually take a journey of enlightenment about one’s identity and self-worth. It is important that we understand that this journey will be different for everyone depending on the context of one’s environment. It’s great if you are an individual that has held African pride from a young age but this will not be the case for many. For many African American’s, for example, African pride has been ignited recently by racial tensions and issues surrounding police brutality and indeed the Black Panther movie.

Black Panther
Black Panther

Sharing and learning 

My next point is this: if you are truly for the genuine portrayal of your culture and cultural wear, what are you doing to ensure this? I’m of the belief that making Twitter rants about your dislike for traditional wear at Black Panther screenings on its own no matter how valid your opinion is plainly redundant if we are not doing our part in the sharing and creation of positive narratives about our African identities.

I particularly loved this thread by @thediasporicblues on African tribes and cultures featured in Black Panther. That thread has received millions of hits and has been shared across all social media platforms – that’s millions of people possibly learning something new about the nuances of African cultures and traditional wear (I certainly did).

Part of the reason I created this platform was to share knowledge about the continent. After the UK, my largest audience is from the USA. I’d like to think there is an audience of African Americans who read my content and are learning about African cultures and opportunities from the perspective of a British Ghanaian. I think it’s important to make the most of the variety of perspectives and rich culture within the African diaspora which is ripe for sharing and learning. 

Black Panther
Black Panther

Even as first generation Africans with strong ties to our countries and tribes and even villages – what we know and understand about our cultures and the cultures of our fellow Africans is nothing but a drop in the ocean. We have still so much to learn about ourselves and about each other. Therefore who are we to look down on others with limited knowledge?

The evolution of culture 

When I was discussing this debate with a good friend of mine she raised a very interesting point about our use of traditional African wear as young Africans. For example, as second generation Africans living in the UK when we decide to wear ‘traditional’ clothing, we adopt modern and arguably ‘westernised’ styles to fit our dual identities. By the same argument, older Africans could attest that our portrayal of traditional wear is wrong since it does not fit their standard of what traditional wear is.

I think Black panther and particularly Killmonger’s character is a lesson for us all as Africans – our culture is our wealth and keeping that in our pockets only stifles our development and leads to division. #WAKANDAFOREVER

What are your thoughts? Comment below!

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Eluo Festival 2017

This month I travelled back home to Ghana to witness a traditional Akan festival – The Eluo (el-wu-wo) (Yam) Festival in Sefwi (Seh-wi) in the Western Region of Ghana, which historically celebrates the beginning of Harvest. This year marked the first time the festival has been celebrated in 15 years.

Last year, my Dad became a Chief in our hometown of Sefwi Ahwiam – I wrote all about it in my post “The Role of Traditional Governance in Africa Today” and considered how traditional leaders may successfully lobby the interests of rural populations.

Sefwi-Wiawso, Western Ghana

(The view behind my Dad’s childhood home in Sefwi Wiawso.)

Firstly though, a bit about the region of Sefwi itself. Sefwi (Seh-wi) is one of many traditional areas located in the Western Region of Ghana. There are in fact about 48 languages spoken in Ghana, with Sefwi being the common dialect spoken in the area, although most people can speak the Asante language of Twi.

Traditional councils and customary laws are upheld under Ghanaian Constitutional law*. Sefwi-Wiawso (Seh-wi Your-su) is one of many of Ghana’s traditional councils operating alongside the democratic government and is made up of over 100 towns and villages.

Sefwi is said to be home to some of the country’s best cocoa farmers. Due to its large green landscapes and fertile soils (the Western Region has the highest rainfall in the country), the land serves as a food basket for Ghana. As well as cocoa, produce ranging from plantain to cashew nuts and coconuts to yam grow in abundance which also makes for some amazing views!

 

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(Family cocoa farm in Sefwi-Wiawso)
An interesting fact about Sefwi is that it is home to Ghana’s only Jewish Community!

Eluo Festival 2017

The Eluo (el-wu-wo) Festival itself is celebrated by the Sefwi-Wiawso Traditional Council and consists of 3 parts over 3 days. The festival was historically celebrated to mark the beginning of harvest and the way that traditional leaders would manage and distribute produce amongst the people in order to prevent hunger, (traditionally no one is permitted to eat yam before the festival begins.)

In modern times the festival represents more of a symbol and celebration of tradition. Under King Katakyie Kwasi Bumagama II – the current Omanhene (King) of the Sefwi Wiawso Traditional Area, the theme for this year’s festival was “Fostering unity among Sefwis for accelerated socio-economic development.” It brought together both traditional and contemporary elements of Ghanaian culture.

Day One – Odwira 

Akan tradition is incredibly symbolic with much homage paid to the Ancestors. Once harvested, some of the yam is offered up to the Ancestors to show appreciation for a good harvest before being shared amongst the people.

 (Black and red attire as homage to the dead and warrior mars of clay representing victory)

The first day of the festival is dedicated to the Ancestors. It begins in the morning with a symbolic ceremony where a Chief goes to the river to catch a crab. Only once a crab is caught can the festival begin. It is then presented to the King as a symbol of victory and hung around his neck which marks the official start of the festival. Customary rites then begin at the palace with all attendees in mourning cloth (black and red) with some painting their faces black, in memory of the dead. Other symbols such as clay marks faces symbolise victory at war.

 

(Offering symbols of the harvest to the ancestors in the palace)

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 (Traditional dances form part of the customary rites. Queen Mothers performing the ‘Adowa’)
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 (Heralding the royal umbrellas used to shade the King and his Chiefs.)

After completion of the customary rites inside the palace, all attendees took their seats outside to pay homage to the King.


Day Two – Palanquin Celebration

The second day of the Festival marked the main part of the celebration.

It began with the King going back to the same river where the crab was caught the previous day to wash – this symbolises the washing of bad spirits. He was then placed in a palanquin (a box) to be carried through the principal streets 3 times. All chiefs followed, carried in their own palanquins and paraded by their people. Thousands gathered on the streets to witness the parade and cheer on their respective Chiefs and King to drumming, trumpets and traditional songs/ chants.

 Each Chief is shaded by an umbrella that represents their respective stools (area of governance). These umbrellas are usually adorned with Adinkra symbols – visual symbols that represent sayings/proverbs.

Celebrations including traditional dance, drumming and horns lasted throughout the day. After completing the parade the King and his Chiefs retired to the palace and offered yam to the ancestors.

Ghanaian Traditional dance “Adowa”

 

 

Day 3 – The Grand Durbar 

On this day, the King, Chiefs and people came together to meet and discuss issues and concerns.  Invited guests included President Nana Akufo-Addo, President of the Republic of Ghana whose representatives attended on his behalf. This was a chance for the Chiefs as representatives of people in their traditional rural areas to put their requests to the President and central government. It was also an opportunity to showcase our tradition to visitors.

 ‘Stool carriers’ carrying the stools each representing Kings that occupied them. Stools in Ghanaian tradition symbolises royalty.

Contemporary Elements 

Although the traditional part of the festival consisted of three days, celebrations lasted for about seven days and included modern activities and festivities. For instance, the day I arrived the ‘Miss Eluo’ pageant was underway, which showcased the talents of local girls and brought together hundreds of young people. Celebrations also included an Inter Schools Quiz Competition, an inter-town football gala and other sports as well as street parties (with a performance from Ghanaian artist/ comedian Kwaw Kese) and ended with a Thanksgiving Service in the local Church on Sunday.

These elements were a great way to engage the young in ancient traditional celebrations and to foster a sense of local pride and unity.

Plans for the future 

As well as celebrating cultural tradition the Festival marked a new era of development for the area. As discussed in my previous article, generally, traditional leaders work to support democratic governments particularly in the realm of development where they may lobby for the needs of the rural population. In the current Ghanaian government’s manifesto, it was promised that focus would be placed on the development of rural areas such as Sefwi in order to curtail increasing centralisation in the country which has been said to have left rural areas behind. One of the hopes of many people in Sefwi is for the government to approve the splitting up of the Western region and for Sefwi-Wiawso to become the regional capital of a new region: Western- North.

Currently many believe the region is too large, consisting of a vast number of tribes (including Fante and Nzema) and a total of 22 districts with not much decentralisation from the current capital of Sekondi-Takoradi. This has made it difficult to liaise with the central government due to distance and cultural differences. The hope is that the Festival sparks this conversation and the impetus for development in the area.

The king hopes that with sufficient funding, the festival may be celebrated every 2 years and that development in the area will be championed.

*According to the 1992 Constitution of Ghana, “The institution of chieftaincy, together with its traditional councils as established by customary law and usage, is…guaranteed”.

Videos:

Palanquin Celebration Part 1:

 

Palanquin Celebration Part 2:

It was such an amazing and fulfilling experience for me to witness this beautiful display of my culture…

Share your thoughts – comment below!

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The Role of Traditional Governance in Africa Today

In 2016, Africa saw a number of democratic elections and experienced mostly peaceful political transitions or continuations. In 2017, Quartz Africa listed 5 political elections to watch in Africa including Kenya and Liberia where incumbents will step down making way for new political seasons. It’s such milestones that have arguably signalled Africa’s ‘political maturity’ and increasing democratisation modelled on Western democratic ideals.

Despite this background, however, throughout Africa traditional governance in the form of Kings, Queens, Chiefs and Elders remain a staple part of the socio-political life of many, especially in rural areas. In fact, according to The Washington Post, most *rural Africans live in communities led by unelected traditional Chiefs.

This begs the question: Can democracy and the African Chief co-exist? 

This is a question increasingly relevant yet so under-explored. In September 2016 my dad became the Chief of Ahwiam village – a small, rural village in his home province of Sefwi in the Western Region of Ghana. This juxtaposed with Ghana’s election campaign which was well underway at the time. Before we left I honestly expected a small ceremony, maybe even a celebration on the scale of a hall party. Instead, we were met with 3 solid days of ceremony, celebration and custom in the village palace. The first day: the ‘“installation”, consisted of the formal selection, nomination and acceptance of the Chieftaincy. My dad was carried in by his ”subjects” and placed on a Stool – a symbol of royalty in Ghanaian culture. A number of traditional customs were performed including the killing of a ram (a symbol of homage to the ancestors) and the reciting of the Chieftaincy rites. For the rest of the day, the people were invited to come and greet their new Chief and celebrate with music and dance. On the second day my dad had to remain indoors to receive homage and greetings and on the final day, he swore an oath of allegiance to the Paramount Chief – the Omanhene and the rest of the incumbent Chiefs of various towns followed by a long day of music, dancing and parades.

 

Duality 

The persistence of custom, the preservation of the sacredness of tradition and the engagement of the local community demonstrates to me just how significant traditional institutions remain. It suggests that they can and do co-exist with increasing democratisation on the Continent. At first glance, it would seem that traditional customs would be greatly at odds with the staples of democracy and some observers are concerned that their continued power undermines it. In particular, traditional leaders are unelected persons who inherit governmental authority or position mainly by virtue of membership of a particular family or clan and largely remain in power until death. However, according to Survey data collected by the Afrobarometer, Africans who live under these dual systems of authority do not draw as sharp a distinction between hereditary chiefs and elected local government officials as most analysts would expect. In fact, it’s suggested that Africans live under a sort of ‘hybrid’ democracy where traditional leaders work to support democratic government structures and programmes – particularly in the realm of development.

According to my Dad, “as a Chief, you are a development agent and custodian of the land and it is your job to lobby and liaise with the formal government for your developmental needs- similar to an MP.” For instance, his first order of business as Chief will be to raise funding for the installation of boreholes and other water facilities to replace mostly defective manual wells.

My father’s experience as Chief coincides with research undertaken by Yale Assistant Professor, Kate Baldwin. She finds that surprisingly, traditional African Chiefs help ensure rural citizens are better represented by their governments because they are, “uniquely positioned to get policymakers to respond to rural voters – not despite being unelected, but because of it.

How? Firstly, due to their natural connection with their respective communities, traditional leaders have the ability to lobby and coordinate their communities for development projects better than central governments who often have weak administrative arms. Secondly, traditional leaders possess unique knowledge and expertise about their rural communities which are often misunderstood. Finally, being unelected traditional leaders this often means they do not have a political incentive but rather have a personal investment. As with my dad, Chiefs govern over their home towns and villages and govern for life. Therefore they can think further ahead than the next election and are willing to make long-term investments in building and maintaining community institutions.

In addition to development, the Chief also takes on a mediator role, resolving lower level disputes to do with land, marriage and family – all things that could go to court but instead, the Chieftaincy acts as a form of alternative dispute resolution. In this way, it not only works to support democratic governments but also alleviates pressure on central court systems.

Importantly, the role and the remits of traditional leaders will vary across the Continent and have changed throughout the years to keep up with modern life. Interestingly though, in most cases, customary law is recognised and upheld by a country’s constitution – as is the case in Ghana**. For instance whilst my dad no longer has the power to order the punishment of death he does have the power to banish people from the community (I know, very Nollywood), a punishment that would be recognised by Ghanaian constitutional law.

 

Limitations 

Despite their resilience, traditional leaders have been met with criticism in recent times. For instance in South Africa taxpayers have often questioned why traditional leaders are paid so much whilst the communities they head remain undeveloped and their people continue to live well below the poverty line. It’s reported that Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekuzulu the reigning King of the Zulu nation alone received R54.2 million for the 2014/2015 year in payments from the government. Such concerns are reasonable and alleged mismanagement and/ or misappropriation of funds in any political institution – democratic or traditional – should be challenged. However, in most African nations, the government fails to allocate funding and/or support to traditional leaders, who are left to raise their own resources by whatever means. As I have mentioned my dad’s role consists of lobbying the government for his village’s needs like an MP, but unlike an MP there is no formal allocation of funding from the central government or any other governmental institution and he must, therefore, find alternative ways to fund development e.g. personal investment, diaspora contributions, farming, aid, etc. .

The government does indeed expect traditional leaders to support government structures and programmes. Yet it makes no financial allocation to traditional councils, which paralyses them from initiating or supporting even the most beneficial development programme.”

Inkatha Freedom Party (South Africa) leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi for The Star newspaper.

There is clearly a need for reform on both sides if traditional institutions and democratic governments are to not only continue to co-exist but are to further Africa’s social and economic development effectively. Central governments should work to further integrate traditional leaders into the developmental sphere and change the practice whereby traditional rulers are left out of the planning and management of projects at the community level and take advantage of their unique and personal knowledge. At the same time, the reality is that governments have limited resources. Therefore traditional leaders should as far as they possibly can, further their own engagement. For example, his Royal Majesty Otumfuo Osei Tutu II Asantehene (King of the Ashanti Kingdom of Ghana) took his concerns about the social conditions of his people to the World Bank which led to the establishment of the project called the Promoting Partnership with Traditional Authorities Project its main purpose being to “substantively integrate and improve deprived remote and rural communities’ involvement in development activities.” As well as lobbying for a $4.5m grant to fund water and sanitation facilities for 1000 communities in five regions of Ghana as a supplement to Government interventions.

On current record, I cannot see how Government interventions alone can solve the problems of Ghana. Any such belief is illusive and indeed a “feel-good opium” which does not reflect the realities of today’s global economic environment.”

King Otumfuo Osei Tutu II 

Traditional leaders remain relevant and even essential to development in Africa where most still live in rural areas. Socio-economic development would be more successful when rooted in these widely shared cultural institutions – further integration is therefore needed.

*The rural population in Sub Saharan Africa was last measured at 62.26% of the total population in 2015.(World Bank)

** (According to the 1992 Constitution of Ghana, “The institution of chieftaincy, together with its traditional councils as established by customary law and usage, is…guaranteed”.)

What are your thoughts on traditional governance on the continent? Should they be further integrated? Comment below.

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