African cultures , languages in the long journey to integration and unity

How many cultures and languages are there in Africa? Studies suggest that there are more than 3000 spoken and/or written languages in Africa although they may not be fully investigated or explored. It is generally believed that languages, cultures and trade play a pivotal role in the process of the integration and ultimate unity of Africa as a whole. Economic integration or trade may look the most important factor of the three; but upon closer observation culture and/or language is more important that trade in the integration process. Language is obviously the most active factor that can expedite or retard regional integration or Africa’s ultimate unity.

People in Africa engage in cross-border trade via the vehicle of language. Most Africans sharing common borders speak languages that are spoken on both sides of the borders. According to one study, more than 70% of trade in Africa is promoted through cross-border linguistic and cultural interactions. Unfortunately, culture and language are often given little attention and are seldom considered defining factors of trade, economic integration and African unity.

Africa cannot of course wait until the majority of Africans speak one or two common languages. This would be an unrealistic expectation because language and culture take longer time to grow, spread and become a common tool of communication for peoples of various regions. That is why the various projects of African regional economic integration have so far failed to progress at a faster tempo failed to bear the expected results. And this is in turn bound to retard the realization of the ideal of African unity to which the African Union (AU) is deeply committed.

Would the alternative of working harder for Africa’s political unity before the integration process consumes itself in the context of the failed scenario of regional integration? Like regional integration, African unity is also seemingly facing many hurdles as reports of progress in this area tend to be disheartening of not encouraging at all as it was made obvious during the recent AU Summit in Addis Ababa. Pan-Africanism is particular was portrayed as an almost forgotten or dysfunctional agenda because sufficient attention was given by the major players, namely the AU and its economic integration projects.

Theoretically speaking, “The idea of African Unity and its organization, the African Union (AU) is a manifestation of the African vision for an Africa that was united, free and in control of its own destiny.” Practically however, this ideal is not only far from becoming a reality. It is actually regressing back in time when the continent was not even recognized as a geographic concept. The notion of African unity still remains an ideal or an unattained vision more than seven decades after it was recognized on paper.

The ideals of Pan-Africanism likewise remain distant dreams whose manifestations look like mirages. “In its narrowest political manifestation, Pan-Africanists envision a united African nation where all people of the African Diaspora can live. Yet, Africans from the Diaspora are still scattered all over the world and those who stay at home still live in existential limbo.

If we look the matter from the point of view of objective reality, all Africans are inhabitants of one continent thus they are one people. Africa is sometimes considered one country even as some people call it in the media nowadays. Unfortunately, we have been forced to think of Africa not as one whole but as 54 entities simply because we allowed our separators to sell their dividing agendas without we could realize it’s devastating consequences. Before colonialism and slavery, Africans lived as one people in one continent. After colonialism and to this day, they have been atomized, fragmented, collectively alienated and culturally obscured.

African unity has remained an urgent agenda since the 1960s simply because Africa is one single continent, one culture embracing oneness amidst diversity and one people inhabiting and sharing one destiny, one culture and one consciousness that had been challenged several times in the past decades and won the day every time.

Africa is too big to be enclosed in a single framework. It is also too diverse, although organically united. Africa is a myth and a reality, a problem and a solution, an unsolved puzzle and a clear and simple essence. Africa, despite its contradictions, has always been one and the same despite the failed attempts to dismember it spiritually and geographically. Africa is even too big for us to see or feel how close we are or how we are one people. Africa is therefore a land of many contradictions. Grasping its contradictory nature and resolving it are two different tasks.

The argument often forwarded by the fierce advocates of Africa’s total integration and holistic unity is that Africans are one people living in one continent that had been fragmented by historical events like colonialism. According to them, the most urgent task is to return Africans to the times of their integrated existence and integrated consciousness without which no genuinely African and a modern civilization can be built. “Back to the Roots!” is a slogan cherished by most advocates of African unity now or never. Nkrumah’s old call was and is often reverberating in discussions among more radical African politicians these days.

Europe, or any other continent based on their common identities and on a united perception or a common consciousness to achieve a higher level of economic development. Africa too should come together and restart its journey to total unity earlier rather than later. African unity now! was the slogan of the unifiers of the 1960s. It still remains valid to this day. Perhaps one should find a balanced approach to African unity that takes both the slow process of regional integration and the more radical option of unconditional unity.

This voice had been stifled for decades and a similar voice has started to echo in the minds of hundreds of millions of Africans. The earlier pioneers of Africa unity warned that if we are separated we would fall and if we are united we will stand. This call is still fresh in the minds of the generations that came and went after them. It is still strong, powerful and urgent. Why? Because we have failed to achieve the ideals of the total liberation of Africa by embracing the political, economic and cultural legacy of colonialism.

It is true that geography defines culture and shapes its evolution. But, culture cannot only be defined by geography. Geography gives different shapes to different cultures but it cannot define their essence. There are moment when different cultures survive under different geographic conditions without altering their defining substance. African culture continues to survive under European, American and Latin American geographic conditions without losing its basic substance. That is why, despite the end of colonialism, the common features or the fundamental essence of African culture continues to survive in Europe or in other continents.

Tens of millions of people were deported from Africa to the US and forced to work in cotton plantations as slaves. In addition to the culture they brought to their new home, African slaves had also developed cultures that were unique to their blackness and to their new condition or experience as slaves in touch with white American culture. This is a culture that we know call Diaspora African culture which is part and parcel of the universal culture of black people everywhere.

What we now call African culture is not the fragmented and isolated cultures of its constituent parts but the sum total and unified culture of the people of Africa. Africa is one country and Africans are one people and African culture is basically one culture with shared features and superficial differences. The feeling of cultural fragmentation that emerged in the follow up to the long centuries of colonialism is not an authentically African feeling or sentiment but one imposed by the colonizers in order to facilitate their domination of Africans.

In pre-colonial times, Africans used to live without consciousness of their particularities let alone their fragmentations. True, they were living in distant places separated by mighty rivers and seas, mountains and lakes. Yet, they had almost similar cultures born of their common past and indicating their common destiny. By the same token Africans need to consolidate their cultures and traditions and use their common languages as tools of communication until the ideals of regional integration or total unity become palpable realities. They should also learn from successful integrative or uniting experiences and use them critically in such a way that they can advance these ideals.



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