Africa’s gifts

“Impoverished” Africa offers cultural gifts
to the world

The continent evokes images of poverty, ignorance and disaster. Globalisation and technology wreak heartbreak and broken economies. Yet Africa’s living cultures are notable for their contributions to social knowledge say a new wave of authors and museum curators.

Danielle & Olivier Föllmi (2005), in African Wisdom 365 Days, London: Thames and Hudson, say centuries-old African arts, deemed “primitive” by Europeans for so long, are magnificent, expressive all-encompassing views of life: how things started, how social structures work, and how to remain mentally healthy.

The authors, and expert international contributors, reveal untold treasures of exemplary teaching and inherited wisdom of the peoples of Africa south of the Sahara– from the Himba shepherds to the Peul nomads, from the deserts of Namibia to the forests of Rwanda, and the savannah of Cameroon. Moreover, the idioms of freedom abound in the popular arts, literature,  and music of every traditional African group. 

The biggest surprise is that meaningful images of African life, of places and people, are combined with sayings that make you think. Sculptures, artefacts and oral traditions of the Bambara, Yoruba, Mandingo, Mossi, Swahili and Wolof peoples all express the sentiments of self-discipline, community bonding, and honouring the ancestors.

Aminata Traore, a contributor, sees the gathering of villagers as the embodiment of African community organisation. “In the local assemblies, the relations between men and women, young and old, between different ethnic groups and religions are re-examined, prejudices challenged, discrimination discouraged, and conflicts defused”.

Anyone taking the time to surf the Internet will discover that this ancient heritage – notably the Nubian, Songhai, Benin, Kongo and Mande kingdoms — resonates across the Diaspora. The altars of the Santeria and palo mayombe in Cuba, candomble in Brazil and Vodun in Haiti are African cultural survivals in the Americas. 

The masterpieces of African art are now prized possessions, displayed with recognition of their aesthetic values, in world-class museums such as the Museu du Congo Belge and the British Museum.

The curious surfer might come upon the groundbreaking proto-type of the Museum of African Art that curators say promises to add texture to the New York Africa art scene. To be situated on the edge of Harlem at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue, it will complement existing priceless collections in the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum and the Museum for African Art. Speaking of which, an extraordinary exhibition of the arts of the “African Eternal Ancestors” attracts thousands to the renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art.

It is said that Africa is a poor continent; people cannot eat; political and economic progress is not enough. But arts, languages and cultures are its soul. This social knowledge identifies the continent and peoples as important contributors to world cultures from the birth of humanity to the present time.

Thom Blair is editor and publisher of the Chronicleworld website; E-mail: