FREEING THE AFRICAN GENIUS; Pierre Pradervand Sociologist

Pierre Pradervand spent close to 11 years in Africa in the fields of research , program administration, and communications. A Swiss sociologist, he was one of the first Western population specialists to oppose the narrow Malthusian approach to population control which was the hallmark of the '60s and early '70s , and to argue for a broader "development" approach -- a view now generally accepted. In 1975, with the backing of the Canadian International Development Research Center, he founded Famille et Developpement, a popular African development magazine. "F et D," as it came to be known, emerged as something of a journalistic phenomenon in the Third World. Highly respected for its integrity, this grass-roots educational periodical became one of the best- selling international magazines in subsaharan Africa.m

He is now back in his native Switzerland and, as of 1981, will serve as a consultant in the field of public education on Third World issues.m

The following exchange took place with Henrietta Buckmaster, editor of the Home Forum page.m

A few months ago a commission, chaired by Willy Brandt, former Chancellor of West Germany, issued its report on the appalling discrepancy between the "North and the south" -- that is, the rich countries and the poor. You know this report well.How do you feel this formidable challenge can be met, closing the gap between North and South?

It depends on what you mean by "closing the gap." The gap usually means that Third World countries should catch up with our life style. But more and more countries -- not to mention a growing group of people in the West -- are questioning our mode of development. I don't believe many African peasants care for a dishwasher, or for machines to slice bread, or for breakdown in relations between parents and children. The simplistic vision of history held by Walt W. Rostow and others who see history as a linear process moving from "underdevelopment" to Western "development" just doesn't hold water anymore.

What do African peasants want?

Potable water, sufficient food, land on which crops can grow, schools for their children, hygiene, the right to determine their own life style, and the right to live at peace without being harassed by government bureaucrats. I don't believe the average African peasant wants to imitate the West. The people in power certainly do, but they don't speak for the mass of Africans.

Africa has a very rich culture, very ancient. The West is abysmally unaware of this. How is one going to persuade Westerners to recognize this fact?

One of the most urgent needs is to educate the West on Third World issues -- and the immense richness and diversity of African culture are vital to this understanding. recently I spent an evening discussing African development problems with a group of American students. They were an extremely likable group -- open-minded, eager to understand, probably better informed than the average American. Yet one of them said, "I don't know enough about Africa to ask you a question." And the African elites themselves -- usually trained in Western universities or Western beliefs -- need to rediscover their own values.

Who will give the signals? How will it happen?

It seems that growth and progress happen either through wisdom and a desire to expand one's horizons, or through suffering. It would seem that the world is in for a fair amount of the latter. No government or school system or university -- not to mention any of the media -- is rising to the challenge. They're not preparing the inhabitants of any of our Northern countries for the inevitable and drastic changes ahead. For instance, it needed the hostage crisis for most americans to become even faintly aware of what Islam stands for. The European came to Africa to conquer. The African has been obliged to play the role assigned him for several hundred years. This doesn't lead to mutual respect. Not only has there been no mutual respect, but in most countries, schools and missions were the instruments for impregnating the Africans with the demands of European culture. Everything African was despised. In the French colonies, the French legal system reached into the remotest villages, clashing with local customs. Traditional African healers, for instance, were persecuted, fined, put in prison. But today, ironically, the most modern medical authorities, including the World Health Organization, are studying traditional African medicine with great appreciation and trying to resuscitate it to some extent.

What efforts are made by the new governments to educate Africans in self-sufficiency?

You are putting your finger on one of the most important development issues of post-independence. The present education system was imposed upon Africa in order to secure a stronghold on the colonies and to turn out civil servants who could be useful to the administration. For many years black children in the French colonies learned about French history, French geography, French customs, while chanting in unison, "Our ancestors, the Gauls!" Jet black children with blond, blueeyed ancestors -- even a liberal-minded geneticist would raise his eyebrows. They knew absolutely nothing about their own cultural background and history. This system was taken over unaltered at independence. Attempts have been made in the past few years to try to adapt this system of education, although changes are not far reaching. In Guinea-Bissau -- formerly a Portuguese colony -- they are making more significant efforts because the Guineans underwent a genuine revolution. It's the only example of such efforts I can offer. They are trying to adapt school programs to the development needs of villages in rural areas. Children work in the fields, learn from village artisans. But in Senegal, where I worked for many years, the school curriculum still follows the European model, with few exceptions. As a matter of fact, President Senghor has insisted that a few of the high schools retain Greek and Latin! Teaching is entirely in French, and schoolteachers are reprimanded if they speak to their students in their own language.

You are saying, in effect, that the African elite is alienated in the sense that it does not appreciate its own ethnic source?

Well, Franz Fanon, a black psychologist, wrote a book "Black Faces in White Masks." Black Frenchmen. Black Englishmen. I would say this is the tragedy of Africans. A 16th-century African dream of real cooperation with Europeans was broken to pieces when slave traders raped Africa. This is no longer concealed history. We must face it if we are going to understand Africa. The elite are vividly aware of being torn between two cultures. This explains the aggressiveness in countries like Nigeria, where the clash of Africa-Europe is intensified by its oil wealth.

What are the alternative means of development?

Better ask -- how deep is the damage? One has to face these questions very frankly. Today's world economy is inextricably tied together. Most african countries have so little autonomy in economic and even political decisions that it would be extremely difficult for them to break away at this time from a Western model even if they wanted to. Take the Ivory Coast, Gabon, or even Senegal. Often the economic decisions are made in paris. A country like Gabon is independent only in name. It is politically, economically, culturally tied to France by an invisible but strong umbilical cord. Add to this the fact that all the ruling classes of the former colonies have received their training in Western universities or from Western-trained teachers and have systematically adopted Western life styles. With very few exceptions their most earnest desire is to live as Europeans, even though they form a small minority in their own country. It is difficult for them -- and hardly any are even interested -- to think in terms of alternative development. And given our own profligate life styles, who are we to tell them to live differently? It will be a new generation of Africans who will raise the issues of alternatives.

Nowadays no country -- not even China -- seems capable of moving without massive aid -- of technology, technicians, instructors, investments -- and in the modern nature of things these are all products of Western development. Assistance has to come from some place?

You're right. No country in the world can live in isolation today. And there is something extremely positive in that -- it means that as a world we will make or break together. There are no more private paradises, and isolationism -- political, mental, or spiritual -- is suicide. Africa needs our technology, we need its raw materials. The crucial issue is the type of technology introduced -- it has to be adapted to specific needs. Hence the immense interest, in recent years, in so-called "appropriate" technology -- technology geared to specific needs. A modern shoe factory, where 30-40 workers force 5,000 small artisans out of their jobs, is not exactly appropriate. If we are to create the 1 billionm new jobs needed by the end of the century according to the International Labor Office, technology must help create jobs, not take them away.

There has been quite a lot of talk in Africa in recent years about African authenticity -- the whole idea of finding one's roots. How does all this fit in?

With patience. I think the concept of African authenticity is, in many ways, misleading. Africa is such a huge continent, with such an incredible variety of cultures, languages, political systems, races, mores, and so on, that to come up with some basic African model or identity is hopeless. One of the reasons I left Africa last year, after 11 years, was a sudden realization that those in power were simply uninterested in considering the issue of alternative life styles or models of development.

Maybe the only country to have tried consistently to apply a really different form of development is Tanzania -- and it has run into tremendous problems for reasons that would be too long to go into here.

From what you say, it appears the African ruling classes are not fulfilling the leadership role for which history has cast them?

That is a mild way of putting it! I think in many countries they are the main cause of the failure of development. At the same time, as a Westerner I have no right to sit in judgment upon them because at independence the West set them up as strawmen to fill this very role.

Should we perhaps divide our search for alternatives, for Africanization? Put on one side the material advance based on the best of Western technology but adapted to African needs and on the other side put the cherishing of the spiritual and cultural, whose roots go very deep into a totally indigenous history? Can modern technology live respectfully with nonscientific traditions?

How can you divide the two? As Alvin Toffler shows in his recent book, "The Third Wave," our technology can't be divorced from our values. Industrial society -- what Toffler calls the "The Second Wave" -- is the result of a given set of perceptions -- basically of a certain sense of reality. It resulted from fundamental changes in our reading of reality. It resulted from fundamental changes in our perception of history, of time, of matter, of nature.I think what we need today is a completely new set of perceptions concerning time, history, nature, matter, society, the individual. In many ways, the West may be more ready for this than Africa, which still harbors many illusions about modernizing itself through industrialization. I question whether -- to use toffler's expression -- one can jump from the "first wave," agricultural society, to the "third wave," post-industrial society. So to clamp Western technology onto so-called non-scientific traditions is a form of cultural sterility.

Africa has had almost 500 years of traffic in human degradation -- slave traders, exploiters, colonizers. How will the African genius expunge this?

The heart of the whole matter is this issue of identity. Africans can't find their identity simply by returning to their past. Nor can they find it in Western values. I don't think there is a single identification of African genius. The genius of the Bushmen and the Hottentots, so movingly described by Laurens van der Post, is very different from that of the Kingdom of lfe, which produced some of the world's great art, or that of the Pharaohs, or the spirit of tolerance expressed by the Muslim university of Timbuktu where, in the 14th century, a great theological school had courses in Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religion at a time "Christian" Europe was being terrorized by the Inquisition. Africa has a great deal to bring to the world -- a unique sense of solidarity, the art of dialogue, a sense of rhythm and music which penetrates everyday life, a rare quality of joy and gentleness, to mention but a very few. But whether Africa will manage to "acculturate" the "second wave" of industrialization and modernization -- that has just bit into it -- or will have its cultural tissue torn asunder is still an open question. In many ways, Africa is a very fragile giant, and it terms of an almost complete breakdown of traditions, the massive, recent urbanization has had a very damaging impact.

You made the comment once that there are no poor countries -- only countries that are unknown or unloved.

I was quoting the French historian, Jacques Berque. "Poor country" is a concept we project on an area. It's fundamentally a subjective evaluation -- usually built on a great deal of ignorance and a few misleading statistics. But it really means that our thinkingm about that area is so poor or underdeveloped, or that we are too indifferent to care or too lazy to challenge what others have said. Worse, it is a static concept that freezes people's thinking -- no matter whether they're called "poor" or "rich." If you want to, you can say they're battling against poverty -- that is, poverty is external to them, something they can overcome. But when we call a country or a person "poor" we tend to attribute some mysterious essence to them. The difference is subtle but very important. Dealing with these mental attitudes is our biggest job.

The second half of this interview will appear on the Home Forum page tomorrow.m

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