AFRICA - The Fragile Giant?

Ibrahima's grandfather live in a small village in northern Ivory Coast. His whole life, from sunrise to sundown, was carefully regulated by tradtion: how he would greet people, what he would eat, and with whom; when he would go to the fields, and who would help him; what plants he would sow after which specified religious ceremonies; what sacrificial offerings he would make to expiate a fault; who could marry his son, and when -- and so on.

Every detail of his life was carefully circumscribed and hedged by tradtion. His deal was to respect that tradition as scrupulously as possible, to have as many sons as he could, and to raise them in the same respect for a tradition that extended far back into the mist of time.

Ibrahima's father lived until the end of World War II, and his life was socially almost identical to that of his father -- with one difference: He sent his som to a mission school. That one decision was to change the whole course of Ibrahima's life. While his brothers still farm small plots' practice polygamy, and worship tradtional gods and fetishes, Ibrahima is a top executive in a large, Paris-based multinational company.

Although he lives in Africa, his mental world is much closer to that of his French colleagues at headquarters. His daughters take skiing vacations in Switzerland, his wife (only one) wears the latest Dior fashions. One would almost take his home for a research laboratory of Grundig or RCA, so filled is it with the latest electronic gadgetry.

Such a leap in such a short period of time involves immense social stress.

While Europe underwent its modernization in two to four centuries (the cutoff date one selects is rather arbitrary) tropical Africa is undergoing the same transition in 40 to 60 years. And this transition is happening at a time when the world in general is changing rapidly.

Between the inhabitants of some areas of southern Chad who still walk around naked with no access to school, modern health facilities, or even the tax collector, and the high-level African executive in abidjan, Ivory Coast, who is part of the international jet set and can equal any of his Western counterparts in sophistication, the distance is as great as any in the world.

The rapidity of this transition and the way that it has reached every area of life are putting an incredible strain on the fragile tissue of African culture and social organization, already battered by a century of colonial occupation.

To one who has monitored the African social scene in the past decade or so, the strains are indicated by the following circumstances:

* Abandoned children. For the first time in African history, the abandonment of children is becoming a large-scale social phenomenon. This is a serious problem in Algeria, where thousands of children are abandoned every year. But the problem exists in many other parts of the continent, too.

In earlier times, children were so highly valued that to abandon one's child was unthinkable, except possibly in the most desperate circumstances. To be sterile was the greatest tragedy that could befall a woman,and celibacy was statistically nonexistent. Many customs guaranteed high levels of fertility -- levels perhaps the highest in the world. All this is changing.

* Infanticide. The daily press in many African cities shows that the number of infanticides is increasing rapidly. This phenomenon used to be very rare, except in cases prescribed by tradtion, as when for some reason a child was considered a bad omen.

* Abandoned parents. The first cases of parents being abandoned by their children are appearing -- this in a culture in which, possibly more than any other, parents were held in the utmost respect and had unwavering authority over children.

* Increased incidence of insanity. The insane, too, are turning up in ever larger numbers in hospitals and just wandering from one village to another. Traditonally the insane were well accepted and cared for by the village community; they played the roles of village clowns or clairvoyants.

* Prostitution. In January 1978, the African periodical Famille et Developpement, which reports on social issues and development problems, published a carefully documented study of prostitution, showing that in ruban areas of many countries it is reaching all levels of society. The problem has become so widespread that the boundary between professional and occasional prostitution is impossible to draw.

High-school girls prostitute themselves to help pay for their studies -- or just to buy a pair of fancy shoes. Some working mothers prostitute themselves to make ends meet -- not to mention very "respectable" middle-class wives or even high society women. And, because of the influx of tourists, male prostitution has become a widespread phenomenon (as in Gambia), along with homosexuality, unknown in tropical Africa before European colonization.

* Corruption. This phenomenon has become the prime pitfall of government in Africa. From presidents to chauffeurs, from ninisters of finance to schoolteachers, from free-enterprise countries like Gabon to supposedly stern socialist regimes like Algeria, corruption is a fact of live. This corruption is not a grease that oils the wheels of bureaucracy and government, as some economists have suggested. It is an acid that attacks the cogs of government and corrodes that minimum sense of principle without which no social system can function long.

In Ghana and Liberia, recent military coups had as their main justification the elimination of corruption. In Nigeria, GAbon, and especially Zaire, corruption has reached such high levels that some form of reaction is sure to set in. The economic, social, and moral costs of such practices are staggering. And the first to be adversely affected by corruption are, as usual, the poor, who often have to squeeze out of their income the extra dollar or so to pay for any official paper, formality, or government service.

Some observers fear that Africa runs the real risk of losing its cultural identity, having suffered from slavery, colonial occupation, and the influence of modernization. Africa may not have the resilience the Indian subcontinent long has displayed. The social causes of Africa's cultural fragility

With the exception of corruption -- whcih requires separate analysis -- they symptoms outlined here can be traced to the following causes:

-- A rapid rate of urbanization. Some cities are growing at the rate of 7 to 8 percent or more per year. Cities such as Abidjan, Ivory Coast, which at the end of World War II numbered a few thousand inhabitants, have passed the million mark. Cairo; Algiers; Lagos, Nigeria; Kinshasa, Zaire and many others are literally bursting at the seams.

It is difficult for a Westerner to understand or even imagine what the incredible leap from a small village -- with no traffic, no stores, no TV, no factories, maybe no school, where life goes on at a gentle, unhurried pace -- to city life, means. The change is far more than physical. It is first and foremost social and mental. From a small place where everyone knows everyone else, where behavior is severely regulated, where money sometimes still plays a secondary role, to the anonymous, bustling, large city with its strange habits and noises, and where money is king, the leap is huge, and shakes the foundations of the individual's very existence. The title of Chinua Achebe's famous african novel, "Things Fall Apart," is apt.

-- The introduction of the salary system is another major influence. The change is immense between one living in a village, where barter still is done and family financial planning almost nonexistent, to one with the status of an employed person with a regular salary, living in a shack or small apartment in a city and beset by inflation. Family and ethnic solidarity are slowly but surely eroded in such an environment.

-- To this one should add influences such as Western TV, cinema, magazines, the culturally deleterious impact of mass toursim, Western habits such as smoking and drinking, and educational systems largely oriented to the West, which still function in French in the former French colonies (what would you think if your child could only follow school in Swahili or Arabic?); also the mimicking of Western life styles by Western-educated elites. (The latter is warmly encouraged, I hasten to add, by Western commercial groups and governments that have vested interests in seeing potentially large markets open up for their products.)

In such a context, is it surprising that the fragile fabric of African culture and mores is breaking down? It has been said that Africa is abandoning the best of its traditions -- a strong sense of the family and group solidarity, a rare sense of rhythm and joy, of art and a sense of celebration as aprt of everyday life -- and adopting the worst of the West.

This judgment has the weakness of all generalizations, but contains a large element of truth.

Tthe Western powers are interested in maintaining political influence and opening new markets. But this could not be done without the active participation -- indeed, the warm invitation -- of the African elites presently in power.

"The African tragedy is to want on the one hand to govern in the same conditions as before, and on the other to behave in the same manner as the colonizers behaved at home and among us. We reach the same conclusion: we are colonizing Africa," Albert Tevoedjre, from Benin, assistant director-general of the International Labor Organization, wrote recently in the African weekly Demain l'Afrique. And a high-ranking Upper Volta official summed it up with a more brutal frankness when he stated point blank to us, "We African elites are the real colonizers of Africa today."

President Senghor of Senegal illustrates perhaps better than any other African leader today this way of thinking denounced by Mr. Tevoedjre. He is one of the fathers of the African cultural ideology of "Negritude," which so strongly stresses African values, but he rarely speaks an African languages (and then only with a strong French accent), has never been known to don African garb , and tends to prefer Frenchmen as close collaborators.

Mr. Senghor has exerted influence over school curricula in Senegal, and it still closely follows the French model (for example, Greek and Latin are taught in some high schools). Thanks to his strongly pro-French orientation and very close personal ties with France, that country still is a commanding power in the cultural, economic, political, and military life of Senegal.

Twenty years after independence (or, as a young Senegalese schoolboy wrote to me recently, "On this 20th anniversary of our neocolonialism, I send you my best greetings"), schools in Senegal function entirely in French, and schoolteachers are reprimanded if they speak a native language in school.

This example is not so much to be read as a critique of an individual (although President Senghor evidently bears great responsibility for this situation in his own country), but rather as an illustration of the gravity of this lack of identity which is one of Africa's main problems today. Unquestionably, colonial occupation and continued Western pressures share in the responsibility for this situation.

But neither can the African elite in power continue forever invoking the excuse of colonialism to delay the moment of truth, that is, coming to grips with their own identity and deciding on the direction they wish to give to "development" on their continent. What can be done?

Are there any forces that could alleviate the severity of the cultural and identity challenge Africa is facing today?

A good many observers would no doubt argue that Islam represents the only organized cultural and ideological force in Africa capable of offering some coherent alternative to imitating Western "development."

Personally, I would not consider Islam as a valid long-term alternative, for a variety of reasons. One is that only a small minority of African states are basically Muslim (that is, with 75 percent or more of the population following Islam). Also, the antifeminist nature of the Islamic revival under way may not be welcomed by younger African women.

What then is left? A striving for African "authenticity"? There has been a lot of shallow talk about "African authenticity" in recent years, but the applications of the concept -- in Togo and Zaire, for example -- have mainly been to attempt to shore up crumbling totalitarian regimes. Until the concept of authenticity is defined in terms of political structures, school programs, health systems, TV and radio programs, and the like, it will remain the hollow drum it has been in the hands of the intellectuals who have bandied it around in past years.

Some specialists cite Tanzania as an example of a serious attempt at building an original African model of development in recent African history. But the immense difficulties this experiment has experienced since its inception, not the least being an apparent lack of enthusiasm by both peasants and government administrators in Tanzania, do not speak strongly in its favor.

Eleven years of research and traveling in Africa have convinced me that there are literally thousands of groups that, given some modest encouragement and assistance (not necessarily material; organizational skills are among the most needed in Africa today), are ready to work hard to improve their living conditions and to fight to preserve their cultural identity.

Perhaps more than any other word, "solidarity" sums up the essence of African social structure and mores. This solidarity is undergoing a severe testing period under the combined attack of the forces of individualism, consumer mentalities, poverty, apathy, and so on. But it is still very much alive, very resilient. Popular participation needs to be encouraged. It therefore is essential to encourage small groups everywhere, beyond the labels of politics, nationality, religion, or ethnicity, to get a feeling that they canm influence their own destiny.

Sooner or later, large-scale popular participation in the form of genuine self-government will result in a redistribution of wealth and resources. This is just what many African regimes are doing their best to avoid.

For if these countries are often very vocal about increasing differentials in wealth between the North and South, they are much more discreet about the still greater and more shocking income gaps within their own frontiers. This holds true from the poorest (such as Mali, Uper Volta, Niger) to the wealthiest (Kenya , Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Gabon) and includes the middle-range ones such as Senegal.

But because the challenge is so difficult, is it a reason not to try? If development is to be more than a hollow, ritual incantation, there may not be many alternatives.

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