Network member Yannis Guibinga shares his thoughts on ethnic languages, the importance of cultural preservation in increasingly westernized African communities and how photography helped him reconnect with his heritage and culture despite Western cultural influences.
One of the pillars of colonization was the systematic vilification of the cultural, traditional and linguistic heritage of the colonized. The African cultural artefacts that have been shaping these different communities forever were now described as primitive and subaltern, resulting in an attempt from colonizers to impose their own and present them as superior and therefore, inherently right. Among this cultural heritage, there is language. Many Africans’ cultural identities are tied to their ethnic languages, so much so that in many cases both the language and the ethnic group to which said language belongs to have the same or a very similar name. Furthermore, Africa is a continent that has for centuries used oral means of communication to perpetuate traditions from one generation to the next. The learning of ethnic languages happening in familial settings as opposed to the academic ones also reinforces the connection between one’s language and ties to his ancestors. But as the exposure to the western culture increasingly grows through the advancements of both new technologies and globalization, the importance of cultural identity and preservation through language seem to be decreasing.
Younger generations of Africans are growing up with Western media as the media they consume the most. It is therefore not surprising that their interests would lie in emulating the Drakes and Beyonces of the world to the best of their abilities rather than worrying about the preservation of their heritage in the face of cultural imperialism. The truth of the matter is that for many young Africans, growing up in the continent especially, cultural preservation is not something they think is an issue.
I grew up in Gabon for the majority of my life and because I was constantly exposed to people using their native languages as a way to communicate with one another, the importance and meaning of this cultural artefact was not something I thought about or necessarily focused on. Rather, my eyes were looking outside, to the West like many other people from my generation and the one before mine. Despite being exposed to my native language often, never did I feel the necessity, utility nor did I understood the importance of learning a language that was spoken by my ancestors. Much like many other things in life, the understanding of the importance of my cultural heritage came much later. It is only after leaving Gabon that I realized the disservice I did to myself by not showing any interest in learning the language when I had the opportunity to do so. The confusion came first. Then shame. After all, how can one claim to be proud of his African identity when he does not even speak the language his ancestor did? This shame attached to the disconnect I had with my cultural heritage exacerbated after a conversation I later had with a Nigerian, in which I mentioned that me and many people from my generation in Gabon did not know how to speak their ethnic languages, nor necessarily cared to do so. “See you people, has the West taken over your roots?” he said. In many ways, it had. To understand the history of Gabon is to understand the extent to which Gabon has been colonized by France during and after 1960 ( the year in which Gabon signed its independence). The involvement of France covered not only all the major industries in the country (whether financial, governmental or otherwise) but also all the major cultural and media platforms like the press, radio and television. French language and culture quickly became the norm and the colonizers’ language very quickly replaced native languages in many homes.
Through photography, I was able to learn more and think more deeply and critically about my own culture, heritage and history. Photography, like many other art forms on the continent, has allowed me and other African artists who went through similar life experiences to reconnect with our traditions and our roots. By capturing others from my own family, community and during the exchange happening as the photos were being taken, I was able to learn more about my culture, as a way to maintain cultural preservation despite living in the West. Even if I still have yet to discover some aspects of my cultural identity, such as learning my native language for instance, photography was able to help me overcome some of these challenges by allowing me to record and archive information about my cultural heritage in the hopes of learning more about my history and ultimately, about myself.
Colonization and French cultural imperialism, therefore, affected Gabonese culture to such an extent that it resulted in a decrease of intergenerational cultural exchange. But even if cultural imperialism on the continent is now so deep that it would probably take decades to undo, if it is at all possible, I believe that intergenerational cultural exchange on the African continent and in the diaspora remains possible. In a world where Western cultural imperialism is still rising on the African continent and nationalist sentiments are simultaneously rising in Western countries, a strong knowledge of the self from Africans both in and outside of the continent is now more important than ever. Whether it is through photography, writing or any other kind of activities able to archive and document our cultures, I believe that it is now up to the younger generation of Africans to do the work necessary to preserve them while simultaneously being active participants of the world’s globalization. More on Yannis: Instagram | Twitter | Website
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