Monday, 17 September 2012

Africa should focus more on empowering its people through arts, says John Kufour

Former President of Ghana, John Kufour was in Lagos last week to chair the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, where he spoke glowingly about the excellent character of Africa’s first black Nobel Laureate in Literature and the need to replicate such men of ideas, character and culture on the continent as a way of repositioning Africa from the margins of history to mainstream globalisation. He also had excellent words for The Lumina Foundation for instituting the prize named after Soyinka to throw up Africa’s best writers and reward them for the excellence of their writing. ANOTE AJELUOROU recaps the interview. Excerpts:

YOU spoke glowingly about The Lumina Foundation and what it is doing to promote writing and writers. And, it seems it is something you’d like to see replicated all over the continent, isn’t it?
I meant that the subject matter, Wole Soyinka, that Africa should have quite a few of them dotting all over the place for culture, literacy and all that.

Now, in spite of ICT penetration in the last few years, African art and culture has been its strongest points. Yet it is the least promoted by African leaders. Why is this so?
  But the rest of the world said we didn’t have culture!

But is Africa promoting its culture enough to engage the interest of the rest of the world?
  I believe now the world is looking, especially when we have the likes of Wole Soyinka. If the rest of the world is not interested, they wouldn’t have given him the Nobel Laureate for Literature. This means the rest of the world is looking. Then Nollywood is working, isn’t it? Now, the whole continent is watching Nollywood films; so, too, is the rest of the world – Europe, America. So, it’s good.

When you were president, how much of culture would you say you promoted in your country, Ghana?
 Uhm, quite a lot! I would say culture and education should come hand in hand; I believe the people are defined by their culture. As often observed, we Africans are known for our culture right from time. It’s just that we didn’t read and we didn’t write it down. So, it was like handed down folklore and a lot of it became like legend. So, with the introduction of Western education, somehow, they were made to look down on our own stories. Now, this is why Soyinka again comes in; when we began having our own writers, they captured some of the cultures in their writings. So now others know that Africa, too, is part of the international, global culture.
  So, I, as president, appreciated culture. Some of our ministries covered culture. We have something called FESTAC in Ghana, where various tribes display our traditional cultures and festivals.

Ghana has some of Africa’s best writers like Koffi Awoonor, Ayi Kwei Amah, Ama Ata Aidoo, etc. Which of them would you say is your favourite?
  I respect all of them (laughs). I respect all of them!

It’s often said that leaders are readers…
Perhaps, you’re talking about political leaders…

But how much do the leaders read when most of them uphold the culture of impunity, corruption and sundry atrocities against their own people?
That is no culture. Impunity is no culture. Impunity is contempt, disrespect. Corruption is taking what is not yours. So, those are no culture. Impunity means bullying.

If you were to advise leaders on how to promote African culture, what would you be telling them?
That they should encourage their educational institutions to research into our traditional practices. I’m sure universities here in Nigeria are focusing on culture. In Ghana, too, we have the same thing. I believe our governments should support and sponsor research work into culture.

Between African leaders and writers/culture workers, there is always a conflict of interest. How can a better working relationship be forged between the two to work towards the same goal of developing the continent?
Dictators tend to suspect people who do not tow their lines. Anybody who is open-minded and observes or criticises objectively is suspect to a dictator who wants to monopolise power. The dictator abhors anything that would challenge his hold on power. Wole Soyinka criticised what was going on because what was going on didn’t sit well with him. They couldn’t accommodate him and they dragged him into prison. Later on when there was a tyrant here, who was killing people and imprisoning people, he spoke out and they wanted to kill him. And if he didn’t run into exile, anything could have happened to him.

You mentioned in your speech the plundering of Africa by colonisers. How they took away valuable artefacts such as the Ashante Golden Stool in Ghana and Idia mask in Nigeria and others. What would you advise African governments to do to repatriate these objects?
Those artefacts, as you call them, that could be traced, we should lay claim to them. And they shouldn’t be where they shouldn’t be, but here on the continent. Reparation is a big and complex issue, and I wouldn’t want Africa to beat about the bush. We should focus on our development now where we are, where we found ourselves. Fortunately, nature has endowed us with abundant natural resources; we should harness them for our development. Let us focus on educating our people. I believe that is where real empowerment comes from, education through which we can develop our people. That is the only way we can take command of our natural resources to make our lives better and make our way forward into the mainstream of globalisation, which is on; we have to keep up with it.
  If we want to fight battles, we may be left on the margins of globalisation. We don’t want that; we want to go into the centre and we can’t go into the centre without empowering the people that comes with education. We have to entice our entrepreneurs to use best practices; the market forces are so powerful.

You also lamented Soyinka’s use of the English language and not his native Yoruba…
No! I wasn’t lamenting. I was rather praising him for being smart not to have used Yoruba. If he had written in Yoruba the other people in the world wouldn’t have read him because Yoruba is not an international language. But this man uses other people’s language and proves to be a super master in it. At the end, they acknowledged him; they are forced to give him the topmost literary award. So, I was rather saying that a Yoruba man who hadn’t written in Yoruba got acknowledged, but has used other people’s language to let see that, even though he isn’t a native of that language, he has command of that language, and language is a very powerful tool. In Ghana, we have a proverb that says, ‘The dumb dreams, but how does he communicate? Suppose he can communicate it, he could change society with the strength of his dreams!’
  So, Soyinka has used other people’s language to communicate ideas, people who came and said we didn’t have culture, we didn’t have religion. That was what I was trying to say; not that he hadn’t written in Yoruba. Perhaps, he has written in Yoruba, I don’t know. But he wrote in other people’s language, Shakespeare’s language and caught the attention of the whole world. Suppose he wrote only in Yoruba, I don’t know the kind of attention he would have got.

What kind of books did you read when you were in office, and now that you’re out, what do you read?
  I’m still a politician, and I read!

You’re aware that the cultural heritage materials in Timbuktu, Mali are being destroyed by fundamentalists. How do you react to such news?
Such a thing shouldn’t be happening in Africa! It is a continent that is in the process of recovering itself. Africa is so big, with diverse parts; the whole of it has been so abused and exploited by outsiders. Thankfully over the past few years, all parts of the continent are coming together; now, we have more things uniting us together and we’re forging unity. So, we’ve come together as African Union. Now, we have people behaving like this, making it seem as if we shouldn’t appreciate our past. Whether it is religion or tribe or whatever, we don’t destroy things that have been there for centuries. Those give materials evidence that, even centuries back, how our forebears, our ancestors used to think, as the monuments give evidence to. Now, they go and destroy them. For what? It’s very sad to carry on like that.
  Isn’t this why other people say we do not have culture? Now, they may seem justified with such acts. Those people doing those things, I don’t think they are thinking right.

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