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21.02.2012 Feature Article

Busia’s Perspective on African Society and Culture

Busia’s Perspective on African Society and Culture
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Following his deliberate political stampeding out of Ghana by the Nkrumah-led Convention People's Party (CPP), in the run-up to the 1960 Presidential Election, aimed primarily at rubberstamping Nkrumah's dictatorship under the guise of an Executive Presidency, the future Prime Minister K. A. Busia, then leader of the main opposition United Party (UP) in parliament, secured an appointment to an endowed chair at the African Studies Center at the world-famous University of Leiden, in the Netherlands. In his inaugural address as “Professor of the Sociology and Culture of Africa,” twentieth-century Africa's foremost social scientist reiterated Dag Hammerskjold's perspicuous observation that Africa's centrality to the crossroads world of the 1960s could not be ignored by the United Nations Organization of which Mr. Hammerskjold was the secretary-general: “We are at a turn of the road where our attitude will be of decisive significance, I believe, not only for the future of this organization, but also for the future of Africa. And Africa may well in present circumstances mean the world” (See K. A. Busia, The Sociology and Culture of Africa: Its Nature and Scope, University Press of Leiden, 1960. Print. 3).

Contrary to cynical attempts by his most ardent detractors to demonize the late and former Ghanaian leader, as one who was neocolonialist and parochially divisive in the pursuit of his ideological agenda, Busia demonstrates an acute and pragmatic appreciation vis-à-vis the organic unity of the primeval continent, even while also significantly admitting of its unique ethnic, cultural and racial diversity. To the foregoing effect, the inaugural address presenter observes: “There are some experts who deny the possibility of dealing with Africa as a whole in any context whatsoever, because of its size, and of the variety of tribes and peoples, governments and cultures found in Africa. ¶ It is indeed a large Continent, covering 11,700,000 square miles, 40% larger than the [erstwhile] Soviet Union, and more than three times the size of the United States, including Alaska. For its size, its estimated 280 million [people, in 1960] is sparse, in comparison with the population densities of other Continents; but Africa claims more distinct peoples and cultures than any other Continent. ¶ Since the end of the Paleolithic period, Africa has been inhabited by five races: Bushmanoid, Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid and Pygmoid. These races are classified on the basis of a combination of inheritable physical traits; they all belong to the one species, Homo Sapiens, which includes all the peoples of the world. There is no scientific basis for the belief that some races are inferior, and some superior. Man represents only one animal species” (3-4).

And unlike the so-called Afrocentrists and their programmatically allied Nkrumaist ideologues, Busia envisaged the universally discredited policy of Apartheid in South Africa as an axiological norm that was prevalent all over the world, in practice, particularly in Europe, rather than an anomaly, or one that was rigidly and dually bifurcated into black and white. To this end, the author observes: “This needs emphasizing in relation to African Studies. The doctrine of racial inequality is by no means confined to the policy of apartheid in South Africa, but is implied in policies and practices in other countries too. It rests on the assumption that there is an inherent difference in the capacity of racial groups for the creation, learning or adaptation to culture. This would make Kipling's: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet' applicable to Culture” (4).

Rather, the Oxbridge-educated scholar debunks the myth of racial and ethnic supremacy by discursively expatiating on the subject as follows: “Sociological studies have shown that there is no scientific support for this. In fact, the processes of acculturation in Africa show that moral, political and technical potentialities are not biologically determined. There are differences in culture between racial and even ethnic groups in Africa, but they can be accounted for by differences in experience, for biological capacity is moulded by the opportunities provided by the cultural and social environment. But there are political policies which aim at ensuring and perpetuating cultural differences by denying Africans opportunities for participating fully in the total cultural environment, and so learning and adapting themselves to it. Yet an important contribution of cultural anthropology and sociology to race relations is the general agreement on the finding that culture is learnt, and that given adequate opportunity, an individual or racial group can learn and master new cultural patterns. This gives ground for optimism. Even for the most acute racial tensions in Africa, it offers the hope that the Western cultural heritage can be mastered by Africans, and that the different racial groups living in multiracial societies, such as in the Rhodesias [present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe] or in the Union of South Africa, can all participate in their common cultural environment. Sociological studies of acculturation, of the processes of contact and intermixture of the traits and patterns of different cultures, thus assume importance in tackling the practical problems of race relations in Africa” (4-5).

In other words, Busia was definitely far ahead of his Nkrumaist detractors in perspicuously recognizing the imperative need for Africans to systematically and progressively cultivate what Americans have come to recognize as the “melting pot” of socio-cultural and multiethnic and multiracial synergy as a means of healthily expediting the modernization and technological development of postcolonial Africa. Outside of southern Africa, where European settler presence was much more limited, Busia, implicitly, recognized synergistic cultural organicity in terms of globalization or “global villagization,” in the prophetic observation of the immortalized Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan.

Furthermore, for Busia, the kind of geopolitically expedient nationalism advocated by President Nkrumah, for example, had no factual basis in historical reality; for Africa's centrality as a primeval cauldron of global human civilization necessitated the synergistic propulsion of human development in the contemporary era. This organic and expansive trend in thinking may very much have informed the Ghanaian leader-scholar's more pragmatic and conciliatory attitude towards the odious and erstwhile apartheid regimes in southern Africa: “The cultures of Africa are not easy to classify in as distinct categories as the languages. Africa is probably the cradle of mankind. Every year, fresh archeological evidence shows it to have been the first home of man, from the very dawn of cultural history. It is claimed that Dr. Leakey's Zinjanthropus, or East Africa Man, found in the Olduvai Gorge, was the world's earliest man, and lived more than 600,000 years ago. The first achievement of a Neolithic agricultural civilization in Africa goes back 7,000 years. Different races have thus lived and interacted in Africa for thousands of years, and survivals of extremely old cultural inventions and ways of life appear alongside much more recent cultural developments” (5).

Even so, Busia is empirically realistic enough to also observe that such seminal technological and cultural achievements, as pioneered on the African continent, were by no means hermetic or devoid of valuable and even significant foreign contributions: “Through Egypt, Ethiopia and North Africa came influences of the ancient cultures of the Mediterranean; through Madagascar, the ancient cultures of Asia; and in modern times, the violent impact of European cultures has been felt everywhere in Africa” (5).

In the field of religion, the great social thinker and theorist is of the firm belief that the African is as articulate and philosophical in outlook as any other species of humanity: “In his earlier studies of the Negroes of Dutch Guiana and the United States, Herskovitz pioneered a field of great interest for studies of the diffusion of African culture.¶ Subsequent studies of religion and social organization in Brazil, in Dutch and British Guiana, in Cuba, the West Indies, and Surinam have confirmed that African religions, music and dance can survive under the most severe conditions of uprooting and transplanting; and syncretisms of African religion and rites of the Christian Church in these regions as well as in Africa itself give evidence of the vitality of some aspects of African culture. There is an impressive documentation of Africa's contribution to world civilization. It is a widely shared aspiration of African peoples to make even greater contributions to the ever increasing common heritage of Man”(8).

The author also, in quite typical anthropological vein, envisages the contemporary African experience, especially vis-à-vis Africa's violent encounter with the culturally cannibalistic and imperialist West, as a template for understanding evolutionary trends in ideological and cultural paradigm shifts: “Studies of the traditional are exciting, and of historical interest; but we must not stop there, if we are to deal with the complex problems of cultural adjustments that African peoples have to make in the contemporary situation, or that the rest of the world must make to contemporary Africa. The traditional cultures of Africa are of value in providing a historical base for understanding the more recent events and ongoing trends of the present day”(8).

Even so, Busia is also quick to point to the urgent need for the “study of Africa – or African Studies – to be elevated from the relatively primitive status of anthropology into a sociology, or a relatively more relevant and modernized sub-discipline. To this end, the first Ghanaian to be named to the august status of “professor” at Ghana's flagship academy, the University of Ghana, observes: “In 'Civilization on Trial' Toynbee predicted that future historians would say that 'the great event of the 20th Century was the impact of Western civilization upon all other living societies of the world of that day. They will say [that] this impact was so powerful and so pervasive that it turned the lives of all its victims upside down and inside out affecting the behavior, outlook, feelings and beliefs of individual men, women and children in an intimate way, touching chords in human souls that are not touched by more external forces, however ponderous and terrifying.¶ The impact of Western civilization on the peoples of Africa affords the most striking illustration of the effects described by Toynbee – 'it has turned lives upside down and inside out,' and made Africa an urgent and challenging field for sociological studies. I think the Chair established in the University for the Afrika Studiecentrum is justifiably designated as the Chair for the Sociology and Culture of Africa, because it draws attention thereby to the urgent need to extend our study to Africa as it is today; Africa as it has been made by the shattering impact of European science and technology, European rule, commerce, and education, and the propagation of Christianity by European missionaries”(8-9).

Busia also highlights two socioeconomic trends that have dominated twentieth-century Africa, namely, the rapid movement towards political independence from colonial imperialism and a dramatic paradigm shift in the economic mode of development: “The two most striking features of the recent history of Africa are the progress toward political independence from colonial status, and the process of transforming traditional and mainly subsistence economies to modern ones. Problems of economic development loom large in all discussions on Africa. Both [of] these features give education a key role, for the need for trained personnel for administrative and technical posts becomes obvious and urgent”(9).

And the great thinker and social scientist ought to have known this as well as any African scholar and/or social scientist, being that the future Prime Minister Busia was the first of two Gold Coasters in colonial Ghana to be appointed as district administrators by the British colonial overlords, the other being the future distinguished career diplomat, Mr. A. L. Adu.

Likewise, on the political front, Busia recognized two major ideological trends, namely, the trend towards democratic federalism or a decentralized system of democratic governance, on the one hand, and the one-party dictatorship, pioneered by Ghana's President Nkrumah, that came to dominate the continental African political landscape throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s, broken in the various countries by adventurist military dictatorships. On the latter score, this is what the man who led Ghana's first authentic democratic government had to say: “Especially since World War II, the rapid acceleration of political and economic development in Africa has had the dimensions of a social revolution. Measures of economic development have affected the densities, distribution, mobility and stratification of populations. Political changes have altered patterns of authority, allegiance, and social groupings. New nations and political forms have emerged. Some of the new states are developing one-party authoritarian forms, in which traditional rulers are being swept away or swamped in the stream of change; others, paying more attention to local history and tradition, seek both progress and stability in federal forms; and in others, traditional monarchies seek to guide and preside over the inevitable change. Thus states like Ghana and Guinea, or Nigeria, or Ethiopia, or Uganda provide students of political systems with new typological models. ¶ New ideologies and aspirations, too, are among the forces of change, bringing Africa into contemporary ideological conflicts. All these pose problems for the social sciences; for fact-finding, analysis, interpretation, understanding and comparison”(9-10).

In the highly informed opinion of Busia, even in the face of epic modernistic transformation, there is to be recognized a remarkable centripetal and countervailing force pulling the African towards ancient African civilization and cultural practices. In other words, postcolonial Western-oriented development is by no means a passive and lineal progression but a veritably curvilineal dialogue between time-tested traditional values and beliefs, and the largely material and behavior-altering forces sweeping the entire continent from abroad: “I refer to these theories in particular because, along with the plans and activities designed for change, there are also examples of a conscious return to a past golden age, in search of Africa's own social heritage, and for norms rooted in a great past, whose revival, it is hoped, will again ensure grandeur and stability. ¶ The choice of the names of Ghana and Mali for the two new states in Africa, and the philosophical concept of 'negritude' of African intellectuals may be given as examples of traditionalism. Ghana goes back to an African empire which flourished in Western Sudan between 1000 and 1500 AD. It was displaced as the dominant state of West Africa by Mali which reached the height of its power and grandeur in the 14th Century, under King Kankan Musa whose authority spread from the coast of Senegal to the region of Niamey. Mali reached a degree of civilization which astounded Arab travelers, and won the esteem of the Mediterranean countries of the Middle Ages, because of its fabulous wealth. The choice of these names tells us that even where the wind of change is a hurricane, brakes may be provided by the pull of the past. ¶ Hence the conscious search for thickets of the past, hitherto ignored” (10-11).

For Busia, development is organically composed of material, psychical and spiritual components and ought to be envisaged as such, at least in the context of African sociology and culture: “The philosophy of negritude of African intellectuals, whether we agree with it or dispute its validity, should bring it home to us that the peoples of Africa are seeking not only material culture, but also non-material values rooted in their own past, which will contribute to stability and sound progress, and national pride. ¶ The study of the Culture and Sociology of Africa must inescapably concern itself with values, not only because the right ordering of the moral and social life is the ultimate goal of human endeavor, but also because Africa is concerned with the behavior of different groups towards one another. The relationships and tensions between ethnic and racial groups is a matter of particular importance in East, Central and South Africa.¶ Because of the considerable degree of cultural variability among the peoples of Africa, the student of African society cannot avoid asking to what extent the values of these various cultures are similar, and to what extent they are dissimilar. This, it is clear, poses a fundamental question for international relations” (11-12).

On the meaning and objective parameters of what constitutes “African Sociology,” this is what Busia has to say: “It is my hope, therefore, that in the study of the Sociology and Culture of Africa, we shall be sharing in the quest of the peoples of Africa to conquer poverty, disease and ignorance; in their struggle for stability and harmony in ever-widening groups, increasing in their range, complexity and heterogeneity; in their striving towards creativeness in art and science; in their yearning for acceptance as equals in the worldwide Brotherhood of Man”(12-13).

In this 16-page address on the Sociology of African History and Culture, the great African thinker and theorist calls for the practice of a social science that is humanistic and pragmatic in thrust: “I have spoken of methodology and theories and systems in the Social Sciences. These are abstractions. They are conceptual tools, and not the reality. Sometimes, in the preoccupation with theories and systems, the reality is abstracted out of recognition; even out of existence. But the social sciences are human sciences. In the search for laws and systems, for concepts and objectivity, we do well to remember constantly that our studies concern human beings; that they deal primarily with men and women, with their happiness and suffering; with harmony and discord in social relations; with peace and war. Should the Social Sciences become only a matter of the head, obsessed only with the search for abstract theories and intellectually satisfying systems, without the human heart that shares human love and suffering, they will fail to serve mankind”(12).

Busia also pays glowing tribute to the first Ghanaian (and African) to be academically associated with the University of Leiden, Jacobus Eliza Johannes Capitein, 223 years before the former's professorial appointment in 1960. Busia is also, as was to be circumstantially expected, full of effusive and even fulsome praises for his European hosts: “The University of Leiden is one of the most illustrious seats of learning in Europe. On the 22nd [of] June 1737, Jacobus Eliza Johannes Capitein, an African from my country, came to study here at Leiden. I feel it a great honour, not only to myself, but to my country also, that I should be appointed a professor here over two hundred years after the first of my countrymen to study here was enrolled as a student at Leiden. It is humbling to think of the challenge and opportunity for research and scholarship which [this] office presents. ¶ We in Africa owe a great debt to this University and other seats of learning in Europe. I regard my appointment here as an opportunity to show in a small way something of the deep gratitude we feel to[wards] this and other great universities of Europe that have made it possible for us to become heirs with you of the wisdom of the ages”(13).

*Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D., is Associate Professor of English, Journalism and Creative Writing at Nassau Community College of the State University of New York, Garden City. He is Director of The Sintim-Aboagye Center for Politics and Culture and author of “Dr. J. B. Danquah: Architect of Modern Ghana” (, 2005). E-mail: [email protected]

Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D.
Kwame Okoampa-Ahoofe, Jr., Ph.D., © 2012

The author has 5330 publications published on Modern Ghana.Column: KwameOkoampaAhoofeJr

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