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The arts

Becoming active

by Peter Musa
The wealth of African culture makes the continent a fascinating destination for tourists, yet its full potential remains largely unknown. It needs to be fully exploited. African governments have often made lofty promises to promote culture industries. Independent cultural expression, however, cannot be left to those in power, and cultural entrepreneurs can do a lot to make a difference. [ By Peter Musa ]

In the past, very little attention was paid to the role culture plays in the development process. Today, it is increasingly understood that issues such as political freedom, transparency of government affairs or respect for the law and human rights depend on cultural activities and arts, among other things. Cultural expression is fundamental for social life and has the potential of defining public discourse.

African governments have often made promises at national levels and through mechanisms such as the African Union to promote the culture and creative industries on the continent. In Cameroon there is a special fund for culture put in place by the President of the Republic. In 2008, the African Ministers of Culture adopted the “Nairobi Plan of Action” on developing the culture and creative industries in Africa. In Cameroon for instance, emphasis is being placed in the school curriculum on the arts, culture and local languages.

Nonetheless, the track-record of government action is often unconvincing. After decades of independence, our nations are still struggling with an­alphabetism. Ruling parties that have not been able to ensure literacy, typically fail to promote culture in other aspects too. The sad state of many of our museums provides further proof, as I argued in the June edition of D+C in 2006 (p.238f). Compare them to those in the rich world that attract scores of tourists on top of providing local people with an understanding of themselves. It is depressing that more people see African artefacts in European or North American museums than in African ones.

Relevant impetus for African creative industries often comes from beyond our borders. Recently a high profile training seminar to boost the culture and creative industries within countries in Central Africa was held in Yaoundé, Cameroon. Participants were invited to submit projects they are actually involved in, and their proposals were examined by both experts and seminar participants. The participants were individually schooled on how to restructure their proposals in order to attract funding.

The event was organised by the Observatory of Cultural Policies in Africa (OCPA), the Spanish International Cooperation Agency (AECID), the EU’s ACP Cultures Programme and Cerdotola (Centre régional de recherche et de documentation sur les traditions orales et pour le développement des langues africaines), an initiative based in Yaoundé. Similar workshops were also organised in Dakar, Nairobi and Maputo. It is most welcome that AECID and OCPA are thus identifying the potential for cultural and creative industries in Africa and providing capacity-building support to relevant actors. Other international agencies that are involved in Africa’s cultural life include the Goethe Institute, Pro Helvetia, Africalia, the Ford Foundation and many others.

The dream of Richard King, a budding Cameroonian musician was realised in 2004 when the Goethe Institute in Yaoundé sponsored his participation at the three-week mobile academy in Berlin. Thanks to this exposure, his career has taken off, and he has been invited to concerts in the USA and Algeria too.

Over time, however, another trend should prove more important. Cultural entrepreneurs are developing festivals throughout Africa. These festivals showcase the continent’s rich performance culture and will increasingly provide the platforms, promising artists need to launch international careers.

One must not under-estimate the economic relevance of such festivals. They generate incomes and jobs. Moreover, they contribute to promoting tourism. The more they succeed in networking promising artists from Africa, moreover, the more our own creative industries will expand. The more that happens, the more jobs will be created in fields such as publishing, events management, performing arts et cetera.

Government support can be useful, but entrepreneurs should not wait, but rather take matters into their own hands. Timely information is essential. For this reason, I decided to draft the “Directory of arts and culture, organisations and festivals active within the CEMAC region”. The first edition is available for downloads on the website of CREATE, a civil-society organisation that promotes the creative sector in Cameroon. The Acronym stands for “Collective resources for the arts and talents enrichment”.

Web options

Cultural operators in Africa must make full use of the internet. They should not regard websites as status symbols, but rather as working tools. Both small and big enterprises need web visibility. Today there are possibilities to create a professional looking website for free. As a website owner, the cultural operator is in control of the information published on the site. To be part of the global information super-highway requires only minimal financial investment. There are several possibilities of gaining web presence or employing the usage of web based technology.

In any case, cultural entrepreneurs must cater to the local and national media. If journalists take interest in the events they organise, that will further their chances of growth. At the same time, the media could benefit from a thriving creative industry in the area they cover.

It is true that most of the young cultural entrepreneurs in Africa face many challenges, including inadequate funds (or even no funds at all), poor access to information and lack of managerial or technical skills. Many cultural activists are working on a voluntary basis, making sure that culture and creativity are alive in their village, town or city.

To some extent, they can benefit from involving municipalities and local authorities. In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, Oumarou Sanfo of Afrik’Heur is one such cultural entrepreneur who has successfully collaborated with municipal authorities and other partners in developing a cultural centre and artist village. Such local partnerships make sense as they offer all involved a sense of belonging.

Cross-border engagement can be fruitful too. Abel Dabula of CEDARTE (Centro de Estudos e Desenvolvimento do Artesanato) in Maputo, Mozambique, has helped to bring together Zimbabwean artists who live in Mozambique. Margaret Otieno of the Nairobi-based initiative African Colours told me that she is working on an online platform to assist contemporary African artists sell their works.

Closer solidarity among actors in the sector is needed to promote information sharing and knowledge exchange. The Arterial Network, which was launched in Senegal in 2007 and is now based in Cape Town, is trying to unite artists throughout Africa. Its members are artists and culture professionals who believe that cross-border exchange will serve the needs of artists and the creative industries in general. Its second conference was held in September this year at the Goethe Institute in Johannesburg.