What should we do with our cultural past ?

In Modernity/Tradition by Odogwu Ibezimako

There is very little that is traditional about tradition or modern about modernity. Both categories are deeply related to each other. Societies that are characterized as traditional inherit ideas, beliefs, and institutions from their past and are never culturally static. Traditions are socially inherited ideas, beliefs, institutions, rituals, principles and practices that organize thought and action. They are embedded so deeply into the contours of any society that they are not visible to an untrained eye, yet they organize the texture of our lives.

What should we do with our cultural past?

There are a range of responses to this, but ultimately they fall into two camps; revivalist and  anti-revivalist.

Anti-revivalists want to keep the past in the past. They want Indigenous intuitions, practices, and ideas that have survived colonization to be dismantled and erased. They argue that you must abandon any Indigenous cultural ethic, because this ethic has already been defeated through colonial conquest. For them, if two societies were to come into contact, and one triumphs, then surely the cultures of the triumphant must be cultivated by the subjugated. They argue that it is in the best interest of the subjugated groups to “catch up” with advanced industrial societies and to do so, they must abandon their cultural heritage, which they perceive to be pre-scientific.

Revivalist fall under several sub categories. 

Cultural revivalists look to their cultural past for a sense of cultural pride and identity. They draw from cultural products to call for cultural unity and use these cultural products to form the basis for an authentic and original contribution to global culture.

Redemption Theologists believe that inheriting the mentality of former colonial governors makes the African a subservient global citizen. They are dissatisfied with the acceptance of alien cultural values and believe only a freedom of the mind will heal such a society from the corrupting influences of forced modernity. You will hear them sing “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves, can free our minds!”

Dr Munyaradzi Mawere and Dr. Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu are contemporary scholars in the Indigenous Knowledge school. They leverage knowledge systems, spirituality and technologies to fashion a future built on a knowable traditional African way. They look to revitalize Indigenous Knowledge Systems (IKS)  for Africa’s development. They believe African Indigenous knowledge systems should be the basis of development in the modern world and Indigenous resources and traditions should be harnessed to meet modern goals. 

Julius Nyere was the founding father of Tanzania and was one of the Nation Builders tasked with creating a modern African State. He drew upon what he saw as similarities between the many sub-ethnic nationalities of the Tanzanian people to form one national identity and national ethic.

Nyerere used Ujamaa as the basis for a national development project. Julius Nyere through the Ujama political philosophy looked to build on what he saw as a consistent principle in the cultural life of the cultures of the region – communitarianism. He translated the Ujamaa concept into a political-economic management model through the cultivation of a national cultural identity and the engendering of a self-reliant cultural ethic. The Ujama project is championed as a model for African nation building and national policy by revivalists, and considered to be a prime example of the limitations of the Indigenous African cultures by anti-revivalists.

Taking Anti-revivalists seriously.

Anti-revivalists ask an important question; why should you continue with a culture that was defeated and subjugated through colonization?  Is the way of the victor not a superior way ? 

There continues to be a lingering shame and a lack of self-confidence felt by many peoples of formerly colonized world regions. This shame becomes institutionalized through education, religion, popular culture, and through national institutions. On this, Michael Manley, the fourth prime Minister of Jamaica writes

… post-colonial societies must accomplish two things if they are to re-establish self-confidence and re-embark upon the process of self-discovery. They must rediscover the validity of their own culture at the moment of the colonial intervention and retrace the steps that had led through history to that point. And they must establish within a frame of reality, the culture which colonialism imposed upon them so that this may loom neither larger nor smaller than it deserves and suffer from none of the distortion which can result from the ambivalence of a ruler-subject situation” 

“It is pointless to either over-rate or under-rate the accomplishments of Western civilization. It has produced dazzling technology and a persistent capacity for self-destruction. It has produced the most articulate philosophy in recorded history and a rapidly dissolving moral foundation for social organization. It has produced spectacular productive capacity and a chronic inability to share the benefits of production equitably.  Clearly there is no cause for alarm and hysteria here. The good and the evil, the success and the failures are nicely balanced, and compare neither favorable nor unfavorable with any other human experience..”

Michael Manley – The politics of change: A Jamaican testament

Ultimately, both revivalist and anti-revivalist traditions have limitations. Revivalists fall into a trap of looking to the past with nostalgia and romanticism and anti-revivalist see no place for tradition in a modern context.


Traditions exist to serve people, and not the other way around.  They emerge out of historical necessity and circumstance and exist to assist people in interpreting and organizing their world and solving the challenges they face in it. Once tradition fail to do this, its authority erodes. 

Secondly, It would be difficult to consider any culture or tradition as purely an indigenous one. A group may claim a tradition as their own, but this does not guarantee that the cultural products were originated by those people, nor is it to imply that a particular set of ideas or values is necessarily distinct from a people. Cultural exchange, appropriation and borrowing make clear that traditions have widespread roots.

Ideas, values and institutions, emerge from one culture, but are fully available to all peoples, at all times. Kwame Gyeke writes,

“A particular cultural creation will thus have two faces, a particular face, when the appreciation of the cultural creation is confined to its local origin, and a potentially universal face, when the appreciation transcends the border of the environment that created it.”

Kwame Gyeke, Tradition and Modernity

Such cultural products are there for the taking by those who may consider it worthwhile to adopt them. 

For a cultural product to be accepted a present generation will have to convince itself that it is satisfied with the tradition it has inherited and this tradition is useful in interpreting their world and continues to solve problems that arise in it. They will have to evaluate the values, practices, intuitions, morality, and rationality of this tradition, and consider if they are adequate to justify the realities of the time. 

Between generations, it is possible that older belief systems lose their moral underpinning or credibility, and the traditions that arose from them are reconstructed or erased. Ultimately, traditions exist to be a tool to help organize, explain, and solve problems that emerge in the world. They may not be invoked to solve the same problems, but to be used to build confidence, self-efficacy, and agency in communities. It is through this refinement that cultural products and practices are imbibed with new life and traditions are sustained through generations.