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Building better academic partnerships in the arts

The power of the arts and literature as tools for self-determination and asserting cultural identity has complicated the formation of partnerships between Africa and the rest of the world, resulting in the need for a more reflective approach to building effective and transformative partnerships.

Partnerships between African and foreign universities have witnessed a long history of complexity in relation to the negotiation of terms, content and nature of engagement. Nowhere have the complexities been more formidable than in the cultural sphere, particularly in the arts and literature.

This is due to the role of the arts and literature as tools for self-determination and cultural identity. The long history of foreign socio-economic control of Africa has often put African art and literature on a collision path with forces of cultural domination. It has been a catalyst of movements, such as Negritude and Ubuntu that have sought to assert Africa’s cultural identity, and shape or transform the African mind towards valuing what is African.

This quest for the assertion of Africans' cultural identity has in various forms informed partnerships in art and literature between African and foreign universities, often posing a number of challenges. One challenge came immediately after gaining independence with the realisation that the former colonial master was still in control of the intellectual advancement in the newly established universities in the former colonies.

Resource constraints

The lack of resources forced many independent governments to continue to depend on their former colonial masters for the provision of the knowledge base and skilled human resources. This included the training of large numbers of staff at masters and doctorate levels in the colonisers’ universities, while paying for a sizeable number of expatriate staff to run African universities, both academically and administratively.

Some quarters argued that, from a cultural view point, these newly established African universities had in this way sold the minds of their young people to be shaped and influenced by the same forces responsible for their previous subjugation.

This is one reason why African art and literature scholars of the 1960s and 1970s put up a resistance against attempts at intellectual and cultural domination in African universities, particularly through British or French curricula at the exclusion of African content.

In many parts of the continent, this was a period of prolific production of African art and literature, leading to the birth of now internationally known literary figures like Wole Soyinka of Nigeria, Ngugi wa Thiong'o of Kenya, Ousmane Sembene of Senegal, Okot p’Bitek of Uganda, Ebrahim Hussein of Tanzania, Chinua Achebe of Nigeria and many more.

Challenges to partnership

This resistance to foreign domination and the zeal to produce Africa’s own art and literature put partnership in the cultural sector between African and foreign universities on a slippery pedestal. The two were on a collision course and the concept of partnership was difficult to apply because the relationship was still that of a former colonial master who still wanted to dominate, and a former subject who was rejecting such domination.

Indeed, even the term ‘partnership’, an invention of the late 1990s’ development aid debate, did not exist at the time. However, through the arts and literature of self-determination, peoples’ lives were being transformed to value African aesthetics and identity.

More challenges in the definition of ‘partnership’ emerged within the extension of collaboration with African universities beyond the former colonial masters. New players entered the scene including the United States, Germany, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries of Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland.

African universities negotiated different types of partnerships for each of these countries and the quality of the partnership differed according to the level of willingness of the foreign partners to subscribe to Africa’s right to self-determination.

A new space for transformation

Whereas new important avenues and new opportunities were opened in the fields of science, engineering, the social sciences and medicine, the complexities with regard to the arts and literature did not quite go away.

It is acknowledged though, that a few countries, specifically the Nordic countries Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland, proved quite useful in forging partnerships with African universities in the cultural sector without intentions to impose Nordic cultural values. They instead opted to cultivate an understanding and respect of each partner’s culture.

They even experimented with joint artistic performance depicting both cultures with a view to informing audiences in the partner countries of what the other country had to offer. Such a paradigm offered a new space for transforming lives from the point of view of learning to respect other cultures and learning lessons from other art and literary traditions.

Many of the other partners, however, were more often unwilling to give space to African art and literature, focusing instead on spreading their own cultures to audiences in African universities. This position was cemented by the approach of channelling funds to universities for cultural activities through promotional institutions such as the British Council, Alliance Francaise, Goethe-Institut, or cultural units in embassies.

Through such institutions, foreign musicians, poets, painters and writers were brought to African universities to perform and lecture on the arts and literature of their countries of origin. Sometimes departments of literature and art were financially supported to stage foreign works of art like Shakespeare plays.

An example comes to mind when in 1978, at the University of Dar es Salaam, an official of the Goethe-Institut in Dar es Salaam insisted that the department of fine and performing arts mount a production of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage’ before the institute could consider extending any grant to support research on Tanzanian indigenous art.

East-West competition

The Cold War prior to 1989 brought yet another dimension into the partnership arena whereby the intense competition between the super powers, led by the United States in the West and the then Soviet Union in the East, extended the desire to influence knowledge production, including the arts and literature. There was a sharp rise in the opportunity for African university students to study abroad, both in the West and East.

There was an increase in the sponsorship of artistic groups from the West and East to come and perform at African university campuses. The Russians and North Koreans jumped onto the bandwagon, establishing cultural centres in African countries and mounting performances of music, dance and film and other forms of cultural activities at the centres and university campuses, particularly in socialist oriented countries like Tanzania.

The North Korean Cultural Centre in Dar es Salaam in 1985, for example, extended support to the University of Dar es Salaam’s department of fine arts project on 'Theatre for the Children' by giving 500 copies of Kim II Sung’s book, The Juche Idea, with the instruction that it had to be distributed free of charge to every participating child. The children in this project were aged seven to 14.

The more recent entrant to the cultural partnership scene is China, which has established Confucius Institutes in over 40 African universities where the teaching of Chinese language is a major Chinese engagement. The programme of the Confucius Institute includes frequent performances on university campuses of Chinese music, acrobatics and dance, often by troupes flown in from China. Exhibitions of Chinese art by visiting Chinese artists are also mounted regularly.

What are the implications of these developments for the role of the arts and literature in transforming lives?

It is clear from the discussion above that while African universities’ art and literary scholars were attempting to transform the minds of young Africans towards valuing African identity, foreign powers from the West and East were also trying to influence the same minds towards valuing their cultures.

Neglected cultural sector

It is also important to mention that there are some countries that are not interested in entering into any partnership involving culture in general or the arts and literature in particular. This is reflected in the very small number of partnerships between African and foreign universities in the cultural sector. One also notices the negligible number of grants or training projects offered in the cultural sector by major funding agencies for universities across the world.

What is the reason behind this state of affairs? Could it be that potential partners find this field too difficult to handle because it calls for an understanding of another culture or the development of a certain level of aesthetic appreciation and respect? Could it be that it they belong to the tradition that disparages African culture and its expressions, thus seeing no value in investing time or resources to its advancement? Could it be a result of a failure to impose their cultural traditions caused by resistance from potential partners on the African side?

Whatever the reason may be, there is a serious dearth of partnerships between African and foreign universities. As such, whatever potential there is for art and literature to transform lives, it can hardly be exploited.

The situation presents the core challenges in future efforts towards forging more effective partnerships in the arts and literature between African and foreign universities. It is gratifying that to note that the Alliance for African Partnership has already started reflecting on these challenges and is setting out on a course to address or avoid them with a view to building more effective partnerships that focus on building bridges, transforming institutions and transforming lives.

Penina Mlama is on the advisory board of the Alliance for African Partnership. She is also a professor in the creative arts department and Mwalimu Nyerere Professorial Chair in Pan-African Studies at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
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