Promoting Indigenous Culture Through Television and Film: The South African Example For Nigeria

by Jibril Sado

“Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds” (Robert Nesta Marley)

Globalisation and the quest for cultural diversity are strengthening cultural colonialism in Africa. But as much as we can blame colonialism on the White man we cannot entirely blame cultural colonialism on him because cultural colonialism is a two-way street. You have to share the value of an idea with its author for such idea to have the intended effect on you. Otherwise it fails the author’s motive, positive or negative. In essence, the adverse impact of globalisation on local cultural expressions is one area Africans cannot blame the white man and exonerate themselves.

Television is arguably the most powerful tool of mass communication invented by man. Together with film, this medium is perhaps the most potent weapon of cultural colonialism in Africa as they help to assert Western influence on African societies to the detriment of indigenous cultural expressions. Nigeria, the ancestral home of one in every three Africans, is one of the biggest victims of this trend. And like many African countries, it is not doing anything serious to reverse the trend. There are more Mexican soap operas and other types of foreign progammes on Nigerian television today compared to locally produced ones. Even in the case of locally generated programmes, a vast majority of such still mirror Western values, lifestyles and languages rather than those of the local people, and to the detriment of our local cultural values and expressions.

South Africa seems to have realized the danger that such a trend portends to its culture and it is doing something, drastically too, to counteract it. In September 2006 the South Africa Department of Arts and Culture, DAC, and the national television broadcaster, SABC, initiated a partnership aimed at adapting literature about the culture and the arts of South Africa for television. This is primarily aimed at initiating the interest of the younger generation in arts and culture through TV. According to Dr. Z. P. Jordan, the Minister for Arts and Culture, the South African society is not a reading one. Hence, there is the need to propagate and preserve the cultural values and arts of the people through the TV adaptation of literary classics written in indigenous South African languages. This is expected to help the younger generation who watch more TV than they read books, learn their arts and culture through TV while also being stimulated to get interested in reading about this culture.

Long before the Literature for Television Adaptation, the South African film and television industry seems to have seized the initiative. The SABC broadcasts in all of the country’s eleven official languages to serve its linguistically diverse population. Although English is the language most widely understood in South Africa, emphasis is, however, deliberately placed on promoting all the languages through the media and other means. Consequently, there are news bulletins in all the official languages on SABC today.

Apart from the SABC, other local content providers have been doing a great deal in trying to infuse elements of culture propagation in their programmes. This they do through an aggressive pro-local approach to programme packaging. But while it may be argued that there is a lot of local content on Nigerian TV today, it is imperative to point out that true local content is the creation and dissemination of programmes expressing a people’s knowledge and experience the communication of which provides the people with an avenue to express their own ideas, knowledge and culture in their own language. And this is not what the array of foreign programmes or locally produced programmes on Nigerian TV stations that reflect foreign lifestyles and values more than those of the local people suggest.

In contrast to our NTA for instance, most of the drama series on SABC are in one South African language or the other. As such there are drama series in Afrikaans, Zulu, Tsonga, Setswana etc with English subtitles. While some are exclusively in indigenous languages with English subtitles, others like Generations and Isidingo for instance are in both English and indigenous languages with appropriate English translation to reach out to both English-speaking and non English-speaking audiences. Language is of special significance in the analysis of culture because it is a community-based art form that serves as the bridge to understanding a culture. Without language we cannot truly understand the traditions of a culture for language holds knowledge about the identity of a people. Therefore, once we start to lose our ability with our languages, we begin to lose knowledge – indigenous knowledge that is important for sustainable development – about ourselves.

Beyond language, there is also the deliberate attempt at positively highlighting other elements of the people’s culture. In Generations for instance, lobola, the Zulu tradition of determining bride price in terms of number of cows, is always portrayed as an inevitable prelude to marriage. In contrast to our emphasis of Western-style and religious marital rites as being more ideal rites in our drama or movies, the lobola is depicted as a practice that should and will never fade out in relevance in the face of more ‘exotic’ marital rites.

Apart from the lobola, there is also a deliberate attempt to emphasize the positive impact of a Sangoma a traditional practitioner of herbal medicine, divination and counseling (of the Xhosa, Ndebele, Swazi, Zulu, Tsonga and Sotho people) – to the South African society (see the South African movie, Mr. Bones). In South Africa, just like in Nigeria, there are prevalent instances of dubious and diabolical Sangomas. This, notwithstanding, South African movies and drama always portray the work of a Sangoma as a totally positive phenomenon unlike the way we perpetually ascribe negative roles to the babalawo and other shaman in our own movies and dramas.

This pro-local approach to entertainment is already yielding fruits for South Africa. The South African film, Tsotsi won the award for best foreign language film in the 2005 Academy Awards. And movie critics have hailed the film as having been able to tell a South African story in a South African way. As a matter of fact, it has also being widely agreed that the pivotal element in Tsotsi’s success was its language. Beyond meeting expectations on certain moviemaking technicalities, the film succeeded based on the fact that it is done in a language – tsotsitaal (a South African pidgin language comprising Zulu, Sotho, Afrikaans, Tswana and English) – that is foreign to Hollywood and America. And Nigerians, as entertainers in whatever form can learn from this that we stand to benefit more from positively showcasing our own culture and values than from replicating those of other people for the consumption of those same people.

But Oscars or not we must pay adequate attention to promoting our rich and diverse cultural experiences for the sake of our future. And this is a task that requires more than a negligible number of ‘patriotic’ minds and hands in certain brackets of the media and entertainment segment of our society. The ball is in the court of the government through the tourism and culture ministry in particular as well as local content providers and TV and movie producers.

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Jibril Sado August 4, 2007 - 9:10 am

To Comment #3: A lot of the so-called western values are too central to our existence today for me to advocate a total eradication of western values from our society. That would be an hypocritical stance to take. The truth is that we have our own values which make us African, Black, and Nigerian. Those values are the qualities that actually give us 'ourselves' and without them we lose our way and become what the legendary Marcus Garvey once described as "a tree without roots". My point therefore is that we should take the positives in our cultutral values and promote them through every means available so that we do not continue to fall prey to the parasitic effects of western influences that movie and tv can exert on our own ways of doing things.

Babatunde Oni August 3, 2007 - 11:34 am

waoooooo, this guy is a real Nigerian and will want to give it the last drop if his blood. i like that. But then are you advacating for total elimination of some so called Western culture from our system?

Anonymous July 17, 2007 - 9:41 am

Good one!! I hope the play-makers get to read this….

Adebisi Olubowale - London July 17, 2007 - 2:47 am

Great stuff. I am a full advocate of preservation of African cultures. What's all the mess with Igbo Rap music, Yoruba Hip Hop etc. Whatever happened to doing things OUR own way? The AmeriKKKanization of the African – Apparently this is what the great Fela Kuti meant by "Second Slavery"; where we willingly enslave ourselves to the cultures and powers of another that we subconsciously perceive as being superior to ours (as long as we do not celebrate and appreciate what is ours)

It is only Africans who would consider speaking their indeginous languages as something "less classy". If not so, how come so many children in Nigeria today, i.e. of Yoruba heritage, do not speak Yoruba, yet they live in Lagos? That beats me. Meanwhile in a place called OYOTUNJI in North Carolina, our African American brothers and sisters are finding and going back to their ancestral roots, learning, practising and living the Yoruba language, tradition and ways of life.

Perhaps "being African" will be considered very cool again once people like P-Diddy starts wearing Buba and Sokoto or Dashiki.

Excellent article, love it


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