Cultural Appropriation: further thoughts.

Angela Kabiru wished to follow up her earlier blog on cultural appropriation so here she is again.  Angela is a researcher at National Museums Kenya, she has a particular interest in landscape archaeology, prehistoric beads and cultural tourism.  She writes:

Cambridge is at it again.

A few months after the cancellation of Pembroke College’s ‘Around The World in 80 Days’ party in March, Queens College decided to host an ‘African themed’ formal dinner which was also met with criticism of cultural appropriation. You can read press coverage in the Metro and RT.

You see, the organizers decided to serve cuisine from Senegal, Morocco, South Africa and Nigeria.  Never mind that Nigeria is in the West, Morocco is in the North and South Africa is, er, obviously in the South. No representation from Central or Eastern Africa. This proves one thing; that the perception of Africa being one expansive country is still alivet, and that certain people cannot be bothered to learn a little about African boundaries. I do not blame this on ignorance. At the University level, are well aware of resources such as Wikipedia, to enlighten them just a little bit on Africa, her peoples and boundaries that our European friends drew at the Berlin conference of 1884. These lines on a map were drawn without local consultation; after all, Africans were still lacking in Civilization. So the good people cut entire communities in two or three, and destroyed many centuries of social organizations. And Africans were denied their rights; the right to practice their own culture and to be who they have always been. They tell us about human rights. Whose rights? When the British introduced their ‘divide and rule’ and the French assimilation policies, it was because they wanted Africans to be totally under their control because Africans had no rights. What the Europeans saw was black, primitive and totally lacking in culture. I am surprised we talk about African Cuisine; if you ask Lugard, he will tell you Africans were cannibals whose only job was to reproduce (I am being polite here). Ah, but I digress.

So then, other people have always viewed Africa as one undifferentiated continent without countries. Haven’t you met someone who thinks Nairobi is in Nigeria and never heard of a country called ‘Uganda’? But hey, if you mention Idi Amin there is some recollection, only they cannot figure out what corner of Africa they came from. So then if Africa is one country, then we share a common cuisine. If there are obvious differences between Spain, Germany and France within a very small geographical area, how can you expect 4 cuisines to represent all of Africa?

And then to make matters worse, assume that since Kiswahili is an African language, it is spoken by all Africans!  Invitations to the said dinner used Swahili phrases. “Hakuna Matata,” and urged students to bring their “rafikis,”along.” These phrases were popularized by the movie ‘Lion King’. This is where it really hurts- that Africa is recognized more for her animals that her people. Actually, we are proud of our animals as well, ignore the fact Africa is also thought of as an expansive Game park. The interesting thing about this dinner is that none of the countries where Kiswahili is spoken was represented. So East Africans have no cuisine at all- we are still at the hunting and gathering stage.

Like I said, I do not blame the current state of affairs on ignorance, but indifference. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines indifference as a lack of interest in or concern about something: an indifferent attitude or feeling, or absence of compulsion to or toward one thing or another. Nobody cares about what Africans think or feel.

Halimatou Hima, President of the Cambridge University African Society noted that efforts to work with the organizers on the event failed due to a communication breakdown. Alice Davidson, a student writing on the student feminist blog FlyGirlsofCambridge, termed the event as an example of cultural appropriation rather than appreciation. I couldn’t agree more. According to Davidson, this might have been avoided “if the initiative had come from members of the African Society Cambridge themselves, who could then determine the menu and terms of cultural exchange rather than being invited as a token afterthought.” I agree.

She also argued that the organizers were misguided in lumping together an entire continent while serving dishes from just four countries and suggested the formal ought to have been “more honestly named ‘West African’ or ‘South African’ themed, rather than attempting to reduce an entire continent into 3 courses.” I totally agree.

As if this was not bad enough, the formal dinner was to be held in a hall “filled with portraits of white people.” Hahaha. The colonial master still watches over their subjects.

Cambridge is a well respected institution of higher learning. They should in future avoid little embarrassing events such as this. As Halimatou notes, there are historical (and ongoing) prejudices that have defined interactions with the African continent and its peoples; racial prejudice is not something they want Student activists to accuse them of.




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