African traditions are under threat. While younger generations increasingly desire to move to the big cities, emigrate, or assimilate, globalisation has brought external cultures into competition with local ones, leaving many of these older structures close to dissolution. One proposed solution to this erosion of tradition is the ATOE (African Traditions Online Encyclopaedia) – a Wikipedia-style, user-generated website that will amass the collected knowledge, culture and history of the Continent into one public resource. The project will be launched at eLearning Africa 2014: so the news team caught up with the man behind the idea to discover what motivates him, and gain a little insight into the life of a Cameroonian clan chief.
By Alasdair MacKinnon
Gaston Bappa is an IT specialist and chief of Ndjock-Nkong village in Cameroon. It is a position that gives him a deep insight into the importance of Africa’s traditions – including the 2000-3000 languages, diverse oral cultures and myriad systems of belief and local government that are at risk from changes taking place across the Continent.
Bappa, however, does not see modernity as the enemy of tradition – but, rather, as its collaborator.
His role as a chief involves local administration, clan leadership and cultural mediation – tasks that place him and other chiefs on the intersection between tradition and modern government.
“The traditional chief institution exists in almost all countries in Africa, and in many others in the world.” Gaston Bappa points out. “Even if it is globally perceived with same basis and objectives, every country has provided it specificities, depending on its history, culture and objectives.”
Cameroonian law enshrines many of his administrative roles – including tax collection and the maintenance of public order. But within the Basaa tribe to which he belongs, he is also the inheritor of a sanctified position “applied by the clan for millennia”.
“There is an appointment procedure for the clan chief… which gives him the greatest notability and respect, with protective and spiritual supreme virtues. He is called ‘mbo Mbog’ [‘scrutineer of the universe’]. It gives strength to this guide of the tribe, when referring to the billions of galaxies with billions of stars in each of them which make the universe. The other tribes in the country (there are more than 400 subdivided into clans) have each their own ancestral leader, with appropriate laws.”
It is perhaps from his position between the contemporary and the timeless that Bappa derives his attitude to preservation. “Under no circumstances [should tradition] be set up as ‘safe haven’ to put modernisation aside,” he says.
For Bappa, what threatens individual cultures is not the encroachment of the outside world, but “the isolation at all levels of African populations, particularly those in rural areas”. He is referring to not only physical isolation, the lack of communications infrastructure, roads and railways, but also “intellectual isolation… limited access to electricity, telecommunications, and media”. Without these vital connections, Bappa says, “people die without the possibility for them to communicate their traditions to other communities”.
Bappa’s village, Ndjock-Nkong, presents a case in point. Formed of people from six Ndog-Nem sub-clans, part of the Babimbi 2 zone, it has its own traditions, traditions which, he points out, “are what maintain life there. Without traditions, no life is possible in many African villages, as people are poor in many of them.” These include ancestral medicine – a villager’s first port of call before making the long journey to a hospital; communitarianism – by which the poorest are aided; music and tribal songs; myths and legends; funerary rites supporting the family of the deceased; and rites of passage marking the stages of life.
Yet isolation has begun to endanger the survival of these traditions. “The zone is still landlocked, and enclosed. The road which leads there is bad. There is no electricity (some people have generators), no phone network, no television (some have satellite antenna), and very little access to radio. Because of the remoteness, the population has been decreasing, with young people going to town.”
For Gaston Bappa, this loss of culture in the face of modernity undermines the very basis of modernisation itself. Growth in Africa, he believes, must not sweep away tradition, but be built on the strong foundations it provides. “Africans must first regain their lost cultural values, their denied and lost attributes, in order to act with dignity and self-confidence.” Traditions, and traditional values, must be shared and preserved to provide a basis for “the promotion of African culture based on concrete African realities… [and] the emergence of an efficient and honest development of contemporary Africa. These values must be closely related to the indigenous realities of the continent.”
African cultures must open up and learn from each other using the latest communications technologies, and undergo a process Bappa calls “cultural synthesis”, allowing traditions to evolve, develop and find a place in the modern world, rather than die out. This is what the ATOE project hopes to achieve.
And not only this: he also intends to establish the project headquarters in Ndjock-Nkong itself, to address two challenges at once: both helping to preserve African culture across the Continent, and aiding rural development in the Sanaga Maritime division of Cameroon, where his village is situated.
“I am proud and confident,” he says, “because it is a rare double experience. The first challenge will be to reconcile the almost primitive life of the community in the area with the absolute modernity of ICT. Beyond this fact, we will establish appropriate infrastructure for rural areas, including a solar power system, means of transport, and a team that can live in harmony with the local community, while achieving the specific duties in the project site.”
As the project develops, Ndjock-Nkong may provide a pattern for sustainable development elsewhere, as the injection of ICTs into the community begins to provide further benefits. “We are going to use this infrastructure to raise the standard of life of the people, by gradually providing the services which are useful to the community, telecommunications, internet, radio, training, e-health, etc.”
And as it grows, the ATOE project will provide fascinating insights into traditions and cultures growing in harmony with the modern world – insights we intend to share on the News Portal in future.