Respecting Ghanaian Roots: The Role of the Cultural Sector in Development

When selecting a stage name for his live performances, Ghanaian poet Philip Boakye Dua Oykina took inspiration from his past. Drawing on family traditions

and his cultural roots, he chose Nana Asaase, which means ‘King Earth’ in Akan. This name – originally given to him as a boy by his maternal grandmother – unmistakably honours his past. But to see the poet in action, one quickly comes to realize how Asaase’s name speaks to our future as well.
On stage, Nana Asaase wears traditional dress, uses drums to enrich his performance, speaks Akan alongside English, and articulates eloquent African metaphors. Off stage, Asaase uses cutting edge digital platforms to network and share ideas, promote his poetry events, and accept invitations to perform.

Asaase is a poet who is deeply in touch with his Ghanaian cultural roots, but he also keeps a keen eye fixed on the future. He is a role model who represents an enhanced Ghanaian cultural sector that can spur inclusive economic development, foster job creation, and facilitate the inclusion of more women in the workforce.

Information and communications technologies (ICTs) are a natural, low cost way to preserve and promote indigenous cultural knowledge and inspire “cultural entrepreneurs.” Digital platforms such as Asaase’s blog, “Forming Hands,” the database of the Foundation for Contemporary Art – Ghana, and the online directory of the Poetry Foundation Ghana, each serve the dual purpose of disseminating cultural knowledge to wider audiences, while generating lucrative business opportunities. ICTs increase accessibility and visibility, and bolster creative industries in new and exciting ways. “Our art can be a source of export and income generation for practitioners, their communities and the state at large,” says Asaase, creating the tangible benefit of a diversified Ghanaian economy, as well as the intangible benefit of empowering Ghanaians to seek more meaningful and fulfilling work.

In fact, the cultural sector – composed of goods and services that require inputs of human creativity, skill, craft and knowledge while also reflecting the intrinsic cultural values that are symbolic of a people – is a largely untapped driver, not only in Ghana, but throughout Africa. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) Creative Economy 2010 Report: A Feasible Development Option, the African continent exported just $2 billion worth of cultural goods and services in 2008, but imported over $5 billion that same year.

This trade deficit must be end.

Indigenous African cultures are rich, dynamic and living. In Ghana alone there are over 50 unique ethnic groups, each with its own multifaceted and vibrant traditions. These cultures should be learned, taught, discussed and shared, both domestically and throughout the world.

The Asante Adinkra symbol “Sankofa,” represented by a bird moving forward with its head turned backwards to take an egg off its back, embodies the dynamic linkage between past, present and future. San-ko-fa literally translates as “to go back and get it.” More broadly, sankofa means that our past informs our future. In order to move forward, we must know where we’ve been. We must respect, understand and reclaim our cultural roots. Or, as the poet Asaase says, “A river that forgets its source, soon dries up.”

But neither is culture static. It continually changes and grows, adapts to new environments and thrives on new platforms. One avenue through which indigenous cultures can flourish and grow is via the marriage of traditional and digital realms.

Right here in Ghana, a three-party coalition of actors is leveraging digital technology to preserve and promote indigenous West African culture via its innovative Windows 8 Street Library Mobile App. Funded in large part by The African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States – European Union (ACP-EU) through its ground-breaking Support Programme to ACP Cultural Industries program, the initiative seeks to capture folklore, poetry, oral histories and other cultural learnings in raw form. Next, Volunteer Partnerships for West Africa(VPWA), a grassroots non-profit based in Accra in partnership with Microsoft and Fraunhofer Portugal synthesizes text, audio and visuals, creating 21st century cultural artefacts that harmonize traditional and digital forms. Finally, Street Library curates and disseminates these materials, sharing them with learning communities throughout Africa and beyond.

Ghanaian children need exposure to Ghanaian- and African-produced literature. With the Windows 8 Street Library Mobile App, Ghanaian youth will be empowered to experience, learn and share traditional knowledge, while simultaneously becoming tech savvy. In the coming months, Street Libraries in Ghana will provide access to mobile phones and tablets, sparking cultural curiosity and laying the foundation for future growth of the cultural sector.

At the same time, the mobile app will serve as a lively discussion platform through which individuals, groups and institutions who work in the cultural sector can engage in productive dialogue on the meaning of culture in Ghana. These real time electronic discussions will offer opportunities for Ghanaians to ask questions, share ideas and gain a voice within the cultural realm. By creating and sustaining this meaningful dialogue, the mobile app provides an opportunity for students to engage with artists and cultural institutions, and vice versa.

Finally, the Windows 8 Street Library Mobile App will be an empowering force that facilitates inclusive development. As a capacity building business tool, it will enable cultural entrepreneurs to network and market their cultural goods and services.

The Windows 8 Street Library Mobile App is representative of how modern technology can be harnessed to bolster Ghana’s cultural sector by serving as an educational tool, discussion platform, and resource for cultural entrepreneurship. Digital platforms are a way forward for preserving and sharing indigenous Ghanaian culture, not only with Ghanaians, but with global audiences as well.

Crucially, the development, launch and success of the Windows 8 Street Library Mobile App is not the outcome of one actor working isolation. Rather, it is the result of a community-led, 360 degree collaboration between local cultural entrepreneurs, NGOs, businesses, government institutions and international organizations. Together we can create a flourishing and empowering cultural sector in Ghana, and beyond.

Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi.

“It is not wrong to go back and reclaim that which has been forgotten.”

Indeed, the past illuminates the present and the search for knowledge is a lifelong process.

To reach our increasingly connected youth, to give them a voice in Ghanaian culture, to engage them as both audience members and creators of indigenous culture, we must harness the power and ubiquity of digital technologies. We must bring the wisdom of our past into the future. We must look both forward and back. Only then can we make a better future.

Author: Hayford Siaw is a Social Entrepreneur based in Accra, Ghana.

©2014 Hayford Siaw, All Rights Reserved

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