What does the word "Africa" conjure up for you? Is it the vast plains shimmering underneath the midday sun? Is it the leisurely loping stride of a lion, or the dusty tramping of a herd of elephant? Is it Table Mountain topped with its rolling cloud? Or is it the pyramids rising from golden sand?
Whatever picture it conjures up for you I want you to hold that in your mind and now zoom out... further... and even further than that... until you can see the whole continent in your minds eye. And within it your image as a single tiny speck amongst the colourful kaleidoscope that is Africa.
Now let us remove- just for the moment- all of the breathtaking landscapes, gyrating cities, and Noah's ark of animals out of the picture. What is left?
An almost indescribably rich fabric of culture, which criss-crosses the continent and stretches out towards the Americas, the Caribbean, Europe an Asia. And before you think I am just writing in hyperbole consider this: the precise number of different cultures found on our continent is unknown. The closest guess is several thousand. And please note that is just a guess...
Little Togo, one of the smallest countries on the continent, is home to 37 distinct tribes who speak 39 languages. I could just imagine what carnival in Togo would be like, with each of these tribes coming forth to display their own unique colourful animist dances whirled on by reverberating percussions and ritual chants. Not to mention what a feast it would be to sit and listen to the folktales, legends, fairy tales, heroic epics, histories, and war poems of these people who have so perfected the art of storytelling.
Moving down to Cameroon, hardly the largest country on the continent, we find for over 250 indigenous cultures, each with its own distinct language, traditions, customs, food, fashion, art, stories and creative expression. Stretching from the exceptional artistic, craft and textile heritage of the descendants of the Kingdom of Bamoun that was so carefully curated by the visionary and innovative King Njoya. To the traditional pygmy culture of the forest-dwelling Baka who teach us how to truly live in spirit with our planet. I can just imagine that a carnival here would most certainly last for weeks. While a display of all this cultural heritage would hardly fit in the Louvre.
Talking of cultural heritage it still completely blows my mind that over 527 languages, and over 1,150 dialects are spoken in Nigeria. That cultural sumptuousness translates itself into a breathtaking diversity of dyed cloth, which makes the creativity seen on the runways of New York or Paris look like childs play. Just the Yoruba alone have a cultural heritage of thousands of motifs, each with its own meaning and story. It makes me wonder whether there is another people in this entire world who have so successfully woven their cultural story in cloth. Can you just imagine what a storytelling this would make on a runway.
What strikes me most as I write this piece is the how much we don't know about the people of our continent. While I may have mapped and profiled tourism product across the entire continent for the African Union, I only managed to scratch the surface of the cultural and creative assets that we have to offer. Which makes sense since archaeological evidence shows that culture has been developing on this continent for over 4 million years!
It makes me wonder whether it isn't about time that we took stock of our cultural and creative assets, so that we can start to begin to understand the value of our diversity and our continent.
Want to read more African stories? Take a read of this one next.