How can the arts and culture act as a powerful factor in our society and help drive positive change? Good question. To be slightly pedantic, perhaps the words “power” and “culture” ought not to be mentioned in the same breath. “Power” suggests a constant, quantifiable force that can be summoned instantly, on command; whereas culture is an equally mighty force, but one which, by its nature, is gradual, perceptible and mostly immeasurable. However, as one who is a great believer in the power of the arts and culture let me attempt to answer by way of anecdotal example. You may have watched the opening ceremony of the recently concluded Olympic games.
The host country seized it as an opportunity to showcase “Brand Great Britain”. People like actor Sir Kenneth Branagh, brought out to recite some lines from Shakespeare; author JK Rowling, creator of Harry Potter, to read from a children’s story; Rowan Atkinson, “Mr. Bean” himself, to play a single note on the piano as his inspired contribution to an orchestral piece. And of course, some of the definite highlights were a re-edit of the promo for the film “Chariots of Fire” and Sir Paul McCartney singing “Let it Be” for the grand finale.
Also highlighted were success stories, such as the industrial revolution (without drawing attention to the pillaging of Africa’s resources to bring it about) and the National Health Service (a segment deleted in the US coverage, lest it encourage “Obamacare”). There was also quintessential British pop music and memorable British TV series. A choreographed dance sequence (also deleted in some parts of the world) lauded Britain’s racial minorities. And, of course, the queen put in an appearance (albeit in waxwork personification at first) parachuted safely into the stadium with James Bond (personified by actor Daniel Craig) as her personal bodyguard.
My other anecdote has to do with the time when I presented The Zain Africa Challenge. It was an eightnation, inter-university, general knowledge quiz show. During the banter between rounds in a particular contest, I asked a student from Malawi about what he enjoyed doing outside the classroom. “Reading poetry,” he replied. Could he recite from a Malawian poet? Yes, he could. And he immediately launched into “Songs of Chickens,” by Jack Mapanje, long detained at some point by President Hastings Kamuzu Banda.
“Master,” he intoned, “… you talked with bows, /Arrows and catapults once/Your hands steaming with hawk blood/To protect your chicken. / Why do you talk with knives now, / Your hand teeming with eggshells/ And hot blood from your own chicken?/Is it to impress your visitors?” I think that you have caught my drift. Substitute “Kenya” in both instances. Would we be capable of holding such an Olympian spectacular? Would a young Kenyan stand up to recite the words of a nationally acknowledged, poet laureate? Sadly, the answer on both counts would have to be “no.” And that negative answer in itself points to the role that the creative arts and culture can play as a powerful factor in our society and help to drive positive change. I do believe that a conscious investment in culture and the arts, at best with our educational system as a foundation, would forge links of common humanity, heal wounds of ignorance and prejudice and make us a nation not only on paper but in our hearts and minds. Now, that’s powerful.
By John Sibi-Okumu