28 May 2018

Africa: UNESCO Joins Africa Day Celebrations of Unity

On May 25, 1963, 32 African states joined together to create what would become the African Union to fight colonialism. Fifty years on, that goal of unity is still being sought.

During three days, a sea of stalls with crafted prints and African jewelry lined the halls of Unesco in Paris.

The UN's cultural arm was the meeting point for over forty African nations, gathered to celebrate Africa Week.

This annual event aimed at showcasing the continent's cultural and artistic heritage happened to fall on Africa Day.

"It's not a coincidence," Firmin Matoko, Assistant Director General for Africa at Unesco, told RFI.

"We do relate our celebrations here with Africa Day to remind ourselves about its message."

Originally, May 25 was a crowning moment for African unity. It was on this day in 1963, that 32 African states joined together to create what would become the African Union to fight colonialism and the apartheid.

"Member states have decided to celebrate in one week so that they have time and space to show what is Africa in its diversity," he adds.

And this diversity attracted wide attention.

African pride

Teachers brought their pupils to see the colourful stands, while curious onlookers eyed objects to buy.

"I'm feeling really great, because I'm proud to represent my continent here in Europe," Julie Hoffman, the owner of a stall dedicated to Uganda, told RFI.

"During this day, we really showcase what Africa is, our crafts and agricultural products," she says, while selling a pot of Shea butter to a consumer.

"Some people are surprised about how rich Africa is, others know it already, and keep coming for Africa Week to come and get that joy, that culture, that touch of Africa," she says.

For Matoko, "it's amazing to see the interests of Africans to show what they have as part of their identity."

This year, they expressed their identity through their cultural heritage.

Culture to promote unity

"The choosing of intangible heritage to be the theme of this Africa Week was not haphazard," Mohammed Morsy, a delegate with the Egyptian delegation, organizers of this year's edition, told RFI.

"This intangible heritage is a source of unity for Africa. We need to use this heritage to develop the communities, economically and socially and even sometimes politically; because this intangible heritage is the basic common background between everybody."

It was seen in the colourful exhibitions, African food tasting and live cultural performances that juxtaposed the numerous ceremonies across the continent, unashamedly pan-African.

"It's about languages, music, dancing, art, everything which is not architecture," explains Matoko, urging Africans to be proud of their roots.

For the Unesco director, it's unfathomable that Africans "sometimes know more about European artists than African artists, and that's also a way to show to the world that there's something that comes from out of Africa," he reckons.

African zeitgeist

Events like Africa Day and the global success of blockbuster movie "Black Panther," together with the release of fashion magazine Vogue Africa are helping to change Africa's narrative.

In countries like Zambia and Mali, where May 25th, is a national holiday, citizens are embracing the celebration whole-heartedly says Oumar Keita, Permanent Delegate of Mali to Unesco.

"Symbolically, it's a national holiday in Mali because Africa Day reinforces the solidarity of African populations," he told RFI.

That unity will be strengthened by preserving each country's heritage, he says.

"Africa's heritage must be protected. In 2012, when the jihadists wanted to destroy our manuscripts, it was the local population that stood up and hid the manuscripts, even risking their lives. Because it's our cultural heritage, it's our identity," he comments.

While culture is one way of fostering greater unity between African states, critics argue that the continent must go further in speeding up its economic transformation and linking trade.

Progress remains the broad objective, but in terms of unity, Keita reckons the continent is getting there.

"When the Organisation of African Unity [later the African Union in 2002] was created, there were 32 countries. Today there are 54, and possibly one more, Morocco. This unity exists, and it must be consolidated."

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