Carols from an African

Did I watch what I just watched?

I was sitting in the living room of my grandmother’s house with friends as Coke Studio, broadcast by the Ethiopian Broadcasting Service (EBS), was beginning. I am not much for TV, but I was curious this time. Based on the promotional adverts, it seemed decidedly pan-African. To my knowledge, Ethiopia has never participated in shows of this nature except for the African edition of the reality TV show Big Brother, let alone the host of a show of this type and calibre.

I was happy for the opportunity to view the fantastic African artists and excited to see the talented Betty G. and Sami Dan, important figures in current Ethiopian pop-culture. At a time when Euro-centric mentality seems to oppress our lives, a show like this is revolutionary for the East African nation. For a country long accused of shunning the rest of Africa, this was a refreshing take. It seemed the artists would get an opportunity to thrill and connect with diverse audiences.

Coke Studio features artists from all over Africa and airs in dozens of countries across the continent. Such a commercial reach is impressive. Nonetheless, imagine my surprise to find that a full episode was dedicated to Christmas carols by all these great African artists like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Now, to be fair, followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church do not represent the majority of Africans. In the Ethiopian calendar, we do not celebrate Christmas at the same time as everyone else. But it made me wonder what other countries in our continent did for the holiday.

Would they celebrate by singing carols like on the show?

The show just imitated the cultures of the Western world, which are far removed from that of Africa’s. African culture, for its part, was only represented by the clothing the artists wore on the show.

As we were watching, my friend abruptly stood up to verbalise what I was thinking: how painful the show was to watch. He expressed his grief over how Africa still lives in a post-colonial time with a colonised mental state.

I pondered.

In the process of understanding ourselves and our African Identity, we become more awakened at those who would like to box us into their world. The slippery slope of accepting that which is given up for the sake of fitting in is what will eventually destroy our cultures. It is our pandering disposition that has us at a disadvantage.

And the audience from all those countries the show is broadcast in had no comment. There seemed to be no opinion blog, no newspaper article or even a Facebook post on the issue. But there we were, the three friends sitting and watching European culture regurgitated for us by our continent’s brothers and sisters.

To be fair, maybe Coke was trying to unify diverse cultures through the groups of people invited from various countries, which reminded me of a conversation of a few years back.

In a casual get-together, an elderly British couple was telling a group of people about their many adventures. They spoke of Syria in the 1960s and Africa when on a road trip with their children.

But when they got to their Indian excursion, the husband added, “Indians speak so many languages, it’s a good thing they were colonised, at least now they have the unifying language of English.”

This couple is a representation of many in our midst. As Africa, our unifying factor is not the fact that we were colonised, but that we fought for our independence. Our unifying value is not our interest in Western pop culture but that we have vibrant and diverse cultures.

The truth is that many have tried to abolish what makes us unique. This is why such laudable platforms like Coke Studio play a significant part in filling the gap where Africans should look amongst themselves for inspiration.

Cultures do evolve for that is their nature. Many would have the continent at the clutch of its ancient cultures and practices; yet, many progressives are finding and redefining the African identity through fashion, entrepreneurship, literature, photography, architecture and music, just to name a few. Our culture must never be a strain on our development, but that progress should emanate from inwards.

Conservatives hide behind the narrative of culture for their archaic agendas. But the young African is hopeful and innovative. The time is now for Africans to look within their continent for possibilities of growth. The era of the West’s dominance in our cultures has long passed.

We have for far too long white-washed our lifestyles. But we are now dipping into our cultures for inspiration, which is the natural progression of music, fine arts and culture. We must not willingly let others write the narrative of our history. We are not asking for permission to be who we are. And we sure are not going to simplify our sophisticated culture in the attempt others can understand it more easily.

By Hanna Haile
Hanna Haile ( is an Ethiopian writer, researcher and social worker who uses her writing to promote social and gender equality, identity and women’s rights. She is one of the organisers of Poetic Saturday at Fendika Cultural Centre where she performs spoken word poetry every first Saturday of the month.

Published on Dec 02,2017 [ Vol 18 ,No 918]



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