Parable of The Banana Leaf and The Air-conditioner

In Africa, we like to say that we work very hard. We also have this history nostalgia, showing our ancient art and the likes as proof of how great our civilization was in the past. But do we ask the question; why did Africa stay refining sculpture and not evolve from that to paintings, photography and the videos? Sure, we had some remarkable sculpture but why did we not create those new things?

There is a general cultural trend in Africa around how we solve problems, display our greatness and like to create degrees of separation between the well to do and the rest of the populace that is different from the cultures all over the world in Asia, America and Europe that move from a base form of things to better, easier and more ubiquity in availability of the newer things they produce to reduce degrees of separation. Let me illustrate with a hypothetical story that I am sure many Africans will recognize what the metaphors represent in their own area.

So imagine that there is an African community and there is a European one, both separate from each other and not in any form of contact with one another. In both communities, they have a problem with sweltering heat. The weather is so hot and people desperately need respite. One day, in both communities, someone cuts a banana leaf and swishes it around and discovers it cools him down. The first fan is invented in both communities. Everyone rejoices and rushes to begin cutting banana leaves to help themselves. They have devised a solution to fight the heat. But this is where the two deviate.

In the African community, everyone discovers that you cannot fan yourself with your arms forever. You get tired. How do they solve this problem? Quickly the chiefs do a couple of things. First, they create a guild to regulate access to banana leaves so that they have more banana leaves to themselves than if everyone had free access. So those who don’t have the leaves become free for the next phase, let’s call them the leafless ones. The chiefs then practically enslave the leafless ones and organize them into a class of fanners, essentially people that fan the chiefs in turns. That solves the problem of getting tired but only for the chiefs, at the expense of most of the populace. They then create rituals around cutting leaves and fanning with banana leaves and made it culture that evolved into only chiefs and guild members get fanned and the leafless ones and fanners becomes hereditary. Over the years, banana leaves acquire a sacred and mystical meaning in this culture. Anyone who tried to bring new leaves for fanning would be said to have broken culture. Everyone proudly upheld this culture perpetuating extreme degrees of separation between the leaders and the populace.

On the other side in the European/Asian/American community, they accumulate knowledge about leafs and fanning over time. The find out why banana leaves fan so well. The begin to find other leaves that can fan as well or better than banana leaves. The problem of hands getting tired happens there too. They solve it by trying all sorts of ideas until the come up with different types of fan. The ideas compete until the electric fan wins. Of course another innovation path must have delivered electricity and it is this accumulation and combination of knowledge that delivers the solutions. They keep innovating, creating better and better electric fans, until someone again creates air-conditioners. In a space of perhaps a hundred, two hundred, maybe a thousand years, they move from banana leaves to air-conditioners while the African people continue to hold on to their culture.

We can keep on harping on our glorious past and highfalutin thinking of our arts, artifacts and culture in Africa without asking why it has not delivered innovation while the world leaves us behind. Or we can begin to ask hard questions and question the previously calcified portions of African culture with the intent to discard and discount anything that hides knowledge, that disregards progress and that chooses to solve problems by creating an underclass whose lives never improve which perpetually serves an elite that adds little or nothing to our society. The choice really is ours.

A Beautiful Mind