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Who civilized the Greeks that civilized the West?

In the Lies that Bind, Kwame Anthony Appiah recounts an experiment in 1953 in which two camping groups were brought together in a remote area.1 Before their interface, neither group saw it necessary to declare an identity through such means as adopting a nickname and distinguishing group characteristic. That changed once they started sports competition. One group soon claimed an exceptional identity, and the other group reciprocally countered with theirs. In world affairs, the West’s claim of exceptionalism has triggered much similar counterpoints.

The case of sub-Saharan Africans, the ultimate obverse of Western exceptionalism, is especially illustrative of the response. On the one hand is a counter-assertion of African exceptionalism; on the other hand is a claim to the very basis of Western identity. That entails the paradox of claiming exceptionalism from the realities one claims to have engendered. The paradox and the counter-claims are the subjects of this chapter.

First, some additional context. British historian William Miller MacMillan’s intriguing take on colonialism and civilization provides a helpful takeoff. “In the nineteenth century civilization was thought of as a higher synthesis of the best experience of all the human race,” MacMillan writes in his book Emergent Africa. “No leader in those days questioned the theoretical right of Africans to equality and our duty to help their ‘progress.’”2 MacMillan further argued that that orientation to colonialism changed only after the events of World War I tarnished in Africans’ mind the image of Europeans as a civilized people.

MacMillan was a liberal intellectual and colonial administrator, and his lofty views had to be an over-projection. As has already been recounted, the brutality and condescension of colonialists long preceded World War 1. What could be said is that MacMillan’s lofty views co-existed with the conception of Africans as inferior beings.

The same was true of the Christian missions which set out to proselytize to and educate Africans. Not only did they co-exist with colonial brutality, they facilitated the colonial objectives.

In any case, Christian missions generally didn’t see much in African culture that could be a part of the synthesis of civilization. Rather, they proselytized by the assumption that Christianity inhered in European culture and “what was Christian could, therefore, not abide with what was African.”3 For this reason, converts were expected to abjure all traditional practices. Some missions even required Africans to take European first names to be baptized.4 Even in the 21st century, an important measure of faith to many African evangelicals is the extent of distancing from African traditions.

Such affronts to African culture have been resisted in practice and theory. The strongest evidence of the resistance is the mere fact that African traditions have endured.5 Occasionally, this has required statutory intervention.

The fate of the iria tradition among the Ibani (Bonny) people of the Niger Delta provides an example. Since there is no equivalent in Western culture, Iria is best described as an initiation into womanhood. It entails an elaborate process that begins with a period of pampering to get the woman to look her best. The highlight of the ceremony is a festivity, during which the iria, as the initiate is also called, dances to special traditional music and drums, along with her escorts and scores of partakers.

Because the iria ceremony is the one occasion in every Ibani woman’s life that she is guaranteed to be treated like royalty, hardly any woman opts out of it. In fact, it is an occasion to look forward to. Even those who live abroad make every effort to go home to undergo the ceremony.

However, as Pentecostalism began to displace traditional Christianity, believers began to replace the traditional iria music with evangelical choruses. In due course, the practice was deemed an unacceptable adulteration of the tradition. So, the traditional ruler and his chiefs in council banned it. Now, women have the option of either doing the ceremony in accordance with the tradition or not at all. Because of the ceremony’s popularity, the ban has had the effect of restoring the traditional practice.

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