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Ambassador Ben Okoyen, Nigeria's Ambassador to Cuba

Amb. Okoyen calls for pan African cultural policy at International Conference in Cuba

Pictures show Ambassador Okoyen with some of the dignitaries at the Conference

Nigeria’s Ambassador to Cuba, Benaoyagha Bernard Mese Okoyen, has described Nigeria’s cultural heritage as a source of pride for Africa and a testament to a people’s resilience and creativity, while calling for the evolution and adoption of a functional African Cultural Policy.

Ambassador Okoyen, who said these at the XXI International Conference on African and Afro-American Culture, held in Santiago De Cuba from April 12 to 16, 2023, went ahead to invite participants at the Conference to visit Nigeria to experience in full, the country’s rich culture which, he said, has played a frontline role, not only in African, but in global culture, and in the progress of human society.

The Envoy, whose presentation on Nigerian Culture was the Master lecture of the Conference relied mostly on the Nigerian Cultural Policy document (1988), which defined Culture as: “the totality of the way of life evolved by a people in their attempt to meet the challenges in their environment which give order and meaning to their social, political, economic, aesthetic and religious norms and modes of organization, thus distinguishing a people from their neighbours.”

He stressed that “Culture is not merely a return to the customs of the past” but “embodies the attitude of a people to the future of their traditional values with the demands of modern technology essential for development and progress,” insisting that culture is “a force that has both economic and political consequences in the life of any community or a nation.”

Okoyen said further in his paper that across the world, “culture has become an acceptable instrument of dialogue among people and nations in promoting global understanding, harmony, peace, and solidarity, for cross-border business engagements which frequently generate problems, arising from cultural differences and cultural shocks. In this regard, Nigerians have come to accept the customs and traditions of the country which have been passed down from generation to generation and has become an integral part of the country’s national identity.”

He enlightened his audience on the different ethnic groups in Nigeria, the indigenous languages, including Pidgin English, the fashions, native foods, and “fertile literary landscape teeming with a never- ending supply of writers, including Chinua Achebe, the father of modern African literature; Wole Soyinka, the first Black Literature Nobel winner; Ben Okri, the first Black winner of the Booker Prize; Bernadine Evaristo, the first Black woman to win the Booker Prize; and globally celebrated female novelist Buchi Emecheta.

“Other notable literary icons are Cyprian Ekwensi, John Pepper Clark, Gabriel Okara, Abubakar Imam, Flora Nwapa, Zulu Sofola, Amos Tutuola, Chukwuemeka Ike, Elechi Amadi, Chimamanda Adichie, to mention these few,” he stressed.

He spoke of the high quality art works of Nigerian artists some dating back to as early as over two thousand years, including the terra-cotta, the iron works, the Nok, Ife, Igbo-Ukwu, Benin bronzes as well as the more modern artists, five generations of men and women who have been working on wood, iron, bronze, stones and other art forms, whose works, like of the prodigies before them adorn major galleries and private homes globally.

The Diplomat also dwelt on the music of Nigeria, including Afrobeat music “created by the legendary musician Fela Kuti,” as well as the music of King Sunny Ade, Ebenezer Obey, “2-Face Idibia, P- Square, Davido, Timaya, Tiwa Savage, M.I, Bracket, Olamide, Flavour, Wizkid, D’Banj, Kcee, Asa, Skales, Don Jazzy, MC Galaxy, Yemi Alade, Patoranking, etc” and those that have distinguished themselves in gospel music, including “Chris Morgan, Panam Percy Paul, Yinka Ayefele, Frank Edward, Sinach etc.”

He celebrated the Nigerian Film Industry, Nollywood, which he said, “has emerged a fast-growing cultural force all over the Continent of Africa” and which he stressed, ranks as “the second largest film industry in the world;” hailed stand-up comedy, and noted that Nigeria has, indeed, become “a cultural powerhouse of Africa.”

Okoyen pointed out that Nigeria has also impacted the world through the traditional institution and traditional rulers like “the Sultan of Sokoto, Ooni of Ile Ife, Oba of Benin, Obi of Onitsha, Attah of Igala, Emir of Bauchi, Shehu of Borno, Amayanabo of Twon-Brass, Olubadan of Ibadan Kingdom, Gbong Gwom Jos, Igwe of Nnewi, Obong of Calabar, Alaafin of Oyo, Tor Tiv of Tiv land, Olu of Warri, Oba (Eze Ogba) of Ogbaland and the Ovie of Ughelli Kingdom,” who are “the custodians of the culture and the traditions of the people” who give out traditional titles that “are seen as mark of respect and fulfillment, which comes with moral responsibility towards the people.”

The well researched paper spoke of the similarities in the cultures of the peoples of Nigeria and the fact that these cultures are being exported to the world through the Diaspora community which is “offering modern Africans an uninterrupted bridge to the past, whilst reflecting on the challenges of the present.”

In this regard, the paper spoke of the contributions of people of African descent who live and work abroad, as well as efforts of the “Historic African Diaspora whose history of migration predates colonization.”

The later group, Ambassador Okoyen said are found in Cuba and other Caribbean countries and “brought a mixture of the African-European-indigenous religion and cultural traits” to the entire Caribbean islands, representing “a major cultural export for the African continent.”

Part of this export, he said, is the Yoruba traditional religion and culture which “is visibly enlarged in Cuban society, showing a strong influence on Cuban art, food, music, and dances. Over 65 % of the Cuban population are devotees of the Orishas or Santería which exists in many cultural forms of the Yoruba people in Nigeria.”

He recalled how “the first Yoruba people who arrived in Cuba in 1568 brought with them various religious customs, including a trance and divination system for communicating with their ancestors and deities, through sacred drumming and dances. Today the Yoruba culture and traditional religious practices has become a significant part of the Cuban cultural heritage as evidenced by the existence of several museums and institutions dedicated to their study in Cuba.”

A historic visit to Cuba in 1987 by His Imperial Majesty, Ooni Okunade Sijuwade Olubuse II, the 50th Ooni of Ife, Okoyen said further cemented the relationship between the people of Cuba and the Yoruba culture with the result that “today, the Osun Osogbo annual Yoruba Traditional festival in Nigeria attracts the Cuban traditional religious society to Nigeria, an important indication of the deep-rooted influence of the Santería practice in Cuba. Yoruba traditional customs and beliefs in Nigeria has become a significant part of Cuban identity,” he noted.

Okoyen also admitted that Christianity and Islam have impacted Nigerian culture as did colonialism and its aftermath “as represented by Western Civilization and evolution of modern Nigerian state,” noting that the vast Nigerian Diaspora population also contributed to the transformation of cultural lives of many Nigerians, insisting that despite these, the cultures of the people remain “alive and thriving.”

He concludes the treatise by his call for the articulation of a functional pan African Cultural policy that would further project the best in Africa’s cultures for the benefit of the whole world.

The Conference was attended by top Diplomats, senior government functionaries, academics, other culture experts and dignitaries from Cuba, other Caribbean countries as well as from different parts of the world. The gathering also brainstormed on such key sub themes as ‘Gender, Race, Identity’; ‘History and Ethnology’; ‘Medicine and Culture’; ‘Literature and Linguistics’, and ‘Religion.

 

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