Patrick Gorham

Monday, December 19, 2011


Patrick Gorham

Patrick Gorham

AfricaWrites is an online cultural resource and reference website. The e-zine provides detailed stories, images and information to the public and serves as a resource for people who might not ordinarily be interested in learning about the unique history and cultures of Africa. The organization also works with the governments of West Africa to provide educational programs and sponsorship for over 182 children in villages throughout Guinea. They also sponsor medical assistance and agricultural programs within Guinea, Liberia, and Rwanda.

Patrick Gorham is a researcher, writer, editor, photographer, explorer and the director of the non-profit African cultural research team, and the Cultural Studies Foreign Liaison (Focal Point) for the University of Kankan (Guinea, West Africa).

Interviewed by Josh Korenblat

/One/: How did you become interested in AfricaWrites?

Patrick Gorham: My interest in African culture began in the 1970’s, during my childhood in the United States. As a child, my mother told me stories of Africa, its great chiefs and pharaohs. My grandparents taught me the lessons of my elders, which were passed along my family through generations of slavery.

Current events informed me too. As I grew, I listened in awe to my uncles Angelo, Enoch, and Calvin, who talked about the greatness of my larger-than-life hero, the boxer Muhammad Ali; a few years earlier in distant Zaire, he had fought to recapture the world heavyweight title against the unstoppable George Foreman. And like most kids, I learned to dance. The Godfather of Soul, James Brown, taught me how to get down with African dances like the Watutsi. Shaped by my childhood experiences, I gained a larger sense of identity, a sense of purpose and a cultural curiosity to see and someday learn more about Africa, my ancestral homeland.

As an adult, this interest grew, and I researched continuously, hoping to learn more about the cultures of Africa. In early 1999, I checked out books about African history at my local library and read about the continent’s people and their traditions. Over time, I realized that much of the public information available lacked an African perspective. Despite the excellent studies, observations, and evaluations of Africa’s cultures conducted by many renowned scholars, I felt that a need existed: a greater emphasis on research in Africa from an African perspective, by Africans.

Life in Africa would be more accurately represented if somehow each unique ethnic group were able to present their distinct histories, stories, and cultures. From this idea, the original concept for AfricaWrites was born. In 2005, I visited Africa to research the rituals and ceremonies of Guinea, where I met Robert Saa Millimono, Mr. Moussa Kourouma, and Mr. Aboubacar Fall. They each shared my vision and passion for research in Africa and became the first members of the AfricaWrites staff. Since then, we’ve worked tirelessly as a Guinean non-governmental organization across the entire continent to record the sights, sounds, rituals and history of each and every African ethnic group.

/One/: Is your work not simply to chronicle present-day incidents and the lives of people today, but to share the histories and the cultures of peoples in Africa with the outside world, which may remain unaware of the diversity and richness of African culture?

PG: By sharing the richness of African cultural heritage through our website and via the African Cultural Studies Center of Kankan University, we hope to elevate the level of dialogue and understanding of African culture beyond many of the misconceptions present in modern, global popular culture and academia today. We chronicle events past and present in the hope of collectively, in conjunction with the respective ethnic groups involved, assemble a more accurate narrative of the peoples and cultures of Africa.

/One/: Why do you consider the work of AfricaWrites to be so urgent at present?

PG: Our work is a constant race against time. With each passing day, we lose an opportunity to learn from aging African elders and with them, opportunities to unlock many complex mysteries of the past. And we risk losing the ability to understand the complexities and historical details that inform Africa’s cultural present.

/One/: Please tell us about some of your cultural findings in South Sudan.

PG: The first cultural expedition of the AfricaWrites team in Sudan was in January of 2009. During that time we conducted studies of the rituals and ceremonies of the Ed Damzin and East Equatoria regions. A year later, during the summer of 2010, we returned to Sudan to study the rituals and ceremonies of West Equatoria and East Equatoria Sudan. Our research, limited in scope due to the rapidly evolving political climate within the country, focused on the Azande, Baka, N’gaams, Mundari, Acholi and Lago ethnic groups.

The findings of the AfricaWrites team, part of which were published on the AfricaWrites website, were presented in narrative form, mirroring the method by which the information was provided by Azande elders and powerful Azande traditional doctors, known as Abinza.

The Abinza gave insight into the rituals of decision-making faced by the kingdom under the rule of mighty King Buduwe and the process of “wasting of the water,” the Vu Ime, to appease powerful spirits and bring peace throughout the land to thwart impending disaster.

/One/: In South Sudan, have the Janjaweed and the forces of the North tried to expunge the languages, art, and culture of the peoples? How have they done this?

PG: In the past, forces allied with northern Sudan have sent militias—such as the Janjaweed-affiliated Ambororo, collaborating with Joseph Kony’s murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—to kill, maim, rape, and pillage South Sudan, and abduct child soldiers for the LRA army, sewing the seeds of instability and undermining the government of South Sudan. By initiating waves of sporadic and virtually unpredictable brutal killings and abductions, northern Sudan’s government-sponsored insurgents forced thousands to flee from their homes across the regions of Western Equatoria and Bahr Ghazal. Through these acts of ethnic cleansing, many longstanding communities and traditions were displaced, forcing evacuations and resettlement in other regions of South Sudan.

Ethnic cleansing breaks down cultural unity by dispersing ethnicities through violence. Those effected are forced to flee from their traditional, professional, and cultural environments to lesser concentrations of their ethnic groupings within larger and possibly more dominant cultures—without the resources of their prior environments, traditional physical, professional, and spiritual. Today, the government of South Sudan has since taken great measures to keep the public safe, deploying military forces to intercept and halt rebel activities of the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ambororo.

/One/: Are the cultures that you interact with under threat politically, or more often are they simply changing or disappearing due to forces of modernization?

PG: Cultures are usually more complicated than we see them externally and are at  shaped in ways both big and small by their political environments. Although a lifestyle can change and practices can be altered, people generally adapt ancient or traditional ways of life to their continuously evolving surroundings and environments, physical, spiritual or political. Sometimes, if you look closely enough or have the patience to try, you will find that despite modern aesthetic changes, many of the ancient cultures of Africa survive intact beneath the aesthetics of modern dress or habitat. The politics of culture usually depend on the dominant religion and ethnic group of the nation. Established colonial religions have done little to halt the practice of traditional African spirituality.

In Italy, for example, it’s well known that many dialects of the Italian language gradually disappeared following the invention of the television. Television use is widespread and growing in Africa, but not to the same extent that it factors within Europe, the United States, and Asia. That said, as populations grow, shift, decrease or are replaced by a larger dominant culture, within Africa, sometimes language dialects merge or are enveloped by the dominate cultural group.

/One/: When various groups create works of art, how do the people see them and use them? In Western societies for instance, the more useful an object becomes, the less it is viewed as “art.” Instead, often art rests in white-walled museums, far from the concerns of daily life. How central is art to various African cultures?

PG: In Africa today, modern concepts of art coexist with the traditional functions of art. In many African cultures, art and functionality go hand-and-hand. We see this in the multiple forms and distinctive roles the various Nyao mask entities play, representing the Gule, Chitere and Songowe of Zambia. Mask entities revealed during Nyao rituals identify the level of initiation achieved by initiates within the Nyao society. And today, in southwestern Sudan, the finely crafted iron blade of the Mambere is carried by Azande chiefs and dignitaries during ceremonies that signify status within traditional Azande society. In these examples, the function of art is to identify the status and standard of the Kpinga bearer, representing marriage to a certain number of wives.

Art carries meaning in Africa through its ability to convey words and ideas across boundaries, touching all aspects of life and death. Virtually all traditional African art forms serve a particular function.  The Tambaa of the West African Sanana, for instance, is a weapon provided to village ancestors by the ancient Koma spirits of the land. The various decorative animal shapes each represent a particular spirit manifestation that may be summoned for battle or ritual purpose upon the command of its wielder. In this instance, art communicates directly with the ancient Koma and provides a gateway between the physical world and the spiritual world, inhabited by the Koma.

Ritual and dance bridge the boundaries between worlds of the spirit and the physical. In the example of the See Ze Lee, the rite of spiritual cleansing and purification of evil spirits, ritual and dance are used to command spirits for the purpose of healing. In contrast, other dances or rituals, such as the Zere, the dance of the chimpanzees performed by the Mano peoples, celebrate the living and endow participants with the pragmatic attributes of strength, stamina and courage, especially in war. The Zere dance symbolizes the Kan Kie Mia, a chimpanzee family native to the nearby Nimba mountains. Revered as the reincarnated ancestors of the Mano peoples, these creatures animate the most sacred rituals of Mano culture.

/One/: In the West, the individual enjoys privileged status and some believe that one can determine his or her destiny without relying upon help from others. How is the individual viewed in traditional African cultures?

PG: Although the dynamics may sometimes differ based on ethnicity, economic activity, religion and or local politics, there is a great emphasis on the sense of family, village, and community. There is the belief that one’s destiny and the destiny of his or her community are intertwined. Among the cultures that we have observed, the needs of the individual are usually second to those of community.

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