Business and Arts South Africa is currently working in a diversity of countries in Africa. Of late we have been working with the British Council in Ethiopia. The goal is to support businesses in their future engagement with the creative sector, whilst working closely with the arts sector in skills and opportunity development. The work has taken place over a good few weeks and has forced us to acknowledge how much we still can learn and must learn for a truly diverse and transformed global society. It is deeply challenging – a powerful reminder of the constant need to grow thoughtfully.
Ethiopia is a fascinating country, one with a profound and diverse heritage. It is the only African country that was never colonised, apart from a short, futile foray into the region by the Italians in the 20th century. It is at the forefront of palaeontology with the discovery of ‘Lucy’ the hominid. In the 4th century, it was one of the first regions in the world to adopt Christianity as one of the country’s official religions. This is of interest, because of the dominant imagery intrinsic to the country’s brand – the Coptic crosses, and the storyline that unfolds through the extraordinary vision of King Lalibela over 900 years ago. The town of Lalibela, in the Northern Amhara region, hosts a UNESCO site of eleven monolithic, rock hewn churches – all of them still active, all joined by a network of warren-like underground passages. A visit to these churches leaves one in awe of the potential of humans to achieve what appears to be the impossible. Much like a viewing of the pyramids in Egypt, the deep mystery of life and the power of humankind will, are apparent in Lalibela.
The country is also currently fraught with ethnic strife, and the city of Addis Ababa whilst promising diverse activities, is chaotic and difficult to navigate.
I mention all of this because although BASA has worked closely with partners in the SADC region – Mozambique, Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia, all of which feel culturally so much closer to home – Ethiopia is a different experience, one that requires deep interrogation of the pedagogy of cultural intelligence and indeed cultural diplomacy. Language, class, culture, ethnicity, values, diversity, gender – the list is an endless series of differences and occasional similarities.
Interestingly, the spaces where I felt that I was most able to learn, came from my few days in Lalibela, and at a series of arts events – ostensibly set up as arts based interventions to demonstrate some of our processes to the Ethiopian private sector- highlighting the ease and ability of culture and creativity to drive relationship building.
The Lalibela experience demonstrated the capacity of cultural tourism, the ability of cultural routes and roots to support a country economically, but also to nurture a deeper understanding of one another both locally and globally.
The political scientist Milton C. Cummings defines cultural diplomacy as ‘the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding’. This definition is probably one that we would hold at BASA, although the document from whence the quote comes, The Art of Soft Power, released by King’s College London, does highlight the fact that Cummings, in speaking of ‘a sense of reciprocity, openness and willingness to learn from others,’ describes a definition that is ‘strikingly apolitical’.
BASA, in its projects, specifically in Africa, whilst focusing on engagement with both the private and the cultural sector ultimately acts as a cultural ambassador for our partners (including the Department of Arts and Culture) but also for our country. We do see the cultural and creative sector as a real opportunity – a type of ‘cultural calling card’ for South Africa. The gift that it offers us is deep learning – cultural and emotional intelligence, transformation and diversity. While we might, step by tiny step, be learning in another world, it allows us to return home with a deep love for our country and continent, a re-engagement with what we term ‘home’, and an excitement about a more diverse yet holistic future. We are lucky.