Skip to main content

Media and the Preservation of Culture in Africa

The colonial expansion of European states in Africa was usually accompanied by missionary efforts to proliferate Christianity and European civilization. A kind of benevolent tutelage of the `inferior native' populations occurred that was particularly well-illustrated in Rudyard Kipling's The White Man's Burden. The direct consequences of the colonial expansion ranged from genocide that wiped out of large segments of a population, to the subtle destruction of African cultures.

Every culture has a dual tendency, a tendency towards stability and a tendency toward change. What is the contribution of culture to the development process? Surprisingly, on numerous occasions even normally intelligent and knowledgeable Africans erroneously and inadvertently conceptualize culture as `drumming and dancing' and therefore fail to see any contribution culture makes or made to the struggle for socio-economic development.

It must be noted however, that culture or `the way of life of a people, their ideas, acts, and artifacts' is one of the main determinants of whether a society develops rapidly or slowly. Numerous studies by anthropologists show that the traditional values of a people are closely related to the pace with which they accept or reject the demands of modern industrial or commercial operations. Since no society in the modern world exists in a vacuum, it is the pre-established patterns of culture which, to a large extent, determine whether that society accepts or resists innovation and change and the speed with which this is done.

African culture is functionally linked to the popular media forms -- radio, TV, and the press -- since they played a very significant role in their struggles against colonialism and exploitation. Since time immemorial, the media have helped to rescue, incorporate, preserve, and mediate elements which serve the interests of these popular classes. These interests include not only the people's aspirations, but also those factors which define their beliefs, expressions, and historical cultural development in general. Today, in spite of modern-day inclinations, the drum continues to assemble school children in Ghana because of its importance as a medium with communal significance. Popular theater, for instance, are cultural performances by and for communities which give expression to that community's reality, aspirations, and diverse struggles for survival and development. Throughout history, popular theater forms such as dances, dramas, musical compositions, narratives, and others have played a role in the cultural struggles of the African peoples and their development.

The nature of struggle has dictated the role of these art forms. Colonialism disrupted not only the political organization and economic production of the many African political entities, it also brought forms of cultural alienation, invasion, and disorientation. Control of wealth, natural resources, and cultural products were the main aims of colonialism. New systems for the production and distribution of wealth were initiated, along with mental and psychological control of self-perception and awareness. Consequently, African culture was destroyed, undervalued, undermined, and distorted. The systems by which Africans had struggled with nature and organized their societies became irrelevant in an incomprehensive and exploitative social order.

Elements of African culture survived in its various languages, performing and other arts, religions, oration, and literature and depicts the strength of African culture. These elements also underscored African resistance to annihilation and cultural destruction. During the fight for independence, African theater and cultural forms became elements of resistance and the struggle for independence. Songs, dances, and ritual dramas mobilized people to understand and reject their colonial situation. When personalities like the late Nnamdi Azikiwe, the First President of Nigeria. came to Ghana to establish newspapers, they did so with the conviction that they needed to intensify the struggle against colonialism through other art forms and get the African intelligentsia-who then seemed to be alienated from their people-to see the reality on the ground.

At the outset, establishing mass communication was a political necessity, an international demonstration of African sovereignty, and a way of consolidating national unity. For these young political entities, the media and mass communication helped to develop and encourage a feeling of national identity among the new citizens.

Today, using popular art forms with the available modern media have helped strengthen the national bonds that Africans desire to forge ahead. This cultural and communication hybridization has also encouraged the African resolve to accept what is good whilst perfecting one's own cultural dimensions. After decades of existence, the various African media has given rise to a number of issues; questions abound as to whether they are playing a significant role in new development strategies and how they are meeting their goals.

"All states that have recently gained independence are faced with two interrelated problems," writes Seymour Lipset, mass communications analyst, "legitimating the use of power and establishing identity" Here, it is definitly possible that mass media can provide ideological guidance by offering assistance in orientating and implementing new values.

In African societies, the social function of the media is coupled with a political-ideological dimension in order to create a consensus in favor of a national ideology. This `coupling' explains, and in many ways justifies, the subsequent function of African media and above all, their role as instruments of political power. In addition to their political function, other aspects of the development process have been assigned by society to the various national media according to major socio-economic development priorities: adult literacy, increased agricultural productivity, promotion of social welfare, and health among the population.

As symbols of political sovereignty and instruments of national cohesion, newspapers, radio, and TV have become purveyors of education and development. However original and multifarious the media may be, it is clear today that the actions of different African media is a long way from achieving the hoped-for results. Problems abound in terms of shedding media's pro-government image, assuming a role that would be more people-centered, and to articulating peoples' views to the government. However, despite severe handicaps, the media have in their small way helped to fashion out a new consciousness for Africans. People have become proud of their African heritage.


Radio has made such a rapid progress and become a fundamental part of daily life throughout much of Africa that it is easy to forget how recently it arrived and how fast it has grown. Today, radio is at the center of most political, social, and economic activity.

Radio was first introduced by the BBC in South Africa in 1924, followed by Kenya in 1927 and its potential was recognized by very few. Before WWII, broadcasting was aimed almost exclusively at Europeans from stations in Johannesburg, Salisbury, Lourengo, Margues, Nairobi, and later Dakar. In 1930, the British wanted to expand colonial broadcasting to indigenous people, but these plans were shelved when WWII erupted.

Northern Rhodesia was first to broadcast in an African language. The Director of Information in the colonial administration, Harry Franklin, started the Lusaka station in 1941 and ran it in his spare time. The few indigenous listeners availed themselves of community sets provided with the courts and administrative centers.

Broadcasting rapidly developed in other British territories, particularly during the 1950s. At the outset, stations aimed to broadcast as much as possible in African languages. A listener survey in Zambia's urban areas in 1965 indicated that in 1960, 109 African languages were being used by radio in tropical Africa, mainly in British territories.

The newly independent countries realized that radio broadcasting should not to be used merely for political ends or for profit, but also for social and cultural development. They realized that radio, the fastest and most cost-effective of the modern mass media, can overcome the barriers of distance and illiteracy. Although radio provided a somewhat restricted national communications network where the authority and voice of central political power can be greatly enhanced, it also effectively supplied limited but vital information to small, local constituents in newly independent societies.

In Africa, community radio grew out of the need to respect linguistic plurality and to ensure that people in rural areas were better informed. In Broadcasting in Africa, Sydney Head listed over 175 indigenous African languages used in radio broadcasting in 1973. His list was incomplete and the true total today certainly exceeds 200, but still, over a thousand African languages are not heard on the radio.

Case Study: Ghana

The pioneering work of Ghanaian radio has been previously referred to. Radio Ghana transmits two service networks -- Radio One and Radio Two -- nationally and simultaneously. These two services broadcast an average of 250 hours per week in six Ghanaian languages and English. Radio Two broadcasts only in English while Radio One handles all the local languages, (Akan, Ewe, Ga, Nzema, Dagbani, and Hausa) and translates news in addition to producing local programs. With the advent of UHF-FM radio stations, local languages are receiving even more air time on several private stations across the country. About 11 community FM stations, operating under the auspices of the national network, Ghana Broadcasting Corporation (GBC) currently run programs only in Ghanaian languages in various districts in the country.

By broadcasting in at least six Ghanaian languages, one can communicate with a large proportion of the people in their own language or at least in a language they can understand. It is difficult to quantify the number of languages in Ghana. Many tribes speak languages that are substantially different from one another, but still mutually comprehensible.

The allocation of broadcasting time to the various languages on the national network raises a delicate debate. Equal air time is not allotted to each language. The GBC argues that language groups vary greatly in size. The largest group, Akan, makes up of about 45% of the population and this language has become the lingua franca in significant parts of the country. A criteria for allocating airtime to these languages has been devised in an attempt to find a balance between all the languages in the limited broadcasting hours available. The six languages recognized for the purposes of broadcasting, in addition to English, are now used in primary school education.

The story is significantly different with TV. There is only one national network which broadcasts about 140 hours per week. A couple of private, commercial satellite channels have recently joined the fray, but their programs are all foreign in content. Although the national network has programs in Ghanaian languages, the limited airtime puts severe restrictions on the time available to the myriad of local languages competing for attention. Drama and soap operas in Ghanaian languages arguably draw the largest TV audience in the country. Apart from their entertainment value, the programs offer story lines that the people easily identify with in everyday life. Its patronage is overwhelming.


What we see in Ghana, Nigeria, and elsewhere on the continent is an uneven development of communications. Sometimes radio reaches remote places before roads have been built. However, the overall importance of the electronic media cannot be over-emphasized. Graham Mytton, broadcasting specialist on Africa, writes that "in most of African countries, colour television and a wide choice of daily newspapers have arrived before the provision of adequate telephone and postal services." The mass media cannot replace other forms of communication and are limited in what they can do. In Africa, these inevitable limits are frequently made even more restrictive by the way the media are run. In most cases, the media are centralized; consequently, the information they carry tends to come from the political center. Because of this, they generally provide few links between the separate constituent parts of the wider political or national system. Broadcasting in particular provides a greatly improved means of `downward communication,' or the dissemination of information and government policies from a central government to the people, superior to any other. However, it receives little feedback, a fact which may have serious consquentces from the political system-and for society as a whole-as the mass media audience grows. Radio and TV stations and the newspapers in many African countries do little to improve communications from the constitutional parts of the society to its political center.

The basic problem has been the financial cost in building local television systems on an economically sound foundation. Often, this is only possible by importing low-cost American productions. Films and television programs produced in the industrialized countries (especially the United States) are offered at dumping prices if you compare the cost of local productions. In most cases, the commercial and non-commercial television stations and networks extensively use these inexpensive imports. In Ghana, for example, a hour of Ghana-produced, television program cost between US$800 and $2,400. By contrast, American-produced television is offered to African countries at a cost of $130-150 per one half-hour. Along with the entertainment value, political and cultural attitudes and values are also being imported in what is known as cultural invasion, cultural leveling, cultural imperialism, or `picture tube imperialism.'

Will such an alleged cultural imperialism via TV hinder the creation of a national identity in African countries? This is feared by H.I. Schiller in his book Communication and American Empire. Referring to Friedrich List, a communications analyst, he calls for "cultural protectionism," which, like the trade protection of an earlier era, is said to have an educational function.

This fear and caution, finds expression in the various mass media legislation that govern electronic media in most African countries. In Ghana, for instance, the Ghana Frequency and Control Board stipulates that the content of private TV transmission should have positive-bias ratio in favor of local production of 60:40. As of the late 1980s, foreign TV programs formed less than 20% of Ghanaian television. Other countries however, import at least 60% of their TV programs, most of which are aired during prime time.

It is for the same logistical reasons that the state-owned GBC is stuck with one channel. The government had hoped to open another channel to solely air indigenous languages in the radio sector. This requires the provision of satellite technology to redistribute TV programs throughout the country. Currently, there is only one post and telecommunications microwave link available in the country and GBC requires digital control technology to introduce another channel. There is also a need for refurbish and rehabilitate the GBC before the country can look at a second channel.

The Legacy of the Press

Aboriginal control of the media has not found the same success in the print media. As stated earlier, Africa's modern print and electronic media developed as a result of direct or indirect contact with Europe. Few African societies, if any, had a written language. For those that did, printing was either unknown or underdeveloped. European colonialism south of the Sahara meant that most literacy, and therefore most printing was in a European language

Traditional oral forms of communication that played a central role in maintaining social and political order ensured continuity and reinforced values and norms of behavior. Oral communication was gradually confronted by a quite different form of communication based on print and generally in a foreign language. If an African language was used, it was a language not necessarily employed in traditional oral communication. Thus the introduction of the new print media marked the beginning of a break with the past.

In 1859, missionaries published Nigeria's first paper, which was also the first African paper in an African language. It was called Iwe Irobin fun awon ara Egba Yorubas or `The Newspaper for Egba and Yoruba People' and it was priced at 30 cowries, roughly the cost of a whole sheep! It is significant to note that the press played an important part in the colonial history of the Africa. Whereas the major newspapers of Nigeria and the Gold Coast (now Ghana) were organs of protest and political agitation, those of East Africa were vehicles for the culture and concepts of the rulers with the considerable resources of white capital at their command.

East Africa had the greatest number of African language newspapers during the struggle for independence and although these were government newspapers supporting the colonial status quo, they all employed African journalists. The significance of these papers, however, lay in the valuable service they performed of establishing Swahili as a means of communication in printed form. Mambo Leo, the first major Swahili newspaper, played a particularly vital role in enabling many Africans to gain valuable professional newspaper experience.

The extent of African control of the print media to maintain language has had marginal success, particularly in the West African sub-region. Most of these newspapers have had several conflicts with their own governments, sometimes leading to sanctions and restriction of the free press. African newspapers that vigorously campaigned for the nationalist cause now enjoy less freedom under the very governments they helped to create.

In spite of their poor circulation figures, African newspapers are remarkably influential. The greatest media contribution that helps to maintain African culture, language, and continuity, however, has come from radio and television. Ironically, these are the media whose liberalization came late in the day.


Head, Sydney, ed. 1976. Broadcasting in Africa. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Frequency Registration and Control Decree, 1977. Supreme Military Council Decree 71.

Lipset, Seymour. 1963. The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective. Paper presented.

Mytton, Graham. 1983. Mass Communication in Africa. London: Edward Arnold.

Schiller. H.I. 1969. Communication and American Empire. Paper presented.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

Our website houses close to five decades of content and publishing. Any content older than 10 years is archival and Cultural Survival does not necessarily agree with the content and word choice today.