A Ghanaian teenager sports cowboy boots in Accra. A Kenyan woman surfs the web at an internet café in Nairobi. A Nigerian girl in Lagos wears the jersey of the Chelsea British soccer team. A South African athlete models stylish air Jordan boots. These are all too familiar scenes in many parts of Africa. They also show the all-pervasive western influence on the continent – especially among its youth.
Nathan Ohene, a high school student in Annandale, Virginia, is of Ghanaian descent. He says Western influence has been detrimental to Africa’s cultural development because " we’re portrayed all the time [in a way that’s advantageous to the West]. They portray us as poor and starving. That’s how other people see us.”
Damisi Fawole, a student at the University of Georgia in Athens, is of Nigerian descent. Damisi believes there are both benefits and disadvantages to Western influence on African culture.
“A positive aspect," she said, "is definitely the encouragement of the arts and humanities in Africa. I think Africans have felt pressured to go into certain fields that aren’t really necessarily creative but job secure. Historically, you didn’t see a lot of music and fashion. But it’s coming up now and people are being more creative and expressing themselves in different ways."
On the other hand, she thinks the adoption by many African countries of English as the official language minimizes the importance of local tongues.
"It's important," she said, "to keep the indigenous languages that they have, especially the ones that aren’t written because in schools and the educational system, they’re discouraging their use, and they’re encouraging English.”
Assefash Makonnen's family comes from Ethiopia. Assefash -- a graduate of Vassar college in the U.S. State of New York-- is working to maintain some of her African identity. Assefash goes by her indigenous Ethiopian name and has not adopted a Western nickname – as have many of her friends.
“I was named after my mother’s mom," she said, "and so part of the reason that I’ve felt really close to this name is because it’s a reminder of her. She she died before I was born, so this is a way of constantly keeping her in my life and keeping that generation of my family in my life.”
Kenya-born Esther Githui Ewart is a broadcaster at the Voice of America. As a legacy of British colonial rule in her country, she has a European (Christian) first name and an African last name. Esther doesn’t feel having a mixed European/African name diminishes her cultural heritage.
“I don’t really think that it is in any way controversial," she said. "I think it goes with the contemporary life that I live, because I do want to start my faith in my name. I don’t think it’s Western; I value my African culture as I do Western culture but I have to strike a balance between the two. And I think I get the value of having good qualities from both of those cultures.”
The debate over Western influence on African culture dates back to the late 19th century. But with the advent of the internet, social media and increased travel, that debate is becoming less relevant. Cultures today intermingle at a level not seen before. And technological advances appear to accelerate their interaction all around the world.