I’m seated, with my mother, on a palace veranda, cooled by a breeze from the royal garden. Before us, on a dais, is an empty throne, its arms and legs embossed with polished brass, the back and seat covered in black-and-gold silk. In front of the steps to the dais, there are two columns of people, mostly men, facing one another, seated on carved wooden stools, the cloths they wear wrapped around their chests, leaving their shoulders bare.
There is a quiet buzz of conversation. Outside in the garden, peacocks screech. At last, the blowing of a ram’s horn announces the arrival of the king of Asante, its tones sounding his honorific, kotokohene, “porcupine chief. ” (Each quill of the porcupine, according to custom, signifies a warrior ready to kill and to die for the kingdom. ) Everyone stands until the king has settled on the throne. Then, when we sit, a chorus sings songs in praise of him, which are interspersed with the playing of a flute.
But you will also find everywhere – and this is something new – many intimate connections with places far away: Washington, Moscow, Mexico City, Beijing. Across the street from us, when we were growing up, there was a large house occupied by a number of families, among them a vast family of boys; one, about my age, was a good friend. He lives in London. His brother lives in Japan, where his wife is from. They have another brother who has been in Spain for a while and a couple more brothers who, last I heard, were in the United States. Some of them still live in Kumasi, one or two in Accra, Ghana’s capital.
Eddie, who lives in Japan, speaks his wife’s language now. He has to. But he was never very comfortable in English, the language of our government and our schools. When he phones me from time to time, he prefers to speak Asante-Twi. Over the years, the royal palace buildings in Kumasi have expanded. When I was a child, we used to visit the previous king, my great-uncle by marriage, in a small building that the British had allowed his predecessor to build when he returned from exile in the Seychelles to a restored but diminished Asante kingship.
That building is now a museum, dwarfed by the enormous house next door – built by his successor, my uncle by marriage – where the current king lives. Next to it is the suite of offices abutting the veranda where we were sitting, recently finished by the present king, my uncle’s successor. The British, my mother’s people, conquered Asante at the turn of the 20th century; now, at the turn of the 21st, the palace feels as it must have felt in the 19th century: a center of power. The president of Ghana comes from this world, too.
He was born across the street from the palace to a member of the royal Oyoko clan. But he belongs to other worlds as well: he went to Oxford University; he’s a member of one of the Inns of Court in London; he’s a Catholic, with a picture of himself greeting the pope in his sitting room. What are we to make of this? On Kumasi’s Wednesday festival day, I’ve seen visitors from England and the United States wince at what they regard as the intrusion of modernity on timeless, traditional rituals – more evidence, they think, of a pressure in the modern world toward uniformity.
They react like the assistant on the film set who’s supposed to check that the extras in a sword-and-sandals movie aren’t wearing wristwatches. And such purists are not alone. In the past couple of years, Unesco’s members have spent a great deal of time trying to hammer out a convention on the “protection and promotion” of cultural diversity. (It was finally approved at the Unesco General Conference in October 2005. ) The drafters worried that “the processes of globalization. . . epresent a challenge for cultural diversity, namely in view of risks of imbalances between rich and poor countries. ” The fear is that the values and images of Western mass culture, like some invasive weed, are threatening to choke out the world’s native flora. The contradictions in this argument aren’t hard to find. This same Unesco document is careful to affirm the importance of the free flow of ideas, the freedom of thought and expression and human rights – values that, we know, will become universal only if we make them so.
What’s really important, then, cultures or people? In a world where Kumasi and New York – and Cairo and Leeds and Istanbul – are being drawn ever closer together, an ethics of globalization has proved elusive. The right approach, I think, starts by taking individuals – not nations, tribes or “peoples” – as the proper object of moral concern. It doesn’t much http://www. nytimes. com/2006/01/01/magazine/01cosmopolitan. html? e…eb5e1741c;ex=1293771600;partner=rssnyt;emc=rss;pagewanted=print Page 1 of 7 The Case for Contamination – New York Times 1/01/2006 07:37 AM matter what we call such a creed, but in homage to Diogenes, the fourth-century Greek Cynic and the first philosopher to call himself a “citizen of the world,” we could call it cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitans take cultural difference seriously, because they take the choices individual people make seriously. But because cultural difference is not the only thing that concerns them, they suspect that many of globalization’s cultural critics are aiming at the wrong targets. Yes, globalization can produce homogeneity.
But globalization is also a threat to homogeneity. You can see this as clearly in Kumasi as anywhere. One thing Kumasi isn’t – simply because it’s a city – is homogeneous. English, German, Chinese, Syrian, Lebanese, Burkinabe, Ivorian, Nigerian, Indian: I can find you families of each description. I can find you Asante people, whose ancestors have lived in this town for centuries, but also Hausa households that have been around for centuries, too. There are people there from every region of the country as well, speaking scores of languages.
But if you travel just a little way outside Kumasi – 20 miles, say, in the right direction – and if you drive off the main road down one of the many potholed side roads of red laterite, you won’t have difficulty finding villages that are fairly monocultural. The people have mostly been to Kumasi and seen the big, polyglot, diverse world of the city. Where they live, though, there is one everyday language (aside from the English in the government schools) and an agrarian way of life based on some old crops, like yams, and some newer ones, like cocoa, which arrived in the late 19th century as a product for export.
They may or may not have electricity. (This close to Kumasi, they probably do. ) When people talk of the homogeneity produced by globalization, what they are talking about is this: Even here, the villagers will have radios (though the language will be local); you will be able to get a discussion going about Ronaldo, Mike Tyson or Tupac; and you will probably be able to find a bottle of Guinness or Coca-Cola (as well as of Star or Club, Ghana’s own fine lagers). But has access to these things made the place more homogeneous or less? And what can you tell about people’s souls from the fact that they drink Coca-Cola?
It’s true that the enclaves of homogeneity you find these days – in Asante as in Pennsylvania – are less distinctive than they were a century ago, but mostly in good ways. More of them have access to effective medicines. More of them have access to clean drinking water, and more of them have schools. Where, as is still too common, they don’t have these things, it’s something not to celebrate but to deplore. And whatever loss of difference there has been, they are constantly inventing new forms of difference: new hairstyles, new slang, even, from time to time, new religions.
No one could say that the world’s villages are becoming anything like the same. So why do people in these places sometimes feel that their identities are threatened? Because the world, their world, is changing, and some of them don’t like it. The pull of the global economy – witness those cocoa trees, whose chocolate is eaten all around the world – created some of the life they now live. If chocolate prices were to collapse again, as they did in the early 1990’s, Asante farmers might have to find new crops or new forms of livelihood.
That prospect is unsettling for some people (just as it is exciting for others). Missionaries came awhile ago, so many of these villagers will be Christian, even if they have also kept some of the rites from earlier days. But new Pentecostal messengers are challenging the churches they know and condemning the old rites as idolatrous. Again, some like it; some don’t. Above all, relationships are changing. When my father was young, a man in a village would farm some land that a chief had granted him, and his maternal clan (including his younger brothers) would work it with him.
When a new house needed building, he would organize it. He would also make sure his dependents were fed and clothed, the children educated, marriages and funerals arranged and paid for. He could expect to pass the farm and the responsibilities along to the next generation. Nowadays, everything is different. Cocoa prices have not kept pace with the cost of living. Gas prices have made the transportation of the crop more expensive. And there are new possibilities for the young in the towns, in other parts of the country and in other parts of the world.
Once, perhaps, you could have commanded the young ones to stay. Now they have the right to leave – perhaps to seek work at one of the new dataprocessing centers down south in the nation’s capital – and, anyway, you may not make enough to feed and clothe and educate them all. So the time of the successful farming family is passing, and those who were settled in that way of life are as sad to see it go as American family farmers are whose lands are accumulated by giant agribusinesses. We can sympathize with them.
But we cannot force their children to stay in the name of protecting their authentic culture, and we cannot afford to subsidize indefinitely thousands of distinct islands of homogeneity that no longer make economic sense. Nor should we want to. Human variety matters, cosmopolitans think, because people are entitled to options. What John Stuart Mill said more than a century ago in “On Liberty” about diversity within a society serves just as well as an argument for variety across the globe: “If it were only that people have diversities of taste, that is reason enough for not attempting to shape them all after one model.