Just check the internet. This is a millennial response to virtually any question today, especially by young people. On the hand is the saying ”To hide something from an African man, put it in a book”. Whether the second saying is simply comedic or correct, the fact is that communication technology operators have recorded impressive rates on people using their services for information, education and even just plain entertainment with young people opting to read less and ”browse more”. Also, as digital platforms have increased, the physical space between individuals, families and communities also seems to have widened, leading to reported cases of isolation among many users and concerns by mental health workers. The idea of meeting together over a virtual space or virtual village square for educational and entertainment purposes take our minds back to another time in African spaces where people originally gathered for the same purposes: the African village squares.
For many people living in urban spaces and cities today, the mention of the African village square might evoke feelings of nostalgia and a sense of loss, while people in the villages still look forward to experiencing such warm nights filled with laughter, joy, and a sense of belonging albeit in fewer doses than used to be the case. For those not familiar with the village square experience, the African village square was a space where people gathered from all around in a given community/ties, usually with a center arena in place, and burning fires. These gatherings were permeated with a sense of community and belonging that is so pivotal to the development of a strong sense of self-esteem in children, and which diminishes feelings of loneliness, isolation, depression and other mental health concerns in adults and the geriatric population . This loss of culture, communal support and cultural history is experienced by both Africans in diaspora losing contact with the homeland, and those on the continent. Some interviewees for the research from which this writeup is extracted have even referred to one of the effects this has on collective mental health as a form of culture-anxiety.
In many ways, culture in Africa has indeed prevented many current social challenges such as mental health concerns despite it always getting a bad rap for causing social issues. For example, in many rural villages of Africa, suicide was a taboo with strong implications and some communities even had ”a special evil forest” such as the Awa Ode of the Urhobo ethnic group to bury individuals who give in to that. Whether it is unfair or not to have such strict sanctions, such customs had the positive effect of encouraging people to find other solutions to their issues or at least to understand that current life as it was served everyone with challenges and so people should not give up , unlike today when jumping off the Lagos Third Mainland Bridge seems to be the chosen solution. Due to such traditions, many individuals with challenges found the village square meetings a reprieve from the sense of social isolation that usually accompanies many mental health challenges.
Following the recent death of popular Nigerian actress Ada Ameh who was very vocal about suffering mental health anguish and depression after burying seven siblings and her only child and feeling alone/unsupported, many Nigerians on the internet have wondered how the internet can indeed be rechannelled into a positive space across transnational borders that would serve purposes for communal support, culture safe-keeping perhaps even industrial labor conversations that support indigenous people’s welfare. This positive proposal for internet usage is certainly preferred to the more notorious version where people use it as a space for cyber-bullying and negative hashtags. According to, after the conclusion our research, we came similar to the one expressed above in the presence of the cultural identity erosion pandemic in Africa also the: contemporary village spaces. Could digital spaces become the new contemporary village square?? Yes, they can but it would take intentional efforts by government or other interested stakeholders and emphasis on maintenance by community members. Indigenous ”tales by moonlight”, as stories told during village night gatherings are fondly called, can be animated, reproduced in short films or other digital forms with special attention paid to passing cultural values and other important aspects of cultural identity and distributed through Specially created digital platforms, elements of oral traditions like proverbs, and songs as well as other indigenous updates perhaps even a digital towncrier can all be replicated online or in technological formats.
Local cultural groups can certainly deploy these tactics combined with a digital platform that performs ”Live Tales by Moonlight” sessions where individuals across spaces can interact and tap into the communal connection/support that results from the power of shared storytelling. Indeed, such digital cultural houses can be created in local village town halls where individuals can watch previous live episodes, share active feedback from their communities and invite people from other communities to participate. Such digital platforms can be used to educate people still in rural areas on issues of mental health, physical health, entrepreneurship, change of livelihood/labour issues, inter-ethnic marriages, shrinking natural resources, and ethnic language documentation among others. They could be fused with libraries or other culture resource centers to make for ease of access, all of which would contribute to preserving ethnic knowledge and ways of life for future generations.
The generation coming already faces challenges such as eco-sustainability, climate change and culture sustainability, among others and by current indications would not have the communal support their ancestors enjoyed unless an intentional solution is fashioned. However, by cataloguing culture and other related issues in digital capsules, they would have an archive of history, support, mentorship and cultural memory to enable them to negotiate their turn in life in ways that drive African development to the next level. Likewise, building digital village squares would also give them a rich reserve of support system that may substitute digital clap icons for literal hand-clapping by the village fireside but nevertheless, will still offer them the support they need mentally, emotionally and psychologically to engage in long, productive, sustainable living. In the end, we can all stay connected mentally, emotionally and by extension globally, as it should be, and as was the initial goal of the internet.
- Omoweh, Bello and Nwosu, researchers on cultural anthropology, mental health, technology and labor relations, write in via email@example.com