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The Kanilai International Cultural Festival....... Cultural Diplomacy in perspective!

In the murky waters of international relations, mutual mistrust and intolerance are the hallmarks of diplomacy. In such a polarised and acrimonious scenario, the stakes are often dangerously high. Kebba Dibba argues that Cultural Diplomacy could be the key to greater international understanding and tolerance; using the Kanilai International Cultural Festival as a case study.

It was ground-shaking volley after volley, in a salvo of rounds fired from several positions. Deafening, unrelenting and persistent canon fire sent thick dark clouds of smoke pillowing into the evening sky. The atmosphere, from afar, was all too reminiscent of a medieval battle field. The young man walking ahead dived for cover, as if he were under fire. Fortunately or unfortunately, it was open territory and no place for cover. In fact, there was no cause for panic because there was no imminent danger. It was peacetime and those improvised devices are huge metal pipes, cut out on purpose; detonating their explosive payload of gunpowder. Those familiar with the situation knew exactly what was happening.

The 5th edition of the Kanilai International Cultural Festival was being officially opened amid much fanfare. Thousands of people converged on the village, about 100km from the capital, with participants representing different countries, races and tribes poised to showcase a wealth of cultural heritage; from traditional peculiarities to mystical powers. Increasingly assuming the profile of the Gambia's cultural capital, the old settlement has great historical significance with diverse tales of mystical and healing powers. It has unrivaled reputation in traditional bone therapy, skills handed down from generation to generation.  As the home village of the president, Kanilai certainly has a special place in the country’s history, and, given the person in question, one can safely say African and global history.

In the words of an ECOWAS female parliamentarian, the president is indeed a "subject of discussion" in the academia, for what he stands for and what he has been able to accomplish. Truly, he is the embodiment of the past; at the same time a great modernizer. He is the touch-bearer for a young generation of African leaders in a crusade for a more dignified Africa and a new kind of global order, based on mutual respect, tolerance and understanding, crucial ingredients too often in short supply in inter-state and international relations.

On the home front, he presides over an unprecedented modernization process while at the same time reviving and preserving the nation's cultural heritage. It comes at a crucial moment when "globalization," which is largely technology driven, is already threatening many of the poorer countries of the world with cultural extinction. Cultural Synchronization, the concept of cultural infusion for an emerging or potential global "super-culture," as a direct outcome of globalization; is not a realistic expectation. The imbalances in technology and the global flow of information, give undue advantage to the advanced countries.

In such a scenario, what thrives best is what is often referred to as Cultural Ethnocentrism; a false sense of cultural supremacy or inferiority of one group of people or entity. This breeds mutual suspicion, arrogance, intolerance and paranoia in inter-state and international relations, often resulting in heightened tensions and confrontation. In medieval and modern global political history, Cultural Renaissance or even Cultural Revolution has been the battle-cry of many leaders, more often than never for partisan reasons of political and ideological expedience. Such disingenuous use of culture does not auger well for the concept and philosophy of international diplomacy – to enhance greater understanding and tolerance in international relations.

Where modern conventional diplomacy has failed, there is the need for either an alternative or a new perspective to international diplomacy. What role has culture got to play in this fresh approach in the quest for a new "world order," underpinned by greater understanding, mutual respect and tolerance? Gambian diplomacy is dynamic, and is increasingly manifesting its true cultural perspective, in pursuit of foreign policy objectives. For a thorough insight into the president's cultural crusade, one has to understand the spirit and philosophy of the Kanilai International Cultural Festival.

In many of his public pronouncements, the architect and financier, Sheikh Professor Dr Alhaji Yahya Jammeh, outlined the objective of the cultural festival. "The main objective of the Kanilai International Cultural Festival is; to promote, strengthen and sustain international understanding for global peace and development. Many of the conflicts in the world today emanate from lack of understanding of each others culture," the president told the gathering at the opening ceremony. The biennial jamboree continues to assume greater international profile, creating the necessary platform for cultural interaction amongst peoples of different and diverse backgrounds. Over the centuries, culture has been used by individual states and entities in promoting their economic, social, political, ideological and strategic interests. 
   
In the words of P.S. Sahai, a seasoned Indian diplomat and former ambassador to Sweden and Russia, Cultural Diplomacy implies the use of the art of diplomacy in promoting culture, which if we consider as a way of life of a group of people, would amount to projecting a particular group to another, resulting in creating awareness of one another. The diplomat further asserts that such awareness leads to interaction among various players states and individuals. With mutual suspicion and mistrust deeply entrenched in international relations, awareness creation is indeed imperative in any genuine attempt to defuse global tensions. "This could be achieved through the organisation of mega events or through a series of cultural activities with which a particular nation state is identified." From Ambassador Sahai's point of view, this would thus result in using the instrumentality of culture in promoting a country's diplomatic interests in the commercial, political and strategic fields.

Cultural Diplomacy, from Sahai's perspective, would, therefore, imply a two pronged action. The vanguard action would be to "create a cultural presence" and the rear guard would be to "ensure the other person or nation recognises and understands the projecting nation." Ambassador K.K.S. Rana, another renowned Indian diplomat, states that the task of Cultural Diplomacy would be to produce understanding that goes beyond stereotyped images and to mould perceptions in a favourable way. Cultural Diplomacy, from ambassador Rana's perspective, could be an effective bulwark against Cultural Ethnocentrism; a false sense of cultural superiority or inferiority of one group of people or nation to another.

Former Senior White House  National Security Council official and president of the Institute of World Politics, John Lenczowski, described Cultural Diplomacy as one of the most strategic and cost-effective means of political influence available to U.S. foreign and national security policy makers. But Lenczowski further states: "Because of neglect and misunderstanding, however, this powerful tool of statecraft has been vastly underutilised," and its absence, one may argue, has been the source of numerous lost opportunities in Washington’s dealings with other countries.

The Kanilai International Cultural Festival certainly has a clear cut diplomatic objective of global relevance. As culture is believed to be the way of life of a people, consistent and sustained cultural interactions and exchanges have the potential to remove stereotyped perceptions of each other as people, states and entities. This is necessary in order to defuse international tensions and avert conflicts stemming from entrenched ignorance that continues to dog international diplomacy. It is about a decade now since the Kanilai International Cultural Festival was launched. Having survived all these years and even more importantly, assumed a greater international dimension is indeed commendable. This is significant in two major ways.

The Gambia is increasingly assuming the profile of a cultural melting pot as increasing number of foreign nationals continue to participate in the mega cultural jamboree. It also enables the Gambia to reach out and maintain a cultural presence in many parts of the world. These are essential conditions for the successful conduct of modern Cultural Diplomacy. Undoubtedly, sustaining the momentum generated by this presidential initiative is a challenging undertaking. But there cannot be an alternative to the preservation and immortalization of the fundamental ideals that inspired this great initiative.

Therefore, new ideas and suggestions and even plans as to the way forward should take into account the following: institutionalization of the initiative. This requires putting in place the necessary structures. A permanent secretariat, with the responsibility to administer and coordinate the affairs of the festival is indeed essential. Such an institution would provide that vital outreach to other important stakeholder institutions and bodies, including UNESCO. This is important because such contacts will open new avenues for cultural and information exchanges and increased awareness. It will certainly reduce the financial burden on the sole financier of the festival.
Another important suggestion could be an international cultural conference as an integral part of the programme of activities. This would bring on board, from far and wide; academics, historians, students, researchers and even philosophers, amongst others. The outcome of such discussions on the range of issues representing diverse perspectives would aid that crucial documentation process.

This could make the Gambia a reference point, having revived her cultural heritage and injected additional impetus and dynamism in its foreign policy. The body of knowledge that will be produced and documented from such fora can be a vital source of research and reference material for future generations of researchers, historians, students, philosophers and diplomats. It will also improve the marketability of the Gambia as a major tourist destination. The Kanilai International Cultural Festival is certainly one man's initiative from a small West African Country but one that has global resonance and relevance, that could potentially dawn a new era in International Relations. The revitalization of Cultural Diplomacy is probably more imperative now, given the inadequacies or sometimes, apparent failures of conventional diplomacy in reducing global tensions and enhancing greater international understanding, for peace and development.  

Kebba Dibba


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