Entrevista Ambe Njoh

Foto: Nuno Gonçalves, 2018 (Divulgação).

Ambe J. Njoh é Professor na University of South Florida (Tampa, EUA), onde dirige o Programa Urban & Regional Planning. PhD em Filosofia no Development Planning Unit, Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning (University of London). Tem publicado vários livros e artigos sobre o fenómeno urbano em África, dos quais destacamos “Urban Planning and Public Health” (Routledge, 2012), “Planning Power. Town Planning and Social Control in Colonial Africa” (UCL Press, 2007), e “Tradition, Culture and Development in Africa: Historical Lessons for Modern Development Planning” (Routeledge, 2006), 

Foi um dos keynote speakers (com Laurajanne Smith e Wallace Chang) na Conferência Worlds of Cultural Heritage (Coimbra, 7 e 8 de Fevereiro de 2019), onde apresentou a comunicação “Toponymic Inscription as an Instrument of Power in the French colonial entreprise: case study of Indocinha and Africa”. Nesse contexto, a convite do Programa Patrimónios de Influência Portuguesa, o Professor Njoh concedeu-nos a entrevista que agora publicamos. Abordámos sobretudo questões sobre o estudo do património em territórios coloniais, umas mais amplas, outras em diálogo direto com algum do trabalho que tem publicado.

1. The project we belong to, "Heritage of Portuguese Influence", proposes a dialogue approach between the different territories that have Portuguese cultural influence, connecting for example, the heritages of Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, India, China, etc. How do you think that these studies can contribute to understanding the reality of postcolonial contexts of the different cities of this universe?

It is impossible to overstate the importance of history for understanding contemporary development initiatives and their outcomes in post-colonial states. A comparative analysis of cities in different former colonies can permit a good appreciation of the various ways by which colonial policy was shaped by reality on the ground in the colonies. This suggests that colonial and post-colonial policies to promote, say, Portuguese culture and other features of Portuguese heritage were/are influenced by conditions on the ground in former Portuguese colonies such as Brazil, Mozambique, Angola, and Cape Verde.

2. In the perspective of the twentieth century, the discussion about the protection of cultural heritage happened from a completely Western and Eurocentric point of view, based on its own value system, ignoring the possibility of other criteria of non-dominant cultures, that can create serious consequences in these contexts. Having that in mind, how do you think that should be our approach to the issue of heritage in postcolonial realities, with such distinct social and urban framework?

A true account of the history of any civilization is that which refrains from selectivity, that is, one that strives for inclusivity and comprehensiveness. Such an account must avoid embellishing and distorting any and all aspects of historical realities. Therefore, to be considered veritable, the history of non-Western civilizations must account for their own achievements, imperfections and frailties as well as the influences of their Western counterparts. This constitutes a logical and worthwhile approach to promoting adequate understanding of heritage in postcolonial contexts.

3. Some scholars have been approaching the heritage built in former colonial territories as “shared built heritage”. Do you agree with this idea? Does it make sense when we study situations of such asymmetrical power relationships? Do you think this idea of “shared built heritage” tries to surpass the seminal question of Stuart Hall, “whose heritage?”

Yes, I subscribe to the notion of ‘shared built heritage’ as a characterization of the heritage developed in colonized territories. My thinking in this regard is guided by the concept of syncretism, which essentially rejects the idea of cultural purity. Instead, any given culture or heritage constitutes an amalgamation of multiple cultures or heritages. Therefore, the asymmetrical power relationships notwithstanding, what may, on first sight, appear to be a ‘pure cultural attribute’ of an erstwhile colonial power in its former colonial protégé, is often not. Rather, the attribute in question would have undergone some contextual transformation that makes it unique to its host environment. A glaring manifestation of this phenomenon is Brazilian Portuguese, which is obviously an offspring of, but discernibly different from, the Portuguese spoken in Portugal.

4. Professor, you have already drawn some really interesting comparisons between the colonial legacies of the British and the French empires. However, former Portuguese and Belgian colonies were also important neighbors of those first ones. Do you think that further comparative studies should also start going this way, breaking away from the prevailing anglo-french dichotomy and searching for other relations?

Yes indeed! I concede that my failure to incorporate the colonial escapades of the Portuguese and Belgians in my examination of the European colonial project in Africa is an unfortunate oversight. Such an omission should not, by any means, be misconstrued as constituting an accentuation of the role of the British and the French, while trivializing that of the Portuguese and Belgians in this project. Consequently, I encourage contemporary and future students of colonialism and post-colonialism to do well to approach the subject from a more comprehensive and encompassing perspective.

5. Together with Liora Bigon, you have present a noteworthy analysis of the worker’s camps in Cameroon (Spatio-Physical power and social control strategies of the colonial state in Africa: the case of CDC workers’ camps in Cameroon). How do you think we can study and assess that heritage, often related to dark times of history, of forced labor and segregation? Moreover, we are talking about a built scenario were architecture does not have an outstanding value. In this regard, do you think that for local communities, this heritage is mostly intangible and drawn from a modernization process of their everyday life?

The workers’ camps of the Cameroons Development Corporation (CDC) discussed in our study should not be mistaken for forced labour camps. The camps in our study are for paid workers. Nevertheless, it is conceivable that the camps had exploitative motives. The colonial employers’ ownership of the camps and their proximity to the plantations meant that the colonial employers could maintain a round-the-clock control over the workers. With respect to heritage, the camps provided colonial authorities an occasion to inscribe Eurocentric architectural artifacts within a veritably African landscape.  

6. In one of your texts we have read (Urbanization and development in sub-Saharan Africa, 2003) you note a very interesting fact: that urbanization does not always have a negative impact on people's quality of life in sub-Saharan Africa. However, recent studies by UNESCO (Culture Urban Future, 2016) point to some trends that globalization and accelerated urbanization can bring to cultural environments - such as the homogenization of landscapes and loss of cultural identity. Do you agree with this? Could you talk a little about what challenges urban planners have to face in this area? Do you believe that cultural heritage can be an important asset in this context?

The contemporary discourse on the urbanization phenomenon in Africa is, at least in part, wrong-headed. It gives the erroneous impression that the urban and rural contexts in Africa are mutually exclusive. They are not! Instead, they are inextricably intertwined and exceedingly overlapping. Urbanites throughout Africa maintain continuous if only complex links with their kin in the rural areas. One is unlikely to come across an African urbanite who spends a whole year without visiting his/her rural-based kin. At the same time, rural areas continue to constitute a dependable reservoir of food for urbanites on the continent. So, as goes rural areas, so goes urban centres. Therefore, attempting to demonstrate the differential impact of urbanization on the quality of life of urbanites as distinct from rural residents may well be an exercise in futility in the context of Africa.