Whose culture is it anyway?

2013-07-14 14:00

How did a concept of such deeply European origins come to be jealously guarded and fiercely defended by those who call themselves African traditionalists?

As I follow the news of Nelson Mandela’s children making fools of themselves in the full glare of the world, I find myself amused by the spectacle of African traditionalists falling all over each other in the battle over who are the best interpreters of this concept.

“Culture” has had many lives over the past 400 years, and this fight by Africans over its meaning may well prefigure yet another extension of its existence.

The concept really owes its origins to Europe in the 16th and 17th century as the belief in predestination by an all-determining God was replaced by the Age of Reason. French Philosopher René Descartes announced the arrival of the Age of Reason with his famous declaration: “I think, therefore I am.”

As human beings started to believe that they could make and improve their own lives, they took a word that meant ”to cultivate” and turned it into a metaphor for social development. Over time, “culture” morphed into a description of sophistication among the higher classes through the spread of Victorian values.

Africans responded in different ways to the imposition of this civilised culture by the Europeans. Some swallowed the new European civilisation/culture while others would have nothing to do with it, and others realised the only way to survive was to adopt and adapt to the new culture.

Is it not interesting that the very ancestors in whose name the traditionalists claim to speak were themselves innovative in responding to the realities of their times?

Early African intellectuals such as Mpambani Mzimba and Elijah Makiwane broke away from the Christian church to form what we now call African churches like the Ethiopian Church.

The ANC was born as a form of political adaptation, advocating in its 1919 constitution the vote for only “civilised” African men.

Culture took on more radical and revolutionary adaptations with the passage of time, culminating in the Black Renaissance of the black consciousness movement.

If anything, I hope this history demonstrates there is no such thing as a pure, God-given African culture.

Ironically, we seem to be living out the stereotypes that colonisers had of African culture as frozen in time. Steve Biko warned about this when he wrote “cultures affect each other, you know, like fashions”.

He warned against an “arrested image of culture” when he wrote: “Our culture must be defined in concrete terms. We must relate the past to the present and demonstrate an historical evolution of the modern African.

We must reject the attempts by the powers that be to project an arrested image of our culture.”

The late Ugandan scholar Dani Nabudere gave a potentially useful description of the relationship between culture on the one hand and traditions on the other.

The tradition of ukwaluka among the Xhosa seems to be showing strain that comes from a cultural breakdown in too many communities, leading to the scourge of death we have witnessed over the past few years.

Why has circumcision never led to even one death in Ginsberg (Eastern Cape) for the decades it has been practised? Is there something about the culture of the community that helps sustain the tradition there?

The fight over the graves of Nelson Mandela’s children has come to revolve around Mandla Mandela’s right to make decisions as the head of the Mandela clan or household.

But a question about this tradition that comes out of the culture of our times is what makes a man better able to make decisions than a woman, and even women with much more life experiences than him? And will this preference of boy children over girl children pass constitutional muster?

It has been argued by some that male succession ensures continuity of the chieftaincy within the family since men don’t change surnames when they marry. But matrilineal societies seem to have done quite well with female primogeniture.

The British have had a change of heart about male primogeniture, which they have been practising for centuries.

I raise these examples to make the point that nothing is fixed and immutable in even the most tradition-bound societies.

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