Meaning of culture needs decoding

2010-01-19 08:13


I was growing up, one of the most dreaded things that could happen on any given

evening, particularly between 6pm and 8pm, was a friend of my father’s coming to

visit. Whenever supper was prepared, it was done so with specific numbers in

mind, especially when it came to the meat. If there was chicken, there would be

as many pieces as there were people in the house, taking into consideration

personal piece preference; drumstick, thigh, breasts, etc.

So, when we had visitors it meant that, if it was around supper

time, they were allocated our pieces of meat and we had to shelve eating till

they left. For this purpose we had to hang around the kitchen, which meant we

also couldn’t watch television.

It seems minor but it is one of those memories that have stuck with

me since childhood. It is one of those idiosyncrasies, traditions or cultural

habits that had to be followed, ­whether one felt they made sense or not.

How often do we talk about “culture” when we mean tradition or

ritual or just habit? What is culture anyway? How do we define culture?

I like how South African History Online defines it: “Culture refers

to a special way of life for a group of people. It can be seen in ways of

behaving, beliefs, values, customs followed, dress style, personal decoration

like makeup and jewellery, relationships with others and the special symbols and


“Culture is passed from one generation to the next although each

generation also takes from new experiences and drops habits that don’t fit with

the changed times.”

Interestingly, they define heritage as “a collection of practices,

or ways of doing things, that are handed down from parents to children as

traditions”, which for me seems to relate to a lot of things we insist are

culture. Actually, is there really a difference?

Growing up in a country – Lesotho – that was different from where

my family originated – Ghana – made for some interesting challenges and

practices. For example, when you walked in the room and greeted everyone, we had

to go from right to left, shaking each hand.

This is more a Ghanaian practice. With the ­Basotho, on the other

hand, one went straight to the eldest person in the room first.

Another that took me some time to ­absorb was to never give

anything over with my left hand, especially to someone older than I.

I got a hot klap on the back for that one a couple of times so, to

this day, I make sure I never use my left hand with my father, even if he is

standing or sitting on my left.

Every couple of weeks, something happens where culture is called

into question or called as explanation for particular acts, rituals, etc.

I think we are missing the point because the discussion is not had

with an open mind but is rather rife with accusation and judgment. I also find

that we are quick to point fingers at others without looking at ourselves first.

In addition to the Ghana and Lesotho influence, I also grew up with

a strong German influence and, as a result, the search for identity, culture and

heritage has always been important for me. I also realised that, with the

differing influences, I needed to find what worked for me and what didn’t.

To some, this may seem like selling out but I found it was the

easiest way to stay sane. And, for whatever reason, I have acquired little

things that have no relation whatsoever to any aspect of my roots; usually just

things that seemed cool or meaningful when I first came across them. One that is

fascinating me now is tattoos.

Previously considered the domain of the criminal-minded, biker

gangs and sailors, tattoos have started to take on a more fashionable tinge over

the last decade, particularly in South Africa’s urban nodes.

Tattoos have never really been big in African culture, with

scarification being more prevalent due to the high levels of melanin. Beyond the

negative spaces society tends to focus on, it has been especially widespread

among indigenous groups in places such as Japan, Polynesia, New Zealand, etc.

There is even evidence of tattooing in ancient Greece, Egypt, etc.

I have acquired a couple of tattoos that relate back to my roots

and elements of what I consider my culture. My son will spend his life looking

at this, and through this, will get an understanding of that aspect of where he

comes from.

He will also hopefully look at me, not on the basis of my

difference from him, as a result of ink, but rather on what kind of parent I


We constantly look for the things that make us different. We look

at dress, and hair, and style, and all other aspects of appearance and are quick

to judge. We sit and use words and phrases such as “uncivilised” and “backward”

because of our inability to look beyond the surface, and our unwillingness to

understand before judging. In a country with diverse cultures, we will never get

it right until we learn that we do not have to be the same. We just have to have

respect for each other.

Culture evolves but some things are still relevant. We just need to

be willing to honestly look at what is and what isn’t.

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