African culture? Not in my name

2009-11-19 00:00

“WE want your legs,” they shouted, according to a report by the BBC.

They hacked him until he died, and then disappeared into the night with the body parts they had harvested from him.

This was in July last year but gory tales of albinos being killed for their body parts, which are used for witchcraft, are still being reported in many parts of East Africa. Many have, as a result, fled to the cities where they are safer.

Sharing albinos’ fear of being hunted down and killed for their body parts are twin children.

In many parts of Africa — from Nigeria in West Africa to as far south as Zimbabwe — it was, for a long time, considered bad luck to give birth to twins. As a result, twins were killed and their corpses thrown into the depths of the forest.

Author Chinua Achebe deals with the twin-killing phenomenon in Things Fall Apart as it manifests itself among the Igbos in Nigeria, and Nancy Farmer explores it in her novel, The Ear, The Eye and the Arm, to show how it played out in Zimbabwe.

I must hasten to add that these are works of fiction, but the phenomena in both texts are informed by historical fact.

The “otherness” of the albinos and the twins was deemed contrary to the dominant “culture” of the people in question and, in order to keep the “culture” pure, the “miscreants” had to be eliminated.

It is a sad reflection on the progress of some societies in Africa that these “cultural” practices are still being witnessed.

In May last year in the village of Tsito in the Volta Region of Ghana, nine-year-old twins Benjamin and Joseph were abducted and murdered on the instruction of a voodoo practitioner, who promised one John Annan Adecku and his three accomplices charms that would turn them into millionaires upon delivery of the twins’ corpses. See how a “cultural” belief has taken a gruesome metamorphosis?

I am invoking the example of the tragedy of albinos and twins on the continent because of yet another ­unfortunate debate about culture in this country.

This is about the ritual — observed by people of ­Nguni stock, including Zulus, Swazis, and Ndebeles — which involves about 40 young men killing a bull with their bare hands.

There is a belief that the warriors inherit the bull’s strength and power when the beast is killed. When the warriors salute the king upon completion of their mission, the power is transferred to the king and his kingdom.

Another explanation for the ritual is that, by killing the beast, the young warriors form a bond of trust and commitment to each other, a sentiment they then transfer to their other peers, creating a strong manhood in the kingdom in question.

I am all for the strengthening of kingdoms. I am all for young men bonding and developing respect and trust for each other. The symbolism is powerful. But I do have a problem with the barbarity of the ritual and the assertion that it encompasses Nguni culture.

The bull-killing season happens in the first week of December, during a feast called ukweshwama, which was recently revived.

In anticipation of the feast, animal-welfare organisations from 10 countries have petitioned the South African Parliament to denounce the annual ritual, practised mainly in KwaZulu-Natal. The call for the denunciation was recently made at the inaugural Pan-African conference on animal welfare in Kenya.

If the purpose of the ritual is to slaughter a bull to appease the ancestors, I don’t see anything wrong with using a spear to achieve the same goal.

In the hands of an expert, one stab is enough, as I have witnessed on many occasions. The beast bellows, everyone cheers in salutation that the ancestors are listening and the beast dies immediately.

You have fulfilled the obligation to “speak” to the ancestors, who will forward the message to God, but at the same time you have ensured a short, merciful death for the animal in question.

I don’t understand the protracted debauchery of pulling the bull by its testicles and pulling its tongue out, seen in so many pictures recently.

And you call that Nguni or Zulu culture? Not in my name. I know I speak for many Ngunis who respect their customs and traditions, but who are outraged by some of the regressive practices.

In their inexorable march to the future, human ­beings of all shades can only consider thoroughly and jettison that which takes them to the dark ages of blind belief and custom — such as the murder of twins ­simply because they were believed to be a threat to the dominant “culture”.

Some people — when they want to justify their lust — will tell you it is their culture to marry more than one woman even if they do not have the wherewithal to take care of their numerous wives and their offspring.

Others will tell you it is their culture not to eat or drink with fellow men who have not been circumcised.

Negligible beliefs, customs, traditions all get ­conflated under the shapeless umbrella called ­culture. Culture is something bigger than that, something more potent, something more intelligent. ­Culture is forward-looking, culture is dynamic — as is humanity.

Culture is the sum total of our beliefs, our customs, our literature, our music, our birth and death rituals, our architecture and our ambitions to make us better inhabitants of this Earth bestowed upon us by ­uMvelinqangi, the Great One, otherwise known as God, Yahweh, Allah, Jah Rastafari.

There were times even in overseas countries, such as Babylon, when infants were offered to the goddess Ishtar. Syrians sacrificed their offspring to Jupiter and Juno. These were “cultural” practices, if you will, to ­appease the gods. But time has moved on.

There were times when humans lived in caves, hunted animals and ate shoots and roots. But today we live in houses, eat cooked food and hold down jobs that are ensuring the intellectual growth of humans who are leaving an impressive legacy for future generations not to desecrate but to build on and move on from.

Culture is about taking the beautiful, spiritually ­fulfilling, inspiring manifestations of life, as lived by our ancestors, and striving to improve these instead of reliving the hurtful, nonsensical aspects of life in the past.

Surely, the admirable warriors who kill bulls with their own hands and their Spanish cousins who play the barbaric “game” called bullfighting wouldn’t like to be thrown back into caves to feast on raw meat, away from their creature comforts: cars, houses, books, television, soccer — especially soccer!


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