One of the most common excuses you’ll hear someone from an African country give when confronted with a moral/ethical issue they are unable to respond to (or respond to honestly without making themselves look bad) is: “We don’t have that in our culture.” I most recently saw this when, in response to the news that Lupita Nyong’o had bought the film rights to Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s book Americanah, a Nigerian lawyer admonished Chimamanda to “try to represent Nigerians more accurately” now that she is the world’s source of information on Nigerian life. His bone of contention: the fact that Obinze leaves his wife for Ifemelu at the end. According to this man, Nigerian men “don’t leave their wives for girl friends…”
Now, I’m a believer in culture; that expression of the authentic self, rooted in history and shared experiences. I believe that as Africans, we have the responsibility to ensure that what is good about our cultural heritage and values, whatever country or tribal grouping they come from, don’t get drowned out by the wave of globalization that is sweeping the world. I believe that ultimately, culture will constitute one of the tenets that will help ground us in this tech driven, sometimes miasmic and constantly changing world. I believe an awareness of culture is what will help us make decisions that work in our own interests. I’m not talking about the African culture that consists of Ankara prints, ethnic jewelry, Afrobeat music and witty proverbs – that convenient cultural identity which helps us defy a world that would force us to assimilate to an otherness that is definitely not ours. That culture that we bring out, dust off and present when we want to impress our foreign friends with our exoticism.
I’m talking about the culture – the collective consciousness of who we are and where we come from that can help us answer questions on heavy moral and ethical issues : human rights, sexuality, work ethic, economic advancement, life after death, living with integrity and compassion for one another…things like that. Surely, us Africans had thoughts on these subjects that are worth hearing (and may be…just may be, living by) which existed before Western Europeans showed up with Christianity and “civilization” and convinced us that we were all barbarians. Paul Chidyausiku’s poem “A Proud Old Man” comes to mind:
The old man could have, as so many of us Africans do, bowed his head and submitted to the “superior knowledge” the colonial masters brought. But he had a clear idea of who he is and where he comes from and that enabled him to look at the way of life of Westerners, not with moonstruck eyes of awe but with a critical eye which enabled him see what was deficient. This is not to suggest that his assertions about pre-colonial African life are correct. No adultery? Please… The value here is that he questioned with a critical eye.
I thought a lot about this during one of my classes on the ethics of medical research in Africa and recently talked about it in a comment in Minna Salami’s blog, Ms Afropolitan. It is easy for Western ethical philosophies to clash with and ultimately overwhelm those on the continent and I think this happens because not enough of us are really taking the time to assess the philosophies and religions that existed on the African continent before the Christian/Western inundation. We lump them all under contri fashion (backwards thinking) and ignore them. My research turned up some reading from the likes of Michael Onyebuchi Eze, Wole Soyinka and Cheikh Anta Diop. I couldn’t help shake the feeling that we would be able to answer many more of these ethical and moral questions in ways that made sense to us (whether or not they aligned with Western principles) if we dug a little deeper into those forgotten philosophies and took the time to pare away the obsolete from the relevant. I feel like the collective “we” suffer from massive cognitive dissonance in that regard, where many of the things we do, do not align with core beliefs we have (or believe are ours) but we do them because that is the “modern” way. There is a common anglophone Cameroonian saying which sums up this dissonance perfectly: Mungang for pocket, Bible for hand (Talisman in the pocket, Bible in the hand) .
When it becomes just too much, we dig in our heels and say “That is not our culture.”
But what exactly is that culture? What are it’s manifestations? Can we clearly articulate the beliefs it espouses on the various facets of life? Can we use this culture to critically examine the decisions we take on a daily basis, individually and collectively? Or are they just feel-good pseudo memories of the old days when things were still how they should be? Can we use this culture to answer pressing moral and ethical questions of our time? How is this culture changing as it encounters and interacts with cultures from around the world? All we know right now is that our cultures took the back seat when European ships anchored off African coasts.
Culture can be a defining and unifying force. From culture springs the inspiration and vision which guides any group into their collective future. Without a clear grasp of culture in all its dynamic glory and its anchoring power, it is easy to be whisked around by whatever wind is blowing (Cameroonian music, I’m looking at you…) I believe fervently that the African continent will see progress, only after we stop depending on the world to tell us how we should be and look back on our history (pre-colonial, that is) and use the customs that guided life back then, as a blue print. Not as a one size fits all garment to apply to all situations, but as a versatile fabric that we can cut clothing out of to suit the occasion. The people, their shared experiences and resolutions, after all, make the dynamic thing that culture and not the other way around. I believe that we can separate what makes for healthy communities from what would breed strife. I believe that we can adapt these customs to life as it exists today, to meet our political, economic and social needs.