My primary school teacher described it best when she told us that culture can be defined as a people’s way of life. It is very common that culture is mistaken for tradition and it isn’t difficult to see why this happens. A more expansive definition of culture would describe it as the manifestation of the collective ideas held by a group of people. Tradition on the other hand is only a vehicle to transcend this culture from one generation to the other. The problem with most societies is that so much respect is granted to tradition that we end up making the culture it propagates static instead of being dynamic. To compound this problem we often assign a mentality of no-question-asked towards traditions and the culture they propagate. Hardly do we stop to consider the origins of the culture we live in or contemplate that the creators of this culture were humans no different from us and probably less knowledgeable or exposed to the world as we are today.
In Nigeria it is normal to have two weddings, a traditional marriage and a ‘white’ wedding (I am not sure what the Islamic equivalent is called). Would it be so difficult to simply invite a pastor or anyone ordained to certify a union before God to the traditional wedding? Surely this would save money, time, and a lot of stress involved in inviting the same set of people twice to celebrate the same occasion. Or are we saying that our forefathers before us were somehow less married because they only had one marriage ceremony? Or perhaps so many other cultures around the world that only go through one marriage ceremony need to double up on their celebrations? We can also decide to fuse the two marriages and have the traditional wedding in place of what we currently call the wedding reception. Or go all in and keep it completely white…it is always our choice to do as we please.
To start with, the notion of African culture is flawed from the onset as Africa is home to many tribes with very distinct cultural differences. Nigeria alone is home to more than two hundred languages so where do we get the idea of an African or Nigerian culture? As if it isn’t bad enough that we don’t have a unified culture, euro-centrism has come to stay and there is nothing we can do about it. We speak English, we dress English, we watch satellite television, we listen to Western music, and we read Western books. Even without acknowledging it, we are already culturally westernized and dare I say it, it isn’t a bad thing at all. The world is changing and we are faced with the choice of adapting or resisting. If there is any lesson to learn in resistance of change over the course of history, it is that resistance only brings conflict and pain.
Continuing with a tradition simply because it has been practiced for many years not only stifles creativity but can also retard the pace of development. Whenever people give their reason for an action to be ‘because tradition demands it, I find myself rather perplexed at the notion. Don’t get me wrong I am all for cultural pride and appreciation but whenever alternatives to traditional methods appear, I am all for considering the new option. Let us look at some cultural norms that would make us curl up in fear today.
The killing of twins and albinos was once popular in some areas of this part of the world. Can you imagine how many twin babies were left in bushes and forests to starve to death or to be eaten by animals? In line with the killing of infants there was also the case of killing sickle cell babies. I remember learning about the poem called Abiku by John Pepper Clark. It was many years later that the thought occurred to me that the so-called spirit children that keep coming and going in the poem were probably sickle cell babies. To think that then people mutilated the faces of these babies hoping that their ugliness would displease the spirits so they could leave the baby alone to stay with the parents on its return to the world. We have no problem admitting to ourselves that such traditions should have never been formed in the first place. And if I may add, both were broken thanks to the intervention of foreigners.
Today, culture isn’t quite what it used to be even if we turn a blind eye to obvious changes. Art by its nature has always been a means to express culture and you only need look at the arts and entertainment industry in Nigeria today to realize how far from the past we have come. It started with the expansion of trade, the radio, satellite television, and then the Internet came along. Since then things have not been the same. During the years of our forefathers it was difficult to dilute our culture because there was very limited exposure to other cultures. But as soon as colonization came to Africa there was no escaping eurocentrism. The Europeans came with schools and bibles, the rest as they say is history.
When you consider that African culture was mainly propagated by oral tradition it becomes obvious to see how easy it must have been to dilute and replace it. It is no coincidence that countries like China where writing was already popular before the Europeans ever set foot on their shores largely maintained their culture till today. The contributions of eastern philosophers like Confucius already inked on rice paper created a solid knowledge base and to compound this Buddhism was already solidified in writings opened to be built upon and transmitted for later generations. In Nigeria tribes depended on oral tradition which meant our culture was not protected as there was no static reference to its origins we could use as a foundation. All the Europeans really had to do was set up schools and indoctrinate our young into a new mode of thinking with education, and just to solidify this mode of thinking Christianity was spread to replace the old gods and other spiritual and divination systems. When I hear Nigerians reject an idea of western origin exclaiming ‘God forbid’, I cannot help but chuckle at the irony. To think that we have already given up our idea of spirituality to adopt one that is alien to us but try to assert our cultural identity over changes the very religion we adopted changed. The Northern part of Nigeria was more or less untouched by the missionaries because the English already established a tax system that did not require their presence in the land. And let’s not forget that the Koran was already written in some form and by nature Islam is a well developed religion. It would not have been easy to convert them. It is worth investigating if there is any correlation between literacy rates in the Northern region and the Southern region where standardized education was introduced much earlier.
Fela Kuti stands out as one of the most well-known advocates for the promotion of African culture but we know that Fela’s time abroad affected the way he thought in a lot of ways. I am as big a Fela fan as the next Nigerian, and share his views on many issues, but by today’s standard, his misogyny is unthinkable. In a world where individuality continues to grow as our awareness of the possibilities afforded by a world rich in culture it has become almost insulting to sell the idea of being a second wife to any woman. I will like to point out that I personally have no issues with polygamy with consenting adults. I only have an issue with the defining of women in a way that it restricts them from expressing themselves as they see fit. This is an opinion I also have regarding men but discussing sexism is for a later chapter. The point I tried to make by citing the late Fela Kuti is that we cannot rely on original definitions given to us by our culture. We have to understand that in an evolving world ideas and knowledge have to be updated to stay relevant with the time.
Before we get caught up in the notion that the West has brought nothing but progress to Africa I must point out that like every imperfect culture, they also instilled a lot of bad habits we continue to live by today. In one sentence I will say the West changed our worldview from a liberal stand-point to an extremely conservative one. The flesh of the moral standards enforced in Nigeria today is as a result of interpretations of moral codes transmitted through western religions. Of course Christianity is really Middle Eastern by origin, but the Western world is responsible for its spread thanks to Rome, France, and England. How the perception of religion can be changed to avoid some of the progress it stifles will be the subject of the next chapter. Islam, which is also very conservative is foreign to Africa.
In summary we need to rethink how we define cultural identity and how this relates to a fast changing world. The idea of navigating 21st century problems with a 20th century mind-set will leave us constantly in growing pains and no growth. I am of the opinion that no culture is superior to another but are merely possibilities of what humans can do in clusters that we call societies. Margret Mead who studied cultures untouched by Western or any other civilization for that matter noticed how a difference in their worldview allowed for so many norms we would consider absurd in our current mode of thinking. She recorded a fluctuation in sexuality between homosexuality and heterosexuality and how it was not judged to be abnormal. Even adultery wasn’t such a big deal and was settled with an apology that followed an invite for dinner by the adulteress’s husband. Apparently, in the Yaohnanen tribe it is acceptable to sleep with your neighbour’s wife if she consents to it but the man should not know. The punishment for being caught again is an apology that puts the matter behind both houses very quickly.
It is worth mentioning that the Yaohnanen tribe believe Prince Philip of England to be some sort of god and expected his return, which would bring eternal life and youth to the village. They regard supplies from planes to be gifts from the gods and treat visitors with the sort of kindness we can only dream of at the immigration desk especially when you carry a Nigerian passport. Their men dress just to cover the phallus and I read somewhere that they assumed Europeans had gigantic penises on their first contact because they couldn’t figure out why they would need to wear trousers so long. While this might seems very funny and even backwards to most of us, it stands as an example of how different we can think depending on our cultural conditioning. We would be no different from these tribesmen and tribeswomen if aliens paid us a visit tomorrow.