/ 12 April 2019

Culture is a living, fragile construct

(John McCann)
(John McCann)


Anyone who has had a guest stay in their house for an extended period of time knows how easy it is for the visitor to disrupt certain long-held cultural traditions through sheer ignorance. Living in the United States for more than three years afforded me many an opportunity to be such a guest and to observe first-hand the fragility of cultural balance.

I lived in a shared house in Washington, DC, with two Kenyans, one Argentinian/Israeli and three Americans. Suffice to say, we all had a chaotic influence on each other. The Africans couldn’t understand the need to label sugar, milk, bread and butter with individual name tags. The idea that our non-African flatmates had four of everything separately compartmentalised boggled our minds. They would each rather have their milk turn sour than have to share it. Ants would routinely get into long-opened sugar containers, bread turned mouldy, leftover pizza became inedible, and so on. All this was done to avoid any instance in which someone would want to use something that had belonged to a flatmate.

The Africans in the house had a completely contrasting cultural philosophy. We shared absolutely everything. Soap, sugar, milk, toilet paper was for all to use. There was an intuitive sense of who had used the most or the last supply of which product, so that they would feel a responsibility to top it up. Our “system” was far from perfect. We very often ran out of things at precisely the wrong time. For things like milk and sugar, on the one hand, it is possible to make do when faced with sudden shortages; toilet paper, on the other hand, not so much! The point is that the three of us had an intuitive cultural approach to sharing that worked for us; the other four had a different approach. Neither approach was good or bad; it just was.

All hell would break loose when we had parties. Our African parties were always packed to the rafters with eclectic students from all over Washington, had fantastic music and were generally short on beer and food. We always clubbed together to put in more funds to keep the party going, but that didn’t stop our guests from helping themselves to our flatmates’ carefully labelled beer, milk, chips and other refreshments. This would lead to an “all hands on deck” house meeting, in which we would be berated for the behaviour of our guests. We would apologise profusely and explain that our guests acted independently of us.

After about the fifth time, despite warnings not to disturb their supplies, things started to change. Our flatmates adopted a strategy of “if you can’t beat them, join them”. Their whole system broke down and they began to live like us. No one had a meeting about it; our culture just sort of won the day.

By the time we all left the house permanently, we were wearing each other’s clothes and sharing beer, water and anything else that was there.

Who would have known that these four gentlemen’s well-honed culture would be so fragile when faced with a completely different way of doing things? This is not to say we did everything the same. The Argentinian could still be found, tears flowing, wearing nothing but his underpants, re-watching the same Diego Maradona video every time he got drunk. The Kenyans insisted on listening to ndombolo music at full blast in the shower every morning. Our American friends never encountered a beer keg they didn’t want to chug down.

The point is that as human beings we are highly susceptible to cultural influences. Small changes in one’s life can lead to permanently altered ways of living. I understand culture to be the ways of thinking, ways of acting and material objects that together shape a people’s way of life. Culture consists of, among other things, symbols, beliefs, values, languages, norms, artefacts and social institutions.

Culture manifests itself in material (symbols, artefacts and clothing) or nonmaterial (beliefs, norms and social institutions) ways. Both aspects are important and serve to reinforce each other. Tampering with any of these individual aspects can have a major effect on the growth and sustainability of a particular culture. In this sense, all cultures have a great deal of fragility.

The sources of Africa’s cultural fragility can be uncovered by removing the dust that has settled, over time, on the effects of three worldwide social revolutions. These have combined to permanently change human social patterns, but have had perhaps their most profound effects on the way Africans conceive of themselves relative to the rest of the world. The effect has been the forced sacrifice of the ancient African mentality of abundance and its replacement by the modern capitalist mentality of scarcity.

Understanding the breathtaking effect these social impulses have had on African culture is illuminating. It will allow us to understand why protecting one’s culture while embracing modernity is so important. As always, the long lens of history has to be used appropriately to observe the contours of the change.

Leisure time has been usurped by a modern conception of work. This threat was facilitated through the use of soft power, through the myth-creating machines of religion, law and media propaganda wielded by foreign imperialists. This is one of the mechanisms used by Anglo-Saxon societies in possession of soft power to successfully usurp the African continent’s shared reality of abundance and swap it for a mentality of scarcity. The adopted mentality of scarcity has manifested itself in a passive consumerism that continues to impoverish Africa to this day.

Three large social impulses have facilitated this shift in mindset: the introduction of the alphabetic language structure, the introduction of formal religion and the creation of money. Although these impulses have produced many positive achievements worldwide, Africans at the cultural receiving end have suffered severe cultural disorientation.

Without these social impulses, and the ensuing loss of the mentality of abundance, African history would probably have developed in a significantly different direction. These three impulses are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.

This is an edited extract from Africa Reimagined by Hlumelo Biko (Jonathan Ball Publishers)