“The African Culture Complex”


Any study of African culture must take into account that Africa 5 minutes ago, 50 years ago, 500 years ago and Africa 5000 years ago is not a static feature.

A diverse Africa has influenced, and been influenced. Concepts and cultures of African origin have been exported and re-imported, just as genes, ideas and technologies have exited and reentered African populations.

History and cultures, by both conscious and unconscious forces, distills those characteristics that are deemed relevant and pass them on from generation to generation. The phenomenon of history and culture is the further back you look at it, the more monolithic/compressed it becomes. So over time cultural distinctions between similar communities blur and becomes monolithic: Just like the further you move away from an object the smaller and less distinguishable it becomes.

There is no such thing as African monolithic purity, cultures smash through deserts, cross trade routes, travel through immigration borders, disregarding our notions of geography and race. Throughout history, names, foods, cultures, religions, genetics have jumped between Asia and Africa from the dawn of humanity with blatant disregard for our social constructions.  

But as much as culture drifts on the open ocean of human interaction and technological development, pushed on by the winds of globalization, the ethics of culture are pretty much static. And where Africa is concerned, the centrality of life-systems and functionality have always been at the root of all African cultures. But today some think that culture is who has the most beads around their head.

Now and in antiquity, from KMT to modern Congo, respect for elders has remained an unbroken cornerstone in African cultural systems. Marriage rites, burial rites, ancestors’ rites, still honour their original foundation. For 2000 years in Ethiopia the ethics and ethos of Ethiopian culture have not altered, even though rituals attached to those ethics may have come and gone. So we might change dowry from Cows-to-Coins but the function of dowry (Labolla/Mahr) remains the same. And it is also critical to understand African culture is more than symbols, and rituals, languages and aesthetic, it is also those virtues such as hospitality, empathy, courtesy, and respect. So much so that the entire foundation of many of the rituals and customs are there to transmit these virtues. And it is from culture’s creativity that creates music and dance, poetry and arts.

But these are only some manifestations of culture. What some are left with today are the by-products of culture, only music or only dance, while having no deep memory of the core cultural system. What is the point of multiculturalism if we all become one? Same ethics, same dress, same attitude, same way of thinking, same hair, clothes, and socialization. Where is the richness in that—if Africa looks like Europe? The beauty of the world is in the differences, which allow for diverse contributions to this world. Culture is the repository of human traditions; long and tested solutions for living in a meaningful way. 

Culture is the core of our African humanity and holds some of the secrets to life’s purpose; it modulates human behaviour, the ethics of the group, etc.

There is no authentic autonomous identity outside of the culture that cradles it.

And African culture is certainly not National Geographic’s image of drum beating  Africans in grass skirts, or CNN’’s notion of dancing naked Africans eating bush meat, or even the Kora player playing in a European night club. African culture is far more than a dance, dish or a dress. It does not exist for the pleasure of a Western tourist, like a theme show at a Walt Disney exhibit. Too often the notion of African or Black culture is viewed through the touristic culturally-curious lens of Europe. So “culture” per UK’s mission in Africa is tantamount to “jungle culture.” But equally it is also certainly not what “blacks’ in urban America do on MTV base.

Today, it is almost impossible to conceive of African culture and not hear some drums beating, and some guys jumping around the stage: It is someone—not Africans—who defined that as the total expression of African culture; Africans continue to internalize that myth. But in Ethiopia culture is in the coffee ritual, in Mali it may be tea ritual and camel racing, in Afro-South America it can be seen in capoeira; in Haiti it manifest in Vodon, in Barbados in the Cou Cou and flying fish.

Dark skin is just skin with a high percentage of melanin. It does not inform anything distinctive, apart from the social historical reality that people with dark skin get treated bad— but beyond that it does not define someone’s value formation—only culture does that. And in absence of this culture, blackness just absorbs the cultural identity of oppression; contributing to the culture-less deserts of humanity. African culture is the culture of the inventiveness and adaptation of African people, since no continent can sponsor a culture—only people can.

How then can we protect culture when culture is not defined? How can you defend a territory that has no boundaries? Culture cannot float or it would be meaningless at retaining its shape, and therefore incapable of sustaining itself or creating innovation. And we must always bear in mind, culture is only as good as its function to living people. And either Africans take ownership and profit from their diverse cultures (like Jazz, Break dance, herbal remedies, etc) or it will end up in the claim-books of other people.

The majority of African cultures are communal, as oppose to “individualistic and this one difference creates entirely different paradigm and behaviors. (Africa would never produce Nihilism or Existentialist though for example) This communal root spills over to inform notions of “human rites” and ethics. All of these factors are interwoven in the fabric of Africa’s quilt of cultures. Cultural laws are about boundary-maintenance, which fundamentally inform notions of morality that in turn inform legislation and nationhood. And Africa’s cultural fences are the bastion to African self-definition, and if haphazardly torn down and replaced with untested immoral values, what kind of death will that bring to Africa’s unique humanity?

 African culture includes but is not limited to: The centrality of spirituality, ethics, the placement of music, aesthetic, family formations, marriage rites, both the tangible and intangibles intellectual paradigms. The agents affecting culture are climate, geography, technology, cross-cultural interaction and unfortunately a history of oppression.

Long ago some wise people realized that certain habits bore bad fruit, while other habits, such as marriage bore success in the group setting. 

It was also realized that at some stage children became adults when they had been fully institutionalized to the ethics of the group’s culture. 

At this stage a ritual demarked this transition to full group membership. These “rites of passage” became critical in nation building. It is clearly not only a hallmark of African civilizations, but many other communities such as the Bar Mitzvah which denotes a Jewish youth being considered responsible for their actions and being included in the adult rituals of the group.

February 2015
« Dec   Mar »