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 has been influenced. Concepts and cultures of African origin have been exported and re-imported, just as genes, ideas and technologies have exited and re-entered African populations.
History and cultures, by both conscious and unconscious forces, distill those characteristics that are deemed relevant and pass them on from generation to generation. The further back you look at phenomenon of history and culture, the more monolithic/compressed it becomes. So, over time, cultural distinctions between similar communities blur and become 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.
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. Where Africa is concerned, the centrality of life-systems and functionality have always been at the root of all African cultures.
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, ancestral rites, still honor 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. We might change dowry from Cows-to-Coins but the function of dowry (Labolla/Mahr) remains the same.
It is also critical to understand that African culture is more than symbols, rituals, languages and aesthetics, it is also those virtues such as hospitality, empathy, courtesy, and respect. The entire foundation of many of the rituals and customs are there to transmit these virtues. It is from culture's creativity that music and dance, poetry and arts emanate. But these are only some manifestations of culture. What some are left with today are the byproducts of culture, only music or only dance, with no deep memory of the core cultural system.
What is the point of multiculturalism if we all become one? The 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. There is no authentic autonomous identity outside of the culture that cradles it. African culture is certainly not the 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 dance, dish or dress. It does not exist for the pleasure of 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 Trinidad, in the Steel Pan. 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. In the 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. (The physical continent, beyond environmental impact, is a negligible agent of African culture)
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. We must always bear in mind that culture is only as good as its function to living people. Either Africans take ownership and profit from their diverse culture (like Jazz, Break dance, herbal remedies, etc) or it will end up in the claim-books of other people.
By 'Alik Shahadah
African writer and scholar.
Courtesy: The African Holocaust