Tenets of the African Culture

Published on 9th February 2015

The fundamental basis of African culture – Communalism – is community-oriented. Unlike individualism which is the fundamental basis of Western cultures, communalism gives precedence to a people and not to people. That is to say, it imbues the individual with the values of community-spirit – making him/her understand that community-good is the fertile ground for the growth of individual good.  Under this social order, community welfare undergirds almost, if not, all actions.  Nothing done (or not done) either by the individual or by groups within the community is considered good unless it has positive relevance for the community. In an article - Communalism as a Fundamental Dimension of Culture, (International Journal 0f Communication, Moemeka, 1994), the ethical underpinnings of this cultural social order were clearly highlighted. In addition to such highlighted ethical underpinnings, it was also pointed out that – in Communalism “not only are members concerned about their messages reaching their expected destinations and meeting the needs/goals for which they were sent, they are more concerned about how the result of their messages would affect existing as well as potential future human interrelationships." In interpersonal relationships and in social actions, adherence to communication rules, that is, tacit but socially sanctioned understanding about appropriate ways to interact in given situations, is a strict requirement.This is what Cushman (1989) has called Standardized Coordinated Behaviour, the non-compliance to which always provoked strict   social, and often-times, economic and psychological sanctions.

The cultural requirements just quoted find concrete and specific expressions in each of the five basic principles of Communalism:  Supremacy of the Community, Sanctity of Authority, the Usefulness of the Individual, Respect for Old Age, and Religion as a Way of Life. Because of the relevance of those basic cultural principles, I beg your indulgence to quote at some length the particular section of that article that deals with the basic cultural principles of Communalism.

“Considered most important of the fundamental principles is the Supremacy of the Community, that is, the undisputed and culturally accepted authority of the community as an entity, over its individual members or groups. Under this principle, individual needs and aspirations are subsumed under community needs and aspirations and are examined in light of the welfare of the community. The understanding, of course, is that whatever is of benefit to the community will eventually be of benefit to its individual members.  Total obedience to the community, as an entity that exists for the good of all, is demanded not only in the physical and material arenas, but also with respect to communication needs and social expectations."

Second is Sanctity of Authority. In authentic communalistic communities, sanctity of authority is strictly upheld.  Leaders are not just citizens of the community, or just ‘first among equals’; they are both the temporal and spiritual heads of their communities.  As a result they are seen as representing Divine Providence, and therefore, given the honor and prestige that befits that position.  But this high honor reserved for leaders must, of necessity, be deserved.  Otherwise, the leader would not only lose the leadership position but would also fall into disrepute. Therefore, even for leaders, the demands of the supremacy of the community are in force.  Leaders lead, but they are not above, the community!!  They are required to lead by example. In order for them to be good examples for the people to follow, they must say and do what is socially and culturally acceptable, at the right times, in the right places.

Very peculiar to Communalism is the strong belief in the fluid type of leadership structure emanating from the philosophy of gerontocracy (i.e. leadership by age). Here, gerontocracy extends down the line. Anyone who finds him/herself in a situation in which he/she is the oldest person around, is required to assume, on the spot, the leadership position in that situation, and to lead the group to the successful completion of ongoing activity. All those over whom the individual exercises this normative on-the-spot leadership are also required to recognize and respect his/her authority. Tradition expects on-the-spot leaders to correct, advise, admonish and help those under their care/supervision.  They are held responsible for the actions of those over whom they exercise the power of leadership and must answer to the community for whatever is done or not done.

Third is the principle of the Usefulness of the Individual which derives its strength from the strong belief in communalistic societies that (Moemeka, 1996: pp. 170-193) –

(a) people are looking glasses to one another (they are ‘instruments’ that help them see how others see them);

(b) people are also providential guides for one another (they are useful companions who help others through various ways and means to live as Providence would have them live); and

(c) there can be no harmonious and progressive community without individual members who are willing to serve truthfully, honestly, and selflessly.

The community depends on its individual members for its own existence and survival.  In return, the community performs two broad functions.  First, it accords every member the right, based on established norms, to participate fully in the government of the community.  Second, it takes on the responsibility of guarding, guiding and protecting individual rights and the people’s cherished norms and mores.

The most valued aspect of this responsibility is the sustenance of community spirit which demands that the hungry be fed; the sick be looked after; the community takes care of the needs of the sick (especially the bed-ridden) during periods of illness; orphans be fostered without delay, and adult members of the community be fathers and mothers not only to their own children, but to the young in general. 

Hence the famous adage: “It takes a village to raise a child.” This cultural trait finds philosophical justification in some aspects of African oral literature.  The Fante of Ghana transmit this value with the adage: “The poor kinsman does not lack a resting place”; the Igbo of Nigeria teach it with – “Two brothers do not need a lamp to eat together even in the darkest of corner”; and the Zulu of South Africa remind citizens of it with: “Hands wash each other in order to keep the fingers clean.” (Moemeka, 1989, p.6).  These adages which are socio-cultural in nature, have a very strong ethical/religious undertone.  They demand (a) honesty and trust in interpersonal and group relationships, and (b) willing acceptance of the cultural demands of honesty and service to the community and (c) help to one’s kinsmen and women.

Next is Respect for Old Age which emphasizes cultural deference to gerontocracy.  The longer one lives, the wider one’s traditional and social span of authority within the community. Hence old age is honorable and elderly men and women are treated with dignity and respect.  Their advice is, in general, not easily set aside.  The exalted position that the culture has bestowed on the elderly gives communalistic societies a learning environment in which the experienced and knowledgeable are culturally required to guide the community and to educate and guide the inexperienced and the young.    This principle enables the elderly, who can see danger where the young may not, to warn of such dangers, and the young to listen and take heed.    The principle helps to avoid the proverbial indictment which says: To see danger and not to forewarn, is the bane of elders; to be forewarned and not to listen, is the bane of  youth.

The last of the five fundamental principles is the cultural recognition of Religion as a Way of Life.  Religion pervades life in truly communalistic communities (Mbiti, 1969), and it is used as a tool for safeguarding social order and protecting social norms and communication rules (Moemeka, 1994).  Communalism demands that people’s life reflect a solid blend of what is regarded as holy and what is accepted as socially permissible.  There is no formal distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the religious and the non-religious, or between the spiritual and the material arenas of life (Mbiti, 1969).  Accordingly, what is a crime in law is a moral vice and a religious sin; what is a duty is a moral obligation and a religious imperative (Moemeka, 1984: p.45). 

These demands help to ensure that rules and regulations are obeyed, and that mores and norms are observed.  They make the task of maintaining social order easier than it would have been without the impact of religion.  One of the cardinal religious demands of communalism is that individuals, leaders and communities aim at behaving rightly all the time.  They are all required to consciously pursue right behavior rather than dissipate energy struggling to avoid wrongdoing.

Each of the above principles communicates its own values and helps to guide individual and societal behavior according to the culture of the community.  For example, concern for the underprivileged, abhorrence of selfishness, love of one’s kin, respect for life – all imply that helping others and treating them as important members of the community are part of what makes one truly human, and useful to society. The collective impact of the fundamental principles strengthens the bonds that sustain communalistic societies.  These bonds find expression in unique ways of successfully managing conflicts (Olsen 1978); of creating social penetration (Gudykunst & Nashida, 1983); of ensuring that uncertainty is avoided (Gudykunst & Ting-Toomey, 1988), and of appropriately entering into Friend and Mate relationships (Moemeka & Nicotera, 1993).  They are the shared symbols, rituals, values and beliefs of members of the community. These shared symbols contain the meaning of commonality, and ensure societal harmony. But Communal Bonds are strengthened and revitalized only when those to whom the people look up for guidance and leadership live what the community considers exemplary lives.

To be continued

By Andrew A. Moemeka (Ph.D)
Professor Emeritus, Department of Mass Communication
Covenant University, Ota, Nigeria.

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