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Africans And “Culture”.

New-Yam Igbo Festival-Dublin

Despite decades of westernization,scratch the average African and you get a traditionalist.Any thing that is not in line with historic practice is vilified as being alien to African culture.Then follow sanctimonious protests about the sanctity of African culture.Such indiscriminate and unqualified attachment to tradition is unhelpful,backward and counter-cultural.Culture is not just the set of shared values,attitudes,practices and goals of a community,it also constitutes the ability to classify and represent imaginatively,creatively and symbolically these values and experiences.These symbolic representations,through the process of inter-generational transmission,advance the goal of refinement and cultivation of the individual,by being relevant through their ability to change by the day.

The point here,is that we need to make a distinction between the referent values and the symbolic practices.The traditions we see are mere symbols.While the underpinning values are immutable,the representative symbols are not.And symbols should be allowed to evolve in tune with the demands of the time.Having conflated the symbols with the values,the traditionalist may imagine that by defending these practices,he is,somehow,defending the integrity and humanity of the African.We would be showcasing and promoting the integrity of our culture and the humanity of our people, by being courageous and willing to discard these symbols when they have out-lived their usefulness.A relevant culture is one that is receptive to relevant trends and influences.

As an example of the discordance that can exist between values and symbols,let us take a look at the practice found in some parts of Africa,whereby a man inherits his deceased brother’s widow along with the children and property.

First,when it  was conceived,it was intended to protect the widow and her children and not as a reward for the man who inherited her.The idea would have been that the widow,her children and their patrimony would be best protected by one who was the closest blood relative of the deceased.In an age lacking formal and legal institutions like the judiciary and the police,this was probably the best way to protect the widow and her young children,until the children were old enough to assert themselves.

Second,while at an individual level,it could not have been without some unpleasantness for the widow to move from one brother to another,we need to remember that in an age where arranged marriages were the norm,love did not play as prominent a part for the women as it does today.In addition,given the lack of western education,there was very little room for individuation.There would not have been as much differentiation between brothers materially or  intellectually,unlike today,where one brother could be a professor at Harvard while the other works a shift as a casual labourer.

The gap between the brothers not just materially,but in education,enlightenment and urbanity is such as to  make it an act of extreme cruelty to sanction the continuation of this practice.And with the existence of a formal legal and judicial system,society does not need this particular device to protect widows .The point here,is that culture is about protecting society by protecting the weak.Society needed the inheritance system to protect widows and their children.But not anymore.This is an example of what was a boon in another age becoming a boondoggle in this one.We should have the courage and wisdom to bin  traditions  that are no longer useful.Like this one.

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