Friday, June 25, 2010

Learning from Africa

Last time, I was discussing culture and the borrowing thereof and was about to get stuck in to the really African stuff as follows:

From my African cohorts I have learned that all African people regard themselves as a sort of extended family. At its best, this can be very beautiful: only imagine! All older men and women are addressed as ‘father’ and ‘mother’, and people of your age or younger as ‘sister’ or ‘brother’ etc, etc. If you buy into that … that… mindset, then surely it must bring one to treat all humanity with respect. Its not just a matter of language usage, its an ideal. A philosophy. ‘Ubuntu’ – brotherhood. Like all ideals it isn’t often lived up to, but you have to admit: it’s a fine one. I think I'd like to live up to it: the ultimate in caring.

I’ve also learned to understand some things that might seem strange to a more Westernized mindset: like the bride price.

The logic is this: the family have invested time, love and money into producing an accomplished, remarkable young woman, who helps the household in a variety of ways. If she marries, her contribution is lost. It is only respectful for the man who takes her to wife to compensate the family in some way for their ‘loss’ of a productive member.

To be honest with you, I think that’s much more liberated than the not too historically distant idea of a dowry, where the bride’s family, instead of receiving compensation for their ‘loss’ of a daughter, had to pay up for the gentleman to take their daughter ‘off their hands’.

In this country, white people often complain because ‘black people talk loudly’. The truth is, that there is a traditional distaste for gossip, even the idea of gossip. One speaks loudly to show that one is not hiding anything. This is ‘good manners’. I don’t know if I’ll adopt this particular one, but its food for thought nonetheless. One shouldn’t say anything one’s ashamed of, should one?

I learn every day. The more vernacular languages I learn (and forget, and get mixed up... we have eleven official languages by the way), the more I begin to understand the speakers. Not in the conventional sense - it’s the way you put words together, how you express ideas - then you begin to see a new perspective.

I learn from the people I work with and have worked with on farms for the last twenty years or so. On one of them I had a hundred staff and only four of them had a language in common with me. One gets by. One begins to understand. One is lead to think. One begins to love. It was fun. It is fun. I’m still learning from all sorts of people, I’m enjoying the ride. Sometimes, I even learn something from the more ‘sophisticated’ ones.
Today's pic: An old and talented friend who has taught me an African approach to music.


  1. So many things to digest in this post! I'm sure I'll return to it again. Here in the States and particularly in the South- we are fairly stuck in our ways. It can be and is mind numbing. But over the years- I've seen little changes- of tolerance and one can only hope they will grow into larger changes.
    Many Mexicans have moved to this area- and of course many of them speak only Spanish. Now people put bumper stickers on their SUV's that read, "Speak English or get the F--K Out". I only wish we had eleven languages here- it would teach people that "ours" is not the only way. Of course, it is generally the intolerant among us who have the loudest voice.
    I would like it much better if the loudest among us didn't like gossip- and if we could all be brothers- maybe we'd stop killing each other after all.
    Many, many more thoughts- but I have to go to work- so I'll leave them for another time.
    I'm moved again by your ability to convey a thought, a mood, a place in time in words.

  2. I just happen to be Sri Lankan & I'm often put off by other Sri Lankans who think we have some kind of extend family because a few generations ago some of our family members lived on a small over populated island & disliked people from the north. When Sinhalese folk complain about Tamils I'm craving tamales...etc. I think I consider myself a fat person more than Sri Lankan. I do like curry though...etc.

    The funny thing about the "Speak English..." bumper sticker is that the targeted audience can't even read it. Rednecks love stickers that make fun of other cultures I'm a vegetarian & I love seeing rednecks with their P.E.T.A. (People Eating Tasty Animals) bumper stickers. Seems strange to waste so much energy on something you dislike.

  3. Karl- your comment "seems strange to waste so much energy on something you dislike" is just PROFOUND.

  4. Is it profound? If people dislike something, they stand up to it, and I'm not sure how much energy it takes to put on a bumper sticker, but probably not much more energy than it took to write a comment about it.

    And since I'm playing devil's advocate here, I'm really not sure how much we have to learn from Africa. I used to live in Nigeria, and I recall the burning of a thief in public. This year thousands of people in Africa will be killed as witches. It seems to me that the third world in general is a hotbed for ignorance and prejudice. Here is a horrible but amusing video of Ugandans trying to get the death penalty passed for homosexuals:

    It's my humble opinion that they have much, MUCH, more to learn from our way of life than we have from theirs. yeah, you can talk about a decline of values in modern life, but I'd take that over an angry mob any day.

  5. Are mobs restricted to Africa? If we take the last few hundred years as being the mere blink of an eye in terms of the totality of human experience which they are, then it wasn't all that long ago that our own august ancestors burned witches.

    Witch hunts still continue: just in a more 'civilized' way. A civilized Westerner is probably two meals away from savagery. We are still, in evolutionary terms, animals.

    One cannot judge a group by the extreme behavior of the few. Most 'traditional' African of my acquaintance are fine, gentle people with a strong work ethic. Of course, THAT doesn't get reported in the news, which as an entertainment medium, must stick to the 'wonderful'.

    'Gay bashing' although not officially sanctioned, still takes place in the Western world, and is quite a popular activity (so I understand). Am I to judge all Western civilization on the basis of this?

    There is good and bad in human nature and in all cultures. One cannot deny the one because the other is present. There is ALWAYS something good to learn.

    Thanks all for the thoughtful commentary.

  6. Heh heh, I must say, I enkoyed the use of the word 'humble' in context. Good advocacy for old Nick there, though

  7. Oh yes, and PAMO, Karl: I see your point about wasting energy on things one dislikes. Admittedly its harder work burning a witch, but mutter-moaning is hardly an elevating occupation!

  8. I think that the idea of progress demands that we consider ourselves morally superior to the days of slavery etc. and thus to any country in which certain standards aren't kept up. While of course I agree that every society has good and bad in it, I tend to bristle at the suggestion that we have much to learn from less advanced or historical cultures. It's part of the middle class cult that people squeal over tribal art, astrology and "natural" medicines from rainforests - where do they think ours came from, Venus?

  9. Precisely: and that's exactly why we shouldn't scoff at ideas just because they seem 'primitave'. Perhaps that herb from the rainforest will add to the pharmacoepia, and perhaps it will even save your life.