I’m always mortified when people say this or that thing is “un-African,” or it’s not part of “our culture and tradition.” I’ve always wondered how those people arrive at this absolutist position. It is as if culture is this organic, unchanging thing that has been and will always be like whatever assumptions these self-appointed “cultural ambassadors” have about it.
Often, what people who make this claim are doing is to equate an aspect of the customs in whatever ethnicity they come from with what obtains in different contexts and locales on the continent. Their “African mind” may never grasp the fact that there is no such thing as “African culture” outside the early anthropology of European racialism, which often reduces the complex and diverse nature of cultures on the continent to one convenient primal structure of existence. Even within, say, for example, Yoruba culture, there are so many subsets that it is quite tricky to pin it down to the specific generic notion that is unchanging. The universal ideals that come with being Yoruba, for instance, also leave room for expansion, distortion, and adaptation to fit or speak to particular contexts. There is almost nothing absolute about how “Yorubaness” is defined. The Ifa corpus speaks to this claim better than I can articulate.
Those who evoke “African culture” as a defense against what they consider “foreign” or “Western” do so due to their limited experience of the vast continent. They often ignore her historical interactions with the rest of the world, which transcends colonialism—the cul-de-sac for everything “un-African.”
The silliness in claiming “our culture” lies in the paradox of the fact that such thoughts are made without reflection about what may have changed or is still changing about the day-to-day reality of the place where such culture is practiced. Also, it is the same folks who identify as Christians, Muslims, and any other religion outside the scope of their “cultural” reference. While we have to admit that these religious beliefs are now as indigenous as the so-called “culture” itself, it is almost comical to see the same folks condemn “traditional African religion ” as pagan, primitive, and evil. Without a sense of irony, most of those who are quick to evoke “culture” ignore the cosmological framework that their traditional religions provide for its ethical, moral, ritual, philosophical concepts and the ordering of social life to thrive. And all of these also go through the process of change, including the “traditional” religion itself.
When we see an Oba driving in a Rolls Royce, does it strike us as absurd that he doesn’t choose to ride on horseback as his choice of transportation from say, Abuja to Lagos, because that is what Obas used to ride at the very foundation of “our culture”? So, where can we find a Rolls Royce as a material object that signifies emblematic royalty in Yoruba culture? Have you also thought about why in most Christian populated part of Nigeria and elsewhere on the continent, we have a “traditional engagement” and church wedding in one package of solemnity? Many forget that the church wedding is the traditional ceremony of those in the West. And what is considered “traditional engagement” is a semblance of the actual wedding in the traditional cultures of the couple. In fact, in both cases, a marriage is not legal in the face of our modern African laws until a court registry is signed. Such is the nature of our culture today. The same goes for so many other things that define the reality of experience in the modern world.
So, there is nothing like cultural purity. Every culture evolves, and part of its process is the acceptance of what we may initially see as foreign and then, later, domesticate and include as an integral part of “our culture.” In fact, language, which is the most potent element of cultures, evolves. Let’s take, for example, sexual preferences such as homosexuality, bisexuality, and androgyny, which have been seen as transgressive and “Western” to “our culture” by some people. The irony here is that in Nigeria, for example, they have to use a “Western” legislative process to institute a draconian law to “punish gay marriage.” They didn’t leave it to culture to decide whether to accept or deny its existence. The question is: are these choices of sexuality and desires really foreign? Do we have a repository for describing them in the language of “our culture”? Of course, we do. If that is the case, where do those words originate and how “Western” is the meaning they evoke to the reality that births and includes them in “our” cultural corpus? The point I am trying to make here is that society may or may not frown on these expressions of sexuality depending on places and contexts. Still, their existence is as old as the “culture” or “tradition,” which becomes an impregnable wall of defense against them for the Bible-wielding, Quran-reciting, English/French-speaking, self-appointed defenders of all things “African culture.”
So, if I may seek further clarification from those who are knowledgeable and well-grounded in the history of societies on the continent, what is African culture?