Posts Tagged ‘african culture’

The African maxim  “Umntu ngumntu ngabantu” is one that people usually bandy about casually without fully realising its meaning.

The proverb basically highlights the fact that in African culture (or at least most African cultures and ethnicities), community and communalism is valued far above individualism. But the more I look around at my African brothers and sisters, the more I see a pervasive culture of is individualism and self-centredness becoming the trend – much to our peril.

In African culture, you are born into 3 families: your immediate and extended family, the community in which you live and the family of ancestors – an inseparable tripartite alliance that is the cornerstone of one’s identity and should never be broken.  African spirituality and Christianity dictates that one’s spirit is never born or dies, but simply that it chooses an earthly body to live in and fulfil its purpose. Or God chooses the earthly body and family for you. Either way, the human journey of a human being or a soul is not designed to be a solitary one. The fact that we are born into a family and live amongst people is in itself an indication of the interdependency that is required for navigating through life. One may say ‘Yes, I was born into a family of interdependence, but my parents raised me to become an independent adult fit to navigate life’s triumphs and challenges.” The bird nurses it’s young so they are fit to leave the nest, build their own nests and fend for themselves in the big, bad world.isiko

In many ways, humans and our life cycles are similar to animals, but we are in many ways different. The first is that we are spirit. As Creflo Dollar once described it “I am a spirit, I possess a soul and live in a body”. Humans are the only species that God declared to be created in his image. He created the heavens, the earth, sun, moon, starts and animals but it was only when he made man that he said “Let us create man in our own image”. My interpretation of this is simply that man, like God, is spirit. This means that one never ever dies, but undertakes the journey of life which is one endless continuum. A continuum that is merely divided into stages marked by different rites of passage such as birth, childhood, manhood, marriage, death. And at every stage, one does not journey alone, but with the three families that one is born into. That is why every marriage in African culture, is never between two people, but between two families. The union is between me, my family, my ancestors and my spouse, my spouse’s family and ancestors. My partner and I cannot consider ourselves engaged until he comes forward and pays lobola to my family which is a custom observed to merge our two families. Anything else, even the biggest diamond ring, is not recognised in African culture.

Sadly, Westernisation and modernisation has gradually moved us away from our traditions and continuously threatens to alienate us from the tripartite relationship of family, community and ancestors – which is the cornerstone of our identity. The most dangerous part is that we don’t realise how our minds are being colonized. Bantu Biko and Bob Marley spoke about mental slavery and how Black people are subtly programme to hate themselves. One may say ‘hate’ is a strong word, maybe one should say ‘look down on himself’. That is African people’s biggest weakness – they have allowed themselves to look down on their traditions and cultural practices in the name of Christianity and modernization. They say “we should move with the times” at the expense of having their identity eclipsed, stripped and fragmented. Every time I meet a Christian who says that ancestral ceremonies are demonic and traditional ceremonies are a sign of being a slave of the past I cringe because Jesus Christ himself underwent all his Jewish traditional ceremonies like circumcision and bar mitzvah (a coming of age ceremony). Jesus never separated his faith and connection with God from his culture and traditions. But somehow when Africans come to Christ, they choose to do exactly that and completely turn their backs on tradition and culture.

 

Back to my point about the importance of the 3 families one is born into. Shula Mukoko recently wrote a very satirical article titled “16 Things Black people wish they could explain to their white friends”. One of the points she made was: “I’m an only child but I have many siblings.  Also, I have many mothers and fathers. What you call first, second and third cousins are just brothers and sisters to me. What you call extended family is just my family.” This drives home the point that family, in an African sense, is not merely limited to immediately family. And with the broad extension of the definition of family, comes the broad extension of responsibility and duty of care towards one’s family. This is a concept that Western culture battles to fully embrace.

I remember telling one of my bosses that I had to move back home to take care of my mother and help with renovating and extending my home, she thought it was the most absurd thing and told me if it was her mother she’d ship her off to an old age home and tell her to “bloody fend for herself”. She explained that in white culture, the only family you are obligated to look after is your immediate nuclear family (husband, wife and kids). In African one’s duty of care extends to cousins, nephews and nieces and even more distantly-related family members, because truly “umntu ngumntu ngabantu”.

In my family, there are very few male elders and many of my aunts are widowed, which has rendered most of the children fatherless. My uncle, one of the few male adults once told me that he will always, whether invited or not, assume a fatherly role (which means disciplining, advising, encouraging and helping) to any child whom he even remotely considers family when he sees  the gap of a father being left void or when he sees any child in the family go astray. He explained that this is not only natural and understood in African culture, but is vital and a matter of conscience.

As a young person living in an urban setting, I see such ideals being quickly eroded amongst Black Africans. I see the culture of self and individualism rising way above community – self-actualisation, self-help, selfies!! Come, on now, there’s always time for a selfie! J The selfie culture which has taken over social networking platforms, to me is merely a manifestation of the narcissism (self-worship) which is replacing Ubuntu and subtly promoting individualism (being overly focused on the self). Closely linked to this narcissism is the pursuit of accumulating quick wealth and fame. “If I have all the money that I need and want to pleasure myself, then in essence I am self-sufficient. I am the architect and master of my own destiny. And therefore my need to rely on other people becomes is eliminated. I am thee epitome of achievement and self-actualisation, right?” Wrong! You can have all the money in the world, but that money cannot hold you close at night, nurse you when you are ill or comfort you in your darkest moment.

Money can buy you the best healthcare but it cannot buy you personalised and dignified care. It can buy you the best bottle of wine to drown your sorrows, but it cannot buy you a caring shoulder to cry on, it can buy you success, but it cannot buy divine favour and blessings. Honouring God, your parents, your family, your ancestors brings favour and blessings. Truly recognising that “umntu ngumntu ngabantu” and adopting it as way of not only looking at the world but as the basis of all human relationships will radically change our generation and future generations to come.

Kwande!