The demonised aspect of the “African culture”

Most of what is understood as “culture” in contemporary Africa is largely a product of constructions and (re)interpretations by former colonial authorities


By Jane Wachira

“I’ve been to Kenya! Everyone in East Africa is Bantu! All of the languages are considered Bantu…Because they all derive from the same people from the Congo. But the Arab stimulus broke up the Bantu during 600AD to 1000AD, using religious ideals to separate people into tribes. Before the Bantu migrations, there were only hunters and gatherers with click languages at the time… The only people with civilisation were those in West Africa.

Those near the Congo didn’t call themselves Bantu either; the name Bantu is a proven European word. It is manufactured to explain European views of Africa” – Michael Engels (Not his real name)

“Ah, I see where you’re coming from and that is true…” – Wambui (Not her real name either)

This is a conversation that transpired on a social media site; it centred on the controversial debate on African tribes, their origin, culture and names. It was triggered by Lupita Nyong’o’s hairdo at the Met gala… Also known as The Wi-Fi, The Whoville, The Towering… It has been given so many names. The hairstyle emanated from Africa; from the Zulu women in the 1920s perhaps. It also resembles that of the Fante of Ghana… Will an African tribe please claim the contentious hairstyle already?

Besides the hairdo which exhibits a certain culture, the argument which ensued is of equal significance. I’ll call it the Michaels–Wambui debate, you know, like the Lon- Fuller debate in jurisprudence. Engle Michaels is from European while Wambui is an African, a Bantu of the Gikuyu Tribe. Michaels attempts to educate Wambui on his knowledge of the origin of African tribes. One would expect that Wambui has better knowledge of her own history, but this is not the case. She blindly accepts Michael’s misinformed facts of how all East Africans are Bantus, how all of them were hunters and gatherers who first talked with clicking sounds. This is my debate today, the ethnocentricity of the “African culture”; how the story on the African culture has been retold by peoples outside the continent using disputed facts, misguided notions and misconceptions.

Culture has been defined as the way of life of a group of people – the behaviours, beliefs, values and symbols that they accept generally without thinking about them and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next. Cultural practice refers to the manifestation of a culture or sub culture, especially in regard to the traditional and customary practices of a particular ethnic group. My reference to “African culture” in this article is not to exhibit that I have a sense of its richness and of the diversity of African peoples heritage; I use the term deliberately to highlight those aspects of cultural ideology that are widely misconstrued and misinterpreted.

“Anthropology begins at home”. An African who looks at things from a tribal point of view and at the same time from that of Western civilisation, experiences the tragedy of the modern world in an especially acute manner. The African culture story has been retold and defined by ethnocentrists, foreigners from outside the continent, the likes of Engle Michaels who believes all east Africans are Bantu… Pretenders to philanthropy, I call them.

What is the African culture? In “Facing Mount Kenya”, Jomo Kenyatta asserts that the way man came into existence has remained a mystery, and that how he has evolved over the years is even a greater mystery. The African culture has been mislabelled, misread and over generalised. What constitutes African cultures? Is it the wearing Masai shukas? Female circumcision? Polygamy? Living in huts? Cooking on a hearth? Or is it weird hairdos?

African culture-Human rights debate

These pretenders to philanthropy will have us believe that this is not about American culture, European culture or Australian culture; there is only the African culture, which is backward, primitive and barbaric. The African culture is a disease. Sylvia Tamale of Uganda says that the concept of culture and rights is presented as distinct, invariably opposed and antagonistic. We have been persuaded to believe that the concepts culture and rights are polar opposites with no possibility for locating common ground. The African culture is viewed by people outside Africa in negative terms and is considered an impediment to modernity and civilisation. Most of what is understood as culture in contemporary Africa is largely a product of constructions and interpretations by former colonial authorities. Ethnocentrism is to blame for this; the Europeans, our colonial masters, construed culture from a perspective of their own way of life.

Mis-read and mislabelled

Female circumcision has been labelled female genital mutilation (FGM) and has since become outlawed. Levirate marriage is now referred to as wife inheritance, and dowry, bride wealth; culture is seen as objectification of women. Culture has been viewed as being antagonistic to survival; it is always culture vs. human rights, culture vs. technology, and culture vs. the law… It is always a match.

Culture is never seen to incorporate the Universalist European ideologies. It is backward, something that it bad and deserving abhorrence; culture is viewed as a notion we should all be saved from. Indeed, while inculcating traditional justice dispute resolution mechanisms or customary law, it is always subject to the repugnancy test. Is it contrary to the provisions of the Constitution or of the Bill of Rights? Is it contrary to justice and morality? Culture is a demon, caged and which can only be released with limitations and restrictions.

The concept of human rights is not foreign to culture. The notion of oppression in cultural practices is brought about by the superiority of cultures introduced by the introduction of Western culture as being superior while the African one is inferior. IT taught Africans how culture has objectified women – traditionally women fetched firewood using their backs; this was their duty as it was expected of the men to hunt. When, like the Europeans taught us, they do not go fetch the firewood, who will?

Levirate marriages ensured that the woman was not disinherited, that she and her children had a piece of land to till, a roof over of their heads, food and security. It ensured they did not suffer economic and social hardships. The aim of female circumcision was to lower a girl’s sexual desire, ensuring she remained chaste until marriage. How many girls of the “modern” society get pregnant while still in school? How many children do not have a father figure, simply because there was no legitimate bond between their mothers and alleged fathers? Polygamy made sure every woman was married, that each had a home and security. In viewing polygamy as barbaric, tell me what is more uncivil, a respectable polygamous man with five wives or a cheating monogamous husband?

Modern day anthropologists embrace human rights primarily as the protection from culture. The African culture is viewed as a savage and Africans have to strip themselves of culture to enjoy human rights.

The reductionist principle

One need not reduce oneself to either the Universalist camp that accepts European ideals and shuns the African culture, or the to the Relativist camp that wholly accepts the African ideology of culture. A balance of both needs to be made. Ethnocentrist or not, both ideologies need to be construed from the same level and not as one being higher than the other.

Remember the campaign “My dress, My choice” where feminists protested against the stripping of “indecently” dressed women? Question is, what meaning is assigned to “indecent”? Decency is a relative term .The defence posited by the men perpetrating the act was that, according the “African culture” women dressed decently. Dr Ojwang of School of Law at the University of Nairobi terms this statement as ignorant and misguided. What “African culture” is being referred to here? Is African culture universal to the entirety of the African race? Is what the Zulu do similar to what the Fulani practice? Historically, women did not cover their chests. Then there was the hide-and-skins era that preceded the short colonial skirts. This notion of ankle length dresses and skirts below the knee is a modern idea, and is definitely not part of African culture.

The universal declaration of human rights guarantees and recognises the right for everyone to freely participate in the cultural life of the community. The African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights differs from other regional human rights instruments that preceded it and its European and American counterparts in that it was highly inspired by African traditions and values. Note how the world construes the statement “I am cultured” vs. “I practice the African culture”. The former posits you as a civilised and modernised person who is enlightened, while in the later you are viewed as a primitive, bestial and a barbaric creature. By viewing Africans as backward, the colonialists could easily justify and legitimise the fundamental objectives of colonialism. It was a civilising mission to the barbaric savage natives of the “dark continent”.

Africans need to embrace the reductionist principle that asserts one cannot take sides regarding the universalism and relativism of culture. We cannot view culture from an ethnocentric approach or from a generalised approach.


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