African culture, religion and traditional practices have been altered significantly as a result of colonial rule. Colonial rulers interfered with the African way of life and worship. Africans were largely considered primitive. There was an unsolicited and desperate need for intruders in Africa to want to “modernise” Africans and indoctrinate them into a European way of life, thinking and worship. African cultures were gradually impoverished through neglect and deliberate suppression by colonial hooligans. There are some today who regard Euro-centricism as a measure of social advancement and modernity. Conversely, African values and principles are frowned upon.
The rise of African nationalism heralded campaigns by Africans to guard against external influences on their way of life. Culture is what defines society. A dilution of culture ordinarily means the loss of identity and uniqueness as a people. African culture is what defines Africans and distinguishes their humanity to others of different cultures.
A clear distinction needs to be drawn between “culture” and “tradition” as the two do not mean one and the same thing, though interconnected. Culture primarily refers to the value system and shared attitudes that characterise a group of people or society, their human expression and the way in which they perceive and interpret the nature of the world around them.
African cultural practices have a particular meaning that speaks to the values we embrace as Africans. The content and meaning of culture as projected through certain practices should never change nor be compromised but the tradition through which such cultural meaning or values find expression does evolve. Tradition is fluid. Tradition ensures continuity of culture and its transmission from one generation to the next and with each generation certain traditional practices which are considered archaic and irrelevant will ordinarily be abandoned.
With each generational change comes a new form of cultural expression, often to the horror of cultural extremists who are stuck on archaic practices that have not adapted to changing social circumstances. The cultural meaning remains the same even though the traditional practice may have been altered through the succession of generations.
To make a practical example of the above, let us look at the cultural practice of paying lobola. This is a traditional custom aimed at uniting two families together, those of the groom-to-be and bride-to-be. This is a form of expression of gratitude by the groom-to-be’s parents to their family for having presented them with a wonderful and beautiful future daughter-in-law while the groom-to-be communicates to his future parents-in-law that he is capable of supporting and taking care of their daughter.
Traditional lobola payment was in the form of cattle because in olden days, before the emergence of plastic money, cattle were the primary source of wealth. However, the dictates of modern times have rendered cattle as payment irrelevant to the extent that African families who have embraced social advancements and adapted accordingly would accept cash instead. Perhaps in future plastic money would also be an acceptable form of exchange between the two families. Despite these changes in traditional practices, the cultural significance of lobola has not changed. It remains the same.
Africans fully understand what informed their traditional practices and the meaning and relevance of such practices. That there may be so-called Westernised Africans who reject African culture in favour of Western values and religion, does not mean that African culture has no relevance and meaning.
African culture is reflected in music, food, art, language, jewellery, among other things. These are part of the distinguishing features among cultures of the world. There can be no universality among such salient features of culture. Their meaning and origins are not entirely understood by those on the outside, but are nevertheless beguiled by them. They are who we are and what makes us the people others can identify among the rest.
The contentious question, made contentious by emotional fragilities of some, is “who is an African?” Black people are Africans. Africans are black people. The significant meaning of the term “African” refers to racial identity of black people and goes beyond the sentimentality of geographical location of others of different races who appropriate the description to themselves. An African is defined by the culture described above. Being of a different race to Africans and embracing such African culture affords one a sense of belonging to that society in which one exists, but does not change the racial identity of a person of European descent, for example.
A person of European descent born and bred in Africa will ordinarily have a sense of belonging to Africa by claiming roots in the continent. However, such belonging by accident of birth does not make one an African in the true meaning of who an African is. That Africa is the cradle of humanity and therefore we are all Africans becomes an absurd proposition since the rest of the world does not refer to themselves as Africans. To use the term “African” in reference to one’s geographical location is of no consequence or meaning. It becomes a mere description that carries no weight and is futile. It becomes a convenient narrative by some to distance themselves from the unflattering history of slavery, colonialism and apartheid repression. There seems to exist an irrational notion that unity can be forged through revising history for social expediency.
Africans have in the past over-extended and compromised themselves in the pursuit of harmonious co-existence with others. Africans in South Africa have walked an extra mile since 1994 to extend a hand of reconciliation. This hand of reconciliation has often has been shunned by those who are historical offenders and who should be in the forefront of forging unity and reconciliation with those they have offended and wronged in the past. There has always existed a dismissive attitude against those Africans who are unapologetic about who they are and what being African means. There are some who feel threatened by African nationalism and perhaps see the collective pride among Africans as a threat to their privilege. The glaring difference in the culture of Africans and pseudo-Africans is the Afro-centric and Euro-centric nature of each. One cannot claim lineage with Africans when what defines who she/he is not rooted in Africa. We must reject this sort of cultural or racial arbitrage.
Africans need to reclaim their identity, religion and culture, and discard many of those which were imposed on them, by embracing Afrocentricism as the essential element of the African renaissance as popularised by the former President Thabo Mbeki.
Mbeki remarked: “an essential and necessary element of the African renaissance is that we all must take it as our task to encourage she [Africa] who carries this leaden weight to rebel, to assert the principality of her humanity — the fact that she, in the first instance, is not a beast of burden, but a human and African being.”
We cannot allow as Africans our identity to become easily dispensable for social expediency and to assuage irrational fears of some. Africans almost had their identity reduced to nothingness during the era of colonial thuggery. It cannot be that when Africans have liberated themselves from such historical thuggery and asserted their identity, they can today be blackmailed into watering down what defines them and who they are for the sake of inclusivity and accommodation of others.
Africans must reclaim and defend their identity, lest we revert to colonial days when the task of defining ourselves was the burden of others.
(First published in http://www.juicyafrica.com)