On Culture and Tradition
At primary school we were taught that culture can be defined as a group of people’s way of life. Today on the Internet, you can find culture being defined as the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively. From this definition, it is obvious to see that culture is constantly subject to change. In other words, it is a fluid concept and hence is dynamic.
Tradition, which is often mistaken for culture, is something a bit less fluid because by definition it is rooted in replicating established rites from the past. Traditions, like the payment of bride prices, live on today. Even if functionally they are hardly as relevant as they used to be, we can still imagine why they were established by our forefathers in the first place. Today, the 100 Naira or whatever pitiful sum that exchanges hands, only stands as a symbolic statement to maintain a tradition that has clearly outlived its usefulness. We all know a woman cannot be bought like cattle because she isn’t owned in the first place.
In the case of marriages in Nigeria, we still have to deal with two weddings; a traditional marriage, and then a white wedding. I have always wondered why an ordained person cannot be brought to the traditional wedding to join the couple in holy matrimony. Surely, the goal of having it in the church would be accomplished by doing this. In addition, expenses would be reduced, as well as stress on both host and guests, from the arrangement of two separate events. I’m not sure how this will go down with the average African woman who already has her dream wedding on repeat somewhere in her mind, complete with the dress and themes, but you get my point. So many other cultures are doing just fine with one wedding, and before colonization we seemed to have managed with one too.
It is not uncommon to hear Africans reject new ideas on the grounds that they are not ‘African’. To start with, I have to ask— what is African culture? In Nigeria alone, we have a multitude of distinctively different cultures, complete with their peculiar marriage rites, languages and even delicacies, so how can we define this concept of a unified African culture? The killing of twins was once part of our culture, sickle cell sufferers were once mistaken for spirit children as seen in J.P Clark’s poem Abiku, polygamy was once the norm through African societies, and let’s not forget our traditional belief systems, which are now more or less regarded as idolatry practices.
In modern Africa we reject issues like gay rights and frown on the concept of feminism. Every time we reject these on the grounds that it is not African, we are saying by inference that it is African to discriminate against minorities based on their sexuality, and that it is African to be chauvinistic and to subjugate women. Each time we reject new ideas, philosophies, or alternative ideas about theology, we are also saying it is African to be fundamentalist. A bitter irony because if not for the liberal and accepting nature of Africans that even borders on apathy, we may never have accepted many ideas imposed by our colonial masters.
I refuse to believe it is African to be afraid of new ideas, or that it is African to dictate to others how to live in the name of culture and tradition. It is about time we re-assess the African attitude towards ideas and knowledge. We cannot exist in a progressive world with regressive or static ideas.
May 17, 2019