(april 13, 2008)
it’s a sunday morning and i am sitting in my flat listening to canadian jams (City and Colour and Tegan Sara are repeating on my playlists at the mo) enjoying my coffee and reading the guardian weekly, which is sort of like heroine for this expat – it satisfies my craving for good journalism and my withdrawal from international news coverage.
there is an interesting article by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (of Half of a Yellow Sun fame – read it, read it!) about the proposed bill in nigerian parliament that would legislate women’s dress (ri-dic-u-lous), but the part of the article that got me thinking and put a recent experience into perspective is the author’s challenge to debate what ‘culture’ is.
often, i hear people say elements of daily life in kenya are not part of the kenyan ‘culture’ and are imports of the colonialists, the un, the missionaries, etc. while this could be historically accurate, i think things get dangerous when you start to decide which parts of a culture are organic and which are imports, because it dismisses the reality of the dynamism of culture.
it is also the means by which someone could dismiss select cultural imports while simultaneously accepting others. in kenya, this is particularly clear in the widespread acceptance of protestant christianity as part of modern kenyan culture, clearly an idea originally imported from the west by someone once upon a time.
the glorification of pre-existing culture begs the question of when did this ‘culture’ start and how could we possibly identify culture in its purest form, assuming it ever existed as such?
on the other hand, i recently had a discussion with someone about the common practice of using phrases such as ‘negative cultural practices’ to describe the root of societal ills such as sexual abuse and domestic violence. it slips off the tongues of many development/humanitarian workers and has become part of the vernacular of this world-saving business. but a cultural practice such as wife inheritance does not lead directly to sexual abuse as easily as is often assumed.
for example, in somalia wife inheritance was a protective measure for those women who were widowed and ensured their livelihoods were maintained and their children would be cared for. to claim that it is one of the causes of sexual abuse is forgetting that such a cultural practice is not inherently negative and especially in a culture that has suffered near complete breakdown and disintegration of cultural practices due to 17 years of violence, is it the negativity of that practice or the inability to maintain culture that is at the root of the ‘problems’ we attempt to solve?
in this case, it is not the dynamism of culture that is denied, but the forces that have contributed to a breakdown of cultural values or practices that seems to be forgotten.
yet another element enters the debate when practices such as female genital mutilation (fgm) is considered. i cannot imagine any justification that could be given for me to understand or accept such an activity that has well documented health complications, including that it is an accepted cultural practice in some communities, including much of somalia and parts of kenya. does defending something as cultural mean that it should not be legislated against or condemned? as far as fgm is concerned, my answer is no. but there are other more contentious practices defined as cultural where i cannot be so sure of my answer.
there is surely no right answer nor even just one answer. but at least it got me exercising my brain on a sunday morning (demonstrating my sometimes questionable ability to exercise restraint and moderation on a saturday night!).