A critique of african culture

“A way of life which made it possible for our ancestors to be subjugated by a handful of Europeans cannot be described as totally glorious.”  Professor Peter Bodunrin

I am no Western apologist. I am a proud son of the soil (as Wahome Mutahi of the Whispers fame used to say) and a believer in the fundamentals of African socio-economic organization – a way of organizing society in which I am because we are. But I am no blanket African apologist either. And that is why I particularly like the candor of Bodurin. I am sick and tired of hearing Afrocentric thinkers prattle about how the life of the Afircan is serene. How it is untouched by modern greed and desires for material wealth. How it still embodies the true spirit of humanity.

I am tired because this kind of talk reminds me of Rousseau’s critique of arts and sciences in his first discourse – in which he talks about “uncivilized” peoples being noble savages and portraying this as the true nature of man that we should all aspire to. This is bull. It is bull because when you go hungry. When you cannot read or write. When your children die of simple treatable illnesses. When your entire life is lived in a dystopia that has lasted generations. You are not noble, savage or not. You are subordinate to nature and all its mysteries.

A little reality check will establish that there is almost nothing noble about the life of the African at this point in history. We are the laughing-stock of the world. Images of starving children and scary deranged men in war zones are what define us to the rest of the world. It therefore disturbs me quite a bit when I hear our leaders talk about “African culture” and the need to preserve it.

What culture is it that these men are talking about? Is it the culture that keeps millions upon millions hungry and illiterate? Is it the culture that allows them to marry five wives and oppress them as they so wish? Is it the culture that makes us apathetic politically and allows them to steal from us? If this is the culture they are talking about and that they want us to preserve then I am against it. I am against it because it burdens us with a docile and meek morality that is blindly accepting of hierarchy and ideologically impoverished authoritarianism.

I am no sociologist but I know that there is something fundamentally wrong with how we have come to organize our societies in the post-European-contact era. All our social institutions have come to be either European or in reaction to Europe. I say that it is time we went back to true Africanness. True Africanness means caring for one another. It means providing for the hungry and only indulging in excesses after everyone has what they need to live a decent life. It means an appreciation of nature in a way that only Eastern traditions come close. It means being passionate about life and its blessings – I believe it is Senghor who said that Africans are a people of passion and not reason. I want to go further and say that we are a people who are passionate about all that we do (including our use of reason).

The African is alive. We are not like the Westerner who is chained by “norms” or the Easterner who blindly denies his humanity as he strives for higher rewards. We are alive! We embrace humanity with vigor and rhythm. We are as diverse as diverse can get. And we care for one another – valuing human life like no other human society does. (Do not let the wars delude you. I am yet to meet a people who have as much a reverence for human life as does the African. This is one of the foundations of African Philosphy – that life is cyclical, the living, the dead and the unborn all participate and so all life is revered. Just look at African burial ceremonies and mourning rituals if you are in doubt.)

It is time we returned to the fundamentals. We should be careful not to confuse true African culture with practices that came out of poverty or contact with Europe and in some instances Arabia. When we return to these fundamentals, we will find that African culture is not at all incompatible with modernity. We can stop being nomads when it is not economical to do so. We can stop having a thousand children per household. We can stop wife-inheritance. We can stop wife-beating. We can stop female genital mutilation and all evils against our mothers and sisters. All these practices are not African. They are human, and temporal. We should see them as habits from an era gone by. And we can change them.

What makes us African is in our social relations. Not in the environment or our economic condition. We will only return to that greatness when we restructure our social organizations and carefully remove all foreign practices that have tainted the Spirit of Africa.

4 thoughts on “A critique of african culture

  1. Proffessor,
    I agree with your analysis of the weakness of African culture. What I don’t agree with is your prescription which contradicts your observation. Why should we go to the old ways if these old ways got us where we now are? I do agree that Africa should go back to fundamentals. But we should not imagine that the solution will be as simple or straight forward as ridding Africans of European/Western influence. Too simple! Try to think harder. You might want to start by studying how Westerners have managed to become giants. They borrowed and stole from other cultures (e.g from Africa alone human resources and raw materials). Asians well on their way to becoming giants have borrowed and stolen a lot (in terms ideas, technology and to some extent culture)from the west.
    Meanwhile African intellectuals are still preaching stone age remedies about some pure traditional African society? Guys, please wake up!


  2. Hi Judith,

    thanks for your response. May I point out that I am not a professor…… at least not yet.

    But going back to your point. I am not saying that we should go back to a 10,000 BC way of life. I am all for 21st century materialism – in its more sanitized varieties. What I was attacking was our means of social organization. Our ideas about marriage, child-rearing, what it means to be African, our entire world-view ought to be changed. You must agree that the Africa of today is a reactionary Africa. A return to the fundamentals might restore our ingenuity.

    Now, I am the first to point out that I am no sociologist. Changing people’s world-view will take forever, but it can be done – within a decade or two.


  3. Pingback: the strange… « Opalo’s weblog

  4. Hi Peter,
    As much as Africa is a communal society and as much as we should embrace humanism,we must at the same time be aware of the fact that traditional societies had systems which actually worked as much as they were not technologically advanced hence colonialism. These systems be it wife inheritance and so forth helped keep people in check. We cannot disregard “our”past mannerisms and blame them for “backwardness”from some Westerners in thinking Africans were inferior.
    Peter Odera Oruka.


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