Cultural Change In Africa and the Problems of Adjustment
Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.
“Culture encompasses religion, food, what we wear, how we wear it, our language, marriage, music, what we believe is right or wrong, how we sit at the table, how we greet visitors, how we behave with loved ones, and a million other things,”
The continent of Africa is essential to all cultures. Human life originated on this continent and began to migrate to other areas of the world around 60,000 years ago, according to the Natural History Museum in London. Other researchers, like those from Estonian Biocentre in Tartu, believe that the first migration may have been much earlier, as early as 120,000 years ago. Researchers come to these conclusions by studying human genomes from various cultures to trace their DNA to common ancestors. Fossil records also factor into some of these theories.
Africa is home to a number of tribes, ethnic and social groups. One of the key features of this culture is the large number of ethnic groups throughout the 54 countries on the continent. Nigeria alone has more than 300 tribes, for example.
Currently, Africa is divided into two cultural groups: North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. This is because Northwest Africa has strong ties to Middle East, while Sub-Saharan Africa shares historical, physical and social characteristics that are very different from North Africa, according to the University of Colorado. The harsh environment has been a large factor in the development of Sub-Saharan Africa culture, as there are a number of languages, cuisines, art and musical styles that have sprung up among the far-flung populations.
Social values can simply be seen as those beliefs and practices that are practised by any particular society. The society has a way of dictating the beliefs and practices that are performed either routinely by its members or performed whenever the occasion demands. Hence, we have festivals, games, sports and dances that are peculiar to different societies. These activities are carried out by the society because they are seen to be necessary. Some social values, especially in African society, cannot exactly be separated from religious, moral, political values and so on. This is why we can see that in a traditional African society like in Ibibio land (Nigeria), festivals which were celebrated often had religious undertones – they ended with sacrifices that were offered to certain deities on special days in order to attract their goodwill on the members of the society. Social values are backed by customary laws. They comprise of those traditional carnivals that a people see as necessary for their meaningful survival. Let us illustrate with an example: the new yam festival as practised in Ibibio land has a way of encouraging hard work and checking famine. It was a thing of shame for any man to buy yams for his family within the first two to three weeks after the festival. Doing so would expose a man as being too lazy. These festivals really discipline the society because nobody is to do anything when it is not time. For instance, new yam could not be eaten until the new yam festival has been celebrated.
Religion in African societies seems to be the fulcrum around which every activity revolves. Hence religious values are not toyed with. African traditional religion, wherever it is practised, has some defining characteristics. For instance, it possesses the concept of a Supreme Being which is invisible and indigenous. It holds a belief in the existence of the human soul and the soul does not die with the body. African traditional religion also has the belief that good and bad spirits do exist and that these spirits are what make communication with the Supreme Being possible. Above all, it holds a moral sense of justice and truth and the knowledge of the existence of good and evil (Umoh 2005: 68). African religious values seem to permeate every facet of the life of the African and the African believes that anything can be imbued with spiritual significance. The worship of different deities on different days goes on to show that the African people hold their religious values in high esteem. Sorcerers and diviners are seen to be mediating between God and man and interpreting God’s wishes to the mortal. The diviners, sorcerers and soothsayers help to streamline human behaviour in the society and people are afraid to commit offences because of the fear of being exposed by the diviners and sorcerers.
Cultural Change In Africa and the Problems of Adjustment
It is pertinent to examine some of the changes in culture and the problems of adjustment. Within this context, “change” means a significant alteration or marked departure from that which existed before. Invention, discovery and diffusion are some of the ways by which a culture can change or grow. Invention, for instance, involves the recombination of existing cultural elements to fashion new things. Ogbum (1922: 200), on this view, maintains that “the rate of invention within a society is a function of the size of the existing culture base”. The culture base or the cultural elements, objects, traits and knowledge available in all sections of the pre-1600 African society were limited in types and variation. Thus, few inventions which could profoundly alter the culture could take place. Most appliances and utensils used then were made of wood, as metal was not a commonly known cultural element of the people. For example, a canoe was the only available means of transportation then. It was wooden in all aspects until recently modified with motorised propeller and tarpaulin.
Also, building materials were wooden frameworks, sand and leaves knitted into mats for roofing. In spite of the introduction of new inventions from other cultures, most houses are still built in the traditional methods using traditional materials, probably for economic reasons and sheer conservatism. Again, the pre-European-contact African pattern of exchange was mainly by barter. The need for currency did not arise and so none was invented. Trade by barter, sale without standardised weights and measures and the general non-contractual pattern of exchange, all went a long way to foster, enhance and sustain social solidarity. The introduction of currency along with imported material artefacts generated or at least accentuated acquisitive propensities and profit orientation among the people, thereby gradually articulating social inequality based on purely economic criteria. Inventions may be material or social in nature.
Apart from invention, culture can change and grow through discovery and diffusion. Discovery, unlike invention, does not involve recombination of traits but the sharing of knowledge of an existing but yet unknown thing. The importance of discovery in culture lies in its use and or when it generates certain challenges to the people, which in turn metamorphose into invention for the development and survival of the society. Another process which can bring profound change in the culture of African people is the process of cultural diffusion (the spread of culture traits from one society into another through cultural contact). Diffusion entails intentional borrowing of cultural traits from other societies with which the beneficiary society comes in contact, or an imposition of cultural traits on one society by a stronger society intending to assimilate the weaker society.
The likelihood of reducing the period of culture lag is very much dependent on the desirability of yielding to change in the non-marital culture, the compatibility of the anticipated change with the existing culture or its flexibility, and the nature and magnitude of force available to exact or induce compliance. However, the desirability of yielding to change in the non-material culture depends on whether the people perceive the new mode of conduct to be better than what they were used to.
In most instances the attractiveness of yielding to change is often mediated and conditioned by the compatibility of the expected change with existing culture. A change which calls for the replacement or total abandonment of pre-established and originally preferred modes of behaviour is less likely to be accepted than one that is preservative- that is one which either provides other alternatives and or extends the culture by merely adding new things to it.
Now, it should be known that force has its own limits in bringing about change as it is impossible to spell out every bit of a people’s ways of life and formulate legislations to cover them. This is actually where the problem of adjustment to externally induced change has arisen. Most contemporary Africans find it difficult to adjust between their primitive beliefs in certain aspects of their culture and the supposedly modern mode of accepted behaviour. For instance, how does the African explain disasters, deaths, accidents and other misfortunes in the family? A new convert of the Christian church would run to the church for explanation and comfort, but if the church’s reaction is not immediate or prompt, the person may turn, in secret, to the native medicine man for immediate remedies. If the relief comes, he finds himself having to hold dual allegiance – one to his new found faith, and the other to his primitive beliefs. This form of dichotomy goes beyond misfortunes and permeates most aspects of the person’s life.
Since values are an integral part of culture and culture is what defines a people’s identity, then the values that a people hold are what differentiate them from other people. It does appear that cultures always try to maintain those values that are necessary for the survival of their people. For the Africans, for instance, we see that close kinship relations are held at a high premium. The synergetic nature of the society that allows people to build houses and work on farms together is directly opposite to the Western individualistic model. In those “good old days” as some would say it was usual to see a neighbour, friend or relative correcting an erring child whose parents he knows. This was based on the true belief that the churning out of a well-behaved child would be to the benefit of not only the immediate parents, but also the society. In the same vein, it was believed that if the child turned out to be a failure, it is not only the immediate family that would bear the brunt: neighbours, friends and acquaintances could also fall victim of his nuisance. But today, we see people adopting more and more nuclear family patterns and the individualistic life style of the West. A friend or neighbour who tries to correct an erring child will in no time, to his embarrassment, be confronted with the question: “What is your business?” Kinship ties and love are what characterised the traditional African culture. It is only love that would make a community, for instance, to tax themselves through the sale of the products of cash crops like oil palm and use the proceeds to educationally support a child who is brilliant. In this respect, the synergetic nature of African culture is what made the society very amiable.
It is part of the African world-view to treat the environment in which he finds himself with respect: the African cooperates with nature and does not try to conquer it. There were taboos against farming on certain days as a way of checking the activities of thieves who may want to reap where they never sowed. It was against the custom to cultivate on certain areas of the community or even fish on certain streams for some time. This system, whether it was founded on myth or not, had a way of preserving and conserving nature. Thus, whether consciously or unconsciously, the society was guaranteed an increase in agricultural productivity, which was the mainstay of the traditional economy. Today, with the violation of those customs and myths, we suffer low agricultural productivity and denuded farmlands because the traditional values that safe-guarded the land, have been watered-down and we do not have the technological know-how to replace these beliefs that have been abandoned.
A look at the African reveals that marital rites and practices are usually carried out in line with the custom of the society concerned. The polygamous marriage was more preferable; not because the African is naturally polygamous as some would say, but because it was associated with wealth, power, influence, social status and the strong African desire to be surrounded by many children and relations.
Beside this, some societies are still practising the system that if a man dies leaving behind a young wife and little children, the widow is required by custom to name someone in the family of the deceased husband for whom she will stay on and fulfil the life-time obligation that she owes her dead husband. Very rarely do they stop to wonder about the welfare of the widow and that of the children left behind by their brother’s demise. These instances show that marriage practices and the cultural values that are held about them are due and in urgent need for revision in some African societies. It does appear that while African culture and values have positive, soul-lifting and humanistic-dimensions, it also has some negative and dehumanising aspects. Prior to the arrival of Mary Mitchell Slessor (1848-1905) in Africa, ignorance, superstition and negative values made multiple births to be seen as a harbinger of evil. Explaining how twins were looked at in those dark days, Udoh (2007: 103) writes that “one of the twins was said to be genuine, the other, an impostor. By sharing the same cradle bed together they were both infected and cursed; their parents were equally guilty of defilement, particularly, the mother”. The birth of twins was seen as a very bad omen. In order to save the community from the anger and wrath of the deities, the twins were killed together with their mothers. Since this custom was stopped by Mary Slessor, multiple births are now seen as multiple blessings. Members of the public freely make donations to aid their upkeep. We do not experience any wrath of those deities that demanded the head of twins today. Twins have grown up to become normal, healthy, respected and respectable members of our society contributing economically, socially, morally, politically and intellectually to the development of the African society.
The conclusion here is simply that those positive dimensions of our culture -our synergetic society, our conservation of nature and even our native arts, dances and games that offer us interesting sources of entertainment and happiness, should be encouraged given the fact that culture ought to be knowledgeably innovative and instrumentally beneficial to people in such a way that the society can move from one level of development to another. Unfortunately, some traditional practices cannot be demonstrated empirically and such go against the spirit of globalisation, science and technology. Therefore, negative and harmful traditional practices that dehumanise people and portray them as unimproved and backward people without future, should as a matter of urgency be discarded since culture is an adaptive system together with values that play a central role in giving the society its uniqueness.