Development: What’s Culture Got to do With it?

By Y.Obenewa Amponsah  

Often, in developmental circles, there is an implied or explicitly stated view that African culture is inherently patriarchal.  Patriarchy is problematic in that it hinders growth and development by denying women equal opportunities while perpetuating negative social attitudes that fuel social injustice.  This view is not only espoused by people outside of the continent’s boarders but by Africans as well.  Yet the perspective that culture is inimical to development robs society of a powerful tool with which to bring about the desired change.  If the developmental community is to advance a culture of human rights in which women and men are able to jointly reach their full potential, then every instrument possible, including culture, must be utilized to realize that objective.

A fundamental problem in the pronouncements against African culture is that the speakers themselves are often ignorant as to what African culture is.  This approach is particularly detrimental in that it perpetuates the notion that Western cultures are superior to African cultures.  Rather than winning converts, this message is likely to alienate people who hold those “patriarchal views” and individuals from within those cultures who may not hold the same view but understand that their point of origin is not respected. 

The observation that ill-informed people frequently make pronouncements of cultural legitimacy not only relates to those from outside African cultures; this phenomenon is as true of people from within.  It is not uncommon to hear people making statements to justify a particular practice by stating, “it is our culture,” or “we have always done it this way.”  Which may be true, but without an understanding of the rationale behind a practice, its symbolism and purpose, individuals and communities will be unable to retain the positive values that are meant to be expressed through a particular practice—let alone transmit those values to the next generation. 

Also with a greater understanding of the meaning behind cultural traditions, communities will have an opportunity to alter their practices in a manner that enables them to express their values but takes advantage of the 21st century’s new technologies and growing knowledge base.  Most importantly, however, when communities have a deeper understanding of their cultural background, they are better equipped to challenge the abuses, such as domestic violence, that are all too often carried out in the name of culture.

If the development community is to effectively utilize culture to advance its objectives, there must first be a recognition that Africa is not one monolithic block, nor are its cultures homogenous.  Rather Africa is a continent comprised of 54 distinct nation states, a continent where approximately 2,000 languages are spoken and a continent that is home to myriad ethnic groups.  In this diversity, one is bound to find examples of societies that are perceived as more egalitarian in nature and those where equality is not the norm.  While there are cultures that subjugate women, there are those such as the Ashanti of Ghana, which have historically been matrilineal and in which women serve as traditional leaders. 

In approaching culture, development practitioners should also realize that culture is not stagnant; rather it is a dynamic force that changes to reflect the historic values of a community in a contemporary context.  Recently, a dramatic example of a change in cultural practice took place among the Valoyi tribe in the Limpopo province when in 2008 Ms. Nwamitwa Shiluban became the chief or Hosi.  Hosi Nwamitwa’s inauguration was preceded by a long court battle against her cousin who attempted to claim the title based on his gender. What is remarkable in this instance, however, was that Hosi Nwamitwa’s leadership was backed not only by the Constitutional Court and “Western style” democracy, but the Valoyi traditional leadership and royal family supported her claim as well.  Some sources even point to the fact that traditionally the Valoyi had women chiefs; yet with the advent of colonialism, matrilineal practices and female leadership throughout Africa were discouraged, reflecting the gender biases of Western powers of the time.  In the experience of Hosi Nwamitwa, a return to traditional African cultural practices has actually helped to overcome patriarchy rather than support it.
Regularly there are a number of dialogues and debates taking place around the efficacy of cultural practices ranging from polygamy to circumcision.  If better understood, the cultural ethos behind these and other practices could provide powerful tools with which to advance gender equality and social justice.  Rather than being perceived as a ritual through which patriarchy is entrenched, could male circumcision schools become platforms through which gender equality, safety and health issues are rigorously taught to young men?  By better understanding the dynamics of man-boy marriage that was practiced among the Zande of Sudan, could we have the basis for better communication around same sex marriages? 
In closing, while there are a number of cultural beliefs and practices found in African communities that do serve to advance the interests of men to the detriment of women, there is also a wealth of cultural and traditional resources in communities that can be utilized to effectively combat these challenges, and to advance the developmental agenda; but the first step in utilizing these tools is to actually understand them.

Y. Obenewa Amponsah is the Director of Fundraising & International Partnerships at the Steve Biko Foundation. 

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