Biko: Some African Cultural Concepts


By Steve Biko


One of the most difficult things to do these days is to talk with authority on anything to do with African Culture. Somehow Africans are not expected to have any deep understanding of their own culture or even of themselves. Other people have become authorities on all aspects of the African life or to be more accurate on Bantu life. Thus we have the thickest of volumes on some of the strangest subjects – even ‘the feeding habits of the Urban Africans’, a publication by a fairly ‘liberal’ group, Institute of Race Relations.

In my opinion, it is not necessary to talk with Africans about African culture. However, in the light of the above statements one realises that there is so much confusion sown, not only amongst casual non-African readers, but even amongst Africans themselves, that perhaps sincere attempt should be made emphasising the authentic cultural aspects of the African people by Africans themselves.

Since that unfortunate date - 1652 - we have been experiencing a process of acculturation. It is perhaps presumptuous to call it 'acculturation' because this term implies a fusion of different cultures.
In our case this fusion has been extremely one-sided. The two major cultures that met and 'fused' were the African Culture and the Anglo-Boer Culture.

Whereas the African culture was unsophisticated and simple, the Anglo-Boer culture had all the trappings of a colonialist culture and therefore was heavily equipped for conquest.
Where they could, they conquered by persuasion, using a highly exclusive religion that denounced all other Gods and demanded a strict code of behaviour with respect to clothing, education ritual and custom. Where it was impossible to convert, fire-arms were readily available and used to advantage. Hence the Anglo-Boer culture was the more powerful culture in almost all facets. This is where the African began to lose a grip on himself and his surroundings.

Thus in taking a look at cultural aspects of the African people one inevitably finds himself having to compare. This is primarily because of the contempt that the ‘superior’ culture shows towards the indigenous culture. To justify its exploitative basis, the Anglo Boer culture has at all times been directed at bestowing an inferior status to all cultural aspects of the indigenous people.

I am against the belief that African culture is time-bound, the notion that with the conquest of the African all his culture was obliterated. I am also against the belief that when one talks of African culture one is necessarily talking of the pre-Van Riebeeck culture. Obviously the African has had to sustain severe blows and may have been battered nearly out of shape by the belligerent cultures it collided with, yet in essence even today, one can easily find the fundamental aspects of the pure African culture in the present day African. Hence in taking a look at African culture, I am going to refer as well to what I have termed the modern African culture.

One of the most fundamental aspect of our culture is the importance we attach to Man. Ours has always been a Man-centred society. Westerners have in many occasions been surprised at the capacity we have for talking to each other – not for the sake of arriving at a particular conclusion but merely to enjoy the communication for its own sake. Intimacy is a term not exclusive for particular friends but to a whole group of people who find themselves either through work or through residential requirements.

In fact, in the traditional African culture, there is no such thing as two friends. Conversation groups were more or less naturally boys whose job was to look after cattle periodically meeting at popular spots to engage in conversation about their cattle, girlfriends, parents, heroes, etc. All commonly shared their secrets, joys and woes. No one felt unnecessarily an intruder into someone else’s business. The curiosity manifested was welcome. It came out of a desire to share. This pattern one would find in all age groups. House visiting was always a feature of the elderly folk’s way of life. No reason was needed as a basis for visits. It was always part of our deep concern for each other.

These are things never done in the Westerner’s culture. A visitor to someone’s house, with the exception of friends, is always met with the question ‘what can I do for you?’ This attitude to see people not as themselves but as agents for some particular function either to one’s disadvantage or advantage is foreign to us. We are not a suspicious race. We believe in the inherent goodness of man. We enjoy man for himself. We regard our living together not as an unfortunate mishap warranting endless competition among us but as a deliberate act of God to make us a community of brothers and sisters jointly involved in the quest for a composite answer to the varied problems of life. Hence in all we do we always place Man first and hence all our action is usually jointly community oriented action rather than the individualism which is the hallmark of the capitalist approach. We always refrain from using people as stepping stones. Instead we are prepared to have a much slower progress in an effort to make sure that all of us are marching to the same tune.

Nothing dramatises the eagerness of the African to communicate with each other more than their love for song and rhythm. Music in the African culture features in all emotional states. When we go to work, we share the burdens and pleasures of the work we are doing through music. This particular facet strangely enough has filtered through the present day. Tourists always watch with amazement the synchrony of music and action as African working at a road side use their picks and shovels with well-timed precision to the accompaniment of a background song. Battle songs were a feature of the long march to war in the olden days. Girls and boys never played any games without using music and rhythm as its basis. in other words with Africans, music and rhythm were a not luxuries but part and parcel of our way of communication. Any suffering we experienced was made much more real by song and rhythm. There is no doubt that the so called ‘Negro spirituals’ sung by Black slaves in the States as they toiled under oppression were indicative of their African heritage…

Attitudes of Africans to property again show just how un-individualistic the African is. As everybody here knows, Africans always believe in having many villages with a controllable number of people in each rather than the reverse. This obviously was a requirement to suit the needs of a community-based and man-centred society. Hence most things where jointly owned by the group, for instance there was no such thing as individual land ownership. The land belonged to the people and was under the control of the local chief on behalf of the people. When cattle went to graze it was on an open veld and not on anybody’s specific farm.

Farming and agriculture, though on individualistic family basis, had many characteristics of joint efforts. Each person could by a simple request and holding a special ceremony, invite neighbours to come and work on his plots. This service was returned in kind and no remuneration was ever given.

Poverty was a foreign concept. This could only be really brought about to the entire community by an adverse climate during a particular season. It never was considered repugnant to ask one’s neighbours for help if one was struggling. In almost all instances there was help between individuals, tribe and tribe, chief and chief, etc. even in spite of war.

Another important aspect of the African culture is our mental attitude to problems presented by life in general. Whereas the Westerner is geared to use a problem-solving approach following very trenchant analyses, our approach is that of situation-experiencing. I will quote from Dr. Kaunda to illustrate this point:
“The westerner has an aggressive mentality. When he sees a problem he will not rest until he has formulated some solution to it. He cannot live with contradictory ideas in his mind; he must settle for one or the other or else evolve a third idea in his mind, which harmonises or reconciles the other two. And he is vigorously scientific in rejecting solutions for which there is no basis in logic. He draws a sharp line between the natural and the supernatural, the rational and non-rational, and more often than not, he dismissed the supernatural and non-rational as superstition…

Africans, being a pre-scientific people do not recognise any conceptual cleavage between the natural and supernatural. They experience a situation rather than face a problem. By this I mean they allow both the rational and non-rational elements to make an impact upon them and any action they may take could be described more as a response of the total personality of the situation than the result of some mental exercise.”

This I find a most apt analysis of the essential difference in the approach to life of these two groups. We as a community are prepared to accept that nature will have its enigmas which are beyond our powers to solve. Many people have interpreted this attitude as lack of initiative and drive yet in spite of my belief in the strong need for scientific experimentation, I cannot help feeling that more time also should be spent in teaching man and man to live together and that perhaps the African personality with its attitude of laying less stress on power and more stress on man is well on the way to solving our confrontation problems.

All people are agreed that Africans are a deeply religious race. In the various forms of worship that one found throughout the Southern part of our continent, there was at least a common basis. We all accepted without any doubt the existence of a God. We had our own community of saints. We believed – and this was consistent with our views of life – that all people who died had a special place next to God. We felt that communication with God, could only be through these people. We never knew anything about hell – we do not believe that God can create people only to punish them eternally after a short period on earth.

Another aspect of religious practices was the occasion of worship. Again we did not believe that religion could be featured as a separate part of our existence on earth. It was manifest in our daily lives. We thanked God through our ancestors before we drank beer, married, worked, etc. we would obviously find it artificial to create special occasions for worship. Neither did we see it logical to have a particular building in which all worship would be conducted. We believed that God was always in communication with us and therefore merited attention everywhere and anywhere.

It was the missionaries who confused our people with their new religion. By some strange logic, they argued that theirs was a scientific religion and ours was mere superstition in spite of the biological discrepancies so obvious in the basis of their religion. They further went on to preach a theology of existence of hell, scaring our fathers and mothers with stories about burning in eternal flames and gnashing of teeth and grinding of bone. The cold cruel religion was strange to us but our fore-fathers were sufficiently scared of the unknown impending anger to believe that it was worth a try. Down went our cultural values!
Yet it is difficult to kill the African heritage. There remains, in spite of the superficial cultural similarities between the detribalised and Westerner, a number of cultural characteristics that mark out the detribalised as an African…

The advent of the Western culture had changed our outlook almost drastically. No more could we run our own affairs. We were required to fit in as people tolerated with great restraint in a western type society. We were tolerated simply because our cheap labour is needed. Hence we are judged in terms of standards we are not responsible for. Whenever colonisation sets in with its dominant culture, it devours the native culture and leaves behind a bastardised culture. This is what has happened to the African culture. It is called a sub-culture purely because the African people in the urban complexes are mimicking the white man rather unashamedly.

In rejecting Western values therefore, we are rejecting those things that are not only foreign to us but that seek to destroy the most cherished of our beliefs – that the coner-stone of society is man himself – not just his welfare. Not his material well being but just man himself with all his ramifications. We reject the power-based society of the Westerner that seems to be ever concerned with perfecting their technological know-how while losing out on their spiritual dimension. We believe that in the long run the special contribution to the world by Africa will be in this field of human relationship. The great powers of the world may have done wonders in giving an industrial and military look, but the greatest gift still has to come from Africa – giving the world a more human face.

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