By Chukwuma Ajakah
The contemporary African society is fraught with “innovations” of borrowed culture that have got a lot of the people inexorably alienated from their own culture.
As a consequence of their dabbling into foreign cultures in quest of knowledge, adventure or personal fulfillment, many are losing touch with the value system that should define them as a people.
In his famous poem, “Piano and Drums”, legendary poet, Gabriel Okara tactfully sounded the alarm, albeit a creative thrust, about the dilemma of the African whose exposure to western education has rather than be a blessing, become a mirage, leaving him in a quagmire of confusion. Culturally speaking, the supposed civilized man is neither here nor there.
The following lines from “Piano and Drums” aptly capture the simple lifestyle of a typical African child in a pre-colonial traditional society when the people’s lives were unencumbered by the complexities of western civilization: “…I’m in my mother’s laps a suckling/ at once I’m walking simple/ paths with no innovations/ rugged, fashioned with the naked/ warmth of hurrying feet and groping hearts/ in green leaves and wild flowers pulsing.”
Arguably, the dignity of any human race is traceable to their cultural heritage and a people without a culture are not a people at all. Granted, one of the fallouts of globalization is that every society that embraces modern civilization becomes a melting pot for a potpourri of intermingling cultures, but the worrisome trend is that most African societies, unlike other parts of the world substitute their cultural practices with foreign ones, especially those of Europe and America in crucial areas of life such as marriage, fashion and feeding. Ironically, the supposed model societies merely accommodate, tolerate or reshape any alien culture they have interest in without desecrating their traditional values.
Penultimate Saturday, we laughed our hearts out at a wedding reception when a colleague told the story of a Nigerian law student, who was torn between the hard choice of forfeiting his prized chicken (for which he had paid the sum of #2,500.00) and failing a legal etiquette test for improper handling of cutlery while attending a formal dinner, cleverly scooped the chicken into the pocket of his dinner-jacket.
The young man had struggled to impress his examiners until the dying minutes when it dawned on him that he had barely eaten his meal as the culture of his learning required him to eat the stuff within a given time frame, using a fork and a knife.
The modern African grapples unsuccessfully with the imposed foreign culture as all his efforts at mastering its intricate details prove abortive. Consequently, the African is also pitiably alienated from his traditional roots. He is inexorably trapped between two cultures and unable to assert himself authoritatively in any. The dominance of foreign cultural practices over those of their African hosts has far reaching implications.
Such development poses a genuine threat to the existence of some traditional practices and regard for the people’s cultural ideation or social mores. For instance, the requirement of a court marriage registry certificate instead of evidence of traditional marriage at embassies and other formal settings is a clear pointer to the preference for foreign cultural practices over those of Africa.
In the organization of customary marriage ceremonies, for instance, Africans have allowed borrowed cultural practices to eclipse their traditional heritage. Most traditional marriage rites observed at various levels prior to the final wedding ceremony are replications of western society-cum church marriage (court or white wedding) activities which give the impression that anything African is not good enough.
How African is the tradition of exchange of ring or the symbolic giving out/ acceptance of the Bible? In most cases, we find that no significant differences exist among the three types of marriage. However, the traditional is obviously relegated to the background despite the flamboyancy the real event attracts.
In the final analysis, the western marriage is elevated to the extent that even if it were conducted in secret, the couple or partner with the court marriage registry certificate gets recognized while the one without it who may have met all the traditional prerequisites is denounced as not being properly married in the eyes of the law. Whose law? Certainly, not that of traditional Africa!
The captivating fashion styles the youth of traditional African society were resplendent in, especially the women that accompanied such with beautiful braids, are now dated as what appears to be prevalent in terms of dressing these days will make the ancestors stir in their graves. Imagine for instance, the false hairdos that make some teenagers look more like wizened old hags. In former times, a few aging persons dyed their hair in order to maintain a youthful outlook, but the reverse is the case at present as the trend is to “whiten” the hair, including bears which makes a lot of the youngsters appear older than their grandparents.
Africans prided themselves in being one another’s keeper, especially within the family unit where there are no clear demarcations as observed in western culture. That culture is fading fast as many are getting increasingly aware of the differences between a nuclear and extended family, a cousin and a brother, ‘full brother’ and ‘half-brother’, niece or nephew and daughter or son, etc. In other words, kinship ties that were hitherto alien to Africans now have strong semantic and social implications.
In the aftermath of globalization, a countless number of men are either losing their privileged positions as heads of their families or taking a compromised stance with their wives who double as co- breadwinners -no thanks to the ailing economy of many African countries, forbidding the tag of full-time house wives at the home front. Related to this is the rising case of men rendered homeless, especially those deported from abroad, after losing a divorce case or threatened with a legal suit. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, it appears that the women are taking over the homes.
A lot of Nigerian men have also fallen into misfortune as victims of “contract marriage” in countries where they had migrated to for greener pastures. A few months ago, I innocuously enquired of a brilliant young man I knew lived in the US. The rude shock I got still makes me shiver. He was shot by his American wife who had got wind of his plans to return to Nigeria, perhaps to take a second wife. Of course, although monogamy is fast gaining ground in Africa, polygamy is a strange idea to people of that country, but a familiar practice in most African societies.
The dilemma of the modern-day African is succinctly depicted in the third and last stanzas of Okara’s Piano and Drums: “Then I hear a wailing piano/ solo speaking of complex ways/in tear- furrowed concerto; of faraway lands and new horizons with coaxing diminuendo, counterpoint, crescendo. But lost in the labyrinth/ of its complexities, it ends in the middle of a phrase at a dagggerpoint/And I lost in the morning mist/ of an age at a riverside keep/ wandering in the mystic rhythm/ of jungle drums and the concerto.”