Clash of Cultures

05 June 2014

"It's my culture" these are the words that most young men and women utter at their defence when wrongly accused or when their actions have been shunned upon. We hear these at our workplace when a gentleman has walked out of the lift first, leaving behind a group of ladies or when a male stranger simply looks away when a woman is carrying a heavy load. These words are again heard when an employee wants to take yet another "family responsibility leave" for the burial of their 7th cousin from their maternal grandmothers' sister's side. Again these words are heard when an employer shouts at an employee and he/she looks down or away as they have been taught never to look at an elder in the eye...Yes indeed it is my culture.

What culture though? Isn't it weird how that question is never asked? It is assumed that when these words are uttered by a black African, then they are indeed referring to the "black culture". The black culture which in itself has numerous tribes which have different behaviours, beliefs and customs I guess all of these are put into that one basket for the sole purpose of that circumstance.

This defence mechanism has worked for us through the years, "us" being the black Africans of course. It is like a voiding card that you can swipe when your actions have been misinterpreted for the wrong, whether it was intentional or not. It's our getaway card and boy do we use it especially our men who thrive at the opportunity to whip it out of their pockets. Yes, it has worked until now. We are now starting to use this card against each other. See, what we haven't realised as black Africans was that all these years that we have been using this ‘green card', we ourselves were actually in the process of changing and becoming more like the people this card was intended to be used against, this process I will call "Westernisation".

As we have been celebrating our freedom and relishing under our new rights and enjoying now what was then for the minority, we have accustomed ourselves with "their culture". We have attended the same schools as them, played the same sports, bought houses in their neighbourhoods, adopted their hobbies and learned and excelled at speaking their language - not that these are bad things of course. However, "unconsciously" we have become them in more ways than we had ever imagined.

Now the problem lies when a black man walks out of the lift and leaves a group of black women standing behind him and he gets scolded, his prompt response as rehearsed over the years is..."it's my culture". Now which culture are we referring to as they are all black Africans? Are the ladies not supposed to be accustomed with the same culture? Yes, the African culture which allows the man to walk into a room first as it is seen as a sign of protection to the women should there be any danger lurking in the premises. These black ladies should be pleased with the gesture, surely according to their culture this man is well mannered and brave. The same goes for the black employer who calls in the young black employee and questions him/her and they look down or away, why is the employer then aggravated and sees this employee as dishonest and conniving as they can't even look them in the eye and tell them the truth? Is this young black man not again practising the black culture that promotes respect to seniors and never looking them in the eye as that would be a sign of utter disrespect?

We seem to have put ourselves in a very compromising situation, our "black culture" has somehow faded and we have adopted western ways of living. However, when it is convenient for us we want to exercise it. We are somehow becoming hypocrites.

We want the perfect white wedding with a number of elite guests mostly consisting of our friends, colleagues and "immediate family". We have traded in the big black African wedding with the whole community for the western way that says less is more. Then we turn around and want to be granted family responsibility leave at work and throw a fit when our "western bosses" don't understand that we don't have a thing such as "distant cousins". In the African culture, your uncle's kids are considered as brothers and sisters. Chances are, you all grew up under one roof at Gogo's place and therefore, you should be there for the whole week helping prepare for the funeral right? We vent and protest about how we are Africans and they just need to understand our way of living and that we are different. We go on to explain how this is unfair and inconsiderate. While this "unjust scene" is happening we have forgotten forgotten about the small intimate wedding we invited our boss to and the birthday parties that had a gentry's guest list and no family members. We forget the kind of life we have sold to our counterparts. We have in many occasions made them think that we are like them. Whether we did it intentionally or not we are still guilty.

It shouldn't be a surprise when they then don't understand our "sudden" change of heart when it comes to certain topics. We shouldn't be offended when they don't understand that we have over 10 cousins (because at your wedding you only invited 2). We again shouldn't be offended when they don't understand why they have to give you leave for your 3rd grandmothers' funeral because according to their understanding one only has a maternal and paternal grandmother, they don't understand that "your grandmother's sister" is just as much as your grandmother.

We have taken the whole concept of the modern world too far and didn't realise that it would only harm us and not them. Who is to say where we should draw the line? Where do we establish a common ground? How do we align these parallel concepts? Truth is, we are too far gone to go back and yet the direction we are heading in only calls for more confusion. Our children will become the victims of our actions. Do we teach our boys to let their sisters go out first as this is the correct and polite thing to do or do we teach them to protect their sisters and always go out first to face whatever danger maybe out there? Do we teach our girls to despise lobola as it degrades them and is regarded as a trading mechanism? Or do we make them understand the significance of such a tradition and the value behind it of bringing two families together? Do we tell them that their husbands will be their equals and engrave the 50/50 principle in their heads or do we explain to them how they should respect their husbands despite of their ranking and that cooking for their husbands isn't old fashioned? Do we continue to teach our little ones to respect their elders and not look them straight in the eye when they are being addressed and to sit in their presence? Or do we tell them to always stand their ground and regardless of age when telling the truth to always look the person in the eye and drill your point across?

Truth is, we have evolved and whether we think it's for the best or worst that still remains debatable. However, we can't continue to skate between cultures and hope to raise authentic black Africans. At some point, reality will have to be faced and the line must be drawn. It is after all "our culture".

Kholiwe Nkambule

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