Currently we are at a retreat with workers from Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). In our input sessions, we are reflecting on the meaning of culture, which has brought me to some observations on how the sessions are being conducted.
Our group itself is multicultural; MCC employs Africans in Africa, not merely, as in previous eras, westerners working in Africa. Beyond that, of course, even the North Americans and the Africans within themselves are diverse. That being said, it is still difficult to get away from—even, or especially, when we think we are being sensitive to cultural differences—exacerbating those cultural differences. For example, I have observed that in our comparisons of “Western” and “African” cultures and worldviews, the westerners tend to define as culture for Africans those practices that seem different, exotic, from their own. From there, having accepted the exotic as authentic African cultural practices, the westerners move to try to validate or understand that which they have accepted—perhaps putting a Christian spin on what they believe to be African traditions—and then move to congratulate themselves when they believe they have successfully done so. The problem, however, may be that what the westerners believe is culture for Africa, defined on the basis of difference, is not—in the eyes of the African participants—truly African culture as they recognize it in their own countries of origin. Rather, what the westerners believe to be African culture may, in fact, be a perversion of culture. As a result, the whole process of westerners trying to rationalize certain African cultural practices is misguided from the beginning because what they see as authentic culture may not be culture at all.
The particular example of which I speak is the issue of “sexual cleansing” which we have been prompted to discuss in small groups. Our presenter gave us an explanation of the practice in “Africa” as he understands it—one which was not recognized by the African participants. Briefly, according to the explanation, “sexual cleansing” refers to a man, perhaps the brother of a deceased, sleeping with his widow, in order to “cleanse” the widow of the dead man’s spirit (such a tradition becomes highly problematic in a society ravaged by HIV-AIDS). The white workers, of course, almost all said that this phenomenon was in their host countries. Some of their understandings were based on reports from and conversations with actual Africans—so we are not denying here that “sexual cleansing” does occur in some places on the continent. The bigger question, however, is whether it is valid to see “sexual cleansing” as culture at all—or whether, since it was not recognized by the Africans in our group, as merely a perversion of culture.
I use the word “perversion” here, not to imply that culture should be pristine and unchanging; then the “perversion” would be simply the deviation, irrespective of moral judgments, from an original. No, I use “perversion” to imply that, in a setting where people of ethical concern and commitment sit down to discuss culture together, it is important not to bless as true culture that which is not. For Christians—people of profound ethical concern—it is important to define as true culture only that which conforms to the life of Christ—and not to cause offense to our African brothers and sisters in Christ by defining as their culture that which is spiritually-ethically offensive to them on the basis of their own faith in Christ (The reverse, African Christians assuming that the culture of western Christians is professional wrestling, daytime soap operas, or the support of “holy wars” against Islam, may be equally offensive). In all this, then, there seems to be an implicit sense that, while the west has a culture largely shaped by Christianity (perhaps decreasingly so), African culture in the eyes of the west is still more shaped by its pre-Christian past. In fact, Christianity has, and has had, a major stake in African culture for generations now, so that what anthropologists might claim as true African culture is scarcely recognizable to Africans themselves. At the very least, it seems, Christian Africans do not want to cede their culture to the domain of what is exotic to westerners. They seem to want—as do ethically-minded westerners—a truly humanizing, dignifying definition of culture.
That, it seems to me, is the culture which we all seek, and the culture around which we might rally.