That we make so much of our “culture” ought, on balance, not to be a problem. Given how little we’ve been able to collectively push the needle in other fields of human endeavour, it could be argued that this obsession with the quotidian rites and rituals that “define whom we are” is, indeed, therapeutic. The resulting sense of difference (and superiority over the “culturally illiterate”) that an obstreperous defence of our cultural practices confers on the cognoscenti must count for something. But for the slight inconvenience that these cultural practices also hurt.
Just the other day, a colleague’s wife lost her mother. Almost invariably, the quality of conversation with him went south from that day. As the internment day neared, he descended further into a funk so blue, words bounced off it. Igbos clearly place a huge premium on a male in-law’s duty. In the name of obligations imposed by his “culture”, my colleague then sought loans to give his mother-in-law a befitting burial; loans he’d not taken to send his kids to “befitting” schools.
At bottom, what passes for “cultural practices” here is simply confirmation of Thorstein Veblen’s arguments against the basis for “conspicuous consumption”: with marginal social classes spending themselves out of pocket just to keep up with the lifestyle of the “idle rich”. If beggared neighbours were the main outcome of this practices, it would have been okay. However, in more important ways, our cultural practices are a shorthand for much of the problems that beset us as an economy; in particular, the seeming lack of logic to much of what we do.
Take the insistence by the Ibibio that upon the death of a parent-in-law, sons-in-law must kill a cow. Until recent advances in the study of animal trypanosomiasis, the tsetse fly belt, which covers much of the parts of Nigeria from Auchi down to the Niger Delta, meant that the zebu (our cattle of choice) was not native to the Ibibio. A pacific beast, it’s unlikely to have forced its way onto their kitchen any other way. Apparently, there were cows of a different make up down south. Reportedly these were shorter and stockier — who knows, but that these were mutations which made them handle the tsetse fly scourge much better. Today, sadly, this fauna is all but extinct. And if they were not, being of a much slighter configuration, they would not have commanded the same cachet as would the sight of 10 magnificent zebus tethered in the compound of a recently deceased Nigerian.
How in the face of evidence so graphic a part of the country may continue to contend that the mass slaughter of zebus as part of the obsequies associated with the passing of certain categories of persons is a cultural practice, is mind-gobbling. But not more so than the twisted logic which emerges when you try persuading a younger Yoruba to call one older than him by his first name. an exegesis on how Yoruba culture is built on respect for elders and authority, and how this has been material in the advancement of the people then follows. As does the stammering and stuttering when you remind the same person that it was once de rigueur for younger Yoruba males to crawl on their stomachs, lizard-like, in deference to both age and authority.
How was the decision arrived at to hold on diligently to the one practice, while dumping the other, few have ever reflected upon. The Edo’s treatment of widows immediately after the death of their husbands is so obviously beyond the pale as not to deserve any comment. Across the debate about culture locally, a fatalistic thread runs through much of the argument in favour of retention of practices which once may have had uses, but are today both unsightly and non-functional. Because the same thoughtless conservatism runs through just about every other aspect of our lives, it is easy to see how we were bound to end up trapped in the many cul-de-sacs (political, economic, cultural, etc.) that now define us.
I have heard told that this failure is one associated with cultures that arose from agrarian social organisation. Industrialisation and the large premium it places on enumeration and rational thought was supposed to have cured much of these foibles. At which point the conversation runs into a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Our industrialisation efforts have been held back by pre-industrial mindsets across the country. Yet without rapid industrialisation we may not be rid of these mindsets soon.
How to square this cycle?