The culture of a people is what marks them out distinctively from other human societies in the family of humanity. The full study of culture in all its vastness and dimensions belongs to the discipline known as anthropology, which studies human beings and takes time to examine their characteristics and their relationship to their environments. Culture, as it is usually understood, entails a totality of traits and characters that are peculiar to a people to the extent that it marks them out from other peoples or societies. These peculiar traits go on to include the people’s language, dressing, music, work, arts, religion, dancing and so on. It also goes on to include a people’s social norms, taboos and values. Values here are to be understood as beliefs that are held about what is right and wrong and what is important in life. A fuller study of values rightly belongs to the discipline of philosophy. Axiology as a branch of philosophy deals with values embracing both ethics and aesthetics. This is why philosophical appraisal of African culture and values is not only apt and timely, but also appropriate. Moreover, the centrality of the place of values in African culture as a heritage that is passed down from one generation to another, will be highlighted. We shall try to illustrate that African culture and values can be appraised from many dimensions in addition to examining the method of change and the problem of adjustment in culture. Here we hope to show that while positive dimensions of our culture ought to be practised and passed on to succeeding generations, negative dimensions of our culture have to be dropped in order to promote a more progressive and dynamic society.
Before we can have an appraisal of African culture and values, it is necessary for us to have an understanding of the concept of culture and its meaning. This will help us grapple with the issues we will be dealing with in this paper. Let us now look at the concept and meaning of culture, as this is fundamental to our understanding of what African culture is.
THE CONCEPT AND MEANING OF CULTURE
Edward B. Taylor is reputed as the scholar who first coined and defined culturein his work Primitive Culture (1871) and reprinted in 1958. Taylor saw culture as that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs or any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society. Thisdefinition captures the exhaustive nature of culture. One would have expected that this definition would be a univocal one − but this is not so. In fact, there are as many definitions of culture as there are scholars who are interested in the phenomenon.Culture embraces a wide range of human phenomena, material achievements and norms, beliefs, feelings, manners, morals and so on. It is the patterned way of life shared by a particular group of people that claim to share a single origin or descent. In an attempt to capture the exhaustive nature of culture, Bello (1991: 189) sees it as “the totality of the way of life evolved by a people in their attempts to meet the challenge of living in their environment, which gives order and meaning to their social, political, economic, aesthetic and religious norms thus distinguishing a people from their neighbours”. Culture serves to distinguish a people from others, and Aziza (2001: 31) asserts that:
Culture…refers to the totality of the pattern of behaviour of a particular group of people. It includes everything that makes them distinct from any other group of people for instance, their greeting habits, dressing, social norms and taboos, food, songs and dance patterns, rites of passages from birth, through marriage to death, traditional occupations, religious as well as philosophical beliefs.
Culture is passed on from generation to generation. The acquisition of culture is a result of the socialisation process. Explaining how culture is passed on as a generational heritage, Fafunwa (1974: 48) writes that:
The child just grows into and within the cultural heritage of his people. He imbibes it. Culture, in traditional society, is not taught; it is caught. The child observes, imbibes and mimics the action of his elders and siblings. He watches the naming ceremonies, religious services, marriage rituals, funeral obsequies. He witnesses the coronation of a king or chief, the annual yam festival, the annual dance and acrobatic displays of guilds and age groups or his relations in the activities. The child in a traditional society cannot escape his cultural and physical environments
This shows that every human being who grows up in a particular society is likely to become infused with the culture of that society, whether knowingly or unknowinglyduring the process of social interaction. We do not need to have all the definitions of culture and its defining characteristics for us to understand the concept and meaning of culture. Even though there are as many definitions of culture as there are writers,there is an element of similarity that runs through them all. This singular underlying characteristic is the attempt to portray and capture culture as the entire or total way of life of a particular group of people. Etuk (2002: 13) is of the opinion that “an entire way of life would embody, among other things, what the people think of themselvesand the universe in which they live − their world view − in other words, how theyorganise their lives in order to ensure their survival”. It can be safely stated that there can be no culture without a society. It can also be said that culture is uniquely human and shared with other people in a society. Culture is selective in what it absorbs or accepts from other people who do not belong to a particular cultural group.
Culture is to be understood as the way of life of a people. This presupposes the fact that there can be no people without a culture. To claim that there is no society without a culture would, by implication, mean that such a society has continued to survive without any form of social organisation or institutions, norms, beliefs and taboos, and so on; and this kind of assertion is quite untrue. That is why even some Western scholars who may be tempted to use their cultural categories in judging other distinctively different people as “primitive”, often deny that such people have history, religion and even philosophy; but cannot say that they have no culture.
In this paper, we shall be dealing with African culture and drawing examples from Nigerian culture. It is true that based on the consideration of culture as that which marks a people out from others, groups one can rightly say that there are many cultures in Africa. Africa is inhabited by various ethnic nationalities with their
different languages, modes of dressing, eating, dancing and even greeting habits. But in spite of their various cultures, Africans do share some dominant traits in their belief systems and have similar values that mark them out from other peoples of the world. A Nigerian culture, for instance, would be closer to, say, a Ghanaian cultureon certain cultural parameters than it would be to the Oriental culture of the Easternworld, or the Western culture of Europe. It is true that culture is universal and that each local or regional manifestation of it is unique. This element of uniqueness in every culture is often described as cultural variation. The cultures of traditional African societies, together with their value systems and beliefs are close, even though they vary slightly from one another. These slight variations only exist when we compare an African culture with others. Certainly African cultures differ vastly from the cultures of other regions or continents. And we believe there is no need toover-labour this point since there are sufficient similarities to justify our usage of the term “African culture”. Here we would be sure to find a world of differencesand diversity in beliefs, values and culture generally. Using Nigerian culture for instance, Antia (2005: 17) writes that “Nigerians always behave differently from the French, or Chinese, or Americans or Hottentots, because Nigerian beliefs, values and total thinking are different from those of the French, Chinese, Americans or the Hottentots”.
Culture has been classified into its material and non-material aspects. Whilematerial culture refers to the visible tactile objects which man is able to manufacture for the purposes of human survival; non-material culture comprises of the norms and mores of the people. While material culture is concrete and takes the form of artefactsand crafts, non-material culture is abstract but has a very pervasive influence on thelives of the people of a particular culture. Hence beliefs about what is good and what is bad, together with norms and taboos, are all good examples of non-material culture. From the foregoing, it is obvious that culture is shared since it consists of cherished values or beliefs that are shared by a group, lineage, and religious sect and so on. Apart from this, culture is dynamic in the sense that it is continually changing. Culture is not static. We are not alone in this observation as Antia (2005: 17) statesthat “culture is not fixed and permanent. It is always changed and modified by manthrough contacts with and absorption of other peoples’ cultures, a process known as assimilation”. Etuk (2002: 25) has also observed that “cultures are not static, they change. Indeed culture needs to change; which wants to remain static and resistant to change would not be a living culture”. We can see that since culture is carried by people and people do change their social patterns and institutions, beliefs and valuesand even skills and tools of work, then culture cannot but be an adaptive system. Oncean aspect of culture adjusts or shifts in response to changes from within or outside the environment, then other aspects of the culture are affected, whether directly or indirectly. It is necessary to know that each element of a culture (such as material
procedures, food processing or greeting patterns) is related to the whole system. It is in this respect that we can see that even a people’s technology is part of their culture. Idiong (1994: 46) opines that “there are some misconceptions that are widely held about ‘culture’ as a word. Such misconceptions can and often lead some persons to have a negative perception of ‘culture’ and all that it stands for. Such persons raise their eyebrows and suddenly frown at the word ‘culture’ as they in their minds’ eyes visualise masquerades, idol worshipping, traditional jamborees and other activities they consider bizarre that go with culture”. This “misconception”, we believe, does not appear to be widespread but the posture may have arisen from a partial understanding of the meaning of culture because as we shall see, culture generally, and African culture in particular, is like a two-sided coin. It has soul- lifting, glamorous and positive dimensions even though it is not completely immune
from some negative outcomes. African culture, as Ezedike (2009: 455) writes:
…refers to the sum total of shared attitudinal inclinations and capabilities, art, beliefs, moral codes and practices that characterize Africans. It can be conceived as a continuous, cumulative reservoir containing both material and non-material elements that are socially transmitted from one generation to another. African culture, therefore, refers to the whole lot of African heritage.
We could see that African culture embraces the totality of the African way of life inall its forms and ramifications.
THE PLACE OF VALUES IN AFRICAN CULTURE
The value of a thing, be it an object or a belief, is normally defined as its worth. Justas an object is seen to be of a high value that is treasured, our beliefs about what is right or wrong that are worth being held are equally treasured. A value can be seen as some point of view or conviction which we can live with, live by and can even die for. This is why it seems that values actually permeate every aspect of human life. For instance, we can rightly speak of religious, political, social, aesthetic, moral, cultural and even personal values. We have observed elsewhere that there are many typesand classifications of values. As people differ in their conception of reality, then thevalues of one individual may be different from those of another. Life seems to force people to make choices, or to rate things as better or worse as well as formulate some scale or standard of values. Depending on the way we perceive things we can praise and blame, declare actions right or wrong or even declare the scene or objects before us as either beautiful or ugly. Each person, as we could see, has some sense of values and there is no society without some value system (Idang 2007: 4).
Whether we are aware of it or not, the society we live in has ways of daily forcing its values on us about what is good, right and acceptable. We go on in our daily lives trying to conform to acceptable ways of behaviour and conduct. Persons who do not conform to their immediate society’s values are somehow called to order
by the members of that society. If a man, for instance, did not think it wise to make honesty a personal value, and it is widely held by his immediate society that truth telling is a non-negotiable virtue, it would not be long before such an individual gets into trouble with other members of his society. This shows that values occupy a central place in a people’s culture. It forms the major bulwark that sustains a people’s culture, making it more down-to-earth and real. Elsewhere, we have seen African culture as “all the material and spiritual values of the African people in the course of history and characterising the historical stage attained by Africa in her developments” (Idang 2009: 142). This simply means that there is a peculiar way of life, approach to issues, values and world views that are typically African.
Based on cultural considerations, some forms of behaviour, actions and conduct are approved while others are widely disapproved of. To show the extent of disapproval that followed the violation of values that should otherwise be held sacred, the penalty was sometimes very shameful, sometimes extreme. African culture, with particular reference to the Ibibio people in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, for instance, has zero tolerance for theft. The thief once caught in the act or convicted, would be stripped naked, his or her body rubbed with charcoal from head to toe and the object he or she stole would be given to him or her to carry around the village in broad day light. The sense of personal shame and the disgrace the thief has brought on himself or herself, family, relations and friends would be enough to discourage even the most daring thief. Antia (2005: 17) writes that “what a people hold to be true, right or proper with regard to those things explains much of the cultural traits by which theybecome identified”. What Antia calls “traits” here can as well be called values; andEtuk (2002: 22) writes that “no group of people can survive without a set of values which holds them together and guarantees their continued existence”.
The concern with values, whether moral or aesthetic, occupies a very wide area in the discipline of philosophy. To show the fundamental importance of values, it is regarded as a core area in philosophy, together with knowledge and reality. When we are dealing with actions that a people see as good or bad, right or wrong, praise- worthy or blame-worthy, we are dealing with the aspect of value theory that rightly falls under ethics or moral philosophy. But when we are dealing with an appraisal of beauty in the arts and crafts of a people, we are dealing with the aspect of value theory called aesthetics. It does appear that while material culture can be studied and evaluated under the aesthetic aspect of value theory, non-material culture can equallybe studied and evaluated under the ethical aspect of value theory. Just as ethics andaesthetics are twin sisters that form or constitute value theory, the non-material and material dimensions of a culture together constitute two related aspects that give a people their unique identity, hence the relationship that exists between ethics and aesthetics. Having seen the centrality of values to African culture and any culture for that matter, it can be stated that the values of culture are what give it uniqueness and identity. Let us now look at African culture and values.
AFRICAN CULTURE AND VALUES
Having looked at the concept and meaning of culture and having established the place of values in a culture, we want to bring this down to the African context. A culture is an embodiment of different values with all of them closely related to each other. That is why one can meaningfully talk about social, moral, religious, political, aesthetic and even economic values of a culture. Let us now look at these values piece-meal, as this would give us an understanding how they manifest in an African culture and the importance being attached to them.
Social values can simply be seen as those beliefs and practices that are practised by any particular society. The society has a way of dictating the beliefs and practices that are performed either routinely by its members or performed whenever the occasion demands. Hence, we have festivals, games, sports and dances that are peculiar to different societies. These activities are carried out by the society because they are seen to be necessary. Some social values, especially in African society, cannot exactly be separated from religious, moral, political values and so on. This is why we can see that in a traditional African society like in Ibibio land (Nigeria), festivals whichwere celebrated often had religious undertones − they ended with sacrifices thatwere offered to certain deities on special days in order to attract their goodwill on the members of the society. Social values are backed by customary laws. They comprise of those traditional carnivals that a people see as necessary for their meaningful survival. Let us illustrate with an example: the new yam festival as practised in Ibibio land has a way of encouraging hard work and checking famine. It was a thingof shame for any man to buy yams for his family within the first two to three weeksafter the festival. Doing so would expose a man as being too lazy. These festivals really discipline the society because nobody is to do anything when it is not time. For instance, new yam could not be eaten until the new yam festival has been celebrated.
African culture is embedded in strong moral considerations. It has a system of various beliefs and customs which every individual ought to keep in order to live long and to avoid bringing curses on them and others. Adultery, stealing and other forms of immoral behaviour are strongly discouraged and whenever a suspected offender denies a charge brought against him, he would be taken to a soothsayer or made to take an oath for proof of innocence. In Ibibio land for instance, ukang (ordeal) is very popular as a method of crime detection. The soothsayer who specialises in it sets a pot of boiling oil, drops a stone into it and asks the suspects to attempt to retrieve the stone. The guiltless can reach to the bottom of the pot and retrieve the
…to be continued