WhiteAfrican

Where Africa and Technology Collide!

A Question of Culture

[Caveat: I am no philosopher, nor have I done any research on this. These are just a few meandering thoughts and broad generalizations brought on by boredom while riding the London to Oxford train.]

Acacia tree on the grassland

The biggest difference between Africans and Westerners might be in how we define value.

A Westerner sees a tree and loves it for it’s aesthetic beauty.
An African sees a tree and loves it for it’s practical uses; for shade, or how much it can be sold for.

This comes out in small and large ways. Many times the differences and definitions for why we do things differently are difficult to notice, they’re nuanced, leaving only a vague sense of confusion of why a certain decision was reached by a person from the other culture. At other times the cultures stand gawking at one another wondering which planet the other came from.

This isn’t to say that Westerners can’t see practical uses or that Africans are unable to appreciate aesthetics. No, it means that a different starting point on decision making can create a wide number of outcomes, many of them widely divergent to our own cultural world view.

26 Comments

  1. Hey White African, I appreciate the meandering of your thoughts, it lays a platform for what I think could be a productive conversation. I believe that you may be confusing cultural viewpoints with economic realities. In addition to the fact that culture itself is not a static force, but a force that changes with social, spiritual, political, and economic changes, the reason Europeans may today tend to view a tree as an aesthetic product is because living in a developed consumer economy they have literally–no reason to see–the practicality of a tree. Thus, unhindered by this reality their imaginations can easily go into the realm of the aesthetically beauty of a tree.

    Likewise for “Africans” for who that there tree is how one is going to eat and keep his or her family warm, because living in underdeveloped societies, where many people do not have gas or electric stoves and heater systems, trees for a very large part of the population do play this real role.

    But looking into the past, many African cultures did value trees for their supernatural qualities, there were sacred trees, trees which housed different kinds of powers, the whole idea of the tree of life, the tree of wisdom, the tree under which knowledge of learned, so while this is not the same as the beauty modern Europeans see in a tree, it is something other than a simple utilitarian view of trees. On the flip side there was a time in which Europeans prior to the Enlightenment and industrialization that Europeans had little aesthetic interest in trees and saw in them the same usage that many Africans see in them today.

    But there does exist Africans who because of their detachment from traditional life can and do see the beauty in trees or shall I say the whole idea of natural life and the environment (and I don’t mean simply from the whole political international legalistic NGO rights point of view). I do wish more Africans can partake in the arts and sciences of philosophy and thirst for the aesthetic as it is found in Africa. But, I believe this is happening and will continue to happen as political, economic, and cultural progress occurs.

    Thanks

    Mavinga

  2. Different starting points indeed. For the rural African in a developing nation, food and shelter are primary concerns and the tree provides firewood & shelter

  3. An African sees a tree and loves it for it’s practical uses; for shade, or how much it can be sold for.
    A Westerner sees a tree and loves it for it’s aesthetic beauty, cuts it down, ships it out of Africa, turns it into furniture, makes profit and takes away the African’s shade.

  4. I was going to state what Mavinga did, albeit in a simple non-economist-sounding way. Its difficult, for instance, to see how wonderful a lion looks and want to preserve for others to see it if it (lion) is a threat to your livestock, yet it is not even edible. A Westerner won’t mind spending a couple thousand dollars to come on a ‘safari’ (in Kiswahili, a safari is a journey, but westerners have given this word an aesthetic meaning as well).

    But honestly, deep down, I do wonder if the different work/adventure cultures have anything to do with the economic situation that then leads to aesthetics versus practicality stance on things.

  5. I would look at it differently. Both see the beauty of it, but how do we understand the way which beauty is contemplated. Does the beauty lie in artistic or aesthetical understandings, in eonomocal, individual and so forth. In the West we have a long tradition of analyzing beauty through a theory of the arts. But can beauty be something undescribable and something intuitive that none or both grasp.

  6. As a white child brought up in the bush in Tanganyika/Tanzania in the 1950’s & 60’s, and someone who spoke Swahili before my family language, English, I am well placed to comment on the “white African”, and I think my book about my wild African childhood, in which I faced the issue of being a white mSwahili from very young, should be read by anyone who is interested in the subject. I’ve had lovely reviews from white and black, Africans and Europeans. These can be seen under reviews in the website above.

  7. Dear White African,

    Echoing Mavinga’s thoughts – your statements also imply a subtle racism and classicist beliefs. Did the European not cut down all their trees? Or have i forgotten that vasts areas of Europe are still virgin forests?

    What makes you think “Africans” do not possess aesthetic values? Because we don’t express beauty (like the singular tree on the landscape you have posted) in the same romanticized way that Europeans? Maybe we didn’t paint a Van Gogh type illustration of a tree, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t value aesthetics…you’re distinctions between culture, aestheticisms, and practical values are, I’m sorry to say, just plain wrong.

  8. I should have explained that this tree story is just being used as an example, and likely a poor one. However, it came from a real-life experience I had earlier this year in Kenya. It was explained to me by a Kenyan this way, so I did not come up with it originally.

    It has caused me to spend a great amount of time thinking on basic cultural differences.

  9. Hash aka White African,

    Again, I think you are beating your assumption against a brick wall hoping it will make sense. Nothwithstanding the fact that these are all gross over generalizations we are speaking about (which is fine for conversational purpose), the difference that you are talking about is not cultural but economic.

    I have followed you blogs for a while and have a long time ago accepted you to be of a very broad and comprehensive mind. This distinction in how a tree is view by our stereotypical European and our stereotypical African shouldn’t take up any of your thinking accept if you are thinking of how can we further move the greater number of African people away from the insecure dependency on subsistence living and African states into IT and industrial economies.

    That is all that this distinction that is perplexing you about. Get culture out of your hand. As you well know, there are millions of Kenyans in the city who-for better or worse- have more culturally in common with European people than they do with their own cousins in the rural areas.

    And there are still millions of Anglo-Saxons and Scots in the agricultural zones in Britain who can care less about the beauty of a trees on their property, they just want to make sure those trees are good enough to cut down to make firewood or to make into furniture, because that is their economic mode of operation.

  10. Interesting how that thought (or is it the example?) provoked such heated reactions and i get where they’re coming from but I also understand this post not as a statement about populations but as an individual experience that seems to occur somewhat repeatedly. And as far as my own experience goes, I can relate to it. It’s happened to me, and when it does, I make no assumption about anyone, it’s an opportunity to learn another way of thinking and when it’s reciprocated, it’s shared and we all grow from it 🙂
    And if you want a counter example to this particular aesthetic/practical dichotomy, when I am in India, I am a savage – not being capable of keeping that hair of mine in check but being only ‘practical’ about it. Well I learnt something too and it was cool 🙂

  11. I am of the opinion that there is much more to it than one individual may experience – so many things have come to play to lead to the current differences of human societies.

    A book that I can think of that delves deep into this topic is Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (for which he won a Pulitzer prize). It was a very good attempt, IMO, at trying to explain how Geography, Biology, writing, religion, political organization and other elements have shaped the destinies of various societies; why some developments might have appeared in some societies and not in others. It goes back as far as 13,000 years ago up to the present day. It’s a far cry from the usually shallow explanations based on race (Europeans are this and Africans are that while Asians are…) and definitely a recommended read.

    Might just give you food for thought the next time you wonder about the different cultures on the planet…

  12. Its very true that due to cultural upbringings the way people look at things is very different. It may not be due to colour or current economic situations but rather the structures in society established over the years.

    A joke that someone told be about politicians:
    How do you explain that when the European politician gets hold of large tacts of land, he shares it with other Europeans. When the African politician gets land, he takes care that other Africans cannot access it! (with a light touch!)

  13. Mavinga Mambo

    July 13, 2010 at 8:56 am

    Rogue, I am having a hard go at convincing the folks gathered around that issue but I will continue to try. You like our our friend White African, IMO continue to confuse culture with economics.

    Though I would never disrespect White African or you by saying you believe in the “white mans burden” fantasy, I would like to point out that your confusing cultural origins with what is essentially economic origins of a value judgement is troubling.

    If someone values a tree for its economic use that is not culture, that is pure practical, utilitarianism, basic means of life. The problem is that African economics is still stuck in the pre-industrial agricultural era. Its not even like the American Mid-West or Southern Italy where agricultural is industrialized with sophisticated machinery with automated means of production, where one farm family can be 50 times more productive than 50 African families on their homestead.

    So because most of Africa’s economy is agricultural, and mostly pre-industrial agricultural at that, Africans still has unsurprising a pre-industrial notion of land.

    The joke about African Politicians taking land further reinforces this crazy notion that Africans are so fundamentally different from other people, which is foolish. European Politicians don’t keep land because they are so how angelic and African Politicians don’t take land because they are fundamentally evil. In Europe wealth is somewhere other than in the land (banking, e-commerce, consulting, IT, manufacturing etc.). Plus remember Europeans were the wealthy people who just left African 50 years ago. While in Africa and in mostly all ex-colonial countries, 50 years ago economic power was ONLY in the land (i.e. the whole point of colonization). So, African Politicians took the land and have been taking it ever since.

    This is not some spooky exotic cultural phenomenon unique to Africa. It happens everywhere in the non-Euro-America colonial world. Pre-Industrial Agricultural India and China was highly feudal. It was the Neheru government in India and the Communist in China which took by force the land from the landlords-chiefs (the colonial era politicians) and redistributed it to the squatters and workers who were the real producers.

    Most Latin American countries economies are still colonial, the Politicians come from the Plantation families, while the majority of the people work on the land without rights and property. Pakistan unlike India is underdeveloped because they never had land reform, so as a agricultural economy, the Politician-Landlords and their Clan Families run the country.

    So, we need to stop disrespecting African aspirations, as if Africans are the only people in the world who can’t separate economic reality from aesthetic value, while falsely praising Europeans of today, for their view aesthetic view of land, a view they only have because their ancestors created a modern society for them in which land is not necessary for wealth. es for unwarranted altruism.

    This stuff is historical. Indians and Chinese are becoming like Europeans and Japanese because they had land reform and are creating industrial and IT economies in which their people can get wealth and security through using their brains, not only their hands.

    Lord knows there are millions of young Africans who if we don’t do the same for, African Politicians will need to start building castles and fortifications around their large land of estates just like the pre-industrial medievals European elite did to guard their property and lives from the vicious horde of hungry masses. Oh, I forget they already have.

  14. Thank you Mavinga Mambo!!

    I follow this blog closely, and White African’s many amazing contributions to the tech space in Africa, but this post shocked me.

    Echoing a lot of stuff Maviga has said, but it bears repeating.

    I read recently that the top 1% of people in a country (in terms of wealth) have more in common with other top 1%s of other countries than they do with the bottom 1% of their own country. Anecdotally, the privileged private school kid hanging out at a mall in Nairobi with his Macbook has a value system (culture) extremely far removed from a teenager in rural Turkana, and closer to a similarly privileged American teenager. Do you think the Mall kid in Nairobi sees a tree and thinks about its shade?

    As Mambo says, the issue is economics and class. So sweeping statements about value systems of Africans and Westerners do a disservice to all concerned.

    The assumption that “Africans are so fundamentally different from other people” is one that appears often in otherwise well meaning Westerners working in Africa. Perhaps when issuing visas to an African country we should require classes in Sociology, History, Economics and International Development!

  15. Just rehashing what Hash said:


    I should have explained that this tree story is just being used as an example, and likely a poor one. However, it came from a real-life experience I had earlier this year in Kenya. It was explained to me by a Kenyan this way, so I did not come up with it originally.

  16. I think Hash like Mavingo stated very eloquently is that the Post Modern African like myself has little time to look at beauty of things when trying to survive and also, if truthfully said trying to have the same things guys in the West have while facing some Pre Modern challenges .

    Africans before Colonialism did value aesthetics, look at Maasai garments and jewelry. Other tribes like Kikuyu, Kamba (where i am from) did have similar artifacts but have decided to forgo them because the end of Colonialism left them harsh quasi-modern realities that they had to deal with e.g. Landlessness, New diseases and effects of a brutal war.

    However I do get where your coming from as someone who moves frequently between the West and Africa one can get stuck with such puzzles quite often.

  17. As an African I see a tree, first and foremost, as a source of oxygen for my existence. Westerners do not cherish trees for their aesthetic beauty–rich people do irrespective of whether they are Western, Chinese or African. But someone struggling to survive (irrespective of where he or she is a Westerner) would look upon a tree as a source of wood, shade or income. It isn’t cultures that really divide the world, its economics.

  18. I would also suggest you read more about Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement of Kenya. It may help put into perspective how a certain Kenyan school of thought saw and still see trees–as an essential part of nature that ought to be cherished and protected. This is a home grown Kenyan school of thought that stands in contrast to what we see capitalists (Western or otherwise) doing–cutting down trees, converting them to saleable items and profiting from it.

  19. Mavinga Mambo

    July 14, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    @Olex,

    “As an African I see a tree, first and foremost, as a source of oxygen for my existence. Westerners do not cherish trees for their aesthetic beauty–rich people do irrespective of whether they are Western, Chinese or African. But someone struggling to survive (irrespective of where he or she is a Westerner) would look upon a tree as a source of wood, shade or income. It isn’t cultures that really divide the world, its economic”

    For what it is worth, I would like to extend a hand of congratulation and thanks. The argument I was stubbornly in 10 to 15 paragraphs trying to make, you made it in one simple, yet persuasive paragraph. Yours is a clear and direct mind.

    Mavinga

  20. Huh, I can’t believe that I completely forgot about Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement of Kenya while trying to chip in earlier! Whereas I understand the undercurrents of the topic are much stronger than just trees (and was why I pointed out the book Guns, Germs and Steel), her story (which won her a Nobel prize) is certainly a good counter to the assumptions made in this post (whoever originally came up with it) about Africans and trees.

  21. It’s interesting that the opposite quote…

    An African sees a tree and loves it for it’s aesthetic beauty.
    A Westerner sees a tree and loves it for it’s practical uses; for shade, or how much it can be sold for.

    …would have sparked the same outrage and discussion about how Africans are stereotyped as superstitious, mystical, at-one-with-nature and ultimately primitive, and how Westerners are opportunistic, capitalistic and ultimately greedy.

    Lesson of the day: Generalizations help no-one, and hurt everyone.

    (no matter who makes them @Josiah).

  22. This post is sad, shocking and for a while I have had to just cool myself down before I could post. Has anyone agree with the blogger ever gone to an African village during market day? Why did Picasso use West African art for inspiration? Can form and function, and even spirtuality be removed from beauty? Is that not what many artists have been trying to scream out loud in the West, and are ignored? Why do poor Africans not wear black and white, but want other colours?
    Are the people who want to chop down trees in Oregon Westerners? Is Sarah Palin of “drill baby drill” fame a westerner”?
    The more things change the more they stay the same. Sad. Something to expect in 1930 but 2010? Something to expect from Karen Blixen, and yet we are back again at this juncture. (http://www.mg.co.za/article/2006-05-31-a-letter-to-baroness-blixen-out-of-africa).

    Are the people of the state of Louisiana who support offshore drilling (http://www.rasmussenreports.com/public_content/politics/general_state_surveys/louisiana/louisiana_voters_strongly_support_offshore_drilling_deepwater_drilling) Westerners?
    The sad part there are Africans with artistic/aesthetic talent, who by nature of the ihub project are putting their economic futures in your hands.

    @Ann
    Per your comment “Perhaps when issuing visas to an African country we should require classes in Sociology, History, Economics and International Development!”

    I get what you are saying, but Hash “grew up” in Africa. I have met 9 year old white kids who would be shocked at this statement.

    If this statement were made here in the United States, supporters and funding agencies would be withdrawing support from ihub by now, well most of the big ones would.

  23. @ Josiah, one Kenyan yes – and granted there are probably many more like him/her – but surely not enough to make such a sweeping statement? I tend to go with Mavinga and Olex, economics, not culture. And like someone said, look through the folklore and you will find the tree, proud and strong and still standing. We have not always felt the need to cut trees.

  24. Ps. This reminded me of an article I read last year during the height of the climate change debate. Based on one interview the writer had with a woman up in the North who said she had left “everything to God” with regards to changes in weather etc, he wrote a long piece on how Kenyans have to do more than “pray” as far as mitigating climate change is concerned. And threw in a few suggestions. I wondered how he had missed the thousands of youth groups and women groups and Wangari Maathai and farmers who are in fact doing something …. planting trees, educating people, stopping the rape of indigenous forests…. Sadly he equated “leaving things to God” as complete inertia on the part of not just this woman, but the entire country. I am surprised he didn’t throw in the whole continent for good measure.

  25. Its not a question of culture really, it is about survival. According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, human beings will first and foremost seek to survive. “Human being” here refering to any individual whether an African or Westerner. Aesthetics mean nothing when your belly is empty.

  26. Wow, 24 comments so far on such a blog post.

    To me, the perceived difference isn’t the problem or the issue, but instead that we have to define a difference in the first place in order to make other ppl understand that there are indeed a few cultural differences between societies for various reasons.

    Ignoring everything else, for those criticising Hash’ approach I would like to explain that we (bridge bloggers, mediators, promoters, etc.) are looking for a way to make “Africa” attractive to the rest of the world. Hence the felt need to explain “what works in Africa…”. Because there are still a lot of “Westeners” who don’t spend a single minute thinking about other cultures – but at the same time like to cash in on them. Dito “Africans” who ignore other cultures & customs.

    (~ Naija mafia spoiling it for everyone else on the continent)
    (~ level of innovation in Africa vs. Asia vs. Europe vs. US)

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