Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cultural Anthropology Part 1

There is an obvious danger in making gross generalities about a whole culture; even if the cultural behaviors being described are visible within an observed percentage. It is these sorts of crass universal assumptions about foreign cultures that fueled the Orientalist screeds on Arabs, “Orientals”, and Africans that Edward Said so effectively critiqued; arguing that they served to pervert the Western understanding of “the other” by mischaracterizing indigenous belief and then placing it into the context of, or direct juxtaposition with Western beliefs. Even someone like the late, great Ryszard Kapuschinski, (to whom my writing is deeply indebted), was something of an Orientalist – he at times knowingly mis-portrayed African, Asian and Latin American cultures; making gross generalizations and dealing wholesale in exoticism because it made better copy back home. Flaubert, T.E. Lawrence, Charles M. Doughty and others, were similarly afflicted. Why Kapuschinski transcends the Orientalist label is because he always had a very healthy respect for the cultures he was portraying; and his work remains fiercely literary in both tone and content.

That said; sometimes these cultural distinctions, taken in contrast with the West (here mischaracterized as a singular, monolithic entity – possibly eliciting accusations of “Occidentalism”), can be useful; as long as culture is taken on its own terms rather than measured against Western ideas. I take this long to, pardon the expression, clear my throat, because I think the distinction between an Orientalist read on culture – complete with its coded chauvinism; and a less biased read on culture is an important distinction. I also feel that as an outsider looking at a culture for which one may not be equipped with the  salient cultural frame of reference, it is very difficult not to practice some measure of Orientalist thought. I think an awareness of the impulse to reduce foreign cultures to exoticism can also help to mitigate that impulse. I will attempt to tread lightly. What follows is a collection of, largely anecdotal, and loosely linked cultural observations:

Assantes live in a continuum in which all things appear equally likely. Belief in magic and traditional mysticism operates in tandem with a particular fundamentalist type of charismatic Christianity (I say fundamentalist because there is no debate on evolution: it is presumed wrong out of hand because it contradicts the book of Genesis) along with other vestiges of modernity. The ethereal are given the same considerations as the practical. Thus, many Assantes, and Ghanaians as a whole, will tell you that animals descend directly from the heavens. A popular tale; which many people claim to have directly experienced involves heavy rainstorms and fish falling from the heavens. Streams of water, formed in the rainstorms, are apparently what these fish use to navigate to bodies of water – literally swimming along the ground. I have been told this story countless times with people often claiming to have eaten said heavenly fish after discovering them in fields and under trees during rain storms (the lack of food in the fish’s stomach proving that it was produced divinely). I also once heard the story told about deer. This is taken as categorical evidence of God’s existence. Thus, because someone said it, it must be true, ergo it is made to fit into the existing framework of monotheistic belief. Many times, traditional beliefs in magic that cannot be reconciled with Christianity are explained as demonic forces that people are to live with. Thus, a troop of very talented street acrobats, who delighted a crowd with their gracefulness and cleverness were attributed as magical, and people were reluctant to put money into their hat because they were worried they could be helping the devil.

Local mythoa remain of the utmost of importance within the culture; and vary from village to village. A village I recently visited coexists with a large monkey population in an abutting forest. The area has become one of the leading monkey sanctuaries in West Africa – an impressive feat as monkey is a prized bush meat in many parts of the continent and the likelihood of so large a monkey population surviving so close to human settlements is something of a singular occurrence; with most other sanctuaries existing only in deep and remote parts of forest primeval. What has protected these monkeys from a culinary holocaust has been a local taboo against eating monkey based on a local legend. Apparently, some time ago, many of the ancestors of the village disappeared suddenly at around the time the monkeys showed up (as deforestation likely pushed the monkeys into the relatively preserved forested area that the village touches), leading the villagers to believe that their missing relatives had been transformed into monkeys, in a sort of reverse Darwin irony. It certainly puts the Americanism about being a “monkey’s uncle” into a new perspective. The taboo against eating monkeys then stems from a desire to not devour distant familiar relations; and has preserved the monkey population; who are fed a steady diet of (locally cultivated) mangos by the villagers; who with the creation of a national park; have begun to profit thanks to simian centric tourism. It is a strange symbiotic relationship that sprung from a local mythology. As more traditional beliefs are replaced with the ever encroaching and increasingly fundamentalist Christianity that is pervasive in Ghana; one wonders if similar animal sanctuaries can come into existence without state intervention.

The Assante, despite which religious faction they align with, tend to be Protestant in the Weberian sense. The work ethic of the Assante is renowned throughout Ghana. This makes a lot of sense: the Assante had one of the most successful and wealthiest empires in pre-colonial Africa, and largely got there through a fiercely competitive streak; which manifests itself in both a willingness to work, and a tendency towards argument. Thus, even watching a football match is an opportunity for many to boast of the team they support. Emotion is explosive and tightly coiled just below the surface. People get angry quickly, but also recover quickly.

This can play itself out in an ugly way sometimes. Rough justice is popular in Ghana. Thieves, if caught, are regularly lynched by a mob, rather than going to trial. Even in the event of involuntary manslaughter during these lynching; which is quite common; it is rare that any criminal proceedings are put forward. Police are often placed in a position in which they have to protect thieves from angry mobs and, not wanting to face down this instant justice. At times the line between civil society and anarchy can be diaphanous; almost seeming the vestige of an older, more primal society.

There is also a strong sense of propriety within Ghanaian society. Correct packaging of items sold is a must. This means that everything will be given to you in a black plastic bag, regardless of whether you want the bag or not. It is, in many ways, an ecologist’s nightmare. My efforts to forego the bag, for items that are prepackaged and thus not needing to be entombed in a polymer sheaf have been met by a combination of scorn and shock. I was once denied the sale of a bottle of coca cola because the vendor was out of black plastic bags with which to package the thing in. Never mind that I didn’t want, or need the bloody bag anyways. This has much to do with social protocols. To not offer up items in a plastic sack is to do someone a grave insult; and the establishment that fails to produce plastic bags is doomed to be looked upon as cheap by other Ghanaians. At the same time, this does little to mitigate growing mounds of plastic waste that erupt across Ghana.

There is also the tendency towards a sort of passive affirmation in the event that something is impossible. For example, instead of telling you that they cannot make a meeting, etc, a Ghanaian will tell you that they certainly will be there, and then simply not show up. Some people will try to casually let slip other commitments at the same time; often leaving you to piece together that they cannot make it; however not everyone will extend this courtesy; often leaving one to wonder if anyone is going to show up; or at one time. There is a running joke in Ghana that things operate on GMT or Ghana Mean Time; which often means add between 1 and 4 hours; except when people are early. As a result, one must adjust ones schedule for the eventuality that a person may not arrive at all; or may arrive significantly later than predicted.

Friendship with Westerners is interesting to. Strangers will walk up to you, insist that you are now best friends and proceed to try to make plans with you. I learned early on not to give out my phone number because people have no qualms whatsoever about calling you very late at night, or very early in the morning, and then get angry when, bleary eyed, you are unable to remember them as the stranger that accosted you three weeks earlier. People can also come across as pushy - but this is merely cultural. A stranger who walked by me in front of my building once told me to “get off the phone” so she could talk to me, and that it was of the utmost of importance. What she eventually had to say was just that she wanted my phone number. It is frequent for strangers to walk up to you and say “I like you as my friend.” I have never been sure how to respond to this; people generally seem well meaning in doing so; but lest one get sleep at all; one must be cautious.

Misconceptions about Westerners abound. Children in a village once checked the latrine after I had used it because they had been told that Westerners defecate money. This was a view held by their elders as well; who had planned a similar ‘investigation’ but were extending the courtesy of waiting until I had departed the vicinity.


Mikey Golightly said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mikey Golightly said...

Should those villages turn out wealthy, you are welcome to use my latrine at any time.

I enjoy every one of your postings tremendously.

Adam said...


Good to hear from you. I'm not a big fan of Said. Remember: Just because we call something a Culture doesn't mean it carries as much value as everything else. The more you simplify your thoughts the clearer everything will be.

I like you as my friend,

Alex Deley said...

Cheers Adam. I like you as my friend too.

I disagree with you on Said. I think what Said points out is very important; and yes, he can take things a little too far - his declaration that V.S. Naipul was feeding some sort of Orientalist view of the developing world, when, lets face it, Naipul was describing his own culture largely as he saw it, and wonderfully. On the other hand, Said was forced into a position of radicalism by both a history of institutionalized Orientalist inertia and the gusto with which he was attacked by old Orientalists like Bernard Lewis. My favorite Said is actually his memoir 'Out of Place' about growing up in British administered Palestine.

Alex Deley said...

I realized I failed to respond to your critique.

I think it is very difficult to make claims of what is or is not a culture - especially if one is making assertions about a different group of people from oneself. I think then, cultural distinctions must be left to those that self-identify as a 'culture'. Otherwise you end up trying to set some arbitrary rubric as to when a group of people become a culture. What I like about Said is that his view has always been towards as much exclusivity as possible. His notion was always towards self-awareness of programmed biases we bring towards observing and interacting with the other; but that a shared humanity and acknowledgment of the humanity of others can help to transcend those biases.

For all of the places where he perhaps digs in his heels too deeply, I think Said is fundamentally right on that point.