Moving between cultures – the fun and the difficulties.

My posts are published now on Africa on the Blog.

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On 26 August 2014, a post was published called ‘Moving between cultures – the fun and the difficulties’. The post follows on from my post of a day before on ‘What is culture?’. In the post, I look at what happens when people move to a different culture from their own. I give the example of ‘Beauty’ and the adjustment she has to go through when moving to a culture with a different standard in the area of punctuality.

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I continue to argue that similar adjustments are needed in other areas. People have to change their ways in order to stay true to their own identity. This can cause conflicts when moving back and forth between cultures and it is good to be conscious of this.

However, moving to a different culture also has its advantages.To some extent, the problems and advantages are similar to all human beings and not unique for Africans in the diaspora. 

What is culture?

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Dutch culture?

My posts are published now on Africa on the Blog.

On 25 August 2014, a post was published called ‘What is culture?’. In the post, I opt for a definition of culture that includes behaviour patterns that are ‘between the ears’, as opposed to focusing only on material things only such as art or music. I point to the Hofstede model of describing cultural differences in six dimensions.

I suggest that this model may offer a better way of looking at cultures and cultural differences, although it needs to be adapted for multicultural societies like those in most African countries. I continue by emphasising the importance of language as an expression of a culture’s unique cultural perspective on life.

What Piketty has to say about Africa

My posts are published now on Africa on the Blog.

On 16 June 2014, a post was published called ‘What Piketty has to say about Africa’.

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In the post, I argue that there are four main lessons from Piketty’s book that are relevant for Africa:

0 – Africa is able to catch up with the rest of the world.

1 – Foreign direct investment is not the answer for Africa’s problems

2 – Education is the answer

3 – Credible, democratic institutions are essential.

The post then questions if one can ever expect such institutions to come about in countries like Nigeria – and if it is not better to seek a peaceful transition to more logical borders for some of the countries of Africa.

Read the post…

Africa’s failed states: the Central African Republic

My posts are published now on Africa on the Blog.

On 18 April, a post was published called Africa’s failed states: the Central African Republic.

In the post, I argue that the fact that some states in Africa fail is partly due to the fact that the boundaries of these countries are artificial and not related to what the peoples living in those countries would have chosen themselves. It would be better to redraw the borders of some of these countries in order to make them more homogeneous from the ethnic and linguistic point of view.

The post examines the work of ethnologists, who have tried to identify and classify the differences between languages. It argues that from the point of view of building feasible countries, it would be better to look instead at the similarities.

The example given is that of the Central African Republic. It is demonstrated that it would make much more sense to shift that country’s borders to the South, roughly along the lines shown in the map. This would bring all or most of the peoples who speak one of the Ubangian languages together in one country. The country’s name could be Ubangi and the national language could be Sango, a creole easily learned by all who speak an Ubangian language.

There is more – read the post.Image

Let’s look at Botswana!

My posts are published now on Africaontheblog.com.

On 19 February 2014, a post was published called ‘Let’s take a closer look at Botswana‘.

The post describes Botswana as one of the most successful countries of Africa, although it also points out some problems, such as gender inequality and the problems of the Bushmen. The post asks the question why it is that Botswana has had the success it had. It argues that the reason is not in the natural resources of the country – because other African countries with more natural resources have not necessarily done better than Botswana. The answer, the post states, must have something to to with the fact that Botswana is one of the few countries in Africa that makes some sense from an ethnic point of view, with nearly 80% of the population being Tswana. This, the post argues, is still a taboo subject.

What to look for in ‘the next Nelson Mandela’?

My posts are published now on Africaontheblog.com.

On 5 July 2013, a post was published called ‘What to look for in the next ‘Nelson Mandela’?

The post argues that the some of the key traits that made Nelson Mandela such a great leader are rare in today’s African leaders. Yet, the example set by Nelson Mandela should be emulated by leaders in Africa and worldwide.Image 

From tribe to nation?

My posts are published now on Africaontheblog.com.

On 6 March 2013, a post was published called ‘From tribe to nation?

The post addresses some things I consider to be key issues, having to do with ethnic identity, the link with language and thoughts on what a nation needs so that people can feel loyal to it.

The post ends by asserting that  for Africa, there is only one way forward. New forms need to be found to manage a transition away from the national boundaries that were dictated by the colonial powers over a century ago, in complete disregard of ethnic realities. In some parts of Africa, the colonial borders are losing their meaning. Some Africans are starting to see that a radical re-thinking of the current states is necessary. Starting a debate along these lines is, I think inescapable: the taboo on a rational discussion on this topic has to be broken.

Shell Nigeria convicted in the Netherlands – Why?

My posts will appear from now on on http://www.africaontheblog.com

My most recent post was on the recent conviction of Shell Nigeria in a Dutch court. Apparently, the Nigerian state is unable to give justice to its citizens. What does it mean, if a state is not able to do that? What does it say about Nigeria’s chances of success as a nation?

Read the post…

Is Barack Obama the first African American President?

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20 January 2013 is the day is the day that Barack Obama is sworn in for a second term of office as President of the United States. He is widely regarded as the first African-American president of the U.S. But – is this true?

On the face of it, the arithmetic is simple. Obama’s mother was, in the peculiar language of the Americans, ‘Caucasian’. His father was Luo, which by all accounts is in Africa. So, join the two together and what do you get? An African American.

But this is not all there is to it. In general, the term African American refers to a person who is descended from the first Africans who were brought to what is now the U.S. as slaves. These persons share a culture that is distinct from the dominant American culture and that culture is referred to as African American. And that is where there is an obvious problem – because a lot can be said about Barack Obama, but not that his cultural background is African American.

The ‘true’ African Americans know this, of course, but there seems to be a silent conspiracy not to talk about it. One comedian has dared to challenge the dominant beliefs, using the known facts, but presenting them in a tongue-in-cheek way. Look at this video. Comedian Chris Rock, in a ‘special message for white people’ shows how the young Barack (then called Barry) was raised mainly by his grandparents from his mother’s side (who were, of course, white) and spent most of his childhood years in Hawaii. It is good to note that Hawaii (where I am actually writing this post) is very different from the U.S. mainland. Hawaii is a true melting pot of cultures, with strong influences from the U.S. mainland, but also the indigenous Polynesian Hawaiians, Japanese, and many others. There are, as one might say, fifty shades of brown on the island. On Hawaii, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to know somebody’s culture by looking at the skin tone. You have to wait until a person opens his mouth. In that sense, Hawaii is just like many African countries, where the same is true.

This means that in Hawaii, Barry Obama was raised the Hawaiian way, by his ‘caucasian’ mother and grandparents. (See also his own highly readable memoir, “Dreams from My Father”.) This happy state of things only changed when the young Barry moved to the U.S. mainland. It is there that, sadly, he was confronted with the ‘normal ’ skin-tone related American prejudices. He saw himself forced to make a choice: would he identify himself more with the dominant white culture, or would he adopt the African American one? He chose the latter, but of course retained many of his old, ‘white’ cultural traits.

Therefore, Chris Rock is totally right, although he seems not to believe it himself. Barack Obama is indeed, culturally speaking, a white American, not an African American.

But the story does not end here. Of course, Obama has developed a deep understanding of the African American culture, through his long interaction with African Americans, and not least through his wife, Michelle. Many African Americans felt that Bill Clinton was the first President who understood them. That may be true, but I would venture that Obama’s understanding is bound to be much deeper and more intimate. In that sense, he IS unique. Not, as popular belief would have it, because he is the first African American President. He is not. What he is, though, is perhaps even more important: he is the first President who, because of his background and because of the choices he has made, has an understanding not only of the dominant white American culture, but also of the African American culture. He is, in that sense, a true American.

Whilst that may be a positive message for Americans, it is not good news for the Luo. The Luo who celebrated four years ago when Obama was first sworn in where misguided. Culture is not, as some will believe, in the genes. It is part of the upbringing. Obama is lots of things – but certainly not Luo, and in that sense they cannot expect anything more or less of Obama than they could expect from any other American President – preciously little, in fact.

WHAT AMERICANS CAN LEARN FROM AFRICANS

            “There is only one race – the human race” – Oliver Tambo.

‘There is only one race – the human race’. The statement is attributed to the deceased long-time leader of the ANC in exile, Oliver Tambo. He is not the only one who has said this – many others have said it as well – and in doing so, they have only stated what is blatantly obvious from the zoological point of view. In fact, from the time that the first European sailors set foot on African soil, they have been actively contributing to the massive body of empirical evidence that underpins this statement.

But of course, this is not the same as to say that all human beings are equal. There are important differences. These differences are not based on skin pigmentation or genetic differences. They are based on language and, more importantly, on culture. Europeans know this, of course. Polish, Germans and Dutch all look alike – but they are very different from one another. Africans, of course, know this as well – see this post from Minda Magero for example, for a moving illustration. Communicating in spite of these differences is always a fascinating and very often surprising and rewarding experience.

Why, then, is there still so much talk about race and racism in the United States? Why, for example, are people with different shades of pale skin colour supposed to be ‘Caucasians’? The US is probably the only country in this world where this type of designation is used.  What makes the US so obsessed with this notion of ‘race’, even to the present day?

One explanation can be found in the history of the United States. Like Apartheid, slavery made use of an irrational ideology of ‘racial’ difference to justify a rational but immoral system of exploitation. But slavery was abolished in the US in 1865 – almost150 years ago. Martin Luther King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 – almost 50 years ago. Are Americans so stupid that it takes them such a long time to learn the necessary lessons?

No – there must be another reason why racial prejudice is regenerated and reinvented in the United States generation after generation. This reason cannot be based on differences in skin colour – that factor by itself is too trivial, is literally only skin-deep. The reason must, therefore, be based on something much more important – on cultural differences.

It’s pretty obvious once you think of it –  African Americans use the language differently, have different likes and dislikes, behave differently from other Americans. They form, in effect, a different cultural group within the U.S., just like, for example, the Jewish and the Italian Americans. Anthropologists know this and have documented many aspects of African-American culture. Many people think of culture as something that has to do with art, music and the like. But culture permeates everything and shows itself as soon as, or even before, a person starts to open his/her mouth.

In Africa, many cultures co-exist – and everybody knows that culture and skin colour are not related. The same is true in Europe. But for African Americans, this is not the case: there, uniquely, skin tone does overlap very largely with cultural difference. This explains why, in the U.S., racial stereotyping continues to exist and is constantly reinvented. Encounters between African Americans and other Americans are experienced as encounters between people of different cultural backgrounds. And because, uniquely, skin colour helps to identify the other person’s culture – skin colour is identified with difference and thus, racial prejudice is reproduced time and time again. The illusion is created that the difference in skin tone is, somehow, a cause for the other differences – whereas Africans know that this is not the case.

So – “it’s the culture, stupid!”. It would be good if this mechanism would become a much more explicit part of the American consciousness. Americans should accept and understand the cultural differences that exist in their country in a much clearer way. Then they will realize that the challenges blacks and whites face are related to the universal challenges that people of different cultural backgrounds face in communication, independent of skin colour and no matter where they are from. Challenges, yes – but opportunities for enrichment as well.  This insight, I believe, would go a long way to help to heal some of the wounds that exist in the U.S. Wounds that currently cannot heal, because the mechanisms I described above continue to rip them open.

It is this challenging but essentially optimistic lesson that Africans have to offer Americans. Once one starts to think about this, a host of other questions come to mind. There is the interesting case of Barack Obama, for example. But that will be the topic for my next post.