ST: COMMUNAL HUMAN LIFE IN AFRICA

In this unit we have examined the communal human life in Africa.
  • Communal Human Life

In social anthropology a community is seen to be “an observed social interaction of individuals.” As it was pointed out in the explanation of the human creation in the image of God, some scholars like Grenz (1994, 231) believe that “God’s program for the world and hence for humankind as God’s representative in the world focuses on the establishment of community.” Human beings need community. Human life can be fulfilled only in community.

The community is important. This is especially true in Africa where human being is existentially a being-in- relation. An important perspective of mankind as a social being “is that an individual human is fundamentally a member of society. Membership in and interaction with a group of persons is what really distinguishes humanity. Someone who does not interact with other social beings is less than fully human, ” as stated by Erickson (1998,493).

John R. W. Stott stated that in the modern technocratic society which destroys transcendence and significance there is a quest for community. He reported: (1992, 234) “At least since the sixties, some have been breaking away from Western individualism and experimenting with communal styles of living.”

The chief requirement for community building is quality relationships characterised by mutual trust, listening, helping, sacrifice, self-denial, equality and personal freedom. To some extent the individual “person is the set of relationships in which he or she is involved . . . Through a fostering of these relationships the individual can become fully human.” Without growth-nurturing relationships a community breaks down. The place of personal, social and group relationships in the development of humanity cannot be over-emphasised. Human redemption therefore  involves restoration of the broken relationship of humankind with God and with other human beings.

  • Traditional African Life I

African social and cultural values are closely related. Some of them are relationships, respect for elders, sacrifice, unity, cooperation, self-denial/ sacrifice, participation, hospitality, inclusiveness, celebration, accompaniment and greetings.

One Sukuma proverb in East Africa says, “To make marks on the trees,” means “to build good relationships with people is a very important priority in our lives.” By implication a life that is not spent to build up human relationships is a wasted life. Emphasis on personal relationships is also connected to family values. A particular example is respect for elders. Among the Yoruba, absolute respect for parents and elders is an aspect of traditional value “that was in vogue before the advent of foreign, modern culture.” Boys prostrate to greet their parents, and girls kneel to greet their mothers. They are required to do the same to elders within and outside extended families.

This culture corresponds very strongly with the fifth commandment: “Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you”(Ex. 20:12, NIV). This commandment is “a principle for effective living in the family. It has a universal quality that strengthens family relationships even among people who do not know the Lord.”

Another basic value in developing relationships is selflessness, self-denial and sacrifice. An African proverb says: “The hen with chicks doesn’t swallow the worm.” The theme is parental care, helping others, sharing the necessities of life. Sacrifice is an important aspect of African community life.

Participation, unity and cooperation are also core values of African life. Kofi Appiah-Kubi is reported to have affirmed: “For an African the centre of life is not achievement but participation.” Individualism is seen as evil in traditional African society. “Ka fi owo we owo ni owo fi mo,” is a Yoruba proverb meaning “Two hands wash each other better”. It is found almost all over Africa: as it exists among the Akan; Runyankole, Rukiga, Uganda; Zulu, South Africa. This proverb teaches the value of unity, cooperation, strength and success. It is important for people to share and work together in a community.

  • Traditional African Life II

Hospitality is an African “way of life,” an important cultural and social value. It is always a joy to welcome unexpected visitors particularly once it is known “that the stranger is not an adversary.” There is always food and room for one more guest. In a typical Nigerian home a guest is a blessing. Hosts and hostesses in Africa gladly give their own food to their guests.

African hospitality to visitors and strangers is a commendable practice in view of this biblical exhortation: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2, NIV). While this is a reference to Abraham, Gideon and Manoah in the Old Testament, (Gen. 18; Jud. 6, 13) only God knows if some African families have not hosted angels without realising it

Somehow this I believe that there are righteous Africans who will be among those to be commended by Jesus the King at the end of the age: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matt. 25:33-34). African hospitality is a kingdom practice.

God has blessed Africans with the spirit of inclusiveness and fellowship. A person does not eat alone. He invites others to share in his meal. No one is excluded. Excluding people is seen as very bad. The key African value of inclusiveness is demonstrated concretely in expressions of hospitality.

  • Traditional African Life III

Celebration is another social value that is also connected with hospitality and special events. Africans celebrate with food, drink, music and dancing. Important events of life are celebrated – naming, marriage, funeral and house warming. “The local people always seem to rise to the occasion in the planning and preparation of celebrations and feasts.”

The social and cultural values of accompaniment and greetings will be considered last. Healey and Sybertz (1996, 181) explained and interpreted as follows: “In rural areas when friends came to visit, the host or hostess would walk them at least half-way back to their home or to their next destination as a gesture of friendship and respect . . . This practice combines the African values of personal relationships, sharing, community, hospitality, saying good-bye in a personal way and gratitude. The custom bears witness to the core value of maintaining relationships. The amount of time spent, the personal discomfort, and the work that is left behind are all secondary. The person comes first.

This theology of accompaniment is also linked to the ministry of counseling through presence. When people are experiencing bereavement and some other kinds of grief like terminal illness, one of the best ways to share their pain is through silent accompaniment.

Greetings are another interesting African social value. Among every people group there are special greetings when people wake up, during the day, in the evening, when people are at work and even while they are relaxing.

It is an offence not to offer the right kind of greetings appropriate to and for an occasion. These various values described in this section will be fulfilled one day when God would greet and welcome his children home: “Well done, good and faithful servant! . . . .Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matt. 25:21).

It is unfortunate to report that these meaningful values described above are being eroded daily by Western education, modernization and urbanization. The resultant issues of globalization and urbanization leading to secularization and individualism will be presented in the next section.

Modern African Life I

In place of the traditional African communal culture the world is developing a pseudo-culture of globalization, also called economism and modernization. Globalization is a process of modernization, as explained by Amalorpavadas (1999, 202), that is producing new values such that: “Especially through modern transportation and mass media, we are producing an international culture as all societies are becoming part of a worldwide network of economic and political, military and strategic, ideological and cultural relationships.”

The world has become a global village. It is sometimes argued that the emerging culture is an international and not necessarily western culture. The truth of the matter is that globalization has had so serious an impact on Third World culture that it is better seen as cultural domination and neo-colonialism. This universal Coca cola culture is destroying the cultural objects, customs, symbols and meaning of life in the Third World.

Urbanization is one particular feature of modern life that deserves special attention. Urbanization is an aspect of modern change in Africa. As rightly stated by Mbiti (1969, 224), “the movement from the country to the cities is so rapid that many towns mushroom in a matter of a few decades.” He explained further: “Most of the problems of the emerging society are concentrated on people living in the cities. There are questions of housing slums, earning and spending money, alcoholism, prostitution, corruption and thousands of young people roaming about in search of employment.”

As a result of urbanization, communal values like hospitality that gave meaning to traditional African life have been eroded. “Today in African cities, such as Nairobi, strangers are suspects. Visitors are screened carefully by security guards.” In Lagos, Abuja and other urban centres in Nigeria people live in houses with high wall fences looking like prison yards. Conspicuous announcements discouraging strangers and visitors are displayed an example in “Beware of Patrol Dogs” notices. People live in fear. They “are nervous about the increasing theft and violence. Thus, many practices of African hospitality are falling by the wayside due to urbanization, excessive individualism and secularization “as observed by” Healey and Sybertz (1999, 197). These two developments (globalization, urbanization) and others have impacted every aspect of modern human existence. Two areas will be highlighted in the next section – secularization and individualism.

  • Modern African Life II

Unfortunately the contemporary international community, Africa inclusive, is becoming more and more secularised, with “religious institutions, actions and consciousness” losing their social significance. Religion is no more “central enough to supply society with a sense of

cohesion.” Modern life is concerned with only temporal things. There is a loss of sense of awe and worship. There is absence of family, social and communal togetherness leading to sub-human existence.

 

This analysis relates to the modern problem of individualism. Whereas the traditional African philosophy of life is one of community, relationship, togetherness, sharing, the culture is giving way to one of individualism in practice. Africa is imbibing the Western philosophy of existentialism characterised by rebellion and revolt, standing out against the crowd, the society, the world, subjectivity and radical individualism with the thought that the social order has a negative impact upon the individual.

 

Mbiti (1989, 219) described the individualism that resulted from modern African life due to urbanization so graphically: “This sudden detachment from the land to which Africans are mystically bound, and the thrust into situations where corporate existence has no meaning, have produced dehumanized individuals in the mines, industry and cities. The change means that individuals are severed, cut off, pulled out and separated from corporate morality, customs and traditional identity. They have no firm roots any more.

They are simply uprooted but not necessarily transplanted. They float in life like a cloud. They live as individuals but they are dead to the corporate humanity of their forefathers.’

Modern individualism has produced many lonely people, alone in the crowds of cities. Urbanization has produced orphans, weak and poor members of community lacking security and starving for food, drink, shelter, clothing, human dignity, the types that did not exist in traditional rural societies.

Street children now roam our cities in tens and eat, begging and picking, from the dustbins and refuse heaps. Hundreds of jobless youths are living as area boys and sleeping under bridges. Our teenage girls who should be training for motherhood tomorrow have taken to professional prostitution at home and abroad. Such inhuman existence was not known in our traditional African community.

Source- National Open University of Nigerian

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