by Del Chinchen
Clashes between modern and traditional ways of life are occurring all across Africa today.
Valentine’s Day has taken Nairobi by storm! Women in the offices are wearing red, men can be seen carrying a bouquet of red roses to their sweethearts, signs of Cupid are everywhere. However, at a Christian university in Kenya, these public expressions of affection are not as readily accepted. On a recent Valentine’s Day, the younger, modernized students of this university set up a box where students could place their votes for the most romantic student on campus. But an older, more traditional student, who understood romantic to mean only one thing, became so incensed with righteous anger that he publicly burned the Valentine’s Day box!
Clashes between the modern and the traditional ways of life are occurring all across Africa today, altering the African social landscape. These "perspectives in collision," as Ali Mazrui calls them,1 have caused quite a disturbance in African society. "The continent is no longer at ease morally; no longer sure what is correct behavior."2 The moral fabric of traditional societies in Africa is in danger of being torn apart by the sheer force of invading values. An African proverb illustrates the confusion and discontinuity: "You can’t see the horizon in the middle of a dust storm."
What are the reactions by and effects on Africans themselves? How is the African Christian adjusting to these changes? How can one be wise enough to accept certain new ideas but, at the same time, resist outside incursions that have the potential of disintegrating existing moral values? Is the African church maintaining and reinforcing traditional morals that agree with biblical standards? Before we address these questions, let’s take a closer look at the traditional and modern African perspectives within a rapidly changing society.
THE TRADITIONALIST’S VIEW WITHIN THE DUST STORM OF CHANGEE
Within the indigenous system, social, ethical, and traditional values are being swept away as people move from rural to urban areas in search of education and employment. The traditionalist feels threatened by the dramatic changes in what had always been a nearly static, closed culture. The traditionalist sees change as destabilizing the social order, making everyone vulnerable. Extreme confusion, frustration, and anger, as seen on Valentine’s Day (also called "Lovers’ Day" in Kenya), can be expected. The chaplain of one Christian college in Kenya repeatedly reminds the students in chapel that men who wear earrings are either homosexuals or Satan worshipers. On another occasion, at this same Christian university, two older African professors walking together on campus came upon a student couple expressing too much physical affection (the male student had his arm around the shoulder of the female). Both professors shouted at them, "Hey, stop that!" Recently, a couple caught kissing in a public park was arrested. The offenders were charged with breaching the public peace.
At Africa Inland Mission’s Moffat Bible College in Kijabe, Kenya, the charge for kissing is nearly as serious. "The principal, Mr. Joseph Kahiga, suspended all 89 students on disciplinary grounds after they reportedly heckled him following his decision to suspend two students, male and female, caught kissing."3
Traditionalists oppose the aping of Western values and can be quite vocal about it. They point with disdain to some promoters of modernization who have made themselves slaves to Western culture by selling off their heritage and grabbing for all that glitters: dollars and degrees.
THE MODERNIST’S VIEW WITHIN THE DUST STORM OF CHANGE
"Your culture is dead!" shouted a modernized African at a stubborn traditionalist during a heated discussion about Valentine’s Day. Many younger Africans have become impatient with the older generation that seems to be blocking progress toward the benefits of modernity.
Those working in this modernization paradigm believe a transformation from traditional to modern is necessary if societies in Africa are to develop, urbanize, industrialize, and democratize. They aggressively attempt to transform the values, attitudes, and behaviors of traditional society. Traditional ways are backward, archaic, impractical, irrelevant, and are a result of ignorance of the outside world and the benefits of modernity. One Nairobi high school student, with a hint of derision, asked her teacher, "Isn’t African culture old fashioned?" Modern Africans have become impatient with the "cultural drag" of African traditions on the progress of modernization in their societies.
Because the West is viewed as economically and politically superior, the people in developing countries have come to idealize its ways, especially in education. As modern education becomes institutionalized in African societies, it is having a significant effect on the way people view their society and their roles in it.
"All non-European countries have advocated the perpetuation and expansion of modern schooling in recent decades, despite its allegedly ‘colonial heritage’ and ‘Western’ bias."4 Modern education offers possibilities for innovative, critical thinking in domains in which the traditionalist has no answers. A study of youth in Kenya conducted by McCann-Erickson discovered that youth worry less about the AIDS virus than about passing exams. Everything else was farther down the priority list: their own well-being the well-being of their family members, political stability, and violent crimes.5
Africa’s cultures are quickly being transformed into Western culture because modern educational, medical, and technological systems redefine much of social reality. The world seems to be headed for a Western future. Realists know that no culture today can do without borrowing and assimilating the new Western technologies into its own cultural fabric.
ADAPTATION WITHIN THE DUSTSTORM OF CHANGE
Africans enamored with the importance of catching up with the industrialized world are trying to cope with the requirements of a capitalistic-industrial society by creatively adapting elements of their own cultural repertoire.
Code-switching. Some Africans have learned to shift gears as they move back and forth between modern and traditional segments of society. This mixing of the cultural scripts becomes necessary when functioning in two different cultural codes. This requires social dexterity when one has a foot in both worlds and must jump from one side to the other. A young African Christian couple have learned to maintain an appropriate distance between them when in the presence of their elders. However, when with their peers, they are almost always together, sometimes even holding hands.
A Kenyan Christian expressed appreciation for the time-consciousness of the city, but she can slow her tempo while in her rural home. She is careful, in the rural setting, not to even glance at her watch or give the impression she is in a hurry to leave, because her people would be greatly offended.
Cultural gate keeping. A Christian university professor of the pastoralist Maasai tribe who holds a Ph.D. from Oregon State is herding a different kind of flock while working in urban Nairobi. He scouts for fellow Maasai who have academic promise, holds fund-raising dinners to enlarge the education fund he has established for them, and sends them off to universities in the U.S. The brain drain problem is not much of a concern because the Maasai are a tightly knit people. Those who receive training overseas have a strong compulsion to return to Kenya and help their people come up to speed. To preserve the rich Maasai culture, this same professor also collects artifacts and the history of his people with the hope of creating a Maasai cultural center.
Social boundary keeping
People orientation. Some African traditional values seem to persist even within institutions such as banks, schools, and businesses. For example, though there may be only a one- or two-inch gap between glass louvers dividing client from teller in a bank in Kenya, some African clients still manage to squeeze one or two fingers through the gap to greet the cashier by "shaking hands" (actually touching fingers). Greeting people must precede business, maintaining the highly treasured value of respect for people, whatever the foreign obstacle might be.
Collectivism. Another tenacious African value is the collective spirit. "Harambee," as it is called in Kenya, involves the pooling of resources by family and friends for an urgent need. Though the traditional function is as healthy as ever, the purposes for the occasion have been modified to keep up with the changing needs of modern African society. Today’s demands are to send a child off to Europe or the U.S. for study, to bankroll a birthday party or wedding, or to help with the bride price (now paid mostly in cash, no longer in cows and goats). In spite of the individualistic, self-sufficient philosophy creeping in from outside, Africans continue to hold in high esteem the virtues of sharing and hospitality.
Ritualism. The symbolic and binding idiom of ritual, so prevalent in African society, sustains order in a harmonious relationship or brings order into a broken relationship.
The cutting of the wedding cake is one example of how a foreign ritual has not only been accepted in Kenya but its purpose broadened to include the consecration of anything new: the beginning of a new year (the birthday cake is even cut like a wedding cake, with two people holding the knife together), the beginning of a new academic year, the beginning of a new life after graduation, the beginning of a new life in Christ after baptism, or the beginning of a renewed life together as a couple after reconciliation.
Traditionally, on occasions of celebration or reconciliation, a goat was slaughtered and the leader and his family would eat before the others. Now, in a modern setting, two new students (male and female), representing the first-year class in an educational institution, hold the knife and cut the cake (not a goat) together. After they give each other a piece, everyone else-gets one, no matter how small that piece might be. This reinforces the institution’s social order and perpetuates harmony among the student body as the first-year students assume their new roles and are integrated into the institution.
The modern wedding cake is also used in counseling to bring order to a broken relationship-the same purpose slaughtering the goat used to have. Local Kenyan pastors are beginning to carry miniature wedding cakes in their briefcases when they counsel couples whose marriages are on the verge of collapse. The pastor will pray with them, read Scripture to them, give advice, and remind them of the love they had for each other when they were first married. After reconciliation has been achieved, the pastor will then pull out the compact wedding cake and hand the couple a knife to cut the cake together as they did on their wedding day. The sweetness of the cake symbolizes that the sour taste that was once in their relationship no longer exists. The cake ritual, in this context, provides a shared basis for moving ahead, promoting unity and cohesion.
CONFUSION IN THE DUST STORM OF CHANGE
Though Africans are successfully adapting in many ways to these dramatic changes in their societies, this abrupt discontinuity also introduces disrespect for tradition and undermines, rather than reinforces, traditional patterns and values that are compatible with biblical teaching.
In all the confusion, the traditionalist has created loopholes for immoral behavior. A husband, for example, will stay away from the home until after the children are in bed and the wife is finished in the kitchen. Cooking and raising children, according to traditional culture, is the mother’s responsibility. The number of Kenyan men who spend time with their male friends ("age mates") at a bar nearly every night is alarming!
This transitional period is also creating modern misfits in African society. These young people feel comfortable in modern cities such as Nairobi but are complete strangers in the rural setting of their relatives. They have learned, in the city, to think individualistically in terms of their small, nuclear family. The communal, extended family is fast becoming a foreign concept.
The value of deeply committed relationships is quickly losing its importance as the demands of modernity take hold. Relationally oriented Africans in the city become overwhelmed with their inability to maintain an increasing number of friendships. Tradition tells them to visit their friends periodically to keep the relationship alive and healthy. In the rural setting this practice works just fine. But in the city their growing number of friends along with busy city life makes it nearly impossible to obey those nagging, innate traditional laws. Guilt and shame are a consequence, requiring profuse apologies upon the chance meeting of a friend one has not seen in a very long while. "You’re lost!" is becoming the more common greeting among friends in Nairobi.
The problem of relationships between friends scarcely compares to the even greater problem of relationships between parents and children. Traditional parents raising modern children has created a serious dilemma. Traditionally, it was the extended family that participated in training children in proper social morals and values. The urban dweller’s extended family, far away in the rural area, however, produces a dual problem. Because of both geographical and cultural distance, the rural relative is unable to address the needs of children in the city. This places the training responsibility squarely in the laps of the parents themselves. But are they up to the task?
Dr. Daniel Kabitha of the Psychological Service Center in Nairobi thinks not. He feels that African parents still cling to ideas about parenting that have been handed down from one generation to another. This makes African parents unprepared for dissent or even a free and frank exchange of views with their children. Children are supposed to obey their parents and take their advice and guidance unquestioningly. There is a definite cultural lag in parenting skills.6
Since African societies are no longer sure what is correct social and moral behavior, according to Ali Mazrui, it is up to the church to lead the way. Fortunately for Kenya and other African nations, the church is beginning to take the lead In guiding society through this storm of change. Christians, through the support systems of the church, can provide a strong moral net7 for more directed culture change.
An alert pastor in Nairobi, Oscar Muriu, suggests that believers, in the midst of the storm, find their identity in Christ and in their Christian ancestors (Eph. 2:19, 20). He says the church needs to become the replacement for the disintegrating extended family (Mark 3:31).
He also recognizes that parents are falling behind in their ability to address the needs of the youth as the generation gap grows wider. Muriu has instituted a program that connects each young person in the church with a Christian "aunt" or "uncle" who will help him or her through the rites of passage. This idea beautifully incorporates the traditional style of the initiation process into a modern context where the field in which manhood is distinguished has changed. Doing well in school by conquering the books has replaced the expectations of conquering the wild by becoming a brave young warrior.
The director of a Christian women’s organization in Kenya is challenging Christian husbands to keep the fire burning. "Tell your wife you love her five times a day," she recommends. "Don’t be afraid to express affection to her in public," she says. "Isaac caressed his wife Rebekah publicly," she adds, quoting Genesis 26:8 as proof.
This approach may be too radical for traditionalists to handle. The more traditional Christian husbands are taking a more conservative approach. The elders of a church in Nairobi recently decided that they would all take their wives out for dinner collectively.
On Valentine’s Day, the traditionalist is not ready to give his wife flowers (one sees them everyday on the farm), or express affection publicly (only prostitutes do that), or give his wife candy (candy is for children), or encourage his wife to wear red (red is the symbol of death). But he would like to see his wife wear a dress the color he likes, he may give his wife a card, and he may even encourage her to cook his favorite meal.
So guess where my wife and I are going tonight? A Kenyan couple has invited us to a local Nairobi church’s first ever "Romantic Dinner." Hold on to your hats, because modernization is sweeping Africa off its feet, and the church is needed, more than ever, to provide stability and direction through this storm of change.
1. Ali Mazuri, The Africans (Toronto: Little, Brown and Co., 1986), p. 257.
2. Mazrui, p. 242.
3. Mwangi Wairindi, Daily Nation, January 11, 1998, p. 2.
4. Christel Adick, "Modern Education in ‘Non-Western’ Societies in the Light of the World Systems Approach in Comparative Education," International Review of Education 38(3), 1992, p. 250.
5. Chege wa Gachamba, "Teenagers Speak Out," Weekender, Daily Nation, September 20, 1996, p. 1.
6. "Parents’ Mistakes," The Standard, Nairobi, Kenya, January 7, 1985.
7. Loewen, Jacob A. Culture and Human Values: Christian Intervention in Anthropological Perspective (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library 1975).
Delbert Chinchen has been a missionary in Africa for 20 years. He has served as professor/director with African Bible Colleges in Liberia and Malawi. He is chairman of the Bible Department at Daystar University, Nairobi, Kenya.
Copyright © 1998 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.