Africa: Culture – An instrument for development or a hindrance to development?

By Florence Mukanga – This morning on my way to work, I had an opportunity to listen to one guy who was preaching to people on the train which was transporting us to our different destinations. He was so serious in his preaching, telling people how the wicked will perish in hell. Going on with his preaching he started advising people to check the signs of the last days… ‘people are fighting each other across the world’, he said.  What interested and at the same time disturbed me the most was the point when the guy mentioned that it is mostly because of culture that there is a lot of fighting around the world.  He went on to say that we should get rid of culture in order for peace to prevail in the world. What a solution!!!!

This whole thing of war and political unrest is an important issue in development related debates. In fact the issue of political unrest is not the only case where culture has negatively impacted on development. Culture is one of the factors behind the accelerated spread of HIV and AIDS…at least in my own culture. In the context of my Shona culture it is not a taboo for a man to have as many wives as he wants. It is interesting to note that these days some of these marriages are no longer done openly which is why some wives or girlfriends end up becoming ‘small houses.’

Generally with the issue of lobola also being taken into consideration it is just difficult for married women, for example, to ask their husbands to use condoms when being intimate with them.

It is also very difficult to openly discuss issues related to sex, especially using the vernacular language. It is just culturally unacceptable.

A friend of mine from Kenya tells me that it is the same thing in her culture. From what I gathered from her it is especially difficult to explain what HIV is in local language which makes it very difficult for uneducated people to understand it. And yet it is important to explore how cultural expectations and practices affect people’s perceptions of HIV/AIDS and their ability to change their behavior to reduce the risk of HIV infection.

Whilst it is true that in some cases culture has been an impediment to development the major question is that: Do we get rid of culture in order to solve these challenges? I am just worried about the solution offered by the preacher on the train. Is it really possible to get rid of culture from our lives?

Firstly, just by examining the definition of culture I do not think that it is possible to get rid of culture. Generally culture is the way people live. The moral values of the people of a community also represent their culture.  It manifests itself through art, literature; language …the list is endless. It goes beyond the appreciation of the arts, museums, art galleries and heritage sites to include even religion itself. Yes, religion is part of culture so I wonder how we can get rid of culture in order to promote religion.

Indeed there are no simple solutions to problems that are rooted in culture but the fact remains that there is close correlation that exists between culture and development. Development processes are fundamentally a question of human development not just about the economic and social questions. Whether people agree with me or not my point will remain: Culture is an important instrument for development and any development that leaves out culture is making itself irrelevant.