Be­fore you call it African, con­sider the source

CityPress - - Voices - Sim­phiwe Se­santi voices@ city­press. co. za

To what ex­tent are the cus­toms of any African so­ci­ety in­dige­nous or tra­di­tional? This is the ques­tion raised by Nige­rian pro­fes­sor Ifi Ama­di­ume in her sem­i­nal text, Male Daugh­ters, Fe­male Hus­bands: Gen­der and Sex in an African So­ci­ety. Ama­di­ume’s ques­tion is im­por­tant, con­sid­er­ing that so much of Western cul­ture has been smug­gled into African cul­ture, to the ex­tent that we cel­e­brate Western cul­ture in the mis­taken be­lief that it is our African cul­ture.

Three weeks ago, a South African news­pa­per re­ported that Glo­ria Mak­we­dini, Nelson Man­dela’s niece, com­plained that Madiba’s grand­son Mandla Man­dela’s act of em­brac­ing his wife Rabia Clarke’s Is­lam was wrong be­cause it was “con­trary to our cul­ture for some­one to leave his re­li­gion for that of his wife”.

As­sum­ing Mak­we­dini was re­fer­ring to Xhosa or African cul­ture in gen­eral, her state­ment must be in­ter­ro­gated, since it has the po­ten­tial of en­trench­ing the oft-re­peated false view that our cul­ture pro­motes male su­pe­ri­or­ity.

Be­fore Africans en­coun­tered Chris­tian­ity or Is­lam, there was no ques­tion of us hav­ing to leave one re­li­gion for an­other. We did not even have the word ‘re­li­gion’ in our lex­i­con be­cause our an­ces­tors wor­shipped the Supreme Be­ing and revered the an­ces­tral spir­its.

The ques­tion of con­ver­sion only arose with the ar­rival of the above-men­tioned re­li­gions. Be­cause Chris­tian­ity came with many de­nom­i­na­tions and Africans fol­lowed suit, when mar­riages took place, of­ten wives fol­lowed their hus­bands’ de­nom­i­na­tion. But this is not “our cul­ture”, no mat­ter how en­trenched Chris­tian­ity is among Africans – in the same way that Is­lam is not our cul­ture.

In our cul­ture, mar­riage ties both fam­i­lies in a re­cip­ro­cal union. When the man’s fam­ily pro­poses to the woman’s fam­ily, they ask for what in isiXhosa is known as “ukuzalwa” – a re­quest to be born in that fam­ily. The im­pli­ca­tion is that just as the wife-to-be be­comes the daugh­ter of the groom’s fam­ily, the hus­band-to-be be­comes the son of the bride’s fam­ily. So, the new­ly­weds “join” each other’s fam­i­lies. Both fam­i­lies slaugh­ter an­i­mals to in­tro­duce the cou­ple to each other’s an­ces­tor spir­its.

Even if the bride set­tles in the groom’s home, she does not give up her clan name or adopt the rituals of her hus­band’s an­ces­tors. If she is MamTshawe, she re­mains that and per­forms the rituals of amaTshawe. It is a Euro­pean tra­di­tion for a bride to adopt her in-laws’ sur­name.

Mak­ing th­ese ob­ser­va­tions is not be­ing in­dif­fer­ent to Mak­we­dini and many Africans anx­ious about African cul­ture be­ing dom­i­nated by Is­lam through their chief’s em­brace.

Un­like among Chris­tians and Mus­lims, who to this day de­bate whether a woman can be a priest or an imam, or ad­dress a con­gre­ga­tion with men present, in “our cul­ture” this does not arise. A fe­male igqirha (tra­di­tional doc­tor) pre­sides over some rituals in which even men of that par­tic­u­lar clan can­not. All this is not the same as be­ing in­sen­si­tive to fears of ero­sion of African cul­ture by Is­lam.

Un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, this should not be the case, be­cause even though Is­lam was re­vealed through an Arab prophet, Muham­mad, it does not be­long to the Arabs but to all hu­man­ity, as the Ko­ran states.

When Is­lam was re­vealed, the Mec­can Arabs per­se­cuted and killed Mus­lims to the ex­tent that when the first Arab “con­verts” fled to Abyssinia, the Mec­cans pur­sued them and told Ne­gus, king of Abyssinia, that Is­lam stood op­posed to the re­li­gion of the Arabs’ an­ces­tors.

But this is cold com­fort for Africans when those who em­brace Is­lam take on Ara­bic names and dress codes, wrongly called “Is­lamic” names and dresses, when in fact the early con­verts of Is­lam – Muham­mad, Abu Bakr, Umar and Ali – re­tained their orig­i­nal names.

As Africans, let us raise our le­git­i­mate con­cerns log­i­cally, and avoid tripping our­selves up in the process by blindly at­tack­ing or de­fend­ing one or other faith – Chris­tian­ity or Is­lam in this case – and claim the prac­tices we have in­her­ited are “our cul­ture”. Se­santi is an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Unisa’s In­sti­tute for

African Re­nais­sance Stud­ies

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