Since over 3.2 billion years when the first humans probably walked through modern-day Ethiopia, man has always had a knack for culture. Culture is defined as the way a group of people does things: and humans have a tendency of sticking to a behavioral pattern. How these cultures develop is still a mystery. Currently, over 6,000 cultural groups exist on the planet. How were these patterns formed? How did they multiply? Anthropologists have several answers. One thing can’t be denied though: culture is dynamic. Its ever-changing nature gives humans a wide range of options as to what their lifestyle can look like.
However, among all the cultures that exist on this planet, the cultures of Africa seem to have a distinct tang to them- something that makes them special. Despite its having over 3000 cultures within only 54 countries, African cultures have a common thread that runs along all of them and differentiates them from the rest of the world’s cultures. It goes beyond the dark skin. How? This article shares three major things that make African culture unique.
Let’s start with food. Cuisine differs across the whole of Africa. In only one country, different ethnic groups have different meals. Talk less across the entire continent. However, we seem to share a penchant for natural meals. Our range of sauces and soups share onions, pepper, salt and natural ingredients like leaves and roots in common. We also seem to have a thing for carbohydrates. Rice, cassava, yam, corn and others adorn our culinary schedules. The beauty of the African delicacy style is that it has a way of making the most of natural products and processes to create them. Firstly, most African food products are produced by individuals- something called subsistence farming. They produce their ingredients so their meals are rather consistent though modern life has changed this and sent us to purchasing everything. Almost every green thing, from leafy plants to seeds and nuts, has a purpose in one African soup or sauce. These soups and stews are best combined with starch across Africa. Cassava swallows, yam, plantain and rice make the combination satisfying. These meals are cooked in different ways, some are common to diverse cultural groups while others are local.
The truth is, in African culture, food is more than just what people put in their bodies to give them strength. Food is a force that joins communities together. People raised certain food crops and swapped some of their produce with the products of others in the community. In fact, the populace of a particular town could go to another town during what is called a ‘market day’ to sell their products. Though modernization has changed things a lot, these practices are still prevalent in many rural and suburban settlements across Africa. This interrelationship bred community living. The African Culinary Culture also took things deeper by fostering family relationships. It’s a natural tradition in African culture that the family must eat together, at least once daily. It even stretches as far as all the children eating from a plate. This is one of the reasons that Africans have a strong sense of family. They say that families that eat together stay together.
Food also plays a major role in our social caste system. At occasions and gatherings, certain kinds of food are reserved for leaders and elderly people, not necessarily based on discrimination but honour. These honored people are served with food first before the younger ones in the community. In Africa, something as mundane as food plays several roles in beautifying her diverse cultures.
Up next is art. Art is a very broad subject and so, in this article, we’ll be considering everything from fashion style, to dance, to writing, music and painting as art. We find that African art is usually tailored and purposeful before it becomes leisurely. Music, painting and folklore seemed to revolve around religious and moral purposes. Every piece of painting was a retelling of a story- somewhat like our modern comic book. Songs were renditions of stories or even stories of their own told in a lyrical format. These songs and stories were passed down through generations and had a way of maintaining a common value standard in the community. Gathering around fires or under the moonlight to share stories was commonplace among many African cultural groups from the horn to even the west of Africa. Usually, elders would come up with something quite similar to Instagram reels- Proverbs. These proverbs were miniaturized stories, often no longer than a sentence, that conveyed deep truth. Quite unfortunately, writing wasn’t a part of most African cultures till later in history so information was usually passed down verbally, leading to a lot of alterations so that we’re not sure of the origins of most stories. However, most story variations retained their central message.
Dance is dynamic across Africa, with new indigenous styles originating even in recent times. One dance style that has remained throughout the ages is the waist dance, though this has variations across Africa. It most likely originated from women who danced together during celebrations in hopes to attract a male suitor. Soon, though, it became an African identity marker, something that Africans will be known for. African dance steps are usually very energetic in nature and demand the skillful use of body parts. Some of these dance steps have even spread across the world. Drums are a major part of our music, with upbeat rhythms being prevalent. A handful of African cultures prefer the rather calmer Asian style, though. While our dress styles vary, one thing is prevalent- they are full of color! The blend of color on African clothing is so beautifully bright, they can blind. Jewelry is also a major part of our dressing, consisting of precious metals, stones and cowries.
The power of our art mostly lies in its purpose. Since African art mainly served to preserve its cultural and moral values, we find that these ideas transcended the changes of modernization. They still hold sway in African communities to date.
Thirdly, Africa culture and traditions build a strong sense of community over individualism with somewhat regimented roles for each individual within the broad group. Husbands had roles, so did wives and children. Elders and youth played different roles within the community. The culmination of these roles served to meet the needs of the community so no part was lacking. Though these roles were largely regimented, we could see occasional deviations from them, for example, Akwa Boni of the Baoulé people in Cote d’Ivoire was a female ruler- a role that is usually reserved for males. These deviations were allowed especially under situations where the normal couldn’t be obtained, such as at the death of the male breadwinner. Age groups also existed in so many African groups such as the Karimojong of Uganda and Igbos of Nigeria. These age groups function like a social circle of people, mostly men, within which everyone has shared responsibilities and privileges. Members usually underwent an initiation process.
Africa’s strong sense of community still exists today with family remaining a focal point of attention. Fixed roles help to maintain order within society till today. Rather than being regimented, these roles are now more flexible and can be switched in modern African society.
The importance of African Culture cannot be neglected. The earliest African civilizations such as in Egypt and Ethiopia have influenced world cultures. For example, ancient Egyptian mathematics and writing patterns served as precursors of what we have today. Their Medical practices, including surgeries, serve as a basis for other cultures throughout history.
The African culture has indeed had its excesses, such as discrimination against a castes of people and religious beliefs that either put lives in danger or retarded technological growth. However, the beauty of the African culture is undeniable and does more good than harm. Maybe, one day, like Wakanda of Marvel Cinematic Universe, we’ll be able to find the perfect blend between progressive literary/technological growth and maintaining our values, customs and traditions.
This is not an article that tries to decide which culture is best. It’s more of one that declares that, despite the thousands of cultures in existence today, African cultures stand out of the crowd in beauty.