What is a Culture?


An Anthropologist’s definition:

"Culture consists of the abstract values, beliefs, and perceptions of the world" that shape people’s behaviors and are reflected in those behaviors." Shared by members of a society, "[c]ultures are learned, largely through the medium of language, rather than inherited biologically, and the parts of a culture function as an integrated whole."


"People maintain cultures to deal with problems or matters that concern them. To survive, a culture must satisfy the basic needs of those who live by its rules, provide for its own continuity and an orderly existence…,"


"strike a balance between the self-interests of individuals and the needs of the society as a whole," and "have the capacity to change in order to adapt to new circumstances or to altered perceptions of existing circumstances" (William A. Havilland, Anthropology, 7th ed, Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1994; p. 303].


Culture refers to a complex system of behaviors and attitudes embodied in the total way of life of a group of people including their diet, norms and traditions, music and dancing, language, art, religion, and distinctive behaviors that make the group of people unique and distinguishes them from other people.




The causes for conflicts in modern day Africa cannot be understood without an appreciation of the struggle between traditional African culture and its clashes with Muslim and European cultures. Understanding Africa’s triple heritage is fundamental to understanding the geography of Sub-Saharan Africa – its political situation, its ethnic conflicts, its population dilemma, and current development crises.


The Relevance of Cultural Studies


1.  An understanding of the culture of a people is important for understanding their way of life and how the group interacts with nature including their environments.

2.  Every group of people, through their culture, leaves distinctive imprints on the land on which they occupy. This produces cultural landscapes that are different from each other.

3.  The way cultural traits are diffused among groups of people can help explain the way of life of a group of people.


Aspects of a Culture:

1. Folk Culture:

2. Popular Culture:

3. Material Culture:

4. Non-material Culture


Subsystems of a Culture:

1.       Technological Subsystem:

2.       Sociological Subsystem:

3.       Ideological Subsystem:




Processes that induce changes within a culture include:

1. Innovation: Implies changes to a culture that result from ideas created within the social group itself.

2. Acculturation: It is the process by which one cultural group undergoes a major modification by adopting many of the characteristics of another, usually dominant culture.

3. Spatial Diffusion: It is the process by which a concept, practice, or innovation spreads from its point of origin to new territories. Throughout history ideas, civilization and inventions have spread from major cultural regions into other areas. Both Christianity and Islam spread in Africa through Diffusion. Several categories of Diffusion can be identified

a) Relocation diffusion: The physical movement of people from one place to another and in the process spread their language and aspects of their culture

b)Expansion diffusion: The spread of cultures through force, conquest and domination or direct contact. Changes in the culture of the original inhabitants may be induced by

i) Contagious e.g., spread of Aids, or it could be through

ii) Hierarchical expansion from the cultural heart (e.g. expansion of Islam from



Barriers to the spread of culture may include:

a)  Ideology - for example Aparthied ideology prevented the spread of African culture

b) Harsh physical environment - e.g. distance, deserts, tundra, etc could slow down but may not totally prevent cultural diffusion.




Africa’s main Traditional Institutions include:

1. Traditional government institutions

2. Traditional religions

3. Kinship - clans

4. Family - extended family relations

5. Polygamy - multiple partners


1. Language

There are four major language families:

1.  Afro-Asiatic ,

2.  Niger-Congo,

3.  Nilo-Saharan and

4.  Khoisan (Click).


Except for Afrikaans, Malagasy and European languages (French, English, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and German or local Creole adaptations, all the thousands of languages and dialects spoken on the continent are historically related to these four.


2. Religion:

Defines a group of peoples' relationship between the living and the supernatural beings. Western writers have often referred to African religions as Animism. A kind of religion in which people worship inanimate objects such as plants, trees, and natural objects because they believe such objects have spirits.




Apart from Arabic, which is not confined to Africa, the most widely spoken African tongues are Swahili (an Arab-influenced Bantu language) and Hausa, each with more than 20 million speakers today.


On the average an African language has about 200,000 speakers; only a few dozen languages have more than 1 million speakers."


Can We Generalize about a Common "African Culture"?


Yes, argue some Africanist scholars. Consider that there are ways other than language by which common ethnicity and cultural identity can be defined: for example, by a group's belief in a common origin (e.g. the Mande peoples trace a common origin to Sundiata Keita, legendary 13th century founder of the Mali Empire: see Part II: African Empires), and increasing cultural similarities among groups can develop over centuries of contact and exchange.

Kwame Gyeke points out:

(1)                    that "a number of Africa’s ethnic groups are "small and their cultures have been so greatly influenced by those of neighboring large groups that they…share the culture of the large groups";

(2)                    that "a seemingly distinct ethnic group may in fact…be a subdivision…of a larger ethnic group"; and

(3)                    that common cultural patterns extend across African states because "arbitrary and unrealistic boundaries drawn a century ago by Africa’s [European] colonial masters" found single ethnic groups [bound by kinship, language, and cultural ties] in two or more neighboring countries (in Asante and Abarry 297-298).


Thus, Gyekeye and others believe it is possible to generalize, cautiously and respectful of local and regional cultural diversity, about common and pervasive features of African cultures




Widespread adoption of European culture makes it difficult to identify an authentic African culture today. While Africans share some remarkable cultural unity, there are significant ethnic, religious, and other differences.



In Western culture God is seen as separate from nature and humans as outside and above nature. Nature exists for the well-being of humans. In African traditional religions on the other hand, God, and the spirits are both associated with the major elements of a cultural environment - sea, trees, rivers etc. Gods and spirits are concerned about, and actively involved in the daily lives of humans. God's power, majesty, and interest in human beings are believed to be mediated through Earth (often viewed as female who nurtures and intimately linked to the Creator).


Divination and fortune-telling (Psychic) are popular religious activities in traditional African religion. Traditional religious beliefs have undergone considerable changes under the Influence of Islam and Christianity. Angels and Saints who mediate between people and God replaced the African concept of spirits.


Social Life:

While human beings are subject to the overall will of the Creator and the supervision of their ancestors, they are not helpless in the fate of adversity. People are therefore held responsible for their lives for there is a belief that God gives people specific gifts or weaknesses and that in complex societies statuses are ascribed - hence the reverence for age and seniority. Elaborate funerals often mark the physical separation of a person from the community to join the ancestors.


Music and dance are used to invoke the gods, comfort ones soul, or motivate people to work. Social, economic and politics usually involve rhythmic singing and movement.


Africans often perform economic activities with symbolic reference to the supernatural. Rituals that show respect for the earth mark the opening of the farming season in many African countries. Rituals welcoming the harvest -yam festivals in West Africa and millet festivals in the Sudan or the first fruits of the Swaziland are rampant. San hunters of the Kalahari invariably apologize to the spiritual essence of the animal they kill.


Marriage, Family and Kingship Relations:

A Great deal of importance is attached to such rites de passage as childbirth, marriage, and death. Among the Akans of West Africa, there are out-dooring ceremonies in which the new child is introduced into the community.


Specialized training often takes place during puberty when the youth are prepared for adulthood. Descent, kinship, and other social relations are central values in African societies. Motherhood is an honored status in African societies. Sterility is a considered a grave misfortune.


In bilateral kinship systems (such as pertains in North America), descent and family ties are traced through the father’s or mother's side. In unilinear descent system of inheritance (as pertains in Africa,) kinship is traced through either of the parents. If descent is traced through the line of the male parent (or father), it is called Patriliny or Patrilineal system of inheritance. In this system, the wife is gradually incorporated into her husband's kinship group. Examples include the pastoral societies of West and East Africa - Fulani of the Sahel region, Nuer of Sudan, Masia and Kikuyu of Kenya, Yoruba of Nigeria.


Descent through the mother is termed as Matriliny (Matrilineal system). In this system, links to the father's family are of secondary importance. Resources are inherited from the mother's brother so that authority resides in one's uncle and not the father. Examples include the Akans of Ghana, Lamba, Bemba and Tonga of Zambia.


Mariage, in African societies is a union between two extended families. It is perceived as a civil contract between two families.


Several cultural groups in Africa permit polygamy. Polyandry: (Women marrying more than one husband) is not practiced anywhere in Africa. Polygyny: (men marrying more than one wife) is permitted in many societies. Polygyny in Africa ranges from non-existent in countries such as Tunisia (abolished by statute) to more than 30% in Nigeria. Studies also suggest that it range from 20.4-36% in Benin, Chad, Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Mali, Senegal, and Tanzania. The average number of wives in polygamous marriages is 2.


Suggested Reasons for Polygamous Marriages in Traditional African Societies


a.   Social Stability provided by people having families:


b.  Marriage is seen as socially desirable and responsible activity and everyone is expected to be married.


c.   Since most African societies had imbalances between males and females (more females than males due to wars, slave trade etc) men were allowed multiple wives


d.  Economic: agrarian societies required more hands on the farm. The more wives one had, the more children guaranteed and therefore the more hands available for farm work. Research in Nigeria shows that when export crops were introduced in the southwestern part, the rate of polygamous marriages went up.


e.   High mortality rates, especially for male kids: more wives assured more children and therefore hedge against the eventuality of some children dying.


f.     Social security: In the absence of government sponsored social security, children were considered a source of insurance in old age


g.   Custom did not permit intimacy between couples until a baby born to them was weaned. This could be up to 2-3 years or more. In some cultures, women cannot have intimacy as soon as they discover they are pregnant. Yet in others, adherents to certain traditional religions could no eat food prepared by women during the menstrual period. Solution to all these problems was to marry more than one wife.



Oral arts and traditions of Africa are rich and varied, developing with the beginnings of African cultures, and continuing to flourish today.


The Power of the WORD:

African oral arts often combine religious, artistic as well as social functions: e.g., to convey wisdom, teach ethics and social codes of conduct; teach religious beliefs and communal values, celebrate cultural heroes and revered ancestors, & explain the origins, history, and development of states, clans, and other important social organizations.





Islamic Culture

For Muslims, Koran is the holy and sacred book and Sharia laws must be obeyed.


The African belief in Allah has coalesced with God of African cosmologies. The Swahili for instance use Allah and Mungu as synonyms. Good spirits are equated with angels and evil ones with jinn (a group of evil spirits).


Muslim traders introduced new clothing styles, and diffused certain notions of personal adornment. Islamic law has affected the social organization of African societies.


The patrilineal emphasis of Islam has weakened the matrilineal inheritance system among such people as the Yao in Tanzania. Sharia laws also weakened the corporate nature of African lineages so that individualism is emphasized in African Muslim families. Islam also treated women as minors.


The Sharia conception of marriage as a voluntary contract between individual spouses has been incorporated into African Marriage systems. The payment of expensive bride price (settlement) gives men total control over their wives. Only wealthy men can take advantage of the permission to marry 4 wives. Birth rituals are significant communal events among African Muslims. Circumcision and clitoridectomy are part of the initiation ceremonies of African Muslims.




1.  The diffusion of Islamic and European beliefs caused the demise of traditional folk customs by which indigenous Africans had lived and governed themselves for ages.

2.  Foreign cultures may at times be less responsive to the diversity of local conditions and could consequently generate conflicts and adverse impacts on the environment.

3.  The disappearance of folk customs was symbolic of the loss of traditional African values. The result is a generation of Africans that are neither European nor African.

4.  The diffusion of European culture has led to the dominance of Western perspectives on issues that are purely African. European solutions to indigenous African problems may not always work leading often to crisis in development.

5.  Domination of foreign cultures has caused many conflicts several spheres of African life: e.g., new names, new role for women, marriage, new concepts about the family that do not match African values, new concepts about the state, etc.




The political instability present in most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa takes several forms including the following:


A. Preponderance of military coup d’etats


In 1992 a group of Africans and international associations and personalities began a movement to fight for the democratization of Africa. Prior to 1992 many countries were under military dictatorships. They include the following:

a)     Ghana, 5 (25 of the 38 years of independence under military rule)

b)     Nigeria, 5 (25 of 35 years of independence under military rule)

c)     Mauritania 3

d)     Uganda, Burkina Faso, Sudan, 5 times each


B. One party states and dictatorships


In many other African states, there is a tendency for democratically elected governments to monopolize political power by creating one party states to stifle opposition parties. This often leads to a police state with the adoption of socialist ideologies. For example, many of the leaders who led African countries into independence created one party state systems. They include:

a)     Ghana under Nkrumah 1957-66, Tanzania under Nyerere 1961-85, Uganda under Milton Obote, Zambia under Kaunda 1964-91, Ivory Coast under Houphet Boigny, Gambia under David Jawara, Malawi under Kamuzu Banda 1964-94, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe

In some cases, the one party states begin as a military governments and then transform themselves into civilian Administrations. These include:

a)     Samuel Doe of Liberia, Amin of Uganda, Rawlings of Ghana, Mombutu of Zaire,


C. Ethnic and civil unrest resulting in the devolution of state systems


a)    Civil war in Chad (1975-83)

b)   Katanga Province’s attempt to secede from Congo after independence in 1960

c)    Biafran war in Nigeria (1967-70)

d)   Somalian civil war (1990)

e)    Wars between Eritrea and Ethiopia

f)      Huutus and Tutsis in both Rwanda and Burundi


D. Border disputes between and within countries.


Many border disputes in Africa have their origins from European colonization, particularly the Berlin Conference where African countries arbitrary demarcated without regard to even family ties. Ongoing border disputes can be found in the following countries

a)     Nigeria and Cameroun

b)     Morocco and Spanish Sahara

c)     Ghana and Togo

d)     Tanzania and Uganda during Amin’s rule


E. Factions among Independent Movements Fighting for Independence.

Examples include Angola, Mozambique, Zaire, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Divisions within the ranks of leaders of Independent Movements such as what happened in Angola, Congo and other countries in Africa are caused by several factors including the following:


1.  Personality clashes among the leaders of such groups


2.  Tacit support from external powers generated by external events such as the need to control territories during the Cold War between USA and the Soviet Union.. In situations such as what happened in Angola, USA supported and financed UNITA to fight the Angolan government so that Angola would be run by those who subscribe to USA’s ideology and become a Western Ally.


3.  Precious Minerals and Enormous Wealth - Territories in Africa where precious minerals have been discovered have often generated conflicts among several factions for the control of the wealth. In cases such as Katanga in Zaire and Angola, the World’s Super powers (USA and the Soviet Union) were involved in the crises.





1.    The triple heritage of African culture and personality the


2.    Conflicts among muslims & christians, tradition and modern culture such as in Northern Nigeria

3.    The incompactibility between traditional, Islamic (Sharia laws) and Western political systems, eg. Sudan conflict between Islamic north and Negro south

4.    Split loyalties to several leaders (Buganda and conflits in Uganda)

5.    Ethnic differences and tensions caused by colonial past, division of groups among states during the partition of Africa, imbalance and unequal development which began with colonization. Many of these problems were caused by the balkanization of the continent by European colonizers without regard to any ethnic affiliations in the new independent states.

6.    Political ineptness, incompetence, and corrupt practices of some leaders. Idi Amin of Uganda, Mombutu Seseseko of Zaire-Congo, Siad Barre’s naivety in playing off the Soviets against the West set the stage for political instability in Somalia, Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, Emperor Bokassa of Central Africa Republic.

7.    The legacy of Westminster form of government and poorly defined role of the military and traditional rulers in African states.

8.    Undue international interference in purely local affairs of African states. The support of Francophone states by the French, Anglophone nations by the US and UK and South Africa’s Apartheid government and the support for Socialist nations by Cuba and former Soviet Union.

9.    Unrealistic expectations placed on state institutions

10.                   Discriminatory policies in some states many of such treatments began with European colonization during which Educational and welfare programs favored some ethnic groups and placed them above other groups within the country (Hutus and Tutsis, Yoruba abd Ibos in the South and Hausas in the North, Groups in Southern and Northern Ghana.

11.                   The struggle for Independence in settler colonies. The Independence process was bloody. In places such as South Africa, the struggle for Independence divided the people.


Review questions


1.  Can We Generalize about a Common "African Culture"? In your answer, provide an explanation of the conditions and events on the continent that facilitates the integration or prevents the homogenization of African cultures.


2.  “From far, Africa looks like one giant family with a common culture but on close examination, the continent is very diverse in culture and ideology” Explain the physical, historical and other events that explain the diversity of African people.


3.  Polygamous marriages are rare in many advanced countries and in some parts of Urban Africa today but it prevalent in rural Africa. Explain the conditions and events that necessitate and/or facilitate such marriages in Africa.


4.  One of the obstacles to economic development in many African countries is the Instability caused by Coup De’tats (take over governments by arms). Write an essay outlining the main reasons why military takeovers of African governments are so common, then suggest ways to stabilize those states.


5.  Describe any one violent conflict situation in an African country and explain the historical events and/or factors that might account for the remote causes of the incident.