I have lived in rural Africa for over 6 months, and even though I have become acclimated in many respects, there continues to be an ever-expanding list of things that confuse me about life in Africa.
I don’t understand why, for example, Africans seem to be the only people who have figured out that carrying things on your head is better than carrying them in your arms, or why Africans seem to possess super-human patience that allows them to sit through excruciatingly long church serves or bus trips, or why staring is not a frowned upon social practice.
I think I have marginally inherited many of these traits – I have definitely developed a penchant for awkwardly staring at people, especially white people, which might prove difficult when we move back to Canada – but the trait that has confused me more than any other thing, so much so that I initially refused to let myself inherit it, is Africa’s affinity for community participation.
Yes, this sounds harmless enough, I know, but the fact that it confused me as much as it did revealed to me just how ‘Western’ I really am. Let me explain.
The first time I saw African participation in full force was at our primary school’s music, dance, and drama day. The day is essentially a big performance for the parents and the community and it goes on all day – I mean all day – and they even bring in judges to determine which team will win the grand prize of a goat. Yes, a goat.
The day was going well, but as we entered the drama section at the 4th or 5th hour mark, I noticed that some people from the audience would get out of their seats, move toward the stage area, and hand the performing kids money in the middle of their act. The first time this happened I thought it was part of the performance because no one seemed to balk at the idea of someone completely breaking into an actor’s ‘space’, so I just sat there dumbfounded hoping that eventually I would clue into what was going on.
It was a very kind gesture, no doubt, but I simply couldn’t get over the fact that someone would distract the audience and the actor away from the actual performance and onto themselves. I found the whole ordeal so confusing that I actually felt a little righteous indignation rise up in me on behalf of the kids. Yes, it was nice that they were giving money to some (but not all) of the kids, but did they not have any respect for the boundary between an audience and a performer?
Well, I didn’t fully understand any of this until I found myself on the receiving end. A few weeks after music, dance, and drama day our village soccer team played in the quarterfinal match of the district tournament, the biggest and most important tournament of the year. There were well over 1,000 rowdy people at the match who lined the field on all sides. It was a real community event if I have ever seen one. Our village won the game 2-0 and I scored the second goal to secure our place in the semi-finals (we ended up losing the finals in penalties), but after I scored, as hundreds of screaming fans stormed the field, one man handed me 10,000 Ugandan shillings (equivalent to $4 Canadian – a heck of a lot of money for many in the village) in thanks for the goal I scored. It was incredibly humbling to be on the receiving end of an extremely generous gift that I only a few weeks earlier thought was untactful. As a Westerner, my first inclination was to politely decline the gift for fear that reciprocation was an expectation, but for Africans, offering money is an act of participation, an act that brings people together, not an act that drives them apart.
My inability to grasp this point was evidence to how Western I am. I was brought up, both implicitly and explicitly, in the Western tradition of Rene Descartes, who said that our identities are determined by what we think, not the context in which we think it. I don’t think Descartes was necessarily wrong in his famous dictum “I think, therefore I am”, but I think his unyielding pursuit of simplicity in this matter has caused us to apply his mind-body distinction to all areas of life.
It is natural for Westerners to distinguish between a thinker and their context. We tend to think, for example, that the object or product an artist produces is vastly more important than the elements that go into that object, to the point that the elements are effectively lost. In the case of the music, dance, and drama day in our village, I thought the performances of the kids were irrevocably damaged because of the audience’s need to participate in the actual performance, when in fact their participation probably provided a greater picture of what human creativity and art truly looks like.
Participation is central to African life for belonging and for knowing. They do not see themselves as independent minds that occasionally bump into other independent minds here or there, they see themselves as people whose minds are integrated with their bodies in a communal context.
John V. Taylor, an Anglican bishop who spent most of his life in East Africa, describes African participation in this way:
Any attempt to look upon the world through African eyes must involve this adventure of the imagination whereby we abandon our image of a man whose complex identity is encased within the shell of his physical being, and allow ourselves instead to visualize a centrifugal selfhood, equally complex, interpermeating other selves in a relationship in which subject and object are no longer distinguishable. ‘I think, therefore I am’ is replaced by ‘I participate, therefore I am.’
I have much to learn from the African way of life, I just hope these lessons continue to come in the form of me receiving money. However, the fact that this thought even crosses my mind is probably even more evidence of my Westernness. My next lesson obviously needs to be something related to the Jones, but I wait for this lesson with little trepidation because I know all too well that Africa will again confuse me in a good way.