Scenery, machinery or people?


In Anthropology we learned about the “scenery, machinery, people” approach of most Westerners: we often divide people in these three groups and treat them accordingly.

– The “scenery people” are for example those that we photograph during our vacations. We see them as decoration or objects on display, not as real people. We do not care whether the photo we are taking respects their dignity or not.

– The “machinery people” are those that we expect to function in a certain way, but again we do not see them as real people. For example, the gas station attendant or the cashier. On a good day, we might see them as people and connect in some personal way, but most of the time we treat them as “machinery” not as people.

– The “real people” are the small group we have a relationship with and care about. We see them as people with individual personalities, emotions, opinions, gifts and needs. On bad days we might expect even people in this group to just function and not require any “maintenance”: such as the burlesque husband coming home from work in the evening who expects his wife to have a meal ready, as well as the newspaper and the slippers, and be left in peace to watch TV by his children because he is tired. In this case he does not see his wife and children as people and does not treat them as such. They are not allowed to have needs.

Whom we expect to just be “scenery” or function as “machinery” is often culturally defined. And this is where culture shock often comes as a natural result.

– The market person in Africa does not function like a cashier in the West, who just rings up the goods we picked and lets us leave without any personal interaction. No matter how small the purchase, you cannot buy anything on an African market without going through a certain amount of greetings, both on arrival and leave taking. Depending on the country you are in and on the type of good you are buying, you will also need to bargain.

○ I remember a story I once heard of a Westerner who did not have the time on one day to do the required bargaining. He told his friend on the market, “Please for once let’s not do it, just ask any price and I will pay it.” His African friend was deeply offended, not – as we might expect – happy about the opportunity to ask for more than usually. For him it was a disregard for his dignity as a human. He had been treated as machinery.

– In many African countries there is a strong awareness of hierarchy but despite of it every employee still expects to be greeted by others in the same organization. Not greeting them robs them of their dignity as humans and reduces them to “machinery.”

○ The context of greetings is one example where I discovered how contradictory courtesy can be. When I come into the office and see two people talking with each other, it feels very impolite to me as European to interrupt the conversation in order to greet them. But this intuition is wrong in the African context. According to African courtesy it would be impolite to not interrupt and walk by them without greeting them. Or as a friend put it – “treat them as if they were trees” – which again expresses the idea of treating others as humans not as things.

– Requesting permission to take the photo of somebody might seem odd for Westerners but is a good rule of thumb in Africa. People do not like being “scenery” but want to be respected as humans. It might mean that you cannot take a picture if a person does not consent to it.

○ Probably there are also different traditional ideas that come into play of what happens to a person’s soul when somebody takes a photo of them. I have rarely heard them stated but only read about these ideas. Even though many things have changed, these ideas might still linger in the back of people’s minds.

○ Another complication is the idea that you might make a lot of money with the photo you are taking. Even if this is not the case for most of us, people have heard about this and want a share in your gain. Some will not give you permission to take a photo without a payment. Since I don’t have enough money to pay everybody whom I photograph, I usually chose not to take that photo. One market lady however managed to convince me nevertheless: “You are happy about the photo, so why don’t you want to give me some happiness, too?”

– Doing everything on your own and alone is unnatural for many people in Africa. Going alone to the market, carrying all your shopping alone, eating alone, staying alone in your room/house, etc. Sharing burdens and joys is an important part of most if not all Africa cultures.

○ Westerners might consider offers to carry their shopping a nuisance. However in African cultures younger people are obliged to honor older people by carrying whatever they have. In return the older person will give a blessing to the younger person. This can be a spoken blessing, in some cases accompanied with spitting (saliva being considered a means of transferring power), or a small coin or other kind of tangible gift. Along the same lines, a market seller feels obliged to send a young person with his customer to help carry the shopping to the car, who then will be expected to give some small token of gratitude to the young helper.

○ The African give and take is not guided by rules of how much to give but by what people have. Many financial requests will be quantified by “whatever you can give.” This puts Westerners in a bind, because we are not used to think in these terms and often have so much more than what we find appropriate to give in such a situation. In addition, local people often have wrong ideas of how much we really have, to the point of seriously believing that our financial supplies are unlimited because we can print our own money.

In all these examples, there are people who want to be seen as people and treated as people which is in contradiction to many of our Western habits and laws of efficiency. The Western habit of just saying “Hi!” and walking by clashes with the African understanding of politeness. Africans would probably never consider a time spend with other people a “waste of time.” My guess is that there is no single situation in African cultures that allows people to treat others “as if they were trees” – trees that you can pass without greeting, that you can expect to function and give you shade or whose photo you can take without permission. People are always people and want to be treated as such, not as “scenery” or “machinery.”

P.S. I know that speaking about “African cultures” or “African” in general is a sweeping generalization that does not do justice to the variety of cultures in Africa. However, I have the impression that the points mentioned above apply to many of them, maybe to all, and possible also to many if not most non-Western cultures.

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4 Responses to “Scenery, machinery or people?”

  1. Douglas W. Boone Says:

    Having lived for a few months in Côte d’Ivoire (back in 1999), I know what a blessing it can be to receive small change — or rather, what effort can be involved in having FCFA change on hand!

    In other words, those who take for granted the ability to get change when they need it may not get the full impact of your mention of blessing a “youngster” who has helped you by giving them a small coin.

  2. Ginger Says:

    Hi Jutta, thanks for a most insightful post. I am a Nigerian living in the UK now and I must admit that this ‘Hi and walk by’ attitude is most disconcerting. But your post has clarified things a bit.
    I just wrote a post about it quoting you ‘http://www.mak2chi.com/2011/06/this-is-oyiboland-where-hello-is.html’ 🙂

    • jutta Says:

      Hi Ginger,
      Thank you your comment and linking to my post. I read quite a bit on you blog and really enjoyed it. I would love to comment on some of your posts but lack the time at the moment. In nay case, you show a lot of insight.
      Wishing you all the best in Oyiboland, which in Mali would be called Toubabland
      Jutta


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