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.

Bamako (movie)

Did you hear about this film that is named after Mali’s capital Bamako and takes place in a court yard of this city? Well, I had heard about it and now I finally managed to see it, thanks to Blockbuster Online. It is a very interesting film. The film’s main languages are French and Bambara, but the DVD includes English subtitles.

The product description on Amazon summarizes it well:

An extraordinary trial is taking place in a residential courtyard in Bamako, the capital city of Mali. African citizens have taken proceedings against such international financial institutions as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), whom civil society blames for perpetuating Africa’s debt crisis, at the heart of so many of the continent’s woes. As numerous trial witnesses (schoolteachers, farmers, writers, etc.) air bracing indictments against the global economic machinery that haunts them, life in the courtyard presses forward. Melé, a lounge singer, and her unemployed husband Chaka are on the verge of breaking up; a security guard’s gun goes missing; a young man lies ill; a wedding procession passes through; and women keep everything rolling – dyeing fabric, minding children, spinning cotton, and speaking their minds.

It is the court yard where the filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako grew up. The film basically includes three stories lines woven into each other – the trial, the everyday life in the court yard and the television movie “Death in Timbuktu”. They seem to be completely independent from each other and still are happening in the same place. It makes me think of two transparencies being laid on top of each other.

Sometimes it seems as if they don’t even notice each other: The court carries on, while a teenager passes between judges and audience, carrying a child back and force, women come to the central water faucet and noisily fill their buckets right next to the court audience, the singer demands her little brother to close the back of her dress standing in between two rows of the audience, etc.

Then there are times when they do acknowledge each other: The court pauses when a wedding accompanied by the loud and throaty praise song of a griotte (female praise singer) comes into the court yard; there are megaphones outside the court yard, so other people can listen, but when they want to talk among themselves, they switch off the megaphone; several people seem to listen but then there is no indication in their faces.

Included on the DVD is an interview with Gita Sen (Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era). She beautifully underlines that this coexistence is part of the message of the film: The policies of international institutions and the economic system of the West since the time of the slave trade negatively affect life in Africa. At the same time people carry on with their lives as if nothing has happened, and it is the women who bear the brunt of the load.

It is a movie that needs to be watched several times.

Moskito nets

Today in one month is World Malaria Day. It was established in 2007 by the WHO and took place for the first time in 2008. So this is the second time it takes place.

Several organizations have started their announcements and action plans:

to only name a few.

Last year the project “One million faces against malaria” asked Facebook members (who heard about it in time) to exchanged their profile picture with a black square for one day with the goal to “raise awareness of malaria and SHOW THE WORLD WHAT ONE MILLION FACES DYING OF MALARIA EVERY YEAR LOOKS LIKE.”

The video from World Vision shows how mosquito nets could prevent the death of so many children.

Several organizations completely focus on providing more mosquito nets, such as:

It is true that there are more than one million children who die each year from malaria (which is already less than when I first arrived in Africa in 1993 when the estimate was two million), the majority are under five years old. This means one child dies every 30 seconds in Africa. Still too many!

So sending mosquito nets to Africa is great, isn’t it? Well, I have mixed feelings about it. One (minor) reason is that I know from experience that the mosquitoes are most active during dusk and dawn, but few children are sleeping during this time. Most children stay up and play until late at night. Nightfall is when the family sits outside in the court yard to eat their evening meal together. Smaller children will fall asleep during this time or shortly after, next to their parents who will sit and talk for a long time into the night. Maybe the parents will use a cloth to wave away flies or mosquitoes but it would be unnatural to separate the small children from the rest of the family, by putting them under the mosquito net inside the house where they would be all alone. Only when the mothers go inside to sleep, they will take their small ones with them. Upper class urban families might have additional smaller mosquito nets, that can be used to protect children sleeping alone. I have seen them on sale in the capital but never anywhere else. It is certainly a good thing to sleep under a mosquito net, and I do it myself, but it is wrong to give the impression that this might prevent children from ever getting bitten by mosquitoes.

And there is another reason:

Ben and Eddie, quoting an article from the Wall Street Journal, raised the issue if sending nets to Africa does not ruin the local businesses that could produce these mosquito nets and therefore perpetuates a cycle of dependency from the West.

I certainly agree, that swamping a region with 100,000  free mosquito nets would have this effect.I am just not convinced that this is what will happen. I have seen the distribution of free mosquito nets in our village. They were usually given as an incentive to pregnant women, encouraging them to come for their pre-natal check-up at the maternity, get their shots and give birth there. I don’t know how these nets had been financed but they certainly did not come in huge quantities drowning out the local production, more like supplementing it. It’s hard to say that this will now suddenly change because of the above mentioned action days, etc.

However, I agree that this principle is at work in many other ways, that “pouring huge sums of money into situations is not a way to achieve goals; not for governments, nor for Christian missions,”  (Eddie) because the situation in developing countries is very complex as I have pointed out before. We often do not understand how touching one part of the “mobile” can unbalance the rest of it and will have unintended side effects. This is were sound anthropological research plays an important role. Also, it helps to be in it for the long run and work on our cultural integration, so that we might have true friends that will give us honest answers, instead of  telling us what they think we want to hear or what helps them “milk” us better.

The author of the WSJ article, Dambisa Moyo, suggested that cutting off the flow would be far more beneficial. I am not convinced of it.

Eddie summarizes his post by “Stimulating local initiative and ownership takes longer, costs less, is much more effective, but is far harder to do.”  And one commenter suggested the use of local supplies and work forces for the production of mosquito nets. I fully agree with both of them.

Aid to Africa: What An African Woman Thinks

One of the blogs I read “What An African Woman Thinks” has an interesting summary of several articles about the debate Aid to Africa:

On AppAfrica, Jonathan Gosier used a well-known tale to make a point. He suggested that people look at Africa like it’s the land from the Wonderful Wizard of Oz:

“It’s a strange land, in some far away place; far away from Auntie Em’s farm in Kansas. There are many oppressed people, people who need a brain (an metaphor for better education), people who need courage and confidence, and people who need a little love. There’s plenty of evil witches to slay in Africa (pick your poison, actually) and often plenty of ‘men behind the curtain’ (The Wizards) who dictate what the politics of the continent really are.”

Into this land, enter Dorothy, the well-meaning but naïve Dorothy. She lands in Oz, catalyzes what appear to be positive changes, and then flies away, back to whence she came. When she returns, it turns out it’s not holding together very well and her actions/collaborations have had unforeseen consequences. But, Dorothy doesn’t live in Oz. She whizzes in and out of there and it’s the Munchkins, the little people, the inhabitants of Oz whom she so wants to help, who have to deal with the consequences.

According to Gosier, there are “Too many Dorothys in Africa’s Oz’.”

His advice:

“Just remember, nothing happens in a vacuum and we should be careful of where we drop our houses.”

(read the rest)

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It’s all relative * Alles ist relativ

My last post is more than a week ago and I am trying since yesterday morning to produce a new post. I especially wanted to post one today because it is Tuesday and Tuesdays are Coffeegirl Blog Roll days. Yeah!

I already had the idea for the post yesterday but somehow I never got very far. Just a very short one, but even this seems to take for ever (why’s that I will write in another post). I find it funny that the Coffeegirl used the same subject line for today’s post that I had in mind.

Thanks to Ben and Eddie for bringing the following cartoon from the Daily Nation to my attention. I am sure lots of Coffeegirls regulars can relate to this, even if you don’t live in Africa:

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Kartoon Übersetzung:

obere Hälfte: Krise, Krise! – Finanzchaos! – Hilfe! Krise!
untere Hälfte: …. Krise, welche Krise?

Mein letzer Eintrag ist mehr als eine Woche her. Seit gestern früh versuche ich einen Eintrag zu schreiben. Vor allem weil heute Dienstag ist, und Dienstag ist “Coffeegirl Blog Roll” Tag!
Die Idee für den Eintrag hatte ich schon gestern aber irgendwie kam ich nicht sehr weit. Nur ein kurzer Eintrag, aber selbst das scheint endlos viel Zeit zu brauchen (warum schreibe ich in einem anderen Eintrag). Schon witzig, dass Coffeegirl ihren heutigen Eintrag den gleichen Titel gab, dann ich mir vorgenommen hatte.

Vielen Dank an Ben und Eddie, die mich auf den Kartoon von Daily Nation aufmerksam gemacht haben. Ich denke, dass viele Coffeegirls Leser ihn gut verstehen können, selbst wenn du nicht in Afrika lebst.

Ancestor Worship?

It made me smile when Ben Byerly wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog entry about ancestor worship in England. I thought it was great to help us see our own culture from a different perspective. I liked it even better when he gave one of his African colleagues the opportunity to talk about his research into ancestor worship:

Did Africans really worship their ancestors? An African perspective (Part 1)

Guest post by Andy Alo

Many Africanists interested in African Traditional Religion have made the assertion that Africans worshipped (or are worshipping) their ancestors. However, field research that I conducted from 2002 to 2005, and completed in August 2008 in my own Lugbara ethnic group leads me to the conclusion that the worship of ancestors by Africans is a theological myth.

Simply Semantics

In the Lugbara language, the concept INZI conveys any attitude which externalizes consideration due to a person’s status. It means ‘respect’ when describing a person lacking respect for his superiors. Children’s respect for their parents (‘honor’) is expressed by the same concept INZI. Today, INZI is also applied to ‘worship’ or ‘adoration’ of God in Christian settings, but older native speakers of Lugbarati do not equate their previous ‘honor’ (INZI) towards ancestors with the present ‘worship” (INZI) of God. Ancestors were simply honored or given due respect.

If the Lugbara did not worship ancestors, why then did they give ancestors food in some sacred places

Why give Food to Ancestors?

Commensality [eating together] in Lugbara culture is the ultimate way of expressing communion and brotherhood. All the members of the community not only share their resources by helping each other, but they also eat together. Traditionally, the ancestors have been part of the community; they are “present” even though they were gone. The Lugbara people would say, “They are with us.”

Every member of the community (except children) knew very well that the ancestors did not literally eat the food offered to them. The servants or “priests” of the community took the food on behalf of the ancestors. Sharing the food symbolized the communion between the living members and the members of the community who had gone on to the other side of the world.

Thus, communion with the ancestors was not a form of “worship” or “adoration,” it simply remembered ancestors as part of the community. They were cherished and honored in the collective memory because they were metonymically representing the body of knowledge that guided the community in the different dimensions of community life: ethics, socio-economics, family matters, etc. Most references to ancestors occur in relation to the quest of truth, ethical decisions and other deliberations.

As you can see in the comments, this is not news to the anthropological world. But the rest of the world, especially the Christian world might not be aware that what had been labeled “ancestor worship” for a long time is not necessarily worship. We so easily judge other cultures using the wrong grid (looking through the lenses of our own culture) and at the same time justifying things that are very similar in our own culture.

Bibel translation in Africa * Bibelübersetzung in Afrika

I love maps. I was always the one on our survey team to handle the maps and do the map questions during the interviews. So it should not surprise you that I like the map which I found through another blog (don’t remember which).

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Ich liebe Landkarten. Ich war immer diejenige im Survey Team, die sich um die Landkarten gekümmert hat und meistens habe ich die diesbezüglichen Fragen im Interview gestellt. Somit ist es nicht erstaunlich, dass ich die folgende Karte toll finde die ich durch ein anderes Blog gefunden habe (weiß aber nicht mehr welches):

If you want to see more maps go to this webpage.
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Wer gerne mehr Karten wie diese sehen möchte, kann zu dieser Webpage gehen.