Fresh cow dung assists coagulation, the process by which the blood clots to form solid masses, or clots. In communities across Africa it was custom for cow dung to be applied to newly born babies to stop bleeding where the umbilical cord was severed. Unfortunately cow dung also spreads tetanus. Health officials launched extensive campaigns to inform pregnant women about the dangers of cow dung to babies. As a result of this campaign the custom has gone out of practice.
In all African cultures greetings are very important. In many communities you shake hands firmly and enthusiastically with everyone each time you meet them. It is not uncommon at large family gatherings to see a new arrival spend the first 10-20 minutes going round greeting everyone individually before sitting and joining in conversation. To do otherwise would be rude. However, in West Africa, in 2014, the necessity to prevent the spread of Ebola by not touching others has given rise to a new vogue – the Ebola greeting.
West Africans have invented gestures that, while they do not involve contact, are just as warm and friendly. From Monrovia to Dakar, from Freetown to Conakry, inventive West Africans are coming up with their own ‘hands-free’ ways to greet each other. They range from a subtle bow or rub of the palms to the more flamboyant gestures of bumping bottoms or throwing your hands in the air in a star shape, or the gentle foot-pat – half-greeting, half-dance – rubbing your left foot to your counterpart’s right. Perhaps the sweetest greeting is the hand across heart gesture.
Take any African custom or culture, no matter how “backward” it may seem, for example rubbing cow dung on newly born babies, and you can trace its origin back to a logical and practical reason, such as the need to prevent blood loss in newly born babies.
However, take any African custom or culture and you will find that it is not sacred. If it stops making sense, it will be changed. For example when you learn cow dung spreads tetanus you stop rubbing cow dung on newly born babies.
This is how we know that using “it is our culture” to justify the unjustifiable is ridiculous. Our culture cannot be ridiculous; it refuses to be ludicrous. For example, our culture will not force you shake hands when there is Ebola in your community. Those who try to make our culture justify the unjustifiable are hijacking our culture and mutilating it, not protecting it. Either the action was never part of our culture, in which case you can not use our culture to defend it. If the unjustifiable action was part of our culture then we need to accept that our culture is not static. It never has been. It never will be. When we need it to change it must change, and change quickly, even over night, as happened with greetings in West Africa.
One of the clear examples of this mutilation of culture is by the Kenyan Member of Parliament for Kitui Central, Benson Makali Mulu, when he advanced the following ridiculous argument while speaking in parliament during the debate on the The Protection Against Domestic Violence Bill, 2013
… in Kamba culture, there is nothing like sexual harassment when you are dealing with a wife or husband. When you pay the three goats, you are given 100 per cent authority to engage in that act without any question … in some cultures, it is a demonstration of love when you do a bit of beating to your wife … if you do not do it, you are seen not to love your wife.
Let us not beat around the bush. What Mulu is stating here is that in Kamba culture domestic abuse is
- the foundation upon which family is built
- a physical demonstration of love
- encouraged on the payment of 3 goats
You will be very hard pressed to find a more complete bunch of nonsense. This violence against women, which Mulu advocates, is a blatant distortion of one of the clear pillars of African, and indeed Kamba culture, the important role of women in society. For example, in the nineteenth century both men and women sat on Kamba decision making councils, Nzama. Colonial changes replaced the Nzama with “native tribunals” run by headmen (all male). Disrespecting women doesn’t just mutilate our culture it also perpetrates some of the most dangerous legacies of the colonial system, the removal of women from respected position of leadership in African culture. The Victorian concept of the woman as the creature of the domestic domain is one which was largerly alien to Africa and was introduced by British colonialists. Even without a seat at the Nzama amongst the Kamba a woman could divorce her husband on grounds of cruelty. Mulu is not defending our culture, he is trying to use our culture to purify a system of violence and oppression.
Oppressing and dominating other people is hard work. For their long-term viability, systems and structures of violence and subjugation need a staff, personnel, willing bodies to do the actual labour of violence and violation, of injuring and killing, and loud voices for speaking the mockery and the humiliation. All these are necessary for a prolonged project of physical and mental domination.
I urge you strongly to read Wambui’s entire blog post and understand the depths of the crisis which we are in. Women and girls even babies in Kenya continue to be harassed, publicly stripped, molested, raped and killed nearly every day.
We all have a role to play in dismantling the systems and structures through which this violence is perpetrated. Here are four suggestions.
- Recognise and stand up to any hijacking of our culture as this often provides the justification and encouragement for constant violence against our mothers, sisters, daughters.
- Support (with your money, time and skills) organisations that continue to take legal action against perpetrators of violence and support victims of violence. I am proud to have worked with FIDA Kenya, COVAW, UZIMA Foundation, GEM, UN Women, KNCHR, KELIN Kenya, KEHPCA, ALP and urge you to support them or similar organisations.
- Understand what the triggers and drivers of this violence are. Anzetse Were has written a powerful book, Drivers of Violence: Male Disempowerment in the African Context, in which she make the argument that male disempowerment manifests itself through violence. Look out for it at a book store near you.
- Support organisations that work with men and boys to understand what real manhood is about. I recommend the Man Enough programme by Transform Nations which is exactly that kind of provoking, challenging and real experience that works well to get men engaged.