In my culture (African) we talk about death

Justice Malala | 01 July, 2013 00:17

It is now time to talk about the myths and beliefs that are being unthinkingly and enthusiastically ascribed to many of us Africans and black people in general. I have, over the past few weeks, heard many ascribe customs and practices to black people that I am at quite a loss to understand. The number of times I have heard people say “in African culture we don’t .” has made me gag.

The last time I looked there were 54 countries and more than a billion people on this continent. How amazing that we all have one culture, this “African culture” that many have banged on about this past week.
One of the more popular myths, peddled by those who apparently do not want the media to report on Nelson Mandela’s health, is that in African culture “we don’t talk about someone’s death” while they are still alive. In fact, it seems as if we don’t talk about death at all.
Apparently, we also don’t talk about a person’s illness. What utter rubbish.

Justice Malala—-Image by: The Times
People have, throughout my life, descended on sick people’s homes to, in Sesotho, go tsosetsa (to check how they are doing). They would leave, and would talk about the person’s condition to friends, relatives and others wherever they go after the visit.
It seems to be in vogue, right now, to imply that in this nebulous “African culture” we keep things hidden and we do not talk. We are people of the shadows, of whispers and bowed heads and gossip.
Well, let me tell you about the African culture that I admire.
It is the culture of Nelson Mandela, who amid the silence and denial of Aids and HIV in the mid-2000s, stood up and courageously said: “My son died of Aids.”
For those who say it is un-African to talk of death and illness, I say be like Mandela. Have courage. That is the African way that I would like to see.
This talk of a secretive “African culture” reflects a wider problem in our society: the retreat of rationality and science and the ascendance of woolly concepts that have absolutely no foundation in reality.
Instead of dealing with problems head-on, we increasingly seem to be rushing towards all sorts of unprovable and impractical “solutions”.
I was interested to hear elders of the Mandela family deciding, last week, to fly from the Eastern Cape to his bedside in Pretoria to “assess” him. It’s been the same with the government. Politicians have rushed through the doors of the hospital to “assess” Mandela’s condition.
I understand if people close to him want to see him and be comforted, but how exactly are all the “assessors” going to do it?
Shouldn’t the doctors call President Jacob Zuma and give him their assessment, which he will pass on to elders and the rest of us?

Gauteng police chief Lieutenant-General Mzwandile Petros allegedly roped in a sangoma to investigate a break-in at his Parktown office this week——-Image by: MUNTU VILAKAZI/GALLO IMAGES
Anyway, assess they do.
Another example of the loss of our grip on rationality was to be seen in the SA Police Service just two weeks ago. The City Press reported a story that was so extraordinary that I had to read it twice.
It said: “Gauteng police chief Lieutenant General Mzwandile Petros has allegedly roped in a sangoma to investigate after a break-in at his Parktown, Johannesburg, office this week.
“Captain Nomathemba Mgwebile, the sangoma who works as an executive secretary in Petros’s office, was brought in to “sniff out” those responsible for the burglary on Monday. Petros’s office was broken into on the eve of Major-General Tirhani Maswanganyi’s murder this week, but nothing was stolen from it.
“The suspects dug a hole through the ceiling of one of the toilets and walked into the police chief’s office.”
I am sorry but what nonsense is this? Surely it should be clear by now to all and sundry that what is needed here is a forensic investigator, with the right equipment, and not a sangoma? If sangomas could investigate crimes we would be paying them to do so — and we would not have the crime we do.
Yet this is what we have: the top cop in the economic powerhouse of the continent has abandoned rationality and has called in a sangoma to divine who broke into his office.
What exactly has got into us? Is it really so difficult to be rational about this?
Culture is a dynamic thing. It is enriched every day and transforms every day. It is how we live. It has its uses, but when it is allowed to calcify and is used as a tool to resist change, it becomes dangerous.
In the challenging world we live in, it is important not to forget to be rational. We are missing that right now.

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