I say culture, you say la culture

I’ve been so energized here.  I’ve been eating up the new culture, language and environment.  I’ve been loving the food, the natural beauty, my host family… I’ve been making friends in the community… And I’ve been propelled by the challenge and excitement of it all.  But I think I’ve also been running on adrenaline.  In the last few weeks I’ve started to feel the gravity of this experience more deeply.  To state the obvious, it’s really different here.

Living in a place like this and preparing for work like this has a lot of the same challenges as moving to any new unknown place: getting to know people, discovering your neighborhood and the other places around town, settling into a routine… but it’s got some wildly different aspects as well.  And I’m just now starting to understand how challenging some of them are going to be.

Not having electricity has been a little inconvenient, but remarkably easy to work around.  Bucket baths, frankly (and inexplicably), are still kind of fun.  Walking 20+ minutes to training each day and night is no different than what I did in a number of places in the U.S.  But the culture here is nothing like in the United States.  I’m sure that at times it is going to excite me and remind me of why I came to this place, but at times it is really going to bum me out.

I don’t mean the kind of culture we all like to soak up when we go on vacation.  I mean the kind of culture that defines a people: how they interact with one another; how they organize themselves socially, politically, economically; the values they live by, and the ones that happen as a result of both conscious and unconscious customs.  The conscious ones are the ones I eat up, but the unconscious ones – put diplomatically – can take some getting used to.

Many Cameroonians are habitually late.  For example.  I’ve encountered this tendency before, in Africa, Jamaica, SE Asia and other places.  But when you’re trying to get something done it can be insanely frustrating.  We’re warned that when you plan to have a meeting or a class you have to remind people that you’ll be starting at American time, not Cameroonian time.  Otherwise people will come in 30, 40, 90 minutes late.  And people will usually show up late anyway.

I had the opportunity recently to sit in on a local tontine meeting – a community savings and loan group that pools and lends money among the members for business and social purposes (weddings, funerals, maladies).  Even though the meeting started at the same time every month, people showed up throughout the entire meeting, requiring the money counters to go back and add the new arrivals’ savings and recalculate the totals.  By the time I left and hour and half later people were still showing up.

I read an article in grad school by a guy named Lawrence Harrison that pissed a lot of people off, including me.  (For the curious or extremely bored it’s called The Culture Club: Exploring the Central Liberal Truth).  He says:

Cultural Relativism… has permeated the social sciences, and largely because of it a widespread presumption today exists that all cultures and all religions must be regarded as of equal worth and are not to be the object of comparative value judgments. However, when it comes to the relationship between culture and human progress, I find compelling evidence that some cultures and some religions do better than others in promoting the goals of democratic politics, social justice and prosperity.”

Africa’s post-colonial hopes have been replaced by despair in the wake of irresponsible, often tyrannical leadership and frequent civil wars. In the entire continent, only Botswana has approximated the optimistic scenario.

OK then. So culture is a hindrance to the ‘right kind’ of development.  Poor people are poor because their institutions are primitive.  And Africa is the most pathetic failure of all.

How incredibly short-sighted and counterproductive, I thought.  Take this notion of time.  One shouldn’t reap and/or sow on the same calendar day every year.  It’s necessary to factor in how much earlier or later the season may be changing, the amount of sun or rainfall, current crop maturity levels, etc.  Isn’t Harrison being insensitive to the cultural and social value that a looser notion of time allows?  Isn’t such a rigid ‘time is money’ mentality an example of what frustrates the so-called beneficiaries about much of the western world’s notion of development to begin with?

But as I read this paper again I have to give Harrison a little credit.  I still don’t agree with his conclusions about culture being the biggest roadblock to development.  There are many factors that influence various levels of development, including the metrics by which you measure it.  But I have to admit that there are certain characteristics that make reaching goals extremely difficult.

Just on a practical level, if Jane promises to teach John how to plant a cornfield on Monday because on Tuesday she’s going away for a month and the planting season will have passed by the time she returns, John should show up.  If he doesn’t because his notion of time is flexible or he doesn’t take Jane’s knowledge seriously because she’s a woman (another common cultural issue in Cameroon), John either doesn’t eat corn this year or he has to buy it from someone else.  In this case, two aspects of John’s culture have unquestionably hurt him.

The challenge, I suppose, is identifying which aspects of culture are stalling a society from reaching its potential.  This is an incredibly touchy subject among development practitioners and academics, and is the reason why the annual World Bank and IMF meetings look like the last scene in V for Vendetta.  One thing I’m sure, though, is that such things have to be decided by the culture that is ready to act on its own behalf, not outside ones that want to help it ‘develop’.

As Harrison himself says, “Cultural change, like democracy and market economics, cannot be imposed from the outside, except in the most extraordinary circumstances…  Progress is likely to endure only when it is driven chiefly from within.  To be sure, the success stories underscore the importance of openness to the ideological, political, technological and institutional lessons learned by more “advanced” societies.  (The quotes around ‘advanced’ are my own, not Harrison’s).  But until a critical mass of awareness emerges in a society, external pressures for change are likely to be resisted.

My own personal cliffhanger: What do I do if what my village says it really wants is different that what I think it really needs?


7 thoughts on “I say culture, you say la culture

  1. Reading this blog makes me really sad that I cannot discuss this over a beer with you some time soon. I have a lot to say and a lot of questions to pose, but that will have to wait, I suppose. To be brief (and I have not read original article): there are many barriers to societal development and it’s not fair to blame all lack of development on culture when ease of survival also plays a huge role (Botswana has diamonds and happened to have a ruler who was not out for himself, but then if memory serves he went to school in the west somewhere). That being said, we talked in my Ethics class one time about if there are things that are simply right or simply wrong no matter what societal norms are. Of course, we did not come up with an answer (just a lot of annoyed MBA students), but it’s an important question to ask. (I was just thinking about that conversation today when a friend reminded me he wanted to eat monkey.)
    As PCV’s, there seems to be a tricky ‘integration’ line we have to walk along…we need to integrate, but somehow also figure out a way to say “we do this way differently over there and it really works a lot better.” But where is line drawn? Can we know when we have gone too far or not gone far enough? Ugh, so much more to say, but I’ll stop here….thanks for a blog that will have me thinking for a while.

    • yeah and what are the ‘right’ areas in which to insert ourselves… it’s easier to draw the line on some issues with gender, for example, and say ‘listen, if you want me to hold this class i’ll only do it under the condition that you allow women the chance to participate and to talk in this class without being demeaned.’ but what about in the north? would such a thing require more finesse?
      anyway glad you like the post. to be continued…

    • Andy,

      Glad to rediscover your blog tonight. Dad reminded me. I read an interview with Peter Singer, the utilitarian humanist philosopher, in Sun magazine today. Very thought provoking and relevant to the questions you’re asking. He dismisses cultural relativism as a bunch of hooey…says that an ethical decision is one which minimizes the suffering/maximizes the happiness of other people. He also extends this to other sentient beings (Singer would not be at all supportive of eating monkey!).

      I think that what Kelley says below regarding what to do when you disagree with your village is very wise. You should use your conscious as a guide and act with integrity, and you should also strive to understand your role for what it is and not feel bad if you don’t always get the outcome you hope for despite your best efforts. I wonder if the utilitarian framework may be to way to work out in more detail what your conscious says? Not so sure about “letting go of the outcome”. If that means don’t let your failures get you down, I agree. “Pick yourself up…dust yourself off….” But I’d be careful not to extend that to an abdication of ethical responsibility for your actions.

      Looking forward to hearing more. And send me a list for a care package. Alder talks about you about every day. We’ll have fun putting it together.


  2. Hey buddy!! Just found ur blog I will have to get cought up. I share ur frustration with the time thing. I have experienced what was called island time. It seems that the developed world is one of few that adhere to close time keeping. But over the course of 6-8 months I came to love island time because I was never late. Although it sometimes made things more difficult, I eventually came to love it. it’s a slower pace to life and lately I wish I could go back to island time…. Miss you boo!

    • xbow old buddy!
      i hear you about the time thing. tough to know what’s really the right thing to be making an issue of. will require patience, finesse, good listening, non-judgment, more patience, and then knowing when and with what to let the patience run out.
      hope all is well in your world. still hoping to collaborate on some videos. picking up new footage regularly. i’ll post more on the blog soon.
      say hi to the mountains and tell them i miss them. (sniff). i’m climbing mt. cameroon this christmas – it’s a little over 13k feet and starts from sea level. wanna come?
      Mt. Cameroon

  3. My two cents:

    I believe Mr. Harrison’s observations are correct in some aspects but he has a significant, although excruciatingly common, blind-spot. He refers to a cultural value system as if it was an absolute rather than a reflection of one particular perspective, his own perspective. Specifically, what the refers to as “progress”, “success” “potential” is defined by the attributes of one particular culture, Western culture. It is yet to be determined if this particular brand of culture is better or simply dominant. If your measurements are technical advancements, military/economic might, reduced infant mortality/increased life expectancy, (more) gender equality and busyness, we look pretty good. If your measurements are social cohesion, ecological sustainability, income equality and ulcer rates, we might not fair so well.

    He is correct, however, in stating that culture does matter. At this point in time, Western cultural values are dominant and pervasive. There are certain cultural practices that are contrary to, and impede a people’s success (assimilation) within the dominant culture. Individuals and communities, not originating from the dominant culture, will be faced with the decision to resist or acquiesce. More times than not they will chose some sort of combination of both. That is the fun of it. That’s what keeps things interesting.

    Your role, my friend, is to offer them the the knowledge and skills that can help them navigate Western Culture, they chose how/if to use these. Your last question is not a “what if…” question, it’s a “what do I do when…” question. The answer is simple, not easy; act with consciousness and integrity…..let go of the outcome. If that doesn’t work, copious amounts of alcohol should. 🙂

    Hope you’re well Ka-nee-pay

  4. Quite the scholar, my brother. Looks like you are in a dynamic situation… so many factors to consider. My experiences have revealed a perspective towards accepting that which others are capable of… and then some more. That’s were the teaching comes in. It sounds like you are laying the ground work to become a successful guide.

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