By Gershom Ndhlovu
In Zambia, the word culture especially as spoken by politicians, is associated with ceremonies such as the Kuomboka of the Lozi in Western Province, Mutomboko of the Kazembe Lunda in Luapula and Nc’wala of the Ngoni in the Eastern Province.
As it has come to be part of the tradition of these and other ceremonies observed around the country, all manner of government officials ranging from the President himself, to District Commissioners, mayors and council chairmen, officiate at these functions which are in some cases tourist attractions in themselves.
For instance, at last month’s Mutomboko Ceremony President Rupiah Banda said culture played a very important role in developing the nation, pointing out that it was the source of strength and unity and that the government had come up with a deliberate policy to promote culture in the country.
President Banda also disclosed that the government had budgeted for K150 million for the construction of a cultural village in Luapula Province. Once constructed, the Mansa Cultural Village would provide a venue for musicians, actors and craft entrepreneurs to showcase and exhibit their works which is good in itself.
The question, however, is: can culture be compartmentalised just to mean matters of traditional ceremonies which are at par with any other carnival held in different parts of the world such as the Notting Hill Carnival of London, Mardi gras in New Orleans in the USA and the Brazilian Carnival, probably the biggest on the globe? Indeed, these ceremonies in Zambia, or carnivals in the rest of the world, have become a part of the wider culture of the places in which they are observed.
By its very nature, culture is a difficult term to define but scholars such as Craig Storti who has written among other books, Figuring Foreigners Out and The Art of Crossing Cultures, describe it as the shared assumptions, values, and beliefs of a group of people which result in characteristic behaviours.
Most, if not all, of the cultural traits that people exhibit are learned from their family surroundings, their immediate society and nation at large. These define how individuals view and react to not only other people of other cultures but also in other cultures in which they find themselves through work as business people, diplomats or indeed as tourists or students.
Harry Triandis in his book, Culture and Social Behaviour, writes of culture as providing traditions that tell people what has worked in the past and makes it easy for humans to pick behaviours that may work again in the present.
Put simply, culture is a way of life of a people and is something that is never taught as such, but something that people pick up in the socialization process in their community. It is, in other words, a catalogue of “dos and don’ts” of a group of people, ethnic groups or whole nations.
It is my argument that culture does not start and end with the Lozi celebrating the Kuomboka in April when their king migrates from the flood plains to higher ground, or when the Kazembe Lunda celebrate their conquest of other ethnic groups some two or so centuries back, or indeed, the Ngoni Paramount Chief tasting the new crop in late February of every year.
Culture is all things, including language which is obvious, that make a Frenchman different from an Englishman, or those social characteristics that make a Finnish different from an Italian, and closer to home, those characteristics that a Luvale exhibits and observes that a Lenje does not; things that a Tonga does and a Tumbuka does not. This is the reason why, strictly speaking, it is difficult to talk of a Zambian “culture” which is homogenous to all the 73 ethnic groups.
All ethnic groups tend to withdraw into their cultural laagers at some point, especially when observing rites of passage such as chisungu when girls come of age, marriages and funerals. You often hear people say “we don’t do this where I come from.” It is also not uncommon for a man or family to engage a friend from a particular ethnic group to negotiate on their behalf if he is marrying from that friend’s ethnic group. This is all about culture.
Apart from the common everyday interactions that are taken for granted, culture is embodied in pursuits such as literature, (the English, for instance, celebrate William Shakespeare as the greatest bard that ever lived), music, architecture, museums and other areas of human endeavour.
It is also around these pursuits that cultural industries revolve such as the film industry reflected through Hollywood, broadcasting houses such as the BBC, the book and newspaper publishing industry, the multi-billion dollar music recording industry of the West. The pervasiveness of the western cultural industries has swamped other cultures, particularly in Africa where people want to imitate what they have watch in cinemas, on TV or read in newspapers and books.
When cultures clash people talk of a “culture shock” which Esprit Global Learning, a company providing cultural coaching services describes on its website as “…an internal response to being in a “strange” culture with no cultural guideposts or familiar cues of one’s personal, social, cultural, physical and business environment.”
Knowledge and appreciation, or the lack thereof, of other people’s cultures could equally lead to the success or failure of business deals. For instance, how a person treats a business card, or meishi, of a Japanese businessman upon being given one determines how the deal goes from there, whether it succeeds or not.
Similarly, most development assistance by western bilateral and multi-lateral donors fails in most areas because the implementers do not take into account local cultures, customs and traditions and try to transplant their own cultures, traditions and customs on recipient communities.
For culture to play its rightful role in Zambia’s social, political and economic spheres, there is need to move away from the idea that culture and related issues should only come alive during cultural ceremonies, but it should be incorporated in all spheres such as tourism and other economic activities by especially understanding cultures of foreigners that Zambians interact with.
Multinational corporations such as Disneyland Incorporated have learnt their lessons when they have tried to transplant their American modus operandi onto other cultures. The best example is Disneyland Paris which nearly collapsed because the French felt that it did not meet their cultural expectations.
Culture in Zambia needs to be understood and appreciated in its totality rather than in piecemeal fashion when it suits the politicians. Similarly, developing cultural industries would not only preserve our diverse cultures, but would provide jobs for a lot of Zambians who otherwise have to depend on elusive foreign investors for their existence.
*This article appeared in the Zambia Daily Mail of 7th August, 2009.