By Kiesha Hill (Poet)
If we were to go back in time and pull aside 8 year old me and ask her ‘what is the difference between religion and culture?’ she would smile, look at the ground and patiently wait to be overlooked and exempted from the conversation. If you prompted her for an answer, she would shrug her shoulders and say she didn’t know. And once released from what would have felt like an interrogation, she would never consider the question again. Now, if you were to ask the 16 year old me the same question, she would say “’it doesn’t matter, I have no tribe” – echoing the words of her mother – and she would subsequently excuse herself from the conversation as a whole. The problem is it does matter.
I am a Zambian youth and for my whole life I have been really comfortable with saying “I’ve never been to my rural home”. When I look back, the closest thing I can remember that came close to tradition or rural were the arguments at family reunions on what was the right way to do this and that, and how so-and-so was doing it wrong. Yet no-one really thought hey, let’s pass this on to the next generation, formally. Not that I minded the lack of a formal introduction into the ways of culture and traditional spirituality. At the time I was very content to observe and not practice. Growing up in urban areas basically meant I would never really meet culture, especially not in my home where it was deemed irrelevant on this march on progress that we are on – sidenote, it wasn’t even welcome at the dinner table.
But, it wasn’t just my home, even at school. Everyone was back pocketing their culture to seem more “with the times”. I met a lot of people who could easily tell you that Jay-Z or Beyonce is doing a lot for the culture, but didn’t know their own. So, I went looking for it – from the source as they say – and I asked my mother something simple like, “which Zambian culture are you born into?” I was hoping for a location to trace my roots as they say. But I was met with a hollow epiphany, a ‘ah-ha’ moment of “this means absolutely nothing to me”. I felt I had opened a box that I did not know would be empty because it was so well packaged with ribbons and bows. After being met with disappointment I went for a walk still eager and optimistic about running into culture in modern day Lusaka. I entered a local store, bought a Coke and asked the shopkeeper the same sort of question .“My culture means nothing to me, it is just where I was born and where my father was born, if I could choose I’d want to be a different culture,” – that is what the shopkeeper said to me – #yikes.
Are we ashamed of who we are? Are we hiding parts of our past like it’s a traumatic event? Is this why no-one ever gave me the ‘this is how our people do such and such talk? I had never had any real interest to sit down and delve into the customs, traditions, religious beliefs and practices of the tribe I was born into, even though I do acknowledge that it has a bearing on my identity – a classic case of keeping the label but losing the substance. Culture to me was like that thing you know you should do but you feel you can get by without it, kinda like driving with no seatbelt. It felt mildly ridiculous and borderline restrictive. I applauded American celebrities like Oprah for tracing their DNA back to African countries, yet me who lived in the same country as my grandparents, didn’t feel the need to make that kind of connection – it was a missed connection maybe.
Today culture doesn’t affect any of my life choices or even my perception of life because I didn’t grow up venerating, practising or even learning about what tribe I belonged to, what they do, and what that meant to me, and us as a country. I’ve never been to my ‘village’ and not only did it not bother me, I didn’t see why it should. I’ve grown up not placing any value on my culture. And I wouldn’t recognize it even if it was told to me word for word by an ancestor. A good reason why I wouldn’t is because some time after Zambia gained its independence, it became a Christian Nation. “I know my culture holds a part of my identity, but I haven’t been to my village because of witchcraft, as soon as I am willing to be cursed I’ll go visit”, a writer / teacher said to me once.
It is hard to stand on the side of tradition or culture in public because it somehow means you belong to a cult or some dark art shamed by these new age demon-casting preachers. Any attempt to balance the two worlds would be futile because of the stark differences in the belief systems. Zambia is now first and foremost a Christian nation – we heard it on the news often. “One cannot have two masters” and African culture, it seems, is the old master whose ways are now outdated. “I’ve looked into my tribe and their religious beliefs. But they don’t fit in my life because I grew up Christian. Had I grown up in the rural areas where my culture was more of a focal point, and it was something that I was trained to practice and do. I may value it more,” – the writer / teacher, continued.
So here we are, Africans who have abandoned their culture for the bright lights, fast food, short skirts, skinny jeans and Indian hair. “I do not speak for everyone but for me, the impact of cultural abandonment in the country has been more negative than positive. Cultural abandonment has led to the adaptation of the Western culture in our country. We have seen the effect of this in the youths of nowadays, even some old people too. If we are being honest. It is now normal to see a girl / woman dressed almost half naked, guys sagging their pants, showing their underwear. It is all normal nowadays and it is disgusting. Where are we taking the respect of our bodies, the respect of our lives or the respect of our own reputation. The impact does not just affect the dressing of our youths, it has affected our cultural norms and beliefs. These two things are what help us keep our identity as a country, but that identity has been hidden or misplaced with the western mask, it is now hard to distinguish Lusaka from Los Angeles, as some call it,’‘ – a university student said.
For me now, talking to the old me. If you were to ask me about my culture and religion I would say – – – Upon further reflection, It would be foolhardy to say my culture has no effect on my life completely. I acknowledge that it is a place in me through my parents and their parents and their parents. There are undoubtedly trace elements of my culture that soak through even in the small moments like how I cut my onions, how I problem solve, and how I value people. These are things I inherited through my upbringing and through my bloodline. Even though as yet, I do not subscribe to a clear and distinct culture, my position in life was negotiated from a culture that was here before Christianity and western media. “Culture is dynamic and therefore constantly changing. It deals more with norms and traditions. Whilst Religion is more static and deals with divinity but isn’t always confined per se to a specific tribe or region,” – a writer and poet said.
This is very true. Even now, there are few practices that are still observed, but chilanga-mulilos and Matebetos are slowly becoming kitchen parties that have less to do with tradition and more to do with food and friends. But, my point is that they are evolving. And other practices like ‘Mukanda’, which is the traditional practice of male circumcisions is slowly being abandoned for safer clinical methods. Displays of courage and bravery have started to mean less in this ever expanding and changing world where money speaks more for the worth of a man or the price of a woman’s body. The latter being calculated no longer in cows or other livestock but in cold hard cash deposited directly into bank accounts or drinks at a bar, lunches, and data.
Nonetheless, we continue to evolve. “My culture affects my life in certain choices I make like how I greet my elders, or how I cook certain foods, even when I wear a chitenge, that is my culture” – a young poet says. In the end, “culture lives on because some people choose to participate in it because they feel the need for it in their lives. If you find yourself asking the question of ‘where is my culture?’ then it is that missing part of your life that you need to grow. So instead of waiting for culture like it’s arriving on a bus from the rural areas. Why don’t you get on the bus and go experience it” – some final words from a stranger I recently met online who likes my poems.