It’s the culture, stupid

Bad things happen in Africa.

However much I love this beautiful continent, it is impossible to escape that irrefutable fact.

Bad, truly terrible things have been happening here for years.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, public prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), is repeatedly criticised for focusing too much on Africa.

His repost – that this is where all the really bad stuff is happening in the world at the moment – holds some shred of truth. (Although, in fairness, he could have dealt his naysayers a satisfying blow by opening an proprio moto investigation into somewhere like Afghanistan – Iraq and Israel, other possible candidates, were off the limit since they are not members of the court – rather than Kenya, the fifth African country the ICC is looking into).

But, to return to the original point, one cannot ignore the fact that bad things happen in Africa. And they have been happening for a very long time.

Visiting Africa as a journalist is always an eye-opening experience, especially when one has the opportunity to talk with victims of rape, violence or torture.

As my previous entry noted, I had the opportunity to visit two human rights activists in hospital yesterday – both had been kidnapped, then released, and both were badly shaken up by ther experience.

Going over my notes on the plane, I noticed a common theme running through the series of interviews I held into human rights abuses in Goma.

Everyone seemed to be blaming the culture of the Democratic Republic of Congo. These fellows just don’t know how to resolve their problems without resorting to the age-old technique of common thuggery.

Got a $700 fine to pay?

Expect a few heavies to come calling in the middle of the night. You’ll be roughed up a bit, nothing serious, maybe thrown in a hole with a dead guy overnight. But you’ll basically be okay. And then we’ll let you go. And then you’ll pay. Oh, yes, you will pay.

This is how things work in Africa. It’s all in the culture, ain’t it.

Reflecting upon these comments, I was reminded about an article I read a couple of months ago, which convincingly pointed out that it was wrong to talk about the “culture” being responsible for crimes such as rape.

Such labelling not only belittles the suffering of women, said the article, but also helps to condone and normalise the practice, when in actual fact it should not be condoned and must not be considered normal.

This is a very true, but the author missed one very salient point out of her article.

If we don’t understand what the problem is, then how can we set about solving it.

The ASPD had the right kind of idea, when I spoke to them. So did Children’s Voices. Both local NGOs.

Reach out to the local communities. Explain that these terrible practices of kidnap, torture and rape are not in any way normal and should not be tolerated. In effect, these NGOs are sensitising these communities about the significance of these crimes.

But such solutions are only possible if we start to accept that at least part of the reason for these crimes is cultural. Ain’t it?

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One Response to “It’s the culture, stupid”

  1. Viktor Friedmann Says:

    I suspect that there is no need for an actual choice between the two arguments (i.e. that crimes are cultural by nature or not). It seems to me that what creates the tension is that the word “culture” is used in two different meanings.
    Argument 1 states that one should not understand violent behaviour/rape as part of a traditional culture, something that is long part of the “way of life” of the community in question (and therefore untouchable or “normal”).
    Argument 2 seems rather to talk about a “culture of violence” developing in the sense that an environment conducive to the use of violent means also induces the rationalization of violence through certain rituals and self-understandings. This might build upon the culture of the group but at the same time is probably the consequence of some kind of disruption or decay of culture (for example as a result of the environment turning more violent).
    Therefore what might be possible is to build on culture (as tradition) against culture (that of violence). This, however, requires an understanding of not only the culture of violence but also that of the cultural dislocation that allowed for its emergence.
    Without this, any reference to what is “normal” and what is “tolerable” is potentially too abstract to be effective in reconstructing communal life in a non-violent manner.

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