The Importance of Understanding the Meaning of Culture
By Mabior Garang de Mabior,
August 6, 2019(Nyamilepedia) —The current civil war in our country has entered its sixth year and a peaceful resolution to the conflict seems more elusive every year. The traditional elites who were empowered by subsequent colonial powers that have come and gone in our land since antiquity have – after our peoples’ successful struggle – failed to evolve into a ruling class. A ruling class is defined in Sociology as the segment of a society that decides the political future of a people as a whole. This is distinct from a power elite, which is defined as a clique of individuals who wield the most political power in a country. This latter definition best describes the traditional elites in our country. They can hardly be called a ruling class because their wielding of political power has not only destroyed our social fabric but threatens our future survival as a people. A ruling class would have been able to meet in the second week after the start of the conflict in December 2013 and made sure that the country did not descend into chaos – as happens in many countries in Africa.
The power elite in our country – the traditional elites – have used their privilege of incumbency to undermine the IGAD peace process. The membership of the Republic of South Sudan in IGAD, in the AU and in the UN, is problematic to the mission of achieving a peaceful resolution to the conflict in our country. This is a duplicitous situation that has the regime as a party to the conflict and a mediator at the same time. The regime has used her influence to avoid the root cause of the conflict from being addressed during the negotiations; this is unscientific. Those of us who have some understanding of social studies know that the first step in solving a problem is to delimit the problem. The failure to deal with the root cause of the conflict in our country is one of the main reasons that peace has been so elusive. The power elite would rather see the war continue indefinitely, than implement a reform agenda that would change the unbearable status quo and its power relationships which have existed since the days of colonialism and slavery.
Unfortunately the power elite will not implement themselves out of power!
It is important to bring the discussion about “culture” into the national conversation because the traditional elites have weaponized culture through the promotion of political tribalism as a governing ideology. This has led to intercommunal violence and to the current civil war we are struggling to bring an end to. The regime has benefited a great deal from our lack of confidence and ignorance of what “culture” really means and the youths’ lack of concrete knowledge of their culture and history leads to intimidation by so called elders.
The following are a few points as a contribution to the national dialogue, which is not some committee in some room but an ongoing process out of which we shall forever determine our destiny as a people from generation to generation:
1. At the outset, it is important to give a definition of terms since the language we are using is not our own. This will help us to be on the same page when having this debate since culture has many different connotations depending on the vested interest of the speaker.
2. The noun form is defined by Miriam-Webster Dictionary as: a. the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time b: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization c: the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.
3. Many of us who speak English define culture as some aspect of the above definitions from the dictionary. This becomes more problematic when we consider that the experts in sociology who study culture don’t agree on a single definition of culture from an academic point of view.
4. Horton and Hunt (1964), defined “culture” in the following way: “from their life experience a group of people develop a set of rules and procedures for meeting their needs. The set of rules and procedures, together with a supporting set of ideas and values is called a culture”. This definition offered by Horton and Hunt adds a crucial component to the definition of culture; a group of people develop a set of rules and procedures for meeting their needs.
5. Many of our citizens have understood “culture” as singing and dancing, as the type of clothes or beads one wears, or the type of foods one eats. These are indeed part pf the definition of culture but they are more of cultural products than “culture” itself. This type of definition makes us lose sight of the fact that culture is “intellectual”; culture is not tangible, it is a phenomenon which happens in the minds of a people.
6. The reason that a people develop a culture is to be able to survive in their environment, to ensure the survival of a people and the knowledge and wisdom developed through time – their cultural heritage- is passed down from one generation to another.
7. One of the main characteristics of culture is that it changes. It is not holy and sacred. It is constantly transforming according to the challenges faced by a people during a particular epoch and does not remain static. Cultures are always subject to changes, with different speeds from society to society and generation to generation. A culture should never remain stagnant. Change is the law of life and stagnation is death.
8. The citizens of the Republic of South Sudan – the newest state in Africa and the world – boast a rich cultural heritage. Our country is located in the valley of the Nile, which is the oldest civilization on earth according to available historical and archeological records. The peoples of the Republic of South Sudan share this rich cultural heritage with other African peoples and our survival today as Acholi, and Collo, and Dinka, and Nuers, and Azande is part of a historical process which dates back to pre-historic times.
9. The effects of colonialism and slavery have had a devastating effect on our societies in South Sudan. It is important for young people – who have not had an opportunity to study our history – to know that our culture and history have been derailed by this experience of oppression, and the trauma of this experience is still with us today.
10. The traditional elites in our country would have us believe that this trauma is our culture. This is mischief and an attempt by the traditional elites to weaponize the concept of “culture” against our civil population, by invoking “culture” as some holy and sacred thing that must not be changed, while the unbearable status quo – a war economy – is exclusively defined and controlled by them and only serves their vested interest.
11. Our cultural traditions in pre-colonial times were markedly different from the cultural traditions we were forced to adopt by subsequent occupying powers since Greco-Roman times. The ancient Nile Valley Civilization was a matriarchal culture yet today we are aggressively patriarchal, even misogynistic. This alone shows that a great shift has occurred in the very foundation of our culture.
12. The way we treat girls and women in our culture today is barbaric. In pre-colonial times our sisters had more rights and liberties as compared to the pseudo conservative society of today. In pre-colonial times a young man and a young woman who were in love could sleep in the same hut as long as the family was aware of their relationship. Today, a young man and a young woman cannot have coffee without it leading to intercommunal violence. This is not our culture. Women could hold high and respectable places in our society, including spiritual, military and social positions. It was not unheard of for a woman to be the founder of a clan or to lead armies – Queen Nzinga in Angola and Yaa Asantewaa in Ghana and many more through the corridors of history are celebrated in African History- something we would want to deny today.
13. In pre-colonial times when there was no political tribalism in our land. The only obstacle to intermarriage was the inability to cross distant lands. The customary laws allowed for intermarriage. According to the customary laws of most of our peoples, if you are married to a person from a certain land, you are adopted by the people of that land. If a Bari man settles in a Nuer village and marries a Nuer girl, then he became a Nuer. If in turn a Nuer lady is married to a Lotuko gentleman in a Lotuko village, then she became a Lotuko. Today, political tribalism has introduced a new, negative and alien culture which insists that one must marry within the county or even the clan – all in the name of “culture’. This is mischief.
14. The culture of leadership our people exercised in pre-colonial times was usually very democratic – what we know as “under the tree” democracy. The high moral standard that our ancestors had was a system of checks and balances, which made dictatorship almost impossible. The would-be dictator would be afraid of bringing shame to their family or clan. Apart from this our people practiced the ritual killing of bad rulers, so leaders would be afraid to misgovern the people.
15. With the Greco-Roman conquest and the subsequent invasions by patriarchal peoples down to modern European colonialism, our people have not been in control of their destiny. We have been under indirect rule depending on the power which dominated the world at the time.
16. The system of indirect rule left a system of surrogates who ruled on behalf of the occupying forces. This changed the social structure our people had developed when we were in control of our own destiny. There was a break in the cultural continuity we enjoyed as a people since prehistoric times. Our cultural heritage was stolen and a tradition of suffering, accompanied by a culture of silence imposed by force.
17. Part of how we have defined culture here is that it is a mechanism for a people to meet their needs; solve the problems which confront them as a people. With the introduction of foreign indirect rule, our culture was no longer a mechanism for meeting our needs but for meeting the needs of those who conquered us and their surrogates – the traditional elites.
18. The Romans (Byzantium and Ottoman Turks, known locally as the Turkiya ) imposed a brutal system of taxation on our people paid in Ivory, gold, livestock and slaves. The surrogates that the colonizing powers left in charge to do their bidding introduced new cultural traditions of totem-ism in which families would have to meet a quota of children demanded by the head magician for the totem of the clan. In reality, the children were sold into slavery. This was a deal between the slave trading companies and their junior partners in the trading companies they established in our land. The only societies which escaped this devastation were forced to find refuge in the deep rural – swamps, mountains and jungles – and face isolation from the human family up to this day.
19. The cadres of the peoples movement would later turn this system on its head and use it to recruit a peasant army, which would eventually lead to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) giving our peoples an opportunity – since the Greco-Roman invasions starting in 332 BCE – to determine our own destiny.
20. When the historic SPLM/SPLA sent young people to Cuba for studies, our civil population accused the late Dr. John Garang de Mabior of having sold their children into slavery. Even though we don’t talk about slavery, the slave trade and the traumatic effects it has had on our cultures, it is there in our civil population’s historical memory.
21. We are at a crossroad as a people. Our very survival is at stake. If we are not able to transform our culture so that it can meet our needs as a people, then like other societies who have failed in the past, we shall perish. The old culture of suffering and oppression which was imposed on our peoples served their needs during that time of colonialism and slavery. The very survival of the community depended on accepting the imposition of an alien culture. Our peoples’ resistance and struggle to liberate themselves from this yoke started soon after their pre-colonial armies were vanquished, lasting up to the signing of the CPA, when a new day of liberty and justice dawned for our people.
22. This is not a blanket condemnation of our ancestors and the customary law and cultural practices which they developed and left for us. No! it is a call for us as a people to look at our culture and history critically, so we may learn from the mistakes our ancestors made which led to their defeat.
23. But for the solidity of our cultures, our people would not have survived into this century. It is the solidity of these cultures that has made us endure the ravages of colonialism and slavery.
24. The new society should emerge out of a critical look at the old ways, taking what has worked and leaving what will destroy us; while also taking a critical look at the new industrialized society and taking what works in order for our people to have a renaissance and escape from these dark ages.
25. The old ways of yesterday are not meeting our needs today and the customary practices our ancestors were forced to adopt don’t characterize what a culture is. They are simply traditions evolved by the forefathers of the traditional elites, who were the junior partners in the slave trading companies of the Turkiya.
26. The traditional elite are using the concept of “culture” to intimidate the youth who have grown up in the struggle and may not have a concrete understanding of their history and culture, nor of what culture is.
27. The topic of ‘culture” is a broad one and there is really no one definition of culture. It is impossible to exhaust this topic in this brief discussion. This is just a small contribution to the national conversation that is intended to stimulate the debate, which should ongoing as the struggle continues.
Long live the Peoples’ Struggle!
Cpt. Mabior Garang de Mabior is the National Committee Chairman for Information and Public Relations of the SPLM/A in Opposition. He can be reached for more information through his mobile office.