Culture and our future: where are we going from here?

By Godofai Tgiorgis
Feb. 16 2010

The world has become almost one. Given the communication and technology we have in place, closing one’s doors to prevent entry of external influences has become a thing of the past. One cannot stop the give and take process no matter how hard one tries because advances in communications have rendered those barriers useless. Sorting out the good from the bad becomes a must but difficult, if not arbitrary, because at times it has to do with a preference than a fact. However since the situation dictates favoring one or the other, weighing the nature and character of the stranger cultures and the advantage they give becomes paramount. And based on that regulating them, as the situation demands, becomes necessary. But this is not what one sees in Ethiopia all long. Monitoring cultural influences, by the government, is none existent if not it is at the bottom of the list.

No one in his right mind will deny that some of the changes we see in the cultural sphere are good. I can mention few of them as an example. Banning marriage of underage women is one. Stopping mistreatment of minority culture and tradition and institutionalizing the equality of women is another. And commending the government, no matter whether one is in disagreement, for implementing those changes is thus fair. But there is more to the culture more than what I conceded is good however. It concerns (and this is my concern for now) changes we consider simple and legitimate but have, on the long run, a disastrous impact and effect. And these are changes we witness in marriage, relations that demand respect and trust as a result of foreign cultural influence. I believe these traditional values have disappeared or are on the verge of disappearance as a result of the “progressive culture” the government is implementing or are let loose because it is not controlling.

Let me start with marriage. Marriage, no doubt, is a bond based on two mutually consenting parties. It is a task the couples accomplish at will on behalf of the other and for the other based on the understanding of the wish and interest of the other. The “we” comes first and the “I” second because the “I” is now replaced by the “we” because the “we” is now the two “I’s” together. It is therefore a voluntary submission of one’s freedom in exchange for the common good which through its own mechanism guarantees the same freedom of each and for each individual.

Marriage in Ethiopia however is not reinforced in the same sense these days. It has instead become licensing as opposed to sanctioning. It has become the guarantor of divorce than wedlock in the name of individual rights. It advocates no counseling or contingencies. Everything is about individual right and everyone is under its mercy. The value of marriage as a social value and the role it plays as institution is therefore short exchanged for convenience and temporary relief. There are some trials here and there to translate marriage to its true meanings but compared to the practice we had before the current effort is nowhere close. The essence has burned like incense to the air.

In the past women in few instances were pressured, against their will, to stick to their marriages but that is not the practice I am yearning for. I am for individual right because marriage without right is not right. A marriage without right is about mastery not about harmony. It is about servitude not about free will and free union. It is about dominance not about life sharing and caring. All these have therefore nothing to do with what I am saying. When I say divorce should be made difficult, however contradictory it seems, what I mean is making the process, without violating right, more difficult. Preventing marriage from becoming none binding contract is what I am all about.

And there are many ways to make marriage work within the bounds of such constraints. One of them is to make it pass through levels of mediations to buy time so that the parties have chance to have second thoughts. We have to promote divorce per right (that allows restriction) as opposed to divorce per choice (that licenses discretion) because the first one allows divorce after exhausting all means. The second is educating the public the minuses and pluses of marriage though media or schools. To this you can add incentives. If actions such as these are taken then the rate of divorce is sure to plummet down because the marriage will discourage separation. Marriage is foundation. It has therefore to stay put as social institution. And to do that we must define marriage in new terms but in the context of the old tradition.

The blame I point at EPRDF is therefore not for not respecting rights but not implementing mechanisms to increase wedlock and lower divorces within the parameters of those rights, not to laws but using those laws as promoters of choices. Not for preventing abuses but licensing occupations that have become fertilizers for disregarding responsibilities and pulling marriage into polarities. People in Ethiopia may have lacked some rights no doubt but entertaining adults in strip clubs is not one of them. I am not against respecting cultural right whatever that right means. Don’t take me wrong. All I am saying is that allowing adult entertainment occupations such as strip clubs are not investments that Ethiopia wants.

If some of the Western cultures we let loose in Ethiopia have damaging effects the reason why they continue to operate may have to do with our misconceptions. The cultures are mainly of Western import and we know the Western world is definitely far ahead from Ethiopia civilization wise. But it does not stop there. We take this disparity to mean we are also behind culture wise. Hence to catch up with what we missed we absorb whatever comes from there, whether this is fashion or culture, without discrimination. Japan and China are civilized too but no one seems interested to copy. Although it is the culture of respect in many ways no one pays attention to it. Probably because we had that in Ethiopia for a long time and people don’t want to go back to it. And as a result here we are swarmed with both identity and cultural crisis.

Equally plausible is that the officials don’t care about their cultures. Let us contrast them with other countries’ leaders, the Sudanese and Indians, for example, who are always authentic and in line with their tradition whether in their private or public engagements. Lo and behold these officials are also doctors and professional like our leaders. Our officials never appear in their traditional outfits. The problem is not that they don’t have traditions but they don’t have the interest. Yes it is their right but let us not forget these leaders are, by virtue of their position, our values, our tradition, the country and its ambassadors. As rulers, they are symbols of everything that the country is. Obligation aside and excuses regardless, one thing is sure: careless or out of lack of interest, they are letting the country slip into moral decay and cultural decline.

Next to marriage is lack of respect I see affecting our culture negatively. By respect I mean the treating of others with reverence by their age, role or occupation, values and contribution. This too is abandoned in the name of right because addressing the other with reverence is understood as reactionary because it is associated with the past culture that is too feudalist. Hence we are flooded with “ante” s in place of “antu” s. But worst is that we have created vacuum in our daily social affairs by alienating these elders from playing active roles. We have dedicated ourselves instead to courts and it is taking months and thousands to obtain verdicts (that sometimes are influenced by bribes) on issues that could have been settled by their mediations. And this is because we deny them any opportunity to participate in their community because we think of them as diehard guards of the bygones.

The real problem however has to do with the place or the role both parents and teachers have to play and occupy. Let us take parents as an example first. Parents seem to have no full control over their children. They cannot discipline them at their will like the old days. If they try they are dragged to courts to face the consequences. They are the ones who take the pains to ensure the well being of their child but when it comes to disciplining their children it is the government that run their affairs, a typical model taken from Westerners. Most parenting no matter how strict is not bad for the kids but the government is rather happy to sanction those efforts in favor of grooming a renegade child in the name of rights.

See our schools for a moment and it is not difficult to observe who has the upper hands. Not the YENETAS (Ethiopia’s religious educators) and definitely not the teachers. It is the students, their age regardless. The outcome? Children hooked to drugs and other bad practices littering the streets. The streets are now clean because of the asphalts but I believe they were cleaner when the children were off the aisles when we had stricter norms. What is wrong with a teacher disciplining (with the right attitude and legitimate reasons) his students? Following student’s performance and administering punishments for faults? The government I hope will have answer to this.

Should the government play a parent? I am sure this is the question the supporters will ask following my arguments. If the government has the audacity to rip off the parents from their right then it has the obligation to fill in the hole it digs. Abuse is bad and must stop but leaving the youth unattended is much worse because it exposes them to drugs and violence. Teachers’ punishment hurts but it hurts more when the children, without education and guide, roam the streets. Arm twisting parents and scolding elders are not good but worse is to see children ending in foster care or suing their parents in courts and the courts aggravating conflicts. The answer whether the government needs to fill in as a parent is therefore affirmative. But is it fulfilling its duty? The answer is no. Why not learn from past mistakes and stop uncalled for interference then? “Amel (habit)” they say, “said camel”.

Next to the two and the last problem is the widespread mistrust we have among each other as citizens. Trust, a distinguishing feature of Ethiopians, has become a thing of the past among friends, families and of course the whole population. Confiding in one another is becoming rare because it ends up in the hands of government officials. This is common not only in politics but also normal day to day affairs. I am not saying the government should not spy. Who didn’t.? All I am saying is it has to stop making it a collective culture because a society full of contradiction is not a guarantee of long rule. In fact the contrary may be true. A harmonious as opposed to conflict ridden society is less a threat to self imposed rule.

Welcoming new and trendy cultures that suit the government’s ideology is good but if the new are known to have damaging effects on the people in the meantime, then the government should apply on the brakes. Forcing cultures on people that do not serve long term interests is not even in the best interest of the government because eventually the government is the one that pays the price. And in this case that is what is exactly happening: spending resources to deal with problems, such as drugs, AIDS, etc, that are byproducts of those influences. Spending millions not only to throw criminals to jail but also to guard them too is part of that. And these people who the government is spending millions for are, by and large, none other than those who are drop outs from schools and a fallen from the grace of strip clubs that have mushroomed all over like flowers.

The government cannot and need not play cat and mouse with every influence that comes from outside. It is impossible... The government does not have to use force to weed out bad influences. Force may have certain effects but cannot guarantee compliances. Instead what it can do is put certain guidelines. And still it can do far better if it focuses on educating its citizens. It can easily make the people understand what they have and protect what they have, no matter how some undermine it as old and backward, because it is precious. Not only that it can let them know that in this old tradition of ours, which is precious, lies our future, our new direction because in the old (as opposed to the new that values money and pleasure more than humans) we, humans, are values and in it we, as humans, have values.