Africans have a lot to teach the West, if only we can find the confidence to stand by what were once common African values. Prime Minister David Cameron has a lot to learn from informed Africans, if he wants a genuine “Big Society” in Britain.
We should be proud of positive African values that say something about who we are. When I first came to live in London, I was appalled when I heard young people calling adults at the African Centre where I worked by their first names.
More than 10 years on, I am still appalled when I hear African children calling adults old enough to be their parents or grandparents by their first names. I was brought up to call my parents’ peers auntie or uncle, whether or not they were related to us, and whether or not they were African. In school, we called those senior to us sister or brother, as a form of respect.
Instead of correcting children who call adults by their first names, some misguided African parents seem to think this is modern and cute. It is because I could not have children calling me by my first name that I adopted the Ms Serwah persona. I now also use the name Awula Serwah. Sadly, many of us have abandoned positive African values and have not taught them to our children. Nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of positive African values, some of our children have taken on feral ways of behaving. They sit on buses and see elderly people standing and do not offer them their seats. They eat meals on buses and trains and leave their litter behind. Gone, it seems, are the days when they would sit down with their kin as a family and enjoy a meal. Worse still, I hear African parents saying that young people engage in anti-social behaviour because they have nothing to do. The truth is that the minority of young people who engage in anti-social behavior are not interested in what is available. They crave the kind of excitement that most youth centres and youth provision cannot provide. Sadly, some of these young people are caught up in the spirit of consumerism, the desire for instant gratification and the urge to make a fast buck, and this has unfortunate consequences.
Thankfully, many young people are finding a sense of purpose in volunteering and helping others less fortunate than themselves. This takes the focus off them, and helps them to understand a little about the concept of ubuntu. Ubuntu is about our interconnectedness and the responsibility we have to each other. It says that we are, because of others. It is not about individualistic greed, consumerism or materialism, but about concern for, and sharing with, other people. “Ubuntu,” says Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “is about the essence of being human. It is part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being able to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe that a person is a person through another person. That my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. “When I dehumanise you, I inexorably dehumanise myself. The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.”
Explaining the concept, Nelson Mandela says: “In the old days when we were young, a traveller would stop at a village and he did not have to ask for food or water. Once he stopped, the people gave him food.” He says that this is one aspect of ubuntu, but adds that there are various aspects, such as respect, helpfulness, sharing, community, caring and selflessness.
Some of us have a warped view of community, and believe the community consists only of ourselves, our relatives and our friends. We have no concern for members of the community outside our immediate circle. For this reason some of our leaders see nothing wrong with amassing wealth, whilst the community which is not part of their inner circle live in dire circumstances.
The ill-gotten wealth is usually spent propping up Western economies, through the purchase of expensive properties in the West, and importing Western goods.
Few use the ill-gotten wealth to improve the infrastructure of their countries, and to ensure that citizens enjoy a reasonable standard of living.
In Britain, there is talk in some political quarters about a “broken society”, the fragmentation of families and the absence of community. The term has been trumpeted by the Prime Minister David Cameron.
This is because in many communities, greed and not ubuntu reigns. Instead of aping the consumer society, Africans should demonstrate that we have ubuntu, a positive alternative to consumerism and greed. We have a lot to teach the West, if only we can find the confidence to stand by what were once common African values. David Cameron has a lot to learn from informed Africans, if he wants a genuine “Big Society”, another Cameronism. Some fear that “Big Society” is a euphemism for the landed gentry and big business holding on to the resources, while the rest of society works for free as volunteers.
Another important African attribute is that we value the experience of our elders and treat them with respect. We may have more experience of living in a technologically advanced age than our forebears and elders, but we acknowledge that by virtue of the fact they have lived longer than we have, they have some wisdom we might not yet have, and which we can learn from.
We must value that knowledge and show them respect.
It is unfortunate that many Africans in the West have absorbed the obsession with youth, which plays out in two ways. Firstly, the focus on young people is often at the expense of the elderly and vulnerable. Secondly, in order to be youth-friendly, adults often defer to young people and create an air of equality between young people and adults, and parents and children.
There is also the issue of appearance. Some parents, particularly mothers, can be seen dressed in fashions best left to teenagers. It saddens me when adults think they must have plastic surgery to look young. Thankfully, this is not yet common within the African British community. It is, however, an ongoing issue within the media. Instead of being community-focused, we are youth-obsessed. Young people are our future, and they need to be brought up to respect and learn from adults, and build on what responsible adults have experienced and achieved. There is a reason why traditional African societies had rites of passage, and taught young people what it meant to come into adulthood.