Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Culture and Friendship

As an anthropologist, how you define culture is part of how you situate yourself theoretically, and I don't intend to discuss the many different definitions and ways of looking at culture that there are in the world, but I want to reflect a bit on culture and how people view it. When I first came to South Africa, I commented to some of the Peace Corps higher ups when they were asking me about differences between here and Chad that people are a lot more proud of their culture here. They were surprised, and I've heard repeatedly both from South Africans and foreigners living here that South Africans no longer embrace their culture, that ubuntu is dead, etc, etc. Yet, I have not changed my opinion on that matter. Never in Chad did I see anyone perform a "traditional dance" or wear "traditional dress" (though the way people danced was certainly different than how people dance in South Africa or anywhere else I've been and South African's would describe the way Chadians dress as traditional, but having seen photos of how people dressed in Chad 100 years ago, it's certainly not.) This country works very hard to promote the idea that every person has a culture and as part of that there are traditions including dance, music, dress, and food. The textbooks promote it. The existence of 11 official languages promotes it. TV shows promote it. Heritage Day promotes it. School competitions in traditional dance promote it.

Never in Chad did I hear anyone say they were proud to be Ngambaye or anyone tell anyone they should be. Speaking Ngambaye at school is forbidden, and other volunteers were shocked to hear that the teachers would speak Ngambaye sometimes to each other at my school between classes because that was not the norm. But when it came to way of life, the life people lived was certainly much more "traditional" than the life of the vast, vast majority of South Africans. Personally, I do not think you can say that one group of people have more of a culture than another group of people because culture isn't just traditions or living a certain way. It is all of that and more. What I would say is that for South Africans, especially those living in rural places as those in urban areas often deal with competing cultural identities, recognizing themselves as cultural beings is much more a part of their culture, and whether this recognition only comes from the imposition of others that it should be valued or is something comes from within, I cannot say.

I've been thinking a lot lately about friendship as we are nearing the end of our Peace Corps service. Though I feel that I have been successful here in becoming a part of my community, I do not feel like I have made any friends that I feel anywhere as close to as I felt to my host mother/sister (she is a year younger than me so hard to call her a mother) Isabelle in Chad. I think that part of our ability to become as close as we did came from not sharing a knowledge base of pop culture and the world. I can have conversations with friends here about just about anything because they watch the news, have seen lots of movies, have seen the latest Lady Gaga video, but it often feels like small talk because that's what it is. I think I was able to get to a deeper level with her more easily because we couldn't have those kinds of conversations. I don't remember 90% of what we used to talk about but we hung out for hours at a time every day. Of course, we were also able to do that because we had the time. People like to say that life in the village is boring but I don't know anyone who has time to just spend their whole afternoon just sitting around, talking and playing Uno every single day.

I guess what I'm saying is that sometimes the gulf of difference between two people can actually be a blessing and that you cannot assume that just because you share knowledge or interests with another person that will allow you to relate to them. Culture and identity are much more complex than interests or even traditions as these things have different meanings to different people and it may be harder to get to the meaning behind things that are more familiar to you than things that are foreign.

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