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African Culture and Values; Cultural Change and the Problem of Adjustment

African Culture and Values; Cultural Change and the Problem of Adjustment 

-Gabriel E. Idang

The culture of a people is what marks them out distinctively from other human societies in the family of humanity. The full study of culture in all its vastness and dimensions belongs to the discipline known as anthropology, which studies human beings and takes time to examine their characteristics and their relationship to their environments. Culture, as it is usually understood, entails a totality of traits and characters that are peculiar to a people to the extent that it marks them out from other peoples or societies. These peculiar traits go on to include the people’s language, dressing, music, work, arts, religion, dancing and so on. It also goes on to include a people’s social norms, taboos and values. Values here are to be understood as beliefs that are held about what is right and wrong and what is important in life. A fuller study of values rightly belongs to the discipline of philosophy. Axiology as a branch of philosophy deals with values embracing both ethics and aesthetics. This is why philosophical appraisal of African culture and values is not only apt and timely, but also appropriate. Moreover, the centrality of the place of values in African culture as a heritage that is passed down from one generation to another, will be highlighted. We shall try to illustrate that African culture and values can be appraised from many dimensions in addition to examining the method of change and the problem of adjustment in culture. Here we hope to show that while positive dimensions of our culture ought to be practised and passed on to succeeding generations, negative dimensions of our culture have to be dropped in order to promote a more progressive and dynamic society.


Culture embraces a wide range of human phenomena, material achievements and norms, beliefs, feelings, manners, morals and so on. It is the patterned way of life shared by a particular group of people that claim to share a single origin or descent. In an attempt to capture the exhaustive nature of culture, Bello (1991: 189) sees it as “the totality of the way of life evolved by a people in their attempts to meet the challenge of living in their environment, which gives order and meaning to their social, political, economic, aesthetic and religious norms thus distinguishing a people from their neighbours”.

Culture is passed on from generation to generation. The acquisition of culture is a result of the socialisation process. Explaining how culture is passed on as a generational heritage, Fafunwa (1974: 48) writes that:The child just grows into and within the cultural heritage of his people. He imbibes it. Culture, in traditional society, is not taught; it is caught. The child observes, imbibes and mimics the action of his elders and siblings. He watches the naming ceremonies, religious services, marriage rituals, funeral obsequies. He witnesses the coronation of a king or chief, the annual yam festival, the annual dance and acrobatic displays of guilds and age groups or his relations in the activities. The child in a traditional society cannot escape his cultural and physical environments.

This shows that every human being who grows up in a particular society is likely to become infused with the culture of that society, whether knowingly or unknowingly during the process of social interaction. We do not need to have all the definitions of culture and its defining characteristics for us to understand the concept and meaning of culture. Even though there are as many definitions of culture as there are writers, there is an element of similarity that runs through them all. This singular underlying characteristic is the attempt to portray and capture culture as the entire or total way of life of a particular group of people. Etuk (2002: 13) is of the opinion that “an entire way of life would embody, among other things, what the people think of themselves and the universe in which they live – their world view – in other words, how they organise their lives in order to ensure their survival”. It can be safely stated that there can be no culture without a society. It can also be said that culture is uniquely human and shared with other people in a society. Culture is selective in what it absorbs or accepts from other people who do not belong to a particular cultural group.

Culture is to be understood as the way of life of a people. This presupposes the fact that there can be no people without a culture. To claim that there is no society without a culture would, by implication, mean that such a society has continued to survive without any form of social organisation or institutions, norms, beliefs and taboos, and so on; and this kind of assertion is quite untrue. That is why even some Western scholars who may be tempted to use their cultural categories in judging other distinctively different people as “primitive”, often deny that such people have history, religion and even philosophy; but cannot say that they have no culture.

It is true that based on the consideration of culture as that which marks a people out from others, groups one can rightly say that there are many cultures in Africa. Africa is inhabited by various ethnic nationalities with their different languages, modes of dressing, eating, dancing and even greeting habits. But in spite of their various cultures, Africans do share some dominant traits in their belief systems and have similar values that mark them out from other peoples of the world. A Nigerian culture, for instance, would be closer to, say, a Ghanaian culture on certain cultural parameters than it would be to the Oriental culture of the Eastern world, or the Western culture of Europe. It is true that culture is universal and that each local or regional manifestation of it is unique. This element of uniqueness in every culture is often described as cultural variation. The cultures of traditional African societies, together with their value systems and beliefs are close, even though they vary slightly from one another. These slight variations only exist when we compare an African culture with others. Certainly African cultures differ vastly from the cultures of other regions or continents. And we believe there is no need to over-labour this point since there are sufficient similarities to justify our usage of the term “African culture”. Here we would be sure to find a world of differences and diversity in beliefs, values and culture generally. Using Nigerian culture for instance, Antia (2005: 17) writes that “Nigerians always behave differently from the French, or Chinese, or Americans or Hottentots, because Nigerian beliefs, values and total thinking are different from those of the French, Chinese, Americans or the Hottentots”.


The value of a thing, be it an object or a belief, is normally defined as its worth. Just as an object is seen to be of a high value that is treasured, our beliefs about what is right or wrong that are worth being held are equally treasured. A value can be seen as some point of view or conviction which we can live with, live by and can even die for. This is why it seems that values actually permeate every aspect of human life. For instance, we can rightly speak of religious, political, social, aesthetic, moral, cultural and even personal values. We have observed elsewhere that there are many types and classifications of values. As people differ in their conception of reality, then the values of one individual may be different from those of another. Life seems to force people to make choices, or to rate things as better or worse as well as formulate some scale or standard of values. Depending on the way we perceive things we can praise and blame, declare actions right or wrong or even declare the scene or objects before us as either beautiful or ugly. Each person, as we could see, has some sense of values and there is no society without some value system.

Whether we are aware of it or not, the society we live in has ways of daily forcing its values on us about what is good, right and acceptable. We go on in our daily lives trying to conform to acceptable ways of behaviour and conduct. Persons who do not conform to their immediate society’s values are somehow called to order by the members of that society. If a man, for instance, did not think it wise to make honesty a personal value, and it is widely held by his immediate society that truth telling is a non-negotiable virtue, it would not be long before such an individual gets into trouble with other members of his society. This shows that values occupy a central place in a people’s culture. It forms the major bulwark that sustains a people’s culture, making it more down-to-earth and real. Elsewhere, we have seen African culture as “all the material and spiritual values of the African people in the course of history and characterising the historical stage attained by Africa in her developments”. This simply means that there is a peculiar way of life, approach to issues, values and world views that are typically African.

Based on cultural considerations, some forms of behaviour, actions and conduct are approved while others are widely disapproved of. To show the extent of disapproval that followed the violation of values that should otherwise be held sacred, the penalty was sometimes very shameful, sometimes extreme. African culture, with particular reference to the Ibibio people in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, for instance, has zero tolerance for theft. The thief once caught in the act or convicted, would be stripped naked, his or her body rubbed with charcoal from head to toe and the object he or she stole would be given to him or her to carry around the village in broad day light. The sense of personal shame and the disgrace the thief has brought on himself or herself, family, relations and friends would be enough to discourage even the most daring thief. Antia (2005: 17) writes that “what a people hold to be true, right or proper with regard to those things explains much of the cultural traits by which they become identified”. What Antia calls “traits” here can as well be called values; and Etuk (2002: 22) writes that “no group of people can survive without a set of values which holds them together and guarantees their continued existence”.

The concern with values, whether moral or aesthetic, occupies a very wide area in the discipline of philosophy. To show the fundamental importance of values, it is regarded as a core area in philosophy, together with knowledge and reality. When we are dealing with actions that a people see as good or bad, right or wrong, praiseworthy or blame-worthy, we are dealing with the aspect of value theory that rightly falls under ethics or moral philosophy. But when we are dealing with an appraisal of beauty in the arts and crafts of a people, we are dealing with the aspect of value theory called aesthetics. It does appear that while material culture can be studied and evaluated under the aesthetic aspect of value theory, non-material culture can equally be studied and evaluated under the ethical aspect of value theory. Just as ethics and aesthetics are twin sisters that form or constitute value theory, the non-material and material dimensions of a culture together constitute two related aspects that give a people their unique identity, hence the relationship that exists between ethics and aesthetics. Having seen the centrality of values to African culture and any culture for that matter, it can be stated that the values of culture are what give it uniqueness and identity. Let us now look at African culture and values.


Having looked at the concept and meaning of culture and having established the place of values in a culture, we want to bring this down to the African context. A culture is an embodiment of different values with all of them closely related to each other. That is why one can meaningfully talk about social, moral, religious, political, aesthetic and even economic values of a culture. Let us now look at these values piece-meal, as this would give us an understanding how they manifest in an African culture and the importance being attached to them.


Social values can simply be seen as those beliefs and practices that are practised by any particular society. The society has a way of dictating the beliefs and practices that are performed either routinely by its members or performed whenever the occasion demands. Hence, we have festivals, games, sports and dances that are peculiar to different societies. These activities are carried out by the society because they are seen to be necessary. Some social values, especially in African society, cannot exactly be separated from religious, moral, political values and so on. This is why we can see that in a traditional African society like in Ibibio land (Nigeria), festivals which were celebrated often had religious undertones – they ended with sacrifices that were offered to certain deities on special days in order to attract their goodwill on the members of the society. Social values are backed by customary laws. They comprise of those traditional carnivals that a people see as necessary for their meaningful survival. Let us illustrate with an example: the new yam festival as practised in Ibibio land has a way of encouraging hard work and checking famine. It was a thing of shame for any man to buy yams for his family within the first two to three weeks after the festival. Doing so would expose a man as being too lazy. These festivals really discipline the society because nobody is to do anything when it is not time. For instance, new yam could not be eaten until the new yam festival has been celebrated.


African culture is embedded in strong moral considerations. It has a system of various beliefs and customs which every individual ought to keep in order to live long and to avoid bringing curses on them and others. Adultery, stealing and other forms of immoral behaviour are strongly discouraged and whenever a suspected offender denies a charge brought against him, he would be taken to a soothsayer or made to take an oath for proof of innocence. In Ibibio land for instance, ukang (ordeal) is very popular as a method of crime detection. The soothsayer who specialises in it sets a pot of boiling oil, drops a stone into it and asks the suspects to attempt to retrieve the stone. The guiltless can reach to the bottom of the pot and retrieve the stone without the hair on his arms getting burnt. But when the culprit approaches the pot, it rages and boils over in a manner that even the most daring criminal would hesitate to make an attempt at retrieving the stone. The fear of being made to go through such ordeal or to be stripped naked and taken round the community as in the case of stealing, adequately checks crimes of some sort. African proverbs and wise sayings have a rich repository of wisdom. The proverbs warn the African against evil conduct and, according to Mbiti (1977: 8), are “therefore a major source of African wisdom and a valuable part of African heritage”. African culture has a moral code that forbids doing harm to a relative, a kinsman, an in-law, a foreigner and a stranger, except when such a person is involved in an immoral act; and if that is the case, it is advisable to stay away from such an individual and even at death, their corpses would not be dignified with a noble burial in a coffin and grave. Mothers of twins were not welcome and were regarded as the harbinger of evil, hence unacceptable.


Religion in African societies seems to be the fulcrum around which every activity revolves. Hence religious values are not toyed with. African traditional religion, wherever it is practised, has some defining characteristics. For instance, it possesses the concept of a Supreme Being which is invisible and indigenous. It holds a belief in the existence of the human soul and the soul does not die with the body. African traditional religion also has the belief that good and bad spirits do exist and that these spirits are what make communication with the Supreme Being possible. Above all, it holds a moral sense of justice and truth and the knowledge of the existence of good and evil (Umoh 2005: 68). African religious values seem to permeate every facet of the life of the African and the African believes that anything can be imbued with spiritual significance. The worship of different deities on different days goes on to show that the African people hold their religious values in high esteem. Sorcerers and diviners are seen to be mediating between God and man and interpreting God’s wishes to the mortal. The diviners, sorcerers and soothsayers help to streamline human behaviour in the society and people are afraid to commit offences because of the fear of being exposed by the diviners and sorcerers.


The African society definitely has political institutions with heads of such institutions as respected individuals. The most significant thing about the traditional society is that the political hierarchy begins with the family. Each family has a family head; each village has a village head. From these, we have clan head and above the clan head, is the paramount ruler. This kind of political arrangement is observable in the Southern part of Nigeria. Prior to the coming of Western colonisation and its subsequent subversion of the African traditional political arrangements, African societies had their council of chiefs, advisers, cult groups, and so on. It was believed that disloyalty to a leader was disloyalty to God and the position of leadership was either hereditary or by conquest. In Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria, for instance, even though the traditional political institution was overwhelmingly totalitarian, there were still some checks and balances. Any ruler who attempted to usurp powers was beheaded by the Ekpo cult. Antia (2005: 145) writes that “such checks and balances were enforced by the existence of secret societies, cults, societal norms, traditional symbols and objects, various classes of chiefs who performed different functions on the different aspects of life”. Hence, with respect to political values, we can see that it is inextricably linked with religious, social, moral values and so on. It is the political value that a people hold which makes them accord respect to their political institutions and leaders.


It is pertinent to examine some of the changes in culture and the problems of adjustment. Within this context, “change” means a significant alteration or marked departure from that which existed before. Invention, discovery and diffusion are some of the ways by which a culture can change or grow. Invention, for instance, involves the recombination of existing cultural elements to fashion new things. Ogbum, on this view, maintains that “the rate of invention within a society is a function of the size of the existing culture base”. The culture base or the cultural elements, objects, traits and knowledge available in all sections of the pre-1600 African society were limited in types and variation. Thus, few inventions which could profoundly alter the culture could take place. Most appliances and utensils used then were made of wood, as metal was not a commonly known cultural element of the people. For example, a canoe was the only available means of transportation then. It was wooden in all aspects until recently modified with motorised propeller and tarpaulin.

Also, building materials were wooden frameworks, sand and leaves knitted into mats for roofing. In spite of the introduction of new inventions from other cultures, most houses are still built in the traditional methods using traditional materials, probably for economic reasons and sheer conservatism. Again, the pre-European-contact African pattern of exchange was mainly by barter. The need for currency did not arise and so none was invented. Trade by barter, sale without standardised weights and measures and the general non-contractual pattern of exchange, all went a long way to foster, enhance and sustain social solidarity. The introduction of currency along with imported material artefacts generated or at least accentuated acquisitive propensities and profit orientation among the people, thereby gradually articulating social inequality based on purely economic criteria. Inventions may be material or social in nature.

Apart from invention, culture can change and grow through discovery and diffusion. Discovery, unlike invention, does not involve recombination of traits but the sharing of knowledge of an existing but yet unknown thing. The importance of discovery in culture lies in its use and or when it generates certain challenges to the people, which in turn metamorphose into invention for the development and survival of the society. Another process which can bring profound change in the culture of African people is the process of cultural diffusion (the spread of culture traits from one society into another through cultural contact). Diffusion entails intentional borrowing of cultural traits from other societies with which the beneficiary society comes in contact, or an imposition of cultural traits on one society by a stronger society intending to assimilate the weaker society.

The likelihood of reducing the period of culture lag is very much dependent on the desirability of yielding to change in the non-marital culture, the compatibility of the anticipated change with the existing culture or its flexibility, and the nature and magnitude of force available to exact or induce compliance. However, the desirability of yielding to change in the non-material culture depends on whether the people perceive the new mode of conduct to be better than what they were used to.

In most instances the attractiveness of yielding to change is often mediated and conditioned by the compatibility of the expected change with existing culture. A change which calls for the replacement or total abandonment of pre-established and originally preferred modes of behaviour is less likely to be accepted than one that is preservative- that is one which either provides other alternatives and or extends the culture by merely adding new things to it.

Now, it should be known that force has its own limits in bringing about change as it is impossible to spell out every bit of a people’s ways of life and formulate legislations to cover them. This is actually where the problem of adjustment to externally induced change has arisen. Most contemporary Africans find it difficult to adjust between their primitive beliefs in certain aspects of their culture and the supposedly modern mode of accepted behaviour. For instance, how does the African explain disasters, deaths, accidents and other misfortunes in the family? A new convert of the Christian church would run to the church for explanation and comfort, but if the church’s reaction is not immediate or prompt, the person may turn, in secret, to the native medicine man for immediate remedies. If the relief comes, he finds himself having to hold dual allegiance – one to his new found faith, and the other to his primitive beliefs. This form of dichotomy goes beyond misfortunes and permeates most aspects of the person’s life.


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