“It’s My Culture”

13 Nov

I’ve struggled with how best to word this particular post for over two weeks. Most of the people here are like most of the people anywhere in the world: good. They want to do good things for themselves and live in a good community. I want to be as fair as possible to the folks I’m here to help, including when I’m being critical of them. But ultimately, you, the reader, will be the judge of that. So, know that my intentions here are not to make the good folks here look bad. Being honest about problems is the first step in solving them.

So far, I feel like I may only have been presenting a rather sugar-coated version of South Africa. Other than fetching water in buckets, dealing with many insects of many sizes, and a language not welcoming to my American tongue, this blog has spent little time discussing the problems here (at least, the problems as I perceive them).

With all due respect, this place is far from perfect. (I mean, the Peace Corps wouldn’t be here if it was a flourishing utopia, right?) The problems here exist at all levels – from local to national. Of course they have a very regrettable history to live with, and a recent history at that. And then there are the myriad issues and allegations of corruption in their current government. Economically, it could be described as one step up, two steps back, if not just perpetually stuck. Much of this is nicely outlined in this recent article from The Economist. To get a clearer picture of the society I am immersing myself into, I urge you to read it. Go ahead and read it now; I just read it again myself. And, this site will still be waiting for you when you are through.

What this story in the Economist doesn’t tell you about is the culture(s) of South Africa. To be fair, entire novels would have a hard time encapsulating all of what each of the cultures found here has to offer. The contents of this blog are strictly my firsthand knowledge and experience, and I won’t attempt to say other than what I’ve seen. And, truthfully, though I feel I have seen multiple cultures in action since I’ve arrived here, I’ve barely scratched the surface. In general, this is a tricky subject, because one can only view other cultures through the lenses of the culture(s) they were brought up in.

Culture has been used as an explanation for, apology for, and excuse for behaviors – good and bad – that I’ve witnessed here. (Keep in mind that “good” and “bad” are used here in an all-encompassing, American sense. People steeped in this culture can be entirely neutral on anything and everything that an American would pass judgement on.)

Me: “You didn’t have to bring me an overflowing plate of food from across the yard in the pouring rain, especially considering that I’ve already fed myself this evening.”
South African female: “It’s my culture.”

South African male: “I want to have at least ten children.”
Me: “Do you really think that is a good idea? You’ll have an easier time feeding and housing fewer children. You’ll work less, so you’ll be healthier, and you’ll have more quality time with the fewer children you do have.”
South African male: “It’s my culture.”

I’ve mentioned in previous posts the concept of “African Time” (aka “Abantu Time”). All the Africans I’ve met here embrace it, or – at a minimum – accept it without question or hesitation. We were actually taught in Pre-Service Training the difference between “now” and “now-now,” that 30 minutes could mean as many as 90, and “later” could in fact mean “never.”

As an American, I’m not crazy about this. Imagine working in a school where there are no clocks on the walls of any classroom. There is a bell (sirens actually seem to be more common) to indicate when classes start and end. This is really more like a suggestion.

On the flip side, everyone here has seemingly unlimited patience. People here are used to waiting.

An attempt at an explanation for this cultural chasm during my training was something along the lines of “Africans are more focused on people, but Americans are more focused on work.” Needless to say, this statement brought much contempt for the South African gentleman who uttered it from all of the American Peace Corps Trainees in the room. (We’ve all forgiven him since then; at least, I have.)

Of course, his experiences with American culture have mostly been with the go-getter types that Peace Corps attracts. People that make lists of their lists, who had projects for their village in the works before they knew their site location, and who have post-Peace Corps plans for single-handedly saving the world. (You know, the people who are way more motivated than I am.) So, to a degree, he may be right. Plus, it’s hard to counter that argument with “Hey, pal, I’ll have you know there are plenty of Americans who are never on time for anything, and – dare I say – many who are downright lazy!” Well, at least not seriously, even if it is true.

The other argument is that Americans love people just as much as Africans do; we just happen to be a lot more time conscious, too. That is, these concepts don’t have to be mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact, I think that being on time is one of the best ways to show respect for others. And, time efficiency in your work should leave you with more time to spend doing other things, like hanging out with people. Maybe that is just my American-ness surfacing.

And all of this is just one element of the culture. “African Time” seems to be generally accepted across the different provinces I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. From here, we could dig deeper into each tribe’s specific cultures, but I’ll leave that for you to do at your leisure.

Instead, let’s look at the education problems (because these are the problems that I am constantly thinking about). Of course, there are the many damning details in the article from The Economist’s website. I agree with everything they say regarding the education problems, and I’ve seen much of it firsthand. And, though I’m happy to report the school I work in is far from the worst offender on any count, it has problems that are rooted in a community that is poor and under-educated and lacks resources.

However, education is always viewed in western terms, and maybe it shouldn’t always be that way. The schools here are seemingly trying to conform to the notion of a school from 1950’s Britain – where the children wear uniforms and the teachers walk with a stick to smack the kids that get out of line. (You know, the type of place Roger Waters sings about in The Wall.) But these people are far from British. This idea of school is a very square peg trying to be fit into a culture that is a very round hole.

But what really happens? The aspects that do match to their culture get amplified (like the hierarchy of teachers, principals and other staff) and the those that don’t match get overlooked, if not completely left behind (like punctuality).

Am I saying that I would add culture to the list of problems with the education system here? Not exactly. I’m sure there is a way to adapt the schools to better accommodate the culture. But this also needs to be a two way street. If South Africa truly wants an education system that competes with western schools, they need to be simultaneously looking at how they can adapt their culture to make this happen.

How can Peace Corps help this situation? How can I help this situation? Changes always happen slowly. So, I think our short-term successes in our individual schools need to serve as an example for what they can do to improve in the long-term. There’s no doubt that just by being here, Peace Corps changes the course of how these schools operate. Let’s hope the culture accepts and adopts any and all changes for the positive.


Posted by on 13 November 2012 in Cultural Experiences, Teaching


6 responses to ““It’s My Culture”

  1. erikhendel

    13 November 2012 at 11:01 PM

  2. Patrick W. Brundage

    14 November 2012 at 1:46 AM

    Some more reading on culture vis a vis economic success on a country level — — and on a personal level —

    As far as how the schools in southern Africa are set up to meet the actual needs of their students and to provide them with the skills they could employ in their local communities, particularly in the rural community that I lived in 20+ years ago, I’d say they weren’t. Your description of a 1950s British model was what I saw in Swaziland; with the exception of the 1 or 2 students a year (on a good year) who were able to go onto post-secondary education, I think much of what I taught (e.g., maths, science, European history) did not prepare the students to have a more fulfilling life economically. However, I actually do think the cultural interchange that the Peace Corps, Canadian and Australian teachers had with the Swazi, Ghanaian and Malawian teachers at our school was valuable for both cultures on a lot of levels and in a bi-directional fashion. As much as we Americans see things in the African cultures that we want to “fix,” they see (& rightly so) things in our culture we should “fix.”


  3. Aunt Peach

    14 November 2012 at 2:38 AM

    I agree with the statement that Americans focus on “work”. Our work tends to run our lives. when we meet new folks, we want to know about their work and family (and their work). we make assumptions on the few facts gained. cushy job or a real worker. It takes longer to get to know a person we come in contact with (usually at work) because we focus on how they work. You got me thinking.


  4. Kelsey

    14 November 2012 at 7:47 AM

    The regard that South Africans have for the concept of culture is really incredible. Sometimes, as you say, it disappoints me. When people hide behind culture as a way to avoid examining themselves. But I do like that (in my opinion) SA has such a greater respect than the USA does for different cultures. Also maybe i’ve integrated too much because I love to say “it’s my culture”.

    Once a taxi driver wouldn’t stop harassing me for my number. I kept saying no, he kept asking why. Finally, full of frustration, I blurted the nonsensical phrase: “because in my culture we don’t do that!!”

    He said, “oh, okay.” and stopped asking. Ha!


  5. Michael Anderson

    14 November 2012 at 4:02 PM

    While I can’t say that I ever felt contempt for said African gentleman, I still bristle from that remark.

    I find that there seem to be two main cultures here at my site – the village culture and the school culture, and I do have an unfortunate tendency to let school apathy bleed into how I feel about my generally generous and warm-hearted community.

    Enjoyed the post – I think it’s spot on.


  6. Ben

    19 November 2012 at 10:30 AM

    Great post my friend. You hit the bulls eye, culture is very powerful. I think what you and the Economist write about is a plague that impacts many nations; one that is excused and accepted because people feel culture makes certain things acceptable. Culture should be a motivator to advance, to better one’s self; yet we see the opposite. Too many times, it is used as an excuse. Your examples showcase that very clearly. Very insightful Erik.



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