Africa has got a total of 54 countries, all with diverse ethnic groups, diverse tribes and equally diversified cultures. Indeed, cultural differences abound.
These could be based on regional, religious, hierarchy or social status.
My desire to find out if one’s culture could have a direct impact on how he/she is treated by people from a different culture prompted me to put myself in a situation where I walked in the shoes of someone from that ‘other culture.
In my case, my focus was religious.
I am a Christian. A Pentecostal Protestant specifically. My culture is greatly defined by Christian doctrines and affiliations largely, despite the fact that I am also a Kenyan Kamba ethnically
My upbringing was basically done the Kamba way with a ‘Western’ brush on lifestyle obviously; a consequence of the Neo-colonial access of liberty. My father, being a staunch Catholic, brought us up in the same stringent manner as any Catholic devotee in that era.
So in a nutshell, I grew up knowing and believing that the worst betrayal that mankind would ever do to provoke God’s anger was to embrace a non-Christian religion.
In my growing up, all through my higher education, I consequently learnt that the Muslim faith was based on what a certain Arabic personality, who had heard of the birth and great works of our Lord Jesus Christ, and then out of jealousy decided to upgrade his human nature to that of the great prophets in the Bible and then lower the deity of Jesus to that of the human level…more so, to that of his level.
So what did I do?
My base town has been Mombasa for almost a decade now even though home is within the outskirts of Nairobi. Last week, though I am a Christian, I decided to dress up in a manner that is commonly assumed to be Muslim.
From the gate of my home to my bus stop, I noticed that the number of ‘boda boda’ taxis that requested to ride my son and I were more than the usual.
On stopping, this particular rider very politely requested if he could drop us at our destination.
Extreme respect. I noted.
I also observed that my students, whom are largely Muslims talked to me in a softer, controlled tone. A number of them offered me the ‘Salaam Alaikum’ greeting instead of the otherwise ‘Morning Miss’ curtly–coated murmur I was accustomed to.
In fact, one Abdulkadir in a senior class offered his hand – what is not supposed to be done with non-Muslims from my understanding- for my handshake. He ‘schumed’ (kissed) his hand once I did, as a way of expressing respect, as his culture dictates.
Would this have been done if I were not dressed like one of them? Definitely not.
The fact that this student and others had been questioning verbally or non-verbally whether I had recently converted to a Muslim or whether I was contemplating to do so somehow propelled them to accord me the RESPECT that was in accordance with his faith and religious culture, especially awarded to older people in their faith.
The reality that actually being one of ‘them’ guaranteed me special treatment astonished me beyond measure.
Seated in a ‘matatu’ next to a non-Muslim woman, whom I obviously concluded was a Christian, I struggle to balance my son on my laps. As I tried to squeeze his bag and mine in between our legs, this woman grudgingly looks on before she turns to sit sideways, deliberating showing us her back.
What goes through my mind?
She assumes I would need her to offer a helping hand in one way or another, but because I have this ‘hijab’ scarf around my head, she decides to let me deal with my woes alone.
It’s the body language-the hate- that vibrates from her actions that leaves my mouth agape. As if the side-sitting is not enough and at my request that she excuses my son to go sit at the rear with some young men who I notice have been watching too, she quickly moves to an empty seat in front.
What was she insinuating?
“You can have the whole space for all I care.”
So, this is what my Muslim counterparts read from our very subtle non-verbal expressions!
Yet, another day!
I am clambering to get into another matatu just outside my kids’ school after picking up my last child in the evening, with him following suit.
As I struggle to fit myself into the narrow space on the back seat, a lady dressed in a ‘buibui’; ninja style, picks my laptop bag and allows me to settle in properly, before gently handing it back to me.
My colleagues at work who are mostly Muslims were curious to know why all of a sudden, I had been dressing up in deras with hijab scarves for several days within a week. I noticed that instead of the usual carefree salutations, the bold ones would take extra time. Probably adjusting their manner of approach to this ‘newly converted’ member of staff.
I instead asked if it was ‘haram’ to dress in such not being a Muslim.
One of our support staff promptly replied that it wasn’t really.
Anyway, to furnish him with a direct answer to his question, I told him that I found the code of dressing more decent. At this, his countenance lit up with gladness.
Summarily, the experience is an enlightening one.
Evidently, the cold battle that prevails beneath the surface because people belong to different cultures is very much real and alive.
Let me retreat to the main objective of my small research.
I tried to find out if cultural differences has a direct or indirect impact in the way Africans…whether North or South or West or East treat each other.
What can I say at this point?
To an extent, they do. Maybe a larger extent than we would like to imagine or believe.
Naturally; we are bound to say.
And one that I believe is a constraint to contemporary Pan-African objectives.
A tip of the iceberg has been dealt with.
There are more yet-to-be-identified barriers that we decide to be blind to and that cost our realization of an empowered Africa.
This is my observation and opinion.
Sheila Munguti is a writer and teacher. She hails from Kenya and is passionate about changing the negative misconceptions of the African continent as well as re-telling the African story from her own eyes. She lives in Mombasa.