BusinessDay

The incredible invisible book of “African Values”

A couple of years ago, I carried out a little social experiment on my Twitter handle. In the immediate aftermath of the “Wole Soyinka aeroplane incident” of 2019, something that got thrown around a lot was that the temerity of an unnamed young man to ask for the seat that he paid for and was assigned, was a sign that “our society” has lost something.

What precisely that something was, nobody could say, but the closest thing to an explanation was the postulation that “African values” should ordinarily have prevented someone from committing the heinous crime of demanding his own seat he had paid for.

There is not, and has never been any such thing. We have no “African values.” What we do have is a blank slate to write a useful, fit-for-purpose set of values to characterise and animate our evolution into the 21st Century

I was intrigued by this idea that Nigeria has this thing called “African values,” which, going by the level of outrage flying around at the time, was apparently the only thing keeping us from eating our newborn babies and walking on our heads. This term is one of those things that many of us grew up hearing, but never really thought to delve into. So to me, for example, “African values” was a term that had something to do with greeting older people, washing plates, listening to King Sunny Ade and Jollof Rice.

As a self-respecting amateur social scientist, I decided that I had to do more than just wonder at the reached for my smartphone and went for a solution using the website that condenses the collective knowledge of humanity into 280-character text boxes. It was time to ask the gods of Twitter.

Crowdsourcing cultural insights

I put up a tweet asking people to describe in their own words, what the term “African Values” brings to mind, and how those results differ from say, Scandinavian or Chinese values. Over the next few days, the responses trickled in as the tweet made its laboured way across the low-intensity viral section of Twitter.

It might have gone around quicker if I had photoshopped the words “African values” into a photo of a busty young lady and captioned the tweet “Would you slap me for $1,000,000?” but “them’s there” are the Dark Arts of social media.

The responses themselves seemed to use plenty of words without actually communicating any unique thoughts. One said “beating your children,” “respect for elders” and “remember which family you come from.”

Some others described it as “performative religiosity, investment in children as a retirement plan and “some value on education.” Another described it as old people feeding young people with the bones of their leftovers, but making them say “Thank you” first.

A lot of the responses contained fluff like “respect,” “hard work,” “honesty” and other clichés that could have come from literally any culture on earth. How on earth is any of this stuff uniquely “African,” I wondered to myself.

Then someone I know hit very close to home with a comparison of his native Efik/Ibibio/Anang culture where women have an even higher societal status than men in some cases, and how other ethnic groups in Nigeria see this. His conclusion? Nigeria and Africa have too many diverse cultures for there to be any one overall set of civilisational “values” guiding the entire continent.

A lady tied a nice bow on the thread by noting that amid the many dozens of answers, no one actually managed to answer the basic question I asked: What is this elusive social code and why it is desirable as compared to another social code from elsewhere?

According to her, this shows that Nigerians actually have no real animating set of values but like to hide behind an unsupported assumption of virtue that disproportionately targets women and offers no solutions to real problems.

My ground-breaking discovery

At the conclusion of my little social experiment, my conclusion was that no such thing as “African Values” actually exists in any real sense of the term. While many seemed to believe fervently that there was a well-defined and codified set of cultural instructions that somehow comes inbuilt with “Africans,” these ideas on closer inspection turned out to be the proverbial Tower of Babel. The set of culture-specific values guiding an Efik family from Calabar have very little in common with those guiding a Chadian Touareg family in N’djamena.

In reality, as with so many other things in Nigeria, we like to feed ourselves fat on a misconception that we have something we do not. Sometimes, it is the misconception that Nigeria is a “rich” country with a resource distribution problem, when it is actually one of the poorest countries per capita on earth.

Other times, it is the misconception that we have some sort of inborn Nigerian supremacy, typified by the false but popular idea that Nigerian Americans are the most successful immigrant ethnicity in the USA (that honour actually goes to Indian Americans — Nigerian Americans barely make it into the top 10).

The idea that there is such a thing as a defined, infallible set of “African values” is a chimera fed to us by our parents in a well-intentioned attempt to keep us on the straight and narrow. Indeed, the very term “African values” is a dead giveaway, because we are never brought up to think of ourselves primarily as something called “African.”

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Africa is still a very big, unexplored and foreign continent to most of us even though we were born and raised on it. It feels inauthentic to say “Nigerian values” because “Nigeria” is a very recent and artificial identity, and they can hardly say “Shona values” or “Yoruba values” without sounding suspiciously ethnocentrist, so “African values.”

Instead of a cohesive, fully formed set of civilisational ideals that communicate the African worldview, what we have is something called a Streisand Effect. For the uninitiated, this refers to a phenomenon when a group of people all agree that they remember something happening a certain way, but it never happened the way they remember it.

Remember your parents lecturing you about how they were fantastic children and credits to their parents? Streisand Effect. They’re remembering things that never happened. Remember when everyone agreed in 2015 that Buhari Mark 1 from the 1980’s was a competent, incorruptible leader whom we needed in the 21st Century? Streisand Effect.“

“African values,” referring to pretty much whatever makes up people’s individual lists of likes and peeves is also a Streisand Effect. There is not, and has never been any such thing. We have no “African values.” What we do have is a blank slate to write a useful, fit-for-purpose set of values to characterise and animate our evolution into the 21st Century. What we have is an opportunity.

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