Culture is a broad term that refers to the ‘customs, institutions and achievement of a particular nation, people or group’ (South African Concise Oxford Dictionary). “Custom in Africa is stronger than domination, stronger than the law, stronger even than religion. Over the years, customary practices have been incorporated into religion, and ultimately have come to be believed by their practitioners to be demanded by their adopted gods, whoever they may be” Lightfoot-Klein (1989) cited by Okome (2003).
That was in 1989. Now it is 2018. Nothing has changed. Custom continues to control and mould identities and the way people socialise African communities. This socialisation begins in the nuclear relationship: family. Patriarchy is deeply engrained in African culture. Patriarchal attitudes are bred in the family through the socialisation process. From birth parents and family set duties and expectations for boy and girl children. Based on the gender, favour or limitations are also set. I remember from a young age, always being instructed and told that I was being “trained”. ‘Wash the dishes this way, I am training you’ always followed by a heavy pregnant pause. You see, looking back, I don’t detest the “training”. I just never heard of boys being trained. They led a carefree life, often pampered by the mothers who trained the girls. In the family, the boy child is preferred to the girl child.
In African custom, rights are vested in a group. Girls, as the least valued member of family, receive the “off-cut” of whatever the group has left behind. This is evident, in the basic family activity of eating meals. Girls labour hard to prepare and serve meals. They are also the last members of the family to eat, that’s if there is anything left.
From birth, value or devalue is already weighed up and allocated to individuals. This attitude is evident when you look at schools. African girls are more likely than boys never to set foot in a classroom, despite all the efforts and progress made over the past two decades. 15 million girls will never get the chance to learn to read or write in primary school compared to about 10 million boys. Over half of these girls – 9 million – live in sub-Saharan Africa.
The socialisation process in the family which instills patriarchal practices in children does not end within the family. It creeps into other institutions like marriage, education, politics, religion and even the economy. African girls become women who “toil on land they do not own, to produce what they do not control and at the end of marriage, through divorce or death they can be sent away empty handed” (Julius Nyerere).
Traditions (the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way) are passed down. I often wonder whether contemporary African culture and traditions is a case of “history written by victors”… by African men (being the victors), to ensure their position in community. Sadly African girls’ fates are sealed from birth, sentenced by the social institution, that was set to empower and protect them – family. The family is the nucleus of civilisation and the basic social unit of society. Family bestows a crown of thorns or flowers on her African daughter. The institution of family needs to considered and reinvigorated to uplift African girls. These are some of the thoughts I considered today on International Day of the Girl.