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The Hidden Wealth of Traditional Cultures

by on May 12, 2010

Graham Knight compares the care provided by traditional cultures with the crumbling support offered by the state in the ‘developed’ world.

When non-Africans come to Ghana they are amazed at how happy everyone is. It just doesn’t seem fair somehow! How can people who appear to have nothing be so happy, whilst they who have everything are so miserable?

What they see immediately is poor housing and living conditions, lack of proper gutters and sanitation (and these are real concerns that Ghana needs to address). The answer to their question lies in what they cannot see; the remnants of the traditional culture which ensured human contentment.

The West measures wealth in things which are visible – how many consumer goods are available in shops and how many personal possessions one has. They compare their salaries with those of a Ghanaian and are shocked at the disparity. The comparison is unfair because the standard of living in their countries is more expensive than in Ghana. But this is often the yardstick through which Africa is measured and subsequently defined as poor.

But any inhabitant of the ‘developed’ world who stays here a short while and mingles with the local communities, soon starts to discover something that has been lost in their own culture. Quite often they leave saying they have learnt about the value of family and community. The unseen wealth of traditional African societies is in its human support.

In traditional societies, people take care of each other from cradle to grave. In the village you would not eat without feeding a hungry neighbour, because you know that one day you may also be hungry and have to rely on someone. A family will take care of their old or sick because they know they will be in the same position. Everyone shares the burden of others because they know that one day their burden will need to be shared.

Julius Nyerere, when prime minister of Tanzania, pointed out that:

“Both the rich and the poor individual were completely secure in African Society… Nobody starved, either of food or human dignity, because he lacked personal wealth; he could depend on the wealth possessed by the community of which he was a member”.

(Julius Nyerere, “The Basis of African Socialism”, 1968.)

Growing up in these caring, nurturing communities makes one feel secure. Knowing people are concerned for your wellbeing fosters self-confidence and affection. These are the foundations for happiness.

When family structures break down, parents are cared for in old people’s homes.

Contrast this with the ‘developed’ world where everyone has become an isolated individual. All ties to community have been severed and responsibilities to family are minimal. There is no obligation to help another person because there is no system of reciprocation. The state has taken over all the caring functions that used to be performed by communities and families. When you are sick or old your family will put you in an old people’s home because they do not have the time or resources to care for you. Unfortunately, the cradle-to-grave system of benefits and security offered by the state is increasingly unable to cope due to the demand. Access to services is increasingly based on ones ability to pay not on ones membership of a community of people.

People in the ‘developed’ world are not bad people. It is just that the system they live in no longer facilitates human relationships. Instead, it is about the individual’s relationship to the market place. People wish they could do more for each other but are not able to because of the lives they live, the way their cities have been structured, the disintegration of the extended family and now the nuclear family too, and the stresses and pressures from their jobs and modern life. Without a human support network, people are insecure and unhappy.

Homeless and begging for coins

Unfortunately, in many parts of Africa, economic development has led to similar changes. The extended family, the foundation of African society is starting to crumble, particularly under the pressures of city life. Wealth is now a product of the hard of work of an individual so the obligation to share is no longer essential. Education and health care are increasingly removed from the community and administered by the state. Services have to be paid for and are only available to those that can afford them.

True wealth is found in the happiness created by the quality of our relationships and support networks. The challenge for Africa is how to create economic wealth without further destroying the support mechanisms that create happiness for its people.

Fact File

  • A questionnaire discovered that despite 15 years of continuous economic success and rising wealth in the UK, there has not been a corresponding increase in general well-being. (University of Cambridge, 2007)
  • The 2007 UK Whitehall report, Social Trends, showed a country that is increasingly overcrowded, lonely, fragmented, noisy and bad-tempered.
  • 6 out of 10 American teenagers think about suicide, 1 in 10 attempts it.
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From → Development

2 Comments
  1. Interesting one here. There is a lot of simple paradoxes splashed all around Africa, even in the gutters at Nima, which no one living outside this continent could understand. It is something from within given by the nature of this vast surface. It is the people.
    In the face of all the discrimination and resource theft, they would still open their arms to those same Cheaters. Welcome to Africa, the land of the Living.

    This is an article I will come back to certainly.

  2. “Knowing people are concerned for your wellbeing fosters self-confidence and affection. These are the foundations for happiness.”

    I feel this is so true. In those cultures you would not even think to question your self-worth. They tend to be the most self-assured people I have ever met. I was never quite sure exactly why, but I think you have hit the nail on the head. It’s knowing that you are important to others – in both senses: that they have a responsibility towards you and that you have a responsibility towards them. It makes total sense.

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