Letter from Africa: Taking on tradition

A traditional healer in Bloemfontein, South Africa, on 7 January 2012

In our series of letters from African journalists, London-based Ugandan writer Joel Kibazo considers the juxtaposition between traditions and modern life on the continent.

From the moment we are born, many of us Africans live with a particular challenge - trying to live comfortably in the modern Westernised world yet at the same time straining hard to hold on to our African traditions and beliefs that help us make sense of who we are as a people.

In many cases we have done a wonderful job of adaptation, or blending the Western with the African.

How else does one explain the fact that many people marry in church with its emphasis on a single spouse, observe Christian traditions and festivals but at the same time take a second, third and even fourth wife and look to traditional spirit leaders to guide their life?

I was recently in Johannesburg and the glamour and modernity of that city can lull you into thinking there is no place for African traditions and beliefs any more. But don't be fooled.

There was no getting away from the big issue of the day in South Africa, the illness of the global icon, Nelson Mandela.

Of course, it was the main talking point and the pain and anguish was easy to see on those engaged in conversation on the topic.

But not all were easy about speaking about Mr Mandela and his illness and state of being.


I noticed that every time the subject came up on the radio or in casual conversation, Sibusiso, a young man who was driving me around the city, became uneasy.

Image caption Nelson Mandela's grandson Mandla Mandela (back left) became a chief in 2007

So, I asked why. His response was revealing. He said, as Africans we do not speak about a person's passing. It is not our way. We only deal with things when they happen.

While I could understand the care and concern for the father of the nation, not to mention a mass media keen not to miss a single moment, I could see where he was coming from.

Speaking about the illness was one thing but talk about funerals and then what was to happen after his passing as was done in certain parts of the media was not only insensitive to the family but left me feeling distinctly queasy.

But Subisiso's anguish surrounding the talk about Mr Mandela and what might happen to him in the future, turned to horror when I asked about the messy public dispute between members of his family.

The tug of war within the family saw some members resort to the courts to force the former president's grandson, Mandla Mandela, to return bodies he had removed to his own village to their original burial site in the village of Qunu.

On this, he and I were at one. Such is the veneration of the dead in many African cultures that the general belief is that once interred nothing must disturb their peace.

Yet, here was Mr Mandela's own family involved in such a dispute.

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Media captionThe dangers of a South African initiation ceremony

But how, I wondered, were South Africans responding to this dilemma? Were they as mortified as I was about what I considered to be a most un-African act?

Almost everyone I spoke to was equally horrified. The more conservative were concerned that the dispute could annoy the ancestors and bring calamity to the family and others.

Another person raised the possibility that annoying the ancestors could in fact delay Mr Mandela's recovery.

Sibusiso simply shook his head and said of the dispute: "I think some people forgot there were things we Africans do not do."

Yet, it is not plain sailing for those trying to ensure African traditions continue to be observed.

As I was getting ready to leave South Africa, a newspaper billboard read - "Sixty dead at initiation ceremonies in South Africa since May."

According to the story, initiation ceremonies had led to the deaths of young men and the hospitalisation of hundreds, sparking concern from officials about regulations surrounding an African tradition that determines when a boy becomes a man.

Clearly a way has to be found of moving African tradition forward into this century. But for now, the struggle to hold on to the old ways in the modern world of today continues.

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