Declaring, “We shouldn’t be messing with other people’s culture” sounds reasonable, until you encounter something that seems unreasonable to us. Let’s face it, I’m glad that not-so-ancient practices like widow burning in India have changed. In Ivory Coast, West Africa we worked among the Agni. They practiced many animistic sacrifices according to their beliefs, culture and traditions. However, every sacrificial ceremony was human sacrifice of a slave until slavery was abolished. For example, the casket of a deceased chief or the Agni King was to be propped up, on all four corners, with human skulls of slain victims. Today the Agni have substituted animal blood for them all. It was their belief, and thanks be to God that this barbarism is no longer practiced. Culture, traditions and beliefs are not the same thing anyway. We have a habit of lumping them all under “Culture”. Beliefs can change, often do, and often should.
I’m writing this in Bamako, Mali, West Africa. My wife and I arrived late last night. We have some business to take care of in the city before we continue our journey another four hundred and fifty kilometers east tomorrow. This afternoon we simply rested, after an arduous trip to get here.
The sounds coming from a residential area in any African city are always interesting. Out front here, on a rocky side street with trash, is a concrete ditch flowing past my room, with open sewage that drains right into the famous Niger River just two hundred meters to my left as I write.
I am listening to the usual sounds of the unpaved back alley streets. The rattle of diesel taxis slowly navigating around the potholes and protruding rocks, so as to not scrape the bottom of the car. Motorbikes buzzing back and forth, people having conversations on the street for all to hear as they walk by. The hammering, cutting, welding and banging sounds from a nearby welder as he carries out his trade. Birds chirping. I can also hear kids reciting some lines from a school just down the way. I hear a sewing machine running too. Oh, I almost forgot, and the screaming kid getting beaten by her mother across the street.
I have no idea if beatings occur more often in Mali than in Canada, or if it’s simply that the Malian families can’t hide it, because all of life is lived outside for all to see and hear, not able to conceal it behind any sound proof insulated wall. Cement walls of a house, or the courtyard, reverberate sound and act like a loud speaker, amplifying any sound.
One thing for certain is that beating kids, women, wives, husbands, crooks, or anyone perceived as “doing bad” is not frowned on very much. If one hangs around a village long enough, you will hear this repeated almost every day in some family within earshot.
Well I have to confess, as an outsider I am not certain if the culture says it is Ok to do this, or rather the culture simply dictates you should not do anything about it as a stranger, it’s not your household.
It began with some woman scolding a child, I’d say a girl by the sound of it. Then the lady really started to yell in short bursts, a phrase yelled here, a phrase yelled there. After five minutes of this, the girl started to holler for all she was worth, screaming hysterically, painfully for several minutes that seemed like an eternity to me. If it was that painful for me to listen to, how painful was it for the young girl? The beating stopped as the lady returned to yelling in short bursts again, and the child settling in to a lower volume, but continuous crying for the next ten or twelve minutes.
Yes, it’s tough to listen to. I have seen this repeated a thousand times over my many years in Africa. Village or city, it makes no difference. Women and children, and even men beaten by women as well (Yes, there are many small African men with big African wives I’d never want to tangle with). Would not be the first time I have seen a woman put a tuning on her man in Africa. I assure you the man got the worst of it.
Exactly what should I do about it? I had a friend ask me, “What would they do if you did interfere?” Good question.
I think the police in Canada would tell you that a domestic dispute is a very volatile situation. Here, it would be multiplied many times over. I can’t imagine showing up in a Muslim family’s courtyard, as an uninvited stranger, and telling them to stop beating their child. Worse, if I came in and asked him to stop beating his wife. I suspect that in most cases that would be a very regrettable decision.
However, here is how interventions take place in West Africa among people I know. I’ve seen this take place hundreds of times. I’ve said it myself, doing the culturally proper thing.
I have seen people in the family respond quickly when such action is started, with the people yelling “Hey, Hey.” However, I have never seen a neighbor respond immediately to a beating next door. I’ve never seen anyone forcibly stop the beating of a woman or child. But if the screaming and hollering or beating continues for too long, some clear, though invisible, line is crossed, and the neighbors within earshot step in.
And what happens is the men will talk to the man to find out what is wrong, and calm him down, take him over with the men to talk, while the women go console the lady. If only women show up, the women will ask forgiveness for the child or woman involved, regardless of their actual culpability or not. “Father, pardon, pardon, pardon,( adequately spaced out every five seconds or so.) “Mother, pardon, that’s enough mother.” After a minute of this things usually calm down. I have asked forgiveness of a family beating a boy before, and also for a husband beating his wife. He was angry, very angry. But I knew them.
Certainly, the concept of not changing people’s culture is a bit contrived. If we make exceptions to what violates our sensibilities, well, then others have the same right to make value judgements based on their sensibilities too, and the next thing you know, there is a lot of outside pressure to bring change to a people. Some of that change is downright good.
The temperature is hot in Mali today, but it’s not baked my brain enough to numb me to such things. So hard to listen to. Does it sound worse than it actually is? I personally would like to see beating of woman and children stop. But my hands are tied, and I have no business interfering with the Mali family structure or traditions. Frankly, I’m too new here and do not understand them thoroughly or properly. I can be as ethnocentric as the next person. “Ethnocentric” is a great word, look it up.
It’s one of those things about Africa I will never become accustomed too. The best I can do right now is make lots of friends with many families, so that I can be an advocate who can rightfully, and quickly demand “pardon” on someone’s behalf. I know very few people in this Malian city, I’m just passing through.
For now, the only catharsis I have for the wailing child across the way, is to write about it. One of those things I will never ever get accustomed to in Africa.