(The case of fons in multiparty politics)

Part 3: The Role of Culture in Human life

Preamble: Relying on Rumour?? Welcome to Part 3 of our present concern on the participation of fons in multiparty politics. Someone sent a personal letter to me to say that all the allegations and false alarm about the Fon of Nso' being appointed as member of the CC of the CPDM were unfounded! There have also been some postings on Shundzev to that effect. While I give a sigh of relief if this is the truth, it does not in anyway change the momentum that we had already set rolling. So, whether the Fon of Nso' was/is appointed is now of no consequence. What remains important to our consideration is the role that Fons should be playing at the time of multiparty politics., moreso the Fon of Nso'. This has to be clarified and the matter resolved. So the case has not been rested.

In the first part, we raised the case of the tedious political evolution in Cameroon which is compromising some of our cultural values in the N.W. Region. There have been verifiable instances. We presumed that in this first part that some reason why this continues to happen is largely due to ignorance of what the institution of Fon means to the Tikar of the Bamenda Grasslands in particular. So in part 2, we presented The Institution of Fon among the Tikar. That contribution ended with the conviction that some of those who use politics to attempt to change cultural values may not be fully aware of the Role of Culture in Human Life. And so, our present concern is about the importance of culture.

There is a growing interest in the culture of people today because we interact with so many that we need to understand what they believe and why they act the way they do. Most of the conflicts in the world today are actually, at their base, due to ignorance of the culture of others. The fear of organized terrorism, for example, and other urban crimes would be better understood and handled if we took into consideration the culture and thinking of others. That is why we begin this part of our input by highlighting the growing interest in most interdisciplinary studies.

1. Growing Interest in Culture: In the academic field, professor Gottfried Lang, indicates that the word culture has become very central to social sciences (2003,426). The French anthropologist, Marc Augé further says that this centrality goes beyond the academia. He points out a growing interest in the cultures of people (2006,7). John R. Baldwin provides on possible reason for this interest. He affirms that culture is “the most important thing to know about people if one wants to make predictions about their behaviour.” (2006,xv). Culture affects each and every one of us, every day, in many aspects of our lives. Unless we learn to understand and respect how and why the other person thinks and acts, we are constantly going to get into conflict with him/her. Every human action and institution is motivated by a series of variables and non-variables elements. And culture is probably the most basic motivation!

2. The difficulty in defining culture: Despite the fact that culture is the most basic identity of a society or community, according to Lang cited above "it is difficult to encompass in a single definition all the meanings attached to it." (p. 436). Culture is one of these complex realities which are significant both in everyday language and within the discourses of modern academy, but which are difficult to define. According to Richard Budd and Brent Ruben (2003,157) this difficulty is born out of the totality of human experience which can be both objective and subjective, rational and irrational, physical and metaphysical, verifiable and non-verifiable, individual and social. In 1952 two American sociologists, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn, made a critical review of more than 150 existing definitions. More than half a century after, precisely in 2006, John R. Baldwin and others, made an update of Kroeber and Kluckhohn and came out with more than 300 new entries. Today these figures would even be much higher, a clear indication of the growing difficulty to get a unique definition.

3. The etymological origins of the word: In 1440 some latinists thought that the word culture derives from the verb colere meaning to cultivate the ground; others believed that the word comes from the past participle of “colere” - cultus - which could also mean care, worship as well as cultivation. In 1510 the word culture was thought to have derived directly from the latin noun cultura. One meaning of cultura, cultivation through education, was privileged. In 1617, the French believed that the word culture derived from culte meaning worship, but by 1805 probably as an effect of the French Revolution (1789-1799), culture was thought of almost exclusively in terms of l'homme de culture (a man of culture) which could variedly mean becoming cultured, well brought up, or educated in the arts. This sat well with some Germans who thought that culture originated in the German word kultur , a reference to higher values and enlightenment of the society. Today the word culture is used in such varied ways that it includes all the preceding ideas and implications of cultivation, intellectual formation and worship.

All these suggestions are very important because they show that culture involves an intelligent and acquired human capacity to dialogue with and adapt to his environment. Hence the reference to cultivation of the soil is to be seen as part of the consequence of this adaptation. It is a planned act, not some haphazard happening which can just be brushed off at will. Culture can also be seen metaphorically as the cultivation of the intellect. And here, the human intellect recognises its own limitations and sometimes postulates the existence of a supreme being. Hence belief and worship come together as integral parts of culture.

4. Some working definitions: Richard Peterson's (1979) suggests four common and essential factors in every culture: norms, values, beliefs and expressive symbols. By norms Peterson understands the way people behave in a given society, their accepted conduct. In other words, every society has rules (explicit or implicit) which indicate the established and approved ways of doing things, of dress, of speech and of appearance. Anyone who fails to abide by them is seen as a deviant and can sometimes meet with serious sanctions. These are the norms which form part of the procedure of social control. Values are what people hold as dear to them. Human beings require and give meaning to various objects, beliefs and norms in their society.
They ascribe great importance to those things which mean much to them. People have ideals about the way things “should” and “should not” be. Beliefs are existential statements about how the world operates that often serve to justify values and norms. Beliefs are assumptions we make as to the way we think the universe operates. And every one has a right because not everyone sees and understands the universe in exactly the same way. In every society there arises a particular way of seeing, reacting to and encountering the world. Thus beliefs constitute the core of the world-view of a people which they externalise by creating some expressive symbols, each of which tells a story, and a whole history. These symbols encapsulates meaning for the people.
So, we can say that culture involves social norms which guide the conduct of people, values which represent and give meaning to them, belief systems which tell the story of their world-view and the manifestation of all these in expressive symbols.

Notable and important contributions in this respect have come from the English academic John Tylor and the American sociologist Clifford Geertz. A contemporary American professor of culture, Wendy Griswold, states that “culture refers to the expressive side of human life- in other words, to behaviour, objects and ideas that appear to express, or to stand for, something else. This is the case whether we are talking about explicit or implicit culture.(2008, 11).

6. The role of culture: From the above reflection, we can allot 5 important roles to culture. First, it gives identity to a people. A group of people are identified by the culture which they share. Hence we can talk about the Bamoum, the Nso', the Ewondo, the Eton, the Bamilike, the Jukun, the Koms and so on. Without a cultural tread that binds these people together, there would hardly be a “people” to talk about. It is true that this cultural perspective changes with time and under the pressure of socio-political, religious and economic factors. Yet there are always aspects of that culture that remain. One of these, among the Tikar, is the centrality of the institution of Fon. And NO ONE has a right, let alone the obligation to mess around with it. That is why among the Tikar, when the kava' (throne) is empty, there is chaos in the tribe, even if there is an SDO and other forces of law and order. These DO NOT and can NEVER replace traditional authority that has held the people for generations.

Secondly, culture ensures social cohesion, peace and order. Where the people have a strong culture, the is more unity, and order. For example, chaos, crime and all kinds of deviant behaviour only came into the Northwest Region of Cameroon, when Fons began to loose authority. So it was for the good of the CPDM gov't for the Fons of the N.W. Region to remain strong, if government is truly interested in peace and order.
Thirdly, culture brings a rich variety of values into human behaviour. At the level of aesthetics beauty is brought about by “differences” not by “sameness” which generates monotony and boredom. No human being wants to find himself in such a situation. At the level of human interaction, life is about celebrating our differences, not an attempt to bring everyone to a common pattern. This is the basis of democracy. We claim already that we are an “advanced democracy” (invite the comment of Chaucer!!!), therefore the minimum that one would expect from such a system is the respect, not destruction, of the cultures of others.

A fourth role of culture is to ensure the true moralization of the society. There is no culture in the world that sets out to demoralize its people. The basis of most culture, especially among the Tikar, is the pact with their ancestors. The concept of ancestors is such a deeply- rooted African value that if others clearly understood this, no one will ever want to intrude into this area of our lives. It is the spiritual domain and dimension of African existence. That is why the African is notoriously and incurably religious. The human being today thinks that he can depend on externals and material goods. Experience soon teaches him that even if he has more than he needs, he goes through moments when he feels a hollowness within. There is a spiritual vacuum. If many are turning to secret societies, to gurus and weird religious sects, part of the reason lies in this internal emptiness that modern man is begining to feel. The CPDM started off with a clarion call for rigour and moralization! If they are to be taken seriously, then the culture of the people is an untouchable area!

Finally, culture as a human creation gives meaning to human life. All cultures are social interpretations of reality. The people receive and give meaning to the different symbols and institutions which they have created. Life has meaning to the people only when they are able to process issues through their cultural spectacles. To take away culture from a people, especially the Tikar, is to take away MEANING from their lives. That is why today, one can see among these people of Tikar origin, signs of stress and experiences that our ancestors could never have thought of.
We can therefore say that the culture of a people is a moral value that others need to respect. Even though time and events bring about changes and developments in every culture, there is a certain stability which should remain in order to continue to give meaning to the people. We cannot sit and watch a deliberate invasion of a cultural heritage of a people, being swept under carpet in the name of politiking or “dying for the stomach”. On this there can be no compromise. It is simply bad logic to argue that because it is happening in other places, therefore it should be allowed to happen here. No two places are ever and can ever be the same. Majority may win in a democratic process but in the academic cum moral field, there is no harm in being right alone! I was horrified to hear someone say that we should forget these issues and concentrate on the NGONSO FESTIVAL that is in the pipeline. In fact, if it were true that the allegations against the Fon were true, it would have been sufficient reason to call for a close to NGONSO festival, because it would be an empty show devoid of meaning.

So what do we suggest with regards to our Fons of the NorthWest Region? This will be our last contribution..... SO DONT GO AWAY YET.

Nothing would be done at all, if a man waited until he could do it so well
that NO ONE would find fault with it. Bl. John Henry Newman, dixit Bernard Nso'kika Fonlon

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