Saturday, January 07, 2006

Culture: the case for contamination

The Ashanti king (asantehene) on the picture. Beverly Trayner sent me the link to an article by Kwame Anthony Appiah called The case for contamination (note that you have to subscribe to the New York Times for free before the article opens). He describes a scene where he is seated on a palace veranda, for a ceremony which involves the Ashanti King called the Wednesday festival day, in Kumasi. But before the king arrived, people were taking calls on cellphones, and discussing contemporary issues like the teaching of science and technology at the local university. The king will be meeting the head of the World Bank next week in the states.

He argues strongly for cultural contamination as the opposite of cultural protection as defined by agencies like Unesco. Though contamination has a bit of a negative connotation I like his emphasis on the dynamics of culture and the fact that people drink Coca-cola everywhere does not means there is a case of cultural imperialism: 'cultures are made of continuities and change and the identity of a society can survive through these changes. Societies without changes aren't authentic; they're just dead.

And: ' change is more a gradual transformation from one mixture to a new mixture, a process that usually takes place at some distance from rules and rulers, in the conversations that occur across cultural boundaries. Such conversations are not so much about arguments and values as about the exchange of perspectives. ' ...' How much of the shift away from these assumptions is a result of arguments? Isn't a significant part of it just the consequence of our getting used to new ways of doing things?'

I recognise the depicted scene very much, last time when we went to the Ethiopian restaurant, we laughed with the son of the owner because he asked how long we all had lived in Ethiopia and his was the shortest of all (two years). Another Ethiopian friend lives in Ireland and is married to a French woman adopted from Brasil when she was eight. So she was asking us lots of things about Ethiopia because she had never been there. They talked to us about how Irish people interact. At the same time, I realize we are more likely to meet those 'cosmopolitans', as Kwame Appiah calls it in his article, through our work and travels.

It also reminds me of the day I travelled with my Ghanaian colleague to a visit the work of one NGO and we met a female chief in one of the villages in Western Region in Ghana. As I was surprised, I asked her several questions. She explained that she was of the family illegible for chieftancy and had been involved in several community tasks when the former chief passed away. She was then asked to take up the chieftancy by virtue of her contributions to the village, even though this is traditionally a men's role. A strong example of the fact that all cultural practices are dynamic.

To try and relates this to communities of practice: the conversations across boundaries, whether professional boundaries or other 'cultural' differences can contribute to gradual change and transformation. So fostering conversations across boundaries is important to innovation (this is my own interpretation).

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