A glimpse into our way of life: Africa vs. Europe

I am a young Ghanaian student at the University of Luxembourg and this blog series observes the realities of my two “worlds”. In third and final edition, I will be taking a closer look at culture, family, and community; its impact on the individuals within society and how they are shaped by it. Due to the broad nature of these topics, I will narrow down my focus; giving a social commentary on the most apparent differences with Europe being represented by Luxembourg and Africa represented by Ghana.

 

I tend to think that the communities in which we are raised impacts our overall worldview and perception since culture is not limited to just the physical attributes. It includes behavioural patterns and attitudes that are transferred unto the younger generations residing within society. It would hardly be surprising if two African kids raised up in different societies grew up with completely contrasting personalities and sets of values. This confirms that culture is indeed extensive and directly or indirectly, influences intuitions and mind frames. It goes further to affirm that diversity in culture comes also from environment and social stimulus resulting from the rise in globalisation and modernisation.

 

Contrast between Afro and Western cultures 

 

Group solidarity would be a great starting point for me. Whenever African and Western cultures are compared, the most common reference is our social infrastructure. It seems that most Europeans define themselves individually, and in small nuclear family units.  Whereas a majority of African cultures tend to live in communities. The notion of family is therefore, extended into community and not just at a nuclear level. These African communities are ever-growing with the inception of marriages and childbirth. We exhibit greater concern for the welfare and interest of members within these social units. Ghanaians especially believe that human beings are not self-sufficient without the connectedness of other members of society, irrespective of one’s economic and social status. Indeed, it is our firm belief that achieving one’s full potential of holistic fulfilment is near impossible in solitude. Drawing from my personal background, here are a few cases that demonstrate our sense of communal living.

Within the Luxembourgish context, marriages are organised between the couple and just a select few family and friends. To have more than 50 guests attending the occasion would be interpreted as “a lot of people”. In Ghana, marriages, child-naming and funerals are cause for big ceremonies. It’s an opportunity to connect with long distance family and friends, and it attracts great numbers- with an average of about 200-250 guests, a number which could easily be referred to as not “enough”. To us, it is more about the connection and support for each other during these “rites of passage. A second example would be that within a typical African setting, several houses are built on the same compound and I grew up in such an environment. In the absence of my parents, the neighbours would always ensure my wellbeing. In Europe, this may have been similar before, nonetheless, it currently seems that people have fewer interactions with even their neighbours living within the same apartment complex.

Traditionally, an older person other than my parent could punish me for wrongdoing. This was perfectly acceptable since our society believes in the communal upbringing of children. There is an “Akan” adage: the child belongs to the mother only when in the womb, but once birthed, he/she belongs to the community. This also means the children in the neighbourhood grow up closely bonded with one another. They do not require parental permission before playing with the other kids. This clustered way of living means that children have minimal use of electronic gadgets and toys as there are much stronger human interactions and relationships. Unfortunately, terrible tragedies in western culture have led families to be extremely cautious when it comes to their kid’s friends and interactions. This seems to have led to a social impediment among many western kids, coupled with the use of virtual connections due to the uptick of technology, social media, video games and smartphones.

Interestingly, the African concept of happiness does not seem to revolve around wealth but the sense of belonging to a community. I wish to emphasize that this is not a generalisation, but a personal comment based on my experience; I am sure there are varying levels of individualism from country to country. In contrast, drawing from my encounters and observations of French, German and Italian cultures, I have noted that Italians’ nurture strong family bonds and are more collectively associated compared to their counterparts.

 

The perception of the elderly 

 

In most parts of Africa, it is assumed that age comes with wisdom and experience. People look up to the elders for advice and guidance. Traditionally, it is commonplace for multiple generations to live under one roof, sharing a home and all the duties involved with its maintenance. This means that the elderly remain thoroughly included up until they die.  Africa’s rapid industrialisation and modernisation has forced many young parents to flock to urban areas for work. This means that they sometimes rely on grandparents for the upbringing of their children. Western cultures tend to be youth-centric, emphasizing attributes like individualism and independence. Their increasing demand for material goods to achieve life-satisfaction ties an individual’s value to his or her ability to work —which, of course, diminishes with old age. As one grows older, and one’s health begins to deteriorate, one becomes less useful to society. Then one is moved to a retirement community or elderly home, often separated from one’s children and lifelong friends.

 

The Concept of time

 

“When you say 6 am is that European time or African time?”, a joke so often told of Africans regarding their relaxed approach to timekeeping. Despite the use of clocks to tell “what time it is,” there seems to be a notion that the African clocks work differently. This is a prevalent situation in Ghana and I doubt if it is any different in the rest of the sub-region. There is a perceived cultural tendency towards a less rigorously scheduled lifestyle in most African countries. In contrast, I have noticed a watch-gazing-centricity in the West.  This makes them structure their lives, especially business operations with deadlines and a rigorous agenda. Failure to be timely could be interpreted as having a poor work ethic. A typical German would feel offended by this “African” punctuality, as this impedes their overall efficiency, whether it is for a business meeting or a casual social gathering. Arguably, time-management does promote efficient work ethics and productivity, but still a hard sell for most Africans, I reckon. The problem of punctuality has become so endemic that lateness to any function is accepted and explained as “he is on African time”, which personally I feel is very pejorative. Certainly, I have noticed a positive evolution in recent years, and I look forward to the continent reaping the benefit of this attitudinal change.

 

The concept of superstition

 

In Europe, scientific and secular approaches to the world’s mechanisms is favoured. Westerners tend to attribute most phenomenon to science and logic, finding explanations to better manipulate and harness them. The typical African is more connected to the elements and adopts a more spiritual/mysterious approach. We are of the belief that other factors and forces beyond our understanding or control influence life occurrences. For instance, any uncommon disease is first considered a curse before any scientific investigation determines the cause. Believe you me, when I say that sometimes they are right! Taboos were also instituted to instil moral values within members of these social units.

Our values and history have passed through generations orally through tales, fables [...]. Hence, the reason we look onto our elderly for wisdom as they are the keepers of our culture and historic wealth; an embodiment of knowledge.

A mutual alliance is worth more than paper 

 

Most traditional Africans prefer the informal way of doing business compared to the official paper-bound ways of Westerners particularly Germanic cultures. In most parts of Africa, personal bonds and informal agreements are far more binding than many formal contracts. Also, messages sent across need to be understood through context, nonverbal cues, empathy and with pragmatic interpretation. Business documents in the west however, are much more a matter-of-fact and meticulously constructed. These differences in behavioural patterns is equally observed in the oral vs print contrast between cultures. For a long time, our values and history have passed through generations orally through tales, fables, songs and proverbs. Hence, the reason we look onto our elderly for wisdom as they are the keepers of our culture and historic wealth; an embodiment of knowledge. However, much of these oral traditions in the African culture have been lost with their demise. As a teenager, my mum gave me all the oral education I needed to have about the reproduction system, sex, mannerism and courtesy for everyday living even before I got the opportunity to read them in books.

 

A peep into my personal life here

 

Many Africans are enticed by fantasies of the rich living in Europe. We have grown to believe: it’s easier to make it there than at home. My experience as a young lady here has been rather fascinating yet easily relatable. There have been many moments where I have missed my family and friends in Ghana. Enjoying the abundance of continuous sunshine reliving the memories of home. There have been really fatiguing and depressing moments for me in this individualist community, with no one to freely connect to or rely on when faced with challenges or life’s stress. This feeling of enduring loneliness has sadly drained my positive vibes, I should frankly admit. I think that a young person who goes through this stage of identity formation needs to be strong willed mentally in order to overcome the inevitable risk of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression.

The prohibitive cost of living has consumed my humble savings and I can clearly recall that during my earlier months here, I was tempted to make little to no purchases; especially when I considered the conversion rate of the Euro to Cedi. Funny as it might seem, that is the attitude of typical African’s during when they first arrive.  Being here however, enlightens and inspires me to develop myself to a level where I can make an impactful contribution to my community. What counts is my ability to extract positive vibes from both cultures and adapt it to my growth and development: personally, and professionally. I believe that for most successful people, there has always been a price to pay to get there. This will probably be mine…!!!

To conclude, I believe we are all dominantly moulded by the cultures in which we grew up. Yet, the world needs this multiculturalism to survive since having just one culture dominating the planet can be as deadly to humanity as having just one species of animal inhabiting earth. All humans everywhere, are limited by their independent capabilities to be self-sufficient, without the collective involvement and connectedness of other members in their social circles. Thus, despite the location or the people involved, communal living should not be under-estimated in either culture. Irrespective of the perceived acculturation stress and the fear of alienation from family and friends, life in Europe has its upsides such as good infrastructure, a constant supply of unlimited electricity, good medical care and open access to education; to name a few. I also hope that in due course, I will be able to share my culture into the community I find in Europe. To my fellow Africans, the culture in Europe is better experienced than explained!

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Barbara Vondee

Barbara Vondee

Barbara is a student from Ghana currently completing a Masters in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of Luxembourg. Barbara is already a young entrepreneur, having started her own jewellery making business Vondeebeeworld at the age of 17.

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