Cultural Diversity: More Thrills Than Shocks…

Cultural Diversity
By ‘Niyi David

As the world becomes more of a global village, the cultural identity of certain things or practices cannot be mistaken. Scots and kilts go together, chopsticks are Chinese, and the habesha kemis is to Ethiopians what the red shuka is to the Maasai of Kenya.

Some cultures consider it offensive to extend your hand to a woman for a handshake, especially if she is married. In some places, wearing knee-revealing or arm-revealing clothes is deemed culturally indecent. The popular ‘thumbs-up’ sign used as a sign of approval from ancient times is regarded as an insult and akin to giving someone the middle finger in some cultures. Suppose you arrive at a place and are unaware of these things, how do you feel when the locals take offence when you make such a gesture?

Let’s tip the scale a little. Imagine being in Kawasaki, Japan during the Shinto Kanamara Matsuri (the Festival of the Iron Phallus) for the first time! Or witnessing La Tomatina, the annual tomato throwing festival in Buñol, Spain? How would the imageries affect your cultural sensibilities? Shock?

Thankfully, the internet and social media has largely reduced the chances of experiencing a culture shock, since most travelers would have gone past this stage by the time they arrive their destinations, due to prior information acquired online. However, prior information in itself sets the traveler on edge in anticipation of another kind of experience – a thrill.

While a shock is an unexpected experience, a thrill is something one looks forward to. Like anticipating an engrossing football match involving your favorite team in a cup final. Even if your team won, reading reviews or watching the highlights later cannot rival the thrill of being present at the stadium, watching the action unfold with thousands of co-spectators and fans caught in the grip of nervous anticipation and wild emotions as you cheer your teams to victory. Nothing beats a live experience.

Mara River crossing, Serengeti National Park
The thrill of swimming in the Devil’s Pool, Victoria Falls

That is what travel is all about – being right there in the thick of an action. National Geographic® does a great job bringing the wild into your sitting room, and the images on your screen does set your hearts racing often. But picture yourself on a Safari game drive through the Serengeti-Maasai Mara to witness the Wildebeest Migration in flesh and blood! Or, how about diving into the Devil’s Pool at the majestic Mosi-oa-Tunya, Victoria Falls? You’ve seen clips on Youtube® and all, but this is you swimming in that pool! That is the magic of being there, where the thrill is everything!

A Few Shocks Over Thrills…

Africa, often tagged the Dark Continent not just because of the complexion of the majority of her population, but also because of certain dark cultural practices. Many of these have since been halted by governmental laws, but a few barbaric ones have refused to die out, especially in remote parts. An example is the female genital cutting, a practice involving the removal of the female clitoris in the belief that it will stop young girls from being promiscuous.

A perhaps more unfortunate cultural practice in Tanzania and parts of Malawi involves the killing or maiming of albinos and using their body parts for ritual purposes. In recent media reportage, a sexual cleansing ritual in Malawi which involves a man, (referred to in the culture as hyena) having sex with young girls after their first menses broke out in the middle of 2016. To make matters worse, the hyena-man was HIV positive and he allegedly confessed to being fully aware of his status. What a shameful cultural practice!

The President of the country did not mince words when he called for a thorough investigation of all the men and parents involved in the practice. In his words, “All people involved in this malpractice should be held accountable for subjecting their children and women to this despicable evil. These horrific practices although done by a few tarnish the image of the whole nation of Malawi internationally and bring shame to us all.”

Not all dark in Africa…

Away from these few shocking practices which concerted efforts are being made to wipe out, Africa offers a lot more cultural fascination and thrills. For instance, take the Gwari (or Gbagi) people in Abuja and the surrounding states in Nigeria, unlike other African tribes they do not carry loads on the head. Rather, the shoulders are employed, because their culture symbolizes the head as deity. The coffee ceremony in Ethiopia and Eritrea is a small family event which takes hours and requires patience, but getting an invite to attend is an indication of being held in high esteem.

However, it is the various spectacular festivals that best showcase African cultures and offer the biggest thrills, be it the celebration of harvest, ushering in of a new year, supplication of local deities and dead ancestors, or initiation rites for youths into adulthood. These festivals feature brightly colored costumes, raucous music, acrobatic dances and a charged atmosphere of revelry with lots of local delicacies to eat and enough local brew and spirits to drink.

An interesting sight is the Gerewol festival of the Woodabe tribe in Niger, West Africa a local pageant where the men spruce themselves up to woo the women, who may not necessarily be unmarried, for the night, or as long as the woman wishes. In Madagascar, during Famadihana festival, dead ancestors are exhumed, rewrapped and perfumed amidst fanfare, dancing, drinking and merrymaking. Old scores are settled with banana stems during the Mwaka Kogwa in Zanzibar as the people whip each other to usher in the New Year on a clean slate amid fanfare.

Imbali return with their reeds

January 10 of each year is a special day in Benin Republic, as the West African country is thronged by voodoo initiates and spectators from neighboring countries and as far as Haiti, Cuba, Brazil and United States to celebrate the Vodun Festival. In Swaziland and parts of South Africa, Umhlanga (the reed dance) which features a host of young maidens carrying long reeds and dancing bare-chested in celebration of their virginity is a showpiece attracting thousands of spectators from far and wide.

Like an addiction, the thrill of being there and being one with the culture even if it’s just momentary is hard to resist. The experience of sharing the joy of people and appreciating their traditions and what they hold dear.  That is what travel is all about – to search, explore, and engage in the local culture even if it is just as a spectator! That is the magic of being there, where the thrill is everything!


This article was first published in the maiden edition of S.E.E. AFRICA magazine, a publication of Afro Tourism West Africa Ltd.

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