What Makes a “Tradition?”

Let me begin this by telling you a story. A story that will bring some of my personal frustrations as well as the abhorrent power dynamics around this issue to light.

I sat excited for the new semester in the incredibly cold and overconditioned classroom. The people around me were chattering incessantly but I was tuning them out. I was not interested in their conversations I was here for one thing and one thing alone the Politics of Sub-Saharan Africa.

There are few African history or political science classes at most universities. A university is exceptional if it can scrap together an actual African history or African studies program. The entire circle of African academics, particularly historians is one of the significantly smaller academic communities. Most people know most people. It is inevitable that you meet nearly every academic of note at conferences, through peer review, debate, research.

University of Colorado at Boulder has one African historian…. unless Osborne managed to get a West African historian hired, after I graduated of course. It has a smattering of African anthropologists, a sociologist, and a geographer. It was not preferable for a student seeking to learn everything possible about Africa.

This is all a long winded explanation of why I could not care less about the students around me and could only brace myself in anticipation of one of the rare African classes at my university. I barely registered the white savior rhetoric most of my peers were spouting, which usually would have had me turning on my heels and confronting them.

Then he walked in. He walked in, set up, and began the seemingly sacred and horribly boring university custom: syllabus day. That’s when I realized this man knew little about Africa. I had been to Senegal. I had completed original archival research. I was studying precolonial Senegambia. I, somehow, was more qualified than my teacher. The man did not even study Africa! He was simply pulled from his usual subject to hurriedly put together this class and teach it.

Needless to say I was abysmally disappointed. That was the start of the worst class experience I have ever had. Because the teacher knew next to nothing about Africa he muddled through teaching it to students. He failed to rip apart stereotypes, bias, white savior complexes, and instead often fed into them in classroom discussions.

Repeatedly people referred to “African traditions.” Repeatedly I listened to imperialistic understandings of Africa being quoted back at me from privileged, inauthentic, “white saviors.” They threw about traditions as if they explained everything about Africa. Tribal traditions explained Rwanda (a topic I have covered on this blog). The inherently “savage” and “brutal” nature of sexist “African traditions” explained “female genital mutilation” (a topic I have also extensively discussed on this blog). African traditions explained the violence, conflict, poverty, sexism, disease, everything – it all came down to the idea Africans suffered because of who they fundamentally, traditionally were. Africa was a “mess” because Africans were “innately” a “mess.”

This makes fallacious ideas about “African traditions” and Africans synonymous and implicates them both in all the problems that Africa currently faces. It completely washes the hands of colonizers clean. It completely ignores the power vacuums they left to be filled with Big Men dictators. It completely ignores the systemic resource extraction and systems of inequality colonizers established and continue to promote as “Western,” “developed,” “civilized” to ensure they can continue to exploit them.

The truth is far more complicated. So let’s explore the definition of tradition in an effort to begin breaking down these myths created by intentional colonial propaganda.


Tradition, in our discourse, is an amorphous concept, difficult to pin down, and can be hard for people to grasp. Culture defines what is “traditional” and culture is constantly changing, adapting, and even being purposely rewritten. Additionally, different peoples in each culture disagree. There is rarely an overwhelming consensus on what is “tradition” or what “their” culture specifically entails. However, there does seem to be a guiding trends in cultures, something pushing and unifying a culture, something traditional. Anthropologists and historians are often best at describing these patterns:

“At the specific level societies and cultures changed during every generation. Hence a concept of ‘tradition’ and ‘traditional’ cannot be static. Traditional does not mean ‘unchanged.’ It means ‘directing the direction of its own change according to unchanging principles.’ Hence not even at every single moment were all peoples in an area, nor all villagers in a district living exactly in the same way… […] Continuity is at the core of the notion as every definition stresses, but change is also at its core. Hence, tradition is ‘changing continuity.'” (Jan Vansina, Central African Historian and Anthropologist)

All these aspects and complexities of tradition are particularly prevalent on the African continent due to its shockingly high amounts of diversity. It’s the longest human inhabited continent leading to an astounding amount of diversity as humans evolved and emigrated. The continent has 54 modern countries, far more regions and ethnicities, with 1.216 billion people. There are more than 521 languages in Nigeria alone. This diversity lead to confusion as European countries entered the picture and through force attempted to carve out “African identities.” They conflated ethnic cultures and their overwhelming diversity. Meanwhile, Africans had understood for generations that their ethnic identities were fluid. Africans had highly flexible definitions of ethnicity. This inevitably created tensions that are still visible today.

As I have mentioned in my posts concerning the Rwandan Genocide, ethnicity was not entrenched until German and Belgium colonialism defined and ingrained them in the politics of Rwanda. Previously, “Hutu” and “Tutsi” was largely a socioeconomic division. Those with more wealth lived among Tutsis, those who were poorer lived among Hutus and practiced cattle herding. One could move between ethnicities. They were not solidified. In fact, David Newbury’s article “The Clans of Rwanda” “proved in an utterly convincing way that even such apparently perennial kinship groupings as clans were anything but static institutions.” (The Land Beyond the Mists)

The same is true of my region of study. In Senegambia the Jolof Kingdom was largely composed of Wolof peoples. To this day the Wolof make up the largest ethnic group in Senegambia. However, the Jolof kingdom was spread out through a region that was also filled with Tukoulor, Mandinka, Lebou, Serer, Fula, and Soninke to name a few. These ethnic groups lived intermixed. They lived among the various chiefdoms of the Jolof Kingdom and in the center of Jolof without constant tension between ethnicities because they melded their cultural understandings. Multiple languages, Wolof, Serer, etc. were all spoken in the same chiefdom. They were of a common linguistic family. Religions, mainly animist prior to Islam’s growth in Jolof, merged as cultural exchange grew naturally.

In fact, Senegambian peoples were so fluid with their understanding of family, community, and ethnicity that even today a common belief that has been shared with me is “you speak Wolof, you are Wolof.” This may not necessarily be true or an opinion shared by all Senegambian or Wolof peoples. However, the sentiment illustrates the fluidity of culture, language, ethnicity and ultimately “tradition.” A sentiment, a tradition that lead to Senegambian women frequently marrying “foreigners” to bring them into the community. A sentiment, or tradition that I argue lead to the emergence of Eurafrican cultures and eventually a different French perspective on how to colonize and rule Senegal.

If African cultures and ethnicity have been intermixed and fluid, adaptable and changing, what do people refer to when they say “African ‘traditions?'” Such as “African traditions are more conservative” or “African traditions are more restrictive to women, more sexist.” Not only are these ideas about “African traditions” overgeneralizations based on stereotyped and biased “knowledge,” they imply there is such a thing as continent wide “traditions” on a continent with the greatest human diversity.

Where do these ideas about “African traditions” derive from? How were they built up, written down, and disseminated to not only the West, but also Africans themselves? How did defining “African ‘traditions'” or Yoruba, Xhosa, or Tutsi traditions change the societies? How does the West, and the colonizers who first began this, get its ideas about what is “traditional” for Africans and what is not? How does it affect Africans and their many societies and countries today?

Well one piece of this puzzle is the “Big Men.” Yes, these were the same type of men I mentioned later became “Big Men Dictators” in the wake of colonialism. They have contributed to defining what is “traditional” in their culture, often harming their own communities. President Zuma of South Africa can arguably be identified as an example of these Big Men traditions. When he was tried for rape he made the excuse that Fezeka Khuzwayo was wearing a khanga – which clearly meant she wanted sex. He claimed that according to South African tradition he would have been egregiously rude if he did not proceed to “have sex” with her (ie rape her).

She responded in a beautiful poem after having to leave her country due to Zuma supporters’ threats against her. A country which her father fought for in the anti-apartheid resistance. A country her father went to Robben Island prison for with Jacob Zuma “to join” Nelson Mandela in 1963. She defined what a Khanga was culturally for South African women and rejected Zuma’s impositions of what was South African ‘tradition.”

I am Khanga

I wrap myself around the curvaceous bodies of women all over Africa
I am the perfect nightdress on those hot African nights
The ideal attire for household chores
I secure babies happily on their mother’s backs
Am the perfect gift for new bride and new mother alike
Armed with proverbs, I am vehicle for communication between women
I exist for the comfort and convenience of a woman
But no no no make no mistake …
I am not here to please a man
And I certainly am not a seductress
Please don’t use me as an excuse to rape
Don’t hide behind me when you choose to abuse
You see
That’s what he said my Malume
The man who called himself my daddy’s best friend
Shared a cell with him on [Robben] Island for ten whole years
He said I wanted it
That my khanga said it
That with it I lured him to my bed
That with it I want you is what I said
But what about the NO I uttered with my mouth… [cont’d on link below]

Like Fezeka Khuzwayo (who has since moved back to South Africa) I, and all African historians, reject these Big Men and their notions of “tradition.” They are obfuscations meant to create and define their own power, dismiss inappropriate and corrupt behavior, and create a society that is to their own benefit, as wealthy men. I will explore these “Big Men” and illustrate how they are about as representative of their culture and the entire continent of Africa as Donald Trump is of American culture and the entire continent of “North America” in my next post. As in they are representative of how that culture produces people intent on power, how they reflect the colonialism and violence of the state and its Nationalism.

I will then discuss how we can more accurately examine the concept of tradition. As well as what some examples of tradition look like in African countries. To do so I will examine Senegambia, Jan Vansina’s anthropological study of Bantu society, and David Newbury’s precolonial work on the Kivu Rift Valley in a third post.


Reference Material and Further Reading

I am Khanga. http://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/i-am-khanga-old-wounds-reopened-as-protesters-speak-for-khwezi-20160808

Africa’s Top Ten ‘Big Men.’ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/8094012.stm

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma – A Profile. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-17450447

Newbury, David. The Land Beyond the Mists: Essays on Identity and Authority in Precolonial Congo and Rwanda.

Vansina, Jan. “Western Bantu Tradition and the Notion of Tradition.” Paideuma: Mitteilungen zur Kulturkunde.

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