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Ethics is about the practice of right and wrong. With particular reference to journalism it is about fairness and accuracy, among other things. This implies that ethical consciousness entails sensitivity to issues of justice in relation to the representation of individuals and communities covered by journalists. In portraying our subjects, ethical journalism requires that journalists have always got to ask themselves whether or not in carrying out their representation, they are recording their "impressions" while claiming to carry out their subjects' "expressions". Doing one in the name of the other is misrepresentation, an act that violates ethical journalism. In this chapter, the author reflects on the experiences of teaching African culture to a predominantly white community of journalism students. The experience shared is that of both the course presenter and that of the recipients. The chapter reveals the tensions and shock caused by the contact of diverse cultures. The conclusion asserts that such an exercise contributes to a better practice of ethical journalism for journalism students endowed with humility to learn from others and the willingness to appreciate difference.
Key terms and concepts
African culture, ethics, journalism.
In 2003, while a part-time junior lecturer at the University of Port Elizabeth's School of Languages, Media and Culture, I noticed that Communication and Journalism students were taught Roman and Greek Culture among other modules. The irony for me was that these students were on the African soil, and many of them were most likely, upon their graduation, to practise their profession in Africa, yet they were not studying African culture. Consequently I took it upon myself to address this discrepancy, and so have developed modules on African Culture for Communication and Journalism students. In this chapter, I reflect on the teaching and learning experience in the 2010 class at the University of Stellenbosch, and how this could contribute towards ethical journalism.
In the first contact session, the twenty six students were requested to write an essay of about 500 words about what the concept "African culture" conjured up in their minds. While their identities were kept anonymous, they were asked to reveal their ages, ethnic group and gender. They were requested to keep copies of their essays so that at the end of the semester, they would compare their earlier impressions with their final impressions after they had completed the course. Specifically after the completion of the module, they were required to determine whether their initial impressions were confirmed or altered, and whether the module would help them, as future journalists, to avoid stereotyped journalism. Before sharing these impressions, it is important to first give a definition of what is understood by "African culture".
Defining African Culture
African culture, in the context of this article, should be understood as the sum total of African philosophy, ideas, and artifacts (Asante, 1996:4). In discussing culture in general, and African culture in particular, this author is not oblivious to the fact that culture is dynamic and not static or frozen in time. This point is alluded to in Biko's (2005:106) definition of culture about which he observes that it is "essentially the society's composite answer to the varied problems of life". This definition makes the point that culture is the way in which people deal with their everyday challenges, meaning that as time moves, and new challenges arise, people must have new ideas and approaches to such challenges. It is against this background that Wiredu (1980:10) notes that the:
â€¦culture of a people is their total way of life, and this is seen as well in their work and recreation as in their worship and courtship; it is seen also in their ways of investigating nature and utilizing its possibilities and in their way of viewing themselves and interpreting their place in nature.
While recognising the dynamism of culture, this article is premised on the view that changes in culture do not preclude continuity (Karenga, 2004:24).
Also, this author is conscious of the fact that, as pointed out by Tomaselli (2003:428), in discussing African culture, caution must be exercised against the reductive assumption that all practices on the continent can be reduced to homogeneous sets of continent-wide social and African cultural values. This debate is explored in some depth in Tomaselli's chapter on Afri(Ethics) in the first section of the book. In appreciation of Tomaselli's caveat, Gakwandi (1996:182 - 183) observes that "[a]lthough Africa's cultures and languages overlap and enjoy certain commonalities, especially at sub-regional level, the differences cannot be wished away or ignored".
Since in his definition of African culture, Asante (1996:4) says it is the sum total of African philosophy, ideas, and artifacts, there is a need for a brief discussion about "African philosophy", since, as in the case of African culture, there are conflicting positions. Hountondji (1996:53) argues that "African philosophy, like any other philosophy, cannot possibly be a collective world-view" but "can exist as a philosophy only in the form of a confrontation between individual thoughts, a discussion, a debate". Emphasising his assertion, Hountondji (1996:76) observes that there "is no philosophy that would be a system of implicit propositions or beliefs to which all individuals of a given society, past, present and future, would adhere. Such a philosophy does not exist, has never existed". Hountondji (1996:62) defines African philosophy as "a literature produced by Africans and dealing with philosophical problems".
There are those, on the other hand, who argue to the contrary. Wiredu (1980:16) observes that a "fact about philosophy in a traditional society, particularly worthy of emphasis, is that it is alive in day-to-day existence". Wiredu's assertion finds expression in Obenga's (2004:220) observation about the ancient Egyptian society in relation to that society's guiding philosophy known as Maat. Maat is defined as "justice, a way of intelligent, conscious living, a concept at once ethical and speculative, a logos".
In line with Wiredu's argument, Obenga (2004:220) points out that "ancient Egyptians, whether they were kings or ordinary persons, lived under the imprint of Maat, Justice-Truth, the one way to true happiness, peace, beauty and the intelligible life". It could be, as Hountondji asserts, that there may have been and continue to be dissidents in African societies, who deviate from the norm, but that does not discount the existence of such a norm. In a similar vein, it could be that not all Africans exercise or subscribe to ubuntu (compassion, caring, etc for fellow human beings and nature), but that does not discount the fact that it is an African cultural value.
While Hountondji (1996:75 - 76) emphatically argues that "there cannot be a collective philosophy" and that to speak of African philosophy in the collective sense is a "huge misconception", Wiredu (1980:37), though recognising the collectiveness of African philosophy, simultaneously recognises "a class of individuals in traditional African societies who, though unaffected by modern intellectual influences, are capable of critical and original philosophical reflections as distinct from repetitions of the folk ideas of their peoples". What this implies is an appreciation of individual Africans' embrace of their heritage while simultaneously being critical of unacceptable or obsolete aspects of the very same culture. Wiredu (1980:21) clarifies this point by noting that
[t]those who seem to think that the criticism of African traditional philosophy by an African is something akin to betrayal are actually more conservative than those among our elders who are real thinkers as distinct from mere repositories of traditional ideas. If you talk to some of them you soon discover that they are not afraid to criticise, reject, modify or add to traditional philosophical ideas.
The point about culture as a collectively lived experience needs some attention because it has the potential to blur and to distort issues. Often observers tend to attribute an individual's act to a collective culture. This tends to be often the case when discussions focus on African culture. In other words it would be a case where individual Africans' misdeeds are linked to African culture. But this is not just the outside observers' fault, but Africans' as well, since some invoke African culture when they want to explain away their misdemeanors. So, as a matter of emphasis, culture in this chapter is informed by Gyekye's (1997:198) observation that "[c]ulture is the way of a life of a people. It is a public phenomenon, a product consciously and purposefully created by a people or a society." (my italics)
The words "consciously" and "purposefully" are emphasised because culture in this chapter is understood as constituting acts informed by thinking processes. Such emphasis is important because some prominent African thinkers such as Negritude writer, Leopold Senghor, in celebrating Africanness, have claimed that "Emotion is African, as Reason is Hellenic" (Hountondji, 1996:18). Senghor's assertion is informed by what has been celebrated as Africans' love for rhythm, dance, music and spontaneity. But culture, as Wiredu (1980:10) notes, "means more than art, song and dance".
Based on these conceptual and philosophical understandings, it is now possible to examine the 2010 Journalism Class' impressions of African culture before their engagement with the Cultural Literacy Module.
Students' impressions of African Culture prior to exposure to the module
Collecting the students' impressions about African culture at the start of the module was important because an understanding of their impressions informs their approach on reporting and commenting on African issues. Their understanding has ethical implications in that it is a determinant factor in whether they represent or misrepresent their subjects.
Issues of gender
A number of students noted that upon examining relations between African women and men, they got the impression that African culture promoted inequality between sexes. According to one observation, an Afrikaans female student notes that in African culture "[m]ales are dominantâ€¦and are also heads of the household". This is echoed by a Sotho student who is concerned that African culture places "men on a higher level, giving the impression that women and children have to scuttle around to attend to their male counterparts' needs". Another female Afrikaans student sees lobola as a manifestation of gender inequality. It is one of the practices the student "dislikes" about African culture:
Lobola is just one of the things I personally fail to understand. Exchanging your daughter for how many cattle (or money these days) she is worth just seems wrong, not even to mention sexist. This male chauvinist way just seems cruel and not entirely thought through. Maybe I'm ill-informed, maybe I just haven't accepted the patriarchal world, I still feel it is wrong.
She is not alone in this discomfort and apprehension about lobola. To a Pedi student, the "first thing that comes to mind" when she thinks of African culture "is the issue that most black young African women like myself will have to face somedayâ€¦lobola". She wonders why the recipients of this "gift" have to "name the price". Or "even more important", she asks: "do the sometimes exorbitant figures not put the young couple on the back foot in their finances?" Her questions and concerns are somewhat echoed by a female Coloured student who notes that lobola "[t]o most Western minds, the exchange of a girl for money sounds too commercial".
Issues of race and ethnicity
For a Coloured female student, African culture is both "a beautiful and confusing concept", a concept that conjures up an image of "beautiful people with dark skin and big, warm heartsâ€¦with friendly smiles and complex greetings that ask after all the members of your family". It also conjures, for the student, images of "violence and ethnic war". For a student who describes herself as Afrikaans, and who has "learned about African culture first hand" African culture "is all about sharing and living in community".
When the term "African culture" is mentioned, a Coloured female student "honestly first think[s] of black people who are part of an ethnic group such as Xhosa, Zulu, Venda, Sesotho etc. who have certain customs such as lobola, veldt circumcisions and who believe in ancestors or sangomas that influence their way of life, beliefs and from whom they seek advice through their lives". Similarly, to a White, Afrikaner female student "[w]hen the question of the what and how of 'African culture' enters a conversation between myself and a curious foreigner - I think black. I don't think Indian, Coloured or White as I would want to - I think absolutely black".
For this student, the term first conjures up "shredded pieces of copied images and mystic tales from memory banks and silver screens" in which she sees "black ladies with big thighs, big bums and big naked breasts hopping up and down on the beat of drums and rusting beads". In a poetic way she describes how she "dream[s] up stories of the 'African people" as one with each other and one with nature". She hears "tales of ancestral spirits, curses, initiations, lobola and the importance of elders". But, she further notes, "[t]hese images and tales, however, seem to reach me in languages I don't understand and as pictures I constantly view from the outside - a tourist on my own southern tip of Africa". These thoughts, for her "remain only for a brief moment; as the tales we tell our children, but never really believe ourselves". That is because "what comes up on second thought on thinking 'black'â€¦is a little more of the every day mix of seeing and perceiving":
I now see the black woman washing the white women's sheets. I see her walking, not driving. She has a steady gaze. I see her providing for several kids. I call their father anonymous. You don't respect her or any of her kind. I see thousands of shacks. I hear no running water. I feel the distance between my neighbourhood and theirs. I fear rape. I read AIDS everywhereâ€¦I see myself as African - but not understanding or always trusting the symbolic language it so crucially demands.
For another Afrikaner female student, when she thinks of African culture
â€¦what comes to my mind are things far removed from my Western culture. Rich images of cows, beads, cloths, paint and animal skins are conjured up when I allow myself to ponder on the notion of African culture.
To another student, the term "African culture" should not be an "existing term at all" because it "seems to be a convenient umbrella term for the countless cultures existing in all of the 47 (sic) countries of Africa". In her view, there should rather be terms such as "Rwandan" and "South African" cultures.
An Afrikaans student who was "born in Africaâ€¦spent my whole life in Africa", who has "never left the continent", and does not "really have any particular desire to, either", observes that "[i]t would probably be easier to write 5 000 words on American culture or British culture than writing 500 words (or even 250!) on African culture". The student says his ignorance "is not a reflection on the importance of the respective cultures (American and British), but rather a result of media saturation". The topic "African culture" confuses him because "[f]or many people African culture traditionally refers to black African culture" prompting him to ask: "Does this mean that this pale native is only somewhat African? Surely, African-ness can't be linked to skin colour."
An Afrikaner male student notes that he has to:
â€¦admit, I've never really put much thought into the term 'African culture'. It's not like I try to avoid the subject. It's just that it doesn't interest me so much so that I would spend hours thinking about why some Africans do the things they do.
From where he stands, he does not "see white people from Africa as part of African culture, even if they were born and raised in Africa. White Africans have more like a Western lifestyle and they don't embrace their African roots as much as black Africans do."
Designing a course on African Culture
Keeping the student's initial impressions and comments in mind, it was possible to design a course based on several succinct themes. Some of these themes are addressed in this section, so that the reader can better understand how new knowledge was introduced with a view to informing the next generation of journalists about how to report on cultural differences in an ethical manner.
African Belief Systems and their philosophical underpinnings
Long before European Christians and Arab Muslims brought the Bible and the Qur'an, as Mphahlele (2002:143) asserts, Africans believed in the existence of, and worshipped one God. Added to that, Africans believed, and some continue to believe, in "ancestor reverence", which has been wrongly referred to as "ancestor worship". In order to understand the concept of "ancestor reverence" (Karenga, 2004:18; Mphahlele, 2002: 137; Boateng, 1996:117, Wiredu, 1980:11), one has to understand the African philosophical conception of the "community".
Community in African culture refers to the dead, the living and the yet to be born (Asante, 2000:6; Richards, 1996:212; Kamalu, 1990:157). What this conception means in African culture is that life is a cycle. Elucidating this point, Asante (2000:6) notes that African culture teaches that the dead are not disposed of, never to be heard of again. In other words, as Richards (1996:212) notes, while the flesh dies, the "Spirit does not die". Those who depart from the earth continue being "part of our living communities, participating and acting in ways that would advance society" (Asante, 2000:6). So, when Africans pour libation on the ground, it is "not a meaningless ceremony, but an actual invitation to the ancestors to participate and an expectation that they would surely participate if asked sincerely" (Ibid.). Through sacrifices to the ancestors, Africans believe that they:
â€¦honor, and therefore strengthen the spirits of the ancestors. We keep them strong so that they will continue to be able to keep us strong. The relationship between the human and the divine, the heavenly and earthly spheres, is one of interdependence (Richards, 1996:212).
The performance of rituals for the departed is premised on the belief that if they continually make that "religious and philosophical statementâ€¦then the physically deceased members of the family continue to be part of that family" and immortality is assured (Richards, 1996:212). It is through ritual that the "unexplainable is understood, that chaos is made to be ordered within the logic of tradition" (Richards, 1996:213). The "unexplainable" that is referred to, is, among other things, the phenomenon of death. Spirituality, in African culture, "acknowledged the reality of a nonmaterial world, as the material world was seen as incapable of explaining the totality of human experience" (Akyeampong & Obeng, 2005:24).
So, through ritual: "trauma is avoided, crises dealt with and overcome, and difficult transitions perceived as passages between stages of normal growth and development" (Richards, 1996:213). Through rituals, through ancestor-remembrance, the connection between the departed souls and those remaining behind is kept intact, unbroken. Death is treated as a phase, a transition from one form of life to another. Through the performance of rituals:
â€¦we become our ancestors and so transcend the boundaries of ordinary space and time and the limitations of separation which they impose. When we call the spirits and they enter our bodies, we symbolize in our being the joining of, and therefore communication between, two spheres of the universe: heaven and earth (Richards 1996:213).
The setting of portions of food for people who are not physically there is, as Richards (1996:213) notes, "a statement about the necessity and value of their spiritual presence, a statement which can be made materially because of the relationship between spirit and matter". The rituals are premised on the belief that there is an interrelationship and interdependence between all beings within the universe.
It is for the same reason that a carver makes a sacrifice to the spirit of a tree from which he cuts (Richards, 1996:213 - 214) in the African cultural belief that
[i]f we take or destroy, we must give or rebuild; for there is one spiritual unity which joins us all, and, if we do not ritualize this truth, we will end by destroying ourselves.
What Richards is referring to here is nature-reverence, which has been distorted by many as "animism" or "nature-worship". Reflecting on this, Abrahams (2000:375) notes:
All life, all living things - animals, plants, trees, rocks, man - have this in common: they are born of the earth, the land. They are therefore related to each other. The missionaries called this animism and sought to end this relationship in which the African accepted the earth as mother and all things on it as living relatives.
African culture teaches that human beings are not "superior to animals, the trees, and the fishes and the birds" but as "part of all these living things" (Mutwa, 1996:13). Far from teaching that human beings are superior, African culture teaches that humans are the "weakest of the creatures that God created" since human beings depend upon the nature surrounding them. On the basis of this realisation of human beings' dependence on nature, the African teaching was, and continues to be, that human beings should "look upon animals with great reverence, love and respect" (Mutwa, 1996:14).
This reverence (not worship) necessitated that during the periods of planting and harvesting it was required that those involved in the act should conduct rituals to thank the Earth Mother and "to apologise for injuring her sacred flesh in order to plant food" (Mutwa, 1996:23). When Africans hoed to get rid of weeds, rituals were performed as a form of apology to the weeds for having to remove them to save crops. This was done on the understanding that weeds were not evil: "but were plants which had the misfortune of growing up where we had planted our food crops" (Mutwa, 1996:23). Shedding further light on Africans' practice of nature reverence, Rukuni (2007:118) observes:
Our ancestors were quite clear about the fact that you only harm or kill another animal or plant for a worthy purpose. So when our ancestors used to go hunting, they would prepare and talk to the ancestors looking after that forest on behalf of God, to ask for permission so that they would be allowed to hunt in order to feed their families. No other harming or hunting of animals, just for the sake of fun, was acceptable!
Much emphasis was made in the classroom to distinguish between what has been referred to as "ancestor worship" and "nature worship". As pointed out above, these misnamed practices in African culture are "ancestor reverence" and "nature reverence". Journalists, as this author (Sesanti, 2009:130) has pointed out in previous articles, commit an ethical error in journalism practice by misrepresenting African cultural values. Such cultural framing has the effect, even if unintended, of damaging Africans' image in the public sphere (Sesanti, 2009:132)
In order to understand the status of women in African culture, it is crucial to examine African traditional education. Reflecting on this issue, Boateng (1996:114) observes that according to Akan (Ghanaian) myth, a man derives his blood from his mother, one soul from God, another soul or spirit from his father, and his breath of life from God. This myth, Boateng further notes: "is an attemptâ€¦to rationalize the matrilineal social structure of the Akan. If the mother gave the blood to the child, then the child is closer to her than anyone else." This belief is not confined to the Akans, but a practice found in the African continent in general. On this point, Diop (1989:32) observes that:
[i]n the particular case of Black Africa, it is almost everywhere thought that a child owes more from a biological point of view to his mother than to the father. The biological heredity on the mother's side is stronger and more important than the heredity on the father's side. Consequently, a child is wholly that which its mother is and only half of what its father is.
With this African cultural background in mind, Kamalu (1990:157) argues that the African:
â€¦education system should be such that the children are taught that the natural line of descent is through the mother. This can be demonstrated as beyond doubt once it is understood that all human beings are conceived by woman.
In African culture, to show disrespect to a mother is considered a sacrilege (Mutwa, 1998:627; Diop, 1989:63). Among the Asante of Ghana, Queen Mothers were co-rulers with kings (Akyeampong & Obeng, 2005:29). Historically, African women were rulers, militarists and in control of certain areas of the ideology-making process (Diop, 1989:103; Amadiume, 1989:xv; Clarke, 1984:123). Among women who commanded armies against European armies' invasions in Africa were Angola's Nzinga and Ghana's Yaa Asantewa (Akyeampong & Obeng, 2005:40; Williams, 1987:256). Queen Hatshepsout of Egypt and Candace of Ethiopia ruled in their own rights (Diop, 1989:48).
If women are this highly regarded in African culture where do the claims of gender inequality and women oppression emerge from? Polygyny - the practice of having more than one wife - is one act in African culture "condemned in the West as one of the worst symbols of African women's oppression" (Nnaemeka, 2005:62). Polygyny is not an exclusively African practice, but practiced among Arabs and Muslims as well. While everyone is entitled to rejecting or accepting the practice, it is important to understand what it means to its practitioners. Diop (1991:118) notes that in the African context this practice was introduced as a "reaction to the various calamities and social upheavals (shortage of men due to wars, epidemics, genocide etc)" that befell African communities. Diop further observes that it was in the spirit of the "African communitarian system" that polygyny was adopted. The practice was introduced:
â€¦so that the individual, and every woman, may be spared social solitude: this was a deliberate choice of pre-colonial African society, a choice that was the opposite of the material and moral solitude necessary to individualistic Western societies.
Responding to Western criticism of polygyny, Nnaemeka (2005:62), a woman herself, notes that this criticism is made "without any assessment of the advantages the practice accords women: sharing child care, emotional and economic support, sisterhood, companionship, and so on". She further asserts that "an African woman in a polygamous relationship seems to be a step or two ahead of her Western counterpart living under the illusion that she is not sharing her husband". That is because, Nnaemeka further points out, "the African woman knows who else her husband is with".
In stressing that lobola should under no circumstance be confused with the Homeric bride-price, Mutwa (1996:76) states that this African practice "does not involve buying a woman, because African religion holds that no one has the right to buy a woman or, for that matter, any other human being". He backs up his argument by making reference to an isiZulu saying, which when translated reads: "You cannot buy a woman, she is not a cow; you cannot purchase a wife, she is not a home" (Mutwa, 1996:77). Mutwa (1996:78) goes on to say that each of the nine cattle offered by the husband-to-be "represents a month in which the young man's wife-to-be lay in her mother's womb. Lobola, therefore, is an ancient ritual which honours women - in this case the mother of the wife-to-be".
Emphasising that there "is no purchase of the woman by her husband," Diop (1989:30) points out that: "nowhere among black peoples is the woman considered to belong to the husband's family; she continues to belong to her own family after marriage". According to Diop (1989:30), lobola serves as compensation for the taking away of a member from the wife's family.
These, then were the central issues dealt with in the course module. Upon completion of the classes, students were requested to give a critical feedback. And this is an important point: there was no expectation that the students would embrace African cultural practices uncritically. Rather, the objective was that whether they agreed or not, they would do so from an informed position and that when they report on African cultural issues, it would be with a sense of insight and accuracy - the latter being an important element of ethical journalism.
Students' feedback at the end of the module
The Sotho student who had expressed discomfort about African culture because "it felt uncaring and egoist in favour of men" upon reading and interacting with the prescribed reading material in the classroom, experienced change in her "perceptions and feelings". This was after learning that the "role of women was not only confined to child-bearing and care and maintaining a household, but that of an equal and very necessary member of a society". She was pleased to learn that women in African culture were "integral, from being the spiritual and personal advisers of kings to being leaders themselves". The Pedi student who was apprehensive about lobola felt that:
[a]fter sitting in numerous Cultural Literacy lectures I walk away with somewhat of a pride in the beauty of African culture when it is in its purest form - undiluted by foreign influences. It brought somewhat a comfort to finally attach meaning to the practices that make up the culture.
A Shona student who has "always identified strongly with being African" notes that the "course served to reinforce my appreciation for the land of my ancestry". The classes became a "representation of how much I did not know. Of those things I thought I knew, explanations of why they were a certain way were given". She says that in the Cultural Literacy classes a lot of issues that confront "me as an African on a daily basis were scrutinised". She "feel[s] that teaching African culture is pivotal to the development of African journalists".
However, not all experienced the course in the same way. One of the female Afrikaans students still remained ambivalent about African culture. While various readings showed her that "African women have not always been repressed and they indeed occupied very important roles in African history", it, however:
â€¦seems that these examples all come from ancient culture, that the special place for African women seems to have been one of the things that colonialism and migration have eroded over timeâ€¦ it seems that in African culture, in its purest and undiluted form, women were revered and honouredâ€¦in present day life the many examples of suppression, both direct and institutional are just too great for me to be convinced otherwise.
From the course, the Afrikaans female student had "hoped to learn" not about ancient African culture "but more about African culture as I will encounter it now". To this end she "found the discussions about personal experience in the class quite useful". Furthermore, this student wished "to make a bold suggestion": As part of the class, could the students:
â€¦attend an African church service, or go to have tea at an old black lady's house? These are the situations we will encounter when we are journalists. I also believe that interacting with people is a much better way to improve our understanding of each other than simply reading about it.
This sentiment was echoed by a male Coloured who would have "loved to attend a ritual. We need more practical work, such as going out and seeing rituals". For an Afrikaans male student, "the module has helped assuage even the most hardened hearts in the hearts to be open to thinking on multiple levels, both intellectually and emotionally".
This article began by pointing out that ethics is about the practice of right and wrong. With particular reference to journalism practice, I pointed out that when journalists report on communities' cultures they need to do so from an informed position. In Africa (including South Africa), years of colonialism sought to obliterate African cultural values. Where they survived, colonial education sought to marginalise and distort them. This resulted in many being misinformed about African cultural values. It is against this background that I have argued for, and made an effort to include the teaching of African culture in journalism schools. It is in the belief that when students are informed about cultures from the perspectives of the said cultural practitioners, they would do so with insight and accuracy.
In her article, Bringing African Women Into The Classroom (2005), Obioma Nnaemeka, reflects on her experiences of teaching African culture in a foreign environment in the West. She interrogates a number of interesting issues, but two were of relevance for the module in question. The first regards the lecturer's location, identification or lack of identification, with the subject matter, that is: is the teacher teaching this subject as an insider or an insider? The second issue that Nnaemeka (2005:57) raises regarding teaching culture to an "outsider" class is that "outsiders" come to the classrooms with their own cultural baggage and expectations. Let us examine these in more detail. The teacher's location has profound implications for their approach to the course. In this instance, I am going to confine myself to the "insider" perspective, since I subscribe to and practise African culture. Nnaemeka (2005:57) observes that one of the problems that an insider could experience is "overidentification with one's culture" which could lead to the "type of romanticization that produces other levels of distortions". Taking caution against romanticisation that could produce distortions is crucial because it has ethical implications for journalism students and future responsibilities as public commentators.
Cognisant of Nnaemeka's observation, measures were taken not to fall into the trap of being defensive about my culture even though I was determined to defend it against distortion. So, instead of simply telling the students what African culture entailed, they were handed readings and allowed to give their own impressions before I explained central concepts to them. They were asked to do this in a critical and frank manner. To some extent this worked, hence an Afrikaans female student could write back and say that "she appreciated having an African lecturer who was willing to listen to my point of view and discuss it with me, even if we didn't agree". While this student expressed this appreciation, she also noted that
[u]nfortunately, some readings gave the impression that African society before the European invasion was absolutely perfect, which irritated me; I don't believe any society can lay claim to being perfect.
While it is true that the readings dwelt a lot on the disruption of African society by European colonialism, the intention was never about projecting a perfect African image. But her concern needs some attention. There are a number of young white South Africans who wish to avoid talk about the past, not because they are insensitive to past injustices, but because it pains and embarrasses them, and would like to turn on a new page. That is a difficult concern to address, and my response to them is that reference to the past will always continue to haunt and hurt us all for as long as symbols of the past remain.
Reflecting on "insider" academics teaching "outsider" students, Naemeka (2005:59) observes that
â€¦many non-African (particularly Western) students who walk into courses on African women fall in into a different category; almost all of the come with expectations pretty much defined and entrenched in their minds. The teacher who teaches otherwise risks, among other things, receiving uncomplimentary evaluations for his or her unpardonable deviancy.
When in his feedback, one of the students noted that I was perceived as a "propagandist" after the first lecture, it was not surprising. I came in and declared from the beginning that I subscribed and practised African culture, and that, in fact, I was being initiated to become igqirha/sangoma - a traditional doctor wrongly referred to in English as a "witchdoctor". I made this declaration fully aware that many in academic institutions think that those of us who have had the "privilege" of being educated in white values-driven academic institutions are "elevated" from the "superstitious" masses of the Africans. This was confirmed to me when an Afrikaans female student in her feedback wrote that she cannot "understand how educated, westernised, liberal people can still believe in sangomas and witchcraft". So shocked was one female Afrikaans student about my stand, that she came to the office almost in tears, to ask me not to talk about African rituals in class. That was because, she said, as a result of the lecture I gave about rituals in the river where Africans communicate with their ancestors, she suffered nightmares. Remarkably, she referred to these rituals as "witchcraft" quoting the Bible to back up her point. Kindly, but firmly, I told her that the Bible was not the only point of reference, and that was precisely why I was teaching African culture, so that students would know that there many paradigms in the world.
One of the significant observations that Nnaemeka (2005:60) makes regarding teaching cultural studies is the overemphasis on differences. She asserts that in the struggle for human dignity "we could accomplish much by teaching similarities and connections as well as differences". While her focus and emphasis were on teaching about African women, her observation that it makes sense for teachers to "teach connections, thereby reducing the distance between the student and the foreign culture and increasing points of interaction and identification", made sense. I did this by examining the logic behind certain approaches in the students' cultures against mine. This meant that I took the responsibility to learn about the students' cultures as well.
There is no guarantee that when journalism students' are informed about others' cultures that they will practice ethical journalism. They could still choose to prostrate themselves to their prejudices and biases. But those committed to be guided by their conscience can make a positive contribution to human relations when they have studied cultures other than their own. That is the reason our students are taught about African culture as part of their journalism education.
Topics/Questions for discussion
What are the ethical implications for a journalist of equating lobola to a bride price in African culture?
What are the ethical implications for a journalist of saying that Africans practice "ancestor-worship" and "nature-worship"?
What, according to the author, is the status of women in African culture?