We return to this topic a third time because of the importance we attach to the effects of rapid social changes that are leaving our societies so exposed - without a fall back – a fall back that would create a raft on which to build national collective values. If we don’t know who we are, where we come from, it is such a tough task to form up and face the future jointly. We defined cultural capital in our first installment as those symbols, ideas, tastes and preferences, customs, which when used appropriately, are deep resources on which to build for the next generation and to unite us as Africans – a people who seem to know more about the West than we know about ourselves! We said leaders in this field of cultural capital are like movie makers; they often shape thoughts, values and aspirations of society and its institutions. I actually think that the reason we do not cohere well and build lasting institutions is the slow erosion of this capital asset class. When we give our children a strong and progressive cultural capital base that harnesses all that is hidden in our languages and customs, it gives them a basis for understanding themselves and other groups in a much deeper way.
What are the three benefits of cultural capital?
The first is a sense of alertness and paying raft attention in situations of life. Three people unconnected and at different times brought this point home to me. The first was the late Mzee Serwano Kabogorwa who had been a UPC functionary in the 1980s but later joined NRM and headed the district of Sembabule as its RDC. About 2005, the President gave us a beautiful Rugondo bull at our home (Rugondo is one with a starry skin) which we brought into our herd in Lwengo district. Given Lwengo and Gomba are short distances, the bull figured out it would retrace the steps, though we had brought it on a truck, and head back to its original herd. A drunken man, usually ignored by many in his village as a nuisance, spotted it midway its journey and he reported to the RDC. I found the late Kabogorwa contact and called him. He used a particularly awful allegory in Runyakitara saying, “a man in a certain village used to defecate on the road side so regularly that when he died, many in village asked what had happened to the man who used to do this act. And then he added, ‘Please know young man that there is no one in the world who is useless. Even drunken man can save a situation”.
This saying is even more dramatic and vulgar in the local language just like many idioms and sayings of the agrarian world but they carry a lot of meaning. What Mzee Kabogorwa meant is a sense of alertness often people who grow up in the countryside have because of the seasons they observe with nature. For example, tending cattle in a dark night far away from home in a dry season teaches one to listen for strange sounds of wild animals or when strong winds blow, one can smell a sharp often acrid smell of rain on dry ground or when you bend and breathe in at night in the dark, you can often tell what is hiding in the thickets. All these give one a sense of alertness and knowledge of nature, people and of seasons, a sense that stays with you even in old age. This is not to demean urban experience because all experiences lead us somewhere but it is to say agrarian societies tend to have a way, they mature people a little faster because of a sense of need and the denial of the material riches of the cities. Even a drunken man can curiously spot a runway animal or report a theft, according to Mzee Kabogorwa and, therefore do not pass your eyes through people because they all carry different experiences. These experiences form cultural capital
The second person to share a related story was the Hon. Amanya Mushega. It was the beginning of June and the NRA forces had crossed to the Rwenzoris from March 30, 1985, in that long very heroic march that began from Luwero with soldiers fighting while guarding sick, injured and hungry civilians. The Uganda National Liberation Army (UNLA) or Obote’s forces mistakenly thought the NRA was running away into Congo in the heat of battles in Luwero. One morning, Mushega and the late Fred Rwigyema who were leading the column, were buying sugarcane after a long march in an area called Kasonganyanja in the village of Kanyankende around the Rubona area of Kabarole district. Again, a drunken man passes by the NRA officers zigzagging and shouting in Rutooro, “Nitubakunda kwonka nibaza kubateera” – ‘We love you but please be careful, you will be beaten badly’. Because Rwigyema was alert to all circumstances like any commander would be and didn’t want to take a drunken man’s words casually, he ordered his unit to fall in and take immediate cover – just based on the words of a drunken man he hardly knew anything about. “Hardly had he ordered the troops to take cover than a volley of bullets of all kinds were aimed at us on all sides by the enemy” Mushega told me! Just a sense of alertness and taking extra precaution at any piece of information, the NRA contingent was saved by a drunken man selling sugarcane!
The third related story comes from my own experience on a flight with the Hon. Amama Mbabazi, NRM’s former Secretary General, from the city of Abuja to the commercial city of Lagos about May 2009. We sat next to each other with him by the window and me by the aisle and after a few pleasantries exchanged, I pulled out my book from the bag overhead and started reading when the plane took off. The sound in the cockpit was poor and the heavy Nigerian accent wouldn’t let me hear clearly what was being said on the microphone. I closed out all voices to focus on the text I was reading. Unknown to me, the pilot announced a return to the ground hardly five minutes after take-off saying the aircraft had developed mechanical problems and we needed to return to base as soon as possible. Turning to me who was busy with my book, Hon. Mbabazi asked if I had heard anything to which I said No. He said, “we are turning back and you are not aware because you aren’t listening!” The lack of attention with our generation often starts with appearing to work hard or focusing yet you could be zoning out what really matter between life and death!
These three unrelated incidents show you the value of cultural capital – being in the now, alert to circumstances and listening for all that can go wrong. Listening isn’t taught in class but often through circumstances, traditions and customs teach us this sense of alertness. Many times, this sense of alertness doesn’t come from military training although this helps; it comes from the cultural capital children build at a young age. Today’s mobile phone - social media loaded generation has limited listening and attention span and we do not know what this will mean to our society in the long run. Too much information, too little depth and shallow attention to details is how one can describe a generation raised on cellphones.
The second benefit of cultural capital is the preservation of our society as human beings. Over the last 50 years, machines have been developing intelligence capability given the capacity to gather and analyze data. Do you remember in 1997 when Chess Grand master Gary Kasparov was beaten by an IBM super computer called Deep Blue? Do you remember in 2011 when Watson, an artificial intelligence system developed by IBM too, won the Jeopardy television game beating former human champions? We didn’t worry much then because we knew machines lack consciousness. But over the years, we have been handing over data, a very critical element and product of our consciousness to machines, simply to get an email address or find a friend on Facebook.
Data is perhaps the most valuable asset of the 21st century but just like our forefathers in Africa gave away human beings in exchange for mirrors and clothing, we might unknowingly be giving away our lives to social media and data companies and we have no insurance or protection against the consequences on our lives. On account of this, machines now have more data and they are steadily developing consciousness with ability to speak to us, to befriend us and we are entering another realm in human-machine relations.
Think of all the wearables on our arms as wrist watches or phones or fit bits etc. These measure our blood pressure, sugar levels, distance walked etc. These things we wear willingly but things nevertheless that collect huge amounts of data about us and storing this data for what I think is a day of reckoning. There are now more than 4.2bn social media users in the world, projected to increase to 6bn by 2027. Many of these are between the ages 14-30 and it is estimated 1 million new users join daily. Some 62% of the global population use the internet and given that 26% of the world is under the age of 15, it means more than half or 4bn people are under 30 and use the internet very regularly for work and social media. Because of all this, sociologists tell us that there is heightened “urbanization of consciousness” a term which means that the things that used to be associated or known by people living in urban areas, now come rapidly to both the towns and villages at the same time, in a daily torrential volley to all of us, educated, semi-illiterate and illiterate – creating a cultural clash, a collision of lifestyles, heightened expectations about tomorrow yet without a plan. The social media rise has come with it high stress levels, broken relationships and mental illness – the things we didn’t have years back. These all create a rapid depletion of cultural capital, undermining established healthy values to our society, causing a steady raise of negative behaviour across generations - behaviour that seek to displace what has united us and kept us together.
I want you to remember that any business person will prefer intelligence over consciousness. If a machine will sell more and better at a lesser cost than a person who speaks and falls sick, why on earth do I need people? What is the end result? Further break up of social norms and values and a depletion of our cultural capital. Sure, the machines will develop new forms of capital for themselves and for humanity, but who really knows where this will end? Do we have any safeguards to the future of our society if we ignore language, foods, tastes, dress, manners and things that made us human? Will this be transformation or distortion?
If we do not control our traditional seeds for example, we introduce the use of harmful chemicals and new weeds in our gardens, we don’t keep a record of more than 150 relatives to avoid marrying from our own relatives and we praise only meeting and dating online because it faster and less cumbersome than learn speaking to your neighbors, what will this mean for the future of the human race especially developing countries with weak institutions?
The third benefit of cultural capital is that it helps us often to build another three forms of capital. Let us start with one I call the Faith capital. In every generation where the gospel has been preached, there is always a need to understand the cultural capital of that area before one can build understanding. Hunter Beaumont writing in a book called “Before you lose your faith” calls the gospel a kernel and the culture within which it is preached or comes from, a husk. A good communicator of the Gospel has to understand the husk for what it is and gently remove it in order to reveal the Kernel or they will not be understood because we all come from a particular culture and see things differently. I think this why Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians 15:33, quotes from a popular poet called Menander, who had lived before Paul. The verse says, “do not be misled, bad company corrupts character”. Menander was an ancient comic poet who probably picked his writing from Socrates.
Paul uses what was contemporary culture of his listeners not to affirm it but to use it as a bridge, to remove the husk and point them to the kernel – the gospel that he wanted preached. We build our faith often working our way from the very culture we are in and know well and create understanding as we move on to the next depth of knowledge. If we aren’t grounded into what we know, it often will be difficult to hear and understand. Mzee Matthew Rukikaire in his autobiography, ‘70 years a Witness’, speaks of the power of imagery embedded in the cleansing blood of Christ when preached to the Banyakigezi and Banyankore during the East African Christian revival movement in the 1940s. He wrote, “the spirit of brotherhood among those early Christians was so strong that they no longer saw themselves in terms of tribe or race for that matter; they had conquered these barriers miraculously. This extraordinary demonstration of oneness happened through the doctrine of the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus Christ, the son of God: and since blood oaths were the most binding covenants in African traditional beliefs, one can see how these early converts could relate to the covenant that was sealed by the blood of Jesus”
Paul himself tells us the value of cultural capital when he says, “To the Jews, I became a Jew in order to win Jews. To those under the law, I became as one under the law (though not myself under the law) that I might win those under the law... I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some...” (1cor 9:20-23). Paul tells us he took up the cultures of other peoples, understood them in order to be able to deliver the message of the gospel. To build faith, we don’t have to import culture and behaviour. We simply need to understand the context.
Next, we will speak about financial capital and social capital as source as extensions of cultural capital.
Have a great weekend