Have a reality check – Are you culturally intelligent?

Last year, I was invited to speak on “The Psychological Impact of culture on Emerging Leaders of Africa” in a seminar organized by ABLI, in E-Swatini, the former Swaziland.  To prepare my presentation, I used the Agenda 2063 frame whereby the African leaders aspiredabout the Africa they would like to see in the coming 50 years.  The fifth aspiration states, “An Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, shared values and ethics” and the sixth is:“An Africa whose development is people-driven, relying on the potential of African people, especially its women and youth, and caring for childrenthat talked both about culture and the youth”.

I bombarded myself with lots of questions: What is an “African” culture?  Do the 54 African countries have a common cultural heritages and ethics that can be summarized as “African” culture? Are all African cultures worthy to be kept? Isn’t culture a dynamic phenomenon and may change over a period of time?  Would not the culture we desire go out of style? If our sets of values are not compatible to that of the young generation, how should we live and transfer?

Since I could not find any unifying tangible culture, I resorted to unifying values that Africans already have and may need to keep as African culture for the common benefit. I came up with four values that most Africans already share: Collectivism, interrelatedness, people-centeredness, and faith in something transcendent.

Africans are collectivist rather than individualist.  We prioritize our family, our neighbors, our group, instead of our personal interest.  In collectivistic society, systems are designed to promote and respond to the needs of society as a whole for common good rather than individuals’ needs.  Group allegiance and values are given priority rather than individual rights.  The trick here comes when one group fights over the other group.   One homogeneousgroup or community may have prejudice over the other group; creating the “we-they” attitude and one group may have more privilege to exercise power over the other.  In severe cases this results in racism, ethnic cleansing, religious wars, terrorism, and segregation that go against humanity or certain basic human rights.  Yes, there are social and cultural rights but one should not exercise those by violating the other.  The “we-they” attitude may run rampant throughout every collectivist society.  Therefore, even within our collectivist values, we need to be cautious how we exercise them by developing cultural intelligence.

The second shared value that is found amongst Africans is the fact that we are interrelated.  Pan Africanism principles are intended for a union between the independent African states upon recognition of their commonality.  Though the definition for Pan Africanism has been evolving, I would like to stick to the historical links between different countries on the Continent, and the benefits of cooperation to bring about the best of the Continent.  Africans are interrelated.  Political, economic, geographic, cultural, historical interrelatedness make us inseparable and the fact that we can thrive when we can come as one power force to deal with common agenda is a heritage we can give to the next generation. Individuals are interdependent and part of a larger group.  One’s pain should be felt by the others.  Coming together as one force is what we can transfer to generation for them to see the power of interrelatedness, unity within diversity, and exercising multicultural sensitivity.

The third African value I choose to deliberate on is people-centeredness, not technology-centered ormaterial-centered.  This is not to say that Africans do not need these valuable resources; rather all resources need to revolve around developing the greatest capital Africa has – its human resources.  Africans ability to understand and connect with one another, at a societal level, community level, and the interest to understand others better is an asset we should capitalize on.  There is an outward orientation towards a group forming group identity, and cohesion.  This requires that we need to capitalize on inter-cultural sensitivity and focus on improving local communities\’ self-reliance, social justice, and participatory decision-making.

The last but not least value I would want to hang on as the African value is African’sspirituality.   Most Africans believe in supernatural power which created the universe.  The practice of spiritual activities could be different but most of us believe that we aremade in the image of God and therefore humanity is worthy of dignity and honor.  This is something that will help us to transcend and treat each other with respect.  Believing in transcending God also requires that there is accountability in not only how we manage relationships but also natural resources God gave us to use properly.  Our morality also emanates from this exercise that will help us to be considerate of humans, nature and all other resources.

In order to transfer African’s culture to the incoming generations, we need to specify the culture expressed in arts (music, sculpture, clothing, cuisine, languages)that are tangibleones and can easily be transferred to the next generations; and alsothe intangible cultures such as norms, values, spiritual connections, which may be relatively more difficult to keep.

\"\"Brooks Peterson in Cultural Intelligence defines culture as the “relative stable set of inner values and beliefs held by groups of people in countries or regions and the noticeable impact these values and beliefs have on peoples’ outward behaviors and environment.Richard Bucher in his book onBuilding Cultural Intelligence (CQ) states that the competencies that make up CQ are:First, constant awareness of our ability always to be mindful or cognizant of one‘s self, others and the cultural context. Cultural identity is very complex and not easy to read, intuit or know.  Dealing with collective unconsciousand making extra efforts to know one’s own and others cultural context that could be manifested in their values, beliefs, way of life is essential.

Second,cultural understanding– exposing oneself to information about cultural differences and similarities and grasping what this information means as well as its significance will help us develop cultural intelligence.  After cognitive awareness, the second level is prompting oneself for deeper understanding of the why and how of the cultural contexts.  In identifying our culture the following elements contribute to our self-identity and our place in the larger culture: country of origin, race and ethnicity, religion, parenting, generation, abilities and disabilities, political affiliation, thinking style, values and beliefs, life style and tastes. Most clashes arise due to lack of deeper understanding of others’ make up and shoving one’s culture on others throat.Diversity and pluralism best describe most communities in the world today.  However, one of the greatest tensions is over the lack of looking at things from multicultural perspectives and learning to be okay with the differences.

Third, cultural behaviors or skills–This is about our ability to do something and do it well as aresult of training, experience, and practice. One of the skills that we need to develop to be culturally savvy is asking critical questions and holding spaces for crucial conversations.After being aware of our and others cultural contexts and have deeper understanding of the different perspectives, we need to learn to respect differences and live in harmony with others.  Of course harmony is not consenting over everything.  However, since we are not living in isolation, and others should not be forced to live like us, nor we should be forced to live like them, we need to learn to respect differences, exhibit our life without disrespecting others, treat others the way we want to be treated, and allow each to represent them fairly.

We are hardwired for relationships and we are social by nature.  One thing we need to add to our fabric is developing the skill of holdingan open communication and the ethics of conversation, how and when to disagree without negating, and being civil towards one another.  Because we all may have different political, social, economic, educational, system… opinion, the ethics of communication is very crucial to uphold in order not to step on each other’s toes quite often.  Differences may cause clashes, and we may rub up against each other.  Developing cultural intelligence requires that we sit down and hold crucial conversations with open-mindedness for there is no substitute for communication.

Peterson defines cultural intelligence as, “The ability to engage in a set of behaviors that use skills (I.e., languages and interpersonal skills) and qualities (e.g., tolerance for ambiguity, flexibility) that are turned appropriately to the culture-based values and attitudes of the people with whom one interacts.” Cultural Intelligence is a fast growing movement in the west where multicultural society tries to live together in harmony.

If Africa would like to see “An Africa with a strong cultural identity, common heritage, shared values and ethics,” we need to define what we are, what we are for, how we transfer our intangible and tangible cultural values and moreover exercise those so that the young generation believe that our life is consistent with our aspirations and belief system and they will be willing to emulate us.

It is said that virtue and vice is a matter of choice.  Are you willing to co-create dignified culture whereby our collectivism, interrelatedness, person-centeredness and belief in transcending God will make us accountable to give a better world to the incoming generation?  In other words, are you culturally intelligent?

~ By SebleHailu
April 30, 2019