Monday 17 November 2014

The Race From The Bottom: Why Most Africans Must Learn To Do Romantic Love

Good at fraternal, bad at romantic relationships
Cast your mind back, as a habitual knife, spoon and fork user, to the time you first used chopsticks. Remember the hash you made of your noodles or stir fry then? Well that’s exactly the mess Africans or should I say West Africans, or even more specifically Ghanaians, make of romantic love after centuries of being experts at fraternal and sisterly love. They are as poor at managing romantic relationships as they're good in fraternal relationships, but why?

The extended family is based on a network of familial relationships which are very like fraternal and sisterly relationships. Such associations are tightly regulated with rules and usages established centuries ago, and given “constitutional” force by cultural endorsement. Everyone there knows how they treat a brother, sister, cousin, uncle, aunt, nieces and nephews, grandparents, family friends and the wider society. The rules are clear, well learnt and mostly believed in.  Note that none of these relationships involve sexual relations. What's right and what’s wrong is easy to uphold without the temptations provided by hormonal drives or impulses. In a romantic relationship however, the incendiary impact of sex renders most of the rules useless or unenforceable, and people seem lost as to how to proceed without these externally imposed rules. To provide a crutch to lean on, Ghanaian and many West African romantic relationships default to the style and manner of fraternal relationships and simply replicate them. This is much safer. The rules of engagement are already in place, order is restored, but the passion in the relationship is cooled or extinguished, losing that uniqueness of bond that intimacy opens to lovers. Utility, or just managing things, takes over. This has been my observation. It’s a kind of fraternal business relationship, and it could be had with virtually anyone else that follows the rules, not just your unique partner. This fraternal relationship just comes with the added bonus of mandated, legitimised sex! A notion of entitlement or ownership, based purely on the rights conferred by the association is easily fostered, without being anchored in a genuine, heartfelt, intimate one-on-one relationship.
Very few people say "I love you" in their native language

Very few people say “I love you” in native West African languages. The words exist, but are just rarely used in a passionate context. When West Africans do express such love, it’s usually in a foreign language like English. Perhaps this is because a mental adjustment needs to take place before such intimacy can “legitimately” be expressed. In the cultural context that their native language refers to, it is, if not taboo, almost in violation of the caveats of a brotherly relationship. As the relationship between lovers is being governed by the rules of a fraternal relationship, it surely feels weird to introduce passionate one-on-one-relationship intimacy.

Pair bonds if secure, lack passion
The traditional African cultural set-up is designed to promote the success of the group and extended family as a whole, not the survival of paired lovers as a unit. The extended family will thus always survive, but the paired couple may not, and any children from say a marriage or couple will usually be well cared for by the extended family. Thus in traditional West African culture, the survival of the extended family is paramount, a must have; while the survival of the romantic unit is relegated to just a “nice to have”. Nice to have because if you live with a partner it might as well be in some degree of peace and harmony, even if passionless.

The pressure on individuals to stay loyal to their respective extended families is thus often at the cost of the development of their private pair bond. These pressures often mitigate against husband and wife getting too close to each other emotionally, for fear they will tear themselves apart from their almost feudal fealty to the extended family. This makes the survival of romantic relationships more tenuous.

Parents having grown up in powerful extended families themselves know how extended family relationships work, and are able to pass their experience to their offspring. But being themselves innocents in the art of managing romantic love, they are unable to teach their children the life and attitudinal skills to create or maintain romantic relationships.  African kids just don’t see their parents in romantic mode and have to invent the wheel on this when it’s their turn to try a romantic relationship. There are no great love stories that I know of to set a standard in the culture, more a series of proverbs that explain the “rules” of relationships. The balance of power is thus firmly tipped against the marriage units’ survival in favour of the extended family’s ubiquitous onward march.

Africans must learn the art of romance
The world has however changed and won’t go back to how it was.  Individual freedom away from extended families is on the rise, backed by greater personal economic freedom, especially that of educated, middle class women.   The pair bonded state – whether enshrined in marriage or loosely entered into as cohabitation – is the most likely future building block of society. If Africans are to survive and thrive in the future, learning what romantic love is all about is already a “must do”, not just a “nice to have”. We are rather like the visitor to a Chinese restaurant trying chopsticks for the first time. We make a total hash of it, spread food everywhere and are only slowly nourished by the little we get into our bodies through our clumsy efforts. But in this restaurant there are no knives and forks available to fall back on! The race up from the bottom is on. People will have to learn to step up to romance.

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