Africa: The Shame Culture

4 Min Read

I suppose it is natural that as humans we all have a sense of pride and self esteem, but I always get a near heart break whenever I see people take this to the extreme.  Shame is probably most people’s first reaction when they feel they have not lived up to expectations. It is often what keeps people within their societal norms, and a natural deterrent from violating accepted rules of engagement. However, what happens when shame is legalized? What happens when people feel obliged to harm others, especially their very close ones because they feel shame? What if those objects of shame are outdated traditions and norms that offer no real benefit? This is especially a problem when the elders are the enforcers of shame, and being that in many African societies, elders are venerated.

The extreme shame culture explains why the family of the Sudanese woman accused of adultery and apostasy for marrying a man of his choice, still feel obliged to take the law into their hands because they feel she has disgraced them. This is even after she has been acquitted following international pressure.  Same explains why female genital mutilation is being imposed of young girls because the elders feel shame. It is the reason why parents murder their daughters for not being virgins or refusing to become someone’s bride at the age of 12. It is the same reason that families feel relieved by stoning their sisters or daughters for  extra marital affair. The biggest problem with this is its sensitivity. While these heinous activities are taking place, governments are very slow to raise objections and criticize each other. They are  often seen as a cultural practices, which are considered no-go areas for outside criticism. This is quite unfortunate as these are gross violations of human rights.

The culture of shame does not always manifest itself in a very grandiose way. It is shame that made the family of Mubarak Bala forcefully hospitalise him for openly declaring himself an atheist. Shame means that people have to keep away from their families for very long because they have not attained the level of financial weight that is required of them. It is the same shame that forces some others to steal or get involved in other crimes just to save their families from shame. It is the same that make politicians feel obliged to embezzle public funds because their ethnic groups would disown them if they failed to match the corruption of others. It is because of shame that many people are forced to remain outcasts in their communities because they are childless, unmarried, divorced, broke, or have some disabilities. It is indeed harmful to societies that allow this to become the determining factor in their daily lives.

The worst thing about this shame culture is that the ones who feel the shame are third parities who feel obliged to have others harmed or isolation based on the way they feel. This is a serious denial of personal freedom, and plays a role in limiting people’s opportunities. It’s high time we tackled this phenomenon head on. Fortunately, there are more and more people and societies that honour and appreciate diversity of thoughts and personality, and where individuals have rights to be who they want to be or what life has made them become. However, we should bear in mind that not everyone has that privilege.

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