To view a copy of an extensive list of questions and bulleted thoughts about my first reading in Charles Piot’s Remotely Global, please click: Remotely Global Notes
Lost in the complex descriptions of the West African Kabre people presented by the renowned anthropologist Charles Piot, I found myself flipping through stored mental images of “Africa” to give me some sort of picture of a culture centered upon elegant gift exchange and a lifestyle reflecting the moral of one of my favorite childhood stories: “What Goes Around Comes Around.”
I realized (and was reminded frequently by Mr. Piot) how biased the pictures in my mind of the “real Africa” had become. Black fly covered faces, brightly colored printed fabric, bare feet, diagrams of slave ships from countless history textbooks, and distended bellies of small children all come to mind. These pictures come from the pages of National Geographic and the New York Times–the nightly news and lessons taught in the tiled rooms of my white suburban schools. Just as Piot points out, I have learned to see Africa as a realm of the “Other.” I have learned that they are a country in need of our help. I have been told that their traditions can violate human rights (as is often the argument with such issues as genital mutilation) and that we are the ones who need to step in. We are the superpower. Reading Piot, I wonder where we draw the line. When do we step across cultural boundaries and declare a tradition “inhumane” and “unjust?” Of course, this leads to further questions like: How do we define what is “normal?” Through what lens should we analyze other cultures and their traditions (Piot discounts almost every attempt made at understanding the Kabre…saying none are nearly complex enough–and yet, he doesn’t seem to offer a solution at finding that complexity completely. Are we destined to never fully understand a culture? Even our own? )
In the U.S., we have so many rules about how to live our daily lives. They differ according to class and circumstance, but they are strict and defined. This is a sort of comfort to us. There are certain forks for salads and desserts, and hours when you should not call (this is more debatable in the age of texting and sleeping with cell phones I suppose…) I can still remember vividly the day my 6th grade cotillion teacher tried to teach us how to introduce the “more important person” first at a dinner party. According to the white-gloved woman with the upturned nose, lawyers and doctors always ranked first. Especially if they were men. Running home with this news to my mother, that was the day I quit. I am fascinated by the rules of the Kabre society. Gifts don’t have to be equal in “value” to be equal in meaning. Thought is what counts, and hierarchical ranking doesn’t mean that those at the upper tier can’t be indebted to those at the bottom. You are treated in death as you lived in life. When you come into the world, your gender is undefined. There’s something beautiful about the ambiguity of these rules. I wonder how they are taught to youth and how they play out. I wonder how these people manage to be so selfless in a world where I came to believe (particularly after studying the philosophy of Reinhold Niebuhr) that we all have inevitable selfish motives for pretty much everything in life. In my first impressions, it seems that we, as an American consumerist society that has largely become lost to the art of relationships, could learn a lot from the Kabre.