The culture of appearance

10 12 2009

In Zimbabwe as in the rest of sub-Saharan Africa appearance is paramount. It doesn’t matter how successful you actually are so long as you look like you are.

I was reflecting on this on the way out to the Tobacco Research Board this morning to try and nail down a particulary persistent disease problem in our lettuce seedlings. There is a four lane highway (dual carriageway in local parlayance) being built from the airport to the city centre. It is not proceeding very quickly and there were a number of idle construction vehicles on the new road site (I know that the consultant engineers have not been paid for some time). We don’t need a dual carriage way from the airport into town – at least not from the traffic density point of view. That would require more aircraft using the airport than it could handle. So it has to be for appearances. I am told that most of the other southern African nations have a dual carriageway to their airports so I guess we are trying to keep up with the “Joneses”. I cannot believe that it will actually impress the people who count most i.e. the holders of purse strings who know as well as I do that the money would be far better spent on other projects. Traffic lights for one. Health and education for another.

Earlier this week I went past a minor accident on the intersection of Harare Drive and Kew Road. A minibus and a security reaction van had collided and there were injured lying by both vehicles. The only people assisting were two white women (one at each vehicle) – the usual crowd of gawkers gawked. On the way back there were more gawkers and the white ladies were packing up and the police had a arrived. I didn’t see any blacks helping out. I think I am reasonably correct in saying this lack of wanting to help their fellow beings is also represented in the charities in Zimbabwe. I only know of one that was started and run by a black person, the Jairos Jiri Organization though I am not sure that it is still functional. All the others that I know of were started or the idea imported by whites though they obviously have a contingent of black staff. I asked my friend Gary who works with the black community in Gorongoza in Mozambique why he thought this was. He didn’t really know but he told me of a very old black couple who could just about collect water and get to the toilet and back. He asked the locals why they did not help out. It seemed they were concerned that if they did the old folks relatives might accuse them of having designs on the old people’s property.

In the current environment of political correctness it is the done thing to respect another people’s culture. I am using culture in the all encompassing definition; “The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group” as defined in the wikipedia article (see To an extent I agree. When I travelled in South East Asia I was careful not to offend the culture of the people I was visiting – anyway, if people appreciate your attitude you are likely to see a lot more. It really irked me to see European girls swimming topless on Thai beaches where there were signs clearly asking them not too. That is insensitive and stupid. I do think the British have got silly about it all in the way that they fall over themselves to be “mulitcultural” and make sure no-one is offended to the extent that they are losing their own culture (they would not dream of walking around Pakistan in miniskirts but seem to think that wearing burkahs etc. in the UK is a good thing). I digress. Some aspects of a group’s culture can be odious by any standards – it was fashionable to burn suspected witches and heretics at the stake in Europe. Fortunately that has changed. I don’t see why the culture of selfishness and appearing to be what you are not cannot be changed here. And there are plenty more attitudes and practices I can think of to add to the list.