Culture: Source of Unity or a Barrier?–Remarks at Uganda Cultural Day

IMG_9708Last night I had the pleasure of providing the keynote address at the celebrations for Uganda Cultural Day, held at St Mary’s College in Belfast. Fr Charles Lwanga Kaweesi, who is based in Portglenone, had invited me to speak on the topic of ‘Culture: Source of Unity or a Barrier?’

My talk ranges from anthropological definitions of culture to comparisons of dealing with the past in Northern Ireland and Uganda. It references the work of the Gulu Child charity and a former student of mine who conducted research there.

There was plenty else on offer, including delicious food, traditional Ugandan drumming and dancing, hip-hop dancing, a fashion show, a performance by the African choir, and remarks from Sylvia Gavigan, Honorary Council of Uganda to Ireland, Deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast Tierna Cunningham, and Bishop Donal McKeown.

Culture: Source of Unity or a Barrier?

IMG_9727Good evening everyone. I am grateful for the opportunity to meet all of you and to share in this inter-cultural celebration. First I would like to thank Fr Charles for inviting me here, and asking me to address you for a few minutes on the topic of ‘Culture: Source of Unity or a Barrier?’

I am an assistant professor in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast. In many ways, my work is about studying cultures – both the cultures of the so-called ‘two traditions’ within Northern Irish society, as well as cultures further afield.

In our everyday lives, we tend to think of culture in terms of its physical manifestations: distinctive dress, music, language, food, religious practices, and so on, of particular groups. Tonight’s celebration is helping us to understand what’s distinctive about your Ugandan cultures, and to celebrate them.

But as an academic, I find it vital to start any discussion of culture with a definition of it. Academics have often been accused of defining the life out of concepts, or engaging in petty squabbles about how best to define terms. For simplicity’s sake, I’ll share with you Edward Tylor’s classic anthropological definition of culture (1871):

‘Culture, or civilization … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man [and woman] as a member of society.’

Culture, then, surrounds us, and helps us to make sense of our world. Culture helps us to understand who we are, and in many cases, to identify who we are not.

In Northern Ireland, culture has often been divisive and contentious. Culture is something that has been used to define one group as superior to another, or thought of as something that must be defended at all costs. People here often feel that their culture is threatened or under attack. Those from the cultures of the ‘two traditions’ are also at times guilty of overlooking other cultures in our midst.

Thus far, then, it would seem I am painting a rather bleak picture of culture. It sounds like culture is a force that can unify one community over against others –in effect serving as a barrier to genuine engagement, interaction, and understanding across cultures.

There are of course disagreements about the extent that this is inevitably the case. Some see culture as stretching so far back in time that it is primeval, extremely durable, and therefore difficult to change. For them, conflict between cultures is therefore almost inevitable and it is best to keep people from different cultures ‘separate but equal,’ free to exercise their ‘cultural rights’ in isolation from one another.

Others – myself included – do not see culture that way. Rather, we think of culture as something that is dynamic, and actively shaped by the people who are a part of that culture.

IMG_9703For a culture to remain healthy and fulfilling for people, it requires infusions of new ideas and practices, as well as the adaptation of old practices for new circumstances. New or re-formed ideas and practices inevitably come from respectful interaction with those who are different from us. This does not necessarily mean assimilation or hybridization. And those who are from majority cultures or more economically, socially or politically powerful cultures must be vigilant that they are not forcing their culture upon those that have less power and influence.

Ideally, this means that diverse peoples could find unity through respectful cultural interaction. In such a process, there would be no attempts to impose one culture over others or assimilate others. Rather, all people would be open to learn from and enjoy what other cultures have to offer.

In 2011, at a summer school on Religion and Reconciliation in Africa at the University of Jena in Germany, I met Sister Hellen Lamanu from the Little Sisters of Mary Immaculate Centre for Disadvantaged Children in Northern Uganda. This ‘Gulu Child’ charity helps orphans, former child soldiers, and other vulnerable children who have suffered as a result of conflict in Northern Uganda.

Sr Hellen explained how the charity blends the best insights from a variety of cultures to try and help the children to cope with the trauma which they have experienced.

For example, the charity utilises Western psycho-analytical approaches that help them to diagnose and treat post-traumatic stress disorder, Christian approaches such as healing liturgies and the sacrament of reconciliation, and the traditional ceremonies of Acholi justice, reconciliation and welcome such as Mato Oput (drinking together of the bitter root of the oput tree), gomo tong (the bending of the spears) and nyono tonggweno (stepping on an egg, which symbolises cleansing and welcome back into the community).

This example may be painful, and much work remains to be done in Northern Uganda. But there is much that we here in Northern Ireland can learn from the openness to different cultural approaches which Sr Hellen displayed as she spoke about the work of Gulu Child.

Last year, an Irish student on our Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Lynda Buckowski, travelled to Uganda to research the work of Gulu Child.

Lynda’s research evaluated the strengths and limitations of the charity’s activities, with a careful consideration of how difficult it is to promote healing amongst those who have been so traumatised. But Lynda also reported how enriched she was by her everyday interactions with the children, Sr Hellen, and others in the area. They shared their lives with her, introducing her to the ways in which they relaxed, and they were eager to learn more about her as well. That is also what cultural encounter is about – learning to have fun together.

As a society also suffering and transitioning from conflict, Northern Ireland should also be asking how we might draw on our own cultural resources for healing – as well as insights from other cultures – to find more creative ways of reconciling with each other. We should also be asking how our cultural traditions can learn to have fun together.

So for me, culture can be a source of unity in diversity. It can be a resource to draw on to help heal the divisions which are at times, in part, created by opposing cultures. Above all, cultural engagement should be a process of mutual enrichment.

It’s up to all of us to seize opportunities like we have here tonight, as well as to try and develop genuine friendships with the people of different cultures who live in our society. To you Ugandans who are hosting us tonight: thank you for extending that hand of friendship.

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