What is Culture?

By September 5, 2016 No Comments


People have always lived symbiotically with nature and built stories, religions, and culture around nature and the local environment. Critical to a historical understanding of the environment is the definition of god itself. Many ancient religions and beliefs invariably created gods and other supreme beings out of natural phenomenon such as the sun, moon, stars, planets, and also from rivers, mountains, oceans, trees, and other animals. This respect and fear of inexplicable natural happenings and human dependence on it (for example dependence on rain for a healthy harvest) has had an influence on the relationship between human beings and nature/environment. For instance, whole mountain systems (e.g. Mt. Kenya by the Kikuyus) and rivers were made sacred and reverenced as gods; an interpretation that protected them from human over exploitation and eventual destruction. It is significant that assigning merit to natural phenomena also brought about value systems that respected and fostered the environment.

The Concept of Culture 

Culture can be defined as the totality of a peoples’ way of life and values as influenced by the process of continuity and change dictates of the environment. It includes all aspects of human life like language, beliefs, taboos, behavior, social life, religion, and economic activities, the norms, science and technology, architecture, literature, music /dance and art. Culture gives a people an identity in relation to the physical and mythical world. It is influenced by the environment and process of continuity and change. Culture is dynamic and cultural communities have an ability to change, adopt, and adapt new production systems while preserving crucial elements of sustainability.

Culture exists in two forms i.e. material culture and non-material/ideological culture. Material culture includes technology, science, architecture, drums and any other materials or symbols through which the culture of a people is manifested or expressed. Non-material culture on the other hand exists as customs, beliefs and practices, taboos, education, norms, values, economic and political lifestyles. Significant about the two types of culture is that they are all-encompassing reflecting most of the aspects of a community’s livelihood including settlement, nutrition, entertainment, religion e.t.c. They are tailored around the communities’ environment and dictated upon by the environmental resources available. For example, Nyatiti is a musical instrument identified with the Luos while Motoriro identifies with the Kikuyus. The two musical instruments are a reflection of the resources that were available within each community. The Motoriro was made out of bark and shrub, called the mogio or the Mokeo (Kenyatta 1965). To ensure continuity of activities; entertainment in this case, communities had in place rules and regulations guiding the use of the environmental resources that were used to produce such commodities. This also applied to other resources that were of consumable or non-consumable benefits to the community.

Culture has different levels. Culture is either universal (shared by all human population), generalistic i.e. shared at national level; or particular/specific e.g. family culture.

An example of general Culture is the Kenyan culture, Bantu Culture; specific on the other hand may refer to the Kikuyu culture, Maasai culture e.t.c . General Culture refers to common practices by a group of specific communities with some similarities, beyond the distinct practices dictated by their specific cultures. Having been united by the Kenyan administrative national boundaries, various practices common to most of the ethnic groups may have emerged. This may be referred to as the Kenyan Culture; for example the Kenyan national dress. Traditionally in Africa however, Culture was attributed to members of an ethnic group. This is because of the distinct identity that set the various communities apart. This ranged for the mode of dressing, nutrition, language and in most other aspects of their livelihoods.

Culture is all-encompassing within a community. It is reflected in all activities undertaken by an identical group of people. This can be analyzed by evaluating the basic needs of a person and identifying evident links; or by breaking down the normal maturity cycle of a person i.e. from birth to death. In considering the basic needs, we look at the mode of housing, clothing, food, religion and health. Analyzing these aspects tells us almost everything about a certain culture. Since culture is integrated, when one custom changes, others have to change as well.

Culture is symbolic in that a lot of it is expressed using resources within the community’s environment. For example, Mount Kenya is symbolic in the Kikuyu worship being the medium of communication to their God. The owl symbolized death among the Kikuyu as the snake symbolizes the devil among the Christians today. The use of such symbols ensures that people relate to the environment in certain ways.

Culture is adaptive to the environment in that cultural practices make one fit into his surroundings. In most creation legends (The Gikuyu land around Kere-nyaga, the garden of Aden), God gave his people land and all the resources their on to make a livelihood. It is on this basis that these people tailored their activities on pure dictation of the resources there on. Culture therefore imposes itself on nature teaching people how to behave.

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