In the winter of 2011 I spent an evening commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, the organization that first brought me to Mali 15 years ago. That night I joined a panel of former Volunteers — including a woman who’d taught biology in Mozambique, a man who’d taught tractor repair in Burkina Faso, and a woman who’d advised entrepreneurs in Moldova — in which we reflected on what our experience has meant to us. I shared some thoughts (an audio rendering of which is available here) on how living in Mali had changed me, and expressed a feeling of deep kinship with my fellow Volunteers, the notion that despite our different postings and duties we could instantly relate to one another. What was it, I wondered aloud, that we had in common? The woman who’d served in Mozambique spoke up: “It’s the understanding that people everywhere are the same.”
I didn’t say so at the time, but her response was not at all what I was trying to get at. Yes, in many ways we Homo sapiens are the same the world over. We love our children, we seek human fellowship, we struggle with our dreams, our limitations and our relationships. Yet what had truly marked me as a Peace Corps Volunteer was the discovery of just how differently we can perceive and experience the world we inhabit together. This discovery later led me to a career in anthropology and to the study of culture.
Last week in a conversation with some fellow expats in Bamako about Malian culture, I trotted out a trusty analogy likening culture to an iceberg: the part that’s readily apparent to the observer (e.g. dress, foodways, religious rituals, the arts) is dwarfed by the part that’s unapparent (e.g. attitudes, beliefs, obligations, the ordering of time, notions of logic and why things happen). This metaphor is a favorite of cultural anthropologists and cross-cultural trainers; if you Google “culture iceberg” you can find dozens of variations on the graphic at right.
Since first coming to Mali, I’ve dedicated my life to studying culture here, to mapping out the cultural landscape in hopes of better understanding it and helping others to do the same. And what I’ve learned is that I will never finish the task: the more I uncover, the more I realize remains to be uncovered. The “cultural iceberg” just goes deeper and deeper. I see culture not as a veneer stretched thinly over our common humanity, but as a deep-seated force causing us to see, think and feel fundamentally differently from one another.
There’s a risk whenever we talk about culture of over-generalizing and exaggerating. Anthropologists are wary of casting culture as static or timeless; three of the dirtiest words I know in the professional lexicon are essentialism, primordialism, and yes, “culturalism.” Cultural difference may be ever-present but is never all-powerful. It is shaped by humans even as it shapes us. It cannot explain things like warfare or poverty. I see far too many deterministic analyses identifying culture as the culprit behind social ills, divorced from political and economic considerations. [The book Why Nations Fail, published earlier this year by economist Daron Acemoglu and political scientist James Robinson, offers a refreshing rebuttal to such analyses.]
At the same time, it would be a mistake to write culture out of the equation too quickly when thinking about issues of governance and economic development. Here I want to call attention to four areas of cultural difference that have been especially striking since I began my Bamako fieldwork ten months ago. Let me first add the disclaimer that there’s no such thing as “Bamako culture,” let alone “Malian culture”: there are too many distinctions of language, ethnicity and regional origin for such labels to make sense. But I do think there are certain common denominators which, while not necessarily unique to this setting, must be taken into account by anyone seeking to understand events and society here.
- In the realm of politics, as I wrote in March, a leader’s legitimacy with the population may not derive from any constitutional mandate. Even though Captain Amadou Sanogo, head of the junta that toppled democratically elected President Amadou Toumani Touré from power, has officially renounced his claim as head of state, there are a good many people in Bamako who still consider him “their” president, international opinion and Mali’s constitution notwithstanding.
- Where gender relations are concerned, popular perceptions tend to portray sex differences as both sweeping and essential, and even portray women as vastly outnumbering men, as I wrote in January. Such perceptions can seem immune to scientific evidence. It’s not clear to me, moreover, that many people here of either sex share international donors’ stated goals pertaining to gender equality. The unprecedented backlash against President Touré’s bid to reform Mali’s family law in 2009 speaks to this fact (even if the backlash also stemmed from a cynical campaign of misinformation by leading Muslim organizations).
- In terms of interpersonal relations, you cannot ignore the dynamic I’ll gloss as “collectivity”: people here often act and see themselves as members of groups before acting and seeing themselves as autonomous individuals. Family and caste membership have powerful influence over personal behavior. This has a lot to do with the problem of corruption, as I wrote in May. It affects relations between employers and employees, between teachers and students, and between leaders and ordinary citizens. It also had a tremendous impact on marriage, the phenomenon I’ve been researching in Bamako. When everything from one’s choice of spouse to one’s régime matrimonial (i.e., whether one’s marriage is officially monogamous or polygamous) is subject to intense discussion and negotiation not only with one’s parents but with one’s entire extended family, it becomes apparent that marriage is much more about the union of two kin groups than two individuals.
- Finally, there’s the matter of causation — basically, what makes things happen. Success in business, politics or warfare may be attributed more to supernatural causes than natural ones. There is a whole sector of the local economy — you could think of it as the “spiritual economy” — dedicated to helping people prepare spiritually for future events, from finding the right marriage partner to getting a job or a promotion to winning an election. Politically speaking, if Malians recognize that their country’s current ills result from regional and global factors, many also wonder whether unappeased spirits could be responsible for Mali’s woes. (See the latter half of my post from late May for more on this.)
I don’t believe these or other cultural phenomena keep Mali poor, or that they make its government corrupt. But they are vital features of the local landscape that outsiders ignore at their peril. The cultural iceberg, to go back to the old metaphor, has sunk a great many ships over the years, and will continue doing so in Mali as long as people unfamiliar with this society fail to mind the iceberg’s hidden depths.