The Place Of Values In African Culture

The value of a thing, be it an object or a belief, is normally defined as its worth. Just as an object is seen to be of a high value that is treasured, our beliefs about what is right or wrong that are worth being held are equally treasured.

A value can be seen as some point of view or conviction which we can live with, live by and can even die for. This is why it seems that values actually permeate every aspect of human life. For instance, we can rightly speak of religious, political, social, aesthetic, moral, cultural and even personal values. We have observed elsewhere that there are many types and classifications of values. As people differ in their conception of reality, then the values of one individual may be different from those of another. Life seems to force people to make choices, or to rate things as better or worse as well as formulate some scale or standard of values. Depending on the way we perceive things we can praise and blame, declare actions right or wrong or even declare the scene or objects before us as either beautiful or ugly. Each person, as we could see, has some sense of values and there is no society without some value system.

Whether we are aware of it or not, the society we live in has ways of daily forcing its values on us about what is good, right and acceptable. We go on in our daily lives trying to conform to acceptable ways of behaviour and conduct. Persons who do not conform to their immediate society’s values are somehow called to order by the members of that society. If a man, for instance, did not think it wise to make honesty a personal value, and it is widely held by his immediate society that truth telling is a non-negotiable virtue, it would not be long before such an individual gets into trouble with other members of his society. This shows that values occupy a central place in a people’s culture. It forms the major bulwark that sustains a people’s culture, making it more down-to-earth and real. Elsewhere, we have seen African culture as “all the material and spiritual values of the African people in the course of history and characterising the historical stage attained by Africa in her developments”. This simply means that there is a peculiar way of life, approach to issues, values and world views that are typically African.

Based on cultural considerations, some forms of behaviour, actions and conduct are approved while others are widely disapproved of. To show the extent of disapproval that followed the violation of values that should otherwise be held sacred, the penalty was sometimes very shameful, sometimes extreme. African culture, with particular reference to the Ibibio people in AkwaIbom State, Nigeria, for instance, has zero tolerance for theft. The thief once caught in the act or convicted, would be stripped naked, his or her body rubbed with charcoal from head to toe and the object he or she stole would be given to him or her to carry around the village in broad day light. The sense of personal shame and the disgrace the thief has brought on himself or herself, family, relations and friends would be enough to discourage even the most daring thief. “what a people hold to be true, right or proper with regard to those things explains much of the cultural traits by which they become identified”.

The concern with values, whether moral or aesthetic, occupies a very wide area in the discipline of philosophy. To show the fundamental importance of values, it is regarded as a core area in philosophy, together with knowledge and reality. When we are dealing with actions that a people see as good or bad, right or wrong, praiseworthy or blame-worthy, we are dealing with the aspect of value theory that rightly falls under ethics or moral philosophy. But when we are dealing with an appraisal of beauty in the arts and crafts of a people, we are dealing with the aspect of value theory called aesthetics. It does appear that while material culture can be studied and evaluated under the aesthetic aspect of value theory, non-material culture can equally be studied and evaluated under the ethical aspect of value theory. Just as ethics and aesthetics are twin sisters that form or constitute value theory, the non-material and material dimensions of a culture together constitute two related aspects that give a people their unique identity, hence the relationship that exists between ethics and aesthetics. Having seen the centrality of values to African culture and any culture for that matter, it can be stated that the values of culture are what give it uniqueness and identity. Let us now look at African culture and values.


Having looked at the concept and meaning of culture and having established the place of values in a culture, we want to bring this down to the African context. A culture is an embodiment of different values with all of them closely related to each other. That is why one can meaningfully talk about social, moral, religious, political, aesthetic and even economic values of a culture. Let us now look at these values piece-meal, as this would give us an understanding how they manifest in an African culture and the importance being attached to them.


Social values can simply be seen as those beliefs and practices that are practised by any particular society. The society has a way of dictating the beliefs and practices that are performed either routinely by its members or performed whenever the occasion demands. Hence, we have festivals, games, sports and dances that are peculiar to different societies. These activities are carried out by the society because they are seen to be necessary. Some social values, especially in African society, cannot exactly be separated from religious, moral, political values and so on. Social values are backed by customary laws. They comprise of those traditional carnivals that a people see as necessary for their meaningful survival.


African culture is embedded in strong moral considerations. It has a system of various beliefs and customs which every individual ought to keep in order to live long and to avoid bringing curses on them and others. Adultery, stealing and other forms of immoral behaviour are strongly discouraged and whenever a suspected offender denies a charge brought against him, he would be taken to a soothsayer or made to take an oath for proof of innocence. African proverbs and wise sayings have a rich repository of wisdom. The proverbs warn the African against evil conduct and, are “therefore a major source of African wisdom and a valuable part of African heritage”. African culture has a moral code that forbids doing harm to a relative, a kinsman, an in-law, a foreigner and a stranger, except when such a person is involved in an immoral act; and if that is the case, it is advisable to stay away from such an individual and even at death, their corpses would not be dignified with a noble burial in a coffin and grave. Mothers of twins were not welcome and were regarded as the harbinger of evil, hence unacceptable.


Religion in African societies seems to be the fulcrum around which every activity revolves. Hence religious values are not toyed with. African traditional religion, wherever it is practised, has some defining characteristics. For instance, it possesses the concept of a Supreme Being which is invisible and indigenous. It holds a belief in the existence of the human soul and the soul does not die with the body. African traditional religion also has the belief that good and bad spirits do exist and that these spirits are what make communication with the Supreme Being possible. Above all, it holds a moral sense of justice and truth and the knowledge of the existence of good and evil African religious values seem to permeate every facet of the life of the African and the African believes that anything can be imbued with spiritual significance. The worship of different deities on different days goes on to show that the African people hold their religious values in high esteem. Sorcerers and diviners are seen to be mediating between God and man and interpreting God’s wishes to the mortal. The diviners, sorcerers and soothsayers help to streamline human behaviour in the society and people are afraid to commit offences because of the fear of being exposed by the diviners and sorcerers.


The African society definitely has political institutions with heads of such institutions as respected individuals. The most significant thing about the traditional society is that the political hierarchy begins with the family. Each family has a family head; each village has a village head. From these, we have clan head and above the clan head, is the paramount ruler. Prior to the coming of Western colonisation and its subsequent subversion of the African traditional political arrangements, African societies had their council of chiefs, advisers, cult groups, and so on. It was believed that disloyalty to a leader was disloyalty to God and the position of leadership was either hereditary or by conquest. In AkwaIbom State, Nigeria, for instance, even though the traditional political institution was overwhelmingly totalitarian, there were still some checks and balances. Any ruler who attempted to usurp powers was beheaded by the Ekpo cult. Such checks and balances were enforced by the existence of secret societies, cults, societal norms, traditional symbols and objects, various classes of chiefs who performed different functions on the different aspects of life. Hence, with respect to political values, we can see that it is inextricably linked with religious, social, moral values and so on. It is the political value that a people hold which makes them accord respect to their political institutions and leaders.


Economic values of the traditional African society are marked by cooperation. The traditional economy, which is mainly based on farming and fishing, was co-operative in nature. In Ibibio land, for instance, friends and relatives would come and assist in doing farm work not because they will be paid but so that if it happens that they need such assistance in the near future, they will be sure to find it. Children were seen to provide the main labour force. That is why a man took pride in having many of them, especially males. The synergetic nature of the African society is what made two or more individuals to pool their resources together and uplift each other economically through the system of contributions called osusu. Apart from this, they even cooperated in the building of houses and doing other things for their fellow members. When any of them was in difficulty, all members rallied around and helped him or her. Hence, we can state without fear of contradiction that the economic values of the traditional African society such as the Ibibio were founded on hard work and cooperation.

Having looked at some of the values that characterise the African culture, it is important to state here that these values are inextricably bound together and are to be comprehended in their totality as African cultural values

Courtesy of Gabriel E. Idang Department of Philosophy, University of Uyo, Uyo, AkwaIbom State, Nigeria

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