Frankly ... integrated Culture or Money?

What shapes our cultures? Capitalism, enlightenment or circumstances beyond our control? Dominic Otiang’a highlights contrasting cultures between Africa and the West.

By Dominic Otiang’a

An older man reads a newspaper. Getting old with your family or in an old people's home? The question is answered differently in African and German families. | Photo (detail): Sam Wheeler © Unsplash
There are moments during an encounter with a person from a different geographical or cultural background when something said, done or perceived by the other appears to be, or is said to be, at best, unusual, or at worst very weird. But is it that weird? Or can it be explained?

In a conversation with a teacher from Berlin who found it weird that her African husband feels the need to be philanthropic to his parents back in Africa, I felt the anger in her. “They were teachers. They should have some savings, or they should rely on their pension and savings.” Yes, people should have savings. However, if the husband's entire schooling had drained his parent's savings back in the days, it should be understandable if he chooses to remember his parent's sacrifices through termly donations. And that should be fair, not weird. Fortunately, the German state spends a lot of money on family and children's education. In most low-income countries, families sacrifice their savings.


At an event in Potsdam, I met a gentleman who demanded to know: “Why should I follow or obey the cultural requirement of paying dowry to my foreign wife? I mean, I am not broke, but it's just weird”.

I do not know the many reasons why different cultural practices allow this. Perhaps let's look at Germany, where such is not part of the tradition. In Germany, depending on the circumstances, most parents receive about 2,000 Euros annually from the state for childcare until the child attains the age of 25. Do the maths. There are many circumstances under which the parents can forfeit this amount of money; one of them is when the child gets married before the age of 25. Therefore, if you marry, say a 20 -year-old German, the parents will forfeit a staggering 8,000 Euros. As a gesture of goodwill, you may decide to offset this amount or, like many, wait until the state has paid everything. After all, some cultures see dowry payment as a way of rewarding the efforts of the in-laws or offsetting something valuable. So, this, in my view, is not weird. It is simply the difference between cultures in an industrialized state and those in a low-income state. Some communities are still not financially linked to their national governments.


After visiting an old-age nursing home in Konstanz, a Ugandan lady felt sorry for what she called a 'weird culture'. “You know as Africans, we don't send the elderly to homes. We live with them. We take care of them at home,” she remarked, and I could tell from her face that she was agitated. With us was a university teacher from Konstanz. I inquired from the teacher how or when the culture began. She could not remember. So we turned to look at Uganda, where such a 'culture' is said not to exist to try to understand the difference. “Now that you are here and employed as an engineer, what if all those living with your parents in the village were engineers, lawyers, IT experts, etc. and were living in the urban areas, who would be taking care of the elderly at home?”, I asked the Ugandan lady. It appears that capitalism makes the difference between how things are done in Uganda and how they are in Germany.

On family sizes, there's lots of criticism against large family sizes in the so-called third world countries. I do not know whether to have a big or a small family is a cultural decision or a personal one. Nevertheless, looking at the situation around me in Germany, I can see a significant factor that informs such decisions: Many of my highly educated friends live in shared apartments while some are still searching for apartments. It is a dire situation in Berlin. One cannot imagine raising a child in such conditions.

I do not expressly agree that capitalism is the best contraceptive. It has, however, shaped cultures in many ways, even though we would prefer to give all credits to enlightenment or the lack thereof.


"Frankly ..."

On an alternating basis each week, our “Frankly …” column series is written by Dominic Otiang’a, Liwen Qin, Maximilian Buddenbohm und Gerasimos Bekas. Dominic Otiang'a writes about his life in Germany: what strikes him, what is strange, where did he get interesting insights?