The Theory of Conventional Cultural Unity

By Geletaw Zeleke

Ethiopia is one of the richest counties in the world, potentially, but in practice it is one of the poorest countries on Earth. The irony is that natural resources and man power are bountiful but due to low social capital Ethiopia cannot even be self-sufficient.

The main problem of overall development and peace in Ethiopia is reliance on a poor social network infrastructure coupled with low trust between the people and the government vertically and low trust between ethnic groups horizontally.

The current government’s clan-based Federal system is destroying the horizontal network of groups. On the one hand differences are highlighted by politicizing ethnicity which causes people to identify themselves by their group. On the other hand, nationalism is shrinking as these negative attitudes bring about hatred and jealousy among groups. A slighted sense of belongingness, ethnic conflicts and severe economic decline resulted in Ethiopia once the ruling EPRDF party implemented their “Architecture of Ethnic Federalism”. While in the mean time communication and the ties of solidarity between and amongst ethnic groups and their members are fading out of Ethiopian culture.

Wherever ethnic based federalism is introduced ethnic groups lose their psychological attachment to the remainder of their ethnic groups; like fields separated geographically the independent groups take up their distinct purposes. The only thing that binds disparate groups together under the umbrella of Ethiopianism is a central government which naturally functions as a loose horizontally network. Since politics and government are always changing if there were to develop a power vacuum then societal groups could no longer maintain their coexistence.

The unity that binds people together is not only politics or democracy, but also the sharing of culture and resources is an exchange that binds ethnic groups throughout the ups and downs of life. Whether politics are stable or not if a society’s social capital is strong enough then, they can control the effects of negative changes.

In recent history the Derg military regime claimed a platform of unity but belonging to a unitary political structure alone could not provide unity for multi-ethnic Ethiopia where there was no equality before the law. Unity of ethnic groups has recurring manifestations; among these manifestations is cultural unity (የባህል ውህደት). Cultural unity is an anchor of the relationships between and amongst ethnic groups and their people living in given jurisdictions or under a given political structure.

The Theory of Conventional Cultural Unity proposes a way of building social infrastructures by reinventing the concept of unity in the Ethiopia context.

The Theory of Conventional Cultural Unity (CCU)

Definition: Conventional Cultural Unity (CCU) is a process in which different ethnic groups agree to share their cultures and build common values.

Rational: 1) Culture is always in a state of change; 2) Culture is an external practice

Objectives: 1) Harmonize peace on both inter and intra level; 2) Build high quality and variety of culture; 3) Maximize social skill; 4) Build social capital to accelerate development.

Characteristics: 1) It is a two way process; 2) Conventional; 3) Willful; 4) Participatory

History of Cultural Assimilation

Historically classical forced cultural assimilation occurred in the past especially during the time of World Wars I and II. During that time countries were fascinated by the expansion of territory.

The motivation for forced cultural assimilation was extirpating the culture of rival nations and forcefully infusing their own in an attempt to rule and maintain their own superiority.

Take the period of Japanese occupation and colonization of the Korean people for example when Koreans were forced to speak Japanese and use it in official communications. During the Japanese colonial period (1910-1945) Koreans were forced to dissolve the Korean Empire, to change their names, and were prohibited from using their native language and manuscripts in order to distort and demolish the Korean heritage and history.

Marc E. Caprio in Japanese Assimilation Policies in Colonial Korea wrote the following of forced cultural assimilation.

Japanese assimilation in Korea during the final seven years of its rule witnessed the colonial administration adopting hitherto unprecedented measures to eradicate Korean culture and identity.(141)

During the colonial period in many countries colonizers were forcing the colonized to change their religion, customs and language.

Since forceful assimilation is one way by nature the colonizers diffuse their language and believe and the colonized should accept and possess it. There is no principle of sharing culture in forceful assimilation. The belief is that destroying the colonized peoples’ culture facilitates rule since scholars believed it is easier and faster to rule subjects assimilated by culture.

The Irish and Caribbean peoples were forced by their colonizers to use the English language. As a result of such a process of forced assimilation these countries lost a consignment of their cultural values.

The French colonial idea was a bit different from that of other colonizers. The French declared that freedom and fraternity would apply to those people who took in French language and culture. During the 19th and 20th centuries, as French colonies assimilated the French language and culture, those who gave up their culture and beliefs were granted citizenship. The belief was that realizing assimilation was civilizing the colonized nations while maintaining influence.

In West Africa Senegal was the target of French colonial assimilation policies. In general West African people were directly and indirectly forced to accept the external culture and language.

Historically classical assimilation failed the reason why was clear; human beings need freedom. When people are forced and conscripted to an external culture they reject it. As a result these people will not be able to enjoy the external culture.

Intra-forceful Cultural Assimilation

In history forceful assimilation also occurred at the “intra” level or within countries themselves. Countries having multiple ethnicities experienced forceful assimilation where one ethnic group controls advantage and excludes other ethnic groups.

In many cases intra-assimilation or ethnic group dominancy occurred by those who had large populations. In some countries the small sized groups could not compete with other groups and tried to assimilate instead.

Intra level assimilation was used, in most cases, to seize central power infrastructure and take economic and social advantage of other ethnic groups. However, the annexed and trapped groups most always fought to retain their culture and languages. Since the assimilation was forceful it caused anger and jealousy amongst groups while ultimately in most cases the negative atmosphere brought about civil war.

In Turkey for example in the 1930s the government of Turkey implemented a policy to forcefully and arbitrarily assimilate the Kurds. Following this policy the Kurds raised up against the Turks for their rights and fought forced assimilation both armed and peacefully.

More recently the Bulgarian government implemented an assimilation policy upon Turkish-Bulgarian citizens between the years of 1984-1989. The Bulgarian government started the campaign of assimilation of Turk ethnic groups.

Hoepken wrote the following of Bulgarian forced assimilation campaigns.

“During the Revivalist process (between 1984-1989), the party launched a direct attack on the identity of the Turkish population. It forcefully changed their names to Bulgarian ones, banned public use of the Turkish language and Muslim religion rituals.” (1997; 67-69)

Turkish-Bulgarians subject to changing their family names and having new identity cards with Bulgarian names doubtless resisted the process. These “revivalist” practices aroused anger among the Turkish-Bulgarian groups and caused the deaths of many people as we have seen by history.

The people of southern Sudan fought for decades in order to keep from being annexed by the north. Ethnic violence has caused conflicts and cost lives in Rwanda, Burundi, Yemen, Nigeria and Kosovo, as well.

The government of the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia abided the policy of forced assimilation in order to stop the flow of culture from the Albanian ethnic group. The policy was intended to maintain the status and influence of the Slavic ethnic group.

In the former Soviet Union ethnic groups whose populations are smaller always fought against annexation. These ethnic groups weren’t provided a place to practice and share their cultures rather the political environment tried to entrap them in the name of unity. This forced cultural assimilation never succeeded however.

Exclusionism

Exclusion is the act of limiting communication and interaction of a certain social group with others in order to manipulate and rule over them. Exclusionary practices occurred in South Africa. The word apartheid means being separated. During the period of rule of the apartheid system the method of rule was not assimilation rather it was exclusion.

In 1948 racial segregation was widely practiced in South Africa. Residence, education, health care and even public recreation areas were controlled. In 1970 non-white political representation was also restricted.

Again, by not sharing knowledge and culture the ruling group maintained their advantaged position through control of and rule over other groups. In Africa most ethnic based civil wars and ethnic conflicts have been caused by either forceful assimilation or exclusionism practices.

Forceful assimilation at both the inter and intra levels has caused ethnic conflict and civil war; because of its nature it qualifies as a crime against humanity. The lesson for the 21st century of unconventional assimilation is that no ethnic group wants to give up its own culture and tradition by force.

The Philosophical Foundations of CCU

Since culture is always in a state of change the theory of cultural unity views culture as possessing a dynamic nature. As a result of this nature even without external cultural influence groups change their own culture over time. The dynamic nature of the human mind always yearns for change as time goes by. In the theory of conventional cultural unity culture is considered the means and the end is humanity. From this perspective human beings can be understood to use culture to satisfy their physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual needs.

Both material and non-material cultures follow along with this conscious human development. Since human needs are not a static matter, human beings need better instruments, better administrations, better medicines, better lifestyles, better food and shelter, better clothes and so on. This tendency spurs the groups to internally change their food culture, medicine culture, administrative culture, material culture and all non-material cultures in general.

In a given groups’ history every generation will participate in and contribute to their own culture. As culture is passed down generation to generation not all culture and knowledge will be accepted instead it will be filtered and added to through the arts of the new generation. The contribution of the new generation to the groups’ culture is what makes culture dynamic.

We can observe cultural change without external cultural influences by taking a look at the most homogeneous societies. For example, in Japan there have been significant material and non-material cultural changes over time.

Japanese and Korean civilizations are notably dynamic in electronic materials production. Through their dynamic creativity they can even challenge the world’s material culture. The new generation in both countries do not use the same material as previous generations. This dynamic nature is the result of internal pressures to seek out a better life.

No nation or ethnic group can sustain their language and culture unchanged over time. During the process of passing culture the new generation selects or updates their culture. Some cultures are used and some are retired as treasures of history.

When we take a look at language for example it changes over time as the result of internal pressure. The change of material culture of the group itself coupled with the groups’ conscious development impacts the group’s way of thinking. In language science, language and thinking are highly associated. The language we speak is a product of our thoughts.

Members of the same group would have difficulty communicating with years of separation in their same language. The people of a community would not communicate the same way with members of their same group who lived 200 years before them. Even for the new generation of Ethiopians it is difficult to read and interpret ancient manuscripts.

My grandmother and I experience a bit of a communication gap while we both speak the same language, Amharic. My ways of expression of ideas, my vocabulary and sentence construction are a bit different from those of my grandparents. Using the same Amharic language if I were able to speak with my great-great-great-grandparents I don’t assume that we would be able to communicate. This shows that the same language of a certain group changes through time in its own cyclical nature without even taking into account external factors.

A certain groups’ culture and language can also be influence by external culture. In the 21st century where the world has become a village due to the high rate of material culture increase both intra-culture and inter-culture change accelerates the unity of groups.

According to linguists the majority of English lexicon originates from foreign borrowings.

“English is a Germanic language, having a grammar and core vocabulary inherited from Proto-Germanic, however, a significant portion of English word hoard comes from Romance and Latinate sources. Estimates of native words (derived from Old English) range from 20% to 33% with the result made up of foreign borrowings. (Wikipedia the Free Encyclopedia)

When the nature of a given culture is dynamic and cultural exchange is adding positive value to national life then, Why is cultural unity not more important?

The increased use of and for computers, transportation, electronics, food, clothing and medicine are the result of material culture unity. This phenomenon is both planned and unplanned, but most commonly unplanned.

Examples of CCU Theory in Ethiopia

In a given multi-ethnic country like Ethiopia the flow of culture from one group to another is greater than the rate of inter-cultural exchange. This is because the rate of interaction between groups is relatively higher. In the process of cultural unity spatial factors play a critical role in accelerating the rate of cultural exchange. People of diverse groups interact in traditional markets, public areas, institutions and at different events.

In Ethiopia there are over 82 ethnic groups some of their cultures and languages are extremely different from one another. Since they are under the umbrella of a single country they need unity. This unity can be realized through cultural unification.

The concept of cultural unification is different from that of forceful assimilation. Some writers believe that there were incidents of forceful assimilation in Ethiopian history while others believe that Ethiopia was experiencing relatively better cultural unification in the past.

The camp of forceful assimilation recalls the use of renaming Oromo[1]s and other southern nation peoples to Amahara[2] names calling it “Amharization”. The camp of cultural unification sites slight psychological impacts resulting from the higher status and economic class of the Amhara nation.

The case of cultural unification in Ethiopia is better understood in contrast to the case of the Bulgarian nation’s policy of forced assimilation, Even though we can say Ethiopia’s case was not forced cultural assimilation we cannot say that it qualifies as conventional cultural unity because the participation equilibrium was not balanced.

Conventional cultural unity is a process in which groups participate in the process of building culture and values. The purpose of conventional cultural unity in Ethiopia is not only to build strong nationalism, but also to satisfy the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of Ethiopians through a variety of cultural practices.

When Ethiopian ethnic groups contribute their own culture and language in order to unify it does not mean that their own culture will vanish. In the process of their active participation in building common values groups start to enjoy one another’s culture. They enjoy a variety of food, dance, hairstyle, wedding ceremony, holiday observance, material and non-material cultures in general. As time goes by the new high quality and varied culture holders will be unified Ethiopians not pertaining to a certain group.

In the context of varied and unified culture individuals are free to choose the best quality foods, their preferred clothing, favorite style of dance and so on. Selection from the collected material culture is based on convention and is not arbitrary. Preference of non-material culture is based on choice and not delimited by ethnicity. The general atmosphere of culture share policy allows people to comfortably choose useful material cultures and put the rest of obsolete material and non-material cultures to rest in the shared vault of national history.

When we take a look at the food culture of Addis Ababa the capital and most diverse city of Ethiopia it shows the tradition of a variety of ethnic foods in the Ethiopian diet. Kitfo[3] is the national dish of Ethiopia. This delicious minced meat dish originates from the Guraghe[4] ethnic group from the southern province. The Guraghe did not try to influence other groups or force Ethiopians to nominate it as the national dish. Kitfo is the national dish of Ethiopia because the majority of Ethiopians, all from different ethnic groups, elected it to be.

Kitifo spread to the Amhara group and it was adopted to be eaten together with the Amhara traditional bread ingera[5]. Kitfo is the Guraghe contribution to the staple food diet of Ethiopians who also eat it with Kocho but have adopted the Amhara ingera to their diets as well. Ethiopians will continue to grow their cultural traditions and search for more contributions to please their tastes or satisfy their real needs.

The Dorze[6] weavery arts combined with the Amhara and Tigray fine cotton cloth make the most beautiful and preferred styles of clothing for women in the city; again it is not because women are forced to wear Dorze weavery or the fine cloth of the Amhara and Tigray by the government, state or church. Dorze weavery is sought after because it is of fine quality, it is conventional and it has become a tradition.

Conventional cultural unity is a guarantee for groups who as time goes by pursue a continually renewed and refreshed higher quality of life complemented by a variety of cultures with rich traditions.

Conventional cultural unity does not purpose to create only one single culture as this is impracticality, but to maximize the potential of all cultures in order to build strong and reliable National social capital.

Conventional cultural unity is a two way system working through the process of sharing. Values and knowledge flow through communication channels and all peoples select by themselves what is timely and important for human development.

Strategy of Implementing CCU Theory in the Ethiopia context

Building Social Cohesion or Horizontal Infrastructure Building

i. Spatial diversity

In order to maintain trust in Ethiopia addressing spatial diversity is of critical importance. The federal system should take into account providing a conducive environment not only language when assigning geography to ethnic groups. The current federal system of Ethiopia has failed to provide adequate means for groups to communicate and interact because groups are bound by their immediate localities.

Conventional cultural unity emanates from big hearts, accepting differences and embracing differences; it also includes the highest levels of respect and appreciation people can have for one another. Therefore social infrastructure building has to be put into action in government so that more people can develop these types of constructive interactions.

ii. Workplace diversity

Another method of implementing conventional cultural unity is building workplace diversity. There should be a policy of encouraging and building diversity in the government offices, school systems and public institutions. All regions and their constituent parts need to be accommodated and involved. Various ethnic groups should be participating in administrative positions, the professions, and public jobs in, around and throughout the regions of Ethiopia.

iii. Resettlement

The government should encourage ethnic groups to live together by implementing and encouraging diverse resettlement policies whereby members of different ethnic groups can live in the same regions.

In the special case of Ethiopian highland area residents there is crisis of demographic pressure due to the population explosion. This problem can be resolved by letting go of the limits on ethnic group settlement.

iv. Psychological attachments

Ethnic based federalism highlights differences and meanwhile brings about separatism. Group psychological attachment can be brought about when political strategizing begins with parties built from ideologies and not racial groups. The Ethiopian political parties have to be national and focused on individual rights. The government should work hard to build nationalism. Promoting justice and democracy makes the psychological attachment among and between groups stronger.

v. Cultural exchange programs

Building cultural exchange institutions is very important. Cultural exchange events make people learn from one another. Cultural exchange programs and policies build stronger communities.

vi. Representing ethnic groups in the curriculum

Teaching Ethiopians about diverse ethnic groups of Ethiopia: their history, contributions, achievements, languages and cultures. This understanding will build the vital social capital necessary for the process of peace building and development.

Open languages institutes in regions to encourage multilingual citizens and nation. Encourage Amharas to learn the Oromiffa language[7]; encourage Oromos to learn the Tigray language and so on.

vii. National language standardization

National language is a symbol of the unity of Ethiopians. It is possible that all groups can contribute to the national language standardization of the Amharic language. Ethiopian linguists have to standardize the national language by giving focus to multiculturalism.

The Malaysian national language Malay Bahasa was standardized after independence in 1967. The language is a mixture of many ethnic groups. Likewise Ethiopian linguists may be able to develop the national language through the contributions of different languages. On the other hand focusing on English language help Ethiopia to develop its external social capital and to be competent in the future.

Vertical Growth

As we mentioned earlier the aim of conventional cultural unity does not intend to destroy one culture and build a single culture, rather, it is a process of contributing knowledge and cultures. CCU is concerned with building variety to attain a better quality of life. Because each group has something to contribute to the common good the process of contributing knowledge and culture is a continual process. Supporting groups so that they may develop their culture and language is a vital element for the common good.

1.) Register all cultural practices, encourage the group to exercise their culture freely.

2.) Encourage new generations to add its own arts to the already existing cultural practices in business, technology, manufacturing, medicine, farming, trends and more.

3.) Encourage groups to teach their kids in both their local language and the national language.

4.) Promoting affirmative actions in order to build strong trust and belongingness.

Conclusion

For multi-ethnic Ethiopia horizontal trust is one of the most important elements which will activate us to be a whole healthy country. Horizontal trust means trust between and amongst ethnic groups and their members. Further, trust between groups starts with a trustworthy diverse political system. Whenever ethnic nature and religion are politicized it destroys national social capital. The rhetorical play of politicizers is no longer the ideological debate rather all groups should be interested to be leaders in economics and politics. The political atmosphere cannot always provide us with the certainty we need. Loss of certainty about the future leads groups to be suspicious and reactive toward competing localities forming attitudes which make the horizontal network and trust weaker. Harmonized groups are a social capital for the government. This theory is intended to harmonize a peace by strengthening the psychological attachments between Ethiopian ethnic groups. The meaning of unity can be seen as common values made from cultural unity. Among the very basic elements of unity cultural unity is a profound influence.

(The forgoing piece was edited by Magill Dyess. The writer can be reached at [email protected])

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[1] Oromo Region, an administrative region of modern Ethiopia
[2] Amhara Region, an administrative region of modern Ethiopia
[3] Kitfo (Amharic: ክትፎ?), sometimes spelled ketfo, is a traditional dish found in Ethiopian cuisine.
[4] Gurage is an ethnic group in Ethiopia
[5] Injera (Amharic, Tigrinya: እንጀራ, pronounced [ɨndʒəra], sometimes transliterated enjera; Oromo: budenaa; Somali: canjeero) is a yeast-risen flatbread with a unique, slightly spongy texture.
[6] Dorze is an Ethnic group in Ethiopia
[7] Oromo, also known as Afaan Oromo, Oromiffa(a), Afan Boran, Afan Orma, and sometimes in other languages by variant spellings of these names (Oromic, Afan Oromo, etc.), is an Afro-Asiatic language, and the most widely spoken of the Cushitic family.

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