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Tug Of War: Balancing Culture With Safety Under Covid-19

Covid-19 has forced us to re-imagine our lives and learn to live with a “new normal”. This includes adapting cherished cultural practices. In a rapidly changing world, tradition feels comforting and familiar. The challenge is balancing the requirements of our cultural practices with the realities of an unforgiving virus.

In western Kenya, the Tiriki tribe, for example, is famous for its circumcision ceremonies which involve elaborate masks and body paint. The ceremonies are a rite of passage for young boys eager to join the community as men. When Covid-19 began to spread in Kenya, rumours that the circumcision ceremonies would be cancelled caused panic in Tiriki households. 

Angela, a nanny living in Nairobi’s suburbs, was distraught. She had spent considerable resources and time arranging the necessary regalia for her son’s mandatory month-long stay in the forest. The fact that it would involve 100 young boys living in close quarters in a makeshift settlement was low on her list of concerns. Much more important was what the event would mean for her son. She could picture him in an itumbi (makeshift hut), eating from calabashes and sleeping on banana leaves with animal skin blankets. Angela had been looking forward to this event since her son was born. 

When the council of elders issued a statement that the circumcision ceremonies would go ahead as planned, Angela was relieved. Understandably so. Angela is not alone in prizing heritage and tradition over safety concerns.

When a woman gives birth in Côte d’Ivoire she is surrounded by female family members and neighbours who pamper and take care of her. Her sole task is to breastfeed her baby. This practice allows the new mother to recover quickly from the ordeal of childbirth so that she looks her best at the baby’s presentation ceremony. 

Despite the risk of transmitting Covid-19 to new mothers or their babies, this practice has persisted, particularly amongst those living in more rural areas.

Senegal is regarded as the land of ‘Teranga’, a Wolof expression that roughly translates as warmth, friendliness and solidarity. Teranga is about welcoming others, greeting them, offering to share a thieboudiene (a local dish made of rice, vegetables and fish) or a chicken yassa, and drinking ataya (Senegalese mint tea). Community celebrations are a good example of Teranga. They are usually open to all, with a high level of participation. 

The baptism of a child, for example, is traditionally an important milestone, bringing together families, friends and neighbours. It is at the baptism that the child’s name is finally publicly revealed. Despite pressure from older generations to follow tradition, new parents in Senegal are postponing baptisms with hundreds of guests as a result of the slow roll-out of the country’s vaccination programme. 

The challenge for Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal – like many other African countries – is balancing the need for community, fidelity to customs, and cultural identity with the threat of Covid-19. Preparing the body of a deceased loved one for burial and large gatherings for defining events such as funerals, are integral parts of the grieving process for many African cultures. 

There is no doubt that there is a cost to sacrificing these community celebrations with studies indicating that mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety, depression and insomnia have increased across the continent in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. 

As we think about navigating these and future pandemics – and encouraging vaccine uptake – it’s time for a discussion on how we find a balance between our cultural practices and the threat of disease. It will require a new and innovative mindset. One of the selling points for vaccines, for example, is that it paves the way back to the safe practice of our customs. Instead of judging people who prioritise their group-based cultural practices over safety protocols, let’s figure out how we can leverage their commitment to fight Covid-19 and future biological threats.

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