By Bongani Mhlanga
THE Covid-19 pandemic without doubt, upended the way we socialise and move in the world. Social distancing and lockdown have shifted social norms and disrupted both internal and external human rhythms. The ramifications are clear on an individual and collective level. But what solutions can remedy a disjointing society?
A single question came to my mind during the peak of the pandemic: “Why am I suddenly disinterested in key activities that used to give me joy?”. Particularly those I enjoyed in solitude. It was troubling to me because “me time” is practically Book 1 of an introvert’s bible. Pass times that used to give me inspiration and rest had become tiring and stale. Watching independent films, reading, relaxing to a series, taking a walk, and in the worst-case – writing, had lost fulfilment.
When we cast into isolation, it threw us into an unnatural human state. It took us from proximity with other bodies, from face-to-face interaction, and physical touch. As a result, the constant solitude forced us to be hyper internal. To constantly interact with and speculate about ourselves. However, this was only an addition to an already ongoing social problem.
Over the years, social media has incentivised us to commodify ourselves through constant self-branding. This egoistic self-exploitation dismantled genuine community and healthy social life. The pandemic only magnified this. It replaced the rituals and schedules that formed communal life with communication absent of community.
Zoom meetings, chat forums, increased time on social media apps, and eCommerce shopping increased our fragmentation. Without adequate body language and live reactions, dialogue became indifferent and defensive. We grew more self-obsessed with appearances and presentation. Achievement driven work has never satisfied us. Even in leisure, we caved in under the pressure of constant consumption: consistently being sold something, or updating as we sought the satisfaction of human feedback with each moment we gave to the digital void.
As both social media and the virus have spread, what we thought was a symptom of the West found its way to our continent. The worst effect of this has been its weight on mental health. The exacerbation of agitated moods, anxiety, and depression has led to a rise in suicide rates and the numbers in mental institutions. If there is one positive of isolation, it is that it exposed all the negative conditions and dependencies that pervaded our lifestyles.
Online groups and forums have tried to help, but they cannot equal the balancing force of human proximity. Communal experiences that gave us rest from our internal world have proved necessary to ensure that the hours we set aside for ourselves to recoup and reconcile with our inner selves are not overbearing. The lack of this balance exhausts us and throws us out of rhythm. A cure means breaking the system-driven emotional flows that perpetuate desire, reduce us to a primal state of survival, and increase our internal pressure. That is the work of our cultural rituals.
Think back to all the times you interacted with people outside your home. It can be before the pandemic. Were you at a movie house, a concert, or a sporting event? Let’s scale it down. It could have been at church, sharing a meal with friends, or having a lunchroom chat with work colleagues. Maybe it was running into your neighbour for the third time that week on your morning jog.
I would wager that you have had moments with strangers where you shared an observation in a public space, a random act of kindness, or a compliment on appearance or attire. Through a greeting, a smile, or a nod of acknowledgement, you likely didn’t even have to know them by name to have a connection. That is because cultural rituals, our missing ingredient, facilitate community with no verbal communication.
Culture, which we can term communal entertainment, invites participation and speculation while meagre entertainment is rather quiet. Exchanging culture with entertainment eliminates human interaction and exchange. Take binge-watching on your own, for example. It’s quite passive with no one to bounce your reactions off of. Experiencing culture around other folks — laughing, crying, cheering, discussing opinions, and experiencing shared emotions – controls the internal burnout of solitude. Even with those we endearingly call “bra”, “blaz”, “skim”, or “chomi”, because we never caught their names.
In my case, I balanced watching films by going to the cinema to catch a blockbuster with friends. With reading and listening to music, frequenting musical and artistic events like Friday Night Late at the Bulawayo Art Gallery was the balance.
There were always familiar faces I ran into at art, poetry, and music events that I consider comrades. They were my tribe, where I found belonging and connection. I balanced my writing with performance and travel. A change in pace and environment expanded my world while performing poetry provided validation and feedback. The face-to-face conversations with colleagues and strangers offered new perspectives outside the barrier of pages and screens. Perspective outside of myself!
We do not exist in a vacuum. The same way we cannot express art without an audience — be it in fashion, music, paintings, or literature — the self cannot express itself without community. We need to exist with and among others in order to contribute and benefit from the whole. The role of culture is to be that bridge. Culture renders community. Ironically, the cultures that act as societal glue require us to come together for them to thrive.
There is no better example of this than our own African Heritage. Though placed second, time after time, it could be the cultural solution we need in our current crisis.
Certain traditions and rituals within our African heritage specifically reinforce the communal connection. African principles like the Bantu concept of Ubuntu remedied depression, anxieties, and loneliness. We used to dance by the fire, orate stories, and histories, perform religious rites, eat communally and place great importance in the nuclear family or tribe. By gleaning from and replicating the history of our social past we can adapt it into new contexts and reclaim the cultural capital we allowed to be dominated by Western ideals.
Culture defines and solidifies identity. It also informs how it progresses. So it is vital for creatives and brands to foster content, designs, and aesthetics that represent authentic African expression by telling our stories and showcasing our perspectives. That way we re-instil the value of African culture in the modes of culture that are consumed and shared.
We cannot underestimate the role of style and fashion as a key cultural ritual. It unifies people through shared ideas, recreation, and cultural representation. Through apparel, entire communities are shaped, embodied, and dispersed across barriers through the physical human form. Thus, it is but one powerful mode of expressing African identity.
An example is the African head wrap, also known as ‘dhuku’ or doek, worn by women on special occasions and in everyday life. The material patterns and the ornate way women tie them pay homage to tradition and culturally symbolize age, birthplace, clan, social and marital status. In the past they became a way for women to resist colonial beauty standards as a statement of defiance to cultural assimilation, unifying African women under their historical identity.
Today, headscarves have been a similar source of cultural recognition, uniting African women across the diaspora in their common history. They have become reclamation of African beauty, a historical reminder of royal origins, and conservation of a legacy of black female pride and perseverance. Let’s not forget how they complement the natural crown of black hair.
Amazing creators represent the camaraderie and spirit of African style worldwide. Nomthandazo Mhlanga’s ‘Beautiful Mess’ uses the sustainable and eco-friendly model of redesigning second-hand women’s clothing into African-themed wares, and Ellana Turner’s Amazon featured ‘Cloth & Cord’ African Jewellery line taps directly from her African Ancestry.
Through art collectives, social groups, and intellectual societies we can also create communities around indigenous brands, structures, and activities that inform the discourse and build conversations around our experiences. We have a rich source to reap from. As we reinstate stability, restore healthy rhythms, and invigorate life our way, African cultures will carve their place in the world. Inspiring, educating, and sharing their knowledge of us.
Many have already sought escape from the weight of the pandemic’s psychological and economic fallout. I only ask that we consider where we are escaping to. As we return to our cultural rituals, it would empower us to choose spaces, ideas, and fashions that champion our native culture. Or better yet, look out for our own, such as the emerging platform Group Therapy. Founded by Bulawayo (Zimbabwe) youth Vuyisile Ndlovu, Group Therapy provides young people with carefree social environments characterized by comedy, interactive games, creative performance, movies, storytelling, and constructive discourse as a solution to the stress and social starvation caused by the pandemic.
Styra Yacho has also created a community for people to express their authentic African selves. They encourage people to make their contribution to the culture through collaboration, idea interchange, and an exchange of skills and services.
We will not find our most meaningful moments by constantly staring at screens or immersed in ourselves. When socially distanced life gradually fades, hopefully, culture must recover just as much as the economy.
We find relief in the spectrum of human connection, the cultural rituals that remind us we belong. Let us remind ourselves of Africa and the great and extraordinary traditions to which we belong.
- Bongani Mhlanga is a creative writer and content creator based in Bulawayo. He is a member of the Styra Yacho collective. Contact Mobile: 0718382901