World communities have lived in different parts of this planet under different conditions. In the process they have, over the millennia, adapted to their unique environments in several diverse ways. The result is cultural diversity which is well celebrated. There are UNESCO Conventions that have been crafted in recognition of cultural diversity. A day has been set aside to celebrate cultural diversity.
As we go about celebrating cultural diversity we do not always realise that there are cultures that are groaning painfully under the heavy and spiky yoke of domination. No one ever says the diverse cultures are characterised by inequality.
Some cultures are more equal than others. In this time of Covid-19 pandemic the inequalities among the diverse cultures become all the more palpable.
In virtually all the diverse communities of the world there are culturally defined ways of responding to certain incidents. Sneezing is known to spread some diseases. Not all communities make reference to the virus. What matters is that the adults will advise their young ones to close their mouths when coughing or sneezing. How the mouths are closed is neither here nor there. How communities close their mouths is a culturally acquired cultural norm, hence the differences from one community to another. The bottom line though is that the spray from coughing or sneezing is blocked and in the case of a virus its spread is mitigated.
Here is a case where some cultures inadvertently assume some sense of superiority over others. The one recommendation concerns blocking some cough spray by bringing the elbow to the mouth. It is a cultural intervention with no universal applicability.
The Covid-19 pandemic is bringing to the fore the fact that some cultures are recommended ahead of others. I had never in my short sojourn on this virus-invaded planet seen anyone from my communities whether urban or rural practice this elbow trick.
And yet we were advised very strongly to close our mouths when coughing. At Mazowe Secondary School the spray, not from coughing but from excited salivary glands, was referred to as tsengwa and was discouraged.
When food was served we behaved not very differently from Pavlov’s dogs. We cupped our hands and brought them to our mouths. This was what all of us knew whether we came from Fort Victoria (now Masvingo), Manicaland or Matabeleland. The cultures were similar and responded in the same way when coughing.
The advertisements that we see and hear beamed over the media seem not to appreciate cultural diversity.
The elbow formula is beamed as if all cultures are elbow cultures. What really matters is stopping the spray, it a ‘tsengwa’ spray on the magnitude of the Victoria Falls Rain Forest or some involuntary cough, from getting to the next person. That is done in a culture specific way. Advertising agencies ought to communicate effectively within cultural contexts. They should not be agents for fostering supremacy of some cultures over others. I wonder whether they ever think about this.
Two weeks ago I was chatting with a white lady in a restaurant. She coughed and involuntarily performed the elbow magic. I looked curiously at this new cultural phenomenon that I had heard in connection with Covid-19. I had never before seen it executed. I did comment to her as she was going to be puzzled at this strange and curious specimen of humanity gazing at her elbow that set itself racing towards her mouth.
So, I learnt from her it is a cultural way of doing things. It has nothing to do with Covid-19. It is not so to some of us. It is a Covid-19 related cultural response to curbing the spread of the pandemic. Through the pandemic some cultures get the opportunity to lord it over other cultures. It all looks very innocent and some people will see nothing amiss with this kind of cultural invasion.
Then a golden opportunity presented itself two weeks later. I was buying some veterinary vaccines at some outlet along 11th Avenue where I observed a black lady till operator being invaded by some impending and convulsive cough. I gazed at her curiously. The urge to cough overwhelmed her. The cough burst out. But before it could go on a rampage, she had dammed the spray. Believe it or not, it was an elbow magic.
That increased my curiosity and inquisitiveness. Where is all this coming from?
I drew closer to her, of course mindful that some escaped spray-propelled virus did not breach my demilitarised zone.
“Please tell me, is this the way you deal with a cough?” The answer was quick to come. “This is what we are advised to do.” I was not surprised at all. I more or less expected the response. It was something recently acquired. I wondered whether she saw it as some sort of cultural invasiveness. For a while I stood there transfixed wondering what, between the elbow and my hands, gets to my mouth faster.
Where death is threatened it is easy to introduce what are considered measures that may keep death at bay. The lady has, as a result of the Covid-19 mitigation measures, quickly acquired new cultural ways of dealing with cough-induced sprays. Virtually a whole population is being advised, in the name of Covid-19 to abandon their cultural interventions which would equally deal with the situation. Instead a more powerful cultural intervention is being introduced and for the majority the measure is yet to acquire spontaneity.
Sometimes cross-cultural messages do not work. A message that is powerful, adequate and impactful within a Shona cultural context may not make sense when applied in a different cultural set up. There are many examples that we could cite. Literal translation sometimes courts disastrous results, some of which may be outright offensive. Messaging ought to be done with due regard to a people’s cultural nuances and sensibilities. Before an advertisement is released it should be scrutinised for cultural relevance and meaning.
Certainly a pandemic should not be taken advantage of to caricature some cultures while simultaneously placing others on lofty pedestals of cultural superiority. We are certainly not done with the subject of messaging. We shall bring out more in order to see whether they are not pushing a double-edged agenda; passing a message and, in the process, commiting murder of some cultures.
The World Health Organisation has messages it wishes to put across. It is up to the member states to find the best culturally specific media to carry through the message without taking away anything from the essence of the message. While the content remains the same, the vessels and vehicles should be tailor-made to the cultural demands of a particular community. The Covid-19 pandemic is no joke and all communities ought to get the messages the best way they can. It is their democratic right, after all!