The culture of a people is what marks them out distinctively from other human societies in the family of humanity. The full study of culture in all its vastness and dimensions belongs to the discipline known as anthropology, which studies human beings and takes time to examine their characteristics and their relationship to their environments. Culture, as it is usually understood, entails a totality of traits and characters that are peculiar to a people to the extent that it marks them out from other peoples or societies. These peculiar traits go on to include the people’s language, dressing, music, work, arts, religion, dancing and so on. It also goes on to include a people’s social norms, taboos and values. Values here are to be understood as beliefs that are held about what is right and wrong and what is important in life.
The value of a thing, be it an object or a belief, is normally defined as its worth. Just as an object is seen to be of a high value that is treasured, our beliefs about what is right or wrong that are worth being held are equally treasured. A value can be seen as some point of view or conviction which we can live with, live by and can even die for. This is why it seems that values actually permeate every aspect of human life. For instance, we can rightly speak of religious, political, social, aesthetic, moral, cultural and even personal values. We have observed elsewhere that there are many types and classifications of values. As people differ in their conception of reality, then the values of one individual may be different from those of another. Life seems to force people to make choices, or to rate things as better or worse as well as formulate some scale or standard of values. Depending on the way we perceive things we can praise and blame, declare actions right or wrong or even declare the scene or objects before us as either beautiful or ugly. Each person, as we could see, has some sense of values and there is no society without some value system culture is an embodiment of different values with all of them closely related to each other. That is why one can meaningfully talk about social, moral, religious, political, aesthetic and even economic values of a culture. Let us now look at these values piece-meal, as this would give us an understanding how they manifest in an African culture and the importance being attached to them.
To begin with, we have social values which can simply be seen as those beliefs and practices that are practiced by any particular society. The society has a way of dictating the beliefs and practices that are performed either routinely by its members or performed whenever the occasion demands. Hence, we have festivals, games, sports and dances that are peculiar to different societies. These activities are carried out by the society because they are seen to be necessary. Some social values, especially in African society, cannot exactly be separated from religious, moral, political values and so on. This is why we can see that in a traditional African society like in Ibibio land (Nigeria), festivals which were celebrated often had religious undertones – they ended with sacrifices that were offered to certain deities on special days in order to attract their goodwill on the members of the society.
The second to talk about is moral values. African culture is embedded in strong moral considerations. It has a system of various beliefs and customs which every individual ought to keep in order to live long and to avoid bringing curses on them and others. Adultery, stealing and other forms of immoral behaviour are strongly discouraged and whenever a suspected offender denies a charge brought against him, he would be taken to a soothsayer or made to take an oath for proof of innocence. African wisdom and a valuable part of African heritage”. African culture has a moral code that forbids doing harm to a relative, a kinsman, an in-law, a foreigner and a stranger, except when such a person is involved in an immoral act; and if that is the case, it is advisable to stay away from such an individual and even at death, their corpses would not be dignified with a noble burial in a coffin and grave.
In addition, religious values are also very important. Religion in African societies seems to be the fulcrum around which every activity revolves. Hence religious values are not toyed with. African traditional religion, wherever it is practised, has some defining characteristics. For instance, it possesses the concept of a Supreme Being which is invisible and indigenous. It holds a belief in the existence of the human soul and the soul does not die with the body. African traditional religion also has the belief that good and bad spirits do exist and that these spirits are what make communication with the Supreme Being possible. Above all, it holds a moral sense of justice and truth and the knowledge of the existence of good and evil (Umoh 2005: 68). African religious values seem to permeate every facet of the life of the African and the African believes that anything can be imbued with spiritual significance. The worship of different deities on different days goes on to show that the African people hold their religious values in high esteem. Sorcerers and diviners are seen to be mediating between God and man and interpreting God’s wishes to the mortal. The diviners, sorcerers and soothsayers help to streamline human behaviour in the society and people are afraid to commit offences because of the
Another point worth mentioning is the aesthetic values. The African concept of aesthetics is predicated on the fundamental traditional belief system which gave vent to the production of the art. Now art is usually seen as human enterprise concerned with the production of aesthetic objects. Thus, when a people in their leisure time try to produce or create objects that they consider admirable, their sense of aesthetic value is brought to bear. If we see art as being concerned with the production of aesthetic objects, then we can truly say of African aesthetic value that it is immensely rich. Let us have an example: the sense of beauty of the Ibibio people is epitomised in their fattened maidens whom they call mbopo. These fattened maidens are confined to a room where they are fed with traditional cuisines. The idea behind it is to prepare the maiden and make her look as good, healthy and beautiful as possible for her husband. This is usually done before marriage and after child birth. The Western model of beauty is not like this. It is often pictured as slim-looking young ladies who move in staggered steps. This shows that the African aesthetic value and sense of what is beautiful is markedly different. Aesthetic value is what informs a people’s arts and crafts as it affects their sense of what is beautiful as opposed to that which is ugly. The aesthetic value of a society influences the artist in his endeavour to produce aesthetic objects that are acceptable to the society in which he lives.
To conclude, since values are an integral part of culture and culture is what defines a people’s identity, then the values that a people hold are what differentiate them from other people. It does appear that cultures always try to maintain those values that are necessary for the survival of their people. Also having looked at some of the values that characterise the African culture, it is important to state here that these values are inextricably bound together and are to be comprehended in their totality as African cultural values.