I once landed at a remote airstrip in southern Sudan. The pilot dropped me off and flew away, and I was alone with a long wait for the person who was to pick me up. As we flew in I had seen nothing but bush and rock; almost no sign of human habitation.
But as I sat and waited in the shade of a tree, an old man emerged from the bush. He greeted me as if I came every day and asked if I had brought any newspapers. I had not. But he did not seem to think his journey had been wasted. We sat and chatted and then, when conversation dried up, we just sat in the shade and stared across the wooded valley.
Anywhere else it would have felt awkward just sitting there in silence. But silent companionship is just fine in Africa. Just being with someone is perfectly normal. In Britain we shut ourselves off from other people and leave the lonely to themselves, especially at Christmas. Loneliness and depression are serious afflictions, created by the way we live.
Maybe we should learn from Africa. There, whenever I find myself alone, people join me, not necessarily to talk, or out of politeness to a stranger, but to have human company. What is awkward is to leave someone alone. To be alone is abnormal. When I have said I want to be alone people ask if I am ill.
A student friend from Ghana tells me that the first time she felt lonely was when she came to London. She is not the first African to have told me that. Africans arriving in Europe are shocked that we do not greet family, friends and colleagues every morning. The student had just been called by her mother in Ghana who had asked her — told her — to travel across London to spend Christmas with her aunt who was alone. That she should be alone on Christmas Day was unthinkable.
It is hard to be alone in Africa. Everyone has family. A person without relations is nothing. And family in Africa extends far beyond the truncated nuclear family of the Western world. Cousins several times removed are called brother or sister; distant in-laws are aunt or uncle.
While Westerners tend to shed family members, Africans greedily gather and hoard them. This extends horizontally but also vertically. The only time people are left alone is when they are left to die, but that is not universal. In some societies the family gathers round to shout their name repeatedly to retrieve them from death. And when people do die they must be given a proper send-off.
Relatives can be more powerful dead than alive. The explosion of interest in family history shows our need to know our ancestors, but in Africa ancestors have always played a role in decision making. In Africa’s spiritual world, ancestors are awake and watching your every move. They must be kept happy. If you upset them they won’t protect you.
Perhaps this is because, although these days nearly 50 per cent of Africans live in urban areas, they are still rural in culture. Outside South Africa, very few Africans have lost contact with the village they come from. So even in modern towns, village ways persist. You cannot be with others and not talk to them. Get on a bus and a conversation starts. Even in cities you can turn up unannounced and be welcomed.
Outside the cities, doors are open and visitors do not need to knock. In Uganda you call as you approach a house; in Ghana you just enter, although you don’t sit down without being invited. And inside the house all doors are left open. There is little privacy. However, I think it is deeper than the difference between rural and urban society.
Descartes wrote: cogito ergo sum; I think, therefore I am. The African would say: cognatus sum ergo sum; I am related, therefore I am. There are two sayings from southern Africa that make the point: “A man is a man because of others” and “Life is when you are together, alone you are an animal”. John Mbiti, a Kenyan theologian, puts it like this: “I am because we are and, since we are, therefore I am.” These sayings are easily applicable to all Africa.
In southern Africa, the concept is called ubuntu: you are who you are through others. This does not just mean family or group. Ubuntu extends to all humanity, shared personhood and values. In the past, the worst punishment in many African societies was expulsion. To be excluded was worse than death.
This communalism ensures that no one is left alone, but it has negative side-effects. For example, distant family members can call on you for money. They will turn up unannounced and expect to receive hospitality. You cannot refuse. When rich men die, their fortune is pulled to pieces and squandered by the many people who can claim a gift from the departing relative. And in most families there is a delinquent who has broken the rules or is disliked. They — and their offspring — are excluded or tolerated, but exploited. These days, when labour is becoming more expensive, the traditional practice of taking the child of a poor relative into one’s family to help them has led to exploitation. Where the child is a girl it has even ended in a relationship of slavery and rape.
Communalism can also make societies deeply conservative. Where maintaining the community is the ultimate goal, important but divisive truths cannot be discussed for fear of creating a rift, so decisions are left untaken. And the African family ensures there is no such thing as a self-made man: the classic rootless entrepreneur of 19th-century Europe or America who tears up the rule book and builds a new world.
But despite these downsides, Africa’s traditional communalism has a lot to teach a world that suffers from loneliness and depression. Africa still possesses the sort of community that we talk about but rarely experience. And best of all, a society that does not leave its members to grow old and die neglected and alone.
Richard Dowden, director of the Royal African Society and the author of the book Africa: Altered States, Ordinary Miracles.