The sleek, hand-made metal and wood structured shelves of the Assouline library, are decorated with phrases like, ‘a library is a roomful of friends’; ‘a room without books is like a body without a soul’; etc. But the one that took my attention was the statement that says: “Culture is not a luxury but a necessity.”

It left me thinking for a while. I asked myself what culture really is. Is it the food a given society frequents, or the dressing habit, the dancing pattern, the living style, or may be the day to day language the society uses, or may be all the things I just mentioned. I didn’t know for sure. But at least from that phrase, I was certain that culture is rather not something people have for luxury, it is something worth having – a must have.

Culture involves at least three components: what people think; what they do; and the material products they produce. Thus, mental processes, beliefs, knowledge, and values are parts of culture, says John H. Bodley, chair of the Department of Anthropology at Washington State University. He notes that some anthropologists would define culture entirely as mental rules guiding behavior, although often wide divergence exists between the acknowledged rules for correct behavior and what people actually do. Consequently, some researchers pay more attention to human behavior and its material products. Culture also has several properties: it is shared, learned, symbolic, transmitted cross-generational, adaptive, and integrated.

Different scholars upheld different definitions of the concept of culture. In attempting to lay out the various meanings attached to the word “culture,” Clifford Geertz refers it as the sum of twelve different definitions. But the most appealing definition is the one that claims culture as “the social legacy the individual acquires from his group.” John H. Bodley sees it from historical perspective and says “culture is social heritage, or tradition, that is passed on to future generations.”

For any given person to be fit in any given society there should be a clear sense of belongingness to a certain community and historical background. One is supposed to have a culture that would define him/her differently from other people and society. And can be used as a point of reference in times of integration with other different cultures of different lands. Family, village elders, etc thus preserve the cultural heritage, we Eritreans proudly recognize as ours, and pass it on to our children and the youth, for it would live for generations to come.

Parents, schools, religious institutions, peer group, youth organizations, neighborhood, the state… are the agents of cultural preservation and they are the ones that make sure the youths are well acquainted with their cultural heritage. With out the actions of these social institutions, a youngster wouldn’t know what his/her culture entails and eventually it could become to mean, that particular youth is lost to his/her culture. And if that happens, the youth would loose his/her identity and wouldn’t belong to any culture. But that culture might have helped him/her to answer the questions of ‘who am I?’ ‘To whom do I belong?’ or ‘Where did I come from?’  Hence, it is only through culture that we know our identity and therefore have peace of conscience. Because culture is the way humans solve problems of adapting to the environment or living together.


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