Ethnocentrism: Cultural Differences While Traveling
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Ethnocentrism: Cultural Differences While Traveling

Ethnocentrism is the concept that is defined as, judging anotherÂ’s cultural practices by the values and beliefs of oneÂ’s own culture.

Ethnocentrism is the concept that is defined as, judging another’s cultural practices by the values and beliefs of one’s own culture. On the surface this seems an easy concept. Most open-minded and well meaning people can concede that peoples around the world do things differently than we do and that judging them for it is to be intolerant. For instance, when in Japan, one would take their shoes off to enter a domicile as that is what they do and we would wish to respect that. It becomes more difficult when the practices in question assault our morality and code of conduct.

The Yanomamo of the South American rainforests do many things that we consider savage and unacceptable. One such practice is beating their wives in front of their enemies to show fierceness. Also, the Yanomamo use a potent drug of their own making to commune with the demons of their mythology. This was all documented by Napoleon Chagnon an Anthropologist of renown. One of his main precepts was to document and not interfere. The exposure of these practices was one of the driving forces that sent Catholic missionaries to change them so that the Yanomamo’s culture more resembled what we consider to be civilized. It is easy to sit back on our own moral compass and say that the Yanomamo should not be allowed to practice these cultural idiosyncrasies but keep in mind that wife beating and drug use are fairly prevalent in our own culture. Yanomamo live in small closed communities that make war with one another over the smallest of infractions. They will also fight one another to devastating effect with very little provocation. The practice of wife beating is used to diffuse what could turn into a life threatening situation.

Yanomamo using Drug to commune with the spirit world.

The issues with the Yanomamo are the kind of issues that push the idea of ethnocentrism into the limelight. They are the stuff of anthropology class room conversations across the nation. Even the toughest moral compass bends a bit when presented with the facts. However, ethnocentrism takes on a different light when trying to maintain an anthropologist’s impartiality in the field. While traveling in Africa I found myself in situations where my own ethnocentrism clouded my judgment and I didn’t even realize it until later. For instance, being poor is a relative term. Here in the United States we have a concept of what it means to be poor based on income versus living expense ratio. With our vanishing middle class, most people find themselves living paycheck to paycheck or hand to mouth. We have a homeless problem as well but the term poverty gets applied to a large range of income levels. Those income levels in Uganda are very different. While walking through the Karagutu refugee camp I saw people living in mud huts without electricity or running water. This camp seemed to me to be filled with the poorest of the poor. I am by no means wealthy but the money I carried on me was more than many of these people saw in a year’s time. But it was that very assessment that clouded my judgment when considering these peoples station in life. A family with a few goats out back, an acre of arable farmland and steel sheeting on their hut was working middle class over there. Their children were clothed and attended school, and they provided for their families much the same way do over here, but because their living conditions were below what we think of as normal here, I was being ethnocentric in my estimation of their quality of life. It took me some time to reconcile what I had learned in the class room with what I was seeing all around me every day in Uganda.

Photo by Creighton Smith. Young woman at Karagutu Refugee Camp

I will never forget a conversation I had with the men who worked for me. We were heading back to camp one evening in the rift valley and I commented how amazing the stars were. It was as if I was seeing them for the first time as there was no light pollution to interfere with the amazing brilliance of the night sky. I asked Edmund, a Uganda Wildlife Authority officer, offhandedly if he knew about the stars and he told me that they were mysterious points of light. I proceeded to tell him that they were balls of burning gas the same as our own sun. He said to me that that was impossible because the sun was very large and the stars were very small. I explained that they were the same but that they were very far away. He didn’t seem to understand so I asked him about the mountains.

I said, “Do you see the Ruwenzori Mountains off in the distance there?” Edmund said that he did.

I said, “The mountains are very large are they not?” he and the other guys giggled a bit and he said, “Yes, Creighton, the mountains are quite large.” This was followed by more giggling.

I held up my fingers and said, “But from here” looking through my fingers held about an inch apart, “they are quite small, it is the same for the sun and stars, the sun appears so large because it is much closer to the earth than the stars.” They were silent for a moment then burst out laughing.

Edmund shook his head and patted me on the shoulder and said, “That is muzungo knowledge, we know nothing of these things.” Muzungo is slang for white man the same way gringo is in Latin America. They all began talking rapidly and laughing in an unfamiliar Bantu dialect having a bit a fun at the Muzungo’s expense.

I contemplated this conversation for some time. My first reaction was that these good peoples education was lacking in ways I couldn’t begin to fathom. Edmund wanted to make sure that I understood that the ribbing the guys were giving me was all in fun and not to be upset. We talked at length about the priorities of the school system in the area and it turns out that physical sciences is not something they spend a great deal of time on. In Uganda the schools in the rural areas concentrate mostly on the agricultural aspects of life in the rift valley. This makes perfect sense considering that agricultural science is a matter of survival for all concerned. Edmund may not understand that the sun is powered by nuclear fusion but he knows a great deal more than I do about crop rotation and chemical fertilizers.

In another conversation Edmund said to me that, “Idi Amin had left an indelible mark on the soul of Uganda.” Some much for thinking that their education was lacking, do you know what indelible means?

The lessons of ethnocentrism I learned in my travels will be with me always. I am now able to leave my culturally centric ideas at the airport and I hope you will be able to as well.

For more about backpacking in Uganda see my article.

For more about my travels see my blog:

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Comments (1)

Thank you for reminds us that all people are entitled to their culture and practices. Loved the 'stars' episode.