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We focus too much on differences between cultures

"We have overemphasised the differences between cultures at the expense of what unites us across the world." What we have in common, says Mineke Schipper, author of the book In the beginning, there was nobody, are the questions we have asked ourselves about our origins. Why and from what material have we been created? Why were we created as woman and man? Why are there inequalities, why do we have to work?

During her exploration of our mythical world, the Dutch writer saw her basic assumption confirmed: that our responses to the question of our origins have more similarities than differences, while the dominant discourse in a country like hers, the Netherlands, and elsewhere, tends to emphasise the differences between cultures.

The same mythical formulas arise from one continent to another: the gods have made us of pure earth, or mixed it with saliva, milk or semen. Other gods have preferred the as raw material or sand or dust or, in the case of the Incas, gold. In Ghana and Togo, the god had a choice between two kinds of clay: for the good people, he used the purest clay and for the bad ones, lower quality clay.

[media:image]Same anguish, same questions
A Professor of comparative intercultural literature, Mineke Schipper also emphasizes in her book the anthropomorphism or "human" attributes of our gods: they create humans so that they would not be alone anymore.

Africa, China, the Arab World, Americas: the book reveals the richness of the imagination humanity confronted with their finiteness. "Everywhere we have the same anxieties, the same emotions such as loneliness, grief, fear. The myths speak volumes about the fragility of life on earth. The answers are sometimes comforting and have helped us explain and come to terms with the human condition. There are no dragons in Latin America, while they are many in stories that come from Asia, but all of them ask the same questions."

Frustrated men
Virtually all the myths collected by Mrs Schipper reveal, she says, the frustation experienced by men for not being able to give birth. To her big surprise, almost all myths, whether among Native Americans or the Dogon in Africa, end up justifying the power of men over women.

One scenario recurs in the narratives that Minneke Schipper collected across the continents; in the beginning, women dominated the world, but men stole their secrets and then took over.

“There are myths where the woman takes the initiative to make love, such as in an early Berber myth where it's the women who put themselves on top of the men, man did not move, but at the end of the myth, the roles are reversed. The man becomes the symbol of the roof of the house he has built."

Racial inequality
Throughout our cultures, myths seek explanations for social inequalities. What makes the specificity of African myths, the author observes, is their interest in racial inequality.

A myth from Congo, where Mineke Schipper taught:

God created the first human beings with clay and put them all at once in the oven. The whites, unable to tolerate the heat came out of the oven immediately. That is why their skin is pale and fragile. Others stayed a bit longer but blushed and had to get out of the oven. The Africans were the only ones able to withstand the heat. That's why they are strong enough to bear the sorrows of life.

[media:image2]After her exciting overview of our transcultural imagination, Mineke Schipper tells me she has come to feel some compassion "for the poor humans who have had to struggle to survive in this so cruel world."

Sign of the gods? Hailstones fall from the sky and we must stop recording the interview for the third time...


Our interview with Mineke Schipper will be available in the series Africa in Progress, produced in partnership with radio stations in Africa.