In conversation with Femi Oyebode: On cultural practices and the human experience

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How do we promote an engagement with culture and ancestry in a way that is neither rigid nor dismissive? Culture is the product of a set of belief systems. By recognising that all beliefs are susceptible to change one is able to gauge the fluidity of culture. Applying this fluidity to the process of connecting to past and interacting with heritage offers the chance to create a meaningful dialogue between past and present in a bid to improve conditions for the human experience. Femi Oyebode is a professor of Psychiatry at the University of Birmingham. His work covers topics in relation to clinical psychopathology, medical humanities, the application of ethics to psychiatric practice, and neuropsychological and neural correlates of abnormal phenomena. Dr Oyebode is also a published author, his books include ‘Mindreadings: literature’ and ‘Psychiatry & Madness at the Theatre’. Our conversation covered topics in relation to culture and the human experience.

Can you describe your early encounters with your ancestry?

I am Yoruba, I would say that I was born into. In my time, they wouldn’t have given you a name without consulting the Ifa priest, and the priest would have indicated what they thought your future was going to be like. They would not have given you a name without other members of your family being involved in that name. From this you can see that we are born into it, we are not contacting it at some point in the future. That is what we are, we are born into that rich Yoruba tradition.

In one of your blog posts you recount your experience visiting the Himba tribe where you noted that their way of living did not appear to benefit the local communities. It draws attention to the dangers of romanticising old ways of living – In what ways do you think heritage can be engaged with in a meaningful way to suit the present?

The Himba is an interesting case as they are living in a culture, where the Europeans came along and used that as a way of partitioning the people. It then meant that the people clung onto culture as a way of identifying themselves, and then finding it difficult to be flexible within the nature of their identities. The first thing to say is that modernity is not European, it is human. Modernity refers to the idea that there are problems that can be solved from intellectual reason, which has nothing to do with religion. The people who think that it is European are stupid. I use the word modernity to mean everything that followed the enlightenment period and all the human achievements from the 1600 onwards; from the renaissance and the reformation. Those achievements are extraordinary, they are not European achievements but human achievements. As a human being, whether Chinese or African or Indian, you cannot ignore those or say that they are not ours.

When I was at medical school in Ibadan, there was a Yoruba tradition where in the event that a child was born you would cut the umbilical cord and rub earth on the naval of the new born child, which would help to staunch the blood flow. Of course, earth has tetanus in it, so a lot of Yoruba children died from neo-natal tetanus because of this practice of taking the dirty earth and rubbing it on a newly cut baby, which infected the child with tetanus and led to many deaths. You are not about to say, “that is our cultural practice, and we are not going to give it up because that is how it has always been”, you would be a very stupid person indeed if you said that. That is an illustration of the importance of negotiation as there are some practices which are dangerous. You have to give up certain practices and move into modernity, which as I emphasised, is not exclusively European.

So, you see the process of connecting to ancestry as creating the space to acknowledge where we are from but remaining flexible and open to change?

The point that I am trying to make is that all cultures have to be flexible. You cannot attach yourself to something that is dangerous for the sake of culture. The most successful cultures are the ones which embrace everything. There are aspects of my culture which are rubbish. For example, the idea that a woman has to kneel down for somebody, this is not my culture. My daughter is not going to do that for anybody. What is the value of making others feel small and others big. Another example is the extraordinary respect for age which structures a society in such a way that you have a person who is in charge that is talking nonsense, but you cannot speak up. It has created a situation where we do not know how to handle authority because the society says authority relates to age and status. The subtle impact of these practices, people do not even regard as part of their culture. Culture is not just wearing an Agbada and lace and spending a lot of money at parties, the most important aspects of culture are invisible. We can give these things up, but that does not mean that we are not Yoruba.

In a previous interview you remarked that the task of psychiatrists “is to come to understand human abnormal behaviour” – based on your reference to the invisible but significant impact of cultural practices, would you say that engagement with history plays a crucial a role in the work of a psychiatrist?

Yes. Our trade is the most complex area of medicine because it is to do with the brain. The brain is physical but creates an imaginary world where culture is just an aspect. That imaginary world is what we deal with. It is a world constrained by language and culture, which have circle aspects to the them. These things matter in psychiatry. Therefore, the very best psychiatrists are the ones that a properly involved in human life. You cannot be properly involved in human life without recognising what informs human behaviour. However, keep in mind that the social sciences do not like the idea that the brain structures things, but it does. Where culture comes in concerns how your brain goes about doing things, how you make choices etc. The best example is to talk about grief, it occurs when a loved person/possession dies or disappears. Mourning is the cultural practice around this emotion, and that varies across the world. Yet, the heart of it is the feeling inside which is the same for all humans. Culture exists, but a lot of the behaviour beneath it are informed and constrained by how the brain works. Our task, as psychiatrists, is to be able to see through the culture and go to the heart of the matter and recognise the commonality of the human experience.

My interpretation of the work that you do is that you seek to humanise the realm of studying the body and mind, which offers a holistic approach to perceiving the human experience. When I think about some of the cultural practices from pre-colonial African history, many communities seemed to be shaped around this approach – Did this inspire you in your pursuits to humanise the area of medicine?

No, not really. I would say it was more related to my personal tendencies. If I did not go to medical school I would have read literature, I would say that I have a natural inclination towards the humanities. My work is my attempt to bring both aspects of my life together and see how it informs medical practice. Of course, because I am a psychiatrist and because I am interested in these matters, I also read widely in anthropology about how different kinds of humans relate to one another.  That is definitely in the background, because you cannot do this job properly without understanding different cultures.

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