One can easily characterize the struggle of the African* since independence as a total commitment to urbanization and modernity. Rightly or wrongly, the African has considered his pre-independence or colonial existence as a period of serfdom, political and economic oppression, rural poverty and underdevelopment of natural resources. Consequently, on gaining independence, his overriding task appears to be nation-building and a serious effort to raise his standard of living. As a result growth, especially as development of cities, has been rampant in Africa. Hence, in his important study of the growth of urban populations in Africa, Professor Jacques Maquet remarks that in 1961 it was estimated that about ten percent of the population of Africa lived in cities. Even more significant are the rate and speed of its growth.1

What we are concerned about here, however, is not the phenomenon of city growth as such, but the possible deleterious effects of urban life on the traditional values of the African. For experience clearly teaches that urbanization, and industrialization for that matter, are mixed blessings for man as a political animal whose aim in forming a political community is the "good life," as Aristotle phrases it. What increasingly has become obvious to the African as he pursues national growth, development and urbanization as important values for a reasonably contented existence is the crisis of his traditional values and, of course, the creation of new ones. He is fast learning from experience that the development of his rural setting into urban and semi-urban centers entails certain hazards to his long cherished traditional values. This change of habitat, Professor Maquet puts it simply, "alters everyday life." Other great scholars of the many-sided problems of Africa also have made mention of the influences of the "European ways of life" and have noted strikingly that these influences "have had a devastating impact on the traditional way of life."2 The African himself also is increasingly aware that his daily life in its traditional village setting, characterized by a stable and well articulated pattern of events, gradually is "falling apart," in Professor Chinua Achebe's well known phrase.3

In what characteristic ways has urbanization affected the traditional values of the modern African? This is the question to which we shall attempt to respond by research in contemporary African values as critically influenced by the process of urbanization and the many dynamic changes taking place on the African continent. The first task, however, is a brief critical examination of the major traditional values of the African.


In this paper, we take "value" in its simple connotation of "a thing of worth." A thing has value if it has some worth, and in this sense man considers life worth living because he finds certain things intrinsically valuable.

In his traditional life the African holds certain things to be of great value. It is these values which give him a distinct cultural personality and enable him to make some contribution to world knowledge, history and civilization. It is not our task in this essay to articulate all the cultural values of the African, but only the dominant ones as we attempt to assess their status against the current tide of urbanization sweeping across the continent.

One of the foremost traditional values of the African is a large family. Children are of supreme value to the African. His primary purpose for marriage is children and to have as many of them as possible. This is the reason why polygamy or the union of one man with several women still holds great attraction for him, and also why the birth rate in Africa is among the highest in the world. The fact is that the African still counts his blessings by the number of children he has, whether they are educated or not, rich or poor, healthy or sick, well-fed or hungry.

Another important traditional value of the modern African is love for, and practice of, the extended family system. As a matter of fact the extended family characterizes the life of the African and somehow shapes his personality and outlook on life. Unlike Western man, for instance, the African sees his nuclear family as broadening out into a larger family unit. Professor Maquet describes this broader family life thus: The African child has only to take a few steps in his village to visit several who can substitute for his father, mother, brothers and sisters, and they will treat him accordingly. Thus the child has many homes in his village, and he is simultaneously giver and receiver of widespread attention.4

This extended family system is widely practiced in Africa. Indeed it is one "in which everybody is linked with all the other members, living or dead, through a complex network of spiritual relationship into a kind of mystical body."5 Consequently, it is not just "being" that the African values; "being-with-others" or as Maquet says, "being rooted in kinship" is an equally important existential characteristic of the African. He is never isolated since several persons are assimilated into one parental role: his father's brothers are assimilated by extension into the role of father, his mother's sisters into the role of mother, his patri-lateral uncle's daughters into the role of sister.6

Against the background of this great African value, a person is an individual to the extent that he is a member of a family, a clan or community. Another great value in traditional Africa is respect for old people ("senior citizens"), particularly one's parents, grandparents and relatives. Together with this value, one must also consider "ancestor worship" as an important related value in African culture. In fact, the basis for the honor and respect accorded to old people in the traditional African culture is their closeness to the ancestors, for in his ontological conceptual scheme the African places his old relatives closest to his ancestors or dead relatives in his great hierarchy of beings.7

It must be noted that in the African universe the living and the dead interact with one another. Life goes on beyond the grave for the African and is a continuous action and interaction with dead relatives. These unseen ancestors called "the living dead" become part of one's living family and often are invited to partake (spiritually) in the family meals. As Parrinder observes: The ancestors are not just ghosts, nor are they simply dead heroes, but are felt to be still present watching over the household, directly concerned in all the affairs of the family and property, giving abundant harvests and fertility.8

According to the traditional belief, the African ancestors--the morally good ones, of course--are held in high esteem. People have great recourse to them as powerful intermediaries between God and the living members of their particular families. These good ancestors are expected also to reincarnate into their families in due time.

The respect and honor bestowed on the ancestors filter through the old people--one's parents, grandparents and other relatives--as living embodiments of wisdom and of the good moral life who are expected sooner or later to join other good ancestors in the land of the "living dead." Old age therefore is an important value to the African.

Another value to be examined in the light of the urbanizing influences in Africa today is religion. To the traditional African, religion is an indispensable value. "To be" for him is to be religious. Professor John Mbiti of Kenya and Tanzania speaks of him as "notoriously religious"; other scholars regard him as "incurably religious." As religion truly permeates his total life, there is for him no "secular" existence or naturalistic vision of world order. In this important way also, the African exhibits a cultural personality distinct from that of Western man, for instance, who easily makes a radical distinction between the secular and the religious, the natural and the supernatural, this world and the next. How does this religious value of the African stand the test of urbanization and technological advances evident in Africa today? This is a central question and, like other values considered above, will be the object of later reflection.

Also one cannot forget the fact that the African loves nature and feels one with it. We are clearly reminded by Professor Maquet of the basic fact that, unlike Westerners who, having succeeded in defying nature, proceed toward its complete subjugation, Africans seek harmony with nature and achieve this by sharing its life and strength.9 The African values the whole of creation as sacred. To him nature is neither uncanny nor for subjugation and exploitation, but something sacred, participating in the essential sacred nature of God Himself and of all reality. Open spaces, fields, forests, trees, oceans and lakes are sacred to him and consequently important as places reminiscent of the ashes of his fathers and the sanctuaries of his gods.

Many other values distinguish the life of the African and in characteristic ways determine also his modes of being-in-the-world, such as music, dance, a sense of family togetherness, hospitality and love for community. We have made mention of the dominant ones, but our main objective is to discover the status of these values in the wake of such modern values as urbanization, industrialization, science and technology. Definitely, as the African passes from folk to urban society, from traditional to modern urban and semi-urban life with its complicated money economy and international trade, his traditional values are bound to be affected. In some cases, old values disappear only to reappear as higher ones in a transvaluation of values; in other cases some traditional values suffer disruption, at times to the point of extinction; in yet other cases the African suffers a reversal of his traditional values; lastly, he creates altogether new values with consequent tensions. In short, these are the main ways that urbanization and industrialization, as modern African values, seriously affect traditional values. We will discuss briefly each category.

Of course, in speaking about the cumulative effects of urbanization on the traditional life of the African, one must not lose sight of such other factors as education, technology, arts, science and Christianity, which are now part and parcel of modern civilization and which influence the values and destinies of peoples and nations alike in their continuous thrust toward progress and a better life.


In speaking about the traditional African and his values, we bear in mind that since independence, that is to say, since after the Second World war, urbanization as a process of development is itself a value to him. His thinking has remained practical and existential in the sense that his priority value has been the concrete modes of self-realization. The growth and development of his cities have remained an integral part of his post-independence struggles for self-reliance and self-development.

Together with urbanization, since independence the African has steadfastly pursued industrialization and "transfer" in his effort to control and dominate the environment. In this ongoing struggle, the African is gradually realizing the priceor rather the perilof progress, particularly with reference to his traditional values. In some cases, he experiences not a total loss, but a transvaluation. One such case is his traditional religion, with its own code of ethics. Scholars of African traditional religion have come up with different names in their effort to describe the nature of the religion of the African's forefathers: "animism," "paganism" "polytheism" and "diffused monotheism" have surfaced at one time or the other in their scholarly journals.

The point is that in Christianity, the revealed religion of Jesus Christ which the African is increasingly embracing as he comes under the dominating influences of the missionaries, his traditional religion does not cease to be practiced, but somehow reappears at a higher level. Christianity and the ethics of Christ become new and, at the same time, higher values for the African.

The African Christian now no longer believes in the many gods of his traditional religion, but in one God, as his ultimate Lord and Master. Rudolf Otto's sense of the numinousfascinans et tremendum, as he characterizes religious feelingfor African Christians as for Christians the world over has reference to the One true God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Consequently, belief in this God is no longer belief in the plural gods of his "pagan" world or the natural morality which characterized their worship.

In connection with the transvaluation of religious values, one must not forget the African's great value of ancestor worship. "Everywhere the African is first defined by reference to his ancestor," Maquet reminds us.10 The ancestors or "living dead" are the great intermediaries between the African Great God (with different names in different African nations), the other gods and human beings. On becoming a Christian, the African easily sees Christ, the only mediator between God and man, as "a proto-ancestor." This interpretation is advanced by an African theologian in his effort to Africanize the church or incarnate Christianity in the local culture. It has its problems, of course, as a Zimbabwean Jesuit theologian notes,11 but it is a potent mode of recovering and at the same time transforming an important African traditional value into a higher one.

Also, since urbanization as a modern African value is really inseparable from such other concomitant values as industrialization and Christianity, the African's great love for large families, extended familyhood and communitywhat the late Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal calls "the sense of communion"is practiced on a much higher level in Christianity, since the African Christian sees the church as one large institution housing all members of the one family of God. All men become brothers under one God, as all strive for the same home and destiny, namely, heaven. Consequently, the African Christian sees not only the members of his natural family, but all human beings as brothers and sisters, for Christianity professes the same common Father and hence a common brotherhood for all men. This, too, is a transvaluation of traditional values.

In this consideration of the African's transvaluation of traditional values, note should be made also that with urbanization, the African exhibits his existential trait of being a lover of community or essentially a man-in-community by his development of new voluntary associations which increasingly have become distinctive features of his urban milieu. These associations willingly formed by the urban African, increase his chances for more economic security and social well-being; in general, they provide more opportunities for self-survival. These ends specify and define the nature and activities of the associations12 themselves. Indeed, Peter S.C. Gutkind rightly notes, the activities of the voluntary associations are manifold, ranging from burial services to recreation clubs and friendly societies, improvement, saving and contribution clubs, and occupational and religious associations. Consequently what the African loses in his tribal village life or experiences as highly precious is doubly assured in his urban life through these voluntary associations.


The growth of cities in this era of industrialization and push-button technology is not exactly a total blessing for the African or for anyone else. It brings about its own reversal of traditional values, perhaps most obviously that of his (novel) radical attitude toward nature or his environment. Mention has been made of the fact that to the premodern African nature was sacred, not an object to conquer and exploit; he felt in harmony with all reality.

But urbanization itself is a value, and such other concomitant values as education, technology and industrialization have brought about a completely different mental posture towards the African environment. Land and open spaces are no longer as sacred as in the days of old. They are increasingly scarce since more and more they are converted into urban and semi-urban industrial centers, as well as into areas for mechanized farming. Consequently, land or nature as a whole has acquired much economic value. The sacred groves of the ancestorstrees, forests, and places consecrated to the godsare fast decreasing in number as the African, like the rest of the world, joins the industrial and technological age and adopts the scientific spirit which underlies its progress. Like the Westerner, the African has set out to conquer, subdue and exploit nature, no longer to venerate it; this is a far cry from his premodern mentality and outlook.

In addition, one must also mention the serious impact of urbanization upon African families as another instance of a reversal of values. One great attraction of urban life, the reason for citypopulation growth, is the possibility of making a "decent living" which, in short, means more income for the family. In practice this means establishing new homes away from home mostly by young men, women and fathers of families.

The obvious consequence is a gradual, but inevitable breakup of families. For the African, that is a tragic reversal of values since African families are close-knit. Unity and togetherness in the family are the basic values. In these days the quest for more money and better living conditions has pushed him out into the city; gradually it is alienating him from his family; worse still, it is tearing the family apart. Gutkind rightly points out that among all the problems which are alleged to have their etiology in urbanization and urbanism, frequent reference is made to the breakdown of African kinship and family life in towns.13 Perhaps in no place is this observation more true than in South Africa, especially among mine workers.

Although urbanization and industrialization have their advantages, yet they exact their full toll from the African as from anyone else. He, too, experiences all sorts of new problems and difficulties in his new way of life in the city, such as slums, poverty, loneliness or estrangement, poor sanitation, light failure, joblessness, organized and unorganized crime waves, traffic jams. The lover of space and nature in his rural setting has now to contend with overcrowded cities and rundown apartment buildings. He has begun seriously to complain about city dirt and pollution of the environment in an unexpected reversal of values.

But these unhappy consequences are light when compared to their effect on the family size of the urban African. He now speaks in terms of family planning and cutting down family size. The younger urban generation is no longer prepared to make the same mistakes as their parents and grandparents, particularly in not limiting the number of births. The overall effects of urbanization, the increasing lack of habitable space and the high cost of education and living standards have brought about this reversal in the African traditional value, which the Zairean theologian, Otene, called simply "the African value of fecundity."14

In a way, monogamy for the African, particularly the Christian, is a reversal of value since polygyny or plurality of wives is the ideal and primal value for the traditional African. The new cultural determinants we mentioned above, such as urbanization, the high cost of living, education and Christianity, have meant a reversal of this value.

What of the depersonalizing force of mass society upon the African as a result of increasing urbanization and industrialization? The urban African rooted in his kinship, who usually maintains a very close family relationship, becomes suddenly all alone in the city, uprooted so to speak from his kith and kin in his village and forced to cultivate individualism as a new way of life. This is certainly another instance of a reversal of value. Of course, the urban African forms new associations in the city, but this is an altogether new way of life which does not really cure the city loneliness and estrangement which Viktor Franuntkl calls an "existential vacuum."

In addition, other traditional values suffer in the wake of urbanization, such as "respect for the aged" and high regard for their wisdom. This appears natural for, as the African, particularly the younger generation, faces up to the challenges of modern life dictated by education, modern economy, developments in art, science and technology and the new values they create, increasingly he finds the "senior citizens" and their wisdom irrelevant to his life. Time becomes important to him as increasingly he defines his existence in terms of work or business, rather than leisure. As in the Western world, this means for the African also less time and concern for the older generation and its views, and thereby a reversal of traditional values.


In the process of urban growth and development, the African acquires new values as he forms units as component parts of his new urban settlement. His mental horizon and pattern of life change rapidly. He is no longer enclosed in his rather stable village environment with its close-knit families; he is no longer in the midst of members of his village. In the urban environment, he has to learn to live with, and respect, people of different ethnic backgrounds since urban life is a "melting pot" of people from various ethnic groups with different customs, traditions, mannerisms and languages, etc. This openness to new peoples is healthy for the African since he, too, can build a viable and progressive nation only through the cooperative endeavor of all.

In this context of "love-for-other-people," as opposed to "love-of-one's-own ethnic group" characteristic of village life, mention can be made of the virtue of patriotism as an additional value for the African. He now learns to appreciate and love his country with all its peoples and subcultures. The African learns to fight for common interests, for the common good, even at the risk of his own or ethnic good. In a continent such as Africa characterized by excessive outbursts of ethnic feelings or prejudices (tribalism), often to the point of war and national disorders, patriotism is indeed a new value.

With urbanization and the technological development which underlies its progress, the African learns to appreciate scientific knowledge and education. Scientific education has become a dominant value to the African, rather than the oral education, unwritten customs and traditions of his forebears. This is one of the outstanding areas where he has profited from colonialism and the consequent Westernization of African values.

Formal education, a result of colonialism, radicalized the traditional values of the African and introduced some completely new ones. Professor Ali A. Mazrui put it thus, "The colonial impact, I have argued, transformed the natural basis of stratification in Africa." Instead of status based on, say, age, there emerged status based on literacy. Instead of classes emerging from the question, "Who owns what?" class formation now responds to the question, "Who knows what?"15

Education is indeed a priority value to the African; it is truly power. In Africa, it is a door to other values and carries with it affluence and social influence Two forms of knowledge have been particularly critical in determining who rules Africa: literacy or academic knowledge among African intellectuals and military knowledge within the African armed forces. The knowledge of the intelligentsia has produced something approaching a meritocracy; the skills of the soldiers have produced what might be called a militocracy.16

Also as a result of urbanization and its economic imperatives on modern life, money has assumed a very important value in Africa, as in other continents. Like knowledge it too is power. "The pursuit of personal profit has escalated in African economic systems," Professor Mazrui noted. With the heavy influence of Western capitalism, the African clearly is developing and appreciating the values of capitalism as well, such as class distinction based on the haves and have-nots, competitive spirit, private enterprise and the profitmotive. These values are highly operative particularly in the economic life of the modern urban African. Indeed, money economy and what Mazrui paraphrases as "the culture of the clock"17 or time consciousness have made material progress in the modern scientific and technological sense additional values for the African.

One cannot really speak about urbanization and its philosophy of material progress without mentioning labor or work, which in its modern scientific sense is a new value. Of course, for the premodern African, as Guy Hunter observed, work was necessary for subsistence, to fulfill tribal and family obligations, to amass bride price or perhaps gain status: it had no personal moral connotation.18 But to the educated urban African work has increased its value and is seen as a condition for progress as well as for money. It does mean long hours at the office or on the farms, the emergence of working class mothers, of young working girls and boys particularly in cities, and less leisure. Hunter summarizes it all, "Probably the greatest shock to the newly educated African in paid employment is that he has to work all day and everyday."19 Certainly, this new attitude to work is far removed from the older African way of life.


From the above reflection, there is no doubt that urbanization as a sociological process alters the everyday life and culture of a people. In Africa as in practically all cultures, it has given rise partly to a transvaluation and partly to a reversal of traditional values. Certainly it has created additional values. Of course, urbanization need not go with industrialization and technological development, though these are prime factors and causes for city growth and development. Education too is one of the causes of the rural drift to cities, or urbanization, in Africa as elsewhere.

The point which must be stressed here is that it is through all these factors, namely, healthy development of cities, of science, arts, technology and education that the African hopes and strives to achieve self-realization. This is the ideal he has pursued steadfastly since independence. His post-independence thrust has been for self-reliance and the mastery of his continent, for his experience of colonial subjugation and its concomitant humiliation was highly unpleasant. "We have for too long been the victims of foreign domination," Kwame Nkrumah, the late leader of Ghana once said. "For too long we have had no say in the management of our own affairs or in deciding our own destinies."20

The same realization of impotence and frustration on the part of the African after his colonial experience is concisely stated by Obi B. Egbuna:

We do not control our land, our lives or our direction. We do not command the means of distribution or production. We do not even earn a reasonable living wage, but we were born here and our forefathers claim ownership of the land.21

Consequently, what the present-day African wants is power, the scientific knowledge and technical skill to establish himself as the master and architect of his world and destiny. This is tantamount to a reestablishment of self in a self-determined, self-directed and self-controlled environment.

In this great task, he needs, among other things to industrialize, to buildup and develop his cities, and not least of all to enter into the race for technological, scientific and material progress as must the rest of the world in the quest for that "good life" which is the end of all political societies. In this ambition the African experiences definite tensions. As seen above, on the one hand, he wishes to retain many values of his traditional culture which, on the other, urbanization and the imperatives of modern life seriously threaten.

For Africans, as for the rest of the world, rural drift to cities has a purpose, namely, to seek employment, education, better living conditions or even negatively to escape from certain traditions which are found to be unpleasant. In other words, the escape of people to towns is to search for alternative forms of subsistence, generally for making life worth living. In the resulting urbanization certainly they experience additional problems.

Another outstanding value of the modern African is his desire to build up African culture. "We are doing everything to revive our culture," Nkrumah assured the National Assembly in Accra in 1965. Indeed since independence, culture-building has remained for the African a top practical pursuit. The various festivals of arts and culture held in many African countries bear this out, as well as the pursuit of indigenous technology and political systems as the "Ujamaa Experiment" in Tanzania initiated by Julius K. Nyerere,23 and the promotion of indigenous music, painting, religion, fashion and education for self-reliance in many African nations. In short, the African wishes to retain his self-identity through retaining his traditional values, yet, he experiences that his drift to the cities and the values of its scientific and technological culture, which are vital concomitants of modern civilization, seriously endanger his traditional values, and consequently, his cultural identity. He wants to retain the past, from which he yet alienates himself. Is this possible, or as Professor Maquet put it, "Is such an undertaking viable?"23

Urbanization therefore poses serious problems for the African. Although industrial techniques and scientific development do not yet completely dominate his life, steadily they are influencing practically all aspects of his life today. Will the scientific and technological values of modern civilization, in time, eliminate the traditional ones and alienate the African from himself? This is the question; and it is a crucial problem for the African himself.

Professor W.E. Abraham gives his own view. "The future of Africa," he says, "rests on the present and the present is an outcome of the past. By the present, one wishes to indicate the resultant of the operation of the forces of traditional Africa and the forces which the contact with Europe has unleashed." Scientific knowledge and techniques--modern man's common inheritance--may well be regarded as one of the "forces unleashed" on the African by contact with America and Europe. Consequently, an important test of his maturity, of his quest for self-realization and self-identity, is his ability to domesticate or indigenize these adventitious values, that is to say, those values brought about by his contact with the white man's scientific and technological culture. "The progress of Africa will depend on Africa's ability both to appreciate problems and to solve them," Abraham reiterates.25

Africa's success in her struggle for self-realization and self-identity will depend then on her ability to subject foreign values to her traditional ones, to master and at the same time domesticate industrial techniques and scientific knowledge to serve her own ends, and not the other way round.


*The African here referred to is the Black African unless the context indicates otherwise.

1. Jacques Maquet, Africanity: The Cultural Unity of Black Africa, tr. Joan R. Rayfield (New York: Oxford University Press 1972), pp. 124-125.

2. Guy Bonveniste and W.E. Moran, Jr., "African Economic Problems" in Peter J.M. McEwan and Robert B. Sutcliffe, The Study of Africa (London: The Camelot Press, 1967), p. 265.

3. Professor Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian, is among Africa's topmost novelists. His most known work, Things Fall Apart (Lagos: Heinemann: 1964) is about the continuity and discontinuity of change in the traditional life of modern Africa.

4. Jaccues Maquet, op. cit., p. 56.

5. Professor E.A. Ruch and Dr. K.C. Anyanwu, African Philosophy: An Introduction to the Main Philosophical Trends in Contemporary Africa (Rome: Catholic Book Agency, 1981), p. 328.

6. Ibid., p. 60.

7. God or the highest spirit tops the list for the African in his ontological hierarchy or hierarchy of beings. This supreme Spirit is followed by the nature deities or spirits, then, the ancestors or the "living dead" (thus ends the invisible universe). Close to the "living dead" are the elders generally revered as wise, holy, and soon to join the ancestors, then ordinary human beings, lower animals and inorganic nature.

8. E.G. Parrinder, West African Religion (London: Epsworth Press, 1949), p. 125.

9. Jacques Maquet. op. cit., p. 64.

10. Ibid., p. 60.

11. Ignatius M. Zvarevashe, "The Problem of Ancestors and Inculturation," AFER (African Ecclesiastical Review), 29 (No. 4, 1987), 242-251.

12. Peter S.C. Gutkind, "The African Urban Milieu: A Force in Rapid Change" in Peter J.M. McEwan and Robert B. Sutcliffe, eds., The Study of Africa, p. 343.

13. Ibid., p. 341.

14. Mattingulu Otene, Celibacy and the African Value of Fecundity, tr. Louis C. Planomeon (El Doret, Kenya: GABA Publications, Spearhead, no. 65, 1981).

15. Ali A. Mazrui, The African Condition (The Reith Lectures; London: Heineimann, 1980), p. 63.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid., p. 67.

18. Guy Hunter, "From the Old Culture to the New" in McEwan and Sutcliffe, p. 322.

19. Ibid.

20. Kwame Nkrumah, "I Speak of Freedom," in Gideon Cyrus M. Mutiso and S.W. Rohio, eds., Readings in African Political Thought (London: Heinemann, 1975), p. 61.

21. Obi B. Egbuna, The ABC of Black Power (Lagos: Third World First Publications, 1973), "Introduction."

22. Julius K. Nyerere, Ujamaa: Essays on Socialism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968).

23. Jacques Maquet, op. cit., p. 123.

24. W.E. Abraham, The Mind of Africa (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), p. 161.

25. Ibid.