Science in Christian Perspective



"Child Training, the Mechanics of Culture Formation"
d'Un. en Lettres (Sorbonne)

From: JASA 4 (December 1952): 8-11.
The author of this paper, a member of the A.R.A., is a missionary- anthropologist of the African mission of the Presbyterian church, U.S.A. He has lived among the Bulu People for two years.

"Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it." (Proverbs 22:6)

In one of the many recent studies in anthropology we find a parallel to this verse. As Haring writes: "With due allowance for physical and regional limitations and for cultural history, the unique aspects of any society are determined and maintained by emotional habits learned in infancy by a majority of the participating individuals. Much of this learning occurs before the infant learns to talk."1

From these investigations into the genesis of human culture origins, there has come the following generalization: All normal children born into any society are equipped with the same physical and psychological structures which will allow them to become normal adults in any human society.

In this paper we will assume that the basis for different cultures is due to the emphasis each culture makes to various basic forms and to the degree each culture values these forms. We will not assume, as some writers do, that cultures result from qualitative, evolutionary differences of inherited physical or psychological traits.

This concept of culture formation may be illustrated in this way: A child born into any society is like a blade of grass. As the blade grows its course is directed, in part, by the objects with which it comes into contact. These objects direct and often change the course of the growing blade, sometimes producing a lasting impression upon it. So with a child.

Throughout the child-hood period of the infant its cultural environment directs the course of the child's life. Its parents and elders, themselves fashioned by the same cultural traditions, help the child to learn the same traditions by: "do this, don't do that," as well as to learn such cultural values as are found in the ethos, mores, customs, rites and behavior of that particular culture. When all of the experiences of all the children are similar (not exactly the same), we have a group which has been moulded in a pattern of culture.2

The approach to this study that we are about to undertake is non-evolutionary. We do not assume various levels of cultures; nor human beings in various stages of evolution when either the cultural levels or the human stages are based upon differences of kind.3 We gladly admit to differences in degree or development, if these differences are based upon a one-level theory of interpretation.

1. Haring, D. "Aspects of Personal Character in Japan," The Far Eastern Quarterly, Nov. 1946, P. 14. Also Mead, Linton, Kluckhohn, Gorer and others.

2. Horner, George R. La Litterature orale: son emploi comme technique Pour I 'etude de la structure sociale et psychologique des tribus indigenes. Doctorat thesis. Sorbonne, Universite de Paris, June, 1950, p. 45.

3. Such as in L. Morgan, Ancient Society, Chicago, 1877, pp. 3-18. A modern champion of cultural evolution, among the anthropologists seems to be L. A. White. "Evolutionism in Cultural Anthropology,'; American Anthropologist, Vol. 49, 1947, p. 410. He writes: "I have repeatedly emphasized its (evolutionary) importance in all fields of science and have Pointed out that cultural anthropology and orthodox theology are about the only Places of hospitality and refuge for a Philosophy of anti-evolutionism at the present time. I believe . . , that this era of reaction will again become not only hospitable to, but employ with skill and vigour, this basic concept of all science." &ae also his book, The Science of Culture, New York, 1949, chapter

A one-level, horizontal as opposed to the evolutionary vertical, theory of culture interpretation must assume a basic similarity of culture forms and that these forms have developed either independently, or by borrowing, from a common center.

Most cultural historians agree that all cultures have the same forms and that the place of origin of most cultural forms was Mesopatamia. Bishop, for example, says: "As we have seen civilization (culture), appeared earliest in the Near East. There, certain animals were domesticated, certain plants brought under cultivation . . . " Speaking of Eastern
Asia he continues, "Nothing has been found to suggest their independent origin there, while in certain in stances we found definite evidence of their ultimate derivation from the West." He concludes by saying, the stimulus imparted by cultural diffusions from the ancient Near East must have been due (to) the origin and fundamental type of that civilization which eventually took form in Eastern Asla."4.

This horizontal interpretation of one-level culture can, perhaps, be better understood if we use a wagon wheel for an illustration. The hub may be considered as a common point of origin of all cultural forms. It also implies that most cultural forms were found in a common point of origin. The spokes, radiating from this hub, are cultures extending into the world, each culture stressing one of the cultural forms more than others. As one comes nearer the rim the greater the separation between the spokes, so, in like manner, the greater the cultural differences between societies. Time differences are also noted. The nearer the hub, the older in time; the nearer the rim, recent and modern times.

Some cultures have gone farther in one direction than others. For example, American culture has emphasized "technology" more than any other culture. Our "spoke" has gone toward that cultural end more than, for example, Navaho culture. On the other hand Navaho culture, stressing "religion" and cosmological concepts, has gone farther in that direction than the West whose religion seems to be materialistic and economically flavored. In this way we are better able to appreciate the differences between cultures and not the evolutionary superiority of one above another.

All cultures have these and more forms in common: a basis for human relationships so that person A will call person B by some relationship term; language, so that A may communicate with B; social distinctions and relationships. so that A may marry C without fear of incest; a belief in a Supreme Being or Creator, so that life will have meaning and the culture enjoy a common goal; a behavior based upon sex, age, status and role, so that A's society will be well organized, although recognizing a minimum of individual differences, Other forms may be added to 

  4. Bishop, Carl W. "The Beg-innings of Civilization in Eastern Asia," Journal or the American Oriental Society (Supplement), No. 4, Dec. 1939, pp. 60-61,

this list such as handicrafts, war, social control, property rights, ete.5

We will now proceed to our study of child training, the mechanics of culture formation, using the Bulu culture to Illustrate our thesis.


The Bulu belong to a group of south-eastern French Cameroun tribes who have a tropical rain-forest culture in common and who speak a similar language. They live in an area extending from about 3 degrees north of the equator, to, from about 10 to 13 degrees east of Greenwich.

All cultures in all parts of the world use the lifecycle period of its members to teach the cultural values and goals thought important by a culture. Of the eight or so stages recognized by the Bulu in their life-cycle, we shall consider the first five. They are as follows:

English pre-natal               Bulu sense                      Bulu equivalent6

infant                               "in the mother's belly"             abum

child, 1-2 years         "carried in the mother's arms"        nkengele mon

child, 2-4 yrs.            "still nurses from mother"              etume mon

adolescence, 5-12     "after period of lactation"              mongo


                                           Pre-natal - alum

Bulu men and women believe that they are guided through life in proportion to their good relations with the Unknown or with their ancestors.

One of the most "dangerous" periods of life, times when the most "care!' must be exercised, is during pregnancy. The future of the unborn child, it is believed, rests jointly upon its future father and mother.

There seems to be at least two general kinds of behavior e4pected of each parent: (a) a series of negative restrictions and taboos and (b) a positive behavior which will have lasting influence upon the embryo. These can be illustrated in the following personal experiences:

(a) Bulu culture usually permits the man and not the woman to eat the tiny wood-antelope (okbae). During pregancy neither the husband nor the wife are permitted to eat it. If they do it is believed that the child will be born tongue-tied and foolish like that antelope. This type of negative taboo presents a strong control upon both parents and there are hundreds of similar examples which are conscientiously observed.

(b) A mother or father must do certain things to insure a healthy child. One day while traveling through a village, I noticed a pregnant woman with the entire lower part of her abdomen, including her legs and feet colored dark red. Upon asking "why?", I was told that the color "would give the baby a good dark color at birth". Sometimes there is a compromise between the following of the old tradition and being

5. Murdock, George P. "The Common Denominator of Cultures," The Science of msn in the World CIsts, (Linton ed.), Columbia, 1945, P. 124.

6. Key to the pronunciation of Bulu: Bulu is as in English kay; e as in say; o as in o.k.; 0 as in aw: e as in Prefix eu,-Europe; a as in ma: a-final as in eat; and u as in You. Consonants have Practically the same value as in English except n as ng - sing; ' glotal stop and b as implosive. The last letter is formed by a sudden implosion of air into the oral cavity, instead of an explosion as the b in book.

Western when the modern girls redden only their ankles!
A newly-born male child takes the name of its father plus a given name. In addition it has a "nick. name," usually describing a behavior characteristic of the child. For example, a child, soon after birth, may make dove-like sounds; "U-U-u-u-U-U", in a rising and falling register. Such a series of sounds would soon give the child the nick-name of "zum," the Bulu word for wood-dove.

Altho ugh the Bulu prefer a girl for the first child they are happy to have a boy. Often a spear is placed along side of it so that the boy will become a good hunter and a provider when an adult.7

Later, on the first day of his life, its father and grandfather wash the baby with special water and instruct it with the following words: "all you desire will be yours . . . you will be rich with fifty wives." At this time they give the baby "power" to have many other riches and withstand the evil workings of the sorcerer (nbenba'a). Personal and family taboos are recited to it at this time. In.later life the father will remind the son of these. One man told me that as a child he was forbidden to eat chimpanzee meat because it was a personal and a family taboo, although others in the tribe could eat it without resultant danger to them.

A cultural pattern is beginning to be observed here Although there are similar negative and positive cul: ture forms of this type found on a world-wide distribution, the Bulu apply meanings and usages to goals peculiar to their own cultural survival pattern and environment.

'Me negative traits are prohibitions. You can't do certain things or evil will befall you or your village (jal). Atonement must be made as quickly as possible, usually with the services of the feticher (bekungo).

The positive traits are good for through them one can attain cultural-goals or ideals considered important. These ideals and goals give meaning to the otherwise meaningless traditions.

The cultural goal of the Bulu child is for it to grow up to be a rich man (nkukum) with riches of animals and many wives. When there is such a "capitalistic" cultural goal it can normally be expected that the society is highly competitive. Such is the case of Bulu society and culture. The Bulu have placed a value upon acquiring riches more than on any other cultural trait. This is due to (a), the general belief that at death a man would enjoy a similar social level as in life (b) wealth gives a man high status and prestige. Wealth is measured in the number of "things" a man possesses-wives, goats, sheep, etc. All these, and more, represent "liquid assets" in the Bulu value system.

For this reason a girl is preferred as a first child rather than a boy. The boy represents an outgoing of securities at marriage while a girl represents an increase of capital. It must be clearly understood that wealth is also valued in a social and religious sense as well as economic, in fact there is no compartmentalization of cultural meanings such as we consider them in Western culture.

At infancy there is an unconscious learning or conditioning to one's cultural environment. The Bulu

7. The root of this word "nken" also means "spear," suggesting the influence the spear should have on the boy's life. Rates, George, Handbook of Bulu, Elat, Ebolowa, Africa, Pp. 135-142. 1926.

child enjoys a closer relationship to its mother than is normally the case in Western society. The Bulu child is never separated from its mother's side from birth until after the period of lactation, about two years. By night the infant sleeps at its mother's side, while by day it is fastened to her back. It is a mother centered child. Its mother serves it whenever it cries. The father has little to do with it during this stage of the life-cycle.

However, it is not unusual for the mother to hand her infant over to another woman to nurse or to hold. Later, the child is made to feel at home in any house in the village, reminding us that the child is both the child of its parents as well as its village.

There is little or no discipline for the child, it never receives, for example, any toilet training. The Bulu child is learning to be dependent in the sense that it depends upon others even at this early age. The American child, by comparison, learns to be independent. It is encouraged to be independent. It sleeps in its own crib shortly after birth. The American mother believes in leaving her child alone for rather long periods of time while she tends to other work. Even the American child's feeding is put on a definite discipline, of feeding at only certain hours. The mother of the American child separates herself from it with at least one material object: a crib, bassinet, buggy, stroller, pen or swing.

The two children, Bulu and American, are learning different patterns and values of life. By the time they reach adulthood, they will be different, they will have been configured by different life patterns-8

Even though both the Bulu and the American culture are "capitalistic" the former emphasizes social And religious concepts of capitalism instead of the technological and material based upon money of the American.

A Bulu child stops nursing at about the age of 2-3 years. Ordinarily, at that time, its mother expects another child. Just as she and her husband must refrain from sexual intercourse for two years during her period of nursing her first child, so she must become pregnant as soon as the first child stops nursing. In this way, they think, she will be highly honored and respected by her husband, his family and village. A definite goal for a woman to attain is to have many children.

A change of attitude is noted toward the first child after the birth of the second. The first baby is forcibly pushed away when it tries to nurse from its mother. It is no longer carried but made to walk whenever the mother carries the second child on her back.

At the same time two important social relationships take place for this seemingly neglected first child. (a) A little girl (mone kal) is assigned to care for the older child's needs for another year or two. She must carry it wherever she goes whether it be to the spring for water or to the garden to work and (b), the child begins to call every other woman in the village by the term mother (nyua). In this way it is made to feel at home in all the village houses. It calls all of the other village children brother or sister. A learning process, a realization of a cultural goal, is a work which will later give the child a sense of group

8.. Configuration is Benedict's original term. Later she introduced the phrase "1)atterns of culture". Benedict, R. "Configurations of Culture," American Anthropologist, Vol. 34, No. 1,,. 1932.' Benedict, R. Patterns of 'Culture, New York, 1st ed. 1934.

solidarity, a social identification with village. 

These relationships are not so strongly marked, if at all, by the American child and family. An American mother doesn't usually take care of one child more than another; if she does, it is usually without the little ones realizing it. Nuclear family loyalty is stressed in the West instead of the composite village family of the Bulu, with the Western mother and father taking an equal interest in the children. There is certainly no "village" loyalty, as understood by the Bulu, in America.

Play, as a form of recreation, is unknown to the Bulu child. True, the little girls dance, but they are learning particular dance rythms to be danced, for example, at the next wedding. Or the little boys play with miniature traps, but they are learning to be hunters, for if, per chance, they succeed in catching a bird or an animal, this animal goes into the family larder. Play is not only "for keeps" but it is cultural education toward a known end.

About this time in the life-cycle the boy is circumsized. He is admitted into the men's group where, at night, they all sit around a smouldering camp-fire of the palaver house (aba) listening to the professional story-teller spin tales about the forest people: the turtle (ku), leopard (ze), red-antelope (so), the elephant (zok), the gorilla (ngi) and the rooster (nnome kup). Each animal represents a human type to be shunned or emulated. Each folktale has a morale behind it giving the Bulu boy simplified lessons in cultural goals and individual values in the Bulu reality system. The turtle (ku), for example, is wise, generous, just, good and at the same time, two-faced, a liar and often dishonest, ethical values which reflect Bulu personality with unusual fidelity.9

The Bulu girl, living in the kitchen and in the garden close to her mother day in and day out, plays house in earnest. Often a little four year old will be seen coming along the forest path with a stick of wood on her head. Older girls will have baskets of produce upon their heads, or upon their backs strapped to their shoulders.

A girl will learn from her mother how to make a garden, hoe it, rotate the crops, how much land will be necessary for a year's supply of taro. She learns what grows best in various seasons and when harvest time comes for the various kinds of food plants. Her future marriage depends upon how well she gardens and keeps house. Wherein an American girl is interested in the beauty of her face and the slightness of her figure, the Bulu girl will strengthen her arms and legs, for survival depends upon strength and not so much beauty.

In the home the Bulu girl spends hours grinding, preparing and cooking food. If there are younger children she must watch for their every need and supply it if possible. She is a permanent "baby-sitter".

Her mother teaches her daughter about men: to talk well to them; to lie to her husband if necessity demands it; how to live in her husband's village and how to get along with her future mother-in-law. She teaches her dance steps and songs and meanings of certain dances, for they are often symbols of life's deeper values, presented in a non-emotional manner.

In turn, the boy changes his loyalty from his mother

9. Horner, George R. Litterature orale,,
P. 189.

to his father. He accompanies him on a hunt; helps cut the bush for his mother's garden; learns to use a cultlass; build a house and make the mat roof; learns the names of all the economically important animals; to stay away from the village (jal) girls who are in effect his sisters. His father teaches the boy the intricate rhythms of the dance drums and the drum language so that he can send messages across the miles of jungle to the next village. If he belongs to a special family he is taught to become a feticher, an iron-smith, or a carver of wood and ivory.

Both boys and girls learn about the unseen things which cause fear: about the nbe and the evu. The former, the evil within certain men who sometimes become sorcerers; the latter, evil spirits who fly at night crying the eerie cry of the white owl and eating the hearts of sleeping men or women causing death. The Bulu believe that all death is murder.

To the American child of this age, play is recreation and not an essential factor for survival. We protect our children as much as possible from the cruel realities of life, introducing them to life's competition after high-school or college graduation. There is no such protection for the Bulu child, hence there is no difficult period of adjustment in later adolescence for these Africans.

The latter years of the mon stage and the beginning of the mongo are merged. Life's competition and responsibilities weigh heavier upon the shoulders of both the boy and girl of this age level.

Their culture has pretty well impressed its pattern upon their lives. They are looking forward to the end of this period so that they can marry, have children and enjoy, for the first time, social recognition, Independence and status, being finally recognized in a social sense as male or female, for up to this stage in their life-cycle, they have been considered as neither. Bulu society doesn't recognize them until the next stage as a marriageable boy (ndoman) or a girl (ngon) and, finally, when they are either a man (fain) or a woman (minga).

Physical differences and awareness are becoming more marked, but unlike the American counter-part, the Bulu boy or girl does not pass through a series of crisis periods, climaxed in tears or frustation, wondering what the future will bring. The Bulu youth, with a security in their traditions and their way of life, are just as sure of tomorrow, all things being equal, as they are of today.

The girl becomes demure and modest. She eagerly listens to the conversations of her married village sisters telling about eligible boys in their villages. The girl hopes that her sisters will tell the boys and their parents about her so that one will come to visit her. She will soon be a marriagable girl (ngon).

The boy joins the red antelope (so) society. He learns the laws and geneologies of his family (village, ayon). His sisters will tell him of the eligible girls in the next village. Soon he will go to meet one and talk of the possibility of marriage to her and her parents, for his father must have time to start the dowry (nsuba). The boy will soon be a marriageable young man (ndoman).

Both the boy and the girl can now do all the things their parents have taught them in the traditions of their culture.

The Bulu baby, born with the physical and the psychological plasticity to fit into any known culture has developed into a true Bulu.110 The baby has been singularly configured and moulded by all of the goals and patterns of its culture.

He or she will now say in response to the question, "why do you do this?" "because my (fore-) fathers did it." "It is our custom." Any other way will seem strange and foreign to him, he can not understand it."

In this paper we have sketched the mechanic of Bulu culture formation through child-training. We have seen how a particular culture makes use of a worldwide cultural forms and applies them in a special way -a way of life. We note that Bulu culture is not a result of ignorance, superstition or that it is a result of a people on a lower evolutionary scale than ourselves. Rather, it is a well-balanced mixture of cultural forms which give life meaning, survival and goals to a group of people as they are taught, through childhood, to become a part of it.

10. "Every individual at birth has the capacity to fit into any known culture," Parsons, Talcott. Essays in Sociological Theory, Free Press, 1949, p. 46.

11. The Bulu seem to be becoming rapidly Westernized. Protestant Christianity has been among then~ for more than sixty Years. Many of the older customs, like the sorcerer and the feticher have been substituted with the funLtional substitute seemingly found in Christ. On the other hand, Westernization has only changed the outward appearances while the same covert, social and cultural goals remain the same. In fact Christianity and Western culture have been the means permitting the Bulu to achieve their goals faster than ever before, in having things and becoming rich.

Instead of disorganization, Western culture has given the Bulu a greater solidarity and "oneness" than they ever realized before, in, using the French language, their concept of "la race boulou".