All or Nothing

When western education was first introduced and expanded, our predecessors were cautious and even openly resisted enrolling their children in school, especially the girl child. Their fear was that we will adopt the ways of aliens (Tubabu Silo).

They were castigated, called illiterate and blamed for our backwardness. With time of course the dynamics changed, the resistance quelled and mass “education” became the norm because it is tied to economic success, or at the very least economic independence.

Well, here we are today with very high literacy rates compared to earlier times but at what cost?

Our attainment seems to be largely of literary ability, not even fully developed literary skills much less education in the real sense of the word. We can hardly express ourselves in the languages used as the medium for attaining that “education” we sought.

Language, the most potent instrument in preserving one’s culture has been diluted so much we can hardly communicate to each other without infusing some borrowed word. And that is the least of our impairment; we are currently unable, almost entirely, to convey meaning through our language both explicitly and implicitly. For example, in Manding when we say ah belleh ta; ah faa ta; ah bang ta; ah ming jiyo doyaa ta; etc. we are talking about the same exact natural occurrence which is the end of a person’s  life. But based on the specific term used, we know the status of the deceased in his or her community, and even likely the age, or how the person talking about the deceased felt about the deceased when he/she was alive. With just one word; all of which if translated into English will just mean death, no nuance or deeper meaning to it.  That’s where we are with that.

Most things we know are lost to time because their names are lost to us making it easy for the claim to be made that we never had them and that they were introduced to us. Because we naturally do not have names for unfamiliar things, we borrow the words/terminologies of those who introduced those things to us.

For example Kalero is an everyday word for a cooking pot, but it is a Portuguese word; but until this day, every day in Mandinka homes we say; “daa jonki; daa fajji ta leh.” Etc. How daa became kaleroo has much to do with borrowing. Eventually, what daa means will be lost too.

Other aspects of our culture are under similar waves of assault. People no longer want to bother with maanyo bitto (no suitable English word for it), our naming ceremonies are completely messed up. Weddings aren’t what they used to be; our music is almost entirely culturally irrelevant; the list is long and the reason is that they have lost their meaning in the face of an onslaught of foreign cultures fueled by our desire to join the globalized world and be in tune with the “times.”

Today, we are having passionate debates as to the race/ethnicity of the ancient Egyptians, but would that be the case if not for cultural appropriation?

The Mandinkas have a familiarity with, the Nile which they call Kulung juumeh, although some say that name refers to the Red sea. Did they live in that area; explored it or traveled along it? The fact that they have a name for it points to a familiarity with it. The point is, a people’s history dies with the death of their language as does their culture, traditions and identity.

It is not just in Western culture, Arab culture has made huge inroads as well. The difference between Arab culture and Islam seems to be blurred to many.

Which raises the question; should we be an island unto ourselves? Or is it that we can’t learn anything from others? Quite the contrary, it is not a zero sum game.

Our older generation did not reject westernization because they saw no value in it, it was a cost-benefit analysis and instead of offering them a cushion to preserve that which is meaningful to them, they had to give it all up or be shut out.

If we look at current trends, they are leaning towards that old order. People both at home and in the diaspora, both native and descendants of natives are taking interest in their past, their history and traditions but have to contend with new obstacles; cultural mainstreaming. Suddenly, after many centuries of harmonious coexistence, our various ethnic identities are a threat to greater unity, so we all have to assume one outlook and guess what? That outlook confines us within the same boundaries of the original instigators. Either we shun our individual identities and assume one ‘mainstream’ identity or perish. Coexistence in diversity is sold as an impossibility.

Unity within diversity is not even an option currently. To give a more poignant example, female circumcision has become a taboo subject. Either you are for it or against it; no middle ground. If you are against it, shun it in its entirety. No rationalizing, no critical look, no acknowledgement of the gains sought thereof. Point to one reason why those who are still refusing let go of the practice are reluctant in so doing, then you are for that practice. Just like our forebears were rendered illiterate and primitive folks refusing to embrace change, so too are we discouraged from having an objective/rational discourse around that issue of female circumcision and the end result is not that difficult to predict.

When our forebears shunned western education and we blamed them for it without engaging them fully on what their fears were and offering alternatives, we laid the foundation for what we are witnessing today; a people grappling to find their footing as to who they are. Our history skewed, thrown out of context and misrepresented.

Labeling people, assuming an air of superiority over them, refusing to empathize with them or acknowledge their views has become a hallmark of our current climate. From politics to culture to religion; we’re to pick a side and stick with it. The other side has no goods to offer, and where that seems apparent, we try to slant it to give it a negative outlook.

The fact is though, there is a lot of goods at our disposal if only we are willing to be objective and understand them in their proper context. Is it time for a new conservative movement to preserve the goods we are left with?

Kayba seeto yeh meng jeh…


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