Gambia

Democratization Does Not Equal Westernization

In high school, one of our teachers used to disagree with the use of calculators in exams because we needed to “use [our] natural resources” – our brain. We’d be advised that machines are prone to errors and with their use we limit the exertion on our brains and hence leave school “stupid.”

Following a recent post by a big brother, he pointed out the practice of misquoting/misunderstanding the meanings of expressions by interpreting certain words wrongly. To this I fully agreed and pointed out that nuances are often lost in translation giving words entirely different meanings than the author intended. This problem really stands out in the interpretation of scripture of various religions. In addition to nuance, context too gets ignored and we’re left with mere statements from which much meaning could not be derived.

Another problem we face is our heavy reliance on written accounts as if they are entirely true and error/bias prove; this problem stands out when it comes to accounts of history as relayed by oral tradition. “Oral history is unreliable because every narrator adds or takes away from the narrative based on their individual biases and interests.” That may be true, but just like books have numerous editions each offering newer perspectives and adjusted to accommodate new knowledge, so too is oral history prone to varied narratives (editions). One thing that stands true is that the central message is never lost.

The use of hyperbole (deliberate exaggerations) is a common writing technique used for effect/emphasis; if the same is applied in oral tradition we claim mythology. Through this failure on our part, what the invaders (colonizers) sought to do; vis-à-vis erase our history, we are accomplishing for them without even realizing it. The standards we use to “verify” historical facts are the yardsticks they left us with, which does not take into account the realities, beliefs and values we hold; all of which factors into our narrative.

It is an established scientific fact that when one of the senses is dulled, the other senses are heightened. A blind man has a heightened sense of hearing and touch. According to an article in Science Daily;The brains of those who are born blind make new connections in the absence of visual information, resulting in enhanced, compensatory abilities such as a heightened sense of hearing, smell and touch, as well as cognitive functions (such as memory and language).” Herein lays a window into what evolution means to some as regards our adaptability and not our origins as a species.

Using that same analogy, a people deprived of a means of preserving and passing on knowledge using written forms, gain high aptitudes in memory and retentive capacity. Fulani cattle herders can tell you the lineage of the animals under their care and what cow belonged to what family without the aid of branding or tags. If you are in complete darkness, your sense of hearing becomes more enhanced; we call it alertness. The fact is your brain is compensating for your lack of sight and so it goes for the other senses.

Having established that fact; why would it seem so farfetched to rely on our oral traditions to map our history? Of course every trade has it’s techniques that need to be learned and understood for effective delivery.

One does not only have to understand the language used as a medium; the beliefs, customs and values of the people need to be taken into account to be able to decipher the true meaning of what is being relayed. That is challenging enough for the unfamiliar; throw in the mix attempts at translating into a different language. For example, try to find a suitable word to convey to a non-native West African what a Maanyo Bitto/Chait/Jombaajo is. More likely than not the substitute word you’d use is “wedding”. This gives the whole picture an entirely different meaning. If you tell someone unfamiliar with our customs that one of your cousins is your JonghO you’d conjure up images of enslaved Africans on the cotton fields of the American south or on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean and the attendant inhumane conditions they endured. These two examples just deal with customs and culture.

If you say nyang tang tei ballo, which translates into prosperity in the actual meaning of the word, whereas literally it means someone who does not ‘harvest’ straw for roofing, the meaning would’ve been lost. Even within people of the same ethnicity, regional variations in dialect give words whole new meanings. What we call red in Gambian Mandinka (Wuleringho), is a curse word in certain Kaabu regions and their word for red (Wuleh-maa) translates into the same curse word amongst Gambian Mandinka.

There are even literal translations which not only make no sense but are actually hilarious. Someone once translated ablution into “Catching prayer”(Sali jee mutto/Jaapa junli). An epileptic episode was translated as the victim “falling animal” (daanu rabb). A policeman once said to a driver “Kill the car…” (Moto faa). A Senegal Fire finch (Mori kunung dingho/Pichi Seringe), was named Marabout bird, although there is a Marabou Stork. And what we call a marabout will be referred to as spiritualist/spiritual teacher/shaman in English.

The point here is that we subject everything from the past to our current situation, context and realities. The reference to the use of a calculator above highlights our penchant for not subjecting ourselves to critical thinking methodology in arriving at reasonable conclusions. We do it to culture, to traditions, and especially to religion. The languages of old are different from our current language structure and the meanings are not always what seem obvious. We are in a constant battle to reclaim our narrative and that cannot be devoid of the context and realities of the times that shaped such narratives and ideologies.

When people criticize western education for some of our woes, in terms of cultural identity, it is not to say there is no good to be learnt thereof; it is the inability of those tutored through that medium to adapt their knowledge to the realities of our situation. A similar thing can be said of those tutored in Arabic for their various disciplines. We have a wealth of knowledge at our disposal to research and decipher, let’s not cast it all aside as meaningless.

The advocacy for, and march towards unrestrained liberalism in The Gambia will be countered with moderate conservatism. 

Samaa la naa yeh jonkonghO tara sinanding neh (The shower shed was already wet before it rained.)

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