Reconciliation through language
- Grace Williams
The Akan people of modern-day Ghana over 400 years ago developed Adinkra, a system of symbols that communicates complex cultural proverbs and historical sayings. One of my favourite Adinkra symbols is this Sankofa. It means ‘Return and get it, learn from the past’.
The past may at times seem too distant and irrelevant to warrant our attention. In an age of exponential technological advancement, what need do we have to revisit and consider our collective past? Our modern societal assumption is that a positive future relies on the discovery of something new or innovative to solve a present problem.
Our obsessive preoccupation with ‘what’s new’ is causing us to lose sight of the enormous value of Indigenous languages in our world and the richness that these ancient cultures offer us.
This pursuit of newness and western cultural values is leading us in the direction of cultural and linguistic poverty. The United Nations has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages because of the alarming decline of Indigenous languages all over the world. Of the seven-thousand languages spoken in the world over two-thousand are in danger of being lost. Every two-weeks a language dies taking with it a unique cultural perspective and identity.
When Europeans embarked on economic domination of the world, the most powerful tool in their arsenal wasn’t just guns; the most successful colonial tool was language.
Establishing colonial education systems that punished Indigenous people for speaking their languages, ensured the destruction of their political will.
Divorced from their cultural identity, many Indigenous people had no source of political resistance; making it easier for political domination to be achieved by a foreign power.
The colonial language wars planted the seeds for the ongoing cultural insecurity and self-doubt that many Indigenous cultures still feel today, including my own West African culture.
While in Sierra Leone a few years ago I stumbled on this common cultural insecurity. I was sitting in a busy market place, observing the meandering flow of people from one end of the market to another when three young men walked in my direction.
The young men started to speak to the woman next to me who was selling clothing. Interested in what there were saying I piped into the conversation in my mother’s tongue, Mende. I was so fluent they mistook me for a local. As the conversation was winding down the boys asked me where I was from, in an attempt to discover my tribal roots.
I smiled, and said Tasmania, Australia.
They looked at me with the most comical expressions and started to laugh. Then they said, ‘Get out of here, you are not from the West.’
At this point my aunt had caught wind of the conversation, rushing to my defence she said, ‘She is from Australia, this is her first time in this country.’
A very drawn out argument between the three young men and my aunt ensued.
The boys took one final look at me and concluded that I could never have come from a western country. Because, what need would I have for Mende if I came from the West?
In their eyes Mende was valueless.
Their conclusion was that I was some village girl pretending to be western to gain credibility in a society that worshipped the West, and desperately wanted to master the English language.
My dear friend Kartanya Manyard is from the trawlwoolway tribe of Tasmania and also Kaurna and Ngadjuri of South Australia. She is an Aboriginal Early Years worker and belongs to the world’s oldest continuing culture. We both live in lutruwita/Tasmania, in the capital nipuluna/Hobart, a place belonging to the muwinina people, who were systemically decimated by the colonial black war.
Kartanya believes it is imperative to ‘introduce children to culture and language before the age of five. The first five years of a child’s life are so crucial in their development and how they learn to view the world and themselves. This, plus constant support into adulthood, will ensure that all of that knowledge stays with them throughout their lives.’
Disconnection from the past means that culture is lost in pursuit of western ways of being.
Before January 26th 1770, I imagine Australia as a land of many lights. Where each culture carried a certain type of light housed within their unique language. The continual arrival of boats and the ensuing massacres slowly caused the stamping out of many lights which all had something significant to teach us about our shared humanity.
Each light that was stamped out of existence caused the diverse ways of being and experiencing life to diminish in our world, leaving a small handful of survivors, who are desperately working to preserve what once was.
To help preserve Indigenous languages and restore the essence of what once was, we must value Indigenous peoples enough to help defend and protect their human rights. Doing this means advocating and encouraging Indigenous self-determination and forgoing the ‘West is Best’ mentality, which some Indigenous cultures have internalised. Our preoccupation with western and homogeneous ways of being must shift, to recognise and honour the significance of Indigenous people in our world.
Cultural reconciliation can only occur when the same respect is offered to Indigenous peoples and their cultures that is so generously offered to western culture. What if the key to a bright future is in the Adinkra symbol of Sankofa, returning to our past and learning from it?
Published January 2019
Image credit: Tim Cooper