Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A ramble through Culture, Jon and Junks

Jon Krakauer knows how to break my heart. First with the haunting, agonizing Into The Wild and then the enthralling, crushing Into Thin Air he shares intimate, wonderfully crafted stories of the strength of the human spirit, the beauty found at the fringes of the world and the precarious grip we have on life. Amidst many other things. In one aside in Into Thin Air Krakauer comments on western influence on the Sherpa people so relied on by those wishing to climb Mount Everest. I wanted to share...

“Longtime visitors to the Khumbu are saddened by the boom in tourism and the change it has wrought on what early Western climbers regarded as an earthly paradise, a real-life Shangri-La. Entire valleys have been denuded of trees to meet the increased demand for firewood. Teens hanging out in Namche Carrom parlors are more likely to be wearing jeans and Chicago Bulls T-shirts than quaint traditional robes. Families are apt to spend their evenings huddled around video players viewing the latest Schwarzenegger opus.

The transformation of the Khumbu culture is certainly not all for the best, but I didn’t hear many Sherpas bemoaning the changes. Hard currency from trekkers and climbers, as well as grants from international relief organisations supported by trekkers and climbers, have funded schools and medical clinics, reduced infant mortality, built footbridges, and brought hydroelectric power to Namche and other villages. It seems more than a little patronizing for Westerners to lament the loss of the good old days when life in the Khumbu was so much simpler and more picturesque. Most of the people who live in this rugged country seem to have no desire to be severed from the modern world or the untidy flow of human progress. The last thing Sherpas want is to be preserved as specimens in an anthropological museum.”

Before I came to Sierra Leone, Leech requested two things. 1 – “Don’t cut your hair until you come home.” I managed this Samson-like lifestyle for about four and a half months, which was about as long as cultural sensitivity and the girls’ incessant desire to braid my ginger locks would allow. 2 – “Bring me back some genuine African jewellery, not that mass produced crap you get in Topman. I want something with a story.” The problem is that even here the demand for such things has meant that they are (fairly) mass produced (not that we’re exactly in a tourism hotspot) so the stuff you can buy on the street or in one of the craft markets looks awfully like the kind of crap you can get in Topman. Indeed it quickly became obvious, if I didn’t already know, that if I wanted to buy some genuine, “it’s what the locals wear everyday” African gear I should go to an Oxfam shop anywhere in the world and pick the first t-shirt I see. Visitors to Sierra Leone might accuse me of over stating my case – plenty of people regularly wear bright gara and lace cloth tailored with African style and lappas are worn all the time. But it is true that the “non-African” is as common as the “African”.

Second-hand clothes are big business globally, worth something like $1 billion annually. More than 1.7 million tonnes of used clothes were imported into Sierra Leone from the US alone in 2007, worth $1.4 million, a figure up 141% on the year before. So Nyandewa regularly wears her yellow “Ditch Him” t-shirt (though she seems to have now passed it on to a smaller sister), oblivious to the meaning until I embarrassed her with it. Festus, who I call “Little Chief” on account of his father’s position in the nearest village, has come to primary school in an oversized purple t-shirt saying, “Tighten your bra straps...” on the front and “...we’re coming for you” on the back. A little girl in Gbangbatok, the market town where I went for court, wore a U2 Elevation Tour t-shirt, though no-one here has heard of Bono. And when you walk the streets of Freetown you are greeted with huge mounds of clothes, known as “junks”, from one of which I pulled the renowned 30p shirt. The question is, as posed by Krakauer, should this western influence be lamented? Is what is affected just the tourist’s romantic picture of the traditional Africa or something more important?

I don’t know jack about anthropology but my own observation and thoughts suggested that there is what I will call “surface culture” i.e. the way people dress, what they eat, how they entertain themselves, and “deep culture” i.e. the way people interact with one another, how people view the world around them, spirituality etc. These two layers of culture would interact and influence one another. For example if people eat out of one dish as they do in Sierra Leone that has an effect on, or says something about, how people relate to one another. Arlene has more of a clue about what she is talking about than me when it comes to most things and so I asked her. She outlined one idea of how culture is built. At the core we have the value system and world view of a people which influences their institutions, behaviour and so on. So it is the wrong order to see those people eating out of their one dish and wonder what impact that has on their value system but we have things the right side up if we question what this behaviour tells us about their value system. Having said that, over time both external and internal influencers will see those value systems and world views change.

So what do we have to say about people in Sierra Leone exchanging their traditional clothes for second hand goodies from…oh I dunno…Wisconsin? Particularly since a lot of this is opportunistic...the stuff they can get at the junks is simply cheaper. And thinking about what Krakauer said, do the people themselves care? Certainly the President seems concerned about Western influence on Sierra Leone’s “surface culture”. Ernest Bai Koroma has issued a presidential decree that every Friday should be a celebration of Sierra Leonean culture. Everyone should wear traditional dress, should eat traditional food, dance traditional dances and sing traditional songs. On the food front, to those of us who are doing our surviving on rice and plassas (sauce) the question is begged, “What is the President eating the rest of the week?” Many of those who have the luxury of picking and choosing have listened but most people wear what they’ve got and make their way to their farms every Friday just as the men in their village have always done. You would have to ask Ernest himself if he is keen for people to hold on to the traditional because he wants to retain something of the romantic image of the past or because he is concerned about the impact these things have on, or what they say about, his country’s culture.

Indeed when we think about what the “real” Sierra Leone should look like we do not find an easy answer. What Sierra Leone has been left with as a post-colonial state is a hybrid of cultures. Things like its political system and educational system have been shaped by its formerly (presently?) subservient relationship to the “West” (at that time Britain). The culturally vital area of language is in Sierra Leone a study of this hybridity. English is the language of education but throughout the country various other tribal languages are spoken, the two most common being Timne and Mende. The “fear” should not be that as education increases English becomes more widely spoken for surely that ability is vital in today’s world, but rather that those other languages could be allowed to die out. For now though we can only dream of an education system of such impact. But what is really interesting in this regard is Krio – a language created by the ex-slaves whose arrival (or placement) in the 19th Century marked the birth of the modern Sierra Leone, a language which evolved out of these people’s knowledge of English with influences from Spanish, Portuguese and various African languages. In Krio we perhaps have an analogy through which to see today’s Sierra Leone. A society unmistakably branded by the transatlantic slave trade, the years of colonialism which followed and evolving in the atmosphere of what many see as American cultural imperialism but one which is still unmistakably “African” – although that concept is surely as thin as “Western”.

If you listen to the radio you hear Akon and Nelly and, I’m as surprised as you are, Westlife, but you also have the, as popular, Brick and Lace, Al Haji, Pupa Banja, Emmerson and so on whose music is utterly influenced by the brand of hip hop which has come out of black America but who have created their own sounds. And, just as such a conversation on culture should do, we see the influences working both ways, with black American hip hop originally finding its beating heart in Africa. People here, like the Sherpa brothers and sisters they have never heard of, love to watch “Schwarzen” movies and other Hollwood delights (Particular love is held for Hollywood’s depiction of Asian culture and the Kung Fu fests that they are), and surely film is the most “American” of all mediums, but they will regularly tell you that they prefer the movies that flood out of Nigeria. When I watch these Nollywood productions I see bad acting, bad lighting, bad editing and worse stories. People here see, “the kind of things that are happening all around us right now!”

But if Arlene’s model is to be followed then the issue is not that the wearing of the clothes will affect the culture but that rather what is worn represents a value that was already there. Could this be about how people see themselves, their community, their relationship with the rest of the world and their aspirations? In the words of one of the security guards COTN employs, “Sierra Leone is hell. America is heaven.” Reaching America or the UK is deemed tantamount to success. Just get there and everything will be okay is the belief and such is the hardship seen all around here that the stories that filter back which would suggest that maybe that idea needs to be measured slightly are all but ignored. In terms of education the dream is closer to reality. Come back to Sierra Leone, a place with a desperately poor education system made worse by the reality of corrupt lecturers and examiners, with a degree from overseas, somewhere like the US, the UK or Russia and your chance of getting a good job sky rocket – or perhaps that too is just what people think. Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defence and former head of the CIA recently commented, “Even those who hate us the most wear American college sweatshirts and want to go to American colleges and universities.”

The main problem that all of this stuff draws out is perhaps a lot more simple than the ramble I have embarked on here. It is this – Sierra Leoneans want to leave in their droves. And once they leave they rarely come back and indeed, as I have heard a number of grumbles suggest, nor do they send much back either. The prevalence of American fashion, food and especially media, advertises what people aspire to, what they consider “the good life” to be and where they consider it to be found. A lot of the problem is that America is quite simply THERE. The only way that the effect that this has on people’s aspirations can be affected is by providing people with the opportunity of enjoying “the good life” right where they are. Wearing a country cloth shirt on Fridays ain’t gonna do it. Mr Koroma can try and shift the blame on to the t-shirts as much as he likes but, as attractive and reasonably priced as they may be, I’m still looking at him.

Jon Krakaeur...he can get a guy thinking...

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