Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Breaking the Silence, Unleashing the African Thunder: NCU BHM 2013

An African Thunderstorm
By David Rubadiri
From the west
Clouds come hurrying with the wind
Turning sharply here and there
Like a plague of locusts
Whirling, tossing up things on its tail
Like a madman chasing nothing.

Pregnant clouds
Ride stately on its back
Gathering to perch on hills
Like dark sinister wings;
The Wind whistles by
And the trees bend to let it pass
In the village
Screams of delighted children
Toss and turn
In the din of whirling wind,
Women- babies clinging on their backs-
Dart about, in and out madly
The Wind whistles by
Whilst trees bend to let it pass.

Clothes wave like tattered flags
To expose dangling breasts
Flying off as jagged blinding flashes
Rumble, tremble, and crack
Amidst the smell of fired smoke
And the pelting march of the storm

The above poem reminds us of the ominous presence and unbridled power that are associated with an African thunderstorm. It may have started as a mild wind but then it soon increased in velocity- whirling, tossing and altering every aspect of the landscape it passed through; making its presence profoundly felt. Its strange and insane mannerism cannot be easily understood by all yet conversely, cannot be ignored either. It seemed to fascinate and delight the innocent and perhaps the naïve who appeared mesmerized by the sheer natural beauty of its rhythmic sounds and movements that undoubtedly, reflected the awesome power of God, the Creator. Its fury created unwelcomed cracks in the landscape and even after the storm had marched on; it left a lingering ‘smell of fired smoke’ in the air.

As we celebrate Black History Month (BHM) 2013 here at NCU under the theme, “Breaking the Silence, Unleashing the African Thunder”, I wish to draw some parallels between the abovementioned thunderstorm and the Africans who came to work as chattel slaves on sugar cane plantations, as cowboys on cattle ranches, miners in gold mines and lumberjacks in forests within the Caribbean archipelago as well as on the mainland territories. 

Like the African thunderstorm, the arrival of the West Africans to the Caribbean was initially inconspicuous.  The first groups of Africans came as a small trickle in the 1500s and then became a mighty torrent; with the advent of the Sugar Revolution by the mid 1600s when millions of Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic Ocean along the infamous second leg of the Triangular Trade-The Middle Passage. Needless to say, the once unassuming streams of enslaved Africans soon outnumbered their counterparts in the colonies. They and their descendants have continued to multiply and in so doing, have profoundly altered the demographic landscape of the Caribbean lands; making the region’s population, predominantly ‘black’. 

Just like the thunderstorm, the Africans were also not easily understood and were often viewed as menacing savages (‘Guinea birds’) who were possessed with unbridled passions that could only be quieted by breaking their spirits, changing their names, their dress, their language, their beliefs and by extension, making them bereft of their self worth and sense of identity. For centuries, Africans and their descendants have been overshadowed by the ominous dark clouds of racial prejudice and inferiority. Stereotyped by proverbial sayings such as “Nothing black no good”; some  have learned to despise the colour of their skin, the texture of their hair, shape of their nose, the size of their lips and so forth. Others have seemingly accepted that their lot in life is to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’.  Yet others have been numbed into silence, being constantly told that their mode of communication was ‘bad’ or ‘inferior’, and reflected the lingua of the uneducated masses. But then there are others who have refused to be restrained by the narrow perceptions of others and have shown themselves to be proud, strong, beautiful, gifted and black; deserving of an equal place under the sun. 

Let me hasten to point out however that the debate of good culture versus bad culture or bad language/proper language has been a polemic one and has represented the cultural dilemma of societies like the Caribbean region that have been colonized by others. The Creole languages, like the storm, may have had a profound impact on the local landscape and its peoples yet may have failed to be seen on the global radar and as such its importance and potency appear inconsequential. Hence, the pendulum swings from the matter of local relevance to global acceptance of culture and back again. 

Undoubtedly, the English Language and its concomitant European culture have enjoyed international acceptance and prestige for centuries largely due to the successes of Great Britain as a global imperial power. As a rule of thumb, the dominant cultures of the great conquerors tended to become the observed standards for the conquered nations. Though the term ‘imperialism’ is no longer in common usage as before and there is a distinct paradigm shift from classifying the world in such terms; nevertheless, it is clear that the former colonial powers have not only remained the real decision makers of the commerce; but they have continued to be the regional and global standard bearers of acceptable societal norms. It is not surprising therefore that Standard English Language continues to reign linguistically supreme and has even been declared, ‘the language of commerce’. Indeed, it would be foolhardy for one to attempt surviving in today’s global realities without a fair mastery of this language. 

Contrastingly, the Creole languages have not and may never share such acclaim; at least not in the near future. Creole languages spoken by the majority of Caribbean peoples have remained essentially off the radar. Challenged by its diversity and parochialism, these local languages have proven difficult to standardize or even to be read or taught. Creole languages have been learnt from birth and transmitted almost intuitively through mundane oral interactions and demonstrations of storytelling, songs, proverbs and other shared experiences. It has flourished through social exchanges that occurred outside of the formal school settings. 

In the poem cited above, we are told of the ‘screams of delighted children’ that were heard in the village. In a similar fashion, the Creole languages as well as other Afro-Caribbean cultural retentions have been viewed often as the fascination of the innocent and the naïve who are simply mesmerized by the sheer natural beauty of the intoxicating rhythmic sounds and movements associated with storytelling, proverbs, singing, drumming and dancing among the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora. It is ironical that although these expressions have been celebrated as a part of the region’s richly diverse cultural heritage; yet there persists the notion that once individuals have been properly educated [about the dangers of the ‘bad’ culture] or have been fully assimilated [into the more acceptable ‘cultured and civilized’ lifestyle] then they will soon abandon such childish frivolities and embrace and hopefully master the more accepted speech, gait and general lifestyle of their non-African [European] counterparts.

The resilience of the African people as well as their culture to resist centuries of Euro-centric socialization and forced assimilation (‘seasoning’ and established laws) have made it analogous to the African thunderstorm which also could not be constrained by human efforts. Like the storm, it left cracks and blemishes in the various lands that it had touched. These cracks were not always welcomed – especially by those who preferred a more homogeneous society, based largely on the European values and norms. 

In the aftermath of the storm, objects that were deemed impenetrable were shaken, stripped or changed. Similarly, the wind of change has begun to blow through the Caribbean. There have been important movements towards the increased visibility and respectability of the Afro-Caribbean culture especially their language.  As time marches on, the rich African cultural legacy has not only been transmitted orally through proverbs, stories, songs and poems by Caribbean cultural icons such as Jamaica’s Louise Bennett-Coverley-Miss Lou but also through the written word. Pioneered by ‘Miss Lou’ and bolstered by the publications of the Dictionary of Jamaican English (Frederic G. Cassidy, 1967 & 1980) and the Dictionary of Caribbean English Usage (Richard Allsopp, 2003); the Jamaican patois for instance, have been elevated to the prestigious position of being listed by the Bible Society of the West Indies as one of the recognized languages of world that have been used in the writing of the Holy Scriptures.  (Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment-2003).

Like the storm, the residual smell and smoke of the smoldering flames of shared experiences of our forefathers which were transported by the spoken words-whispered after dark as bed time stories, or rehearsed for entertainment and leisure have begun to morph in a formidable movement that cannot be easily ignored. “There is a time to listen and a time to speak.” Listen to the Winds of change that are blowing and break the silence that concerns our History in so doing release the African thunder-the power and beauty of the African heritage.

WARNING- Storm Advisory…A storm is coming!!  Let us break the silence and release the African thunder!!


 Sheryl A. Reid, Asst. Professor and Coordinator of History, Department of Humanities