Lost in Approximation

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Have you ever tried to describe an ethnic expression in English but found English words inadequate? Frustrated, you attempt to approximate the concept  into its closest equivalent but most times, we lose entire parts of the concept in that process. Everyday, in a bid to be accepted and understood by the West, Africans translate African concepts into foreign cultural expressions or language, contorting them into their closest western equivalent - however inaccurate they may actually be. This occurrence leaves gaping holes in the perception of our culture, norms and ways. As this daily trend adds up to years and decades, the richness of African culture is becoming diluted and sterilized - lost in translation or approximation - wreaking havoc on our culture.

 

 

In Africa today, millions of elites are raised to speak only the westernized versions of their ethnic tongue, if at all. Some African parents take pride in the fact that their children cannot speak their local dialects but are multi-lingual in western ones, while scores of Africans THINK in the western languages in which they were educated or assimilated. No wonder young Africans are ambivalent about their own culture and customs. In February, the last speaker of the ancient language of Bo in the Andaman Islands of India died at the age of 85 years. The death of Boa Senior as she was fondly called, was said to be highly significant because the Bo language was one of the world's oldest languages. Once children no longer speak a language, that language is on its way to becoming extinct. When you consider that language is a set of signs, symbols or words used to depict or represent concepts, ideas and beliefs, we see how the extinction of a language portends the end of that culture.

For example, ancient collectivist African culture obligated a person to extend their good fortune to members of their kith and kin by taking as many as they could along on their economic or social ascension. Entire communities rejoiced at the good fortune of one member, even if for no other  reason than that the success of one indicated the possibilities to all. The celebrated individual also knew he had an obligation and duty to share his good fortune.  He knew that his joy in this newly found prosperity for instance was incomplete until he had replicated or at the very least, facilitated the replication of that good fortune in the life of one or more members of his community or family at large.  Thus when one member of a community became educated, the entire village rejoiced because it meant that someone else – perhaps themselves - would consequently become educated 'now that one of us has been blessed'. In times past, this culture was instrumental in moving entire families or communities into social prominence and prosperity. However when approximated into individualized western culture and language, this concept finds its closest equivalent only in the term: NEPOTISM. So what happened? Modern (scratch that and read in its place: WESTERNIZED) Africans accepted the name-calling of this valuable cultural obligation and begun to shun the practice. Thus cosmopolitan Africans have become increasingly individualized especially as they make it up the socio-economic ladder, sometimes leaving behind immediate family members mired in poverty, illiteracy and social inconsequence.



Taking it up a notch: consider the culture of bringing a gift or ‘paying homage’ to persons in privileged positions especially when you need to ask a favor or beg some consideration. Many African cultures have an idiom for this term that means: ‘to pour water forward thus making it possible to step on cool grounds’ (even the literal meaning of this expression is entirely lost on someone who does not live in places where the  temperature reaches such sweltering  heights that even the sand under-foot could be scorching by noon). When approximated into western culture, this custom finds its closest equivalent in a term that has become associated with African governments and political leadership: BRIBERY. Before you start to type your comment, step back in time with me and consider that a few thousand years BC, King Solomon wrote in a text now included in the Christian Bible: ‘A man’s gift will make a way for him’ (Proverbs 18:16). Does this mean that the Bible - the religious text on which nations and governments base their laws and perception of morality - advocates bribery? Probably not. Perhaps the answer lays in much more innocuous motives. This argument does not in any way excuse deviant behavior, for we must draw a line between culture (in this case: prescribed or acceptable standards/expressions of paying homage) and psychosis-induced corruption (e.g. the Halliburton Nigeria scandal). To the latter we need to be emphatically opposed as a people and return to the place where personal honor and the legacy of a good name were more desirable than Swiss bank accounts.



The key to understanding African culture is to suspend western perceptions, ideas and cultural concepts rather than subjecting it to western coloration or ideals.  But, do we?   The question is, why do we as a people feel the need to explain ourselves to the West?  Why are we apologetic about our culture and beliefs to the extent that once it is not endorsed by the West, we hasten to denounce it? I know of misguided cosmopolitan Africans who shun deeply significant traditional marriage customs and embrace hollow western ones only to change their minds when they meet other westerners who express an admiration for those same practices. Yet it will be impossible for the rest of the world to respect our culture if we do not respect it enough to stand up for it ourselves.  Asians took the good out of the western culture and chose to discard the rest. Concepts like Chi, Feng Shui, Yin and Yang whose closest English equivalents are so bereft of the true meaning of the terms that they had to be abandoned altogether, have now become accepted by western elites and are slowly being absorbed into the high culture of the west.



Ever tried to write a text message using the ‘smart text’ function of a phone? You type the first few letters and it attempts to telepathically offer you the word you need. What do you do when you scroll through the options without finding the desired word? Knowing you have vocabulary capabilities that go beyond those offered by the memory of your phone no matter how sophisticated its manufacturers claim it to be, you simply EXIT the ‘smart text’ function and type your word anyway. If we cannot find appropriate western expressions for African cultural norms, we need to review its applicability rather than continue to accept the resultant contorted terms by which we are being defined as a people. Africa has come of age. It's time to 'exit that function'!

If you liked htis article, you will enjoy: Eurocentrism in Nigeria and Ancient African Writings - Nsibidi

Last Updated on Saturday, 25 July 2015 22:17
Written by Lola Balola


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