By Dr Selwyn R. Cudjoe
February 26, 2018
Monday’s disorder in East Port of Spain made me reflect on my recent visit to the Gambia where I participated in Mboka, a festival to celebrate Gambian as well as African diasporic heritage. Gambians “belong to the Senegambia region of West Africa, the general name given to the area drained by the Senegal and Gambia rivers” (Faal, A History of Gambia). Mboka or “One Family,” a Wolof word, is taken from the ethnic group of the same name.
We spent a day in Jaban Jelly, a village about 20 kilometers southwest of Banjun, the capital of Gambia. Professor Louisa Egbunike, a colleague, was scheduled to lecture on African literature. Instead, we were greeted by forty people that included mothers, teenagers and even babies who had assembled in the open air, beneath shady cashew nut trees.
These people engaged in their own forms of self-expression, which suggest they are comfortable in their own skins. Timbuktu, that great educational center of the seventeenth century, is located in Mali, a nearby country. Their assembly began with “An African Pledge” that read: “We are an African people./ We will remember the humanity/glory and suffering of our ancestors/ and honor our elders./ We will strive to bring new values/ and new life to our people./ We will be loving, sharing, and creative./We will work, study and listen/So we may learn/Learn, so we may teach/ We will cultivate self-reliance/We will struggle to resurrect and/unify our homeland Africa.”
The recital of this pledge was followed by a communal song that insisted African people are great warriors. The principles of their commune were taken from Julius Nyerere, African socialism and the seven principles that were adopted therefrom by the celebrants of Kwanza. I was touched by the sincerity with which they rendered their pledge. Although they possessed less formal Western education than the people of T&T, they understood they must subscribe to ethical principles before they can achieve anything worthwhile.
The Koranic schools that their youngsters attend before primary school lay the foundation for their ethical and moral education. I am not sure if the average child in T&T knows the central values that undergird our national life. We need to outline a series of common values and principles by which we shall live.
We condemn our youths when they commit crimes without recognizing that crimes begin in one’s head although the social and economic conditions under which they live influence their actions. I might be naïve but much of our crimes, black and/or white collar, result from a particular frame of mind and relationship to the world. Unless we establish collective values, and work toward achieving them, our social disorder will continue to increase.
In his lecture “Emancipation of the British West Indies,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, an eminent American thinker, observed “ideas only save races” (Massachusetts, August 1, 1844). “Nature,” he said, “will only save what is worth saving; and it saves not by compassion, but by power….if they [black people] are rude and foolish, down they must go. When at last in a race a new principle appears, an idea,-that conserves it; ideas only save races. If the black man is feeble and not important to the existing races, not on a parity with the best race, the black man must serve, and be exterminated.”
This seems a harsh judgment, but we will soon come to realize that no one can save our society, particularly, black people, if we do not understand that we can get nowhere if we, as a society, privilege the moneyed people over the ideas people. Our country was not born out of an abundance of money; it grew out of the fecundity of ideas that animated the thoughts and actions of predecessors who believed we could build a new civilization after the ravages of slavery and colonialism.
Emerson added a caveat. He said: “If the black man carries in his bosom an indispensable element of a new and coming civilization; for the sake of that element, no wrong nor strength nor circumstances can hurt him; he will survive and play his part.”
These words resonated as I listened to the last stanza of the African Pledge. “We will have discipline, patience, devotion, and courage./ We will live as models to provide a new direction for our people/We will be free and self-determined./ We will win./ All power to the African people.”
Many of these sentiments might sound as empty rhetoric in this remote area-it seemed remote–but these people know where they want to go. They may not have read V. S. Naipaul but they took his admonition to heart: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it” (Bend in a River).
The symbolism of Naipaul’s words came to my mind when a garbage truck emptied its content on Harpe Place, East Dry River that “was lit afire by the residents” (Express, February 20). The relevance of Hassoum Ceesay’s advice to his fellow Gambians, “Patriots without historical knowledge of their people are perishable patriots” also came to mind when I saw that cabbage truck.
And I thought, “Where are we going?”
Professor Cudjoe’s email address is scudjoe@wellesley. edu. He can be reached @ProfessorCudjoe.