Sunday, November 22, 2009
In Repose, Reconciling Generations
Sometimes the best way to have an enlightening conversation is to repose at the village bantaba. The bantaba is a a meeting place in the form of a covered slab of cement or bench made of timber. This cool, relaxing locale is frequented by the village elders, the keepers of tradition, the minds of whom have absorbed much from their surroundings.
As with every generational change, the elders witness the youth adopt new attitudes contrary to those of the ancestors. They glower at the youth from a distance, occasionally deriding them for their unfamiliar manners of dress and speech. Change is always difficult to swallow, yet in the globalized world of today, this process has happened extraordinarily fast. Thus, any talk of development or change at the bantaba is bound to be interesting, exhuming perspectives of bygone times. Here, with wizened frames, clutching weathered canes, the bygone generation blends tales of the past with interpretations of the present.
On a journey that brought me quite far down one of the Gambia's countless rocky roads I found myself in repose at such a bantaba. Soon I was exchanging words with a grandfatherly man who was unabashed in challenging my views. I commented that I was impressed that so many of the villages youth regularly attended school and many were even able to have conversations in English. The old man chortled, exposing his haphazard, jagged teeth before getting into his rant.
“Hah! School is the scourge of the community,” he said. “We've all sent our children to that infamous place, even me, but what have we gotten out of it?”
I nearly began to answer the question, but he drove right back into his tirade.
“We send our children to school, we labor to pay for the fees, but we see nothing. In fact, it's worse than nothing. It puts funny ideas in their heads and they no longer want to stay here. If they leave us here for the towns, when they visit us they are disgusted by their own former homes, repulsed by what they now see as unclean. They think us uncivilized and backward, forgetting this is where they themselves were raised. They reject our traditions, choose wives and husbands for themselves, and think only of their personal welfare and that of their children. We up-country farmers, with our simple and irrational ways are nearly forgotten as the “educated” ones are focused on developing themselves. They rarely send us any money to help us get by. Yes, the school has corrupted the minds of the youth.”
Meanwhile, I had been making mental notes of how to refute his arguments. I had been preparing myself to suggest to him all the benefits of education, to explain the idea of development in the world we live in today. But by the end of his speech I simply sighed deeply and smiled. I knew he had a point. The man seemed rather reasonable and I sensed that he was in fact aware of the positive aspects of education. He appeared to be presenting his argument through a traditional lens to study my reaction.
I nodded my head in agreement, acknowledging the wisdom of the nation's older generation.
“Yes, I see,” I finally replied. “Very interesting.” Clearly, he had implied with his story, development is complex. Even the issue of education must be handled with care and respect. Foreign concepts can easily conflict with local realities, thus finding a balance that recognizes the value of the traditional systems while promoting innovative ideas (wherever they come from) is the sagacious path to follow.
A real conversation, loosely translated, slightly embellished.