There’s no one definition, and I am not going to reach into Wikipedia for one. For me, it is the result of my historical and cultural building blocks, that give me my sense of the identity, indeed the composite identities that define me as a person – my faith, my parents’ backgrounds, one of whom was ¼ English Jew, the fact that I was born in Ghana, raised and educated n UK, that I am British “through and through” apparently, but have spent 40 years living and working in 12 different counties, including the last 4 years here in Sierra Leone. I am a hotchpotch, reasonably self-aware both British and European.
Does it matter? Well yes, it does really. We live in a world stocked with too much intolerance, much of which stems from ignorance, fear of ‘otherness’ and a lack of understanding and appreciation of one’s own and others’ rich cultural heritage that does much to explain who we are and how we behave. First it seems important that we understand ourselves. This month the British Council has been running a schools competition for JSS pupils, so far just in Freetown, with the title ‘Cultural Heritage: Where the Past meets the Future”. The responses have been fascinating. You can see the influence of the teachers as they grapple with their own thoughts on the matter, and stamp – maybe with a light touch – their own understanding of ‘cultural heritage’ on their pupils. But you can also see the pupils giving voice to their own interpretation. Some teachers have simplified the task by suggesting students describe a custom or an activity, such as marriage arrangements or music, important to their ethnic group. Some have suggested they describe a place symbolising Mama Salone’s cultural history, such as old Fourah Bay College or the Cotton Tree. Some have provided a definition as a starting point. The results were announced and winning entrants were read out at a prize giving yesterday at the British Council. But what do we learn from young pupils’ perceptions?
Some write as insiders about the ways different ethnic groups name their children, speak to their ancestors or are initiated into secret societies. Others are more cynical about what cultural heritage means to them, and place more emphasis on the role of technology and social media in defining their identity. One boy writes “I don’t see much in our cultural heritage and origin in the future if there are no elders who are determined to continue our cultural heritage.”
One girl touches a number of chords in her response, and is worth quoting in some length: “in life there are certain practices that took place in the past that we have to forget and change. At the same time there are some we need to maintain, inherit, build and develop to help us produce a brighter tomorrow. In the past, women were looked down upon, we were considered as trash, we were made to sit at home, do household chores, and take care of the children. We were not even sent to school, they used to say school is for boys not for girls. Our great grandparent said that a girl’s duty is to take care of the home, get married, and bear children, but now all that has changed, before it was gender bias but now it is gender equality which means 50/50…the Bondo society was one of the practices of our ancestors, now it is frowned upon by the society. It was believed that every girl must join the society because it helps them prepare for married life, which is correct, but it sometimes causes internal bleeding which may lead to death or infertility. There are some organisations trying to stop this practice (FGM) for good. We know culture is a way of life but it is also the way of changing what is wrong and doing what is right so that the past will meet the future for a better Sierra Leone.”
Looking at how the past should meet the future for a better Sierra Leone. This is a powerful concept – the idea keeping the best from the past, honouring tradition but looking at it critically with eyes widened by modern knowledge and modern values to move on towards a better future.
As part of Cultural Heritage week two Sierra Leone/British Artists, Ayodele Scott and the ‘Cowfoot Prince’ Usifu Jalloh have created ‘Awoojor’, a Cultural Feast, performed twice on Tuesday. This used Total Theatre – story telling, dance, drama to explore their and our cultural heritage – one of the episodes was called ‘2-Sim’ especially written for this performance – and put down some questions for us to answer. Tomorrow, Thursday evening, also at the British Council, the Irish- Sierra Leonean singer ‘Loah’ returns to Sierra Leone to put down her own marker, performing Soul music, backed by her sister. Together with Ayo and Usifu Charlie Haffner and a student member of one of the newly established school Cultural Heritage clubs, they will also sit down to record a panel discussion moderated by Isatu Smith, Head of the Monuments and Relics Commission, to discuss the question “How does your heritage define your identity?” This discussion will be broadcast on SLBC this Friday, May 11th at 19.00 and should be a riveting addition to the debate that marks this European year of cultural heritage.
Heritage is something that everyone should be able to share in. Tune in and add your voice by messaging through your media outlet and on the British Council Facebook page www.facebook.com/BritishCouncilSierraLeone.