(Lecturer at the University of Guyana)
Sunday, October 28, 2018 was International Creole Day. In many parts of the world, October is celebrated as International Creole Month and the last Sunday of the month is designated International Creole Day. Let’s start something today!
Those celebrating have so far been predominantly from places where they speak a French-related Creole. Some are from Seychelles, an island in the Indian Ocean, but most are from St Lucia, Dominica, Guadeloupe, and other islands in the Caribbean. Jamaicans speak an English-related Creole. For them, this month is Heritage month and, in keeping with the theme of the month, some schools include Creole Day as one day in their celebration of heritage. They celebrate their Creole Language.
But the global celebration is not just about Creole languages. This is also a time to celebrate Creole culture in general. Let your mind collect all the pieces that relate to the food we grow, the dishes we make, our music, our ways of doing things, all our creations. Where did we get the idea to make pointer broom? Where did kotlish grater come from? Let the thought of metagee, pepperpot, cook-up rice, cassava bread, quinches, conkie, and a cool glass of swank, sorrel or ginger-beer put you in the right frame of mind.
While some of these foods may be found in other Caribbean territories, they often are not exactly the same and they may go by different names. Metagee or metem is cousin to the Jamaican run-dong. Jamaicans also have something related to our cassava bread but it is about half-inch thick and much smaller. They call it bammy. I don’t think they have quinches. But they do have conkie, which they call dukunoo or blue drawers.
Our oral traditions are also worth celebrating. In some instances, the celebrations include ‘open mike’ events. Anyone can take part – poet, story-teller, calypsonian – just about any form of oral expression is on the menu. Let’s celebrate our proverbs, all those things that ‘ole people seh”. That kiskadee pecking on my window, what does that signify? Or that santapii (centipede) that crossed my path? What about when you drop a spoon or fork? We have meanings for all of those and more. Make a collection of all those sayings too. How many versions are there?
As I try to read up on the celebration of Creole Day, I find an interesting piece of information that reminds us that we in the Caribbean are all part of the same fabric – cut from the same cloth. In this case, that cloth is one the St Lucians call Madras.
An online description of the St Lucian celebration mentions the fact that, on this day, St Lucians typically wear something made from the Madras cloth. If you look up a picture of Louise Bennet, a famous Jamaican folklorist, you are likely to see her dressed in this same orangey-brown plaid material. Jamaicans call it bandana. Sometimes Miss Lou’s dress is made from this fabric, but often it is used only as her head wrap. And her head kerchief is tied in the same way that our Indian Guyanese grandmothers tied theirs. In Guyana this head kerchief is called a Madras rumaal. My grandmother kept her white rumaal for special occasions and wore the Madras one every day.
So, is the rumaal part of our Creole culture too? The word Creole, so they say, was first used to describe Europeans who were born in the colonies. It meant ‘native-born’. However, it was later extended to include the descendants of the once enslaved Africans and, in Louisiana, it also referred to Native Americans.
So, if Creole means ‘native-born,’ then that should include all the things created right here regardless of the ethnic origins of our ancestors. Once it baan ya it qualifies. For example, mithai in India refers to all sweetmeats. In Guyana we use the word for just one type of sweetmeat. So both the word mithai and the thing it refers to qualify as baan-ya. Some persons now use the word ‘engagement’ instead of tillack but this engagement still carries some elements of a tillack. It baan-ya.
So, wherever our ancestors came from, we have created a new culture as Guyanese. This could be a time of reflecting on what that culture is.
A major part of our culture is the language that we inherited from our ancestors. In St Lucia, the queen’s representative, the Governor General, delivers all her national addresses and broadcasts in Kweyol, the French Creole language. As we celebrate our Guyanese Creole Language, isn’t it time it took its place as one of the official languages of Guyana? What’s stopping us? We don’t have a governor-general; we have a president and a prime minister. That’s a good place to start.
Somehow, somewhere, we learn that we can use Creole at the market or at home, but not at school or in any place that requires a certain degree of formality. Well, who made that rule? Who benefits from it? Do you think a Creole speaker would have made such a rule?
It is about time we rewrite the book on empowerment. We are good enough as Creole speakers. We will learn English because we want to. But learning English is not what gives us power. Our language, our culture, our education through the Creole Language – those will provide us with the confidence and self-esteem necessary to take the risk of learning another language and more. And the research says we will outdo those who choose to stick with the present dispensation, clinging to an English-only education system.
In spite of their low socio-economic background, some students do well in international assessments. What is their secret? Education in their home language. When the school language is the same as the students’ home language, these students are twice as successful as their peers whose home language differs from their school’s language of instruction.
Students who are educated in their home language are more confident and have higher self esteem than those who are not. Confidence enables us to take the risk of learning. We know that failure is not the end. We are motivated to take up the challenge, knowing that success is possible. And that gives us the impetus to persist at a task. If we are too intimidated by the task, our level of anxiety rises. We can get so nervous and scared that it paralyses us. Learning English the way our schooling is conducted right now can be a recipe for failure.
In a review of the 2015 results of the international assessment programme PISA, Professor Hubert Devonish, gives the following summary (PISA refers to the Programme for International Student Assessment and is used by countries to measure how well their education system is working.)
“Amongst the top twenty performing countries in the 2015 PISA test are China, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Lichtenstein, Switzerland, Netherlands, Estonia, Finland, Canada, Poland, Belgium, Germany, Vietnam, Austria, Australia and Ireland.” He notes that in all of these countries, the majority of the students learn literacy in their native language. Moreover, there is no country in the top twenty which has a language education policy such as ours in Guyana.
Devonish points out that “linguistic research, scholarly opinion and the official position of UNESCO since 1953, all agree that children should be educated in the formal school system in the language of the home, their mother-tongue, their native language. This has been shown to have a positive effect on children’s self-concept, their literacy and broader communication skills, critical thinking and creativity.
“Once these attributes are developed fully in the native language of children, they transfer easily when the children operate in a non-native or foreign language. More interestingly, children who are granted the right to use their native language as a main language of education, learn second and foreign languages easily. In addition, they develop significantly higher levels of competence in these languages than children who are denied this right.”
Devonish concludes, “The research shows that those children who are educated in a second or foreign language from an early age, to the exclusion of their native language, have their communication skills, critical thinking and creativity stunted. In addition, their grasp of their content subjects is relatively weak because they are exposed to this material exclusively in a language that is not native and natural to them.”
In the 1980s, the government of the Seychelles changed its language education policy and switched to educating its children in Seychellois, a French-related Creole language. In a speech for the occasion, the prime minister declared, “Our children are not failing. We are failing our children!”
What do we say, Guyana? Let’s start something today!