Locals of a certain age—the ‘baby boomers’ and even those referred to as ‘Generation X’—have vivid recall of sitting at their grandparents’ feet or close by during their childhood, especially on moonlit nights, and listening to stories, some true, some made-up, about granny and grandad’s lives. Back then, of course, the distractions of television sets, cellular phones, iPads and computer games did not exist in Guyana. In fact, in the early period, very few people owned radios. The elders talked, sometimes too much; and the children listened perhaps in the hope they could pass on the stories to their children.
Today much of that has gone south.
A case in point is the situation in Sandvoort. Close to three years ago, this newspaper carried an interview with a 76-year-old resident of the West Canje, Berbice village, who bemoaned the loss of the village’s former rich African cultural heritage: the drumming, singing, dancing and storytelling. Ms Agnes Levi and others who were interviewed for a feature published in this newspaper’s Lifestyle magazine in 2015, complained that the older folks who knew the traditions and the stories were dying and the younger people no longer seemed to be interested in carrying them on. While it is understandable that today’s youth would be more interested in today and tomorrow, surely that does not mean yesterday must be forgotten or die? If living in modern times has taught us anything it is that it is possible to revolutionise and update the way the message is disseminated without losing its essence.
Technology has advanced to the stage where the world has become a global village, but truly only within the information-sharing sector. It is otherwise as divided as it ever was, maybe even more than before. All the more reason, one would think, for the preservation of history and culture because as clichéd as it may sound, it’s hard to get where you’re going, if you don’t know where you’re from. Of course, the world has progressed to the stage where persons can have their DNA analysed and thus learn the locations of the globe where some of their ancestors would have originated. But they would still be bereft of the cultural mores that shaped their characters and would have no true sense of ancestry.
It is for these reasons that wherever traditions are revered in the world, yesterday’s stories, songs and dances are recorded, and books are written, both non-fiction and fiction, films are made, odes and songs are written, and music made, linking the past with the present and keeping cultures alive. The importance of a connection with one’s roots should never be underestimated; there is no comeback story from such a loss.
Our first ancestors crossed the Bering Strait in search of arable land and food. Later on, some came from other continents, including Europe. Then others were brought in chains from Africa through the Middle Passage. Much later more arrived from Madeira, China and India. They all had customs in the lands where they lived before, but once they got here, where things were different, they tweaked and adapted them to suit the unfamiliar and the changes in their stations in life; Guyanese traditions were born. The very thought, therefore, that there is less than a concerted, all-out effort to harness and preserve them should fill us all with dread.
Ideally, at least in this instance, there should be leadership from the state through the Ministry of Education by way of the University of Guyana. Unfortunately, the latter institution does not have the necessary financial resources to fully pursue such a project. Some amount of work has been done under the auspices of the Department of Language and Cultural Studies, but not nearly enough. Some work has been done privately as well, mostly through the arts, another subsector that is halfheartedly supported. It has therefore been somewhat ad hoc.
It also does not help that ministerial responsibility for culture has been anything but stable over the years. Once a sub-ministry to education, it is now lumped with social cohesion where it clearly does not belong, a sign that culture and tradition, which should be revered have been sacrificed on the altar of expediency.
There is much that needs to be changed and soon, if not, what would there be to leave for posterity but fear? Guyanese have already been fingered as a nation of copycats, without it, it would not be too long before the assimilation of North American mores and norms, that are fed in daily heavy doses to anyone who has a television or access to the internet, is complete.