Out of Many, Fi Wi Langgwij

Lake Rotorua

Late one night, several years ago, I find myself in idle conversation with a drunken Maori man in the main bus station in the city of Auckland.  I’d just come by train from Rotorua, a fantastic region of New Zealand full of geysers, mud pools and all sorts of volcanic activity.  I was quite tired from the four-hour journey so I was definitely not in the mood for conversation with sober people, much more drunks.

“Kia ora!”, the man calls out.  After almost a week in New Zealand I know this means ‘hi’ in Maori.  I pretend to be deaf.  But this old man is persistent and quite loudly repeats his ‘kia ora’.  He proudly announces, “That’s ‘hello’ in my language, Maori.”  Big laugh now.  “You can say it?”, he challenges me.

Fijian women in traditional dress

I say to myself, “This man drunk but im not drunk to dat”.  So I decide to humour him.  I imitate his greeting and he laughs heartily.  “Good,” he says, “Not like these pakeha people.  Can’t talk Maori”. I also now know that ‘pakeha’ means ‘white people’ in Maori.  The old man warms to the conversation.  “You from Fiji?”, he asks.  “No”, I respond.

Naturally, this monosyllabic answer is getting us nowhere.  So he follows up, “Where?”  I say, “Africa”.  Then he asks, and I should have seen it coming, “Kia ora!  How you say ‘hello’ in your language?”  Big trouble now.  What am I going to tell this man?  Im drunk, so I’m tempted to make up some mumbo-jumbo.  But that would be taking a joke too far.

English colonized by Africans

So I draw my ‘real-real’ language, Jamaican.  I tell him that in my language we say, “Wa a gwaan?”  So for the next few minutes this drunken man keeps on repeating, “Wa gwaan?”  He doesn’t quite catch the extra ‘a’ in the middle.

My sister, Donnette, who used to work for an airline company and so could do crazy things like fly from Maryland to New Zealand for a long weekend, is by this time shaking her head in amazement.  Her contribution to the conversation is, “I hope is not this kind of fraudulent information you been giving out along the way”.  I was on a six-week lecture tour of the Pacific.

“Fraudulent?” I protested.  “‘Wa a gwaan?’ is kinda African”.  After all.  Even though ‘Wa a gwaan?’ is really Jamaican not African, we all know where Jamaican came from:  various dialects of 17th English colonized by speakers of various West African languages, for the most part.  I know that some backward people still insist that Jamaican is not a language; it’s just a ‘corruption’ of English.  Africans are doing the corrupting.

So ‘wa a gwaan?’ is nothing but a rotten version of ‘What’s going on?’  But, trust me, nobody who doesn’t know Jamaican, drunk or no drunk, would ever figure out that ‘Wa a gwaan?’ started life as English.  It has been completely disguised.

Language death and rebirth

While in New Zealand I was fortunate to interview Professor Pat Hohepa at Auckland University’s Maori Studies Centre.  One of his big concerns is what he calls ‘language death’.  There was a period in New Zealand’s recent history when it looked as if the Maori language was dying out.

     Now, there’s a concerted effort to teach Maori in schools.  Speaking the Maori language is recognized as an essential way of keeping the culture alive.  And it’s not only Maoris who need to learn the language.  If pakehas are really serious about creating a truly bi-cultural New Zealand, they will have to learn Maori too.

Professor Hohepa also talked about reggae music in Maori.  And he highlighted Bob Marley’s revolutionary music as a language of resistance for the Maoris in their struggle to regain control over their collective destiny:  “Every man got a right to decide his own destiny”.

I wonder how long it’s going to take us in Jamaica to realise the value of the new mother tongues Africans created in this country and across the African diaspora.  Our educators don’t seem to understand that as long as we tell children that they ‘chat bad’ when they use their mother tongue, we are planting the seeds of low self-esteem.  And we will reap badness.  Or, perhaps, we do understand and that’s why we refuse to acknowledge Jamaican as a ‘proper-proper’ language.

International Creole Day

Creole languages map

Last Friday was International Creole Day. The Jamaican Language Unit at the University of the West Indies, Mona, led the local celebrations.  Regretfully, these were affected by Hurricane Sandy.  Across the Caribbean region and the wider Creole world, the resilience of the speakers of often-marginalised languages was acknowledged.

French Creole languages are spoken and written in Haiti, St. Lucia, Dominica, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana, Reunion, Seychelles, Mauritania and Louisiana.   The vocabulary of our own Jamaican Creole is mostly of English origin.  So it’s sometimes not so easy for amateurs to see how different the language really is from English.

We don’t fully understand ‘wat a gwaan’ with the other aspects of the Jamaican language such as grammar, word order and the structure of sounds.  And we arrogantly refuse to take the linguists seriously even though they actually know what they’re talking about.

Mother and Tongues by Vito Bica

If we had stopped to listen to the linguists who have been doing serious research on Caribbean Creoles for more than half a century, we would have realised by now that we should have been joyously celebrating the Jamaican language in this fiftieth anniversary of independence.  For language is one of the primal expressions of identity.

One of the big ironies of our racialised national motto is that it fails to recognise that it’s not a vague ‘out of oneness’ that unites us as a people.   It’s the specificity of the Jamaican language.  Most Jamaicans, irrespective of class, colour, gender, sexual orientation and age, are more or less competent speakers of Jamaican.  And if you don’t know the language, you are the odd one out: yu salt!  Yu no know wat a gwaan.

African Explorers Came Before Columbus

Several years ago, on a visit to the magnificent National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, I had a little catch-up with our tour guide.  We were in the Gulf of Mexico Hall, looking at Olmec artefacts.  The most famous works of the Olmecs are gigantic stone heads, some of which weigh 40 tons and are over two and half metres tall.

In 1862, the first Olmec head was unearthed in the state of Tabasco.  Almost a century later, the American archaeologist Matthew Stirling began excavations in 1942 in the ancient city of La Venta.  He discovered even more Olmec heads and found evidence of a civilization much older than the Mayan, Incan or Aztec, dating from about 1200 BC to 400 BC.

I knew a bit about the Olmec heads but I wanted to hear the official story. I asked the tour guide how he accounted for the African appearance of the heads.  It’s a long time ago so I can’t recall his exact words.  But it was something to this effect:  “Oh no!  It’s not African; it’s a jaguar”.  “A jaguar?” I asked in amazement.  “It looks much more like me than any jaguar.  Don’t you know that Africans were in the Americas long before Columbus?”

‘Jaguar’

The tour guide caved in:  “Yes, yes the lady is right”.  It was the only sensible thing to do.  If you look at head number 6 from San Lorenzo, Veracruz, there is no way you could mistake this decidedly human face for a jaguar.  But since it’s so obviously African, it had to mutate supernaturally into a non-human form.  The Mexican fairy tale of origins apparently could not accommodate an African genesis.

GAPS IN THE STORY

Sculptures from the Parthenon sold in 1816 to the British Museum

Museums are peculiar places, full of art and politics.  Their curators lock up pieces of the past in pretty cages and tell stories about them that are true or false to varying degrees. Many of these objects are stolen goods.  But that’s a whole other story.  Let’s just say that if the Greeks, for example, were to be properly paid for their cultural artefacts now imprisoned in the museums of their far more affluent neighbours, the proceeds would go a long way to help balance the national budget.

Acropolis museum

Better yet, if the artefacts were liberated and repatriated, the Greeks could make even bigger bucks in heritage tourism.  Museums are an essential component of the creative/cultural industries across the globe.  In non-Olympic years, one of London’s biggest attractions is the city’s network of museums and art galleries, some of which were funded, ultimately, from the bloody proceeds of plantation slavery.

Tate Gallery

Henry Tate, who made his millions in sugar refining, founded the Tate Gallery in 1897.  Tate started off rather modestly as a grocer’s apprentice in Liverpool in 1832 when he was only 13 years old.  True, slavery was abolished two years later in the British colonies in the Caribbean.  But Liverpool had been a major slaving port and, according to the website of the International Slavery Museum, “its ships and merchants dominated the transatlantic slave trade in the second half of the 18th century.  The town and its inhabitants derived great civic and personal wealth from the trade”.

On a related note, I ran into Ainsley Henriques, leader of the Jewish community in Jamaica, at the elegant launch of Diana McCaulay’s new novel, Huracan, two Fridays ago.

huracantrailer.htm

Ainsley and I  had a nice chat and he told me that several people had asked if he wasn’t going to respond to my column, published two weeks ago, on “Jews and Plantation Slavery in the Caribbean”.  He’d decided not to.  Like my Mexican tour guide, Ainsley seems to have conceded the accuracy of my account of the gaps in the story told by the Museum of Jamaican Jewish History.

AFRICA IN ANCIENT AMERICA

I discovered the Olmec civilisation in a book by the Guyanese linguist and anthropologist, Ivan Van Sertima, published in 1976.  The title makes a startling claim:  They Came Before Columbus:  The African Presence in Ancient America.  In addition to the spectacular Olmec heads, there was more evidence.

Peruvian portrait vessel

Von Wuthenau, an art historian and archaeologist at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, had unearthed many terracotta sculptures of ‘Negroid’ heads in clay, gold, copper and copal.  Van Sertima notes that the layers of soil in which these African sculptures were found “ranged from the earliest American civilizations right through to the Columbian contact period”.

Then Leo Wiener, a linguist at Harvard University, had earlier “stumbled upon a body of linguistic phenomena that indicated clearly to him the presence of an African and Arabic influence on some medieval Mexican and South American languages before the European contact period”.

Traditional pirogue

There was also the evidence of the boat-building skills and seafaring knowledge of Africans.  Small open boats could, in fact, cross the Atlantic, particularly with the assistance of the fast-flowing Guinea and Canaries currents. And the evidence kept piling up.  You just have to read Van Sertima’s book to get the whole story.  Closer to home, it makes you wonder who really discovered Discovery Bay and who had to run away from Runaway Bay.