From the Editor’s Keyboard

About Culture, ‘Swearing’ & #JebbehToo

4 November 2019 at 14:52 | 1124 views

By Fayia Sellu, Special Contributor, USA

As a Diasporic subject, Social Media is crucial to how I experience Sierra Leone, in past and present; which runs the gamut from Facebook, to what could be the world largest user-friendly archive, Youtube.

In the warp and woof of Social Media (SM), misconceptions could be actual, and misrepresentations all the way to fake news, are an ever present possibility. However, there are real gems that one comes into there. It’s like history frozen that one can just defrost and consume. I came upon one such rare gems recently. Guess what? It was on President Bio very own Youtube account—a recording of Salia Koroma done in 1993, when he was 90. It was very telling of how we treat our cultural icons, a very reflective piece. Salia said one thing that summed up a lot about his life and our country’s attitude toward culture: “I am not primitive oh, I am cultural.” There was a time when Salia’s mouth was the key to what we call “viral” today. The way Salia lived and worked can be likened to the European Classical composers, from Vivaldi to Beethoven; the royals and nobilities commissioned their pieces for their courts which we still listen to and marvel at today. Salia did make the cut for the book we read as kids “50 Great Men and Women Who Helped to Build Sierra Leone” along with Ebeneezer Carlendah as a “Minstrel Poet.” It was probably not the best categorization, the “minstrel” part. The brief bio in that book states that he has made it his life’s work to fight for respect for cultural producers as himself. Look around today...and you can only say, “Aluta Continua.” One can only hope with the Directorate of Science Technology and Innovation and like initiatives, we can digitize, promote and market our cultural profile to the world, inclusively.

On Cultural Heritage
The National Museum has been on my SM radar frequently, recently. If it is not New York resident and honorary paramount chief, Gary Shulze, commissioning, among others, a portrait of Salone’s first Premier, Sir Milton Margai, on its east wall facing Siaka Stevens Street, it would be, my favourite, a launching of the Cultural Heritage Toolkit for secondary schools by the Minister Tourism and Cultural Affairs Mrs. Memuna Pratt alongside the Monuments and Relics Commissioner Charlie Haffner. The idea is to have school heritage clubs, and a no-brainer for a catch-them-young approach for awareness about cultural heritage. Brilliant. Normally when we talk of Cultural Heritage, it evokes the past, sites, events or histories that we want to memorialize. Actually, recently, some scholars are more inclined to look at Cultural Heritage as having also to do with the present. Looking at the focus of Heritage to only mean preservation of sites by host countries, UNESCO, etc. and histories which valorise certain ethnic and national identities as reductive, obscurantist, and sometimes, exploitative and destructive to local communities and ecologies. Tourist dollars trump everything else. Whether we are talking Chikan emptying for Kaiping in China or Mursol’s Old City, there is a trend of uprooting locals for mostly touristic economies. Michael Press writes in Aeon of Heritage: “It is about the present. Heritage harnesses the power of the past to justify present social relations,” Precisely.

Left with me, it should have always been Culture before Tourism for that ministry. One cannot overstate the fact that Culture is capital. It can branch into economic, social and political terrain. There is also duality—Culture is both the product and its producer. Musicians, writers, playwrights, filmmakers, entertainers lumped, are as much a product of any culture as they are cultural producers. Before and afterthought, now Tourism, like Marine and Agriculture ministries, has been elevated to a critical development and potential big revenue earning sector. One sure fire way to promote tourism is to have a marketable Culture/Heritage that is a draw for tourists. For success in the tourism sector, we must add value to Culture as cites, practise and artefacts. When recently deceased Jamaican Prime Minister Edward Seaga in 2012 remarked: “There is no small country you can go to, no large country, no country at all that if you mention Jamaica they won’t say reggae music or they say Bob Marley,” he is dead right. Travel and tourism chains like Sandals and their guests flock in by the thousands annually. Close by, Senegal, Ghana and Gambia with Goree Island, Elmina Castle and good beaches, respectively, have been able to imprint their national image and market their Culture across the globe. I note the work by the Joe Opalas, Peagie Woobays and Amadu Massallys and think: We have considerable, developable and marketable cultural assets afforded in all countries stated above, and more. We have Bunce, Bonthe, Banana, Plantain...Islands, miles of peninsular white sand beaches, the games forest reserves for Eco-tourism. Heavens, we even had Jane Goodall herself confer on our Chimpanzees the national animal title at Tacugama. There is plenty to work with!

Intersections abound where Culture as product(ion) veers into the realms of social and political capital. From the National Anthem to the National Pledge; from Palm Wine music S.E Rogie to Milo Jazz of Dr Oloh, ‘Thegbeh’ or Bubu of Jankah Nhabay, Wonde or ‘Sokobhanna’; from the Maringa of Calendah to the Mende folk songs of Salia Koroma, Amie Kallon or the Kondi music of Sorie to the “Tutu Party” of Emmerson; When we wear the Country Cloth, Gara, Ronko or Batik...all these represent pieces of what it means to be Sierra Leonean, to be nation and country.

Culture as Continuum
Culture is continuum of past and present, living, breathing, organic. Just as it provides the glue that holds or coheres us as people, it can also be a tool for difference, division, discrimination and exclusion in interaction with power infrastructure and dynamics. It is easy to see how valorising one’s heritage (mostly of mythological, historical greatness) against another or as justification in the subjugation, oppression or marginalization of another. There is no drought for examples of one group, ethnic or nation, which by commission or omission inflict harm on another in the process of memorializing a past glory. This conflictual actuality persists whether we are talking about Confederate Statues in the United States or which pre-independence national figure’s name gets to grace an expanded bridge in Juba, Freetown. So far as intersections go, politics yearns, strives to engage, regulate or control Culture, in all its currency, as a tool of socialization. High or low, this is when it is at its best, transmitting messages and capturing hearts and minds.

On Social Media Again: First, it was the First Lady’s video in which she addressed Sierra Leoneans that went viral. Pretty lengthy, the video came across as nothing short of jeremiad. I believe, mindful of the holy month of Ramadan, she used the Koran and Bible in referencing the importance of women’s role to great men mirroring hers vis-a-vis the current First Gentleman in Sierra Leone. People took a lot from that address, but what got tongues wagging most was the heaving of curses (which Salone Krio calls “sweh” or ‘swearing,’ a thing I’ll explain momentarily) at those she reckoned were saboteurs and enemies of progress in the country. It was very contagious! All kinds of viral, were the memes, skits, Facebook lives, hell, even a song and video was recorded by a music group Kings’ Empire in which all the artists wore custom t-shirts bearing “We Dae Sweh” (We are ‘cursing’) in front. The power of Social Media to collapse hitherto boundaries of class, ethnicity, geography, demography, etc. makes for vernacular culture. Between “Swearing” and “Cursing” there is something of a knot to untie also. Cambridge Dictionary defines “Swearing”: Use rude or offensive language someone uses, especially when they are angry. Also a verb. And “Cursing” means the same. However, its second entry is: To wish evil to happen to someone or something as by asking for magical power. Just like Krio, kind of, queers the ‘cursing’ to mean ‘swearing’ or “Sweh”, in part, only begins to show how problematic the whole concept is. One thing is sure; the irrational comes into play. From the Bible to the Koran and many/most religions and cultures, there is the concept of curses and cursing. If we think in binaries of good and evil, it is mostly about the latter. Actual or perceived, it is normally for crimes/acts committed that we cannot get justice for within the worldly, legal or societal frameworks that forces one (it is mostly personal, but sometimes tribal also), out of helplessness and hopelessness, to seek judgement in the otherworldly, supernatural or magical realms. It could be revenge for the powerless or score-settling, but anger is key.

And Jebbeh Too
I, and you too reader, must have had that one time when we did wish evil on someone without a material means of actualizing it. As a kid, I knew of the industrial scale of ‘swearing’; there was a man who was hired to ‘swear’ people using his technology of assorted metals tools. Thunder was supposed to strike whoever was the intended culprit. There was a song called “Bi Voteh” (a Mende phrase for “evil come to you”). I danced to it plenty, played live by Afro Combo at China House circa 2000/1. Just shows how much it is part of our culture to “sweh.” On Youtube, I saw Mende folk singer Jebbeh Tu (short for Fatu), and you could also say No. 2 to Amy Kallon. The rare video of her was relatively recent. She was sitting with her musicians in a verandah, singing. She was frail and sat with her Shegbooleh smack in the middle two, large, wide open windows, spread like wings, making her look even tinier. Her face wore something of a sombre grin; the two songs captured were not on a merry theme: on Ebola. Time there was when viral was having people like Jebbeh Tu mouth messages. The first song was a warning on Ebola transmission, dos and don’ts. The last was a “Sweh” for those squandering Ebola funds to die! Happenstantial? No. That ‘open window’ invited me to more videos that brought me the pre-and-post-war years from a woman folk singer’s subjectivity in ways no TRC Report ever would. We may not have Bai Bureh or Kailondo’s war regalia at the National Museum, but people like Jebbeh (who has recently passed) too must be archived, studied and taught in the Cultural Studies canon, especially mindful of our rich and enduring oral tradition.Jebbeh’s likes in Temne, Limba, Koranko, Sherbro, Kissi...and so on, too. Listen to Salia’s “Bebeh I beh Gu’ma I beh” to know that in all its nuance, ours is a culture that has ‘swearing’ woven into it; we revert to it for supernatural justice.