Friday, 9 November 2007

When Old is Not Gold

Since early childhood, as I suspect in any African home, we grew up with the mantra “respect your elders”. This has been inexorably engrained in my brain, like a moulded figure in dried cement, and frankly is a decent code to live by. Whether aged 10 or 40, no well-mannered younger person would hesitate to give their seat up for an older person or allow them to be heavily laden with luggage. When speaking to an elder (with exceptions of course e.g. playful grandparents), the eyes along with the tone of voice drop and a humble posture adopted. In later life, when the younger person is of working age, they tend to the elder ones’ needs with love and respect. A connection to Ancestral veneration is apparent, which is characteristic to African Spirituality, widely practised prior to the bush fire-like spread currently dominant religions such as Christianity and Islam. In traditional communities, upholding elders with high regard was standard practice - not only did they possess wisdom from their many years on earth, but they too would soon be joining the realm of the Ancestors in the spiritual plane. (I will address African Spirituality in a separate post)

My great disappointment in my nurtured idealist views when I became an adult, was the realisation that older people in my circles that I was supposed to respect by virtue of their age, were making judgements or carrying out actions that were in conflict with my own values. How then could I respect such a person? As an African in the Diaspora who is a statistic of migration patterns and globalisation that have reasonably contributed to the creation of multicultural societies, the pluralism of my identity - and I suspect for others in a similar situation - can be as much of a blessing as it can be a curse. There are certain overt traditions that we continue to live by whilst others that remain tacit, that can be a source of conflict, both with yourself and with people in your circles. Some of these traditions that I am alluding to are not explicitly defined; they are implicit in people's demeanour and responses. In some instances I tread with caution and figure it out as I go along. One of my dilemmas has been how to handle interactions with older people who demand respect when I feel that they do not deserve it based on their discourse or behaviour. Interestingly, respect may be defined in a myriad of ways, depending on your environment. For example, not speaking unless you were spoken to was a code of conduct that my high school teachers during my eventful stint in a Kenyan national boarding school sneeringly enforced, and got me into trouble numerous times until I learnt that the definition at home was not in tandem with the one at school. Although it is so clichéd to dwell on hindsight as the best teacher, I can look back with 20-20 clarity that those teachers were forcibly demanding respect as opposed to gaining it from us. The concept of a Kenyan boarding school is far too complex to go into, but although it wasn’t apparent at the time, it was certainly character building! Someone must be blogging on it before lights out…I digress.

What then is the answer to how to uphold your own values without being ostracised in your community for speaking your mind, which is (wrongly) translated to being disrespectful of your elders ? How do you handle Auntie or Uncle so-and-so who grates you with racist / tribalistic / sexist / homophobic / just plain ignorant comments that proliferate one of the many –isms and does not allow room for an open discussion? After a number of failed attempts to respectfully explain my views to an apparently disinterested elder, my strategy is now avoidance at all costs. And if we happen to bump into each other at an event, family or otherwise, I say a quick hello and exchange nicieties (if at all), followed by a swift exit. Shame isn’t it?


Anonymous said...

in the heady mix that is victorian colonialist/missionary values superimposed on african culture - often what is 'tru;y african' has been lost. even in bygone days - old fools existed who didn't necessarily automatically command respect due to their age... and the oldcould also learn from the young...

Sci-culturist said...

thanks! you bring an invaluable dimension with the big question - what is african?