Thursday, November 14, 2013

From Segbwema Without a Smile.

Just Being Serious
As we grow up we make meaning of the world around us through our society's eyes. Sociologists may call it symbolic interactionism, learning to develop a subjective interpretation of the world through social interactions and the subjective meanings we attach to symbols.

Traveling makes you experience some strange things. I had this friend from Guinea Bissau that I met in Jarra Soma, the Gambia. From the moment we met, the fellow took an instant liking to me and insisted that I must have lunch with his family. I felt honored and decided to oblige him.

Well, the lunch day came and we went to his house to eat some peanut soup (groundnut in Sierra Leone) with fish and rice. Being a food we eat all the time in Sierra Leone, I was happy, as some of the food around Gambia is strange to the Sierra Leone palate. At the table, my friend dished me a hefty plate of rice with peanut soup. Just as I was about to eat, the fellow literally took a gallon of lime juice and proceeded to pour it all over my plate of peanut soup with fish.

"Sheku, you will like this my friend," he said.

I took a spoon and not wanting to dampen his anticipation of my response, I  told him that it was great and and feigned some half hearted enthusiasm, while swallowing without chewing. I never realized that eating could be so painful.
"I told you that you will like it," he said. I never went to his house again.
East meets West

That experience made me realize that the world is basically a place we see through cultural lenses. Here was this fellow totally enjoying the soup while I felt as if I had just been fed a plate prepared in purgatory.

When I came to America it looked and felt a strange place from the country and place I grew up in. American interpretation of symbols were so different from mine that it almost seemed like we were on different planets.

In my Sierra Leone society, we were brought up to believe that it was very disrespectful to look your elders right in the eyes while they were talking to you. In America if an elder person is talking to you, it is considered disrespectful not to look them in the eyes. In America, eye contact is very important, as people who do not make eye contact are regarded as insincere and even dishonest people. So who was right the people of Sierra Leone or the Americans?
The American Smile

Americans love people who smile, not even often, all the time. An American would appreciate you smiling even if you had all the troubles of the world camped on your head. In response, everybody tries to smile all the time, even when they have no need to. It took me some practice, but I can now even attempt that great American plastic smile.

No kidding, Americans have basically perfected the plastic smile, especially those who have worked for long in customer service. They have that smile that is always so tightly moulded onto their faces that it would seem as if not even a thunderstorm could wipe off it off. 

In my area of Sierra Leone, smiling all the time especially among men is considered a symbol of foolishness and a mark of irresponsibility. A man who smiles all the time is viewed as being unserious and unreliable; otherwise they would not go about smiling about nothing. Who do you believe?
Give us aid, keep your gays
Yayah AJJ Jammeh

The other day I was reading about the  President of Gambia, Yahya Abdul-Aziz Jemus Junkung Jammeh addressing the issue of gay rights. The Gambian President is very easily one the most traditional leaders in the world today. A self proclaimed super herbalist who claims to have a miracle cure for AIDS and Asthma, President Yayah Jammeh's public statements against gays would have been considered a joke were it not that about a year ago, he just decided that the country's death penalty was not being enforced and said, "what is the use of having a law if you can't enforce it?" He then proceeded to execute 9 death row inmates in one night just so that the death penalty law would be given some respect. Talk about caring for the law. 

President Yayah A. J. J. Jammeh thinks that gays are a bigger threat to the world than global warming and has warned them to leave the Gambia or risk being beheaded. Apart from the beheading part, most West Africans have almost identical intolerance towards gays and believe that gay rights are an abomination. When I tell people that I never realized that there were gays while back in Sierra Leone, they never believe me. We just never discussed such topics, or nobody ever discussed it with me. So as far as I was concerned there were no gays in Sierra Leone because nobody ever told me anything about gays. However, now that I look back and reflect on some of my friends in boarding school, my hometown Segbwema and the city I grew in Freetown,  I can tell for sure that I had gay friends, I just did not know it then. When we were boarders in Bo School we had a term for it, "butter waise."

In Sierra Leone and many African countries there are many gay people who will never dare come out openly. Such is the social stigma of same sex relationships that most gay people stayed in the closet, permanently. You always had that friend who had no interest in girls, but you just thought he was the most seious guy among your group. In America, gay people are not only open about their orientation, they have gay pride parades.
The Segbwema Smile

Sierra Leoneans, we are a particularly superstitious people. In my home town Segbwema, we were told not to call the word "snake" at night, lest we attract those poisonous creatures. In America our children now want snakes for pets. In Freetown there was a time in primary school when we were told that there was a mysterious lady in town who could kill people by talking to them. It was said that the only way we could save ourselves was by wearing a small key chain around our necks. No kidding, most people in Freetown had a small key chain around their necks. This was probably in 1977 or 1978. Our society was steeped in superstition with little value given to scientific opinion, so we grew up superstitious. Tell American kids to wear keys around their necks or else some mysterious lady was going to kill them and they will tell you to bug off.
Try this in Sierra Leone

Some journalists in Sierra Leone recently got into major trouble for likening the President to a rat. They were locked up for over two weeks and refused bail. In USA, Tea Party members and supporters stand right in front of the White House, in front of the US Secret Service and TV and call President Barack Obama "a fascist Kenyan born Muslim and a food stamp promoting socialist who should go back to Africa and give them back their country," while displaying pictures of him as a joker and a Savage. Such is the strength of freedom of expression here that you can practically say anything short of slander and libel and go away free.
No Smiling Business

People are basically the same. The main difference between individuals is not their race or the tribes they belong to, but simply the culture they grow up in and the beliefs that were handed to them by that culture. When it comes to intercultural comparisons, there is usually no right culture or a wrong culture, there is mostly just one belief system against another belief system. Societies with rigid and inflexible belief systems tend to progress slowly and those that are open to and incorporate new beliefs progress more rapidly.

To say for example that Sierra Leoneans cook better than Gambians or Gambians cook better than Sierra Leoneans is essentially a stupid argument. Sierra Leoneans are brought up to love and value their cassava and potato leaves while Gambians are brought up to love and value their "domoda" and "benachin"

Food is actually a great example of how cultural influence allows us to see things differently as in the case of my Guinea Bissau Friend. One common argument people in my country usually have is; which tribe can prepare tastier food than the others? Every tribe in Sierra Leone claims that their food is the best. It is only by understanding that the taste of food is acquired that you begin to understand that actually, everybody is right. The food you grow up eating always tastes better than the one you are not used to.

When we go to parties here in America, Sierra Leoneans  gravitate towards cassava leaves like iron filings to a magnet, while Nigerians rush to the "fufu" or Foo Foo." For Sierra Leone children born in America, it's a different story. They will let you have your wonderful plate of cassava leaves for a chicken nugget.

Prejudice usually stems from the false belief that your own way is the right and best way and that the ways of others are wrong. It is a failure to essentially perceive the fact that the ways of others are acquired through own unique upbringing. 
Wish I had my Rappel on

The next time you see me looking stiff while wearing a coat, don't think you are better than me or that I am not civilized. Think that I came from an Islamic household in Segbwema in which nobody wore a coat. I am not wearing the coat to feel comfortable, but I'm wearing the coat only because the event demands a coat. So next time you don't see me smiling, don't think I am not a good person, I am just trying to be serious.


2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Sheku,
Another very interesting write up. I just have one comment. My American born son can eat Fufu with the best of them. In fact when he was younger he loved to eat it with his hands.

Sheku Sheriff said...

Well he grew up around you eating fufu. So you gave him the best of both worlds.