The well-known former Anglican Archbishop of Capetown, Desmond Tutu, in discussing the importance of appreciating one's cultural heritage, once made this statement : "A nation does not have a future unless it understands its past."
How appreciative are East Africans of their cultural heritage? Going by research done by a cultural team in the last few years (see the article by Fr. Joe Healey in this issue), there is reason to be concerned about this question. The researchers were investigating the knowledge of proverbs (a traditional source of wisdom) among East African young people and their findings were not encouraging. Few young people could quote proverbs in their mother tongue and it was predicted that, in some cases, this form of traditional wisdom would be almost completely lost in three generations. Some of the young people even went as far as to say that the teachings of their elders were irrelevant and of no use, especially in an urban and secularised environment.
Why should such an attitude worry us? For the same reasons that we wish the young to have a happy childhood, namely to give them a feeling of security and to teach about them about right and wrong. Traditions are important: they are the cement that holds a society together.
Having a thorough knowledge of one's culture and traditions is all the more necessary where people have accepted--often without asking too many questions--the cultures which accompanied the introduction of Christianity and of Islam. People need to have a point of reference from which to judge the values which they are urged to accept. Contrary to what some missionaries taught their converts, there is much that was good in African traditions.
It is a pity, therefore that some parents appear not to be interested in passing their traditions on to their children. Even in cases where both parents share the same mother tongue, we find that some of them,out of a mistaken sense of wishing to be modern, do not bother to teach their children their language.This has the sad result that these children are unable to communicate with their own grandparents, leave alone the fact that they fail to appreciate the values of the traditional culture.
We should not be surprised, therefore, about the rootlessness of many young people--and of many older ones as well.
Of course, we are not advocating a wholesale return to the traditions of the past. Cultures have always been fluid, although the rapid social changes of this century are probably unprecedented. It is of importantance, however, that we learn to judge the values in the traditions passed on to us by our ancestors. We cannot judge these values if we know nothing about these traditions.
There have been attempts in the past decade to revive the interest in African traditions, especially as expressed in proverbs and other sayings. For example, between 1990-1996, the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia sponsored the African Proverbs Project. The main aim of this project was to collect, publish, and study proverbs from the whole continent of Africa. The outcome of this is now available in the form of books as well as on a CD-ROM. We need to appreciate this interest in African traditions.
In keeping with its statement of purpose, which says that it is aimed at "everyone who is concerned at keeping African traditions alive and adapting them to the modern way of life," Wajibu is happy to publish in this issue some critical reflections on African traditional wisdom, specifically as contained in African proverbs. The authors of these reflections point out how this wisdom may help us to make right decisions in our changed circumstances.
There is a wealth of traditional wisdom contained also in the many stories which have been treasured by generations of Africans. Quite a number of these stories are now being published both in their original languages as well as in English and French. We are reproducing one of these stories from a particularly fine collection, Zamani: African tales from long ago by Tom Nevin.
Understanding our past and learning from its wisdom may possibly help us in facing our future more boldly.
NOTE TO OUR READERS
Subscription renewal. This is the first issue of this year and, for our faithful subscribers, it is time to think about the renewal of your subscription. Like many voluntary organisations, Wajibu is having a hard time surviving in the difficult economic circumstances of Kenya. Help us to continue our work of awareness raising by becoming a sponsor or a friend of the journal. (See the subscription form enclosed. The rates of subscription are on the verso of the front cover). We wish to thank those subscribers who have already renewed their subscription.
Special appeal. On p. of this issue you will find a special appeal for contributions to our Wajibu Trust Fund. If the future of the journal concerns you, please turn to this page.
ABOUT OUR CONTRIBUTORS
John Eybel, M.M. is a Maryknoll priest ordained in 1970. He served as a pastor in Musoma Diocese and taught African Writers in English to young men at St Pius Minor Seminary, Musoma. Trained in the supervision of pastoral care he has conducted Clinical Pastoral Education programs at Bugando Medical Centre in Mwanza since 1985.
Joseph G. Healey, M.M. is an American Maryknoll missionary priest who has worked in East Africa since 1968 especially in Nairobi, Kenya and in Rulenge, Musoma, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Presently he is the Chairperson of the Mission Awareness Committee (MAC) of the Catholic Men Religious Superiors' Association in Tanzania and is based in Dar es Salaam. Together with Rev. Donald Sybertz, M.M. he wrote Towards An African Narrative Theology (Paulines Publications Africa, 1996 and Orbis Books, 1997). Address: Rev. Joseph G. Healey, M.M.Maryknoll Missioners, P.O. Box 867, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania . E-Mail: JGHealey@aol.com
D.H. (Muchugu) Kiiru teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.
The Reverend Joshua Kudadjie teaches in the Department for the Study of Religions at the University of Ghana in Legon.
Dr. Gerald J. Wanjohi lectured in philosophy at the University of Nairobi for many years and was chairman of the Department of Philosophy in this institution when he retired from teaching in 1993. He now spends his time in research and writing as well as keeping in touch with his roots at a small farm near Mt. Kenya. He is the publisher of Wajibu and chairman of its Editorial Board.