Monrovia – Growing up in Liberia, whenever I call my name, I garner the stares and expressions of a name that sounds too strong or otherwise traditional. In fact, I get the feeling from facial expressions that the name belongs to another world, especially in my case, as both names are purely Liberian indigenous names. While in secondary school, it was worse. The calling of my name was greeted with instant laughter, jeers and intentional mispronunciations, intended to instill humiliation and fear. I remember many colleagues couldn’t bear the emotional bullying associated with bearing traditional African names and opted to have their names changed. This is typical of the average Liberian classroom where western names are pronounced with distinction and claimed with pride but traditional Liberian names are wrongly pronounced and treated with disdain. The name carrier bore the burnt of the struggle and left to face the accompanying degradations.
The name scenario is a tip of the iceberg of the extent to how wide Liberians have negated their culture with western cultures, and in some cases other African cultures over their own cultures. A Liberian would prefer to be proudly called by another West African name and claim lineage to that country or ancestral history, but would refuse to proudly bear his name given under sacred conditions by his or her grandparents. Treasured and rich names with deep history are relegated to borrowed names. There are varying examples to the nature and breadth of how Liberians have abandoned their cultures over the years to diffusing and assimilating completely into others. This trend has affected generations to such a dangerous extent that there remains a major gap in the culture.
Major tribes have histories of their founding fathers and how they came to being but have chosen to ignore those stories, completely forgotten to speak native dialects, hence a whole generation of young children grow up unable to speak their dialects. Ironically, the inability to speak one’s language comes with a false sense of sophistication. The ignorance of one’s history and cultural practices meant a man was too ‘civilized’ to conform. The reality is sad. A society without a clear definition of its history and culture has no foundation to build upon, and no purpose.
We have a completely shattered appreciation of our culture from clothing, cuisine, language, history, etc. Every society has a signature delicacy that is known by foreigners upon entering that country. We have several dishes, from hot cooked palm butter and bitter roots to potato greens with red palm oil, bitter balls mixed with okra and fresh water palm oil to torborgee and rice, palava sauce and rice, domboy and pepper soup and GB with wollor soup. These are delicious delicacies that can be marketed and possibly exported to showcase the kinds of food we eat as Liberians.
Culture is the melting pot of a group of people and the lining that binds us together. How many average Liberian kids understand the relevance and role of traditional chiefs, traditional dance ceremonies for birth, funerals, and other occasions?
There is a surge in learning how to speak like other West Africans, copying their accents, but afraid to identify with our own accents. We have to develop ourselves and develop a spirit of cultural identity.
Cultural identity is often defined as the identity of a group, culture or an individual, influenced by one’s belonging to a group or culture.
A developmental psychologist, Jean S. Phinney, formulated a three stage model describing how this identity is acquired.
The first stage, unexamined cultural identity, is characterized by a lack of exploration of culture and cultural differences – they are rather taken for granted without much critical thinking. This is usually the stage reserved for childhood when cultural ideas provided by parents, the community or the media are easily accepted. Children at this stage tend not to be interested in ethnicity and are generally ready to take on the opinions of others.
The second stage of the model is referred to as the cultural identity search and is characterized by the exploration and questioning of your culture in order to learn more about it and to understand the implications of belonging to it. During this stage you begin to question where your beliefs come from and why you hold them. You are now ready to compare and analyze them across cultures. For some, this stage may arise from a turning point in their lives or from a growing awareness of other cultures, and it can also be a very emotional time. This is often the time when high school students decide to go on an intercultural exchange program.
Finally, the third stage of the model is cultural identity achievement. Ideally, people at this stage have a clear sense of their cultural identity and are able to successfully navigate it in the contemporary world, which is undoubtedly very interconnected and intercultural. The acceptance of yourself and your cultural identity may play a significant role in your other important life decisions and choices, influencing your attitudes and behavior. This usually leads to an increase in self-confidence and positive psychological development.
It seems we’re walloping in the first stage of cultural identity and are mimicking other cultures and taking the opinions of others about ourselves. Until we realize who we are, where we come from and what we want, the road to the future would be blurred, and we risk becoming cultural chameleons.
Lekpele Nyamalon is a Liberian writer and poet, an OSIWA Poetry fellow and can be reached at: [email protected]