Friday, 21 October 2016

Cultural Appropriation - an illiterate nonsense

Students in Florida have warned against Dressing up as Harambe the gorilla for Halloween on grounds of cultural appropriation. This absurd notion seems to be getting out of control.

When I was learning Swahili, it was explained to me that the word, (actually harambee, with the double e pronounced 'ay'), despite being commonly treated as a Swahili word meaning 'let's all pull together', is not actually a Swahili word at all.

The late Jomo Kenyatta witnessed a work gang using it to coordinate their pulling on a rope, so that ha-ram was the equivalent of ready-set and bee meant Go! He found this a good metaphor and adopted it as a national motto. I heard him use it often when addressing crowds, using precisely this same 1-2...3! stress.

Latterly some have suggested the labour gang were Hindus calling upon Ambee Mata. The word is possibly so derived, though as there are many local tribal languages in Kenya it can't be absolutely certain it isn't derived from one of them.

Swahili is an eclectic language, always ready to incorporate a foreign word where it seems appropriate. For example 'Kilimanjaro' the highest mountain in East Africa is a combination of kilima, the Swahili word for hill and njaro the Chaga word for shining, while in my day at least the Swahili for typewriter was its phonetic equivalent taipuraita.

Swahili itself is a meld of Arabic and Bantu, with flavourings of English, German and Portuguese, so any word in Swahili is liable to be culturally appropriated to begin with, just like any word in English, which has roots in Latin, Greek, Germanic, French, Norse etc.

As a first step I would therefore advise anyone worried about cultural appropriation to refrain from expressing their concerns in English (or Swahili).

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