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Creating Community

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
March 27, 2007

When I grew up in Tacarigua in the nineteen forties and fifties my mother made sure I attended Tacarigua E.C. School while my grandparents immersed themselves in their Yoruba religion. Each year, we celebrated the Christian holidays (Christmas, Easter, etc.,) but on those glorious nights of October when the Shango drums rang out through the village we all went to Mother Gerald's Shango tent. Cousin Lily's thanksgivings; Tantie Lenora's devotion to the Shouter Baptists; and the respect we paid to our ancestors on All Saints Night were parts of that corpus of ritual belief that gave village life a sense of purpose and wholeness.

In those days magical days, Shango and Obeah kept our community relatively stable. Murders were far and few in between; we left our doors open because we trusted one another; stick fighting, an African martial art, held a prominent place; my mother conducted her susu, an African practice of thrift; and folks came together to help one another during harvests and the building of homes (gayap). In all of these practices a sense of community that transcended our individual concerns. Victor Turner describes this condition as the pull of communitas, an intuition that transcends our coded roles as individuals-- a bonding of human beings who are fundamentally equal and associated together in community.

Inherent in these practices was a notion of "dread" that kept our community together. The power of Shango; the fear of Obeah; the respect paid to our ancestors on All Saints' night; and the respect for our elders told us there was something larger than our puny selves that kept us within the straight and narrow. No matter how much of a bad john (anti-social) a person was, when the drums of Shango called, man and woman left their home and headed toward the palais for a communal rendezvous. Those who believed in Shango, immersed themselves in its rituals; unbelievers respected the power of the Yoruba god. In those days we paid reverence to a force that was larger than us and which contributed "an essential generic human bond without which there could be no society" (Turner).

Today, young people fear neither God nor man. The quality of dread does not exist in their universe; very little is worthy of respect; and their experiences teach them that there is nothing outside of the self. Instead, we preach (and they believe) a gospel of prosperity that glorifies the pomp and vanity of life around them; we revel in the life-giving properties of material prosperity; and legitimizes a quest to achieve unlimited pleasure.

Therefore when President Maxwell Richards analogizes the nation's predicament to that of "a state that fails" rather than "a state that prevails" and sees the solution of our problem as laying inside the "school bags" of our nation's children, he does not represents fully the challenges our young people face. Beyond draining the school bag metaphor we need to examine what we are asking of this generation of school-bag carriers?

Our young people need to know what we expect of them and the common values that hold our society together. We should reason with them rather than hector them; explain what is required of them rather than re-echo the same tired appeals; respect their intelligence rather than violate their rationality.

A society cannot exist if it is not grounded in common beliefs nor can it go forward without having a sense that we are working toward the same ends. We can start this process by aiming to achieve a few common objectives: no one should leave school without knowing how to read and write (we used to call it the 3R's); without a knowledge of our country's literature and history; and without knowing the common values that undergird our society. No young person should arrive at maturity (that is, around the age of twenty) without having performed some form of supervised community service. S/he should have a mentor, be it a university student or a responsible adult.

Each adult should lead a disciplined personal life (we are the ones from whom they learn their anti-social behavior) and each primary and secondary school teacher should be computer literate. We should encourage more research about our country's past and present; involve each young person in community activities; and inculcate into every young person a sense of individual worth and personal responsibility. We should use our media (both print and electronic) to promote the values that we deem desirable and place greater emphasis on civic, aesthetic, and spiritual [not necessarily religious] education. Our government should spend less on spectacular buildings and more on libraries, cultural, and sporting centers.

We also need to encourage our "edgemen," that is, our budding prophets and artists "who strive with passionate sincerity to rid themselves of the clichés associated with status incumbency and role playing to enter into vital relations with other men in fact or imagination." Let us encourage them to stick to the aesthetic and philosophical vocations that grip them as youths.

In this day and time, if would be nice if we can offer our young people what my elders offered me: a sense of dread and the possibility of human flourishing.

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