“Mag mat naa bayyi ci’m reew”
Ahhh – the elders. “Respect” was the only word I ever associated with them growing up. It was like their word was law. If you ask my mother, she will still tell you that their word IS law. It may be because she’s one of them now … an elder.
I love the wisdom that they bring to our lives. They carry so many stories and intellectual artifacts that can be valuable in understanding some of the things we’re going through as the “younger generation.” I admire their resiliency and persistence. Because in my mind, being around after everything they’ve been through says a lot. And I want to get to that point where I can pass down this knowledge I’ve gained over the years to my “younger generation.” I want to be able to provide stimulation and provoke the minds of the youth so that, I too, may learn from what they have encountered. That last point is what I think is missing for our older generation, our Senegalese elders.
You see, in Senegalese society, there is no room for the youth to have opinions, thoughts, room for mistakes, and God forbid, the freedom to make their own choices. We are bound by sayings like “fii laniou ko fekk, tei fii laniou koy bayi” or “khale khamoul dara.” Loosely translated, it means “we leave things as we found them (generation-to-generation) and “kids don’t know anything.” The first one, I’m more lenient about because of the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Some things are broken but we’ll get to that later. The second saying that children don’t know anything bothers me to my core. Because what it should say is something along the lines of “children don’t know the same things we do.” That gives credit where credit is due.
As a child, respecting your elders in Senegalese society means the following (not an exhaustive list):
- Don’t disagree with anything elders say.
- Don’t challenge their decisions or thought processes.
- Don’t disobey them.
- Even if they are telling a blatant lie, agree with them.
- Don’t turn down their unsolicited “barging in” in your life.
- Don’t talk back, even if they ask you to answer them, because that counts as talking back.
- Don’t make your own decisions. Always consult them and make your choice, their choice.
A quick glimpse into the hierarchy of elders-to-youth in Senegalese culture shows you that Kocc Barma’s saying that “an old man is necessary in a country” holds true in many ways. Not because it’s true. And not because it’s not true. But I want to challenge you to think about this differently. In this series, starting with this chapter, I want to invoke a new way of thinking about this and other historical sayings so that we can adopt new ways of understanding them. Allow me to elaborate.
If I start with the saying that adults are necessary in a country, I can’t help but agree. As I stated earlier, they bring wisdom, experience, knowledge, and tried-and-tested methods to surviving this life. After all, they did make it to old age. I don’t just give children credit where credit is due. The elders deserve it here too. So what exactly is my problem with this saying? Well, my problem is when the valid experiences, knowledge, wisdom, and rationale that the youth bring with them is invalided by feelings of hierarchy and/or dominance. The youth, in this saying, don’t have consideration or weight in “grown-up” discussions. No matter how old they become, they will always be seen as children in the eyes of their elders and thus, must succumb to the same treatment of children.
This becomes much more prominent and problematic when it becomes time for said youth to make not-so-youthful decisions, such as who to marriage, career choices, traveling (informing versus asking for permission), how to raise their kids, and even how to spend their money on large purchases. In each of these pivotal moments, an adult must be consulted. And more than consulted, their “advice” must be taken as final or else, the youth runs the risk of being called disobedient, hard-headed, and/or “too westernized.”
This leads me to a point I want to talk about – the theory of cultural modernization. This idea that the evolution of norms and traditions applies also to the cultural realm. I’ll spare you the technical details and boil it down to a Wolof saying I adore: su diamono di dox, danguay dox ande ak mome, loosely translated to as generations walk, you must walk along with them. I love this saying because it simplifies the theory of cultural modernization so well. As the world becomes smaller, as the displacement of people becomes more and more commonplace, and as tradition merge with modernization, we as a people must adapt. It’s not about throwing away our values. It’s not even about plagiarizing those of others. It’s about creating a cocktail of the old, plus the new, to have a more holistic view of the real, true world we live in today. It’s about integration and harmonization. It’s about the first generation 20 year old young woman who was born in Senegal and must find the balance between hanging on to her roots but assimilating to her known life in the US. It’s about the 6 year old bilingual boy who must instantaneously switch between English and Spanish during a parent-teacher meeting to translate for his mother whose English isn’t perfect. How about the 28 year old African-American man who must practice basic Japanese customs and phrases the weekend before he meets his future parents-in-law because he wants to impress them? Let’s not forget about the Muslim hijabi who has to educate men around her office that her not shaking their hand isn’t a sign of disrespect towards them – and not get side eyes for daring to step out of her “traditional role” as a house wife. Cultural modernization looks different everywhere we look… with one common denominator: the world as we know it is changing. Things are looking different, more interconnected and old sayings/traditions/norms are simply no longer a litmus test for “right.” Right looks different depending on who you ask and yes, it’s the youth that brought on this change. Whether it’s the youth of today or the youth of tomorrow, it really doesn’t matter. In every generation, the youth brought something that wasn’t there before and we, as humans, are forced to adapt.
If I pull the reins in a little, back on topic, I insist that yes, elders are necessary for a country. Because of the wisdom they bring and the experiences they share. But they must remember they were the youth to whatever was their older generation at some point. It’s a cycle and everyone must have their turn. So when I throw out the challenge for Senegalese elders to give a little more credit and dare I say respect to the younger generation, I say it with full acknowledgement that one day, I will be part of the older generation that must accept that things will look just a little bit different than from my time. But it’s just that: different.
As we journey through the remainder of Kocc Barma’s sayings, let’s keep this in mind: it’s hard to know what is better or worse – you’ll always get a different answer depending on who you ask. All we are certain of is that something is different. So let’s not punish the younger generation for having a fresh way of doing things, especially when forced to do so by their surroundings. I’m sure when Kocc Barma said mag mat naa bayyi ci’m reew, he didn’t mean at the expense of the youth.