Friday, November 28, 2008

Politics and Language: Dimension Beyond Words

When studying Tanzanian political realities today, it is necessary to accept the existence of a dimension beyond words. Besides, since linguists discovered functions of language beyond its “referential” or “propositional” aspects, we have known that words have only figurative meanings.

New Swahili words and phrases are emerging everyday but many fail to grasp the fact that these words have tremendous social and political dimensions beyond their regular usage. The word “bongo” for instance has evolved to become a living philosophy justifying all sorts of defiance to authorities and disturbance of that social ‘order’ as conceived by the governing class. “Bongo” literally means Brain, but the deeper meaning it carries is that one can only survive in Tanzania by using one’s wits. Note the survivalist imagination that resulted into this word.

Secondly, the word Bongo and the philosophy that it embodies, justifies or at least makes understandable the breaking of the law and the suppression of received societal moral codes, thereby inviting chaos and disorder. When one builds a house on children’s playground and gets away with it, either through “commission” on his or her part or “omission” on the part of authorities, one is applauded for triumphing by using one’s ‘brain.’ That is what “Bongo” requires and other ‘Bongolanders’ who fail to emulate are doing so at their own peril.

A machinga, selling non-taxed goods at Dar traffic lights (and keeping the customers’ change as well as the recently ‘purchased’ goods as traffic lights turn green) is quintessentially Bongo. Another classic Bongo transaction, as narrated in Professor J’s songs, involves buying a fake gold necklace using counterfeit banknotes. The list goes on. The philosophy of Bongo encourages and rewards a healthy and active disregard for the law of the land. What is crucial here is that people see the law as an impediment to survival and Bongo is all about getting around this “impediment” to survive.

As long as “Bongoism” entails a refusal to conform to what is seen as established order, the usage of “Bongo” can be seen as an expression of political freedom. Since the instruments of violence are thankfully monopolized by the government, this non-conformist resistance takes on a subtle approach that slowly gnaws at the foundation of the system. It may take the form of a play on words, a theory of ridicule, a deformation of established rules, a refusal to follow instructions or an irreverent attitude toward the hierarchy in place. Indeed, the philosophy of Bongo embodies all these aspects.

In Bongoism, the methods of insubordination are so sophisticated that one occasionally stumbles upon veritable laboratories of philosophy. One has to simply read what is written on the backs of the daladalas to get an insight. In his famous novel “Bound to Violence”, Yambo Ouologuem writes about the African peoples’ thirst for disorder, which is ultimately linked to their desire to surpass and organize this disorder. We also know that Nietzsche, the father of nihilism, has counterparts among the machingas, wapigadebe, dancers, changudoas, and popular singers and so on. One can argue that this nihilistic tendency, which must entail the suppression of all religious and societal morality, has emancipatory value. While we are increasingly realizing that the process of decolonialism was flawed, and its heirs, now managing a yet undigested independence, have a different conception of order. The attitude of these new nihilists (the musicians, machingas, wapigadebe, etc) holds out hope – the will to resist the aftermath of the yoke. And the new language of bongoism, survivalist at the core, has to inevitably convey and embody this will.

The story is told of a Congolese civil servant who was caught red-handed in an act of corruption. He calmly responds that he is only applying “Article 15”, an imaginary article of the Congolese constitution stipulating: “Do whatever it takes to get by!” In Bongo, the word “Ruksa”, uttered by former President Ali Hassan Mwinyi in a different and arguably ‘innocent’ context, became a slogan to justify – and indeed defend – all that was deemed illegal and immoral. In the context of this article, ‘Ruksa’ is indeed “liberating” – freeing one from the moral compunction.

Another word that came along with tremendous popularity and usage in Bongo in the last few years is “utajiju”. The word, both in tone and interpretation, epitomizes defiance to received societal norms and expectations. “Utajiju” reflects a rather individualistic outlook on life in contrast with bongoism which is at best silent on responsibility to the collective. If bongoism is a countervailing force against established ‘order’ and codified law, utajiju extends that further by striking at the heart of collectivist instincts, our ‘utu.’ Bongoism alienates the governed from the governors, utajiju seems to alienate people from each other in yet another form of dissent – this time against a pretty deeply ingrained social norms.

The social transformation of the 1990s, ushering new conception of political power by the governors and the governed, the proliferation of beer groceries, the emergence of hordes of clearing and forwarding agents, the onset of our own ‘sexual revolution’ as demonstrated by the ubiquity of “changudoas” and proliferation of brothels and the blatant sexuality of our contemporary music and dance, and the appearance of new forms of violent robbery , just to name few phenomena, cannot be conceptualized without, and must be seen in the context of “Ruksa” as simple a word as it might appear. In Bongo people play with the wording of the laws and rules. Official bywords, slogans, speeches, leaders’ verbal tics – in short, the entire vocabulary of governance – is mimicked and mocked with impressive creativity.

We can spend many pages discussing the social and political significance of words such as “Ukapa”, “Kaula/Kaukata” (when one gets political position), “Utajiju”, “Fagilia” and so on, but the point should be clear: Language, its usage, is important in analyzing politics and society. New words and phrases that spring up each day in Bongo are not without social and political significance. 

Sony Labou Tansi, a Congolese novelist, speaking for the Africans, once wrote, “I am a man of the forest and the savannah, so straight lines are foreign to me. In the forest, it is impossible to move in a straight line. I suspect that, with respect to existence, straight lines have a censuring aspect”.

Could it be that the Tanzanians, in the small events, gestures, lyrics, words and actions of daily life, are refusing what our political leaders consider “social order” – basically a straight line, a logic of reason so alien to the harsh realities of Dar es Salaam life.

In the end, with all the subtle protest in the new music of the young people and language, it is hard to imagine, at least at the moment, an overthrow of the “regime of norms” that have carried us as a nation since independence.  Why did the 1998 Mwembechai incident or Machinga continual disorder not implode? The reason is clear. The insubordination cannot lead into the state of anarchy because most Tanzanians are clever in parting company with anarchists in formulating the strategy of insubordination.  They are aware of the consequences of crossing the line: the resulting disorder sanctions a brutal swing of the pendulum.

January Makamba


grapevine said...

This is very interesting, the blog is superb too!

misokasick said...

I am so proud of you for the Blog.. Let no one tell you otherwise, this is a great tool to provoke intelligent minds and learning from people of all walks of life. That said I wanted to comment on the Bong Flava article.
January the Bongo Flava generation proves that the idea of culture as a static and discrete, bounded entity is obsolete and inadequate to explain the dynamics of culture taking place in our nation today. Over years we have seen how culture is dynamic, continually changing and evolving in step with social processes. Since Culture evolves over time, therefore, its definitions expand and it is not only limited to a society or a community anymore but instead it becomes what I call a global culture. Culture has become a mental structure with patterns of common understanding and global perceptions in a given social group.
Today it is ludicrous and detrimental to view culture as behaviors and practices that are shared by all the members of the community and only that community because there has been an increase in closer contact between peoples and the exchange of human resources and ideas across national borders. That’s why our young brothers and sisters are fixated in alcohol, women and mikasi. This is what they see on MTV and other media and they adapt this culture without knowing the consequences of the adapting to this culture. This increase across nations has led to greater cultural diversity and enhanced cross- cultural diversity, but yet has created a generational gap within groups.
When I listen to Ngwair’s music about mikasi, I have no idea what kind of a message Mr. Ngwair is trying to communicate with me; but for my nieces and nephews the message is so clear. When I question on the meaning, I get this innocent look of “you don’t wanna know’. The lives of the world’s people today are intensely interdependent, beside their immense differences of culture and historical experience their lives are compressed together in instant communication. Today it is possible to hear stories of people living on opposite sides of the world. That
Ngwair’s generation is not bound to the culture of his parents, but instead have formulated their own definitions of cultures based on the social groups they interact with. Therefore, it is fair to say that culture is learned and, thus not static. Every individual learns or adapts culture differently. Therefore, culture is a process whereby people absorb it from the social environment surrounding that individual. To conclude culture is a continuous process of change overtime