The Dangers of Heritage

You would have to be encased in amber not to have any kind of heritage. Even amoebas have heritage. In fact, if truth be told, amoebas have the longest and proudest heritage of all – they are our proto-life, and from them we get all carbon-based life forms, including the Kardashian family.

But heritage does have its drawbacks. Where-ever groups of people get together, they will design and implement strange ceremonies in the name of culture. These are invariably enthusiastically observed by adults, to the cringing embarrassment of the young people.

In the US, Groundhog Day is observed every February 2nd, accompanied by serious men in funny hats. In Spain, men in devil costumes jump over babies. In Greece, they spit on newly-weds. In Denmark, they throw plates at people’s homes. In Brazil young men have to wear gloves made of stinging ants. In Madagascar they dig up the dead and parade them through the town square. Europe has strange and sinister rituals around Christmas that involve setting fire to things, singing in public, re-gifting last year’s hideous vase, and pretending to enjoy unhealthy food while smiling manically at distant relatives that no-one can stand. Africa, with its thousands of tribes and cultures, has micro-customs too many to list. And every Afrikaner kid goes into catatonic shock at the memory of Volkspele.

Culture and heritage are not only created by people. South Africa has the heritage of the greatest biodiversity in the world. For instance, there are remote nature reserves where there is a single specimen of a single flower, that only blooms once a decade.

(“Where is it? Where is it?” “You’ve just trampled it with your great big hiking boots, Cyril.”)

Our natural heritage is written in the mountains, the rivers, the veld and the trees. Our artists and photographers have a duty to record it and celebrate it.

Africa, particularly, has a challenge with its diverse and voluminous heritage and culture. African culture is largely verbal, with stories, histories, recipes, customs and traditions handed down from generation to generation, each story changing subtlely according to the teller. But how do you record and preserve cultures that are so fluid and ephemeral? The moment you write them down you have destroyed their evanescent nature. Even parts of regular ceremonies, like initiations, weddings, births and deaths, are often cloaked in secrecy with a small group of people the custodians of the tradition. Colourful, yes. Mystical, yes. Important, yes. But fragile also.

Some of our culture is meant to be inclusive – ceremonies to welcome the newcomer. Some of it is meant to be exclusionary – the use of certain words that betray your class or education. Some affirm the closed group, and some are intended to include the bystander. Some cultural practices are harmful and should be abandoned, some are life-affirming and should be expanded.

But where there are people, there will be heritage. Observing it, practicising it, sharing it – that makes us the funny, strange, interesting people that we are. But please, let us just bin the Volkspele!

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One Response

  1. This is one of the most classic lines of 2020: “Even amoebas have heritage. In fact, if truth be told, amoebas have the longest and proudest heritage of all – they are our proto-life, and from them we get all carbon-based life forms, including the Kardashian family.” I am crying with laughter.

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