A loss of roots

The burning of the Jagger Library on the main campus of the university of Cape Town last week may not sound like one of the catastrophes we so often hear of; disasters where lives are lost and homes demolished.

Yet it is a catastrophe of another kind because the material lost is irrecoverable. Here is how it was reported:

While some priceless archives survived due to modern fire screens, much of the African Studies collection has been lost including early monographs on traditional cultures and a collection of films from across the continent which had been lovingly collected over the past 30 years by an archivist who is due to retire soon.  The building had housed 85,000 books and 3,000 films

One mourns with the archivist as one would at a funeral. It is his or her loss but it is also Africa’s loss because it removes material forever that might have illuminated aspects of the early cultures of the continent.

If we do not know where we come from it is that much more difficult to know where we are going. Intellectual property is normally seen as technical know-how or personal research. There can be piracy on the waves of the world wide web. But here we are talking of cultural property owned by the descendants of early communities. When this is lost it is like a person becoming stateless.

This type of loss is not unusual. In 2001, the Taliban in Afghanistan blew up statues of the Buddhas carved into a hillside in antiquity with great care and reverence. They said they were idols. It was an outrage against the culture of the Buddhists for whom statues played a similar role as they do for us – to remind us of a holy or famous person.

And counrties forged in the Christian mould are also guilty of such iconoclasm. Oliver Cromwell’s troops deliberately destroyed the statues of the churches in the seventeenth century in their Puritan enthusiasm.

These were not natural disasters, like the fire in Cape Town, but deliberate acts of intolerance against people who were different.

The common feature is the loss of roots and this is a tragedy that perhaps we do not pay attention to. Pope Francis writes of a ‘growing loss of the sense of history … a kind of “deconstructionism” whereby human freedom claims to create everything starting from zero’ (Fratelli Tutti #13). Francis goes on to say ignoring history and rejecting the experiences of our elders makes us ‘shallow, uprooted and distrustful.’ He calls it a new form of ‘cultural colonisation’. We get rid of our oppressors only to become oppressors in our turn.

In this Sunday’s readings Jesus says, ‘I know my own and they know me.’ There is a bond pf love and commitment built on knowledge; knowledge of our scriptures, our traditions, our culture, Natsa kwamunobva, kwamunoenda usiku.

12 April 2021    Easter Sunday 4B    Acts 4:8-12     1 John 3:1-2    John 10:11-18

Post published in: Faith

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