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What “we” can learn from Swahili

Column by Zwaan Hoeksma


Introduction

The following text is aimed to be a human statement concerning an ethical rather than a political question. I will navigate the field of intercultural knowledge exchange in order to facilitate culturally sensitive spatial design. Me being a spatial designer puts me in a position of responsibility towards the users of public spaces that I help give form. Emerging in this conscious ethical approach will have to include a critical self-reflection on inherent Eurocentric worldviews. I as a white, native Dutch, able bodied, cis gendered woman, come with a multitude of privileges whilst roaming in the public sphere. Most spaces I roam are welcoming for people like me. As the designer of spaces in the western European context, it is important to not take these advantages for granted. Even more so, it would only be ethical to actively examine how I can create inclusivity through spaces. Probably best achieved by facilitating community engagement involving people with diverging cultural and ethical backgrounds. (Ssebunya et al., 2019) I still hardly know a thing when it comes to interculturality. Because I find, the more I learn on this subject, the more I realize how little the actual understanding is. Even though I grew up in a metropolitan city, exposing me to the melting pot that society nowadays is, my bubble still mostly consists of highly educated, white, socially economically wealthy people. It is this duality that motivates me too look beyond what I think to know. I believe that design education in the Netherlands could benefit from interculturality based on the assumption that there is a lot to gain from intercultural knowledge exchange. (Mosima, 2023) In this case I will explore language as a noninvasive, curious approach for acquiring a deeper understanding of the Ubuntu philosophy which originated in ‘Africa’. A continent with an abundance of wisdoms concerning communitarianism and environmental ethics. The Bantu language forms the basis of most spoken languages in ‘Africa’ and reveals information on common worldviews by ‘Africans’ and the Ubuntu philosophy. (Ramose 1999, Ramose 2003) This essay examines the ethical groundings of diving into this subject. I myself do not speak any Bantu derived language and therefore I am not in the position to accurately educate anyone on the linguistic contents. I will however explore the possibility of using Bantu words and sayings to create a more elaborate understanding of spatial elements.


A brief history as an ethical discourse

A very, very long time ago, before the rise of humans on planet earth, all the land surfaces were connected as one big continent, Pangea. Pangea had a rich biodiversity when looked at the flora kingdom, that is why all across the continent the plant species are quite similar. They all originated from this interconnectedness of land surfaces. When this Pangea land surface was connected, ‘Africa’ was the one that connected all the to be continents and therefore forms the basis of worldwide wholeness. Wholeness is one of the key terms within the Ubuntu philosophy. Mammals arrived much later in the broad history of the earth, then the continents were already split resulting in continent specific fauna species. In the Bantu language short time and small space, just like long time and big space, are the same word. (Van Rappard, 2010) Because fauna had a longer time to spread, the space it covered got bigger. This interconnectedness of time and space is not clear in western languages, it seems dualistic. The fact that it is difficult to comprehend for my already conditioned brain, is what makes it insightful and inspiring. The unique thing about designing with nature is the change over time. As a spatial designer designing with scrubs and bushes, those are bound to change with seasons and grow over time. The Bantu way of describing a scrub is; a collection of trees. (Rechenbach, 1969) This puts it in a different perspective, the plant still gets the name even though the form is not (yet) tree shaped. Another interesting thing I found about the Bantu language is that fruits are not described as for instance an apple, but as the fruit of an apple tree. (Rechenbach, 1969) Leading the fruit back to its origin creates awareness within language. Another and maybe most meaningful insight about trees and linguistics, is that tree and ancestor share the same word. (Rechenbach, 1969) Allowing the spiritual side of trees to become visible through language. In Germanic culture the Taxus was considered a holy tree by communities in western Europe. Nowadays the Taxus is commonly used for hedges who are maintained by chainsaw. Seeing trees as possible ancestors will make a difference in the way trees are placed. The Taxus has cancer healing capacities and the wood is very flexible making it good wood to make tools like hand bows. But just using the Taxus as a hedge to separate once property from the others does not justify this spiritual meaning of the Taxus. Planting a Taxus and going about it like the indigenous people of western Europe could be a way of embodying cosmic harmony. (Kelbessa 2021) Not to say that there is a good or bad way to apply the Taxus in any design, just to make the point of how language can offer insight into what different worldviews are. Also, on how design partly translates or ignores deeper meanings. Knowledge of another language systems can reveal a broader scope in understanding physical surroundings.


Communication is more than language

Lastly, I want to emphasize that communication is not confined to language alone. I experienced this first hand when I turned seventeen. I was on vacation with my family and because it was my birthday elders from the nearby village visited the table mountain where we were staying. A trio consisting of elderly Ethiopian men preformed a ritual on the night of my birthday. It consisted of instruments, song, dance and rhythm, everyone who was present joined in. The Ethiopians among us, including the person who drove us around, somebody familiar to my father, started grinning during some parts of the ritual. Later the next day he explained that these men were mocking us westerners. However, the message was not confined to language alone. The message was a gift in the form of cosmic music translated through sounds and dance. If I would have been able to read the text alone, it was not Bantu derived language, probably something like Amharic, I would most likely feel offended. But the ritual was more than text alone. It is an honor to have been emerged in their cultural practice. The mimic, movements, engagement, sounds, felt welcoming, this could also be led back to the ‘African’ tradition of oral information exchange. Basing communication off of language does not do it justice. Therefore, I would like to emphasize the ‘Eye’, symbolizing perception, in the approach, as it determines the experience. Gestures, facial expressions, and posture all stem from what the eye perceives, shaping the processing of the experience more so than language ever could.


Conclusion

It is only ethical to include ‘African’ wisdom in our day-to-day practices since public spaces are not meant to inherently Eurocentric. They are being used by a wide range of users. The designers of these spaces therefor deserve to a have an as broad possible horizon, allowing them to consciously form spaces. Using language to acquire such knowledge is a humane approach since it motivates a curious attitude and allows for opening up to unknown cultural contexts. I want to conclude this endeavor with a saying of my own, namely: “You can’t make apple compote from the fruit of a pear tree, you can however try to create apple-pear compote.” Which would come across better in my mother tongue, if the receiver is familiar with Dutch culture, then it would say: “Je kan geen appelmoes maken met de vrucht van een perenboom. Je kan echter wel proberen, appel-perenmoes te creeeren.” 



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