The importance of knowing your heritage
Heritage is defined as the cultures, traditions, and attributes handed down or inherited from previous generations, which are maintained in the present and bestowed for future generations. Heritage contributes to our history as individuals and establishes a sense of who we really are as a people. It is sad, therefore, that in our generation, heritage is something which is denied, rejected, and exchanged instead for acceptance of external cultures which are not our own. We laugh when jokes are made about the people who adopt British accents in transit fifteen minutes upon their arrival at the London Heathrow airport, and about the people who suddenly cannot speak their mother-tongue when they leave their home country for two weeks. But these are realities which frequently occur, and which ultimately need to be addressed.
In essence, heritage is something much like education: it is more valuable than money or property, and it is something which cannot be taken away from you! However, it can certainly be lost or forgotten through the conscious efforts and choices we make. So why do certain groups find power in abandoning their cultural heritage and assimilating into popular, more ‘acceptable’ ones? Historically, in reference particularly to the African continent, most (if not all) African traditions were shunned and demonised by the European colonialist settlers, while simultaneously, their own European forms of culture and ‘civilisation’ were praised and forced upon the natives of the land. An example of this is the Totem system practiced in Zimbabwe and other African countries. A totem - “mutupo” - refers to an assigned identity given to a family group, distinguishing them from other groups. Hence, a person is often addressed by their totem when they have achieved or done something commendable for the family or community, and generally, out of respect for the person. The assignments were predominantly based on a sacred animal, which the family was never to kill or eat. Alongside the unity which this system fostered, other functions were achieved such as environmental stewardship and preservation of animals, and fewer cases of incest, since clan members could identify one another by their totem backgrounds.
Today, there are messages preached (by fellow Africans) which claim that following the mutupo system is ‘out-dated’, ‘unnecessary’, and ‘evil.' No reasonable explanation surrounding these statements has ever been given me, and hence my family does not identify with any totem. It is easy to see, therefore, that even cultures developed by our African forefathers to encourage preservation and unity, have been ostracized and frowned upon, and many Africans have blindly accepted the spurning of their own historical cultures without questioning the reasoning behind it. So perhaps this provides an answer to my aforementioned question. It does not, however, stand concrete as a logical rationale for abandonment of one’s traditional backgrounds.
What we need to understand is that heritage is power. It is what identifies, distinguishes, and elevates us. Knowing your heritage is what will empower you to refuse to answer to the label “minority." The term in itself does not contain any positive or affirming qualities, and simply serves to ‘other’, and encourage sympathy from those in the ‘majority.' That is not what you were created to be, and your identity is far more magnificent than that! Assimilation into
something that is not your own is optimized when we permanently internalise that our traditions and practices are inadequate, and only Western cultures can be pure and good. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is thus our own responsibility to research more, question more, and challenge what we have become comfortable accepting in the past. Learning and discovering our own cultural heritage is paramount to being able to dictate our own identities and futures, and not have them dictated for us any longer.