In praise of our Mabalozi
Last weekend, I noticed a very positive trend across the island. Adults wearing their African garbs. I am chalking up the new trend to spin off from the efforts made every year in February by teachers across the island to encourage Barbadian children to embrace their African heritage.
This activity has real and tangible benefits. It mirrors the self-identity movement which preceded the Independence era in Barbados and the wider Commonwealth Caribbean and which was a critical forerunner to self-government. In my view, the programme was wider and deeper in many of the other Caribbean countries than in Barbados.
St. Lucia, for example, was able to examine its Catholic images and sounds and, through the development of the Folk Research Centre, was able to darken the image of Jesus as well as incorporate native music into Catholic ceremonies.
Both St. Lucia and Dominica, along with other regions which speak Kwéyòl, embraced the culture around their indigenous tongues and started preservation and standardization activities. There have been dictionaries created for both islands as well as a week of celebrations at the end of October. In Dominica, the Kwéyòl festival has actually gone on to become a significant foreign exchange earner for the island.
Comparatively, in Barbados, there has been some effort to celebrate the African-derived elements of our culture but generally in sporadic and peripheral frames. Most of the activity that has resulted in a national embrace of our African heritage has perhaps been associated with the Pan-African movement.
A number of organizations is responsible for coordinating and spearheading the activities which resulted in the National African Day initiative which schools across the island participate in. The Spiritual Baptist Movement and the Clement Payne Centre facilitated celebrations of Black History Month at the Grantley Adams School as far back as the 1990s. The programme then came on stream at the former Garrison, now Graydon Sealy Secondary.
In 2002, a number of changes was made to the celebration. First, it became a national initiative, with the Ministry of Education supporting the celebrations across all schools. Additionally, the decision was made to move the celebration from being associated with African Liberation Day on May 25. This was to ensure that the celebrations did not clash with the administration of examinations by the Caribbean Examination Council. The celebrations were decentralized from the Museum site which had been previously used.
Students were allowed to wear their African wear to school and they learnt about various aspects of Africa. Presentations were given by African people who live in or visit Barbados and children sample African dishes and learn about continuities in Barbadian culture.
The work of the Commission for Pan African Affairs (CPAA) has also facilitated the institutionalization of celebrations for the African elements of our heritage. The Commission organized an African History Quiz which ran across schools from about 2004.
Then Deputy Director of the CPAA, Tempu Nefertari, became concerned that Black children were not seeing enough positive images associated with their physical features and Africa. In 2011, she facilitated the creation of the Mabalozi programme.
Mabalozi is a kiswahili word which means ‘ambassador’. The Mabalozi are a group of Afrocentric teachers who ensure that suitable cultural content is developed and incorporated into Barbadian schools on a regular basis. The Mabalozi also meet outside of school hours to ensure that they further their own knowledge on how best to ensure that our children are developed to be culturally well adjusted and conscious citizens.
This activity is helpful in ensuring that education not only benefits the cognitive needs of our children but their affective development as well. Children who have a sound grounding of who they are and what their society is are less likely to be shaken by negative influences from foreign cultures. It is also easy for us to continue to impart the values of togetherness and shared community which have been a trait in the ‘Barbadian way’.The aim is to have at least one Mabalozi teacher at every school in Barbados.
Seeing that the trend of wearing African clothes is catching on further afield, perhaps the day will come when Mabalozi are also located in Barbadian workplaces. The positive affective gains of children knowing and being connected to their heritage are also transferable to adults. In a time when we need to encourage local food production and consumption, perhaps this programme can be examined and expanded for its usefulness.
We are now two years into the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent. I am excited by the prospects and heartened to see African prints and styles trickling over form the schools into the streets. Black is bold and beautiful! Job well done by the Mabalozi of Barbados.
(Marsha Hinds-Layne is a full time mummy and part-time communications lecturer at the University of the West Indies. Email: email@example.com)