We Don't Know

We live in a time of unknown signs, of signs that have lost their meaning, that have become confused or were created on purpose in order not to have a clear meaning. That is true for the people of the third world just as much as for the people of the developed world. Because the poor countries of the southern and eastern areas of the earth find themselves in the embrace of the rich countries of the northern and western areas. Commerce unites them. Products go everywhere, and so do people.

One time in Amsterdam I met two men from Liberia, a country created in the nineteenth century by freed slaves from the United States. But there was war in Liberia, and these people had left from there. Arriving in Amsterdam, they found a place to live and were looking for work. One of them had a pattern of short, straight lines carved into his cheek. It impressed me and I askeßd him what it was and how he got it, but he told me "I don't know. No one knows their meaning. People who come from villages often have these lines on the cheek."
I thought about it. His lines recalled marks I'd seen in periodicals like National Geographic, marks that indicate that someone is part of a tribe. They show identity. But, if that was true, then this man must have left his tribe very early, before he understood anything about it, since he didn't know what the marks meant. And then he left the second environment too, to come to Amsterdam, a third environment. Twice he had lost his identity, twice he had broken his memory.
When all the relations that determine an individual's place in a society and give meaning to his or her actions, are broken and rebroken, what remains of the individual? Certainly not much pride for his or her tribe or nation, because these did not protect him or her. Perhaps pride in him or her self as a human being, similar to all other human beings, who can do much on his or her own. Perhaps. Because these two people had come through many difficulties and had travelled far, and they had not lost their humanity. They looked one in the face and spoke directly, without pretense.
Something similar, though perhaps not quite so serious, happens with style and language. Words and phrases, especially English words and phrases, have become decoration for young peoples' clothes. Most of the time you can't make out their meaning because they are spelled wrong, they don't mean anything precise, they just hint at something they could mean for someone, in another, unfamiliar, environment. Or they have a negative meaning. Once I had a student who wore a t-shirt with the words "bad, dirty girl" written on it. She was a pretty girl, polite, a good student of English. She must have known what those words meant. So why wear them? Maybe because they were written in brown ink, and they matched her hair.

© Margaret Wesseling, 23-3-06