Oral tradition and libraries
To deny orality´s importance is to deny ourselves.
Written word wouldn´t exist if, previously, it wouldn´t exist the spoken word. Writing is a secondary, artificial and dependent system, as pointed out by many great linguists. With this, I don´t deny its great importance in civilizations´ history. But I will not exalt it as a Goddess. I simply put it in its real place, i.e. at the same level of orality. Maybe writing systems made possible the progress of a good number of cultures. But we shouldn´t forget that a great part of Humankind was condemned to forgetfulness: throughout history, just powerful people wrote, reflecting the winner´s voice. Written words always meant "power", and power is not in everybody´s hands. Orality is: it´s popular, democratic, and it can be used by everybody having a basic command of their own language.
We shouldn´t forget that, even if writing became the basis of many civilizations, thousands of them grew up and lived without it. To consider illiteracy as a sign of "underdevelopment", "no-evolution" or "no-progress" is a deplorable, evolutionist attitude, that leaded to the discrimination and the oblivion of a lot of people because they were unable to read or write. Oral is valuable and important. It´s a treasure, a miracle, a part of ourselves, or everyone. And it must be protected and preserved. A high percenteage of human knowledge has never been written until now. Will we say that, because of this reason, it doesn´t exist, that it isn´t valuable? It´s a knowledge transmited through the generations, and we are the depositaries of a part of it. Will we consider it as an inadequated, poor, powerless mean, not worth of consideration, just because it´s oral?
Such an attitude provokes me a lot of sadness.
Orality is featured by its instability, but also by its richness, its complexity and its adaptability. It´s a man with its own features, and it shouldn.t be undervaluated or discredited because it seems to be different or complicated. I repeat my question: will we consider the spoken word as inferior to written word just because texts were/are the source of power, development and security? It seems a sad attitude to me. And a poor one. Specially because the written word is as unstable as the oral one, as demonstrated by all the knowledge lost after a little spark in Alexandria, Sarajevo or Baghdad... Where is the power of Ninive or Pergamo? Where are the memories of these peoples, of these great authors who trusted in the "undeniable security" of the written word?
It turned into ashes long ago. Because paper can be as fragil as human memory.
To choose the safer option not always is a good attitude in life. To depreciate and refuse the insecure option either. To generate proposals appreciating the real value of every option, of every thing, complementing and bonding and even melting them in one single idea... is something that looks wiser, more creative and more human.
Orality is a part of our memory, as demonstrated by thousands of universal cultures possessing extremely rich oral traditions, and by thousands of current programs of oral narrative, and thousands of groups of story-tellers working today, from here to Java. Is this poor people losing their time in an useless activity? Or maybe we are so blinded by the values we believe to be "safe" and "powerful", that we lost the capacity for detecting the importance and the value of the little big things?
Memory is built by speaking and repeating, not by writing. Memory is built by telling, by saying things, and the best way for learning something is to use the spoken word, not the text (as accepted by thousands of teachers, all around the world). Spoken word allows a richer expression that otherwise would look very linited by writing, as pointed out in early times by Greek philosophers (who deeply knew the power of speaking).
If orality wouldn´t be a part of the human memory, Argentineans wouldn´t know anything about our inmigrant ancestors, peasant communities wouldn´t remember their traditions and aboriginal peoples wouldn´t tell the cycles of Earth. And so on....
There´s a material cultural heritage, and an intangible one, as declared by UNESCO since years ago. And this international organization has supported and encouraged the protection of orality and oral tradition, even in declarations with IFLA concerning public libraries. Maybe these guys are wrong?
We can´t deny the value of oral tradition. It allows the understanding of our own culture, of the group and individual memory, and it also allows the creative use of the own language, something that is getting lost in a good number of literate societies (as a lot of High School language professors know).
If library is a memory-manager instituion (and not a simple text-storage place), it should manage both aspects, the written and the oral one. It´s a double labour: literacy can be promoted as well as orality, supporting the desires of the final users (this is our goal as librarians: to provide a service according to the desires of community, from a grass-root development perspective). And when I speak about "promoting orality", I don´t speak just about turn it into audio-visual or written documents (a lot of users couldn´t access it, because they don´t know how to read, or they don´t possess the technical devices). I speak about creating spaces and support to the very expression of the spoken word, from the community and by the community.
The techniques of collection of oral tradition should be known by librarians, memory-managers. This task is not a close field reserved to historians, sociologists or journalists. Maybe some museums do it... but I don´t speak about museums: I speak about libraries. Maybe some "important" libraries do it, but they are the 5% of the whole number of libraries, and I am speaking about every library, specially the "litle" community and public libraries, the ones which have a closer contact with the community and its orality.
Orality shouldn´t be pushed to writing. It should be enriched and complemented with writing, but never turned into it. This is called acculturarion, or maybe cultural pressure. And its terrible, because it´s a synonim of the verb "annul". I have witnessed these processes and their outcomes, and the results just give an infinite sorrow: people who forget their traditions and their wisdom, their memories and their art, just because they were taught that the written texts are the basis of knowledge, are the useful and valuable means, are the powerful tools for become members of the Global Society. This positivist, materialist perspective leaded thousands of cultures to lose their identity and to live in a kind of sociocultural limbo from where nobody take them out.
I am far from condemning the written word. I just condemn the huge importance given to it, forgetting other means of expression and transmission of information. Writing is a valuable and beautiful tool... As beautiful and valuable as orality. A lot of "little" libraries are working in the support and promotion of oral tradition. Are they wrong? I don´t think so. I think they are fulfilling their task. Their real task.
The main problem these libraries and librarians face is th absence of guidelines and textbooks on this labor, generated from LIS: concepts, theories, methods.... There´s a big hole in this issue. So, we´re building things from the practice, using action-research. Thta´s my work right now: using my knowledge in the field, recovering my experience and teaching it to my students.
I smoke my "Montecristo" cigar (the brand smoked by Ernesto Guevara, the famous "Che") brought from Cuba by my dear colleague and friend Silvia Natalonia, while I enjoy -along with the delicious taste of this tobacco- the sounds of the CD of Amaury Pérez sent by my unimitable Cuban friend and colleague Rosa Báez, the well-known editor of "Librínsula", the virtual Bulletin of the Cuban National Library "José Martí".
A "Cohiba" cigar (the brand smoked by Fidel Castro) was already smoked with Silvia -a half and a half- a couple of hours ago, while we enjoyed some beer, celebrating her travel back from the Caribbean island. Even if I listen again and again a lot of contradictory opinions about Cuba, I wanted to know -at first hand- the opinion of a person who has been travelling through the whole island on hers own account for two weeks, renting a car and moving in an independent way, wandering around, eating where Cubans eat, sleeping where Cubans sleep and sharing their works and problems.
My colleague Silvia Fois has also been travelling to these latitudes a month ago. But you can read the results of her journey in her own words, in an interview you can easily access on the Web.
Since our professional spaces has been filled with discussions about the "Cuban issue", I wanted to know the truth and the lies about the whole thing. Even if, maybe anesthesiated by the effects of this tasty "Montecristo", I think now that, in the end, nobody can possess the Truth on a subject, but a particular opinion, a partial vision of reality.
Anyway, facts are facts.
Instead of telling me the details of her Cuban adventure, Silvia (an independet thinker herself) had to answer all my questions (sometimes I become a little bit invasive). By this way, I knew that illiteracy rates in Cuba are extremely low (0.7 in youth during 200-2004); that education systems could give jealousy to ours because of its high quality; that the general culture of peasants is not very different from the one of university students (and vice versa, a very important thing...); that health systems are excellent (but we already knew that); that distance education is terribly valuable and that libraries -the so judged libraries- should be an example for the rest of Latin America.
Silvia didn´t find a single impediment for travelling wherever she wanted and for doing whatever she wanted (always keeping some "civilized customs", of course...), not even for entering / exiting the country, or for reading, or for participating in the daily life of Cuban people. The impediments the Cuban suffer are the same that our societies suffer (oh, but... you didn´t know that a lot of our citizens have strong impediments for doing normal things in our own countries? Well, check that by asking a homeless to ask for a room in the Sheraton Hotel... You will discover that the "problem" is not just about his/her economic solvency...).
My main question was: "What about the problems?". Yeah, yeah, I know, I am an ever-pesimistic man, right? But, well, that´s me. And this was my great doubt. Silvia smiled -she knows me very well- before answering me: "Their problems are the same that our problems". Funny: the answer sounded silly, but, after thinking about it a couple of minutes -while I drank my beer- I found that it wasn´t that silly. Actually, it was revolutionary. Cuban information is spread by means of the 4 estatal TV channels, for example... With this information, people speak about censorship and Government control. But... what country in Latin America (or wherever) could boast of receiving "true, non-filtered, non-manipulated information" through its public/private TV channels or throgh its news services? Which one is the true information? The one we receive from CNN and the international news agencies? I could speak you about Argentinean TV -a funny set of cheap shows, series and gossip-based programs- or about Argentinean news-shows -which hardly show other things but sensationalist events, ignoring sometimes the reality of the rest of the world- but I don´t want to get depressed tonight, specially because Silvia, the beers and this excellent cigar put me in a good mood. My friend told me that, among the open-shelves of the Cuban libraries (yes, open shelves everywhere... Do you have this in all your libraries, colleagues?) she found all the titles she wanted... and even more. She told me that the "second-hand" bookshops offer whatever you can desire (and Silvia is very eclectic in her intellectual tastes), and that libraries strongly support the distance university education. She told me that schools open their doors even for 3 students in the middle of the mountains or the fields... How many Latin American countries could be proud of such a thing?
A lot of people is angry with the image of a "eternal and military-dressed dictator". Is that so? But, anyway... how many wolves disguised like sheeps do we have in our Governments? How many dictators disguised like good men we have, caressing people with a woolen hand and hiting them with a lead hand, like our mythical Argentinean goblins? It´s funny: a lot of people in this big continent is angry with the image of the Bolivian president, a normal guy always dressing with a common jacket and a cheap skirt, like a common peasant, even in "important" international official acts. "This is not a president, man !!!" I´ve listened. Is it necessary to dress in a good style and to keep a populist discourse, like the ones of the Argentinean or the Chilean presidents, just for being accepted in an international basis, just for becoming "good rulers"?
(You should know that I am speaking about presidents who keep a left-wing discourse but who act folowing a right-wing way. In Chile, for example, Mapuche indigenous peasants are in jail because they are claiming fairly for the right to own their own lands).
Is it necessary to kiss the ring of the USA president and of the Global Empire for becoming good, acceptable nations? It seems so. It seems that, in this issue, is happening something similar to what happens in our societies: if you´re faithful to yourself (even if this means to be different of the rest of the people), you´re discredited, and this includes an eternal condemn. It´s the same that happens with us, anarchists: we´re condemned as beasts of hell because we say and we do what everybody think but don´t say or do because "it´s not correct" or because "they´re scared". They are the same that, chatting in a café, will agree fully with us and, later, the ones who raise their accussing finger, labelling us a pariah and misfit people. They´re also the same that agree with us but close their mouths.
Maybe the same thing is going on in Cuba. It´s the only country I know that is resisting the yoke of the Empire, something that this Empire has done with us long time ago. Do we condemn Cubans because we´re jealous? Do we condemn them because they´re acting in a different way, and different things always bother human beings? Do we condemn them because we don´t know anything about them, and we speak from our own ignorance?
Silvia told me that the islander population who is "disconform" with Castro´s politics include people ranging from 30 to 50 years old. Old and young people don´t have doubt about their way of life. But the former have been deeply influenced by the waves of a consumist and globalized world. And these temptations are difficult to resist. It happens the same in some indigeous peoples, living quietly for centuries until the first "innovator white man" arrives with candies for destroying the children´s teeth. A present from "civilization". After this, children will want more candies, even if they will lost all their teeth. Attraction is very strong and the consequences are never measured or previewed. Inside these communities, they are taught (by white "educators", sometimes wearing a cross around their neck) that it´s very civilized to wear cheap shorts and T-shirts, and that wearing nothing but skin is "uncivilized, worthless, sinful and immoral". The identity and the welfare of these peoples vanish like smoke, and the whole community try to become a part of the world society... just for becoming another one of the infinite layers of slaves who try to accept a set of values that don´t even believe or understand. The parallelism with our own situation -even if my examples are exagerated- seems obvious. Maybe Cubans know this, and even if for a lot of them temptation is very strong, some of them still "think" (a forgotten sport in our societies) and recognize where are the fangs of the jackal.
You, Latin Amerians, who are reading me... Can we say, honestly, that we live well, that our streets are safe after midnight (or even during the day), that we are educated as we deserve, that our governors are clean and loyals with us and that they represent us, that our society doesn´t oppress us and doesn´t push us to "pursue a carrot" forever, following a "success" that we never reach, and a way of life that never makes us happy (even if we believe it)? Can we say thay we have the information we deserve, that the Governments are afraid of their people -and that people is not afraid of their Governments-, that we can buy in our bookshops all the books we want, that we enjoy a wide, intelligent and plural cultural offer, that familiar violence doesn´t exist or is controlled, that Police doesn´t repress us, that we can struggle freely for fair causes without problems? Can we say, with a hand on our hearts, that, in our countries, it doesn´t exist political corruption? That it doesn´t exist discrimination, racism, poverty, hunger, misery and the oblivion of those who have nothing in order to favour those who have a lot? Can we say, sincerely speaking, that in our countries we don´t have richs and poors, that we don´t murders and thieves (even those well protected by the same laws they swore to keep and respect?).
Can we? Can you say it, international colleagues who also read these pages? Can you, truly?
Answer this question, and then, after assimilating the answer (it will be painful, I grant it), you can decide if you can raise your finger against Cuba. Because, as a Nazarene (a great guy, who surely would share some rhums with me if he were alive now) said centuries ago: "Anyone of you who is without sin can throw the first stone". One of the Great Books (there are several of them) says also... "And why do you see the chaff of straw in your brother’s eye and do not consider the log beam in your own eye?" (Matthew, 7:3, I think, even if I am not a Christian).
What we should remember is that Cuba is not Fidel Castro. Cuba is a people, the Cubans, who live in the same way we do, who laugh and sing (in a marvellous way) like we do. And who struggle because they dont´want to become another province of the Empire, in a territory where the "owners of the world" can do whatever they want, wherever they want (something they do in all our nations, if you still don´t know it...). The struggle of Cubans is the same of the Venezuelans and Bolivians. They ask for respect, self-determination, freedom... They struggle in their own way, but they struggle. Do we do it? Do we fight for these goals? Or are we just unarmed and passive spectators of our social and political lives, managed by others according to their own interests?
Cuba is the land of Cubans. Our countries, colleagues... are they our lands? Half of Argentinean Patagonia belongs to foreigners who hardly know what they have there, and who forbid us to visit some of our lakes (lakes, according Argentinean laws, are national property), and who carry away from our country the profits extracted from "their" lands, using our people as slave-workers. What do we do about this? Do we respect our country? Are we a free and sovereign nation? Western Formosa province (NE Argentina) has been bought by an Australian company (3.5 dollars the square mile) for cutting the rain-forest and selling the precious, expensive woods to rich Asians. These lands belonged to indigenous peoples (wichi, nivakle, yofwaja). These communities are Argentineans, these lands are Argentineans... Do we do something about this? Or maybe we are allowing others to steal us while we are sat in front of our TV sets, anesthesiating ourselves with our daily dirt? How many similar cases are there in Latin America, in the rest of the world? Can we raise our hands against a people who still fight, who still believe -in despite of the controversial opinions, a good sign of intellectual health usually silenced in other countries-, who still defend themselves against a system that has demonstrated to be totally unfair here and everywhere?
My cigar is finished. What a pity: its taste was marvelous. While I look its ashes, I remember some discourses I have read in the Latin American LIS listservs, written by Robert Kent. Some of his ideas are supported by National Librarians Associations from Poland and Lithuania, which have signed claims (even for being addressed to IFLA) questioning the situation of censorship and libraries in Cuba...
(Here, I want to stop for remarking that, if an International Organization -representing the librarians in the world- makes a document claiming / "condemning" censorship in Cuba (does it exist, actually?), it is like if every librarian is condemning this situation. Can we? Do we know what we are condemning? Just think about it...).
Has Mr. Kent´s hatred a reason? If yes... is this a personal reason? Maybe Mr. Kent couldn´t get cheap sex, rhum and beaches in Cuba, as his compatriots did in older times? And the Associations? Do they know what they´re speaking about, or are they supporting another person´s opinion without having a direct, clear idea, or without listening another thoughts? Has Mr. Kent thought about the consequences of what they are asking for?
Has Mr. Kent (and his friends) thought about the oppressions suffered in his own country due to the Patriotic Act, or to the racism felt in their streets? Has Mr. Kent thought about the murders rates in Minneapolis (which surprise even their Canadian neighbours), or about USA war systems, or about the blood storms his nation unleash daily all over the world? Has Mr. Kent checked his own garden before criticizing, judging and condemning the others´? Has he seen the socio-political problems that his nation and its system provocates in the so called "third world" before criticizing the "sadness" that Castro provocates with his "dictatorship"? Has Mr. Kent listened the voices of thousand of North American librarians, supporting Cuban libraries and system, and strongly cliaiming -with no results- against the violations to privacy and the censorship organized and hidden by the Bush administration?
If we want to help Cubans in a real, practical way, let´s write to them, let´s ask them what they need, let´s support their work, let´s listen them. With respect, with solidarity. That´s the best way.
(Those who are curious about Mr. Kent ideas can check his website. Cubans, don´t try it: Kent has blocked the access to his website from Cuba. Can anyone explain this to me? If you need the contents, I´ll send them to you by e-mail).
Freedom of expression must be granted. Sometimes, we have to read this kind of hatred speeches. So, I guess we´ll go on reading these opinions condemning Cuba and its political regime (but remember that these opinions include Cuban people, too). The point, here, is not focused in what we read (everyone is free for writing / reading whatever they want) but in what we believe. These opinions should work for awakening us, for making us doubt, for being revolutions of our calm inner seas. They should work for helping us to build our own opinion. They must work for push us to know, to check, to create our own personality. O-w-n (it means "not borrowed, not imposed, not acquired from other person"). They must help as a starter for exercizing our criticism. I know, it´s a tiring exercise: sometimes it´s easier to take as ours the first opinion we listen without even evaluate it. But the first option is healthier.