Shame has been defined as “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.” It is also defined as: “a regrettable or unfortunate situation or action.” The opposite of shame is pride. And pride is defined as “consciousness of one’s own dignity.”
Knowing the definitions, what is the relationship between shame and pride to our ancestors? If you listen to Mandinka songs, you’ll often hear them say someone is in the Lakira but that they’re not living there in SHAME! You may have also heard of the story where a certain Fula was said to be given the choice of DEATH and SHAME and he picked death over shame. The Fula man preferred the preservation of his own dignity even if it meant death, than the painful feeling of humiliation. Meaning, he would RATHER DIE than face SHAME. You hear proverbs like: Bëut bu rusul, toj or Gàche bu reyul semmal.
While unlearning, I am learning not to put too much premium in certain theories that pigeonhole “African” cultures in any particular categories. But even where I may accept the generalities of these “theories”, I’m mindful of the perspective they are couched in, especially as it relates to the works of missiologists who may see us with eyes we have never at looked at ourselves with.
A while back, I come across the concept of world-views in cultural anthropology, and its delineation of culture into three main categories: “Guilt-innocence”, “Shame-honor” and “Fear-Power”, below are the synopsis of what these cultures stand for as I understand the concept.
The West is often classified as a Guilt-innocence culture because it is individualistic and tends to rely on punishment for self regulation. The fear of punishment is said to be what usually regulates people’s behavior. You see what colonialism has done to us? Think about those of us confined in this colonial space today.
The Asian cultures are often classified as a Shame-honor culture because transgressors of the value system are often shamed for not aligning their actions with the general expectations of society.
And then you have the Fear-power cultures which is often marked by a fear of evil and harm from spirits, gods etc. And you can guess which cultures are classified thusly! “African”!
Bringing these world-views home to this colonial space we call Gambia, I would like to think that for our great-grandfathers, going by the prevailing sentiments and emphasis on shame, were more a Shame-honor culture. For instance, the Fula is said to have to picked death because he would rather die than be put to shame. Malu Ballo is perhaps one of the biggest insults you can heap on someone in Mandinka. Malbalyaa is a complete lack of shame and something you are better off not calling someone. Likewise in Fula, if you tell someone “Ar herrsehtta”, you have seriously insulted them because you just told them they have no shame. You hear the Wolof say Gàche bu reyul semmal. Tell an elder Doy Russ and see how they react. The Bamana saying goes that “if you find a man in trouble, leave him to it for he will figure it out; but if you find a man in shame, get him out of it because otherwise he might die of shame.”
Given the premium that our forefathers placed on shame and honor, I cannot help but wonder when we, this generation of corrupt people, morphed from worrying about the shame we bring to our family and community, to worrying about not getting caught when we transgress?
We are not ashamed of committing wrongs or transgressions; we are only concerned about getting caught. And by transgress I mean, when our hypocrisy is laid bare, or when we steal or help others steal, or engage in corrupt practices? What happened to our pride that would have stopped us from committing wrong against our own people? It seems that for many of us, the fear of punishment is what often stops us from doing bad things; not our value system! What happened to guarding our honor or dignity? Or is it that we have grown so shameless that honor and dignity died along with shame in us?