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About the Author

Robert Stefanicki
Journalist (Warsaw, Poland)

Old salt international affairs writer. At present freelance (looking for a job!), most of his professional life worked for the largest daily in Poland. Focused on Asia and Middle East, where witnessed some dirty wars, now more and more interested in development and other global issues. In collusion with Institute of Global Responsibility, our new and fast growing NGO. Self made photographer (see my website), scuba diver, sailor, cyclist and movie addict.

Post

Bambo, the little *****

Published 09th May 2010 - 19 comments - 7353 views -

Last night I came upon „Cultural Tips” at the website of DHL (world-wide mail service). This is a treasure-house of knowledge: dozens of countries in one-paragraph nutshells.

For example, what you need to know about Poland is that “coffee is in very short supply, so unless it is served, don't ask for it”. Another key wisdom: “When a Pole flicks his finger against his neck, he is inviting you to join him for a drink of vodka”.

If anyone of you, driven by compassion, rushed to the kitchen with an intention to send me a pack of coffee – please stop. Be sure we have plenty of coffee and if I deny you 7th cup it will be only out of concern about your health. Neither anybody here will invite you for a drink flicking a finger against his neck.

DHL tips are copied form popular guidebooks (the list of sources is provided). We can find out that “Peruvians are strong willed and nationalistic”; in Slovakia “visitors should not overly admire anything in the home since the item might be given to them, even if it is a family heirloom”; Swedes answer the phone by giving either their last name or phone number (hey, Daniel, do you answer by saying “43488577781”?); Albanians “often move their hands and heads when conversing” (anything unusual here?); in Iceland “it is considered bad form to discuss the weather” and, interestingly, ”tipping is not allowed”.

No word about Kazakhstan, but after all anyone can download “Borat”.

***

Martina’s post (worth reading, if you haven’t yet) was an attempt to the deal with a problem of stereotyping in a scientific way. My, a country boy, attitude here will be somewhat different, I’d call it common sense. Let me question the need of fighting the stereotypes at any time and circumstances – the backlash caused by this holy war may do more harm than good.

Referring to God as he/she/it, as requested by radical Christian feminism, is a classic example, but I want to present another one, from my own yard.

You may know that 1939 Agatha Christie’s novel “Ten Little Niggers” (a title based on old nursery rhyme) has been renamed in America to a mouthful “And Then There Were None” for reasons of political and ethnic sensitivity. In Poland we have similar controversy around a children poem titled “Bambo, the Little Negro”, written 53 years ago by our famous poet Julian Tuwim. The poem was included in a spelling-book and virtually everyone from my generation knows it well.

Bambo is a 10 year old African presented as studious, but after coming home he is mischievous. When his mom ask him to drink his milk, he climbs a tree, and when his mom asks him to take a bath, he is afraid he will turn white... All in all, to me Bambo seems cool dude.

You should be aware that a word “negro” (murzyn) has a neutral connotation in Polish. More: the poem was written with the intention of bringing dark-skinned people closer to kids’ attention and understanding, in accordance with a communist egalitarian policy.

But today the Africans – at least some of them – feel stereotyped and offended. – You learn this from generation to generation. No surprise when Polish kid sees African on the street calls him “Negro Bambo!” – says Mamadou Diouf, Senegalese living in Poland for 20 years.

Now, many Poles were taken aback and angry by attacks on their childhood rhymes.I am free from racism – says blogger Mlodamatkain a sense that I don’t feel the need to prove I am not racist. In our country law was not discriminatory to any skin color, like in US till the 60s. We don’t have to apologize and change poem’s title to “African Bambo”.

***

I don’t feel offended by DHL’s “Cultural Tips” on Poland. I believe the author of this nonsense ridiculed nobody but himself. The company should alter the content for sake of its reputation, not my feelings.

But what if someone still feels offended by “Bambo”? Perhaps 20 years stay in a foreign country is not enough to fully understand some cultural nuances. Perhaps it is a matter of sensitivity... My common sense tells me to ignore such complaints, but my sensitiveness to cultural differences – not to.

I agree that Africans should not be pictured as scant-clothed banana eaters climbing the trees (but let’s not deny them right to eat bananas and climb palms). Early education is an answer. Above mentioned Mamadou Diouf animated publication of a guidebook for teachers and parents “How to tell children about Africa” (I haven’t found anything like this in English, please notify me if you do).

This is an excellent idea. Plant new trees, but don’t cut old ones. The old poems, books and movies should be left in peace, as the evidence of the times.


Category: Education | Tags: africa, africa, poetry, stereotypes,


Comments

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 09th May 2010:

    Robert, interesting ideas!

    As for the cultural tips of DHL, yeah well the person who wrote them just made a fool of him/herself, but why would a company as big and I believe proud of itself publish this kind of material? They say Lithuanians are reserved and sincere. Some are, some aren’t, so this “information” is misleading anyways.

    I couldn’t read “How to tell children about Africa” as I don’t speak Polish, and therefore can’t comment on this initiative properly, unfortunately. I agree with you that old stuff should be left in peace, but at the same time it should be acknowledged that times have changed and what was acceptable some time ago might not be now.

    In my uni, I have a module on Race Relations in the US. Most of the books on slavery, civil rights and the African American experience put it in their introductory chapters that terms are used interchangeably, depending on the source quoted, and that’s how words like Negro make it to contemporary historical accounts. It doesn’t suggest that if the word was used 50 years ago it should still be valid now, it only means that a certain citation wasn’t changed in order to preserve some kind of accuracy. Therefore, Mlodamatka doesn’t have to apologize for the name of the poem, but we have to understand how images like these form our perceptions and influence our thinking, followed by behaviour.


  • Andrea Arzaba on 09th May 2010:

    Interesting post Robert!

    Stereotypes… we always have to be careful with the terms we use, but concerning to this poem, “negro” might be only a descriptive word. In Spanish the word negro is also descriptive, not an offense. It always depends on the language, and the intention of course


  • Johan Knols on 10th May 2010:

    Hi Robert,

    White people in parts of Southern Africa are called ‘lekgowa’. From the explanation on Wikipedia - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lekgoa - you can see that this is not a charming title.

    However, I am under the very firm believe that a word gets a negative meaning if the person in question sees himself as that word.

    Maybe I developed a skin like an elephant, but I was never offended by the word lekgowa, as I had a feeling it had nothing to do with me. That is why I can never understand that Africans get offended when being seen as banana eating monkeys climbing trees, because they don’t do that.

    Get my point?


  • Robert Stefanicki on 10th May 2010:

    @Giedre: Interesting… Anyway there is a limited comparison between US, a country marked with slavery trauma, and nations with very different history. The title “Ten Little Negros” have not been altered in many countries of the world up to day. And the fact that American blacks are now calling themselves “niggers” is a chuckle of history…

    @Andrea: Languages are full of mischievous traps. A have read somewhere that a word “madre” (mother) is insulting in Mexico, but I forgot to check it. Is it?

    @Johan: If you are not lekgoa, you are not offended, clear. But if you know you are lekgoa - why would you be offended either? They said truth!


  • Pierre-Anthony Canovas on 10th May 2010:

    Nice post Robert. I had fun looking at the tips about France, the wine…etc. A bit sterotipical to me. Have you seen the 2000 Spike Lee’s movie Bamboozle? It is an excellent one and deals with the “negro” word issue. I strongly recommand you:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMZ6zp-3oGY&feature=related


  • Hemant Jain on 10th May 2010:

    I agree that Africans should not be pictured as scant-clothed banana eaters climbing the trees (but let’s not deny them right to eat bananas and climb palms).
    Excellent!
    btw I would like to add that India is not just elephants and snake charmers. smile
    Well, Nokia has made a new advert which shows people from around the world travelling in their quirky modes of transport. And the Indian segment is, guess, with an elephant!
    I used to work the London agency which handles Nokia. I don’t think they ever understood, or may I add, wanted to understand, or, may I presume had the IQ to understand that cultures can be different. And sometimes we may need to redefine the very concept of knowledge to understand different cultures.
    You can’t measure everything with the same scale.
    Or that’s what I think at least.


  • Robert Stefanicki on 10th May 2010:

    @Hemant: I remember CNN advertisement series “Incredible India”, where elephant is ever-present fellow. And these ads, as far as I know, were ordered and paid by the Indian government, so what you want from Nokia? One difficulty in fighting stereotypes is they are (usually) partly true: after all there are elephants in India, cowboys in the USA, frog-eaters in France and pedophiles in Belgium.


  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 10th May 2010:

    Haha. It is actually true that many Swedes answer with saying their phone number smile ADN I remember calling somoene abroad who answered with “yes” only, which was a little annoying wink

    The DHL guide is quite entertaining as a jok, I think.

    I really get your point. I think Sweden is one of the countries where this crusade against prejudices has been taken to extremes. Just the thought of haveing a cartoon called “Bambo the little negro” would be both politically and comercially impossible.

    But this “crusade” has its own historical reasons in the identity politics of the 70’s and 80’s, and I don’t really see how you can stop it. Somehow the political correct language has become the consensus between the left and the right that brought us out of the political stalemate in the 60’s. We would need to replace it with a different consensus - then maybe we can relax.


  • Robert Stefanicki on 10th May 2010:

    @Daniel: I know what you mean after reading a few articles about political correctness at Swedish universities by Maciej Zaremba, a Polish journalist working for “Dagens Nyheter”. Absolutely hair-rising. Teachers are intimidated and students who claim to represent any “minority” are kings, like during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.


  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 10th May 2010:

    smile I didn’t know that Zaremba is known also in Poland, but he is one of the Swedish writers I really, really like. I know he is born in Poland, but is he also writing in Polish, or is he translated?

    The situation with minorities in schools is komplex. As a teacher I have never felt intimidated myself, but I guess that depends on many things, especially on how big the minority groups are on a certain school.


  • Andrea Arzaba on 10th May 2010:

    @Robert: the word MADRE means MOTHER in Spanish. It has A LOT OF meanings in MEXICO… here are some examples:

    - A toma madre: When you want to say something is awesome…
    - Qué poca madre: That means “that’s lame”
    - Chinga tu madre: well that is a bad word haha and yes it is VERY rude


  • Robert Stefanicki on 10th May 2010:

    @Daniel: He is translated. Seems you mean minority like gang of Latinos with knifes, really scary, but I meant something like “bi-sexual Polynesian female piercer” (one-member minority) complaining she feels persecuted by bad mark at math lesson.

    @Andrea: Muchas gracias, the last one I know smile Anyway, better not to use this terrible word. I’m afraid to ask about “padre”.


  • Daniel Nylin Nilsson on 10th May 2010:

    Yes, I have read the article in Swedish now, and I see that I misinterpreted it a little. He has a very good point.


  • Hemant Jain on 10th May 2010:

    @Robert smile
    You are right.


  • Andrea Arzaba on 10th May 2010:

    @RObert: Hahah okay and about PADRE (which means “father” in Spanish)...well it is funny you ask because this is a very mexican expression “Esta muy padre” and it means “That is awesome!!” or “That is great” smile


  • Helena Goldon on 10th May 2010:

    Ha! It was so funny seeing the picture from the Tuwim’s cover of “Bambo, the Little *****” wink on the main page! Well done, Robert, good you mentioned this smile


  • Aija Vanaga on 12th May 2010:

    This is a really good post from stereotipic comparison. Just like it!


  • Sylwia Presley on 25th July 2010:

    Very interesting ideas! And great links!


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