Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Bob Geldof: How to retire gracefully

As my wife commented when I sent her this piece apropos of our discussions about how contact with the West must change the perceptual and not only the material reality of isolated tribes-- well, Bob Geldof never was much of a musician. I commented more of an entertainer-- if you count how he named his kids-- or perhaps an organizer who had visions and rallied others to help him make them come true. And I admire Sir Bob's classy retirement from showbiz into public service. Which has its perks, as this photo of him with Birhan shows via SudanWatch. He may be a preening prat, but he's smarter than the average idol these demotic days. Pity more rock stars and athletes and celebs can't find such outlets for their abundant post-publicity tour leisure time. Did you know his family came from Belgium to Dublin where they run (ran?) a fine restaurant way back when I suppose that trans-Channel stretch was about as long a leap to as exotic a cuisine as you could find near the mouth of the Liffey? (By the way, I must read Mark Abley's book on disappearing languages. I have it on the shelf.)

Bob's big book of many tongues

Present Tense: On the northern coast of Australia, in a remote land near the Timor Sea, live the last two native speakers of the language of the Mati Ke tribe. Patrick and Agatha are brother and sister, and their language is structured in a way quite different from ours. Objects are arranged into one of 10 noun classes. Weapons, for instance, are in the same class as lightning. Space and time go together. Apparently it's really something to hear. But it is rarely heard, because Patrick and Agatha do not speak to each other. Haven't done for 50 years.

Their tribe's customs forbid communication between a brother and sister after puberty. And they will go to their deaths, and maybe that of their language, without so much as uttering the Mati Ke word for "goodbye".
Which is a shame, because they might have had something big to talk about this week. Bob Geldof is coming.

He wants to build a "Dictionary of Man", a catalogue of the human race; to record "all those sounds, voices and jokes so they never disappear again". Given that a Mati Ke "knock knock" joke mightn't have been told in decades, if he gets the chance to deliver one you really hope Patrick doesn't fluff the punchline.

Of course, Geldof himself won't come loping over the creek with a tape recorder. Instead, camera crews will set about attempting to record the core ethnic groups and tens of thousands of tribal offshoots. It'll all go towards a BBC series and a website that will form "an immense digital catalogue of all current human existence and an enormous resource for the exchange of ideas and information".

The idea, Geldof says, came to him 20 years ago, as he sat on a tree stump in northern Niger, and was told that more than 300 languages had disappeared in just two years during the famine there. "I thought, why don't we compile a record of every single culture that exists?" The theory is that only by cataloguing them can we know what's being lost. But there will then be the question of what to do when we have the information. Because this record will be compiled during a time when cultures are not only winking out of existence, but when concerns are being raised over the "civilised" world's patronage of tribes.

With a romanticising of tribal cultures comes the danger that, as we learn more about their cultures, we'll seek to preserve them in aspic and stem their development; that we'll admire their purity and view any pollution of this as a tainting of the planet's cultural pool.

On its website, Survival International, one of the organisations that works on behalf of tribal peoples across the world, answers the question of whether it believes that tribes should "stay as they are". It says: "Survival has no opinion about how tribal peoples should be in the future - it believes they should be allowed to decide for themselves. Survival believes that tribal peoples - like all peoples - have always adapted to changing circumstances, and will continue to do so." Bruce Parry's excellent BBC series, Tribe - in which the former British marine instructor spends a month in various communities - explores the astonishing complexity of their traditions, and the dangers of them being subsumed within more dominant cultures. There are similar programmes scattered across the channels, even if none is quite so absorbing - and absorbed - as Parry's. And with each, there is never anything more jarring than for a camera crew to make its way slowly to some remote tribe, only to find the kids running around in Manchester United jerseys.

But Parry's series also shows that tribal cultures have practices that can be considered barbaric in any community. That they kill and maim and circumcise - and in one case cannibalise - in the name of tradition. And in doing so, it raises the notion that not every aspect of an endangered culture is worth saving.

The Dictionary of Man will be a vital resource. It should reveal mankind's diversity, and harden the realisation that languages and customs are dying out just as quickly - if not more quickly - than the planet's species. It may bring us to the idea that the next great extinction on earth could be a cultural one.

But it may inadvertently serve as a new bible for the modern West's mission not to "civilise" but to preserve other cultures. And if we are going to catalogue the planet's tribes, it's worth debating what we're going to do with the information once we have it.

As for the language of the Mati Ke, it will cling on through at least one student (a nephew of Patrick's), and in books, such as Mark Abley's Spoken Here, from which its story is taken.

And a "Dictionary of Man" is already being slowly, haphazardly written, across the various media. Much of it, of course, is on Wikipedia, whose Wiktionary includes three words of Mati Ke. A marri is a type of cockroach, a wayelh a type of lizard and mi warzu is the fruit of a peanut tree.

No knock knock jokes, though.

© 2007 The Irish Times (21 April) via

{My P.S.: The BBC concludes its introduction of Dictionary of Man in a 17 April press release: Geldof's Ten Alps media group will also provide the administrative and infrastructural backup for the Dictionary of Man. Ten Alps CEO, Alex Connock, said, "This is a fantastic, hugely ambitious project on a scale that only Bob Geldof would contemplate. Ten Alps is delighted to be part of it and support it in every way possible."}

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