The Trouble With Tradition

People had been talking about this day for months. Since, the first week of school I had been hearing about this day. People said it was going to be “super” and other people said it would be “great.” I heard it would be a celebration and a day of joy and fun….a day of tradition. And yet I also heard snippets of others joking and saying “it won’t be easy” or “they will give them hard time” or “they will get no rest” or “they will be sure to cry-oooo.” And so we waited and waited, not really knowing what to expect.

The week leading up to it we saw the campus preparing for their arrival. The dorms were cleaned, the streets were swept bare, and the clothes were washed and hung out to dry. Excitement was brewing all around us, but underneath all of the excitement there was also a growing yet unseen fear among some of the students. The day came on March 3, 2017. It started out just like any other day. Everyone woke up, bathed, got dressed, went to classes, and then ate lunch. After lunch though, classes were cancelled and everyone- students, faculty, and even neighborhood children- went to go stand out on the side of the road by the school gate to wait……the seniors were coming.

As we waited for the seniors to arrive on their buses coming from Monrovia, the Juniors took charge and “got everything ready.” They lined the freshmen up in lines…boys in one and girls in the other. Then, they wrote signs on blank pieces of paper for each freshman to tape to the front of their shirts. Other sophomore and junior students had signs saying “welcome seniors” or “to God be the glory” and so I had just assumed that’s what the freshman signs said as well. And then I took a closer look and saw that they said things like “stupid and lazy dog” or “sexy dog” or “bad dog.” That’s when I found out that the freshmen weren’t wearing welcome signs, they were wearing name tags, dog tags to be specific. Then I noticed their belts and the odd way that they were wearing them. Rather than being looped through each hole of their pants they were tied to just the back loop and hanging/dragging down behind them. They were their “tails.” The freshmen were no longer freshmen, they were no longer boys or girls, they were no longer seen as human… they were dogs. And pretty soon, I was about to be reminded of how dogs are treated in this country.

When the buses finally made it to Kakata and drove past the gates of the school the crowds went wild, absolutely wild. The students cheered, the drums banged, and the cymbals clashed. The noise was deafening. The senior students, all dressed up in their new bright red shirts and caps, leaned out the windows of the buses waving as younger students chased after them down the street. The excitement was contagious and I caught myself smiling and thinking about what a nice tradition this was, forgetting temporarily about the dogs and not realizing what might await them when the seniors actually got off the bus and on campus.

As the buses drove on into the city of Kakata for what I will call a “victory lap,” everyone moved back onto campus and assembled on the football field. Then, 10 minutes later the seniors arrived and the place erupted into chaos yet again. Seniors students got off the buses and some of the smarter freshmen students started running the opposite direction but they didn’t get very far. I thought it was a joke, part of a skit that was played out every year, but then I actually looked into the faces of some of them running and there was fear, a real fear in their eyes, and even tears. I looked back toward the crowd and saw some (not all) seniors pushing freshman to the ground and then sitting or standing on top of them for pictures. Often times one foot was placed on the head of the freshman and while they were posing for pictures they pretended to push their heads into the ground. They stood on top of the freshman and posed for pictures that made them look as though they had just conquered some sort of wild animal. Imagine the photos with a hunter standing proudly next to his kill….that’s how it was…except the “kill” was a freshman student being treated like an actual dog. Other seniors made gestures and movements that mimicked animals humping each other, just like animals do when they try to assert dominance over each other. Some of the freshman complied ever so obediently with everything and others ran, but no one really fought back….they were all too humiliated, demoralized, and dehumanized….and they knew there would be retributions later if they did. My stomach was in knots, my mind racing, my heart breaking, my anger boiling.

Thankfully though there were some teachers, administrators, and concerned community women there who were willing to fight back on the children’s behalf. When they saw freshman being taken advantage of they jumped right in and started trying to restore dignity to the freshman by pulling them up of the ground, throwing the seniors off of them, and yelling with a voice so serious, “run.” I don’t know why these women came to campus that day, if they were just passing through or they knew the horrors that awaited the children that day, but I thank God for brave women like them willing to stand up and fight for what is right. Meanwhile, other teachers stood back and did nothing, contributing to the injustice with their inaction.  Still, others though were laughing and discussing with each other about how “it was just tradition, the seniors were only giving back what was given to them three years ago.”

The word tradition stopped me in my tracks. TRADITION. Liberia is a country full of tradition. Most of them are absolutely beautiful and should be cherished and passed down from generation to generation. Like the way they celebrate new life and unions with elaborate naming ceremonies and weddings, or the clothes that they wear, the food that they cook, the songs that they sing, and the way that they hold the family/village/community unit above all else. But this, is this really a tradition? Is this really part of culture as some people have tried to explain to me? Or is this just another spin on the never ending cycle of oppression, of the thirst for power, the need to control, the need to feel respected, the desire to be vindicated. Another example of the brokenness of humanity existent in every culture, in every time period, in every country around the world…

It’s an interesting phenomenon when the slave becomes the master, the oppressed becomes the oppressor, or the abused becomes the abuser… but it’s a phenomenon that has seen itself manifested throughout history in all parts of the world. Liberia being one of the most remarkable examples. Did you know that Liberia was a country created by freed slaves from the United States? Did you know that many of those same people who came to Liberia in pursuit of freedom and an escape from their former oppressors then become the oppressors and even slave traders themselves? How is this even possible? Why is the cycle of oppression so strong? How can we break it? Who will break it?

In “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” Paulo Freire writes about this complicated cycle of oppression and talks about how unfortunately the oppressed, even though they may hate/fear/resent their oppressors, they eventually end up becoming oppressors because to them, based on their experiences, to be “a man” or ”human” or to be “someone who has made it” or “respected” is associated with oppression and so those are the actions they take as well to show others that they are serious, or powerful, or worthy…of love, respect, attention. Also, the idea of paying back what was given to them rings true in many situations of oppression. But how can they turn around and oppress the same exact people that they were oppressed with, don’t all the oppressed share some sort of special bond? One might think, but no. As Freire explains, the oppressed have only known a life of oppression and therefore their identity is more intrinsically linked to their oppressors as objects of oppression rather than as actual human beings…. people who have the capacity to build relationships and form bonds with their fellow oppressed people. This is how then the idea of any sympathy that the once oppressed may have had toward their fellow oppressed, is suppressed underneath the even stronger desire for retribution, desire for power, recognition, a chance to feel “human” themselves rather than an object of someone else’s oppression. But the truth is, it is not just the oppressed who have been robbed of their humanity (human identity, humanness) through the act of oppression; the oppressors themselves have also been robbed of their humanity. Neither to be oppressed nor to oppress others was in the plan when God created mankind. And yet, sin has tangled up the once beautiful masterpiece that God created in the beginning and now oppression is only evidence of our brokenness.

But thankfully, someone stepped in for us on our behalf just like those strong Liberian women stepped in on behalf the freshman students to break the cycle. It made no sense, Jesus himself was beaten, rejected, turned away, cast aside, taken advantage of and certainly oppressed. And yet, despite the power that He possessed and definite justification to be able to punish and pay back all the wrongs that were done to him, he did something to break the cycle. Something counter intuitive. He did not payback all the wrongs done to him or cling tight to the injustices, allowing them to shape Him or His choices; instead He forgave and wiped the slate clean and broke the cycle of oppression with a selfless act of sacrifice, of true leadership, of authentic love. And in doing so, He restored humanity to the world. He showed us by His example how to break the cycle. So instead of there being a cycle of oppression characterized by the tradition of paying back what was done to you or as the Old Testament preaches “an eye for an eye,” there was freedom. A tradition of freedom to truly embrace our humanity as children of God, which enabled us all to be able to love others in a new and radical way, unconditionally and completely without reservations, without worrying if everything was “fair” because it never will be in a broken world. Once we find our identify in God, it gives us the freedom to break the cycle of oppression ourselves because we no longer feel the need to become like our oppressors, we feel the need to become more like God and extend love and restore humanity back to our world.

In the moment of chaos, it felt that all hope was lost for this campus. But I know that there are more people out there like those brave women who were able to step in and turn the tables of what “should be” and bring in instead this radical idea of what “could be.” What could this campus look like if the seniors stopped “suffering” the freshmen (as they call it)? What could it look like to extend grace and pass down a tradition of love rather than oppression? What could it look like if new traditions were created, ones where we build others up rather than tear others down in our scramble to the top of the pyramid? What could it look like to break the cycle? To start a new tradition?

After witnessing the abuse, one of my extremely self-aware, compassionate, and intelligent junior students said that when he has a child he will not send him/her here because he fears for how he/she will be treated (especially if he has a daughter). That statement broke my heart but, I know that tradition can change…things can change and they can change with him…next year when he himself is a senior.

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