The Nuances of Culture

Meet Nifemi, SLE Director of Fellowship and Training.

“Once fermented, the Palmyra tree-sap extract becomes a sweet alcoholic drink,” I explain, while asking myself whether awkward hand gestures are a worthwhile demonstration anymore.

tumblr_inline_n8jy5y85161s7s0qt“Served cold and in bowls carved from the dried shells of gourd fruits, Palm Wine is as popular an alcoholic beverage in Nigeria as Terrano is here in Trieste.”

At these closing words, I look around the room only to be met with faces contorted in confusion. I throw a desperate glance at my translator who, also slightly bemused, does her best to communicate my English words to a room of Italian monolinguals. Her translation is met with an all too familiar response– hesitant head-nodding complemented by slight eye-squinting to express complete lack of understanding. Clearly, my presentation on alcoholic beverages intrinsic to particular Nigerian cultural festivities hadn’t gone as well as I would’ve hoped.

This presentation was part of my multicultural social service program at United World College of the Adriatic, Italy – an international high school that prides itself on a paradigm of social, cultural and ethnic representation in an environment of academic intensity and diversity. As I stepped down from the podium and quietly took my seat, I wondered whether my presentation would have gone any differently if perhaps I had been fluent enough to present it in Italian. But even then, a certain degree of relevance and cultural nuance would have been lost in the process of forcing Nigerian concepts into the foreign skin of a Latinate language.

What if we all spoke Nigerian languages, like Igbo or Hausa or Yoruba? The possibility buzzed around in my head for a fleeting moment before being swatted away by doubts and supposed harsh realities. Which non-Nigerian would want to learn a Nigerian language anyway? Even if you had some interest in a Nigerian language, what resources are readily available to teach such languages?

By the end of my two years in Italy, UWC had imparted in me a perspective that appreciated culture for its uniqueness; I saw that cultural understanding was as an important an endeavor as any. However, understanding why uniqueness and diversity should be appreciated is very different from striving to represent and interact with different cultures. Unfortunately, a chasm currently exists that separates such an ideal from practical methods that enthuse interest in different cultures.

Cue the Student Language Exchange. My freshman year at Brown University saw me working together with like-minded individuals to address the growing problem of shrinking relative interest in underrepresented cultures and languages. With SLE, I saw myself taking steps towards effective change; I found a special place in an organization that strives for cultural representation, fosters intercultural interaction and piques interest in language diversity.

SLE places emphasis not on the exoticness of non-mainstream means of communication, but on the inherent value of the culture behind otherwise shunned languages.

 


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Nifemi is a Nigerian student at Brown University currently concentrating in computer science. First and foremost an avid chocolate enthusiast, Nifemi also writes spoken word poetry in his free time & would love to travel to Nepal some time soon.