"Cenedl heb iaith yw cenedl heb galon"*
Reading Sophy's post on creating a Culture for a Healthy World prompted me to think on what the prerequisites would be to create such a culture on a nationwide basis, as here in Wales, culture is a very hot topic. You cannot live in Wales for any length of time and not be aware of the deep cultural wounds this country has suffered under the occupation of the English. These hurts turn out to be, time and again, big obstacles in the path of Transition. The number of native Welsh speakers that come to our events can be counted on one hand, despite all the bilingual posters and leaflets. There's plenty of Welsh activists, but they are rather too busy with preserving and promoting the Welsh culture and campaigning for an independent Wales to be concerning themselves with yet another English incomer thing, such as the Transition Movement.
It is more than twenty years ago that I arrived in the green valleys of Wales. I've lived here longer than in my home country of Belgium. I got married to a Welshman and both my kids were born here, but I will always remain an outsider or dynes dieithr. In Wales, you do not belong until you can trace your family back at least three generations living upon Welsh soil. But you know, I'm ok with that. I'm just grateful to be living in such a beautiful place and hope that one day I might be able to show my gratitude in more than words and give something back somehow.
It is not that Welsh people are unfriendly, far from. But there is a certain guardedness, a sideways glance from dark eyes under bushy eyebrows and polite words spoken in a soft, gentle voice: "So you like it here?" These words have an edge as sharp as the local grey slate. I still remember how shocked and hurt I felt by the reaction of a little old lady in Dinas Mawddwy when I expressed my desire to learn the language. "Welsh is for the Welsh and even if you learn it, I will not speak it with you!" It was said kindly, with a smile, while I was having a panad (cup of tea) with her, in her front room. This, fortunately, is not a common attitude, but it is an understandable one. It is the response of an invaded people, who are having to fight to keep their language and culture alive to this day. Welsh might now be the first language in all but a few primary schools across the Welsh speaking parts of Wales, but to achieve that took quite a struggle. We need to look at history in order to understand the present:
In 1847 a parliamentary report was published which concluded that education in Wales was at best inadequate, that the Welsh were ignorant, lazy and immoral and that the the main causes were the widespread use of the Welsh language and Nonconformism.
The report states:
"The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people".
This resulted in a furious reaction in Wales, culminating in the book-long response of the bard Robert Jones Derfel "Brad y llyfrau gleision" or "The treachery of the Blue Books", but the primary education of Welsh children was from then on conducted in English.
In some schools the cruel practice of the "Welsh Not" humiliated and punished children overheard speaking their native language. I cannot begin to imagine the impact this must have had on this proud nation of bards and poets. And it wasn't just the Welsh language that was targeted. My husband remembers how his dad told him of his great grandfather, who used to walk up a hill to where a large boulder lay and with his Nonconformist congregation would have visions of angels. All over the hills around here you can find these boulders, most them broken in half or destroyed by dynamite, where the Anglican clergy took offence at the "pagan" practices of the Welsh Nonconformist Chapels.
Cultural genocide sadly still takes place all over the world. It happens by denying people their language, their ethnic identities, their religion. It happens by systematic rape and by forceful removal from ancestral lands. It happens by mass immigration of members of the occupying nations and by dismissal of the native cultural values as "inferior". As long as this goes on, peace is not possible. And even when the wrongs are in the past, it is rare to see any statements of culpability, of regret and apology, even rarer still to see any compensation being made available to those who have been wronged. Yet that is where healing starts. Many Welsh people still see themselves as a Socialist country under English Tory occupation. The Welsh Independence Movement has certainly been given new hope by the Welsh referendum last spring and recent developments in Scotland. I think nothing short of independence and a profound apology from the English monarch will bring some form of closure and allow this nation to move forward.
In South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission uses a form of restorative justice to address the deep divides between blacks and whites, the Jewish people were able to bring some of the worst perpetrators of Nazi war crimes to justice during the Nuremberg Trials and after many years of denial, the Australian government has now apologised to all Aborigines for the suffering caused by the theft of thousands of their children. These actions are not quick fixes, some are insufficient by themselves, but can be seen as a start. It will still take many years, even generations to heal the wounds. But it does appear that by first acknowledging the injustices that have occurred and offering an apology the process can start and that it is hard to make any kind of progress until this has happened.
In Transition training, we advise those who wish to bring transition forward in their communities, to find out which issues are alive in that community and then see if those can be incorporated in the journey. Maybe it is now time for the Transition Movement in Wales to speak out in favour of Welsh Independence and thus put itself where the people are. We cannot continue to operate in a vacuum as if politics don't exist, when it is clear that without questioning the political situation in Wales, we are merely re-arranging deckchairs. It would have been as if some well meaning people in South Africa had tried to create equality without addressing Apartheid. As the majority of transitionistas in Wales are English incomers, this might prove to be a difficult and humbling process, especially because of the lack of awareness regarding the strength of Welsh sentiment. Sure, it would set us apart from the Transition movement in England, where the choice has been made not to engage in politics. But as the world economic situation continues to worsen and the British conservative government seems to relish the opportunity to use the ongoing crisis to push through some seriously regressive, ideologically motivated policies determined to make the poorest bear the biggest burden, at which point do we show our colours? When we lose our libraries, our Sure Start playgroups and youth clubs, when the quality of education and health provision depends on how much you can pay, when pensions shrink and unemployment grows and all the while the fat cats purr in their tax havens, at which point do we draw a line? In Wales, we do not need to suffer this downhill slide. Never in a month of Sundays will the conservatives gain enough votes in an independent Wales to be more than a fringe party. We owe it to the memory of people like Aneurin Bevan, who's vision gave us the NHS, not to allow it to be dismantled in his home country.
With time now running out, we haven't got 10 or 20 years, this is the 11th hour and we desperately need to gather more momentum if we hope to create the necessary resilience to weather the storms we can now see brewing on the horizon. Let's get organised!
* "A nation without a language is a nation without a heart."