The Young Scholars on the Silk Roads interview series seeks to empower young people, by giving youth a platform from which to transmit their voices. Via this series young scholars hailing from different countries across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia will be interviewed to share their research and reflections on the ancient Silk Roads.
Lema is from Benin and is a Yenching scholar of Peking University in Beijing, China, where he studies International Relations. He did his undergraduate studies in Turkey, and has interned and studied in Greece and Poland with the support of the European Union Commission.
What do the Silk Roads mean to you?
Lema: They first and foremost remind me of my history classes during my undergraduate degree, especially a course entitled “History of Civilizations”. My first full exposure to the history of the Silk Roads started with the book “Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past”. The authors describe the Silk Roads as the land and sea routes connecting the Far East with the Middle East and North Africa, East Africa, and Southern Europe. To me, the Silk Roads are ultimately routes of diversity, dialogue, exchange, and connectivity.
People tend to view the Silk Roads as purely Eurasian, what are your thoughts on this?
This is where the Traditions & Encounters book made a lasting impression on me, primarily due to its balanced perspective on history and historical development. Where many scholars and practitioners overlook the African continent in discussing the Silk Roads, this book recognizes the central role the continent played from the South (Kenya and Mozambique) to the North (Sudan and Egypt). This historical reality underscores the centrality of the role these Routes played across Africa in the exchanges of ideas, religions, cultures, and even diseases.
What is the legacy of the Silk Roads today in Benin? And, forgive me for generalizing, more widely across Africa?
It is probably impossible to establish a direct relation between the Silk Roads and Benin. Madagascar, with its complex and diverse social fabrics perhaps best epitomizes not only the historical exchanges and connectivity brought about by these routes, but also their legacy in contemporary Africa and the world.
In addition to religions and ideas, for instance, spices traded along the ancient Silk Roads are still largely used in African cuisines today, for example African pepper or Moor pepper. Even more popular Silk Road spices today in Africa is what is known as the Grains of Paradise or Melegueta pepper, which originated in West Africa, and is still an important cash crop in Southern Africa, for instance in Ethiopia.
And beyond Africa, globally do you think the Silk Roads hold value today?
Understood as a means through which diversity, dialogue, and exchange can take place through connectivity, there is no doubt that the Silk Roads can, and indeed should, still hold significant value in bringing people together. Our world might seem more inter-connected today than ever before, but it is still lacking in direct interactions and better exchanges, to which the Silk Roads might hold the secret.
How do you understand the concept common cultural heritage?
Although there are many competing definitions and theories of cultural heritage, two types of heritage are generally agreed upon, tangible and intangible. The Silk Roads illustrate, that because of constant exchanges, it is difficult to talk about cultural heritage without acknowledging the ways in which it is shaped by ongoing cross-cultural interactions.
And what about your take on “Intercultural dialogue”?
Perhaps, I’m a living intercultural dialoguer? I was born Peul, or Fulani, but grew up speaking five local and regional languages in Africa. However, intercultural dialogue goes beyond this, as I came to realize during the time I spent in Turkey, Greece, Poland, and then China. Like any dialogue, intercultural dialogue requires the ability to listen without judgement, challenge others and oneself without bias, and recognize and be sensitive to differences. This is where languages, as a means of exchange, play an important role.
Tell us a little bit more about your experiences in these countries! I’m sure they left a deep impression on you.
Well, I find a very striking similarity between Turkey and China in the way both countries ‘open’ to you more as a foreigner as soon as you start to express yourself with just the basics in the national language. A simple example would be with taxi drivers in both countries, where one is more likely to enjoy the rides by being able to hold basic conversations. The same thing usually happens with shopkeepers! This shows how central language is in daily life in these two countries, especially in terms of breaking barriers with local people. In terms of common heritage, I visited Xi’an last year, one of the start and end points of the Silk Roads and I saw many similarities there to my experiences in Turkey.