Friday, December 15, 2006

Black Africans and Fear: The Fear of Fear is the Beginning of Wisdom in the Sub-Sands.

A black African newborn is probably one of the most courageous human beings in the world. He has overcome all the possible odds in his nine months of uterine life to see the light of the day. Even the process of his birth is a major feat that if transposed on any adult-life challenge, will require the most courageous adult to surmount the odds and live to tell the story. The newborn is born with in-built survival mechanisms. Having overcome all the odds of intra-uterine life and the perilous process of his birth, he comes into the world, endowed with an innate ability to overcome fears and to surmount the comparatively less challenging odds of life. However, his instinct to survive and live well soon becomes captive of the acquired fears of his environment. The family and the society teach him that the fear of fear is the beginning of wisdom. He is immediately constrained by family and community taboos, founded on their fear of the known and the unknown. He inherits, and is soon held captive by internally generated fears which include cultural fears, fear of the environment and the elements, religious fears, institutional fears, distrust and fear of others, and to this list, he learns to add his own individual fears. Paradoxically, the only thing that he is taught not to fear is time; the only thing that really puts his existence at peril. He soon learns that a village hill is “sacred” and cannot be climbed because of “evil spirits” on top of the hill; or that a river passing at the edge of the village must be worshipped and sacrifices must be made to appease it in order to continue to flow or not to flood the village. The list of fear induced-taboos is endless, and a fearless child soon becomes a captive of fear like his forerunners. These fear-induced taboos define the philosophy of life of the community. Courage is redefined within the limits of community-imposed taboos and is premised only on ensuring basic survival. The community (deliberately or unconsciously) does not recognise, or chooses to ignore the rights of the individual to challenge these taboos, a feat that may improve the quality of his life and by proxy bring positive changes to the community. The community sets the limits of challenge and courage, and its members are obliged to conform.
Sometimes, these fears are not unfounded. In some instances, they are predicated on lived experience, and in other cases, a small group of people introduced these fears as community-control tools in order to protect the interests of the group. However, whatever may be the origin of these fears, they become sacrosanct with time, and constitute a way of life of the community in the name of culture and tradition. Any member of the community that challenges the “sacredness” of these fears either is considered “mad” or becomes an untouchable outcast. In certain cases, sentences of mysterious punishments and maledictions, including death (often helped by human hands) hang over anyone who attempts to demystify or challenge these fear-induced taboos. Ironically, these fear-induced taboos only apply to members of the society of origin; it does not apply to foreigners who for one reason or the other have come to temporarily reside in this society. It is not an uncommon sight in Africa that so-called strict all-male cults from which the local women are excluded at the pain of death are rolled out as “cultural activities” to visiting women from other cultures. Moreover, there is no cult too important or so sacred that the African will not roll out to foreign journalists and visitors irrespective of their sex. These internally generated fears and their taboo appendages only serve to repress creative challenges that can improve the quality of life of the local people. Rather than evolve to match the exigencies of the fast-changing world, these fears are caste in iron. The power-cabal among the Africans, afraid of losing their hold on the people, keeps the centuries-old flame of fear alive among the people. It is interesting to note that western education has no influence whatsoever on this kind of self-induced phobia. Many Black Africans living outside the shores of Africa make annual trips back to their villages of origin to “celebrate” these fears. And many that live in other parts (away from “home”, even if less than a hundred kilometres) of the geographical entity called their “country” also make the annual trip back home to reaffirm their commitments to stay within the limits of age-old fears. This is not an attempt to discredit or demystify peoples’ cultures and traditions. All human beings have the right to develop and keep their culture, but when any culture or tradition fails to evolve and visibly handicaps the development of the people, then, it should come under question. Fear and its taboo mate kill creative mind-liberating curiosity and inhibit the natural human instinct to invent ways to overcome adversity. A fear-afflicted society lives with “what” and its consequences; fear (and the continuous reengineering of it by certain interest groups) does not permit, and in many cases forbids the members of the society to ask “why” and “how”.
Internally generated fears, as already argued become venerated taboos. An example of this kind of fear-induced taboo is found in a still-existing chiefdom in a mountainous African country. The chiefs whose homes or palaces are situated on top of the mountains are forbidden by tradition to descend the mountain. They cannot visit their subjects that live in the valleys and on the plains. According to “tradition”, any chief that flouts this tradition will die. Everyone believed and still believes without asking questions. Why would a king, a mortal like any of his subjects die if he came down from his mountain home? What will kill him? A supernatural cause or a man-assisted “supernatural” cause? The “what” and its consequence became the tradition and no one ever bothered to ask “why” or “how”. The system of governance (and any development it could have brought about) was hampered by this taboo for centuries. It was eventually found out that the people living on top of the mountains, including the chief himself had no exposure-induced natural immunity to malaria because there were no mosquitoes, hence malaria at the altitude where they lived. Thus, if they came down to the plains, which had many mosquitoes and caught malaria, the course of the disease was more fulminant than in the inhabitants of the plains and invariably ended in death of the victim. Someone else deciphered the “why”. In spite of this knowledge, and the availability of malarial prophylaxis, people still hold on dearly to this “tradition”.
The other group of fears, into which the African child is born, has its roots in the collective experience of Africans in their relationship with the outside world. This group of fears self-multiplies and self-sustains. Both the local power-cabal and their people are at the mercy of these fears. This group of externally generated fears includes the elements, diseases (like malaria), pernicious exploitation (including slavery, colonialism, and neo-colonialism) by people from other cultures and imported religions. These fears are characterised by their uncanny ability to self-propagate exponentially in a society already weakened by its internally generated fears. As is the case with fear-induced taboos, the “what” and the consequences of these fears are the only considered factors. The people, heavily burdened by their own internally generated fears do not even have the energy to question the “why” and “how” of the externally induced fears. It is impossible to produce a response to overcome any source of fear if the “how” and “why” are not put under scrutiny. The African society has suffered and continues to suffer from this error. Sub-Sahara Africa has paid and continues to pay dearly with the lives of its citizens, its resources, and will possibly pay with its future for this oversight.
The obsession with “what” and a complete disregard of “why” and “how” in the face of adversity can be illustrated with events that occurred during the three-hundred years of transatlantic slavery to which sub-Sahara Africa was subjected. We will look at one of the methods by which people were caught and sold off, and we will analyse the reaction of the African society to this method. One favourite method of slave catchers was to set fire to the thatched houses in the village under siege. People rushed out of their houses and were rounded up by the slave catchers, bound in chains, and matched to the coast to be sold to their European clients. In some instances, the slave catchers painted themselves in chalk to acquire grotesque appearance, which served to immobilise (with fear!) those who had rushed out of their burning huts and to facilitate rounding them up. This method, among others was used for nearly three hundred years. In a society not imbued with fear, one would expect that the people would take measures to construct not-easily-flammable houses; that they would direct their mental and natural resources at inventing counter-measures. If this had happened, maybe less people would have lost their lives and maybe less people would have been taken away in slavery, or maybe the period would have been much shorter. This however did not happen. The same thatched houses or mud houses with thatched roofs that facilitated the work of the slavers still litter the African landscape until today. Some may want to argue that the African way of building is premised on the climate and that the African is an outdoors person. They may further argue that this form of building is environment-friendly. This argument is not only devoid of any logic in the face of the damage that this form of habitation caused in terms of slavery, but it is also a futile exercise to justify the unjustifiable. It reeks of a condescending attempt to condone complacency in the face of adversity and does not in anyway do justice to the effort to challenge Africa to rise up to redeem itself. The apologists of this line of thought will concur that, even today, in many of these villages, one can find some brick and mortar houses. The question that a true African should ask is why did it take so long for these houses to begin to appear on the African landscape? Moreover, why were Africans, who faced serious adversity because of the nature of their houses, not the avant-gardes of house construction revolution with the immense natural resources at their disposal? Some Africanists will argue that Mali was at the forefront of building revolution in Africa, and that the multi-storey mud houses in Timbuktu attest to this. This argument merits to be analysed in the face of the fact that on transposing this period of Mali Empire on contemporary Africa, one discovers a stunning parallel. It is a historical fact that some houses in Mali Empire were made of mud and straw. Timbuktu was famous for this; it was the capital. Outside Timbuktu, people lived in thatched houses, at the mercy of the elements and slavers. The same is the case in most of contemporary African societies today. Contemporary African governments go the extra mile to build “befitting capitals”. Multi-million dollar high-rise buildings, expensive villas, beautiful tarred roads, many-star hotels, caf├Ęs, highbrow restaurants, and many self-deluding white elephant structures fashioned after their metropole make up the city centre. On travelling a few miles out of the city, one finds that a large part of the population still lives in the same conditions as their ancestors did many centuries ago. Thus, it is logical to pose the question that when one talks of Africa, (either as an Africanist or an external observer committed to Africa), to which Africa and to what Africans should we make reference? There is no doubt that we should source our reference in the teeming population of the fear-imbued oppressed people and not in the myopic political bourgeoisie either in Timbuktu or in any contemporary African capital. Herein lies the source of conflict between a western-educated African and the external observer; the educated African seeks and finds his reference in the landmarks of the circumscribed surreal environment of the African bourgeoisie, while the external observer looks at the same society at large and draws his mental image of Africa. Irrespective of whatever arguments or excuses employed by different interest groups, the fact remains that there are no documented concerted efforts to review the nature of houses people lived in, in order to thwart the arson tactics of slavers.
Following three hundred years of slavery-induced fears and consequences, the continent was subjected to colonialism for another hundred years. Colonialism did not only aggressively introduce a new set of fears into the society; it also actively sought to perpetuate this fear through a gradual mental re-engineering of the colonised peoples. It created the fear of unity in sub-Sahara Africa in order to facilitate neo-colonialism, the next phase, or next package of fears for Africans. Kwame Nkrumah, at the founding conference of the Organisation of African Unity in May 1963 warned the African leaders of the dangers of creating favourable environment for a new generation of fears. He called on Africans to “unite or to perish”. He, passionately, and with vision called on his colleagues to overcome the fear of unity. No one listened; if they did, their individual fears and externally-induced fears had gained so much ground in their minds that they could not see the “why” and “how” and the consequences of fear which Kwame Nkrumah graphically painted to them. In the Accra summit of 1965, Nkrumah again repeated his call and as he did in 1963, gave a blueprint on the advantages of overcoming the fear of unity. No one heeded him.
An important fear that evolved in the course of the contact of the African with the foreigner and his consequent mental reengineering is the fear of truth. We live in the age of fear of truth, where a truth-activist is a pariah, an undesirable element. A good example of the fear of truth was the reaction or inaction of the founding fathers of Africa to Kwame Nkrumah’s warning on the dangers of balkanised (along colonial lines) Africa. The late Julius Nyerere on the occasion of the fortieth anniversary of the “independence” of Ghana in March 1997, confirmed that it was fear (nurtured by a large majority of leaders present in Addis Abeba in 1963) that neutralised Nkrumah’s vision. In his speech, he said “ ..Kwame Nkrumah underestimated the degree of suspicion and animosity which his crusading passion had created among a substantial number of his fellow heads of state.., the fear of a number of us to lose our precious status was quite palpable[i]”.
It is no over-statement that sub-Sahara Africa is now in the clutches of neo-colonialism-induced fears, as was foreseen by Kwame Nkrumah. In his speech in 1963 in Addis, he said, “We must unite...or perish”. This is an impending prophesy – Africa failed to unite in 1963 and 1965, and the imminence of the consequence of this historical failure was not lost on Kwame Nkrumah who shared it with his fellow presidents.
Africa has undergone three phases of externally induced fears (slavery, colonialism, and neo-colonialism) and failed to learn anything from the experience. If we apply the theory of Human Energy Pole (HEP) to the future of Africa, then it is evident that the next phase is probably the extinction of sub-Sahara Africa (Kwame Nkrumah’s prophesy of perishing). This does not necessarily mean the extinction of the black race. The disappearance of sub-Sahara African peoples will come in form of their dispersion, their displacement (from Africa) and their scattering as small politically unimportant minorities among other cultures even here on African soil. And the process has already innocuously begun! The future depopulation of Sub-Sahara Africa in some years to come has become, albeit unwittingly, a favourite “discovery” by “experts” from all the corners of the world except from Africa. In different ways, and using different forms, they announce the imminent demise of Sub-Sahara Africans. For example, climatologists claim that Africa will be at the severe receiving end of global warming, not only because of the effect of this phenomenon on agricultural outputs, but also because of exponential increase in number of cases of infectious diseases like Malaria, HIV/AIDS, and Tuberculosis. Experts in infectious diseases yearly publish astronomical figures of Black Africans who have died the previous year, or who will die in the coming year from a wide range of diseases. When all these “expert” predictions and declarations are put together and added on to the senseless wars and killings that happen on the African soil, it becomes apparent that a severe depopulation of Africa is already underway, and we are simply not aware of it.
It is paradoxical that under the heavy and highly-mediatised apocalyptic disease burden and violent deaths in Africa, another group of “experts” claims that the population figures of Africa are on the increase! “Experts” many a time are too highly absorbed with their “areas of specialisation” and with themselves to know what “experts” in other fields, even located next door to them are saying. They treat their “facts” as if they were unrelated and as if they were referring to different groups of peoples. No one bothers to put these facts together to deduce the real aggregate effects of these “facts” on Sub-Sahara Africans. This deliberate or negligent gap in information management and knowledge chain plays into the hands of the political elite, who prefers to choose and use (more favourable for their purposes) data. The import of their criminal negligence of the present on the future generations of Africans is lost on the political elite. Rather than tackle this problem with vision, self-serving African political elite’s vision is limited to self-enrichment and perpetuating themselves in power. Besides the glamour of having the power and wielding it to cower dissenting voices, the African political elite has not shown any signs of a carefully thought-out and focused commitment to reverse the dire fortunes of the black race. Padded census figures are not only useful tools for corruption, but also serve to demand aid and debts from their “international community friends”.
Kwame Nkrumah said it and it is beginning to happen without Africans giving a thought to it. Contrary to the misconceived expectation of a cataclysmic event, the process of depopulation and subsequent reduction to politically unimportant minorities that failed to happen during three hundred years of slavery and more than a hundred years of colonisation has begun insidiously. The process is gaining steam under the malicious marginalisation of Africans from the human mainstream (except as a reminding sample of what not to aspire to be).
Ironically, while the African is a willing and compliant depository of all imaginable fears that threaten his existence, the only thing that he does not fear (and which puts his survival in great danger) is time. Many scholars and non-scholars have studied and written numerous papers and books on the African concept of time. In ignorance, Africans themselves proudly refer to their self-destructive positioning within the universal space and time that define the existence of our universe as “African time”. It is absurd that the African deliberately disregards the only thing that will cost him dearly in the fast-changing world. Rather than admonish the African peoples of this counter-productive and self-destructive mental attitude, African intellectuals write “academic papers” on the African concept of time and go to great lengths to justify the African perception of his position in space and time. This is defending the un-defendable. Africans, to whom time has been cruel in their history, and are, therefore lagging behind the rest of the world, cannot afford to play with time. Neither can they afford to continue to romanticise time concepts that have become completely obsolete in the fast changing world. If Africa wants to catch up with the rest of the world, then, it has to change its attitude to time. As a matter of survival, Africans at this period of their history need to place more value on time than any other culture in the world.
[i] Julius Nyerere – “Without unity, there is no future for
Africa” – New African, February 2006.

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