Brotherhood or sisterhood starts the moment we say to each other. ‘You too? I thought it was only I.’ But reaching that level would require an honest appraisal of our relationship, of the bond that unites us, of the values and mores we share, of the very raison d’etre of our relationship and the foundation on which it stands. We can only have fellow feeling when we value, respect, honour and appreciate each other regardless of our differences. In fact it is not our similarities which make us stronger but rather our differences and how we manage them.
Recent happenings in our society, the seed of discord amongst communities planted by unconscionable politicians, the religious intolerance, the casteism in our society, the upping of masculinity and patriarchy, the intolerance to dissenting opinions, the support to tyranny provided by the clergy and the judiciary and men and women who were supposed to be guides and protectors of societal mores, point to the fact that our society is not as caring, affectionate and tolerant as we sometimes make it to be. That we need to engage in some soul-searching, to rediscover the good and the best which bind us together. ‘An unexamined life is not worth living’ posited Socrates.
We are the Smiling Coast of Africa. No doubt. But do we actually smile to ourselves only, each smiling to himself or herself, or do we smile to each other, that broad smile that brothers or sisters give to each other when they meet on the road, after a hiatus in communication? Is the smile real or mere plastic?
We say proudly that we are a very hospitable people, may be the most hospitable in SSA. Is this actually true? Are we truly hospitable to each other, to strangers, to guests? Or is it a veneer, merely cosmetic, a pretension? Hospitality is just not in sharing a meal with a stranger. It is also about being caring to him or her, being accommodative, not being prejudicial and appreciating that he or she too, as an African and a member of the human race, has the right to live in your land and make a living out of it. Are we kinder or hospitable to our next door neighbour? Do we care about him or her and how he or she ekes a living to survive? Do we worry about his or her conditions, while he or she is alive and kicking? Or do we just wait until she dies then we mourn and give our pads of dalasi for charity?
Come to think of it. Ours is silently xenophobia. It is in ours that we use the word ‘foreigner’ even for those who have lived with us for decades, paid taxes, contributed to the development of our education and health care system, married within us. Never mind that is a phenomenon in other parts of the Africa or the world. We call ourselves the Smiling Coast and thus it behooves on us to live by our name and its attributes. It is common to hear us blame ‘foreigners’ for all the crimes in our communities. Yet, Mile II and our prisons are mainly full of Gambians, the ‘non-foreigners’. In the Government circle it is sweet talk to hear ‘foreigners are controlling our economy and our productive sector’. But these ‘foreigners’ have skills and are willing to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’. Why would they not dominate our fishing, tailoring, transportation, and other sectors? By the ‘sweet talk’ we instigate hostility in others which can be manifested through violence on the person and property of the ‘foreigners’.
We are a tolerant, caring society, very Allah-fearing people. Yet, we can deny burial to the dead just on the grounds that the dead and some of the living belong to different sects of Islam. We can even threaten to exhume the body if it is buried. But we are a tolerant society. In fact, we can go to the extent of bringing down a mosque or deny a particular group of people their wish to erect a mosque on a particular plot of land. In truth, are we really tolerant to people of other faiths and beliefs? Don’t we keep a certain sanctimonious height?
We are a tolerant, affectionate society but we can maintain a caste system which discriminates people on the status of their birth, on a mere biological accident. We can refuse marriage on such a ground. We can have separate burial sites and look down on some profession because we regard them as the calling of certain lower caste. Love relationships, communal harmony, talents have been destroyed. And men of Allah have been the ‘justifiers’ of such anachronistic divisions. But we are a tolerant society. It is a shame that in the 21st century we still keep part of our culture which degrades one group as lower and beneath and we seem comfortable with that.
We are a tolerant society but we believe that women are lower in dignity and status than men; that women cannot be leaders and that a woman’s natural place is at the home and the hearth. We promote patriarchy and the cultural dominance of men and support ‘wife battering’ or beating. We are a tolerant people but we still have our kind who believes it is a man’s prerogative to beat his wife when his emotions are high or down, when his statements are challenged or orders are not obeyed, when his whims and caprices dictate….. We are a tolerant, God-fearing people but we can witness sexual harassment or violence against women and turn a blind eye or objectify our women.
We are a tolerant people but we can go ballistic when our views are challenged and become acerbic and acidic in our responses; we engage in name calling and personality assassinations. We puff and huff at the slightest provocation, at issues not worth the brass button on our shirts. But we are a tolerant people….
Intolerance is the mother of all evils. It was the catalysis of the Second World War, the Bosnia genocide, the Rwandan civil war, the Sierra Leonean and Liberian inhumanity and it will continue to be our bane unless we realise that our unity and strength lie in our diversity and not in our similarities.
Until we are able to hold each other accountable for our acts of commission and omission; until we are able to challenge and stand against xenophobia, casteism, masculinity, religious bigotry, tribal stereotypes, discrimination against persons with disabilities, we will be having a veneer of tolerance, a façade of fellow feeling ; we would be seeing the sickle of time cutting away the camaraderie and love we are supposed to nurture and feed on in our society; we will not be each other’s keeper.
We need engagement, soul searching and critical analysis of the values we uphold as a society, of what and who we say we are. Are we or are we not?
We are the Smiling Coast.