Me, Myself And I And The Evolving African Reality
Me, myself and I possibly first gained currency from English language classrooms where grammar teachers struggled to explain the subject, object and reflexive or intensifier of the first person singular. They probably still remain a puzzle for some speakers of other languages beginning to learn English first time.
As an expression however the coinage has come to emphasise the egocentric individualism of industrialised societies where each onto themselves and God for them all. It is not difficult to see why; in economies of competing agendas and priorities time is of personal essence and being a sibling's keeper can very easily get in the way of the spokes that turn the wheel of self survival and well being. In truth, survival long ceased to be consequential, people are stalking wealth and investing more attention on solitary pursuits of me, myself and I in denial of the relational we, ourselves and us.
Thus far, being a sibling's keeper has been one of the defining homogeneities of Africa and the identity of its peoples in a continent where diversity is a platitude. A web of inter-relatedness in blood and association makes nonsense of the nuclear family and of words like cousin, niece and nephew. Most African languages have no direct translation of them trio; everyone is a sibling brought forth by fathers and mothers whose brothers and sisters should be honoured and venerated as parents of no less station in the family even when they are called uncles and aunties.
The family thus becomes extended far beyond father, mother and children in an almost ecumenical state of neo-premodernism where the dictates of tradition and the authority of conservative value systems order societies to conform to time honoured customs of cultural import and relational expression.
It makes the African nation one ball-of-wax within which different ethnicities find common cause to relate as one people and for which advocates of African culture always happily run home to ecumenism of indigenous values in conflict resolutions in particular, sometimes intellectualised as grassroots peacemaking. It is collaborative cohabitation manifest in a justice system that has been couched in reconciliation rather than in punitive goals.
It is, for instance, not uncommon for families or whole communities to intervene in affairs of individuals and prevail against litigation because “we are all one people” even when litigation might appear the appropriate option of redress in law. This African reality juxtaposes the so-called enlightenment of modernism in which individual elevation stands more to reason than recourse to the authority of tradition and community.
In the circumstances, individual interests are daily sacrificed on the altar of the common good where victims humbly accept the role of sacrificial lambs to keep the peace just as culprits are made to take responsibility and reinvent their character in return. A Bantu word sums it up as Ubuntu, “I am what I am because of who we all are”. There is a fawning sentimentality to the value Africans attach to Ubuntu and for that matter to family, relations, community and society at large.
As if mimicking the value and linguistic reality in the continent, Diaspora Africans and others of African descent distinctively call or address total strangers as brothers and sisters only because they deem each other to hail or originate from the same continent. I say this with a grin, remembering as I do of a Ghanaian 'brother' who once defensively cajoled a South African 'sister' to discontinue calling him a 'brother' lest he be accused of intent to commit incest for admiring her amorously.
In making his case for pan-African nationalism the legendary Julius Nyerere once drove this point home in comparative analysis with heads of state from other continents who did not have to answer for the atrocities of colleagues of the same continent. Meanwhile, everywhere he went outside of Africa he was put under spotlight and queried about the Mobutus, the Amins, the Bokasas and their likes. In fact, he was expected to answer for them as if his Tanzanian nationality and presidency did not stick.
His fellow pan-African compatriot, the lawyer activist Issa Shivy, would thus conclude that "Not only is our self-perception African...even others perception of us, whether positive or negative, is African". He vouched that “no other continental people feel the same affinity, emotional bondage and political solidarity as do the people of Africa.” This is cultural capital in which case Africa is a cultural super power.
Yet, much as anything short of being a sibling's keeper may rightly be dismissed as un-African it has never really been a uniquely African thing. It is human, and at different epochs of history societies throughout the world have found value in being each other's keeper with the exception of the biblical Cain of course. In many Asian societies the practice of arranged marriages continues to strengthen family ties with family ties and communities with communities in modern times.
Many old people in Western Europe still recall with a sense of nostalgia the days when adult neighbours were entitled to discipline children of fellow neighbours without fear or let. Those were the times when trust, responsibility and honour still defined societies, and people said their good mornings to everyone they came in contact with, enquired of the family and cheered each other on ahead of the tasks of the day.
Fast forward to today and the West seems to have entered into a state of moral panic as people lament ruefully over broken societies unhelped by a tyranny of legislations devised to rein in political correctness and compliance with systems oddly meant to put liberal values in check. This is not necessarily what Oswald Spengler may have prophesied in The Decline of the West at the beginning of the 20th century but it cannot be lost on observers that anxiety is written all over the wall.
The palpable fear is that Africa is getting there too. One just has to watch Nollywood and other African movies, for instance, to see the me, myself and I evolving reality of contemporary Africa. From the comical through the farcical to the tragic the themes are predictably governance, romance, family, religion and the corruption of all by individuals recklessly seeking self aggrandisement against the wisdom of the ancestors and at the expense of families and whole communities.
Things are falling apart and if the arts are copies of our reality no further reality check is required to establish that the once celebrated ethos of the supremacy of community is perilously wobbling in the high seas of narcissism and cupidity. The home of some of the world's most incurably religious people cannot at the same time remain notorious for some of the world's most insidious subterfuge, avarice and conflicts.
Although uncivilised capitalism and surrogate globalisation suggest not everything is self-inflicted, it is the role of local vested interests and skewed patronage that is shamefully unkind and too embarrassing to Ubuntu. In the wisdom of African folklore the clever animal which invests its talent in con may have a good laugh but certainly from the wrong side of the mouth.
Africa must examine and reposition its cultural DNA in affairs of state as a matter of urgency if this last frontier in the global economy is ever to realise its fullest potential for all its peoples or the greater majority at least. It can do so with what the Akans of Ghana like to call sankofa, "We must go back and reclaim our past so we can move forward." Until then, this idea that Africans are fraternally conjoined in some unalloyed kinship will be rendered notional, assigned to idealism at best or consigned to history at worst. It has happened elsewhere!
The writer is freelance International Relations analyst and political commentator