Aug 30, 2010

An issue of culture?

After my rant about the treatment of Malawi’s female vice-president by some members of her political party and the state run media, I took a step back and asked why this is not an uncommon story.

In recent months we have seen an up tick in verbal confrontations between politicians and the opposition, media and anyone else caught in the line of fire (donor countries, diplomats, bloggers, etc). It’s glaringly obvious – the African leader does not take criticism well.

In all honesty if you drill down to the core the answer is most likely found in our culture(s).

In the traditional family unit, the man is the head and lord of all. What he says goes, no matter how absurd. To disagree is disrespect and everyone falls in line; from the wife to the children, and anyone else who falls under his domain.

The same attitude spills over into our churches. In our eyes a pastor/priest is ordained by God, and is an instrument through which the Word is spoken to us. So, if the pastor starts making unreasonable demands and putting outlandish interpretations on scriptures, how many are courageous enough to speak up? We would rather shield ourselves and others from the truth for we know that to speak openly would be an invitation to be called a heretic or even a Satanist. We either suffer in silence or make a hasty exit leaving the demi-god and his minions unchallenged.

Other institutions are not immune from the police force to schools to government offices. During my last excursion to the passport office in Lusaka, I made the mistake of asking a desk clerk to more polite and professional after she had spent ten minutes upbraiding this person and that for having an incorrect form, for showing up too early, for speaking English and not vernacular, for not letting her speak without interruption, you name it she had it! NO, I am not exaggerating! She turned her fury on me, refusing to hand over my passport as punishment and stormed off leaving a whole line of customers unattended. (I hope she later choked on her Sprite and meat pie)

Now, if this bully at the passport office finds her behaviour to be perfectly reasonable, can we expect her to value a process in which public officials are held to a higher standard of professionalism and are expected to be courteous to their customers? What about the husband who beats his wife within an inch of her because she didn’t stay up waiting for him with a hot meal after his long night of carousing. Would he amenable to a system that grants women the social and economic power to leave abusive homes without fear of destitution? Most likely not!

We speak publicly of how we value democracy, the freedom of independent thought and the freedom of speech when in fact many of us are bullies in our own spheres of influence. We terrorise others into docility, and we privately cheer when newspapers editors are arrested for publishing exposés because we believe that they are wrong to question leaders, they are un-African and disrespectful. Deep down inside we crave that power and would do the same with it as those leaders we publicly denounce.

In a nutshell, our governments in all their inefficient and corruptible glory truly reflect us as a people. Until we start to tackle the problem at the very root we will continue to see statements like the one below and have people nodding their heads in fervent agreement:

“Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika has threatened to close down any media house that reports negative stories about his government, especially about the looming hunger that threatens over a million people”.

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