The importance of not being earnest

7 Feb

Africans may lack many things, but they have others in plenty – actually, in excess. There are no half measures. We go to extremes. Which may not be a bad thing, because with us, you know where you stand.

Take the case of expressing grief, for instance. People will go to any length to show how grieved they are – by a death, robbery or other injustice. They will wail loudly, running along village paths or streets to let everyone know that they are grieved and if possible share in their grief. They will tear their clothes and shout that they will miss the generosity of the deceased person in the event of a death.

It is the same with joy. Ululations will break out loud and long and hang in the air for everyone to hear and share in the cause for so much excitement.

The scene at an African airport or conference is very much the same. Noise and bustle, pushing and shoving – some of it not so gentle – greet you. Apparently, one would not be African enough if they are not boisterous.

This is, of course, a generalisation, and probably true of other races. But it holds true in many circumstances.

The capacity for doing things in excess is not limited to ordinary people – who, in any case, are uninhibited by studied behaviour. At least they express their real feelings.

It also extends to some of our very important people – you know, the top politicians, diplomats and the lot. The difference is that their excesses are carefully studied and cultivated in order to measure to the assumed importance of the individual.

If you wanted to be blunt – like most ordinary people are – you would say they are phoney.

Attend any continental conference and you will get what I mean. Some of our important people will get up to speak and, for some reason, find it difficult to stop. They make long speeches about things they probably don’t understand or care much about in a bored, monotonous tone and expect people to listen and pay attention.

People are literally held hostage by an uninspiring monologue from a dull, self-important person. You see, if he can make you listen for as long as likes – never mind about whether you actually listen – that is proof of his power and importance.

But that is part of the self-delusion of our very important people. They can make their long speeches and keep you n the conference hall longer than is necessary, but they cannot ensure that you are listening. No wonder TV cameras catch many people in various stages of sleep at such conferences.

I have always wondered why speeches that are never remembered are ever made, except perhaps to prove that the speaker is no clay statue.

All these, and plenty more were happening this week at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa.

Sometimes, this amazing capacity for exaggeration can be ridiculous. Imagine the African Union claiming it played a significant role in stabilising the continent, especially in North Africa and Ivory Coast.

Now, you and I know better. In both these places, the AU was ignored as if it did not exist. The big boys came in with their guns and imposed their own sense of order in such places as Libya and Ivory Coast.

In one case a very important person, his wife and son were found in their bedroom by those big boys and dragged out like animals taken for slaughter. Indeed the big man was so dazzled by the whole experience he looked like a rabbit caught in headlights.

In the other, the man was dragged out of a drainage pipe still believing he was in control.

Such is the delusional consequence of self-importance. There is a very thin line between bravado and self-deception. And as it happens we have so much of both in plenty.

Of course one can understand the need to put a brave face on things that were expected to have been done – like resolving the Libyan and Ivorian crises. If for no other reason, at least to remind people about your relevance and need for continued existence. And that is where the problem lies.

Exaggerated claims, bravado and face-saving, and the refusal to recognise and name reality are what perhaps prevents us from advancing fast enough. And the sooner we differentiate between theatre (often bad) and the real world the better for everyone.

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