Rev. Benjamin Keya, Program Director of the Africa Institute for Contemporary Missions and Research recently returned from his studies in England. The African Executive caught up with him in a city café and asked him to comment on basic mannerisms in the West and Africa. He argues that Africa’s position should not be preyed upon by eco-imperialists and “do gooders.”
AE. How are you Reverend?
Rev. I am doing fine, thank you. What about you?
AE. It is business as usual. Would you mind us having a cup of tea together? I hear that in the West, people ask before giving offers.
Rev. I am glad to be home brother. Traveling makes one to encounter many experiences.
AE. Please contrast the experience in the west with that of your country.
Rev. In Africa, when a visitor comes to your house, the first thing he will ask for is a cup of water. The host will ask if the visitor would mind taking something, an offer that is rarely turned down. Most often however, the host does not take the pain of inquiring whether the guest will mind something to eat but goes ahead to prepare, say, a cup of tea.
AE. How is it like in the West?
Rev. In the West, this is not so. When people are invited, they do not ask for a glass of water. The most common request is to be shown the location of a washroom. The common question is “May I use your loo?”
AE. What are you driving at?
Rev. This behavior reveals the economic state of both parties. While Africans are often hungry and have some space to fill when they visit, most people in the West are on a full stomach and would like to expel whatever is in their stomach, in readiness for more.
AE. It reminds me of an old man who was at pains explaining to villagers why their guest could not share in their meal. “I picked him from his hotel room and we had breakfast together. The kind of breakfast they have is breakfast, lunch and supper combined. On one side is juice, bread, beans, eggs, sausage, fruits…who can take such in the morning and feel hungry again?”
Rev. You see, there is a whole economic difference between the hungry and those who are satisfied.
AE. How does this position influence their outlook of things?
Rev. If we use them as priority setters, we get it wrong. If you are on a full stomach, you can afford to say “this bread is of low grade.” To argue against something that is important for productivity is arguing from plenty. People who do this often have other choices. They can say no to biotechnology, starve African populations out to benefit from new technologies and still make use of other alternatives at their disposal such as organic farming.
Go to the supermarkets in the West. They have products from all over the world. They have apples from Africa, Israel… and this gives them wider choice. With no choice, you look for what will alleviate your current predicament.
AE. Does this apply to our governments as well?
Rev. Correct. Bureaucrats sit in air conditioned offices and prescribe panaceas to rural problems. That is why they continually send food aid to people in arid and semi arid lands instead of setting up infrastructure such as drilling of boreholes, good roads and zero tax that would lead to food self sufficiency.
AE. Do greetings portray any message?
Rev. Look at African greetings, we begin by something like “good morning!” In the West, "good morning" mostly comes after. Greetings which come after rapport stem from individual satisfaction. I don’t mind how you are. Do not be a bother to me. Our "good morning" comes before because we want to establish a relationship with the next person…so that he could perhaps be of use to us. In the West, it comes after. After some long conversation, somebody tells you "good morning!" and adds, "take care", that is, if he remembers. He wishes you well after he has learnt that you are not a bother to him.
AE. What about “how are you?”
Rev. This is very common in Africa. Africans are so used to problems. They know where the shoe pinches. That is why they ask how you are. What good is it to say good morning when I have had no meal; my son is dying from malaria; I have to undergo harrowing experiences at a foreign embassy because of my color and nationality; my coffee sales fetch low prices at the international market; I am not allowed to export processed goods; I am only good when serving foreign dictates but a devil when I speak my mind. What good is it to say good morning? Whereas I ask “how are you?” The West says “Hi!” In other words, they are high. I am low.
AE. What is your stake in all this?
Rev. My ultimate worry in all this is, if we Africans don’t begin to set our own priorities but wait for the rich West to do so, we and our governments are in the wrong. We sing MDGs. Who set them? Were they our priority? Somebody on a full stomach prioritizes that we keep forests virgin. What is more important? Accessing farmland or keeping trees? Another one says-this area, thousands and thousands of acres of land- is rangeland. It is owned by animals-yet the surrounding communities are suffering. Most of them are landless. Who is setting the priorities? Why are our governments being bribed to settle for alien priorities? Another one says- Don’t use DDT. He has eradicated mosquitoes using the same but is stopping me from doing so. Can we bear this? When President Museveni of Uganda wants to agree with Joseph Kony to end bloodshed, he is told not to. Who is Uganda’s head? African institutions should set their own priorities and be careful to determine whether available opportunities correspond to their own agendas.
AE. Should we castigate those who are speaking from a position of plenty?
Rev. We will have lost the mark. It is not a vice to have plenty. In fact all Africans should strive to reach such a position. This will eradicate petty politics, ethnic clashes and manipulation. However, we should not allow our predicament to be preyed upon by people out to fulfill their own agenda. Show me how you got wealthy but do not abuse my dignity and individual liberty. Don’t muffle my voice! Don’t swallow me up!
By Josephat Juma
Mr. Juma is an African Executive Writer
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