issue 195 - May 1989
An African leader demands celebration of his rule. Jenny
Vincent tells why she cannot simply condemn the festivities.
I am riding on a bus through a city where every shop, office block and civic building is being freshly painted and decorated with signboards, slogans and fairy lights to celebrate 'the glorious years' of this country's leader. Some people do indeed have much to celebrate, though they will probably be attending banquets rather than street festivals.
Meanwhile there are the men setting up the flagpoles and planting the flowerbeds. There are the women forced to buy new national dress - they have no choice, since the cost (the equivalent of six weeks' wages) will simply be deducted from their wage packets over the next few months. And there are the people who will dance and sing the praises of their leader, lining the streets and filling the stadia from dawn to dusk, as they are required to do every other week for one occasion or another.
They know all is not as it should be; they know that people are starving, that life is getting harder and more expensive every month; they know that massive sums of money are being slipped out into secure bank accounts in the rich world. But they also know that a different leader won't necessarily mean a better deal for them: on the contrary, the next one could be much worse and indeed, given the stakes in a country like this, probably will be.
Most radical Western political observers would say the duty of an honest writer struggling for justice and freedom would be to expose and discuss these abuses and the enforced silence that surrounds them. (This article is being taken out of the country by a friend and could not be mailed.) But I am not so sure. Repressive governments are not without popular support when they attack and ban critical foreign journalists. This is because of our self-righteous readiness to point the finger at abuses in poor countries from our own position of political-economic power and comfort. We graciously offer to remove the speck of dust from our neighbour's eye, quite oblivious to the great beam of wood sticking out of our own.
If I wrote something about the joyless, ruinous celebrations presently being prepared here, I would be dishonest if I failed to link them with the joyless, ruinous consumerism being celebrated worldwide as I write; with the sense of festival and community generated in my own country, the UK, by the Falklands War; or with the similar atmosphere in the US after the invasion of Grenada and the bombing of Libya. I would be dishonest if I failed to see here a reflection of the international carnival dance of the conference centres - EC, OAU, NATO, COMECON, IMF - those festive processions held in the name of peace, co-operation and development whose jamborees in plush hotels grace the most destitute places on earth.
In New Orleans, city of perpetual street festivals, the 'second line' is the procession of shuffling revellers that follows the band down the street twirling bright parasols and waving handkerchiefs in the air. The sense of celebration it spreads is irresistible. Instead of dancing and smiles, the global second line of business-suited men generates mountains of glossy brochures as it follows the grinning development dragon. But like its New Orleans prototype, it stilt manages to sweep almost every critical observer into its leering, parasol-twirling prance to Armageddon. So the activists equip their offices with word processors, take on marketing firms to boost membership, service the UN with statistics and start using plastic envelopes to save (i.e. to make more) money.
So the only honest use I believe I can make of what is going on around me here is to take the salt of this heart-rending waste, the lies and hypocrisy being rubbed into the wounded back of this lovely, peaceful country - to take this salt and apply it directly to the gaping wounds in our own uselessly pampered, bleeding souls.
Will it work? Does anyone, reading this, feel the degrading agony of this joyless celebration inside them as their own pain; feet the lurching dismay of recognizing their own spiritual funeral procession? If you can feel it, let the salt do its work - break down, let the tears flow. It will sting terribly, for it is almost unbearable to own what we have done to ourselves and to our world; to own the way we cause and ignore suffering.
I am not interested in naming or defaming the country I am in, for it is a good place to be, with a general joy and mutual supportiveness among its people which I haven't found in Europe or North America. The abuses could be happening in any of a hundred countries - and are endemic in the global system over which the West presides. We have beams of our own to remove before we come pointing fingers at Third World leaders.
'Judge not, and you will not be judged'; Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone'.
Jenny Vincent is a British writer living in Africa.