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HOPE FOR A RIPPED AMERICAN SOCIETY: LESSONS FROM A ZAMBIAN PROVERB

« Cikuni ca utsi koma kufumula » (Chewa proverb / Zambia)

« The firewood that smokes too much just remove it. » (Chewa proverb / Zambia)

« Le bois de chauffage qui fume trop, il suffit de l’enlever. » (Proverbe Chewa/Zambie)

 

 

Morality: « One cannot stay in a room with firewood smoking; all will be inconvenienced. The piece has to be taken out. »  The best way to deal with a problem is to attack its root cause.

Note: This proverb, which we comment on in the following lines, is taken from the collection of a thousand Chewa proverbs by Toon van Kessel, Cf. Toon van Kessel Dzedzere-dzedzere salingana nkugweratu (Lusaka: FENZA Publications, 2015) p. 29.

 

Commentary on the light of the Bible

 

     In recent times, bad news has been coming up on American soil to the rhythm of calamities comparable to a replay of scenes taken straight from the book of Job. No sooner do we perceive a faint glimmer of hope in a national context still haunted by the COVID-19 when awful scenes invite themselves, which bleed the hearts of African American communities already weakened by four centuries of unhealed wounds. The most recent case of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American who died of suffocation during a nightmarish arrest, sent entire crowds of men and women of all races to the streets of major cities in the United States, even the world. Anger is at its peak, and the streets roar. The most pessimistic voices howl. Peaceful demonstrations are legitimate though. They find their legitimacy in the cry of distress of a fringe of society which suffocates under the weight of the machine of racism in its various forms and colors. However, looting, destruction of public property, theft, and various scenes of violence are not justified. Besides, they are condemned, including by the family of the victim. An injustice cannot repair another injustice because, as Henri LACORDAIRE puts it so well, « Injustice calls for injustice; Violence begets violence. » However, beyond the calls for calm and peace from the African American community, sister communities, and the authorities, the crowds are difficult to control. What to do?

The above circumstances justify the use of the following Chewa proverb finds its full meaning: « The firewood that smokes too much just remove it. » Let us first put it in its geographic and social context. The saying refers to a familiar scene in rural Africa where the populations use wood for cooking and heating. Heating a house during the cold season is particularly delicate because fueling the fire in such a context requires art and method. The firewood quality then plays a crucial role because, even when they are dry, some wood types give off an uncomfortable, unbearable, even potentially fatal smoke. In this case, the only solution is to withdraw the piece of wood that could suffocate the occupants of the house, remove it from the hut, and extinguish it. Armed with the principle that emerges from this act, the Chewa people cite this proverb to show members of society the wisdom of attacking the source of the problem or problems that disturb life in society. The importance of dealing with the source of problems reminds us of several cases in the Holy Scriptures. Let us cite two.

The first case that comes to mind is that of Nehemiah, who, in addition to external attacks, was faced with severe internal tensions described in chapter 5 of the book that bears his name. As a wise leader, he quickly understood that internal dissension is the most dangerous threat in a nation. So, he immediately condemned the social injustices that the victims identified. Nevertheless, Nehemiah did not stop there. He immediately set the whole society on the road to reparations. Besides, he set a good example, and his immediate entourage did the same (Neh. 5:10); this created an emulation among the whole population (Neh. 5:13). Peace returned within the community.

The second example is from the New Testament. Chapter 6 of the book of Acts describes a crisis that threatened the young Christian community dangerously: The Hebraic Jews neglected the widows of the Hellenistic Jews in the daily distribution of food. So, there was an injustice that had no place in the assembly. As soon as the apostles learned of what was going on, they acted immediately to put out the fire before it spread: they asked the ecclesial community to choose distributors with excellent moral and spiritual qualities and entrusted them with this responsibility. The positive effect was immediate for the entire community. It led to the restoration of justice, and the church experienced a remarkable growth.

In both cases, people identified the sources of the tensions, took adequate measures, and implemented them without delay. What lessons can we learn from this as we are struggling to find a suitable solution to the current crisis? Let us say it straight away, but without losing sight of the delicacy of a crisis that has persisted since the 17th century: a way out is possible. The presently explosive African American anger is such because many roots causes fuel it. As long as people focus their attention on the symptoms that are easily noticeable and sometimes distorted by malicious people, the community risks sinking into a cycle of violence that is as unpredictable as it is destructive to society as a whole. However, we do not have to go that route. Instead, all the members of the society must take their courage to finally listen attentively to the dying cries of the desperate victims. Such a decision will imply identifying the roots of the current tensions and committing ourselves resolutely to attack the roots of racism and social injustices. All this requires love, peace, justice, and wisdom.  Then, America will emerge from this crisis more robust than ever and would even inspire other nations around the world as many are experiencing similar tensions.

Concretely, prayer is essential before any step because we will need divine wisdom to face better the current situation whose complexity is evident. Then, while maintaining prayer throughout the process, a methodical approach is essential. We modestly propose one in 5 steps:

  1. The foremost leaders of the African American community (recognized as such by the majority of African Americans themselves), beyond socio-political or religious considerations, must meet (even by videoconference) to set up a coordination leadership team.

  2. The coordination team put in place will define a strategy and mechanisms to identify the nature and root causes of each social injustice to which their community is a victim while involving the majority of their brothers and sisters in the collection of reliable data. This phase would benefit from being as strictly internal as possible because no one could describe the depth of African American pain better than the victims themselves.

  3. This team will proceed in the same way for the proposals of concrete solutions, which will make it possible to attack the evil at the root. At this point, it would be wise to start thinking internally but then involve real friends from outside the African American community as they find themselves in all racial groups represented in the United States. This move will strengthen the relevance of the solutions. It will refine the communication style by anticipating the objections of those outside the Afro-American community in order to readjust the arguments accordingly. It will ultimately maximize the chance of adoption of the solutions offered by the majority of society.

  4. The solutions will be presented to the highest competent authorities in the country so that proper decisions can be taken and followed up.

  5. The coordination team and the authorities will then set up, by joint agreement, a monitoring, evaluation, and possible readjustment mechanism so that the measures thus taken are effectively applied today and preserved for future generations. They will also think about strategies for preventing and transforming possible conflicts within the parameters of social justice and non-violence.

In short, we are at a delicate crossroads in history. The path we take will determine the happy or unhappy outcome of future events. Our prayer is that God gives us the wisdom to take the right path of peace and social justice courageously. The United States of America and all the countries have an interest in promoting living together in peace and solidarity.  Acting this way is particularly critical in this context of the pandemic COVID-19 pandemic with uncertain contours and with consequences that are both multidimensional and unpredictable. May God give each of us the wisdom, the courage, and the will to actively contribute to building peace and unity on the foundation of social justice!

Moussa Bongoyok, PhD

Professor of Intercultural Studies and Holistic Development

© Copyright by Moussa Bongoyok, 2020

MISINFORMATION IS A PUBLIC DANGER

« Darbatani jinfu hinqabatani.»

« After you have thrown the spear, you cannot catch hold of its end. »

« Une fois qu’une lance est lancée,  on ne peut plus en attraper le bout.» (Proverbe oromo, Ethiopie)

 

Meaning: Once something is done. It is better to think before acting., one cannot undo it, though one may regret having done it. »

Source : Diane Steward Wisdom from Africa : A Collection of African Proverbs. Cape Town : Struit Publishers, 2005. p. 158.  

 

Biblical parallel

Journalism is a noble profession. It renders an invaluable service to humanity. Journalists deserve our respect on account of the risks they undertake. Many of them have been threatened, terrorized, vilified, humiliated, tortured, imprisoned, kidnapped, and killed. Their desire to inform is so strong that they will not let anything discourage them. The rest of humanity should not only welcome such courage, but also provide them with all the necessary support.

However, there are some ‘false journalists’ who, in contempt of journalistic ethics, work to incite violence. For example, the anti-Balaka group in Central African Republic is represented by many in the media as a Christian militia despite the protests from Christian leaders of this country. 

Moreover, pictures of these militias ostensibly display many amulets. This shows that they hold to non-Christian beliefs; also, their actions clearly do not reflect the teachings of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Unfortunately, in the midst of erroneous reports, that reality is distorted. Worse, this misinformation adds fuel to the flame that burns a nation deeply wounded by pitting Christians against Muslims. The international community must take this situation seriously as this may lead to genocide. 

The same is true for other cases of misinformation around the world. It is high time that we take into account the words of Oromo wisdom: « once a spear is launched, you can no longer catch the front-end. » Indeed, one can master a spear in his possession but once it is propelled, it is out of control. A mature reflection is needed before speaking or writing. In this sense, the Oromo wisdom joined biblical wisdom for it is written in Proverbs 12:18 “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (NIV). Furthermore, it is written in Proverbs 18:21, “The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit.” James 3:1-18 states the same thing.

The point is, the tongue is as powerful as a sword. It is able to hurt or heal, to kill or to give life. Depending on how we use them, the words we speak can have huge consequences, hence the importance of thinking deeply before saying anything. Fortunately, as regards speech or writing, there is always a possibility to limit the damage in correcting their trajectory when this is done promptly. We hope that conscientious women and men in the media will start the hard work of restoring truth in Central Africa and elsewhere. Above all, never forget that every human stands to win when an instrument of peace and reconciliation, and to cause trouble and rifts between communities; to do otherwise is to saw off the bench on which you sit.

 

© Copyright by Moussa Bongoyok, 2014

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