Breaking the Culture of Silence

Cathy Mcpherson never forgot the day she first came across a copy of National Geographic magazine. Her father, a university professor of linguistics, always came back home with a bunch of magazines like TIME, New Yorker, LIFE, Sports Illustrated, Readers Digest and more. There was also this magazine with glossy pictures of often distant dark skinned peoples, secluded away in some tropical forest in the Amazon or lost down on a remote island floating on the Pacific ocean, that caught Cathy’s attention most.

National Geographic fascinated her as here she read about a semi- nude people, hunting down and feasting on wild meat, retiring to dance excitedly beneath a full moon. At a very early age she decided she would study more about such remote tribes.

Once admitted to university she decided to major in anthropology after her first degree, a subject that explores the lives and cultures of peoples in different habitats. For her Ph.D the university required her to venture out and write an original thesis about a distant tribe that westerners had little knowledge of. Of course such tribes were becoming rare but through connections at her local church where there was a mission organization targeting un reached tribes with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, she came across one.

“There is this tribe of the Togela peoples who only allow in visitors briefly,” a missionary at her church shared. “Perhaps you could go there and help us understand why there are so resistant to the Gospel.”

With the help of this missionary Cathy  was allowed in to study the ways of the Togela . “If you have not come here to preach to us about abandoning our ways of life and take up yours we can even allow you stay longer,” Chief Asilika nyo welcomed her.

Ever adventurous Cathy quickly settled among these secluded people. She would rise up early from her thatched hut and after a breakfast of yams with hot tea spiced with lemon grass, walk down bare feet to clear bushes for plantations. She worked with the women and their little kids with extended bellies. The men would meanwhile splinter off to the forests where they spent the day hunting, sometimes returning late at night with their trophy.

In the evening these men would sit around in a circle to sip a brew which had been prepared by the women, upon return from the gardens. Seeing all, Cathy made her first observation- “in this culture the women are ever bent in back breaking chores while the men feast from their  captured wild meat to dance and clap. It is not good.”  She wrote.

The Togela culture forbade women to taste beef and sip on intoxicating brew, a high offense which could lead to a woman being ostracized from the tribe. But being a foreigner Cathy was given a pass; she tasted some of the roasted game meat, which she found delicous.

One day Cathy also took a sip of the local brew. She had noticed that the men could spend almost all night sipping on it after a hunt while munching their roasted meat called muchomo. The brew called Lira-lira had an effect on them and would get the men jumping up and down in a wild dance as they called for more liquor to be served. Exhausted they staggered back to their huts where they would commence on beating the very women who had been serving. Sometimes it was like the whole village was lost in wails from these beatings by drunken men. In the morning one after the other the women swept away broken teeth while nursing their black eyes. “This needs to change,” Cathy wrote.

Back at her home Cathy had grown up around various spirits and brandies which her father regularly imbibed, and she an occasion lazily sipped too. But the day she decided to take a few sips of Lira- lira she quickly blacked out. After she got up from her delirium there were dark men standing over her, pointing to her lamely, “Poor white woman weak! She can’t stand our Lira- lira.”

Back on her feet Cathy wondered how any people could drink so strong a brew ( Lira- lira could even light up like paraffin) night out after night. When she started asking her women friends, at first they laughed her off. But gradually as she gained their confidence they started opening up to her.

“Those men drink so much because there are unhappy,” said Abyotodde, one grandmotherly confidant. “They need to for there are hurting so much.”

“What is it you are talking about?” Cathy asked.

“You see here we have so many secrets,” Abyotodde pulled her within ear’s reach. “Lira- lira helps break our men free for a while.”

“Can you let me on in some of those secrets,” Cathy whispered.

After glancing around and seeing no one was within ear’s reach, Abyotodde started. “We have men who get home and after beating their wives turn on their daughters and rape them,” she said, her eyes melting with tears. “Those men could be a product of rape too and they grew up very embittered. You wait when we go to war with one of the neighboring tribes and you will see what I mean.”

The Togela people regularly engaged in bloody scuffles with neighboring tribes. One day it was reported a hated tribe had encroached upon the Togela land. In the deep of the night, Chief Asilika nyo sounded a war drum. All the men came out dressed in war garb of animal skins. Without waste they started pursuing the enemy. At dawn they returned with a column of prisoners. What happened thereafter shocked Cathy.

The prisoners were pushed down in a trench which served as a prison. For Cathy the rules of war dictated that a prisoner of war should not be tortured or maimed. Yet here now they started freely torturing war captives, including pulling their nails off, one by one.

Peeping from her hut and overwhelmed by deafening wails Cathy noticed that the men who indulged in this torture seemed  to relish it all. They casually bludgeoned their captives to death with small hoes, pushing bodies off like some useless cockroaches.

“They do that because there are hurting within,” Abyogedde, explained to Cathy once they got together. “Our people grow up feeling unloved because of all the abuse they endured. They have bottled anger and this is why you should never stand in the way of a Togela who is mad. Anything can happen.”

Deeply concerned Cathy decided to approach Chief Asilika nyo. “Chief I  know I am a visitor but I want to help on some  important matter.”
“What is it my child,” Chief Asilika nyo said in a fatherly voice.

Cathy pulled her stool nearer. “Why is there a lot of domestic violence here? Your men habitually beat your mothers down to bloody beads. Some have told me the men are also victims because they grew up seeing their fathers unleash reigns of terror in homes. They don’t know how to express themselves other than through violence. This is why after war they ghoul out captured prisoners eyes, yet torture is forbidden among civilized people.”

The Long View

“The problem with you is you forgive too much!” Ataseka loved to remind her husband, Kasana who had an irritating habit of passing slights, believing forging and maintaining relationships was far more important than holding on to grudges. “Life is long and no need to hold on to petty slights.” This was one of Kasana’s favorite sayings.

Ataseka would have none of that. There was one particular incident that really irked her.
Kasana had applied for an executive job of a newly created government agency. If they got that job there was no doubt it would improve the family fortunes. So eager was he for this job that Kasana took effort to inquire about the recruitment process. The news he got was comforting. On the interview panel would sit an Assistant commissioner from his ministry, a man he had himself recruited. “At least I have a vote in hand,” he thought to himself.

After the interview, Kasana waited anxiously for his appointment, quite assured he had done well. To his shock, another candidate was appointed to the job. Eager to know what happened he used his inside networks to find what had gone wrong. And that is when he discovered that the Assistant Commissioner he was dependent on had actually voted against him.

After the news had sunk in, he shared it with Ateseka. She vowed never to forgive
“that man and any members of his family. I recall how he was unemployed and you took him to the ministry,” she reminded Kasana. “And here he was the one speaking against you. I will never speak to that man again!”

Kasana was as equally mad. But other than hit back, taking his philosophy of a long view of life, he just settled back in his old job where he continued to work with the very Assistant Commissioner. He had in his powers to make life miserable for the Assistant Commissioner by, say, putting out a damaging dossier yet he chose not to. Part of his reason was tactical. “You never know whom you may need one day,” he would shrug off Ataseka’s urges to have the Assistant Commissioner fired.

In her life, Ataseka lived with a maxim of a scorched earth if she run into anyone who ever slighted her. At the National referral hospital where she worked as a nursing supervisor all the nurses and junior staff under her lived in terror of ever getting on the wrong side of her. She would not hesitate to put one on ‘katebe’, for daring showing the slightest disrespect.

One day came this particular nurse, Onsanze, who started boasting having a nursing degree unlike Ataseka who as an enrolled nurse. In meetings, Onsanze would making alternative suggestions countering her proposals. As it was in her powers, Ataseka had had her re assigned to a dead-end shift, past midnight, one where she was denied of any serious work. “That is what you do with a smart aleck!”

Now, time came when Kasana and Ataseka retired from their formal jobs. Soon, a son of theirs graduated and started looking for a job. Then Kasana reached out to his old networks. He found that his old Assistant Commissioner had eventually taken up the job he once coveted. Kasana decided to approach him. “I have my boy just out of school and can you find him something to do here?”

The Assistant Commissioner had long been torn with guilt over what he had done to Kasana. What made him feel even worse is that Kasana had chosen not to retaliate, going ahead to leave behind a positive recommendation that had catapulted him into this agency, one of the best payers in the country. He also recalled how Kasana had once been of help to him in his struggle to secure employment at the start of his career. Quickly, he called in the Human Resource Director. “I want you to find something for this young man immediately.”

Kasansa left beaming with some satisfaction. “I am glad I left the doors open,” he reported back to Ataseka.

Out of a job, Ataseka continually suffered poor health. Whenever she visited any clinic they would refer her to the National referral hospital where she had once worked. “Those are the ones with expertise to handle your situation!” But Ataseka hesitated going back to her old work station. As a nursing supervisor she had left a trail of enemies and feared now finding herself dependent on those she used to harass.

However, her condition continued to worsen. Late one night, as she struggled for life, Kasana had to call for an Ambulance. There was no other place to take her but the National referral hospital.

Admitted, in the morning when Ataseka opened her eyes, there was Osanze standing erect and gazing at her, along with a troupe of other nurses, she used to work with. Ataseka closed her eyes. She wanted to bolt out of the hospital, but there she was, and in her weak statre, all she could do was to pray for the good graces of those she had once terrorized.

Taking a long view of life means that in human relations there are certain fights which you let go, and appear even a loser at the time, simply because you really have no idea who in the very end will be in the driver’s seat. Slights are ignored not because they do not bite but simply that the big picture matters more.

What Goes Around

There are words that are told to us once in life, whose significance only rises with time. When Abebi was passing on of a cruel diabetic condition, she called up her son Abiola and told him, “Always be trustworthy!” In her weak state she muffled a few other things, the betrayal she had met in life but bore no bitterness because she believed in a just and fair God. Then she breathed her last.

At the time both were living together, having been thrown out of the family home. This was after Abiola’s father, Chikuemuka, had secured a younger wife, Katali. Chikuemuka was a trader in cotton which he would sale largely to travelling merchants. He always bought on credit from peasants but yet would never sell to any merchant unless by cash. Now instead of paying back the peasants what he owed he would use the proceeds to acquire square miles of land for his growing business empire. Whenever his many debtors would call upon him up for payment, he would put them on hold insisting that he had no money. “Come back when I get paid.”

That’s how he became one of the wealthiest men in Umondi county. But Chikuemeka’s fortunes started going down when one day he trusted one merchant with a huge delivery on credit, which he rarely did. He had done business with this particular merchant many times before and when he called him that he wanted a huge purchase, Chikuemuka quickly went back and collected as much cotton from the peasants. “Trust me this time,” he assured all of them of payment.

But once he delivered the assignment that was the last he saw of the merchant. Chikuemuka kept waiting for his payment in vain. Then the peasants started demanding their payments too and for sure this time Chikuemuka had no coin. They got the local authorities involved and started confiscating his land.

As his fortune spiraled down, at his home, Katali the new wife started accusing Abebi of engaging in witchcraft that was the cause of their husband’s misfortune. Chikuemuka sided with Katali and threw Abebi out of the family home with her son, Abiola.

Chikuemuka was eventually arrested and thrown in jail. Once in jail Katali run off with what was left of his property. Chikuemuka died a miserable man, unattended, regretting the pain he had caused to all those peasants he had used to get ahead in life.

After the death of his parents, Abiola, dropped out of school and started doing odd jobs. He would go to rich people’s gardens and plead to be allowed to till for them. But he hated these jobs which exacted faithful hard work for poor pay. Then one day he met a village mate who convinced him to start brewing local gin. “It is easy to make money here because you can easily cut corners and sell people even bad stuff,” said the village mate. “They are mostly drunk anyway and can’t tell the difference!”

Cutting corners involved minimizing contents like molasses, yielding a brew with a high poisonous alcoholic volume. One day several deaths were reported in Umondi. When investigations were carried out the culprit was found to be Abiola’s ginnery. Villagers moved to lynch Abiola. But he caught wind of their advance in time and fled to Kumasi.

Kumasi was a big city where Abiola found he could easily survive by passing with a false identity. Using some of his savings, he started by boarding a nice apartment where he paid for the first three months. Then he stopped. When the landlord showed up, he begged for more time. But after three months he decided to vacate in the night; he was confident of being safe, since in the big city, no one could trace him.

Abiola took up another abode where he paid for the first three months. As before, he disappeared after tossing the landlord up and down for the next three months. “If I can get away in a year by paying only half the rent,” he thought to himself. “This is good saving!”

This became Abiola’s standard way of living and doing business. He would start off by being a good client to someone he was trading with, and once he had the unsuspecting person hooked, he would make a huge transaction on credit, then disappear with the client’s money. From this way of doing business he started buying huge tracts of land in the countryside. He was happy with his progress and started thinking of starting a family.

After sharing his need, a friend in the city introduced him to a young beautiful girl, still in school. They struck a bargain with her agreeing to be married to him, if he could pay her school fees in a beauty vocational school. “I don’t want to be seated home all day!”

“No problem,” Abiola agreed without hesitation and started bankrolling her.

From trading and pulling fast ones on the unsuspecting, Abiola’s business empire kept growing. Aware of all the enemies he was making Abiola acquired a pistol for defense. He always moved stealthily ready to fire back just in case one of those he had cheated caught up with him. He drove cars with tinted glasses and ever at breakneck speed.

As a tycoon he decided to invest in real estate too. Once he had set up rental units, he had no problems in having them taken up. But something strange started happening to Chukuemuka soon after. Every now and then came those tenants, who started by paying well, only to disappear into the middle of the night after keeping him in suspense for three months or more. He was furious, seeing all the damage they had caused to his property and without paying.

Abiola decided to report the culprits to police. “Why are people here untrustworthy!” The police knew he was a wealthy man. All they did was to extract as much money as they could from him, pleading they needed all to carry out investigations. Frustrated for lack of progress Abiola gave up chasing delinquent tenants and suffering more losses. “You can’t trust anybody here!”

One day Abiola needed to secure a loan from the bank for his business. When he offered some of his titles as collateral the bank upon verification found the land was encumbered. Abiola couldn’t believe it. He recalled how the seller had given him all assurances that the land was unencumbered. But here he was discovering he had been sold air. “You can’t trust anybody here!” he spat.

Just then he got another blow. After paying school fees for his girl fiend, and as she was about to graduate, she sent him a chit mentioning that the friend who had introduced them had all along been her lover. The two were planning to wed. Abiola was crushed. He felt like the end of the world had come after all his investment in this girl. “Why me!” he moaned. He took out his pistol ready to end his life.

Down and disheartened, wanting to end his life, it is then that Abiola recalled his gentle mother, Abebi’s last words. “Always be a trustworthy person!” The pistol still pointed to his head Abiola saw that all along he had been riding on other people’s back to get ahead, and his sins were finally catching up on him. “She said this to protect me!” Trembling, he lowered the pistol in deep contemplation….

In any society there are those who decide that to get ahead theirs would be a life of pulling a fast one on those whom they deal with but who happen to have fallen asleep. The consequence of that is theirs is always a fast life one of constantly looking over the shoulders, fearing that perhaps one has met their match, and it is now game up! And, perhaps for that reason, is why some have suggested preaching virtues like trust and honesty is literally in one’s interest, because otherwise you are living on borrowed time!