This morning my driver and I got into an interesting conversation about comparative cultures. As a African, he viewed how God blessed the people of Europe and the U.S. with the ability and the opportunity to be scientists and engineers. He saw them as brilliant people, because they developed the cures for diseases and invented the technologies that simplify life whereas for the people in Africa this will never happen. I countered his belief by saying, “Africans have also been blessed with these same skills and talents, but are denied the opportunity to use them by humankind and not by God.” Then he followed by saying, “In Europe and the U.S. the people are all united, and this also will never happen in Africa.” I also countered this belief by saying, “Even before the countries in Europe united they had long history of killing and conquering one another, and so it is possible for Africans to come together such as in the cases of Rwanda and South Africa. These are two nations that are trying to make positive changes for their people as they put aside their differences.”
Throughout our conservation the word “never” was consistently used when he talked about the current state of Africans. I finally paused for a moment to ask him “isn’t your belief that with God all things are possible which we also see written on so many taxi bumpers?” He answered yes. So then I followed with “how can you say things will ‘never’ change in Africa if you believe God makes anything possible.” He responded by saying, “you are right”, but soon after the “nevers” continued to leave his lips as if they were automatically programmed responses.
The words “never” and its opposite “always” are excessively used in our vocabulary. They are often the trigger words that spark explosive arguments between friends and loved ones with statements like “You ALWAYS do that!” or “I NEVER said that!” These two words can also damage the mind sets of those living in the developing world who see things as impossible by saying “Africans will never change” or “the people in Europe and the U.S. will always have it better than we do.” Unfortunately, these are statements that I have commonly heard uttered by many Africans, because these beliefs have become ingrained into their psyche.
Interestingly, these same words can also play a critical role in damaging a witness testimony in a legal suit if one is not paying attention to how they respond to questions. In 2003, I was deposed as part of a civil action against the estate that I had been appointed as the personal representative. During the preparation for this deposition, my attorney coached me on the process such as “only answer what was asked” — “if not clear on what was said, ask the question to be repeated” — “be careful when using the words ‘always’ and ‘never’ and similar ones like ‘all.’” He explained why he cautioned me on the usage of these words by saying “it only takes ONE time or ONE incident to prove what was stated as wrong.” So, as I sat through my eight-hour deposition I was very focused on what was being asked and what words were coming out of my own month. When this process was over I was extremely exhausted by this intense concentration and went home with a severe headache. Before this lawsuit I had no idea how these simple words had such an impact on our lives.
From that moment I started noticing how these are very prominent words in our vocabulary, and how often they can be uttered in a day or even in one conversation. It is very challenging to not over use these words since they seem to slip off our tongue with ease. And even though I am not a perfect practitioner of limiting the use of these words, I do try to sensitize others to their meaning and how they can be damaging.
It is important that we realize that our commonly used vocabulary can program our brain in how we see or think about the world around us. It is when we understand this reality that we can start purging the words in our vocabulary that is limiting or oppressing our way of thinking. Therefore, the words like “never” and “always” can be filed along with sayings like “This is Africa” in a folder called “WORDS NOT TO LIVE BY.”
Africa is known as “the cradle of civilization,” and yet it is forever epitomized as the “dark continent.” It is a continent in which its people have been subjugated to colonialism, human trafficking, civil or ethnic wars, and extreme poverty. It is a vast preserve of fauna and flora that covers an abundant reserve of precious minerals, and the battleground among non-African nations seeking to extract its rich resources. So, why is that anytime something unusual or bad happens on this continent you hear the utterance “This is Africa” or in its shorten version “TIA”?
Often in life we can overly use a word or saying that eventually becomes our mantra. It is through this repetition that we become conditioned to it and learn to accept it as our realty. This seems to be the case in Africa, because anytime something goes wrong, someone automatically says “This is Africa!” And it also seems that these three words are a contagious disease, because non-Africans are saying them too.
This urgent need to say “This is Africa” when problems occur, reminded me of something that I heard during a Connecting with Africa Conference: “Western or Indigenous Democracy: What is the Choice for Africa?” held in Minnesota in August 2008. Professor Tamrad Tademe of St. Cloud State University/Minnesota, who is also an Ethiopian, commented “that most Africans are on the defensive that when anytime something happens in Africa we feel compelled to apologize.” He further commented by saying that Western nations ask Africans “what is wrong with Africa.” Professor Tademe responded “what is wrong is Africans have a damaged mindset from colonialism and racism.” And he followed it with this quote “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed” by Stephen Bantu Biko, an anti-apartheid activist in South Africa in the 1960s who was later killed.
I see these three words as a means to oppress minds. This is why this non-African has grown tired of it, and anytime I hear it being uttered I just cringe. So now when I hear someone use it to justify an incident, I kindly ask the person to stop saying it and explain that it is not a very good excuse for what occurred. I feel compelled to caution people in using this saying, because it can constrain their minds from seeing that things can be better or different. This is why I encourage and challenge Liberians not to accept the status quo by saying these three words. I hope Liberians can create a new saying that promotes positive change and embraces a better future.
Since June, I have heard similar notions about the need for changing mindsets from two Liberians, who are also clergymen, as they shared some profound insights at various events. In listening to these two clergymen, it became quite clear that they too believe Liberians should not accept their current situation, but to strive for something better. The next two paragraphs give insight to what these two Liberian men were trying to convey to their audiences.
On June 5, 2009, I attended a special presentation by the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “Reconciliation Healing” that featured the Rwandan Genocide Survivor Immaculee Ilibagiza as the keynote speaker. During this program, Monsignor Andrew Karnley of the Catholic Diocese of Monrovia got up to share this story: “Two men were looking out of the window of their prison cell. When asked what they saw, one man said he could only see mud and the other man said he could see stars.” Monsignor Karnley analyzed this story and said, “Currently most Liberians see mud and only a few see stars, so it is my hope that all Liberians can start seeing stars.”
On August 16, 2009, I attended the second anniversary of the World Harvest Church in New Georgia Estate of Monrovia. Reverend Claudius Deah of Mission Bethel Ministries was invited as the guest pastor for this special occasion. Before starting his sermon he took a moment to illustrate the difference between “satisfaction” and “dissatisfaction.” He commented that satisfaction is when we accept things as they are and dissatisfaction is when we know there is still room for improvement. So he concluded that it is better not to be blinded by satisfaction, but continue to be dissatisfied while seeking improvement.
These two clergymen have offered something else for Liberians to consider then those three tiresome, overused words. So, I will leave this post hoping Liberians continue reaching for the stars and striving for improving their lives and nation.