(dedicated to the girl-child in Africa)
By Jonathan O. Chimakonam
The South African Government declared August as women’s month in honour of over 20,000 women who “marched to the Union Buildings on 9 August 1956 in protest against the extension of Pass Laws to women”. It was a protest against abuse and oppression of women. Some time in 2020, my wife bore us a daughter, and all of a sudden, I am woken to the harsh realities of a modern society awash with abusive tendencies for various categories of people, like the women, of which my daughter, Mànàrị is now one. Now that the joy of having that baby girl I always wanted has sank in, the question is, how should I raise my Mànàrị, not just to be a responsible human being, but also to be shielded from the abuse and oppression women still suffer in the modern society? In the Igbo country where I come from, stories had it that the age of the slave-hunters had made children grow up fast. Colonialism also forced a new social and economic orientation upon people, which required children to imitate grown-ups rather than grow up. Our world is ageing, not necessarily because of the several millennia that have passed since the big bang; it is ageing in a moral sense! Our ideas on how to organise a society have continued to change and become sophisticated, since the time of Hammurabi the Wise. Historians inform us that it was Hammurabi who first thought of sending children to school to learn the etiquettes, arts and norms established by the elders. Since then, civilisation has progressed through steady improvements on the norms, and sophistication in the arts and techne. But how do these affect the experience of being young, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, in this new age of science, technology, information, digital media, and of cancer and AIDS?
Attaining puberty, I recall, the radio and TV jingles every five minutes are about HIV/AIDS. Sex and even flirtations were tabooed not for religious reasons, but for obiri n’aja ocha, that dreadful disease that only ends when the victim has been lowered into the red earth. So, we are the HIV generation who could not even enjoy sex as our parents did. If you insisted that you wanted to toy with your life, you must use a condom. So, we are also the condom generation. Who could believe that supposedly a natural experience such as sex could be so regulated, and fatal? Or, that folks would strive to avoid it like the plague? When, and if, you eventually have your first sex or your first real sex without a condom, you feel horrified. As if to say, yes, that is it. You are now old enough to die. You have had sex without a condom; your fate is sealed. That dreadful disease is going to see you to the red earth−aja ocha!
And then also, is one of the legacies of coloniality− that is, foreign religion. As a child, I was required to wake at 4 AM to prepare for the Sunday Mass. That is after you had been to the church on Wednesday for the irritable ‘Ekpere Nwanesde’ and forced to skip play on Saturday to go for the prayer meeting of your church group. On Tuesday, you had to wake earlier than usual to attend the morning mass before going to school. And on Friday, you went to church in the evening for the gathering of whichever church paramilitary group you were forcibly enrolled into. At home, there was always a long prayer session every morning and every night before you are allowed to sleep. In-between all these prayers, at home and in the church, there were sermons, sermons of damnation. A pure metaphysics of terror that made you think that the world was dark and full of terrors! As a child, all you worry about was the damnation of the fire of hell rather than living your life. You worry so much that you begin to have nightmares. Nightmares that continue till adulthood and perhaps, may continue till you are lowered in the terrifying red earth. We were born in terror; we grew up amidst terror; we are the terrorised generation.
In Nigeria, where I come from, there are always ethnic and religious conflicts amongst the ethnic nationalities, and Christians and Moslems. The next outbreak is always unpredictable. Hundreds are killed in each, sometimes thousands, properties destroyed and survivors are thrown into hardship. This has been the situation since I was a child. In South Africa, where I now live, there is always violent Afrophobia attacks with Nigerians targeted specifically. These conflicts cause death and destruction. So, we are the conflict generation.
My people were egalitarian and communal in pre-colonial times. There were a few wealthy individuals, but there were no poor people – no destitute on the road begging, wondering how a single coin, proudly dropped by a more fortunate person, could magically relieve pangs of acute hunger. But the capitalist order that emerged with colonialism, and sucked us into a global matrix, appears to have bequeathed a dangerously lopsided economic system that left many of my people poor. Growing up, you have to join the family business or play some roles to increase family income. We all thought it was the way the world worked. As far as my memory could take me, I was working in the family business to increase income for the family as early as seven. It must have been earlier because as an adult, I see children much younger participate in winning extra income for their families. Yet, no matter how hard you worked, there was hardly enough. So, again, we are the poverty generation.
Nowadays, there is a new wave of social problem spreading around the world, from India to South Africa and elsewhere. It is the twin problem of rape and femicide. South Africa, where we live, and where my daughter was born and would likely be raised, has emerged as a global hotspot. Even children younger than my daughter are being raped, many of them to death, others to a point where doctors can only stitch by trial and error. In the last three years, many rape victims were also killed in a wave of femicide around the country. So, ours is also the rape and femicide generation.
But what worries me now is how my Mànàrị would relive all these experiences I had as a child, and even the ones emerging in this new millennium? As a father, I am agonised and dispirited that my daughter may have to relive all these terrible experiences I had been through from childhood to adulthood. How can I break the chain? Just when I thought I was finally figuring the African world out, a new reality orchestrated by my daughter’s birth has emerged. I am working so hard at my job that I barely have enough sleep each day just so that my daughter would not grow up poor even if she is a member of the poverty generation. I think about the conflicts, ethnic and religious in Nigeria where we come from, and Afrophobia and femicide in South Africa where we live. I want to shield her from all those. I worry about how and when to begin talking to her about safety measures against HIV/AIDS, it pains me to have to do that, but I see no other choice. I also worry about how to protect her from rapists. I can do my best, but I cannot attend school with her. When she becomes a teenager, I cannot accompany her to every social activity or high school party or to her first date. She should have her space and be free to operate in it, to grow up. As a father, I am terrified! But what it is in my power to spare her is metaphysical terrorism. There will be no gospels and prayers and churches in my family. My Mànàrị, will grow up without nightmares. It is within my power to do this, and I am happy to exercise that power.
The world seems so old, and the young must learn old tricks to survive. But I am now conflicted on what is the most suitable norm to set for children like my daughter who are growing up. Which moral orientation should I inculcate in my Mànàrị? The Western Kantian deontologism grounded in the Aristotelian bivalent logic, or the uze-Ezumezu moral paradigm grounded in a trivalent logic? This is one more thing I feel I have the power to do. That is, the choice of which moral orientation I should give to my daughter. How should I raise Mànàrị in order to make the most of her capacities in this ageing world? A few days ago, I discussed my concern with someone who dismissed it with the simple statement: ‘you worry too much’. Maybe I worry too much, maybe I don’t, but the set of moral values I should inculcate in my daughter to enable her to lead not just a successful life, but the good life should concern me, if not as a philosopher, then as a parent.
Nietzsche proclaims the death of God and bids us look inwards. Kant proposed his deontology-based ethics as a universal and perduring framework. But we have since found technological ways to circumvent that and restore our nihilism. We have found google, a new God we look up to for everything. Nolen Gertz informs us that some have even quit expecting the return of Jesus Christ and are now looking forward to the second coming of Steve Jobs. Perhaps, the problem is not technology, as Gertz intuits, the main question may not be that it is making us better or worse; because that is who we are, entities that are always in search of a new domino or alter ego. Perhaps we should accept this and become active in such a search. Such that Kant’s categorical imperatives should not be foisted on us as the alpha and omega of moral paradigms. We have seen our world of today, a world of Kantian and Bentham’s morals, its strengths and weaknesses. We can’t say we are entirely satisfied with its lopsidedness. Perhaps, we should seek another paradigm. In a world in which technology has had a huge impact on ethics, pushing back its bounds, it may be time to review our principles of morals or seek new paradigms? However, would the global system that sucks in every culture and everyone, and which rides on the crest of the ICT not make it difficult, if not impossible for anyone who opts out to realise their ambitions? What then must one who has lost fate in the Kantian or Bentham’s moral paradigm do? How should I raise my Mànàrị?
Should I follow the Kantian or the Bentham’s paradigm and teach her that the moral weight of actions is to be measured in terms of duty or consequences? Obligations and strict numerical consequences can be constraining for children. Or, should I follow the uze-Ezumezu paradigm and teach her that an action is right insofar as it promotes the individual good, the common good or both; it is wrong if it fails to promote at least anyone at all? Should I give up and raise her by the Kantian or Bentham’s paradigm, which allows little or no space for children to live and enjoy the freedom of growing up, and become a passive nihilist? Or, should I raise her by the uze-Ezumezu paradigm, which can restore children’s freedom to grow up, and become an active nihilist? But the problem is, how can my Mànàrị survive in a world with a uniform standard where she had imbibed a different paradigm? Children need other children to enjoy their freedom of growing up. How would she deal with the backlash of being the odd one? It does not matter the choice I make, I would remain a nihilist, but an active nihilist makes the most of their human capacities. It is one who is truly living, finding ways to reach new and better values. Besides other weaknesses, remaining with the Kantian or Bentham’s paradigm stifles the freedom of being human, especially for the young.
I am a philosopher, who has proposed a paradigm (uze-Ezumezu) I believe to be better than the Kantian or Bentham’s. This paradigm, I believe, is informed by the new realities that encapsulate my cultural worldview. I am supposed to practice what I preach, why should I go on to raise my child by a moral paradigm I believe to be inadequate for the new age? What a hypocrisy that would be. If the freedom to grow up cannot be defended by the philosopher, it would not be defended by anyone at all. If a philosopher should not practice what he professes, what rights has he to educate others?
This question should concern us all because we live in an old world where it is a tradition to establish moral standards and rules for the next generation. Juan Enriquez has criticised this practice. But as despicable as this sounds, I believe that more worrisome is how the standards we set for the next generation affect their capacities as young people.
Nowadays, being young entails striving to mimic adulthood. The world, our world is an old one. So, to survive, it is assumed, is to learn to be old. But because children are young and cannot be old at the same time, they are compelled to learn how to be old from adults. This entails most times, abandoning the act of thinking so as to avoid mistakes. The young must hand over their freedom of thought to adults who must think for them. But making mistakes should be a part of growing up. Thought informs action. Mistakes are products of erroneous thinking. The practice of thinking must go together with action informed by such thoughts. Whilst mistakes are costly in the short term; they are more beneficial in the long run. Growing up should have a lot of moral latitudes. But religions and modern society hinged on the Kantian moral paradigm promulgate against this. A child must be judged as an adult, and mistakes must be punished. This is no way to treat the young. The young are to be guided when they make mistakes. They must be allowed to think for themselves.
In our present moral universe, what it means to be young is the total surrender of one’s freedom of thought. It is the acceptance that one cannot yet think for themselves. It is the belief that thinking is an activity that the young must learn from the old. It is the assumption that until one is old, they cannot think or are prone to erroneous thinking. This is preposterous! I believe that training the brain daily is the way to make it efficient. This training, inexorably, must involve experience. We should restructure our moral universe to allow children to train their brains daily under our guidance by allowing them to think and made decisions, fail and be guided, etc. We must discourage a pattern that compels them to copy adults and be punished when they fail to do so, or do so poorly. This approach is not only bad for the young; it is bad for humanity as a whole.
But what should it mean to be growing up in an ageing world? For me, ‘it is to have the freedoms of thought and errors’ despite the standards set by adults. I want my Mànàrị to have the freedom to think and make her own mistakes and learn from it. To be able to afford her all of this, it is my duty as a parent, and then, as a philosopher to protect her from direct harm ensuing from conflicts; from mental terrorism which religion unleashes; from the constraints of poverty and diseases such as HIV/AIDS, from the foreign moral paradigms that alienate her from her cultural roots, and from the cankerworms of rape and femicide.
At an early age, we often observe stunning curiosity in children. They ask questions about everything. But as they bid to grow up, all that automatically ceases. They stop asking questions because we scream, intimidate and threaten them with punishment. They only look and learn from adults. They stop being children; they start copying adults and practising adulthood. They start being grown-ups and stop growing up, where growing up means inquiring, searching, making mistakes, tripping and falling, getting up and moving on. They stop asking questions; they stop thinking and start copying.
In philosophy, questions are more important than answers because they are outward signs that one is thinking. When young people are terrorised with religion, or by the conditions of conflicts, poverty, diseases, rape, femicide, and even by a given moral code, they withdraw inwards, and begin to copy adults as the sure path to safety. I do not want to do that to my Mànàrị. I want her to retain and grow up with her childhood curiousity, to always ask questions, to probe the world, her world, our world. To find her own ways. To be free to make mistakes and learn from it. To have as much sex as she wants and with whomever she chooses. To reach her own understanding. To have the courage to use her own reason. To exercise her brain daily; to realise its power and to grow in the use of her brain. I want my Mànàrị to grow up thinking for herself, and reaching her own informed decision on any matter at all. I don’t want her to hand over the job of thinking to her mother or me, or to a priest or teacher or to anyone at all. I don’t want her to have to restart the use of her brain at adulthood, after giving it up as a child. I don’t want her growing up to be an exercise in imitation of adulthood. I want her to think through it in her total mental freedom and independence.
But if I want my Mànàrị to grow up thinking for herself, why would I bid to set a moral paradigm for her? Shouldn’t I allow her to develop one for herself? Her own norms and standards? I am not opposed to standards being set for the next generation, as unfair as that sounds, it looks like a better option than allowing a child to grope about in a dark moral universe. What I am opposed to is setting standards like the Kantian, Bentham’s and the Judeo-Christian standards, which rob children of their childhood, and for those from parts of Africa like my Mànàrị, it alienates them from their cultural roots thereby disidentifying them from childhood. Besides, these standards skew our perception of reality. The good is not the ideal; neither is evil, the opprobrious. A child should be taught the subtle art of balance, and that is the mainstay of uze-Ezumezu paradigm, which is African culture-inspired, albeit universalisable.
Jonathan O. Chimakonam is a senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Pretoria