[dignity / noun, the state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect.]
It’s taken me a short while to figure out what upsets me so much about power cuts in Africa. The experience is in both measurable and immeasurable ways un-dignifying. You are in the middle of cooking a meal for the family, while helping your child with the homework, and the power cuts. The time and intimacy you wanted to share with your family is cut short. You have intention to work late into the night to finish an important project and the power cuts again for the third time this week. You compromise trust with a client as you deliver a project late. You are a vendor in the streets of an unnamed city and the lack of working streetlights means you have fewer hours to sell your wares before it becomes dangerous to be on the streets in the dark. Your profits are reduced. Your loved one is in surgery and a power cut results in complications and possibly death. A life and human value is lost.
There was once a schedule. Some promise that you would be told just when your power (a pun is intended here) would be taken away from you and when it would be returned again. But soon you realise that promise for consistency has as little voltage as the ailing grids bringing electricity to your home. Now you have to play guessing games. Your stomach is in a knot hoping that you can have just one more hour before the injustice happens again.
On one such morning when my intention to rise at 2am and finish a project was deterred by yet another power cut and a failed invertor, I reached the end of unnecessary patience.
Apart from the inconvenience and the added expense of supplementing for what should be a basic service, having to sit in the darkness in a modern society takes away from our dignity as a people! It puts to question whether our leaders even take seriously the task of serving us their citizens. It suggests that despite our multiple intelligences we are unable to create platforms that allow us to solve simple technicalities. It says that against the intuition of what makes sense for the collective good we choose ego and petty politics over solving the challenges that limit our progress as a people. It confirms that as a continent we have failed to collaborate across borders and make good of our ample sources of energy like solar and water. That we are content with always being the laughing stock of the world.
In that moment when I was enveloped by darkness in the wee hours of the morning in an otherwise modern city in Africa, it was literally as though the darkness was mocking me — “African, you are unworthy of even the most basic of rights”. It brought to memory the countless stories that I have encountered that make African citizens question whether our leaders really take our individual and collective lives seriously. The colleague who has had to pay a bribe so that his dying wife could get the blood she so needed in an emergency situation. The friend whose six-year-old depicted potholed roads as the norm in a school art project because those are the only roads he has ever experienced in his short life. The mother who has had to give birth on a cold hospital floor because the only public hospital in her village is oversubscribed. The friend whose mother died in a traffic accident while she was crossing the border to find basic supplies that were no longer available in her country.
The stories are innumerable and too often we read them with flippancy that shows that even we, as citizens, have perhaps sub-consciously accepted the indignities that have been imposed on us. Sometimes we also train our minds to keep a healthy distance from the sting of such stories as long as they have not come too close to our doorstep. But one day they will. And they will while our leaders have access to the kind of lives that we all surely deserve.
The broad truth of the matter is that I should not be sitting in darkness in 2015. No one should. I should not have to pay bribes for blood. No one should. Getting access to basic goods should not be a life-threatening experience. That these things happen so frequently on our continent reflects an epic failure in our humanity and an epic denial of our dignity. In 2016 I want sure signs that I am going to get my dignity back.
Donna Hicks, a world-renowned expert on dignity, tells us that while dignity is something we all yearn for, it is not something that we always naturally know how to extend to others (or even to ourselves). So on that argument one should extend a hand of empathy to our leaders and assume that perhaps, on some stroke of tragic luck, all that has happened until this point is because our leaders do not know how. That like all of us they also have to be taught. So as a citizen of this beautiful continent this is what I would like to both ask and elaborate.
Number 1: You are our leaders and not gods. Hicks extends her thesis by stating that “honouring [the] element of dignity requires that people feel free from domination and that they are able to experience hope and a future that is filled with a sense of possibility”. I believe we would all like to see the relationship between us and our leaders relax. I don’t want to be afraid of my leaders. I want to love, admire and respect them. Only when that happens can we both have a shared sense of hope that we can use to rebuild our communities and our continent, and as a result experience all of our possibilities. Too often you talk about a hope that is not tangible to me as a regular citizen. And too often, if I am honest, I am afraid of speaking up about this for fear of losing my life or livelihood. Here is one pointer as to how to close the gap: Open up the spaces that you occupy for dialogue and contributions from the diversity of your populace. Close the gap between us and you. I want to feel that when I encounter you on a forum I can engage with you honestly without bruising your political ego or without putting my life at risk. I want to know that you value my life the same way that you value that of your daughter or your son and that you want no harm or injustice to befall me. I want to believe that you see me not as a threat but as a person with ideas that could co-create with you. We need you to be able to free yourself of the trappings of power that we are almost certain suffocate you at night — because you too, like us, are human.
Number 2: Be consistent and determined in your efforts to be solution-driven. Your countries are populated with such smart and capable people, young and old, who need and are trying to create an enabling environment to apply their ideas and create solutions. It’s not only limited power supplies that hold our people back. It is also projects that are given to undeserving and incapable people. It is poor regulation. It is old educations that do not enable learners in a digital and entrepreneurial world. It is the reluctance of capable minds to serve in government for fear of becoming stuck in a regressive system. These and other problems are within your grasp to fix. We cannot have another year where we are not creators of our own destiny. In the global race we are surely running out of time. There are untapped capabilities that lie in both your local populace and your diaspora. Engage us, use us, we are ready to serve and serve well.
Number 3: No more tearing down. More building. 2015 has been a year filled with #ThingsMustFall. Statues, systems and symbols of old colonial resonance are still a transfixion of the younger generation. This is a sign that as a continent we have not built enough of our own institutions, systems and symbols that can adequately hold the attention of our young people. It is a sign too that we have passed on a very dangerous protest mindset that finds its best opportunity in tearing something down instead of building formidable contra-systems to replace that which is no longer desirable. And so our young ones are now directing their anger and frustration towards statues. If our leaders play the blame game, then their followers are likely to do the same. If your followers observe in you a reluctance to take full responsibility of the circumstances of your nations, then they are likely to fall victim of the tangible effects of that. So 2016 should be a year in which we build. Start by building trust with followers by being transparent and empathetic to the struggles of your people. An admission of failure is usually a good place to start. And when that is done we can all begin to build the opportunities, institutions, systems and symbols that prove to us that we are worthy of honour and respect.
We all want to live dignified lives on this continent. We need our leaders to choose that for us before we can fully experience it. We can’t create dignified experiences for ourselves when there are forces at play that diminish our efforts. And so the ball is in your court dear African leader. Give us back our dignity!