Today’s lesson begins with a flashback to pre-colonial Africa. For those of you who skipped secondary school history classes for bathroom sex, what is called Africa today was once a continent of several civilizations and empires. These empires and civilizations had fine standing armies, highly developed cultures, hypocritical religious creeds and even functional and corrupt bureaucracies–all without European intervention.
Well, those sneaky Europeans, having squandered their natural resources on inter-tribal warfare, decided to come and help themselves to some of the takeaway from the free-for-all party jam going on in Africa. First, they set up shop and started by trading for gold and other rich resources–when the profit and loss account didn’t satisfy them, they then moved to purchasing the people themselves. The Africans, nice folks that they were, obliged the Europeans. After a few centuries of, mostly, conflict free trade, it hit the Europeans that they were wasting valuable pounds and dollars buying human and natural resources when they could simply exchange their tenant status for that of a landlord and own everything: land, humans, and resources.
The Berlin Conference of 1884 gave birth to Europe’s follow-my-customs-or-eat-shit programme referred to in polite circles as “colonization”. But Africans weren’t taking any of that nonsense. It was one thing to trade, it was another to be governed. Across Africa, from Egypt to the Cape, the rallying cry was “Occupy!”. Well, not exactly. In fact, it was much more worse than any Occupy Protest.
As nice and commercially inclined as these pre-colonial Africans were, they were also fierce warriors and soldiers, defending their wives and property with the fury of a castrated celebrity porn-star. They honoured and even encouraged death on the battlefield (modern terrorists are mere copycats), and a woman who had lost sons or a husband to war was a proud one. Cowards were ostracized and anyone who was not prepared to die for his land was a bastard. But despite this solid patriotism, the Africans lost the wars for their land principally because of lesser firepower and the activity of the cowards and scoundrels among them.
While some Africans were busy physically fighting off and terrorizing the Europeans, others were preaching peace and acceptance of European customs and religions. These cowardly peacemakers were educated in European ways and history and given authority to govern their fellow Africans under the shadow of the established colonial government. Africans who kept fighting against the government and who tried to reclaim their land were killed off, exiled or locked up in jail.
In obedience to the laws of natural selection, the brave and stubborn ones died off with their brave and stubborn genes, while those who accepted European authority went on to become educated Christians or tolerated Muslims. And because whether cowardly or brave, people will always have sex, these cowards went on to reproduce their genes and today their descendants are spread across the country. Essentially, every post-colonial African today is a descendant of one of those cowards or scoundrels that refused to die rather than give up their authority. We are the sons (and daughters!) of cowards and scoundrels. Once in a while, though, remnant genes from the brave Africans show up.
Unfortunately, the now pervasive cowards-in-authority are always quick to wipe out such resurrections.
The old testament is full of killings and genocide. Whole tribes slain, women raped, towns and cities pillaged. From the killing of Abel to the captivity of Israel, it is a continuous story of sin and retribution. And the wages of sin was death. Literal death. No kidding.
One of the stories tells of a bunch of kids dissing Elijah the Prophet. The man summoned a bear to devour the kids. Just think about it and let a shiver run through you. Kids, man! A bear! To eat them? For calling you names? A “prophet” who tosses children at wild animals today will be lynched by angry parents.
But Christians, and many other non-Christians don’t shudder at the bloodletting of the Old Testament. The tragedies and deaths in verses and chapters seem far too remote for them to worry about the details. Instead they pick up the moral lesson to be learnt and continue to the next story. But the death of Jesus is the theme of almost 27 books. A situation best explained by the the words attributed to Stalin: “One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is just a statistic.”
This is not just a Christian predilection. Its all too human. We ignore large numbers and focus on the smaller ones. However the death of one man is as tragic as the other–and you shouldn’t fault him for dying with company. The Rwandan Genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, 9/11, Biafran Civil War–we bunch up all sorts of individual deaths in one mouthable phrase. But we go haywire over a singular event: Anita Smith, age 24, a banker, single, was murdered.
And that is why I refuse to mourn individual tragedies any more than I mourn collective ones. I am sober about the death of a single person, but life goes on for me within the hour. The statistical death is as tragic as the single one. The fact that I know someone’s name does not make his death more important than the one whose name I do not know. The death of the people of biblical Sodom and Gomorrah is as sad as that of Michael Jackson. And when I read of those two events, I read them with thoughtfulness–not indifference for one and sorrow for the other. Statistics are tragic too, and the tragic is also statistical.