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Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye: Indeed , death is a laughing matter in our culture

By Luke Tamborinyoka

In the wake of the pandemic-induced deaths of four government ministers within a time frame of a few days, Zimbabweans have taken to social media to taunt and take pot-shots at uncaring government leaders in what some have described as a violation of the values of our common humanity or ubuntu.

Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye with Luke Batsirai Tamborinyoka
Luke-ing the Beast in the Eye with Luke Batsirai Tamborinyoka

This piece will argue that it is certainly not part of our culture to celebrate or to wish death upon anyone, including even our enemies. It is even worse, in fact a real anathema to the values of ubuntu, to kill people or to wish death on anyone, a cardinal sin for which those now crying foul over the deathly parodies have themselves shamelessly committed in the past!

I argue that our culture certainly permits and allows the invocation of the power of taunts, mirth, derision and laughter at our funerals to lighten the burden of the grief spawned by the spectre of death. Otherwise, without some comic distraction, a bereaved people can weep itself to death! Such parody is also a vehicle and an avenue for a community to vent its suppressed feelings, especially in an environment where people are ordinarily not allowed to freely express themselves.

The whole essence of the family friend or sahwira in the Shona culture, whose presence at the funeral is not only to partake the rigour of hard work but mainly to make people laugh, usually by aping the habits of the deceased to the merriment of the mourners, is evidence that in our tradition, humour and laughter have always been conjoined to the tragic occasion of death.

The elevated role of the sahwira especially at funerals, has always been an ingrained part of our culture, a stress-coping mechanism devised by our forefathers and foremothers to provide comic relief in those dire times when we lose our loved ones. Therefore, since time immemorial, death and laughter have always been Siamese twins in our culture.

Zimbabweans across the spectrum have been dying over the years, especially in the past year mainly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The pandemic has worsened already fractured livelihoods, especially in light of fragile and highly informal economies such as ours.

It is pertinent to note that when ordinary Zimbabweans were dying due to this global pandemic, which in our case has come without any safety nets amid a collapsed health services sector, no one regarded this death of commoners as a crisis.

Even then, with a government unconcerned by their plight, despondent Zimbabweans have been laughing and joking about their own deaths, the parlous state of the economy and the effects of the pandemic on their already fractured livelihoods.

Even before the death of the government ministers, the people were already laughing at themselves and posting jokes about the pandemic and their parlous circumstances. That laughter was a coping mechanism amid a monumental crisis especially in a country where there is no form of safety nets to cushion a populace ravaged by a global scourge.

In fact, no one invoked the mantra of ubuntu to those in authority about the inhumanity of not injecting funds to revive a collapsed health sector in the wake of this unmitigated health crisis.

When this pandemic first hit the shores of our land early last year and ordinary people started dying in their numbers in the countryside, no one raised issues of ubuntu when government and the well-heeled—against the dictates of empathy associated with our culture— established their own exclusive, fully resourced facility in the plush suburb of Mt Pleasant. Back then, I ranted about the wickedness of establishing this exclusive, segregatory facility which I branded “the Mt Pleasant facility of shame” !

Zanu PF, the party (mis) running government which has been at the forefront of maiming and murdering innocent citizens against the tenets and values of ubuntu remained loudly quiet and never invoked the basic values of our common humanity when a whole government created an exclusive facility for the elite and left the rest of us to die.

But now that it is clear that money, power and social status will not provide any form of immunity to this uncaring, tummied lot, the class of power and privilege is now panicking.

The mantra of ubuntu, which was never raised when the poor were dying in huge numbers while an inept government stood by and watched, is now being invoked simply because the people are exercising their right to free speech over the spectre of death that has now scaled over the high perimeter walls of the plush homes in Glen Lorne, Follyjon and Shawasha Hills, where the rich and the powerful government ministers reside.

No supermen and superwomen

Emmerson Mnangagwa was in the news recently, making the point that the Covid-19 pandemic was not selective. He said the scourge had no spectators and adjudicators, no holier than thou, no supermen and superwomen.

He was absolutely right. Only that the irony was lost on him that this was a message more to his government than to anyone else; the same government that had presumed that their social class and their lofty status provided them with immunity from this ravaging pandemic.

It is no one else but government ministers; the well-heeled and the politically connected who behaved as if the pandemic was only for the poor, ordinary Zimbabweans.

When this lot in government, led by the likes of former Health Minister Obadiah Moyo, were stealing Covid-19 funds in a scam the media branded Covidgate, the assumption was that this was a pandemic only for ordinary people and from which Cabinet Ministers and senior government officials were sufficiently cushioned because they were immortal and superhuman.

When the regime was locking down the country for everyone else except itself, proscribing gatherings for the rest of us while allowing their DCC elections to take place, the presumption was that they—and only they— could afford to gather because they were too superior to catch this deadly virus.

By-elections were suspended ostensibly to prevent the ordinary people from exercising their democratic rights under under the perfect cover and excuse of the pandemic. But the extraordinary Congress by the surrogates was allowed to proceed because the assumption then was that Covid-19 had its chosen constituency and could not dare affect the “revolutionary party” and its acolytes.

All this happened because the privileged political elite deemed themselves to be spectators, nay adjudicators in the wake of this pandemic. Indeed, they presumed themselves to be supermen and superwomen who were well-beyond the scope and remit of this scourge.

They arrested ghetto boys DJ Fantan and Levels for hosting a superspreader gig on New Year’s eve in the poor people’s township of Mbare. But no action was taken on the organisers of the lavish party hosted by Kuda Tagwireyi, which most of these government ministers attended and where they are rumoured to have contracted the deadly virus.

It was because these government ministers and the political elite in Zanu PF presumed themselves to be supermen and superwomen who could not catch the virus.

Now that they are also dying and are meeting the same deathly fate with the ordinary people, Zimbabweans can justifiably afford a chuckle and mumble to themselves ” Zvaiwana ngwarati ….”

This warped presumption that this pandemic will make a selection based on status and class is what has made Zimbabweans to taunt and make jokes around the tragic deaths of the chefs .

All of us will perish if we don’t start feeling for each other, especially the privileged few who are now attending burials at the national heroes acre clad in more PPE than that available in all our public hospitals put together. We are all at the mercy of this deadly pandemic. But it is the rich and the powerful, through their acts of omission and commission, that have unwittingly invited scorn and derision upon themselves, now that the shoe of death has shifted to their foot!

Only on Monday, government announced that it was procuring Covid-19 vaccines but would first give priority to Cabinet Ministers, senior government officials, MPs, soldiers, the police and frontline health workers.

No one would begrudge frontline health workers as a priority. But sidelining ordinary Zimbabweans while putting a premium on the political elite is the kind of behaviour that will exhort the people to taunt them when this self-centred lot meet their own fate, in spite of the massive expenditure to take care of only themselves.

We are all equal. We all carry equal importance in the eyes of our God. It is the regime itself, through its unbridled self-centredness and self-arrogated sense of value and importance at the expense of the ordinary citizenry, that is inviting scorn upon itself when the spectre of death eventually visits them in spite of all these selfish insurance measures designed to protect only themselves.

And when people laugh at them on social media platforms, that we are in this together despite the tilted heavy investment only for their own protection, they invoke the mantra of ubuntu, claiming it is not cultural to mock leaders in their death.

The selective invocation of the mantra of ubuntu

There is a Shona proverb that says Dindingwe rinonaka richakweva rimwe, kana rokwevewa roti mavara angu ozarevhu . Literally translated, this means that a cheetah may enjoy dragging its fellow through the mud, but when the roles are reversed, it opts to be dragged on the carpet for fear that the mud will soil its squeaky clean spots!

The English equivalent is: What is good for the goose must be good for the gander.

The political elite that is now shouting loud about ubuntu was conspicuously silent about the same cultural values when they were hacking people to death in unbridled political violence over the years.

No one talked about ubuntu during the era of “short sleeve” and “long sleeve” when paid party goons and State security agents were callously harming innocent people, chopping off their hands and amputating them with blunt tenon saws because they dared support a political party of their choice!

We must assume that it was permissible under our culture then when Mnangagwa was publicly wishing that he be allowed to play God when he was threatening to turn off oxygen supplies to innocent citizens because they had chosen to support a political party of their choice!

No one invoked the mantra of ubuntu when soldiers and police shot and killed innocent citizens on August 1, 2018 in callous acts of State-sanctioned murder, as confirmed by the Mothlahte Commission, set up by none other than Mr Mnangagwa himself! To date, no action has been taken against the perpetrators of these heinous acts.

It must have been part of our culture when government agents again murdered over 20 people in January 2019, as confirmed by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission. Again, no action has been taken against anyone even though some innocent people are now orphans, widows and widowers, courtesy of the State.

Stealing Covid-19 funds when people are dying like flies is like squandering chema, the funeral token. It is definitely not part of ubuntu to run away with the funeral purse! Yet they did it and no one raised the issue of ubuntu, which is now being recklessly flaunted because the pandemic is now claiming Cabinet ministers’ lives in Chisipite and Borrowdale Brooke.

Was it part of the values of _ubuntu for State security agents to abduct and sexually abuse three innocent women, including an Honourable MP?

Was it part of our values of ubuntu for Oppah Muchinguri to celebrate the pandemic-induced deaths in the US and Europe—in her warped theory that the pandemic would not harm anyone among us; that it was God’s plan to perish only those in the countries that had imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe?

The point is that we must condemn any form of celebration of anyone’s death because it is not part of our values, moreso to those with a penchant to maim and kill who are now taking offence at those laughing at the fact that this pandemic is not selective and is claiming the lives of both the dollarless and the dollarful! .

Whoever celebrates the death of a fellow human being must be condemned, whether its Oppah Muchinguri or Emmerson Mnangagwa who publicly wished that he be granted capacity to switch off oxygen supplies to innocent citizens whose only crime was that they have chosen to support a political party of their choice.

In my view, what the regime’s goons are touting to have been a celebration of death by the weather-beaten citizens of this country was not in any way a celebration. It was simply a public but voluble expression of anger by a repressed citizenry disgusted by the self-centred nature of a political elite that had naively presumed this pandemic to be a bayonet only targeted at the poor but have now realised, to their shock, that they are now equally at the mercy of the same instrument.

For example, there were strident calls for Mnangagwa to cut short his annual leave and return to attend to the burgeoning crisis in the country, given the spike in the mortality rate. He chose not to heed the plea and remained on vacation, sticking the proverbial sticks in his ears because the people who were dying were the poor people in Domboshava, Dombodema, Malipati and Kazangarare.

He only cut short his annual leave and adopted a sense of urgency when four government ministers died!

It is this kind of attitude that irks the ordinary citizen and exhorts them to express their revulsion through taunts on social media platforms, making jokes about this inept leadership that does not care for the ordinary people.

Mnangagwa only realised the pandemic had reached another level in the country when Sibusiso Moyo and other senior government officials succumbed to Covid-19, confirming the Animal Farm dictum that all animals are equal but some are more equal than others! So there was no crisis when ordinary people were dying. It only became a crisis when government ministers died?

People will throw all sorts of invective, as they are now doing on social media, when they realise they have leaders who believe it is not a crisis when villagers and poor people are dying; that it only becomes a crisis when government ministers die to the extent that the leader will cut short his vacation and make an urgent address to the nation—and for the first time without a scarf around his neck.

For Mnangagwa, it only became a crisis when the pandemic hit the villas and the mansions in Follyjon, Chisipite, Borrowdale, Glen Lorne and Shawasha Hills.

Now that is what has made people throw all sorts of taunts at their leadership. And it’s definitely part of ubuntu to send a few home-truths, even during a funeral. For we, the people, have become the sahwira of our detached political leaders who seem to be unsure where the citizens’ social media invective is emanating from.

And the people have got the cultural licence to taunt their leaders for not caring for them, thinking only about themselves in a pandemic in which we are all equally vulnerable.

Now that the leaders are making arrangements to bring vaccines into the country because Cabinet ministers are now dying, they have now publicly announced that only government ministers and senior officials will be prioritised, further provoking an already irate citizenry.

This blatant form of discrimination and selectivity is not only a silent genocide on the rest of the citizenry but represents the most blatant violation of a cardinal right enshrined in section 56 of our Constitution—the right to equality and non-discrimination.

And again, this holier-than-thou, supermen and superwomen attitude is actually a crude form of apartheid.

Conclusion

The truth is that we are in this together. We are all vulnerable. We must treat each other equally, and with respect, in the wake of this pandemic.

Any kind of segregation–as if government leaders are supermen and superwomen– will make the citizens laugh at them when death scales their mighty durawalls to visit them in the comfort of their plush villas and mansions.

The derision and laughter will not necessarily be a celebration of their death but a noting that we are all equal before the same God and that our Deity in Heaven is the ultimate leveller of human fate and circumstance!

The people are taunting the chefs when they succumb to the pandemic simply because there was a time this lot naively thought the pandemic would only target the poor. When they were stealing Covid-19 funds, they thought it was money meant for a pandemic of the poor. Unbeknown to them, this scourge was soon to become the ultimate leveller and no one, including them, was going to be safe.

They may have presumed that by dint of their social status and their earthly trinkets, their V8 engines would whisk them away from death. But God always knew we are all equally vulnerable.

It it were campaign regalia, every Zimbabwean would have been handed an assortment of bandanas, doeks and wrap-cloths simply because this lot would be soliciting for our valuable votes. Now that they pilfered power, they have equally pilfered the funds meant to mitigate the effects of the scourge and cannot even afford to dole out for free the life-saving masks and sanitizers.

For them, our votes are more important than our lives. But people can only vote when they are alive?

This pandemic knows no party card and no status. We are in this together. But when you claim that the vaccines are only for the chefs, and then eventually succumb to the same pandemic , even with the vaccines that you would have stocked only for yourselves, don’t stop the citizens from mocking you even in your death.

It is that egocentrism and self-centredmess of only thinking about oneself that is definitely not part of the sacred values of ubuntu .

In our culture, the collective has always been more important than the individual, regardless of that individual’s social status or the fatness of their bank account.

Covid-19 is real and we are all vulnerable; whether scarfed or de-scarfed, moneyed or not moneyed, Zanu PF or MDC Alliance, whether we reside in Epworth or Borrowdale, Domboshava or Dombodema and regardless of whether one drives a Ferrari or a battered Mazda 323, whether one’s means of locomotion is a wheelchair, a wheelbarrow or a Merc.

Welcome to Covid-19, the ultimate leveller of our fate and our predicament. Indeed, the pandemic has taught us that our presumed differences are all a matter of artifice.

After all, we shall all be buried in the same soil on the same earth, all awaiting judgement by the same God!

Luke Tamborinyoka is the Deputy Secretary for Presidential Affairs in the MDC Alliance led by Advocate Nelson Chamisa . He writes here in his personal capacity . You can interact with him on Facebook or on the twitter handle @ luke_tambo .

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