The Balance of Stories

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One of the famous quotes often attributed to the late Chinua Achebe, master story teller extraordinaire, is this one about the lion and the hunter: ‘Until lions learn to produce their own historians, the history of the hunt will continue to glorify the hunter’. Deconstructed, we are told that – lions are very strong animals indeed.  They get their priorities wrong – if not being plainly stupid – because they go about showing off their strength, believing that they are both feared and admired for their strength without knowing that they are indeed being ridiculed for what they would consider their asset. In this tale, only the hunter writes or tells stories of his encounters with the lion and naturally makes himself the hero of such encounters while lions have no history and are not smart enough to produce historians that will document their encounters with human beings – for a balance of stories.

There is a play of this lion and hunter aphorism in George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945). In this allegorical and dystopian novel, shortly after the animals successfully carried out a revolution which overthrew their human masters in the Manor Farm to establish a rule of the animals, there was a need for some reconstruction work in the farm. A horse, known as the Boxer, was the pillar of the work, and his maxim, anytime new challenges in the reconstruction were presented by the pigs,  leaders of the new animal kingdom, was, ‘I will work harder’. As the Boxer’s strength deserted him owing to a combination of age and illness, the leadership of the new animal kingdom, duly sold him off to the butcher. In this tale, for the pigs, the Boxer was only good for his strength and nothing else. The Boxer, in the aforementioned novel, obviously did not make any attempt to tell his own side of the story on why he was willing to work extremely hard without complaining.

I have had a little more time to reflect on the lion and hunter tale and the whole issue of balance of stories. It would seem to me that we are rather too quick to judge and conclude that lions have produced no historians and that every available history of the hunt glorifies the hunter. What seems to have happened, in my opinion, is that we simply created a stereotype, based on our understanding and what we read, and concluded that the history of the hunt necessarily glorifies the hunter. Have we for instance made any effort to understand the ways of the animal kingdom and the language of the lions?  Is it possible that in their kingdom and in their language, every lion and lioness is a professor of history who regales in telling their young ones (cubs) how a mere belch (roar) from them makes human beings freeze in fear and death?

Take again the relationship between chicken and man. Most people love chicken and eggs and take it as a matter of course that the whole essence of a fowl’s life is to service the appetite of man. But is it possible that in the chicken kingdom they have their own history that they looked at men dying in their numbers out of malnourishment and then being selfless creatures, they collectively decided to offer themselves as sacrificial lambs to provide proteins to save human beings from their miserable existence – just as Jesus Christ died on the cross in Christian religion for the atonement of man’s – sins? In other words, while as humans we are often too quick to assume that chickens have no brains and only live to provide meat and eggs for us, is it possible that in the chicken world, they see themselves as saints who willingly give up their lives just to save man from dying of malnourishment?

 In fact while humans see themselves as the most advanced creature, is it possible that in the animal kingdom they laugh at us as being too lazy? Come to think of it: as a hunter, man can hardly run fast enough to catch any game and will need a dog to help him; he can hardly overpower any decent animal on his own and may need the aid of a gun or matchete; man is too lazy to carry a reasonable load and may require the assistance of a donkey or a lorry. How are we sure that in the animal kingdom we are not simply derided as lazy fools?

What am I driving at with all these stories? I am simply referring to the issue of stereotypes, which is often based on an incomplete or biased interpretation of others’ reality by non-members of the group. Let me give a practical example. As an Igbo, I know for instance that if you return from say a town or foreign travel and tell your people that you came back empty- handed because your hosts were unfriendly or did not want to give you any opportunities for advancement, your people are likely to retort to your face: “are you not an Igbo man?” In essence, they are reminding you that in the Igbo culture there is no excuse for failure. In fact, I remember that in my secondary school, Oraifite Secondary school, in Anambra State, the school’s motto was a Latin translation of, ‘find the way or create one’. In the school, in my days, you would get into trouble if you ever answered any question with, ‘I don’t know’. But it was acceptable to answer, ‘give me time or days to find out the answer’.

Now among non- Igbos, if you are called an ‘Igbo man’, it could mean you are aggressively competitive or love money too much. Here again we encounter an imbalance in stories – between the Igbos’ notion of themselves and the others’ perception of them. Again, there are some ethnic groups that cherish certain values which they want to be central in their historiography. A culture may for instance preach that being at peace with oneself and one’s community and seeing life as transient are nobler than engaging in aggressive pursuit of materialism. Here while members of this culture may extol themselves for not being materialistic and accommodating, non-members of the culture may deride them as ‘lazy people’.

Stereotypes exist in every society and could sometimes be a way of helping people organize or pigeon-hole reality. There is rarely a group in the world, including the remote village in our country, which does not have one stereotype or the other attached to it. The problem is often when this stereotype enters the political domain or conflates with hypocrisy to lead to hate speech. This seems to be what is currently happening in the country, with Nigerians seemingly enjoying profiling and pouring invectives on one another whenever they congregate in their in-group to discuss the Nigerian condition. And if you think this is only a past-time of the uneducated and those who believe the world revolves around their ethnic enclave, you may be disappointed. Just read the ‘comments’ that follow most articles online – whether in newspapers, blogs or on the numerous online news-and features aggregator sites on the country, and you will marvel at the capacity of educated Nigerians, including Diaspora-based ones, who are presumably living in ‘civilized’ countries, to write from their base animal instincts. When you read the comments in some articles published online, you often find the irony of people who complain of being insulted freely insulting others, you find groups who cry of marginalization shouting down on others who may complain of any marginalization, you find people who accuse others of having ruled longer than others boasting that their own group would rule for the next 100 years. Net effect: the widening of the social distance among the people from the different fault lines that make up the country and an exacerbation of the crisis in the country’s nation-building.

Unfortunately stereotypes can neither be legislated against nor eliminated in any society. Even its politicised variant – hate speech – is difficult to deal with, especially in free speech jurisprudence. Often what is required is for people not to take themselves too seriously, to be able to just laugh off certain jokes  that bother on stereotyping and of course for people to make better attempts at understanding why certain things matter more to others than it does to them. Perhaps, if we had been a little more sensitive or more humble, we would not have quickly concluded in the lion and hunter tale, that the lions have not produced historians. May be that aphorism would have read differently: ‘Man’s inability to decode the language of lions or access the universe of the animal kingdom, has given the impression that lions have not produced their own historians. Capitalising on this, the history of the hunt in the human kingdom, always glorifies the hunter’.

5 COMMENTS

  1. A good one. we must learn to tolerate people who are from different ethno-cultural, social and religious enclaves with ourselves simply bcos of disparities in beliefs and values and as such produced a strong united nation.

  2. There is a great imbalance between one’s notion of himself and his environment and people’s perception of
    him and so creates tendencies for division. Our watch should be tolerance.

  3. Stereotype in national discourse breeds hate speech and since stereotype is in-born trait and cannot be eliminated, it should be controlled inorder to balance the scale as there are diversities of interest in d political arena.

  4. What I deduced from this write up is “the evil of prejudice” treating people less superior than oneself… Which is un called for in nationhood!

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