The Beast in Us – By Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

Rudolf Ogoo Okonkwo

She glanced at her watch. It was 2:13pm. Quickly she sprinkled the salt in her palm into a pot of egusi soup in front of her. She covered the pot, rested her shoulders on the kitchen wall as she stood up from a wooden chair near the stove. She walked to the front of the house, moving each leg with great effort. She was nine months pregnant. It took some time before she made it to the front yard. For a while she stood there, her hands supporting her waist. Her face gleamed in the tropical day light. She waited for the school bus to drop off her son. It was his second week at the school located in the town next door. She still missed him whenever he left and worried about how he was faring in school. As she waited, a light breeze carried the aroma of egusi soup to her nose. Or was it the scent that was trapped on her Buba, she wondered. She bent her head and smelled the tip of her blouse.

And the bus appeared from a distance. As its breaks screeched, she stepped aside, away from the road’s pavement. The bus door swung open and her three-year old son twirled down. He stepped on the red soil with a wobbly gait. His eyes had gone inside their sockets and his lips curled around his teeth. His cheeks were pushed deep into his mouth. The young woman felt something in her stomach. She dragged her feet toward her son, her hands stretched for a hug. The boy did not run to her the way he used to. His oversized school bag hung on his tiny shoulders. She got to him and picked him up. Up in the air, she asked him if he was okay and the little boy started to cry. She held tight to him and toddled back into the house, wiping his tears along the way. She kept asking what was wrong and the little boy kept pointing at various parts of his body.

Inside, she placed him down on the bed and stripped him bare. She did not know when a loud scream came out of her mouth. His tiny body had lacerations on his back, front, side, arms and legs. There was no way to lay him on the bed without him feeling piercing pain. She gathered soft towels and placed them underneath him. She called her husband on the phone to inform him. As the boy cried, she called his teacher’s phone. The teacher said that the boy refused to sleep at school so she flogged him to get him to sleep. Her heart jumped. Her blood bubbled. She ran from one end of the room to another searching for what to rub on his wounds to lessen the pain. She picked dusting powder, glanced at the instructions and put it down. She grabbed a can of Vaseline and dropped it. Then she decided to drape the wounds with towel soaked in warm water. She went to the kitchen to boil a kettle of water. There she noticed that her pot of soup had been burning all along. Smoke loitering all over the kitchen.

Her husband rushed back home. They debated what to do. There were not a lot of good options. If they report to police they would need money to get the police to act. Beyond that, their son would be dismissed from the only private school around them. The only option would be to have him go to the dilapidated public schools nearby. They did not want him to have the kind of poor foundation they had at village schools. They did not want to be labeled trouble makers, either. They decided to nurse their son back to health. They chose to hope that his teacher would not beat him again.

Their son is my godson.

All across Nigeria and Africa, there are so many young and helpless children who are daily abused. They are abused by parents, guardians, teachers, family members, distant relations and strangers alike. The tears of these little children contaminate our land. Some of these abuses are so institutionalized that we don’t see them for what they are. Some have been carried on generations after generations. The victims become apostles of the same acts after they have survived and outgrown their abusers.

Corpses have more respect than children in Nigeria. What house girls go through in homes across Nigeria each day is enough for the prayers of Nigerians not to be answered for a decade. The sad thing about these ill-treatments is that majority of the perpetuators are the elite. The same elite who are educated and are supposed to show the light to the vast majority of our people – a majority who did not have the opportunity to understand the connection between human dignity, moral compass and compassionate society.

In the homes where many of us grew up, we observed our parents and other adults treat house girls like sub-humans. Some of us participated in such inhuman treatments. We beat, abuse, molest and deprive these children of the poor under the pretense that we are raising them. In many homes across Nigeria you could identify the house girl by the way she dressed, even when the family is out in public. When the parents speak to the kids, the tone they use reveals who is their child and who is the house girl.

The real measure of our humanity is not in how we treat those who are rich, those who are influential and those who are “useful” to us. The real measure of our humanity is how we treat those who are helpless, those who are weak and those who are disadvantaged. Often those we consider helpless, useless and beneath us are the most influential people in our lives. They are the ones who cook for us, wash our clothes, drive us around and take care of our children. They deserve better treatment from us than members of the high society. It is insanity to show contempt to people who are an integral part of our innermost lives.

What makes Nigeria’s case so pathetic is that the three core sources for the reinforcement of human dignity in any society failed us at the same time – our ethical, religious and legal roots all washed away at once. We essentially have animals pretending to be humans. There is no morality left in our religion. There is no ethics guiding our behaviors. There is no enforcement of our laws. We are ruled by our very basic human instincts and yet wonder why our society is backward and corrupt.

The children we abuse today will tomorrow take their revenge on our children and our children’s children. By violating the dignity of others, we invite a violation of our dignity. Those we degrade often lose their sense of what is rational. And when that happens, we all become victims of their irrationalities. Our degradation of those who find themselves in low social status causes harm to them and also to us. When we deny our fellow human beings their dignity we open the door for greater evil to come into our homes and our society. Our cruelty to the less privileged does not just erode our conscience, it diminishes our sense of shame. And when that happens, a little of what makes us human dies with it. Those who take joy in depriving others of their happiness are asking for posterity’s curse as a payback.

Frequently we take this abusive behavior with us when we move abroad. In My Life Has A Price, Tina told a story of how, as a 13-year old girl she was taken from Nigeria to France to live with Former Nigeria’s footballer, Godwin Okpara. The Paris Saint-Germain star, Godwin, and his wife, Linda, enslaved and abused Tina in France even while she raised their children for them. They spat on her, called her stupid, denied her education, beat her and sexually molested her. Godwin is now serving 10-year jail term while Linda is serving 15-year jail term. Their children are in foster care.

Tina’s kind of story plays out in millions of homes everyday in Nigeria. We partake in it. We perpetuate it. And we pretend that it is not evil. Yet, we are repulsed by the video of those men who grabbed four innocent students of the University of Port Harcourt, beat them up, and set their bodies on fire. But if the video of how we treat our house girls, our drivers, our gateman, our apprentices, our cook, our gardener, our students, our workers, our subordinates at work, and all those lower in status is captured and shown to the world, it may be as repulsive as that of the Aluu lynching mob.

Fifty-two years of progressive corruption, unrestrained impunity, accelerating injustice, disappearing cultural custodians and deepening self deceit have unhinged the furculum of our society’s moral core. It has brought out the beast in us – mini- lynching mobs strolling across our communities violating, humiliating and harming every unfortunate being on our path just to appease our uninhibited desires.

To begin to rebuild a moral future for our society, we need to rise above our animal instinct. Therapist Craig Nakken argues that we need to replace arrogance with humility, hate with love, resentment with forgiveness, greed with charity, disdain with empathy, skepticism with trust, apathy with care and inequality with equality. Our world would be a different place if we follow ethicist Bruce Weinstein five principles – do no harm, make things better, respect others, be fair and be loving.

Kindness, goodness, decency and love are infectious. And as the New York City train says, they start with you. And on and on they travel until they get to my three-year-old godson.

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