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Escaping the Mind Trap of our ‘Village Attitude’

Escaping the Mind Trap of our ‘Village Attitude’

In igniting the fire for an “Attitude” change campaign, President Ernest Bai Koroma has embarked on a challenge of monumental proportions – for Sierra Leone, and, indeed, for all Africa.  The President is engaged in ‘social engineering’,  or, ‘social psychology’, or, ‘psychological re-tinkering’ of the thought processes of  Sierra Leoneans.  It is necessary to get the citizenry to change their attitude from recklessly using government property to taking care of them as if they were there personal property; to respect authority in the manifestation of the lowliest policeman, for example; but, we have to have the courage to think on the Big Challenges of our warped attitudes to nation building, and to confront them, and mitigate their deleterious effects on our society.  One of the worst   attitudes of the average Sierra Leonean is what I termed as our  ‘Village Mentality’.

You can take the man out of the village….

You have heard of that trite saying with the barb of denigration: ‘You can take the man out of his village, but, you can’t take the village out of the man’.  In the 20th Century that would manifest  the condescension of the British educated elite in Freetown – immersed in British dress, table etiquette, etc. – on their largely provincial brothers who found it difficult to  fastidiously ape British manners and more. (When I was  in FBC, University of Sierra Leone, in the mid-1970s, the famous once-a-year satirical publication, Aureol Times, would do cartoons of some ‘upline’ students who use the eating knife to put food into their mouths – eliciting ribald mirth.  I wonder why ALL students at FBC  then were only given cutlery of fork and knife to eat rice and ‘plassas’ with).  The ‘village’ I write about here is not in looking down on those who still cherish their traditional ways of dressing and eating.  I am pointing out at much graver ‘village thought patterns’.

It is the ‘village mind’ of narrowness – that  mind which views anyone outside one’s village  with suspicion, sometimes, subtle hostility.  Often, this village mind widens it boundaries to embrace the ‘language group’, or, ‘geographically closest tribes’,  or a specific tribe.  A couple of months ago, I was in conversation with doctorate –degree-holding friends who are  wealthy and powerful:  and they both agree on these chilling scenarios.  In cities like New York, London, Washington, Atlanta that have large numbers of Sierra Leonean migrants, if you go to a party organized by a Mende, 98% of the guests would be Mendes or Mende-speaking people from the South/East; if you go to a party organized by a Temne, 97% of the guests would be Temnes or Temne-speaking people from the North/West.  Same for the Krios.  That is a classic example of people who ‘carry their villages with them’ even while living  in sophisticated and cosmopolitan societies. It accentuates the mental decrepitude, or, primitive mindsets, of most Sierra Leoneans.

Sierra Leone is still an alien construct to the average Sierra Leonean

The unpalatable reality which we must confront is that ‘Sierra Leone’ was an alien construct, a political construction that was foisted on our minds by the British colonialists some two hundred years ago.   The Susu man in Kambia would find more kinship with the Susu man in Guinea than to the Limba in Port Loko; also, the Mende  and Vai in Pujehun would be far more  relaxed with the Mende/Vai in Liberia than with the Temne man in Makeni.  The concept of ‘Sierra Leone’ is like a graft of a foreign tissue, which is only being tolerated.  We pretend that ‘land that we love…Our Sierra Leone….’ is our country. But, this is as much as we largely engage in ostentatious posturing that we are ‘Christians’ or ‘Muslims’.  What is real to nearly all Sierra Leoneans, what is almost palpable, that which evokes the strongest emotions, is the village – which is the center of our universe, the ‘altar’ of our adoration.

This attitude to the country as a foreign construct is what undergirds the flagrant predation on the state by the elite, the lackadaisical attitude to sustainable development that would embrace the entire country.  After all, most of the elites have only just  literally emerged – first or second generations – from their villages into the city.  For most of them, the national capital city is a ‘foreign land’.  The ‘state’ is also ‘foreign’.  So, it is easy for the elite to sustain the culture of predation on the state.  ‘Democracy’ in nearly all of Africa is really a disguised,  or, benign,  form of ‘civil war’.

Democratic elections are really Tribal Wars for the village minded

The tribe that is dominant in the winning of ‘democratic elections’ deep down is sure that it has won a ‘civil war’.  Thus, once in control of the state at the center, the ‘victorious tribe’ perceives its predatory attitude  on the state as ‘legitimate war booty’.  An elite who is part of the victorious tribe who wins power at the center (through democratic elections; or, military coups) and does not personally enrich himself (and, shares some of his loot with his kith and kin in his village) is viewed with the same contempt as a warrior of old who goes to war and does not return home with the chopped off heads of  his  vanquished victims on his spear.     Those who the non-Africans would  describe as being ‘filthily corrupt’ are the very ones who would be  hailed by their village people as heroes of the tribe, and, are rewarded with parliamentary seats, and lobbied for to gain cabinet positions. In the eyes of their villagers, they are NOT corrupt people – but, ‘warriors’ who have won a ‘civil war’, and ‘earned’ their ‘war booty’.  The ‘honest’ man who does not take his ‘war scalp’ is derided as a weakling; a fool; even, a ‘mad man’.   .   Except we fully understand this ‘attitude’ of the average Sierra Leonean to the state we now claim as ours – ‘Sierra Leone’ – all sustainable effort at national development would elude us.

What is attitude?

It would certainly be helpful if we at least have a smattering knowledge about the pedantry of ‘attitude’.  Generally, psychologists define attitudes as a learned tendency to evaluate things in a certain way.  That can include evaluation of people –  the ‘other’ tribe; white people; pastors; politicians; footballers; drug users, etc.  It can also include what we think of the crucifix or amulets; gold and silk; Mercedes Benz cars and mini- skirts.  It  can also include what we think of events – our civil war; our independence day celebrations; our school’s thanksgiving day, etc.  The important thing to note is  that out attitude to these variables are “learned” – from the womb, so to speak; from our society, from our schools and churches and mosques, etc.  Researchers  in the realm of psychology also suggest that there are several ‘mind variables’ that can be said to comprise “attitude”.

There is the emotional component of attitude – how the object or person of event makes you feel.  What if for decades you have been  made to believe that the tribe that neighbours yours would be excessively cruel during civil wars; and, you have once or twice seen a member of that tribe brutally beating another person.  Even if you meet a person from that tribe thousands of miles away from your home you are likely to adopt  an attitude of fear or wariness to that person.

There is the cognitive side of attitude.  That is, what information or beliefs you have in your memory of a person, events, or object.   If it has been hammered into your head that Muslims are unforgiving and inclined to violence, you attitude to a Muslim would likely be trepidation, especially if you are a devout Christian who has been inculcated with the belief that one of the virtues of Christianity would be to be forgiving….

There is the behavioural side of attitude.  The way you appraise an ‘object’ or person, the information you carry on a person, or event,  would influence your behaviour to the person.  Do you think people from Thailand are likely to be armed robbers? Then, no matter whether the person from Thailand wears a clerical collar, you still won’t even invite him to your house, even if he were stranded.

Don’t forget: attitude is learned.  For us to change attitudes, to unlearn what we have learned as attitude, it would be helpful if we grasp how attitude is learned.  We wade into the treacherous waters of human psychology here – CONDITIONING.  Attitudes can be learned through ‘classical conditioning’, or, ‘operant conditioning’, or, simply, through ‘fallamakata’ (imitation).  Expounding on this would call for several articles, not a few lines here.  For now, I soar into the realm of the imagination as to what we can do to ‘cure’ ourselves of our suicidal village-minded diseases which has stymied national unity and sustainable development in our country.

Imaginative Attitude Change Thrust

During every ‘big public holiday’ – Christmas; Eid-ul-fitri; Easter; Independence Day, etc. – the President should take the lead to….’escape from the village trap’.  This December, instead of holidaying in Makeni, Bombali District, the President should go and spend the festive season on Bonthe Island – and the SLPPs 2012 presidential candidate, Retired Brigadier Maada Bio, should spend his holiday in Makeni Town.   Minister of Agriculture, Sam Sesay, should not spend his Christmas holiday in  Kambia, but in Kailahun – exchanging places with John Benjamin, who will head for Kambia.  Now, let all our parliamentarians, senior civil servants, leaders of civil society, etc. start the process of criss-crossing our country like that – and, millions of other Sierra Leoneans, especially the youth, would ‘fallamakata’ them.  Cross cultural education would go a long way in neutralizing centuries old myths, prejudices…falsehoods…about each other.  We can be the beacon for nearly all the other African countries still largely trapped in their ‘village minds’.   There are other variables of justice and equity among the tribes which will take time to bridge our divide, and for the first time, help us to forge a cohesive nation.  But, you have to change your attitude and not just read this article and throw the paper away. Mull on it. Be galvanized into action by this piece.  Please.

Oswald Hanciles

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