Killing the Old Man of the Sea

Globalisation has been the in-word for a couple of decades now.
Daily, we are told that we live in a global village and that we are increasingly becoming a homogenous species that will eventually have a single culture and ultimately a single fate.
I would like to think that globalisation is nothing new. It’s something that mankind has been striving towards since our forebears met on the Plain of Shinar and decided to build what we now refer to as the Tower of Babel.
There are common strands that run through human experience and culture and this is evident in the many similarities in the religions of the world.
It is also evident in our oral traditions, which is why I have always had a fascination with Latin American, Russian, Asian and African lore, and how they relate and draw from their major religions including traditional belief systems, Islam and Christianity.
Islamic civilisations have a rich oral and written literary tradition which is best seen in “One Thousand and One Araban Nights”.
It is not really clear how this superb insight into Middle Eastern, Indian and North African culture and society was compiled though it is generally agreed that the first bound volume of “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights” dates back to the 14th century.
The legend is that every night Sultan Schahriar would take a new bride – who would be murdered by sunrise because the ruler believed that women were inherently evil and as such he could not do the whole “till death do us part” thing.
However, one evening the daughter of the man responsible for killing the unfortunate brides convinced her father that she could stop this madness if she were to be presented to the Sultan.
When the Sultan came to her chambers she started telling him a wonderful tale that had the ruler captivated. However, as she got to what he believed was the climax, she broke off the story and promised to finish it the following evening. As such, the Sultan did not have her killed as he wanted to hear how the story ended. That evening, she picked up on her tale and again broke off as sunrise approached.
This went on for 1 001 and nights and by the time the story finished, she had fathered children for the Sultan and he in turn had grown to be truly enamoured of her.
In that sense, “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights” is not only a collection of stories but is also a story in itself.
Many of us have grown up with tales from “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights”: as children we met Aladdin and Ali Baba and his 40 thieves.
A tale that particularly fascinated me was that of Sinbad the Sailor and the Old Man of the Sea.
It is interesting to note that the Old Man of the Sea is a myth/legend also found in Greek oral tradition, again demonstrating how globalised we are without needing Coca-Cola and McDonalds.
Sinbad meets the Old Man of the Sea on one of his voyages. The Old Man of the Sea in this tradition was a monster who would ask travellers to help him cross a stream by hitching a ride on the sojourner’s back.
But once he got on your back, he would not release his grip and you would have to carry him until you dropped down dead.
Sinbad, however, manages to escape by making the Old Man of the Sea drunk and then shaking him off so that he can kill him and flee.
It kind of reminds me of a tale Ayi Kwei Armah relates in his epic novel “Two Thousand Seasons”. It is of how in Africa of yore, a murderer would be forced to carry the corpse of his victim on his back until the corpse rotted and stuck to his flesh, thus resulting in his own putrefaction whilst still alive.
I digress: The Old Man of the Sea.
At Independence, how many African countries were able to shake off the Old Man of the Sea as characterised by colonial economy? The colonial government established an education system that ensured we would forever be workers in service of capital that we do not own. It built infrastructure such as railroads that ran straight from the mines to the seaports so that minerals could easily be shipped to the West without any local beneficiation.
The examples are as plentiful as they are tragic. And today we still have the colonial economy, albeit with blacks now making up the managerial class that manages wealth for the former coloniser. Still we carry this Old Man of the Sea on our backs, feeding him our blood, sweat and tears while we waste away as a people.
Yes, we have had some Sinbad’s who have attempted to shake off and kill the Old Man of the Sea. Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba, Robert Mugabe, Kwame Nkrumah, Amilcar Cabral and Gamal Abdel Nasser among a few others all took the war to the Old Man of the Sea.
And is it not telling that out of all these, only Robert Mugabe is still alive and fighting?
Many of the rest were all killed, their lives cut short by this monster. But still we let the Old Man of the Sea cling to our backs and suck the life out of us. Unless and until we shake off the Old Man of the Sea and kill him, we cannot claim to be an independent people.

June 2013
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