Prayers and Promises: An Academic in Africa

Our resident screamer has been upping the ante of late and I heard a live performance for the first time the other night. 

George had just finished moving to the third bedroom (a saga in itself, of which perhaps more later) and was trying to sleep before his 5am start to fly back to the UK when the dulcet tones of our nocturnal self-flagellator began to interrupt his progress to the land of nod.

This was a change of habit for the zealot that was in one way positive, because 10pm is a much more friendly time to be shouting solidly for an hour and a half than 2am, if still fairly disruptive.  George came and asked me if I “wanted to hear this guy”, so I did, and stood in his room listening to the noise that was at once bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, but mostly fucking loud.  And this wasn’t even in the bedroom that was right next to the guy.  I am now not at all surprised that George felt the need to change over – it must have been like having a particularly evangelical preacher in the room with you before.

the noise that was at once bizarre, hilarious, disturbing, but mostly fucking loud

Slightly later I went out for a cigarette and had a more leisurely chance to listen to what was going on.  We knew from asking security that this guy was praying, and George, from an earlier encounter had worked out that it was just one man producing all the racket.  This wasn’t easy to pin down at first because of the way this person builds up to things. 

He starts in a standard sort of gospel preacher style of praying at first, and then gradually introduces a second voice, which is much more guttural and seems to be making accusations.  These two voices have a dialogue for a while before the nasty one takes over and constantly berates the guy whilst he beats himself.

Now, I’m in the lucky position of being able to find this amusing because it hasn’t been waking me up at night.  But there is also something fundamentally humourous about it, despite the fact that the gentleman doing this is probably in need of some serious help.  Spiritual, ecumenical, and quite possibly mental.

The thing is that the first prayer voice sounds like a cross between Eddie Murphy doing his “if praising the Lord is wrong, I don’t wanna be right!  I said yay-ass.  Praise the Lord!” schtick and Terry Gilliam dressed only in a loin-cloth groin-thrusting his way through a prophecy about how the Lord will strike you down with “fuuuuuuuuuuuurious anger” in The Life of Brian.  The second voice is then like a cross between Linda Blair masturbating with a crucifix and Terry Jones playing Brian’s mother.  “He’s not the Messiah…” etc.  At the absolute top of someone’s lungs.  The two together just make me think of Gollum arguing with himself whist Slinker and Stinker fight it out in Lord of the Rings.

very convincing in his assertions that “a full investigation” would take place

All of which makes it difficult to listen to without laughing.  But something does need to be done about it, and yesterday I had a meeting in David’s office with the agent that looks after the flat.  He’s one up the ladder from the woman we normally deal with, and was very convincing in his assertions that “a full investigation” would take place, and that we could be assured that any other problems we had would be massaged away as soon as possible.

Unfortunately I’ve been here long enough to know that this sort of performance means precisely fuck all.  Although I will give the guy the benefit of the doubt for now.  There is a character to the Nigerian promise that is both beguiling and infuriating.  Everyone can present them wonderfully and with the utmost sincerity.  On many occasions this sincerity is absolutely genuine, although often, unfortunately, based on a completely unfounded optimism which will render the achievement of said commitment impossible.

Take the mosque on campus, for example.  Debare told the assembled staff that this was being started because it was going to be entirely built with volunteer donations and not with university funds.  At the moment construction has stopped, however, because it transpires that what had actually happened was that Debare had put in N$1million of his own money to kick things off and confidently awaited the arrival of funds from generous benefactors to top it up.  No money was forthcoming, so the mosque stays as just foundations for the time being, stalled for lack of cash.

promises here are made with absolutely no intention of them ever being carried out

Equally, on many other occasions promises here are made with absolutely no intention of them ever being carried out.  Witness the photocopier that was “on order” for 6 months and then arrived in a week when it was actually ordered; pretty much anything that comes out of J’s mouth; the communication strategy of the university with its own staff.

I’d put the ratio at about 50% honest promises, 30% honest but deluded and 20% outright horseshit. A more cynical man than myself might make that ratio more like 20:30:50. And it’s impossible, sometimes, to tell the difference – although there is nothing more annoying than trusting a person’s word, and then later someone else telling you, “oh no, they were never going to do that…”

Every culture has its economy of lies and false promises, and to a certain extent it’s just the brand of deception that differs.  But I do hate the cultural element here that heaps hagiography upon sycophancy at certain points and then at others obeys a set of rules that allows you to show people no respect at all.  Although that is key in a way – there are infinite different ways of showing respect but there are also many ways of showing none at all.  Deliberately. 

When these rules are changed around it makes you realise how artificial so many of the things we take for granted actually are.

Sidebar Image : John Kasawa

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