The rapid spread of Ebola virus across West Africa has again raised the question of our disposition to the modern and modernity in the evolution of African societies. Also, Ebola has become a metaphor for the possibility of the extinction of a race.
A brief clarification is needed. “Modern” is not synonymous with its more popular sibling term –“modernization.” “Modern” is not the acquisition of technological gadgets -cars, use of multiple cell phones, use of ATM machines, private jets etc.
By modern I mean a value of the mind, which commits us to certain practices. The modern commits us to the ceaseless worship of rationality and reason (not reasoning) and the correct balance between reason and emotion; the quest for ceaseless change and innovation; the worship of law, order and ethics, and therefore transparency in all things for the sake of public and community good.
The commitment to reason, rationality and change further commits us to the need for specification, quantification and documentation of every aspect of our lives including health. Ebola happened and spread, and two thousand Africans have died (and over twenty thousand face imminent and quiet death if nothing is done) because we violated all these basic elements of the modern and modernity.
Let us illustrate. Mr. Sawyer arrived Nigeria without a proper quantification, specification, documentation and transparent reporting of his health condition. Mr. Sawyer like any other African and non-African would enter Nigeria without such documentation, specification, numbering and reporting of aspects of lives including health. Other Africans are also inclined to do the same. So Mr. Sawyer has not done anything some of us would not have done given our pre-modern existence.
Take some other reports on Senegal. According to Premiumtimes, “Senegal’s first case was a Guinean student who showed up for treatment at a hospital in the capital Dakar on Tuesday, Senegal’s Health Minister, Awa Marie Coll Seck, told reporters. She said the man had denied having contact with Ebola victims in his home country, when indeed, he had escaped surveillance and Guinean authorities had searched for him for the three weeks”. (Premiumtimes August 29, 2014).
Now the modernity question in the cases of the Guinean student and Mr. Sawyer is the issue of specification, quantification, documenting of health and reporting of same in our lives as Africans. If we read closely, we see that the Guinean just like Mr. Sawyer denied having Ebola or having contact with someone who has Ebola. In other words, their health conditions were not quantified, documented and recorded-a basic failure of an aspect of the modern.
This hopeless failure of quantification and documentation is not so much because of the lack of technological means to do it (our elites do quantify and count their massive and monstrous houses, cars, countless cell phones, wardrobes, fly around in sophisticated jets, in expensive suits, our pastors own private jets). This failure is the failure of the mind. It is the failure of the acceptance of elements of modernity such as reason and rationality in our lives.
But given the spread of Ebola, we can learn from the experience of modernity in other countries. In a typical city in New York state, (call it city B), a student (let us call the student James) is set to register in a new school, an elementary school X. School X must demand for a clear quantification and documentation of the health history of James. This must be submitted to the school.
James finishes elementary education in school X. He moves to another school, Z in the same City B to continue his high school. School Z must demand for James’ health history. James must port his health history to his new school.
James finishes his high school and goes straight to University, S. The university must demand full documentation of James’ health history. James will not be able to start school without such documentation. It is not just about the law; it is also an ethical disposition to fellow citizens.
James and parent like other citizens have the moral obligation not to infect their neighbors with any disease. Note that elementary school X; high school Z and university S are all in the same city B. Yet at each point each school must demand for James’ health history, and documentation, and James must report it. If James’ immunization history is incomplete, James will not register in school. It is the law. It is not whether you are rich or not rich, short or tall, male or female, white or black. It is just what it is, the law.
The simple narrative on James reveals at least three inviolable elements of modernity. The first is documentation, which is underscored by arithmetic quantification and specification of things. This allows for early detection and warning and appropriate response for it is not possible for James to pass through three tough levels of quantification and documentation of health history without detection of what may be wrong. It is not sufficient for James (like Mr. Sawyer and the Guinean said) to say ‘I am okay. I am healthy”.
And it is not sufficient for society to simply accept James’ “I am okay. I am healthy” (like it was done in Mr. Sawyer’s and the Guinean cases). Beyond James, the society, i.e. we all must know that “James is okay”. The way to know is that this must be quantified and specified in a record and shown.
The second element is law and order. It is the law that schools must document the health and immunization history of all students. Any student who does not meet the health and immunization requirements will not register. It is not about you or me. It is not about being black or white. It is the law for even the health history of president’s children must be quantified and documented before they are registered in school, otherwise they cannot register.
Absolute compliance with law and order –as an aspect of modernity- is why it is demoralizing and shameful that President Jonathan is violating his own order by allowing rallies for his re-election all over the country in a period when Ebola virus is stalking the land and knocking us down and when schools have been asked to suspend re-open!
The third element in James narrative is public ethics. James and his family, like all families, have the moral obligation not to infect their neighbors with any disease or infection. Sadly President Jonathan does not see the need not to infect neighbors with Ebola given the rallies his party-PDP and supporters are holding in his name and on his behalf all over the country for his re-election. Unknown to us, we may just be dealing with a President-Mr. Goodluck Jonathan-with a pre-modern mindset.
So in our African situation we misunderstand this crucial need of the element of modernity in our lives and societies. Perhaps, in a just, sound and legitimate rejection of the social atomism and alienation in western societies, sometimes we Africans go to the other extreme and appeal to a woolly and uncritical African communitarian ethics in our failure to arithmetically quantify and ask for quantification. Perhaps we fear that such quantification and numbering alienates and atomizes.
But communitarian ethics does not contradict the need for quantification and documentation. It is a flawed sense of inclusion, inclusive and communitarian ethics that fails to acknowledge individual moral responsibility not to infect members of the community. There is no contradiction between inclusive and communitarian ethics which is a legitimate ethics and which we claim to be embedded in our thought as Africans and specifying and quantifying our lives for same public and community good.
Therefore, the failure of the modern in our lives and societies is a recipe for our collective mortal extinction as Ebola is showing. To escape this collective extinction this is the time to accept the modern as part of our lives and societies. Let us quantify, number and count as part of our inclusive ethics, which truly is an ethical position we have to teach the world.
True African inclusive ethics does not reject quantification. There are numerous examples of this in African thought. The African Yoruba ethics, as one of the many core parts of African thought should help us see this reconciliation of our inclusive communitarian ethics and quantification as a condition of our modernity.
For example, the Yoruba moral fragment claims that: “A kii ba ni tan ki a fa ni nitan ya”. This means that our inclusive and communitarian ethics, which is given as a result of our human condition, must however not undermine and tear down the individual, her individuality and the community. Second another fragment claims: “Oko kii jẹ ti baba ati tọmọ ki o ma ni ala.” This means that our inclusive ethics does not dispose us to a lack of quantification, specification and numbering, and this should include our health conditions and immunization history as we port ourselves.
In both African Yoruba fragments, inclusive ethics is taken as given for us as humans as a result of our human nature, while the need to quantify, number, count, specify, and document are meant to critically deepen this inclusive and communitarian ethics in our societies. This is the ethical path to and of modernity. And we have it in good quantity and quality in critical African thought.
As Ebola stalks around Africa, it is a wake up call for our need to become modern and embrace modernity. Let us quantify, specify, count, number, document, our health as we practice our inclusive and communitarian ethics. It is not too late to avoid the high possibility of a self inflicted collective mortal extinction as a race.
Adeolu Ademoyo email@example.com, a member of the editorial board of Premium Time, is of the Africana Studies and Research Center, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY.