“The problem, as you call it, is very simple,” declares Chief Oriomra, deadpan. “We want you to tell a lie.” This was the late Francis Imbuga, at his best as both playwright and actor back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Imbuga created the arch-villain Oriomra in his play The Successor, inspired by the wiles and plots that usually surround the prospective replacement of an important ruler. Having crafted Oriomra in the script, Imbuga also portrayed him on stage in the premiere production of the play, under the direction of the legendary John Ruganda. Oriomra’s sole purpose in the action of the play is to use every means, mostly vicious lies, to eliminate anyone who stands in his way in his bid to become the next Emperor of his country.
I found myself thinking of Oriomra and his lies on Monday this week, which was All Fool’s Day! As you know, tradition allows us to tell a few harmless lies through the first six hours of daylight on April 1. We are also at liberty to ridicule and mock those who fall for our lies, calling them “April fools”, or, as the French colourfully call them, poissons d’Avril (April fish).
Even the newspapers often allow themselves a “tall tale”, usually on their front pages, just to entertain you, especially if you fall for the “lie”. One of my favourite memories of such newspaper tales was the “sighting of a Loch-Ness-like monster on Lake Naivasha”. Responsible journalism of course requires that the earliest opportunity is taken to undeceive the unsuspecting reader.
WHY DO WE TELL LIES?
The intriguing question, however, is why people should set aside a whole day to celebrate the telling of lies. This must be an area of particular interest for the specialists of human behaviour, the anthropologists, of whom we were talking the other day. The classical explanation for such unconventional behaviour is that there is a “carnival” instinct in all of us, which urges us to throw off the restraints of convention, from time to time, and briefly indulge in devious pranks before returning to the straight and narrow.
But my take is that we privilege lying because, like laughter, it is one of the characteristics that set us apart as specifically human. In other words, we are the only creatures capable of communicating a piece of information that we know to be incorrect. I will not hazard the blatant assertion that we all tell lies, because it might just not be quite true. But it is not too far-fetched to assume that we all feel inclined, or tempted, at one time or another, to say something that is not quite true.
The question, then, is: Why do we tell lies? The simple, plain answer is that we tell lies because we are human. Rather sweeping, you would say, and I agree. Maybe if we had asked an enthusiastic liar the same question last Monday, she or he would have said that it was All Fools’ Day, and one was allowed to indulge in a few innocent and innocuous inaccuracies, to use the kind of language up with which Churchill would not put.
Incidentally, one of the main problems with those Fool’s Day “jokes” is that it is not always easy to tell which lie is harmless and which is risky. I once heard the story of a young man whose office-mate told him, as a Fool’s Day prank, to check on his mother urgently. The colleague was so startled that he immediately dashed off in his car and, unfortunately, had a serious accident in his rush to try and get on to his mother.
Back to general lying, however, we may refine our search by categorising the reasons for our failings as: compulsion, self-protection, opportunism and sympathy. Compulsion is when we tell an untruth without thinking. Someone asks us a question and we blurt out a misleading answer, out of sheer mischief or laziness about the truth. Unfortunately, compulsive lying can become a habit or a psychological condition that increasingly renders a person incapable of telling the truth, even when there is no conceivable reason for their lies.
Most of the lies we tell, however, are out of our own insecurities, fears and desires. These saturate our social sphere. Even to ourselves, we hardly ever tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. This probably is the “problematic” of autobiographies, as experts, like my friend Prof Henry Indangasi of UoN, would tell you.
Some realities of our experiences are so unsettling or unpalatable that we almost automatically edit them out of our narratives, or modify them to create images and memories with which we can live. The real, crude, unpolished truth may often be too brutal to live with.
The “softening” of reality is even more obvious in our interactions with others. Someone tells you they would like to call on you at home. Instead of telling them you cannot stand their company, you tell them you are sorry you will be busy elsewhere. We elderly people are used to being told how “well and strong we look”, when we know and feel truly ravaged by the effects of age and various ailments. To those who have heard “I love you,” I can only say that you are only joining the large army of us who are learning to be a little wary and analytical of the sweet-sounding line.
But the lies for which we should be truly repentant are the opportunistic, Oriomra-like ones, maliciously designed for our self-promotion and the destruction of others. These include the malicious rumours and gossip loved by our character assassins. Remember also that lies breed lies. If you tell one lie, you will almost inevitably have to tell another lie in order to cover up the earlier one. This is why someone said that liars should have long memories.
Incidentally, do you remember the book that John Ruganda wrote about Francis Imbuga’s plays? He called it Telling the Truth Laughingly.
Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; [email protected]