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What does not kill Africa will make it a free and very prosperous land

Wednesday June 1 2011

 

By CHARLES ONYANGO-OBBO

On Tuesday, a group of 200 or so people protested at high food costs in Nairobi.

They were part of what has been dubbed the “Unga Revolution”. They were quickly batoned down by the police when they started getting rowdy.

In recent weeks, there were walk-to-work demonstrations in Uganda to protest high food and fuel prices. Hundreds of people were arrested and at least 10 killed.

We have had high food prices in Mozambique, Zambia, Ghana... in all, in about 20 African countries.

And in Egypt and Tunisia, they were part of the grievances of the uprisings that ousted those countries’ strongmen — Hosni Mubarak and Zine al-Badine Ben Ali respectively.

Everyone is scrambling and groping to understand why old grievances are finally galvanising people into action and leading to the fall of what were thought to be entrenched regimes.

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The explanations are many: The youths are more educated and have high expectations, social media — like Facebook and Twitter — and technologies like mobile phones are allowing people to organise in ways that were impossible in the past.

The discovery process continues and it will be a while yet before we are confident that we have the ultimate explanation.

In all this, few are talking about the structural changes in African societies. It used to be said that in Africa, the village raised the children.

In other words, you would not go hungry if there was food in the village, and if you went astray every adult in the village would correct you because they saw you as their child.

Today in the urban areas, the social security net provided by the village and the extended family has all but collapsed.

The traditional model of the powerful patriarch, who was sometimes a polygamist, is disappearing.

Many children are being raised by single parents (mostly single mothers) or living in homes where parents are separated or divorced.

There are many people who decry these changes, arguing that “Africa has lost its way”, or that the “collapse of the traditional African family has led to the decline of moral values”.

However, I see that these changes have great possibilities for freedom and democracy. In the past if a child was hungry, he would go to Uncle I’s house and eat.

If they were not at home, he would go to Uncle II’s home. If he arrived late after they had had lunch, he could nip over to the Aunt’s place, and if he found they had no food, he would go to his grandparent’s house and be fed, washed, and given a bed.

Today, that is not an available option for an increasing number of young people, so if your stomach goes empty too many days, you confront the people who are supposed to ensure that all citizens eat — the chaps in government. And you do that by taking to the street.

That anger is focused in the right place, and it is good that the extended family is no longer subsidising the incompetence of governments and letting them get away with not doing their job.

This can only be good for democracy because we are finally building a critical mass that will force governments to act responsibly and provide, as they should.

My view is that one of the biggest hindrances to democracy has primarily not been corrupt, greedy, and cruel rulers, but the authority of African patriarchs.

Every man was the “head of the home”. Even when he was a progressive, there was always a struggle about who was “the man” in the home.

If the father was an alpha male, all his sons would never express themselves fully and his daughters were expected to be “proper women” and defer to him.

Single-parent and other altered families allow young people to find their voices early and to express themselves more freely, unhobbled by the need to first obtain permission from the patriarch.

And single mothers too can be active in politics unhindered because they have no husband in the house who must first approve.

What we see as social crises in African society today might actually be the necessary disruptions that will bring us great freedoms and prosperity in the years to come.