Ghanaians Won’t Be Silenced Any Longer

Shrinking is the offspring of coldness and darkness. It is the loudest voice of silence, born out of a constant and torturous compression of uncommon thought and expression. Silencing is a violent profession. It is responsible for the internal rebleeding of scars. And because violence begets violence, long after silence has shut up whole bodies in oceanic darkness, its teeth do not cease burrowing and gnawing away at our insides. Those who are silenced keep hemorrhaging internally, and to contend with such madness, often – invariably so – turn to the hallucinogens of apathy and invented normalcy. In spite of the fact that there is a reclaiming of power when we refuse to shut up, that in becoming unsewed mouths we are able to devour injustice and upstage the performance of its dubious power, silence is still preferred by many.

What is the point of speaking up or speaking true if nobody will let you speak, and if they do will pay you no mind? What is the point of expressing yourself when the invariable response to it is to contain you in the artificial solitariness of undesirable outcast? Consequently, many permit themselves to have unique thought and incisive expression beaten out of them so they can blend in. Such people do not want any trouble, they think.

Ghana is full of people who do not want trouble. They keep quiet. And when the bleeding of their silence reaches excruciating levels, misplaced humor is called upon as momentary balm. The embers of truthful expression become thus diluted and robbed of revolutionary potency.

In a 2016 essay, I revealed how at age 11 I was beaten by my school teacher (12 strokes) for using a word he was unfamiliar with. To him, any form of expression no matter how excellent, that ‘threatened the bigness of his authority’ required a silencing act, and in young African children of school going age it is usually through beating. I had received 24 lashes before, for choosing football/soccer over what we call over here “extra classes”. I did not cry then. But when I received those 12 lashes, I could not stop crying. There was/is something about being forced to shrink and denying yourself of expression that hurts deeply. It is an efficient form of violence. By the time I got to Junior Secondary School (middle school), I had learned to shrink so others could feel big. I would while conversing, do a quick mental shuffle to select the words that would least threaten or make uncomfortable those I was with. Until the idea that there is something wrong with not blending in was introduced into my system, I was not conscious of my thought and expression. I just was because I was.

In my final year of JSS – during preparation for the national basic exams – a teacher decided to not instruct my class again, because apparently by deciding to ask a question in class that proved him ill-prepared, and by speaking up when he opted to manipulate rules to his advantage, I was being disrespectful. The politics of respect/disrespect is a major tool of silencing within African communities. In Ghana, when a child is found to be audaciously expressive, that child gets labeled “mpanyinsem,” a tag that dyslogistically implies that the said child behaves like an adult. When such expressiveness persists, such a child is branded as “disrespectful,” a label on account of which any ensuing punitive efforts are justified. In a sad yet peculiar way, this child-adult dynamic is symbolic of all types of Authority-governed relationships. So, the same tactics are invoked when weeds of expressiveness sprout in the workplace; a staff that refuses to be sycophantic becomes a target requiring one form of silencing or the other. The same is true of the interplay between citizens and those in power.

The violence of silence and its fantastic devastation is pernicious. The abundance of stories told in the shadows offers only a slice of an insight into the havoc silence wreaks. The abuse of power that accompanies the wielding of silence as a domineering and controlling instrument, is arguably most pronounced – where its performance in darkness is concerned – in matters of sexual abuse. If you’ve had any contact with a university campus, you would have heard in one form or the other, the sickening stories of sexual harassment perpetuated by those in authority. In many cases, the culprits of such diabolism are well-known and their victims continually silenced. Even more sickening is how the recurring theme of the politics of respect/disrespect is employed here. If a woman refuses the advances of a lecturer/professor, the indication is that she is “disrespectful”. Ours is a disgustingly broken system of abnormal norms that thrive on fattening the silence that keeps necessary voices of rebellion shriveled.

A colleague told the story of how the driver of a taxi he was in dangerously cut off another driver. Once the aggrieved driver caught up with them and expressed his legitimate displeasure, the taxi driver who had been in the wrong simply yelled in response “Shut up! I’m older than you! Don’t you respect?

It is anything but uncommon for parents here to advise their children to stay away from friends that would get them in trouble. While the same culture of shrinking in the name of avoiding trouble appears to be at play here, this advice is given with a very specific idea in mind. Parents know, that when privileged children get into trouble, they can always access their get out of jail free card and escape the same laws that would keep the silenced further beaten down. Those in authority and those connected to authority dictate the terms of silence and its costs but exist outside the economy of its devastation. In advising their children to “stay away from trouble/bad influence,” parents of the silenced domain hope to save their own from further silencing. What they typically do not account for, is the conception that freedom from silence is inherently bound to silence-perpetuating authority. So instead of saving their children from being silenced, they inadvertently encourage them to find and fill spaces of authority where they can garner privilege and also perpetuate silence. That becomes the way out. The cycle then continues.

In the days leading to the World Cup, the footballing/soccer world was hurled into disarray following Ghanaian investigative journalist, Anas Aremeyaw Anas‘s exposé, revealing the absolute rot and pervasive corruption in Ghana’s entire football set-up. The main response was shock. It is either we have been silent and willfully blind for so long, that we have forgotten the kind of corruptible room the privilege of authority affords those who wield it in this country. Or, we have reduced ourselves to a hypocritical naivety, that enables us to express outrage while still pretending not to be vigorous crusaders of the kind of silence that gives corruption permission to thrive.

The heavily pervasive corruption of this land, including moral corruption, is not a problem. The corruption here is no sickness or disease. It is a symptom. Our corruption is a symptom of this country’s long-standing culture of mediocrity, lawlessness, and lack of accountability. A culture that has been kept well-nourished with silence. Rumors of corruption and misconduct usually precede an actual supply of evidence. It is our silence – the willingness to stand by, to not risk being branded as disrespectful, to not be seen to be making trouble, to not be “mpanyinsem” – that shelters the truth.

Even amid the great spilling of truth and shattering of the barriers of silence, the vanguards of its perpetuation unashamedly fight to maintain the status quo. Kennedy Agyapong, a Member of Parliament notorious for consistently making carelessly vitriolic and incitant remarks, casually called for the hanging of the journalist, Anas, for effectively shaking the tables of silence.

A most devastating effect of protracted silence is how it eventually leads to a kind of Stockholm syndrome. Some people have been silenced for so long that it is the only normal they know. Anything outside of the silence no more looks like freedom to them but a threat to their normalcy. Their response is to, therefore, lash out against any attempt at disrupting silence while showing support for those who would see it continue. The responses to Anas’s exposé were thus not as uniform as initially perceived. A chunk of the people believed that Kennedy Agyapong‘s call for violence for maintaining the culture of silence was justified and warranted. With his recent counter exposé aimed at proving that Anas is himself corrupt and therefore unqualified to expose corruption, this position is likely to be further entrenched.

And even for many of those that have expressed outright outrage, it is more likely that they eventually retake the shape of the normalcy of silence than become galvanized into fighting corruption wherever they may see it.

Throwing stones at the symptom gets us nowhere. If we really want to see the change in Ghana, we must first begin by addressing the culture of mediocrity, lawlessness, and unaccountability that gives birth to silence expressed in the form of timidity, apathy, and detachment, which emboldens the corrupt.

Written by Nana Karikari Prempeh.

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