Rejecting the Normal

By | December 30, 2009

In the BusinessDay of December 29, 2009

There is a thing about being so close to something that one does not see it anymore. Anthropologists normally refer to it as going native. You have gone native when you no longer see the obvious things anymore, when the things that an outsider notices stares you in the face but you are no longer able to see them. This is usually because you have developed a blind spot for them, and they have become normal, almost natural.

There is also the other kind of blind spot, the kind that comes from being native. Anthropologists know about that too very well. Since we study people, we know that studying people of ones kind comes with the added requirement of being able to stand back and look critically in order to see things that would be obvious to foreigners, but that are not obvious to the native.

This is because we anthropologist normally study the everyday mundane things; we try to understand how people live their lives, how people make sense of things, understand, interact and deal with day to day issues. Sometimes something impressive and unusual happens; most times they don’t.

Unlike history, anthropology favours the everyday. History, on the other hand, is not very kind to the ordinary. Journalism too. News is a break from the ordinariness of the day, that is why no news is good news. It normally means that the day has been, well, normal. Of course, one can debate what normal means.

These things came to my mind after reading an Amnesty International report on police brutality in Nigeria. They report on the frequency of extra-judicial killings, on torture, on the refusal of counsel to detainees, and on the refusal to allow those who have been injured during torture access to doctors.

To underscore this, let me give an instance. When I was a teenager, I was at a hospital when a police pick-up van drove up, legs sticking out of the back of the van. They brought the naked, dead bodies of six persons to the hospital morgue. I remember wondering whether those people might have left home that morning not realising that they would turn up as bodies at the back of a police van. I don’t remember thinking about how they died and questions around justice or the use or abuse of police powers. These are the issues raised in the report.

The Amnesty report gives detailed examples of people who have left home to be shot down by the police in the course of the day. To be fair, one has to acknowledge the fact that the police is massively underfunded and probably underpaid. It has almost become normal for the police to never come, or, like the lines of a Tracy Chapman song, to always come late, if they come at all.

And those who look like they might have some better training are busy guarding ‘important dignitaries’ (read those who are rich enough) and foreigners. I recently read about a foreigner who complains about being followed around by her MOPOL escort. Her employer does not allow her to leave the Island area without a team of MOPOL escorts. Of course she cannot refuse them, otherwise the company would not let her stay in the country. The interesting thing is that the sight of guarded foreigners actually promotes the impression that ones life is in mortal danger unless one is being guarded.

We have become blind to a lot of these things because we are used to them, because they have become part of us. We have become used to our commuter bus drivers handing out that note to the policeman at the roadblock, to reading in the newspaper about a number of extra-judicial killings by the police, to hearing about ‘accidental discharge’. We are also used to the sound of a certain kind of hoot in heavy traffic, a hoot that signifies that an important dignitary is being ferried across in an important car, escorted by a van-full of MOPOL. Of course, the main reason the person is important is either because they are a foreigner, or because they are rich enough to afford a van-full of MOPOL escorts. We are so used to these things that we have become numb to them.

We must begin to rouse ourselves out of this complacency and ask questions. Are bribes openly given to or extorted by the police and extra-judiciary killings normal in a democracy? What is the government doing about them? Will any political party make them campaign issues in 2011?

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