GUEST COLUMNIST WOLE SOYINKA
Cancer researchers can take our gratitude for granted, but the ones among them who deserve extra acknowledgement are the pioneers in the uphill, often thankless task of public awareness – which applies to virtually every form of public hazard, the most personal being of course – human health. Even today, the battle has not been won. There is something fatalistic in human nature, which is not a bad thing. To cling desperately to life, to be governed in every detail of one’s existence by an obsession with prolonging one’s life, can sometimes appear as ludicrous and undignified as the irresponsible conduct of thoughtlessly throwing it away.
When I look back on the entire career of anti-smoking campaigns for instance, the campaigners often strike me as the unsung heroes of the battle against cancer. Why, I sometimes ask myself, has the battle been so rocky? We may as well acknowledge the commercial aspect – and here, I begin with the tobacco industry whose products till now, appear to be the frontrunner among the various contenders for cancerous provocation. The history of tobacco extends backwards probably into pre-history, which means that, today, a formidable global industry, now calculated in mega-millions, has evolved over centuries, providing a livelihood for billions – from plantation to crummy retail kiosks and glitzy supermarkets with enticing humidors.
That is the Number One obstacle. I find myself however far more intrigued by the obstacle that comes from human nature itself – indeed this is of greater interest generally, since it speaks to the innate contradictions that characterize that very nature, called human. This, I’m afraid, also speaks to strategies of attempting to wean people out of a habit that is considered detrimental to their well- being, the choice of techniques for imparting a message, as the consumer world knows only too well. Avoid this, eat this, don’t eat this – often tailored to commercial exploitation, creating a new consumerist craving, especially in rabidly capitalist societies. This can turn one in extreme opposite direction.
When you keep screaming at me that something is not good for me, especially when this is tied to selling me an alternative – it ends up as resistance to what amounts to vested interests, or simply overkill, thus alienating the badgered individual. The very sight of anorexic women who look as if they are at the terminal stages of cancer, for instance, but are held up in some countries as the ideal of beauty can lead to a total rejection that manifests itself through gravitation towards the contrasting ideal of beauty – such as the voluptuous graduates of Calabar fattening houses, products of three square meals of pounded yam with edi kia’ikong, interspersed with starch and banga soup.
This psychology of human response to any kind of stimulus – which lies at the basis of aversion therapy – requires more careful study. Sometimes, the opposite of the expected result is what takes place, owing to a failure to factor in such psychological ambiguities. In other words, the wrong approach to get people not to smoke may actually drive them to smoke, and we are not speaking here only of juvenile mentality, that peer craving alone among youths, a desire to be accepted by a macho in-group that makes the fourteen, thirteen, even as young as seven-year old take to smoking in schools. Or indeed early adoption of a role model who looks ‘cool’ with a cigarette in the hand, perhaps a film star. That same mentality is also manifested in adults whose supposedly mature minds actually find the forbidden intensely attractive. It is all part of the psychological quirks that underline human nature. Our earliest recorded instance – just to remind you – is the case of Adam and Eve. Consider the conduct of those two adults, alleged primogenitors of humanity. The tempting serpent should be read as a metaphor – there was no actual serpent as such in the Garden of Eden – if ever such a garden itself did exist. The serpent merely symbolized the hidden desire.
Among such extreme advocacy you may count some truly weird methodologies of totalitarian prohibition – such as the case of cities which simply declare their entire spaces of human habitation and non-habitation smoke-free zones. My recollection is that is was some obscure village called Davis, in the state of California, US, which took the lead in that direction, and declared itself a totally smoke free town as far back as two score or more years ago. If you were caught smoking within the City Limits, including within the walls of your own home, you could be run out of town, frontier style, tarred and feathered, tied backwards to a horse with the Mayor and councilors escorting you to the nearest border while the citizens pelted you with hoots and rotten eggs. It had to be the United States, the land of extremes and the original home of prohibitionism.
Diseases. In relation to cancer, long time direct exposure can be associated with the processes that lead to changes in cells, especially of the lungs and upper respiratory tract that van result in cancer. Now do we see how and why it is possible for the smoker to sometimes develop a carefree, indeed fatalistic attitude towards smoking hazards? Half the urban population of Nigeria – at a modest estimate – survive on generators. The expression ‘using fire to fight’ fire comes to mind.
Tobacco at least gives off a seductive aroma, unlike the fumes from a generator. One can imagine the addicted smoker shrugging, ‘What the hell’, when I urge him to ‘Kick the Habit or Kick the Bucket’. Those in whose hands the affairs of this nation have been placed – military and civilian – especially during the past four decades that oversaw the complete collapse of our electricity supply system, deserve to be dragged to court and charged with gross negligence leading to homicide, involuntary manslaughter, conspiracy to murder and, at the very least – being accessories to silent genocide. Mind you, they have undoubtedly created a special class of the affluent – the generator millionaires – and so I expect that instead of prison sentences, they will only receive national honours. May I propose for them a special category: Meritorious Order of National Population Control.
As with the human body, there are indeed many forms of behavioural cancer. To begin on a universal scale, I would certain describe racism as such, with South African apartheid being a spectacularly malignant form that was just as spectacularly placed in remission by that remarkable medical team, led by Nelson Mandela. Next, if you regard the entire African continent as a political body, dictatorship definitely qualifies for such a diagnostic classification – cancerous. Africa was once described by an African-American legislator, in a moment of frustration, as a beautiful lady that had been gang-raped by a succession of sex maniacs. Admitted, that analogy is not inappropriate. However, I am more inclined to see the continent as a victim of serial cancerous attacks that acts true to type, leaping from one part of the body to the other. No sooner is it stabilized in the liver than it erupts in the spleen, next we hear of it ravaging the testes, next the lungs, only to find suspicious lumps appearing in the breasts. They turn out to be malignant tumours that, in recent times, required the mobilization of a relay of traditional healers from Egypt, Libya, Morocco etc to flush them out with shock therapy, massed incantations in the streets and town centres, sometimes accompanied, alas, by blood transfusion from septic surgeries. But the disease has lurked in the bone marrow for nearly half a century and all we have been engaged upon is curing this part or the other – Liberia one day, Nigeria the next – instead of embarking on that most painful, most elaborate and invasive of all cancer treatments – a complete marrow transplant. It is that procedure that makes the cancerous analogy so appropriate, since we are able to monitor the process of the healthy marrow fighting back, pushing out the diseased cells, until the entire continental body is, some day, declared totally cancer free.
Then there is, in my estimation the most notorious cancerous growth that can afflict a body – I leave you for now to guess what that might be. Different societies tackle the affliction in different ways – in the communist days of the Republic of China for instance, the ‘magic bullet’, taken literally, was the most favoured form of treatment. It made its way through the body and homed in on the malignant formation in one direct hit. Cancerous cells, we know, have learnt to lie low, then burst out with renewed vigour, capturing territory, attacking other organs and finally overwhelming the rest of the body. Even the sturdiest organs eventually succumb. This social affliction that is patterned on cancerous advance is one that this nation knows to its cost. It is not unique to the nation, but in our case, only one technical word fully captures its remorselessness: metastasis. By now of course, you have already discerned what that cancer is called: Corruption!
Regarding our mystery, slow but guaranteed Silent Killer, I do not know of any branch of medical science that is devoted to it. Perhaps a branch of psychiatry. Maybe we should just assign it to the theologians. Certainly there is a vacuum in assumption of responsibilities, since the state does not yet accept that combating this hidden scourge is a legitimate preoccupation, and this is perfectly understandable. You can budget – as we hope will happen – for the kind of initiative that has brought us here today – cancer of the body – but how do you justify budgeting for cancerous souls? It borders on the metaphysical, and yet its corrosive powers are quite palpable and may affect the very destiny of a people, of a nation, enfeebling both to a point of inability to function rationally or with dignity. With cigarette addiction, you can label cigarette packets, tax delinquent companies, impose huge fines on those who have been caught forging statistics on nicotine content of cigarettes. Slogans come easy: SMOKING IS BAD FOR YOUR HEALTH. PREGNANCY AND SMOKING DO NO GO TOGEHER. SMOKING KILLS. Or my own concoction – KICK THE HABIT OR KICK THE BUCKET, that last being under patent. If I see it on any anti-tobacco billboard, cigarette pack, television screen or whatever, I shall sue! You are all witnesses.
In this case however, how does one even begin to diagnose this particular form of cancer, every bit as lethal as the physiological disorder, much less address it openly, and yet it is here. It has been inseminated and it is proliferating. One feels it, reads it, smells it, one can almost touch it, so palpable is it in its effects. It is especially present in governance, and we know how readily this percolates down through the body politic which looks up to governance for leadership and direction. Its malignant cells are being injected into the blood stream of the nation.
Let me waste no more time on riddles, especially as I suspect I have proffered sufficient clues. You would be justified in thinking that my mind is on bigotry, especially of the religious kind. Fanaticism. Intolerance. Hatred of all but whatever is of your own conviction. Inability to see that there is more than one route to the uncovering of life’s mysteries, or partaking of the banquet of life, and that the regulation of differences, just as in the human body, is the key to functioning society. That first-line enemy is indeed Bigotry, but no, we have long by-passed Intolerance as a contagion in its own right, and are left with the consequence, which is even more efficacious in its ability to spread and paralyse a people’s will. That leaves only one candidate – the fallout from intolerance, especially of the fanatic, homicidal mind.
I am speaking therefore of – Fear. The very morbidity of Fear. Fear as the product of terror, Fear as the real permissive environment of the cancer of Intolerance. Fear as the enervating prelude to the deterioration and total collapse of the body politic. Fear as the determinant of social and political decisions. Fear as the governing factor even in the choice of life-styles. Fear as the regulating quotient in day to day calculations, bearing even upon the most mundane activities, personal and collective. Fear as the Silent Censor even in utterances, leading to lies, half-truths, outright deceptions, rationalisations, double-talk. Fear as the wages of injustice, leading to appeasement and humanity’s abject surrender.
I have dwelt on this theme before now, in my series of BBC Reith lectures, under the title of CLIMATE OF FEAR. Permit me to state clearly therefore that I distinguish between Fear and Caution. As the very title of my address indicates, I place the dogmatic mind and the fatalistic as two sides of the same cancerous coin, both deleterious impingements on rationality. To cower before a dogmatic, unproven prohibition is just as irrational as to act in defiance of its validity through a carefree, dismissive attitude. The former stems from fear, the latter from mere bluster, bravado, throwing caution to the winds. Neither truly reflects man in the plenum of his intelligence. In that same vein, I distinguish between the Strategies of Peace and the Rites of Appeasement. When a nation is under attack, it is the easier choice to diminish the rights of the innocent, the victims, and concentrate near exclusively on the Vaseline approach, the appeasement of killers, massaging the tumour of unconscionable, arrogant, boastful, homicidal menace, easy to forget that victims are entitled not only to protection but to compassion, collective indignation, and restitution. In these times we live in, the primacy of victims has been disproportionately, grossly, unconscionably deficient on the scales of equity, almost to the condescending level of tokenism, and the cause is the triumph of that cancerous growth silently infiltrating the cells of the body politic – Fear, and its main companion stalker – Impunity. It has manifested itself through a number of acts, impudent demands, and in the very demoralizing language of a number of official pronouncements. Fear can become a habit, an addiction, and the nation, as a vital entity, had better understand that, if it truly wishes to survive, it must also learn to kick the habit, or else – kick the bucket.
Doctors, surgeons, psycho-therapists, healers of varying traditions – all will agree that, under cancer, the body is a war zone. The body politic is no different, and this national body is pre-eminently so. But let there be no mistake – it is not terror that is the cancer, but Fear. Terror is mere pustule, a noisome excrescence. That it often results in human suffering does not change its real nature. And there I find myself at one with our wave theorist – we are indeed back to the territory of primordialism, since Fear is a product of Nature. It is indeed Nature itself, and the battle against Fear is equivalent to taking on Nature as adversary. Now, Nature – that, as adversary, is truly worthy of our respect, not Noisy Killers, and the noxiousw agencies of terror. So, let us take our cue from the doctors who have chosen to confront the very origin of life by taking on the ontology of cancer, and make the right and dignified existential choices. A life lived under fear is the choice of a cancerous life-style, oscillating between fatalism and dogmatic submissiveness. If we must adopt a dogma at all, permit me to propose this over-arching rendition: Just like cancer, the fear of Fear itself – is the beginning of wisdom.
•This is an abridged version of paper delivered by Professor Wole Soyinka at the launch of the Cancer Centre last week
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