How we Sanitize Violence, Al Shabaab, #ManderaBusAttack and Other Things

StopTheViolenceWe live in a world that glorifies war and weaponry. I cannot tell you how much I sometimes read on the details of nuclear arsenals and their delivery systems. I suppose I’m not the only curious person alive. The nature of politics that goes into war-dialogues and war-making, and the amount of coverage given to war situations, easily supersedes any other human activity. We take pleasure in violent sports and marvel at machines that can cause the ultimate destruction. The movies we watch defy our relentless talks on peace, love, and compassion. We have accepted that humans are violent and self-destructing entities.

We are proud consumers of violence, and it can be argued that we have over-consumed violence and become largely desensitized by it. Of course we have sociological and psychological explanations to these aspects, we have political and economic undercurrents, and and have expanded our receptivity to new brands of violence, whether its cops on the streets, rebels and bandits, violent religious fundamentalists, government exterminations, race-inspired violence, domestic violence… you can add more brands to this list. But to be consumed, it has to be sanitized. We model violence into acceptable categories so that we can comfortably live with violence and continue enjoying the benefits of these brands. As a brands, beheadings are grossest and drone attacks are copacetic.

In the aftermath of the Post-Election Violence in 2008, I dutifully studied the photos taken and compiled by Boniface Mwangi to get a real picture of the depravity that we had sunk into. Such photos are important because they de-localize our understandings, sort of nationalize or globalize it and give it a more expanded and arguably objective interpretive lens. Over the past two years, there has been too much violence in public spaces, linked to Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and youth gangs in slums – added to the police brutality and disappearances that have become part of Kenya’s culture. Yet I also know that since I have accessed most of these images through the internet, much of the population are shielded from the psychologically-imbalancing nature of these graphic depictions.   Which brings me to the question, can people take a firm position in fighting for safety, security, and peace in public spaces if they knew what actually happens (what has been happening)? But such a question can also be too simplistic. We know of scenes of mob justice and thief-burning and police gunning down of thugs in Nairobi. Whether such scenes have deterred criminality is contestable.

But I’m more concerned with the kind of violence that pervades the whole society at the same time and the fears it can create, or the courage it can create to make things a little right. I’m concerned with terrorist violence and ethno-political violence such as the 2007/2008 PEV. What do you think if a majority of Kenyans knew the extent of violence some regions of this country has been exposed to? Would there be a change in the divisive nature of our politics if we had a memorial for 2007/2008 PEV victims, something akin to the Rwanda case? Would we learn the cost of political violence of such a memorial was a constant reminder of the risks our nation faces during each election? And on Al Shabaab and Al Shabaab sympathizers, do you think there can be a change in how we perceive them and deal with the security situation if the graphic images of their massacres were accessible to many? So many questions. On a personal level, images and narratives have not won me over to their side, rather it has created the exact opposite, of detest and distaste, and agitation for the government to honestly and firmly deal with the security situation in Kenya. But I’m also worried that such images are becoming too common in our public space and it will not take long before we accept it as the status quo. Al Shabaab violence has become a new brand of violence that we consume from the comforts of our living rooms. We have added it to the list of Kenyan violences.

Unfortunately, what is consumed by a majority of Kenyans is the sanitized version. For example, on the #ManderaBusAttack, what many have consumed is not the expanded, brain-flowing, utterly disgusting version on Reddit. The Geneva Conventions have made wars neat and tidy. There are no desecrated corpses on the screen. These are no gory massacres. The violencing that war is, has been relegated to medieval history books. We have sanitized killing, made it presentable and safe enough to cheer. Statistics have replaced our interpretations of scale. A million people were killed. 20, 000 were massacred. 50. 10. 5. 1. Simple. Numbers help us to make justifications for appropriateness of violence.

So 22 killed in Kapedo. Hundreds in Baragoi. 28 in Mandera. Da. Da. Da. Simple numbers. If there is anger, it is measured. We are careful enough not to soil our political positions. We don’t want talks of incompetence. We don’t want talks of negligence. We don’t want talks of impunity. We are not angry enough because it is not us. Would we rise up against the government and demand accountability if we were angry enough? Would we deny Al Shabaab sympathizers a voice if we were angry enough? Would be flush out Al Shabaab’s within our midst, hiding in our houses, if we were angry enough? Even more important, would we talk against the uses of violence to achieve political objectives if we were angry enough?

We are experts in whitewashing the dark reality of violence. In some cases, religion helps us to justify violence. We sanctify violence when we pray to God to “bless our troops” as they go to war. Other religions such as Islam have edicts justifying war against those perceived as infidels. In these, we become righteous perpetrators and consumers of violence. Sanitization not only desensitizes us, but it also prevents us from acting on violence in our communities. Look at how we are desensitized to act. I have always been a proponent not showing graphic photos, images, etc to the public or sanitizing them. There are very good and humane reasons that support that argument. Lately I have been thinking of exceptions. Rather than the standard sanitizing, we need to find ways of using these images, not to instill and propagate fear, but to inspire the courage to act in Kenya. The history of the modern world is replete with examples of how some images of violence has been used to create a new path of change and understanding. We need to find a new way of using these information-images to induce anger for change, to implant a new way of interpreting images of violence in our public spaces, and strongly act against the perpetrators of such violences.

Lets continue talking. Lets continue acting.


[Today, November 25th, is the International End Violence Against Women Day. From today to the December 10th – the International Human Rights Day, you are called upon to stand up for women and human rights. During these 16 days of activism and conversations, we would like to know your clear stand on gender based violence.]

Where Do Old Unpublished Poems (and Stories) Go?


There are poems I wrote when I was 17 years, now I am 30 years old. Some are mediocre in the sense of style but most are not, many are heart-felt and honest I think. Most are definitive of that phase of life and radiate snapshots of a hungry learner. Viewed together, as a part of a single trajectory that is the growth and transformation of a single poet, they definitely occupy a worthy space. You don’t want to lose them because you know they mean much more than just a starter course in a long meal of betterment.

You may even begin to question the very essence of what ‘a better writer/poet’ actually means. Is it dexterity in style or honesty in voice – despite the awkwardness of the baby steps? Or is it learning how to present your thoughts, in a specific time, in a specific space, in the best way possible – with regard to your contemporaries? And when you eventually decide to publish, in the sense of sharing your works with readers other than yourself, it is with judiciousness that you select poems you think are representative of ‘the current you’ or ‘how you’d like your readers and peers to view you’ and a whole set of you in different phases is (unfortunately) consigned to oblivion. They will remain unread and unheard forever. Probably when you die and your next of kin turns over the thousands of pages of ‘what was written and never published’ to your best friend (who if you are lucky may know what to do with the ‘works’) then they may finally be consumed by people other than you. And if they are good enough, you may earn posthumous fame. But you will be dead and the dead have no practical use of fame.

Performance poets or spoken word artists are excused from this torment. They write and release it on stage to be consumed immediately with its many perfections and imperfections. The next performance provides an opportunity to better the context and delivery. They ascend to a new rung on the ladder of ‘betterment’ and the process goes on and on until 5 years later, once can logically see the steps that made the quintessential performer the person they are today. You will see that it is not an accident that they are good at what they do. You’ll appreciate the years of work that went into perfecting the art. The downside is that for a poem that is written and not performed immediately, better poems by the poet soon relegate them to a box of irrelevance or quiet ridicule, without an opportunity to be seen or heard.

“I wrote this ten years ago”, the poet will say leafing through a yellowing note book. He will recognize the person he was then, how many skins he has shed and specific verses may help him locate the specific experiences during that time. These poems, therefore, are to him chronological snapshots of artistic transformation. But there are also poems written when one is young that remain irreplaceable, whose content is mature and style borrowed from years one is yet to live.

I’m reminded of “The Coming Poet” preface that Immanuel Iduma wrote on Dami Ajayi’s chapbook “Daybreak & Other Poems”, especially his ideas that performance can be the voice of a poem. He says:

“There must be something about our post-literate world that is equally an important  consideration for the poet. Literacy as we know is prescribing a new approach; it is fraught between the demands of YouTube, Tumblr and Pinterest, today’s sites of graven images. We learnt through our ears, and then with our eyes, now it is a combination of both. This is the crux of the poet’s challenge today. He has to be seen -and-heard. Performance will have to be his voice; otherwise his poetry will remain written.  If the poet wants an ego-massage, he must seek a hybrid-form; a poem that is written that can also be spoken.”

I’m one of those poets with poems they wrote more than a decade ago, some of which are a decent start I think. I wrote this poem when I was 18 years old, more than 10 years ago:


The Poet’s Eye

The poet’s keen eye surveys the atmosphere,

Intelligence and cynicism hidden behind the round spheres,

They watch, doze, and watch again,

Their brains muzzy, but steadfast in faith.


Sleeping and waking,

Wishing in a world ‘short of paradise’,

In abstractions they drown.

The world’s good, yet dangerous to mankind,

People are good, yet selfish and self-interested.


Like sun after fall, radiance their eyes show,

Though darkened at times by a world in flee from truth,

They write and preach: closed ears their reception,

Man evades truism all the time.


Gracious Lord! Nasty howls town and across,

Sleeping countryside, awakened by the paradise quest,

Whether the end they say is true, isn’t an issue:

Every man with his torch, steadfast in own faith

Walks discreetly towards the right way that nobody knows.



I wrote this one when I was 17 years old. How years run?


Why be a Poet?


Why be a poet?

When the meanings do not mean,

When the poet’s lyrical torrent is prickly thorns,

Why? When I cannot blast the truth,

And hear a following so grand?

Why? when I cannot write,

And live by the bread from it.


I write sanguine,

Though distressed that this salve cannot heal again,

I’m tempted to bury this statue of poetry,

For its rotten trunk has started to smell.

But I’ll let it stand a while.

But, my words remain cast to you,

In adversary like a ship in gale,


I curse all for pushing poetry into dustbins,

For muffling literature so glorious.

These are the worries that beset me,

That I may not live to enjoy my forte,

That I may not recede into my sanctum,

And emit messages to calm this tempestuous era.



These are two poems of the many written more than 10 years ago when I was much younger and which have never been published anywhere in any form. It also means that there is no ‘feedback’ or response that has ever been received on these poems – simply because they have never been shared with anybody.

I’m now 30 years old now. So much has changed (on who a poet is or the power of poetry to transform living experiences), yet so much has also remained the same.

As I grow and encounter different lives and experiences of poems, the way I write and what I write has been changing. The change has been radical over the past 5 years and the anguish of shedding old skins to try new ones has been real. What do I do with shed skin? I had a manuscript, a collection of poems written up to around 2010, one that was very specific in scope and which strove to tackle specific issues in my contexts, and which after sending to various Kenyan publishers and getting the cold shoulder, began yellowing in my hard disk.

This manuscript has poems written between 2007 and 2010, a period in which my mind travelled deep into African and Kenyan politics issues, philosophy and religious discourses, especially since 2009 was the first time I read the Koran and the Bhagavad Gita and a whole set of esoteric texts. Because of procrastination and my life being tugged away by radically different pursuits, a lull ensued and the push for publication took a back seat. I have been thinking of them, maybe publishing them as Chapbook as a kind of an exorcism of that past, of that life and the poems that were produced in that era – whether they are good/bad/acceptable/serious/bla blab la.  I honestly fear that if they don’t gain legs and walk around, my ideas/thoughts/productions during that time and space may be lost forever. Whatever they are, maybe they deserve to be read and discussed. I don’t know the specific orientation my writing may take tomorrow, histories are made as lives progress, and maybe this should be the right time to open a door to that past.

Still, in your own life as a creator, where do your old unpublished poems (and stories) go? Do they acquire a life of their own and live undeterred in the darkness inside box locks or digital backups? Are they historied or they die off and reincarnate as new poems and stories?



Can science solve all the problems in the world?

can science solve all problems_granddebate

In the 21st century, the word ‘science’ means ‘solutions’. Given that today is the World Science Day for Peace and Development, this platform offers us a chance share our ideas for a better world and reiterate, once more, that science is solutions for all the world’s material problems. Over the centuries, science has transmuted from being a sacred discipline accessible only to a select few to become a way of life. Every single day, individuals, consciously or unconsciously, rely on established scientific principles to make individual, family, community, national, and global decisions. The world would never have achieved the current state of technological advancement without scientific thought. Science is the furnace where ideas are smelt, purified, and modelled into useful tools.

This is not a vacuous praise of science. Name any major problem confronting the world today. Ignorance, disease, illiteracy, climate change and global warming … name them. All these problems will only be solved by science. If there is any problem in the world that is worth solving and which affects the entire population irrespective of race, creed, religion or gender – you can be sure that scientific solutions are what should be exploited. Ignorance far from being a question of choice is a consequence of poor dissemination of knowledge. A reconfiguration of such a system to enhance information flow is a partial solution. Diseases have been afflicting humanity since the dawn of time. Science has been the reason behind increasing life expectancy, reducing child mortality rates, reducing malaria or HIV/AIDS prevalence etc.

Let us talk about some of these solutions in depth. Let us begin with climate change and global warming. Far from the controversy about its causes – anthropogenic or otherwise, the reality of climate change is with us in Africa. Over the past few years we have lived through changes in climatic patterns and not all these changes have been pleasant. We need to generate scientific solutions that range from reducing the use of fossil fuels to adapting to changing climatic systems. You can be sure that engineers are at the forefront in developing fuel efficient transport systems as well as how we can transform our offices to conserve energy. There are currently hundreds, if not thousands, of green technologies in the market. We need to be informed and adopt these tools and practices to reduce our carbon footprint. Mother earth sobs for our attention.

Our education systems are stale and have stopped doing what they were created to do. It is not strange to converse with graduates with annoyingly little information between their ears. Students are pursuing Masters Degrees not for the content that such a course offers but for the certificate so that they are well placed for the next promotion. You have PhD students who cannot conceptualize and create solutions for their own communities. This sleepy-head attitude towards intellectual advancement is a boil that has festered for far too long. It has begun seeping into our systems and before long all educated Africans will be unable to offer any solutions to the continent. Education reforms will have to align its objectives with the demands of a re-emerging Africa.

Let us talk about diseases. Look at cancer which is currently one of the living causes of mortality today in the world. With increasing diagnosis of cancer cases, multimodal therapy remains the only reliable option in cancer treatment in addition to other treatments following surgical removal of cancerous cells. Owing to the limitations of the current cancer drugs, scientists are working on hundreds of other solutions including how biodegradable polymers can be used to enhance drug delivery. Adult stem cells have shown significant success in treating juvenile diabetes and Parkinson’s disease. Hemopoietic stem cells hold promises in the treatments of autoimmune diseases, directing cancer therapy as well as generating tolerance physiological conditions for solid organ transplants. The current advancements in proteomics and gene therapy may eventually widen the scope of the clinical application of hematopoietic adult stem cell studies.

What about stem cell research? Just a few years ago, Mr. Steve Rigazio was a normal, happy young man operating his business with the enthusiasm and ambition so common among young successful entrepreneurs. Now he forms the statistics of people diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease; a devastating disease that affects the spinal cord nerve cells, causing muscles to wither and die off quickly. Just like everybody else diagnosed with this condition, the doctors gave him 18 months of life. Two years after diagnosis Steve is still alive and his doctors are baffled. No need to mention he quit his job and even though the disease is ravaging his body, his mind is contact. His vibrancy is a stark contrast to his gradual deterioration unto death.

Just in the same neighbourhood in which Steve lives are two beautiful girls; twelve years of age struggling with juvenile diabetes since they were barely four years old. With thousands of pricks on their skins, life is completely unbearable. Miles away is Anne; a twenty three year old young woman buoyed down with Alzheimer’s. Steve, Anne, the twins and millions more are suffering from these genetic degenerative diseases have been forced to watch their approaching deaths with utter hopelessness. Yet hidden in this hopelessness is the understanding that despite the moral, ethical and political undertones, stem cell research may offer these individuals the only remaining hope for a meaningful life. It is only through an appreciation of the scientific technique that diagnosis, treatment, and management of millions of diseases has recently improved. The consequence is that currently there are millions of pharmacologic agents under development and which will offer reprieve to millions.

Because of poor investments in scientific development in Africa, we have become importers of solutions than creators of them. African systems of thought are intellectually dominated. While the importation of ideas is not wrong, our little or non-participation in the generation of global knowledge makes it very difficult to efficiently integrate new technologies in our systems. We lag behind in the adoption of scientifically proven solutions to common problems in agriculture, industry, and health.

Is there a solution? Are there ways in which Africans can increase the adoption of these techniques? Yes. There are many situations where technology has been used in disaster management and conflict resolution. Here in Kenya, Ushahidi developed disaster management Apps – a Ping app that works in both smartphones and feature phones and can be used to locate and respond to disasters. ICT adoption is changing fortunes in the continent. For example, Kenya has been touted as one of the leading countries in the world as far as the adoption of mobile commerce solutions, with a recent TNS Mobile Life survey showing that 73% of the 30 million mobile subscribers currently use their handsets to pay for products and services compared to just 15% worldwide. This is due to a large number of M-Pesa, Airtel Money, Orange Money and yuCash subscribers using their mobile phones in money transfer and banking services. These ICT developments are not only in Kenya but other countries as well, particularly South Africa and Nigeria where there are new developments and announcements happening on a daily basis.

Last month Lee Mwiti wrote an incisive article in the African Review. He asked: Is Africa’s breakneck growth all smoke and mirrors? This was in response to the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative that seems to suggest that double-digit economic growth is commonplace around the continent, with six of the ten fastest growing economies in Sub-Saharan Africa. The truth is that Africa is poised for take-off. This is not a pipe dream. I’m an African and I believe there are millions of young Africans like me who not only have great hopes for the continent but will be willing to exert themselves in realizing the African dream.

While part-dreaming, part-working towards achieving these dreams, it would be insincere to avoid touching on the role of politics development in Africa. Post-independent Africa has been a desert for traveller looking for successful political stories. The independence leaders squandered the chance to position the continent on a sustainable growth trajectory. There have been pockets of promising leadership that is rich in vision and commitment, but there are a few, if any, countries that have maintained a healthy platform for a long time. Political successions in Africa have not been savoury events. From coups, juntas, to stolen elections and broken promises for change have lived with African countries since they were hurriedly sculpted and injected with Westphalian attitudes. The political history of post-independence Africa is a weary wave with uneven troughs and crests.

One wishes that science could solve the world’s political problems; that politicians would rely on accurate analyses to make public policy decisions. But science plays second fiddle to politics because politicians are gods. The era when politicians could make personal sacrifices for the good of the society is gone; neither are they willing to defer current benefits for the longer term. Public policy is not being pursued for the long term welfare of the country. Kenyan and Nigerian Members of Parliament are examples of what happens when the pursuit of excesses and bulging bellies become a personal achievement, a national asset.

While politicians, even from the world’s greatest hegemony – the United States of America, routinely ignore scientific evidence when making policy decisions on such important issues such as healthcare, energy policy, climate change and global warming; we cannot resist the temptation to prod them. We need politicians to pass laws that increase funding to public research institutes. Whether it is HIV/AIDS, malaria, conflict resolution mechanisms, peace dialogue or democratization efforts – the lack of literacy of many politicians on these key challenges negatively influences their ability to debate intelligently and prioritize allocations of resources. Universities and other public research institutions continue to suffer from inadequate funding because they are placed at the bottom of the priority ladder.

In essence, there has never been a time in modern African history that the issue of leaders and the quality of leadership has been more important. The need for African leaders that have the competence to comprehend threats, the challenges, and opportunities of globalization, the imperatives of democratization and good governance, and the vision of a preferred future and capacity to realize it, is urgent. The African society at the present time awaits the emergence of a new generation of leaders who embody good governance as a cardinal value in every sphere of the society. Africa demands new leaders and a style of leadership that is competent, honest, visionary, and committed. Such a crop of leadership will appreciate the fact that science lies at the very core of growth and development.
In the same way, scientists also need to be flexible when conceptualizing solutions to global problems. Luckily, there is a new field of study around the block. It is called development engineering – a new interdisciplinary field of research that encompasses theoretical subjects as well as applied science. One of the objectives of this new strand of thinking is to tackle challenges that often block the delivery of more equitable development in a dynamic and interconnected world.

Most of the complex challenges currently affecting Africa could be solved if researchers develop culturally sensitive models that not only re-emphasize established scientific techniques but create powerful combinations of skillsets that can engender the rise of new solutions to old problems. Having accessed a wide range of research studies across many disciplines, I can state with a high level of certainty that our main weakness lies in translating research data into practice. But this is not an African problem. Bridging the theory-practice gap is a global problem. However, interdisciplinary thinking, as an approach, is more likely to democratize science and align research with market needs and the real needs of the millions of populations in Africa that continue to suffer afflictions that have been eradicated in the developed world.

Richard Oduor

Richard is a Biomedical Science & Technology graduate from Egerton University Kenya. He works and lives in Nairobi, Kenya. Richard aspires to be a multidisciplinary thinker and pursues threads from different disciplines in a bid to link them into one huge overarching framework of everything. He is also a poet and a budding short story writer/novelist. Richard also runs a blog called The Grand Debate.

The Commentary was first published in Write Paragraphs for the World Science Day for Peace and Development Commemoration.

Words and Morals: An Open Inquiry

words and morals granddebateScholars often create their own vocabularies by giving special meanings to ordinary terms and phrases.

For example, when logical positivists use the word “nonsense” they do not imply the ordinary sense of “without meaning”, rather they refer to a statement that cannot be independently verified.

Giving specialized meaning to old terms allows scholars to say things what might otherwise be difficult to say in layman terms. Of course this may sometimes create havoc for us, the readers. Not that they care.

The heart of this presentation is that language enables, extends, and maintains human value systems. Even though the relation between language and morality can be examined from many perspectives, this presentation adopts a philosophical -linguistic perspective that is informed by evolutionary theory.

Philosophy of Language

One of the most important works in the philosophy of language is ‘Philosophical Investigations’ published by Ludwig Wittgenstein in 1953.

The main conception in this foundational work is that words cannot exist without meaning. Human beings create words to represent a meaning. Usually the meaning is correlated with the word used, but do precede words.

However, meaning is use. The meaning of words can only be known by how they are used in communication.

Since meaning is use, man has developed a moral vocabulary, or rather language that is deemed sensitive to relations that are lived and experienced.

For lack of time, I will avoid a comprehensive discussion of the general evolutionary theories explaining the origin of language. In brief, language evolved because human beings are social animals. Language is an attempt to develop generalized codes that make it easy for members of a society to communicate. The diversity of language as a result of cultural evolution tells us that language developed to satisfy specific needs. Every society had its own specific needs, therefore every society developed its own language. That explains why there are thousands of languages.

The specific needs that every society possesses are the foundations of morality. A baby is not born with the capacity to learn a specific language. They are born with the capacity to learn any language, and consequently the capacity to learn morality.

De Waal in the book ‘Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved’ tells us that there are three levels of morality. The first is the Building Blocks or Moral sentiments. Here language gives meaning to building blocks such as capacity for empathy, tendency for reciprocity, sense of fairness, and ability to harmonize relationships. The second level is peer pressure, where there is an insistence that everyone behaves in a way that favours a cooperative group life. The third level is judgment and reasoning, where we internalize the needs for a specific type of behaviour and rely on self-reflection and logical reasoning to make moral judgements.

I’m more interested in discussing the third level, that of judgment and reasoning. Here, we are always trying to pass judgment over our own actions and the actions of others. We rationalize what we do, trying to understand the meanings of our actions; why we do the things we do, and the way we do them. The way we can achieve this level of morality is by language. We need rationality to pass judgment over actions, but to let the other know how we feel or what we think, language is needed. High social interactions are needed to achieve this level.

One of the roots of morality is social interaction and language is at the roots of social interaction. If we pass language to other generations, we also pass morality through our judgments, and we teach them about morality through language.

From this argument, I think the debate about moral absolutism and relativism are important examples. While we may not consciously recognize it, we are passing over the same arguments that were developed by philosophers centuries ago to judge actions and determine whether they are moral or not. Now that is the beauty of language, it allows us to maintain valid arguments however old, and it also gives us the capacity to access and hopefully incorporate novel conceptualizations of morality in our lives.

Changes in Meanings, Changes in Language

Now because the meanings precede words, changes in meanings also mean changes in words. These changes are often a reflection of our understanding of moral values in the society.

Recently in a study published in Psychological Science, psychologist Patricia Greenfield from the University of California, examined changes in word use and its association with moral values in United States and Britain. The main argument in the study was to test whether the moral values of humans adapt to their social environments.

To discover the changes in values, the researcher analyzed more than 1.1 million books published in the United States and 350,000 books published in the U.K between 1800-2000.

I think it’s important to say that books rather than being mere objects on the shelf have actually grown to become participants in every conversation. Books may announce their presence or may not but they remain the greatest influence of how generations have discussed moral concepts, and how moral values have been spread to other societies.

Back to the study, Greenfield searched for tell-tale words such as “obliged” (a key concept in interdependent societies – collectivism) and “choose” (the power to make personal choices – individualism). She also searched for the synonyms of these words.

The findings show that the use of the word “obliged” (moral obligations) steadily declined from 1800 to 2000, as use of the word “choose” (moral choices) gradually increased. (“Choose” passed “obliged” in the early 1920s.)

Similar findings were reported for the words “give” and “get.” While “give” began the 19th century with a huge head start, “get” caught up around World War II, and the two were neck and neck until the 1970s, when “get” forged ahead, never to look back. In short people don’t wait patiently to be given, but strive to get what they want. It seems like patience, as a virtue, is dying.

Use of the words “individual,” “self,” and “unique” all steadily rose over the course of the two centuries, while “obedience,” “authority,” “belong,” and “pray” all gradually declined. The use of the words “feel” and “emotion” also increased, reflecting “the growing importance of psychological expression.”

These findings confirm that words change as the environment changes. Meanings attached to moral values change in response to social changes. While people living before the 19th century were obliged to act according to specific moral codes, the 21st century seems to support the argument that every person is a ‘unique, individual self’ hence moral choices define decisions over moral values rather than blind obedience to an absolute moral standard.

The Universalization of moral codes

How are these moral codes universalized?

In introducing the theory of Evolution, Darwin, in Chapter Four of ‘The Origin of Species’, noted that the human moral sense is the most important difference between humanity and the lower animals. There is consensus from multiple disciplines of study that language stands out boldly as a uniquely human characteristic.

It is therefore safe to admit that human morality requires language. Linguistically based moral codes often oblige people towards morality. Language helps us to access moral thinking and enforce moral codes at low cost.

Language also supplies us with a shared representation system that supports our pursuit of moral actions. When people share a language, they are able to cooperate and foster morality.

However, it is important to reiterate that cooperation always requires groupings. Within these groups, symbolic language can be used to facilitate group cohesion and cooperation hence fostering group-oriented morality.

From history, it is possible to see how cooperative moral values have been expressed and spread through language. For instance, all the organized religions in the world are word-centred. This means that they strongly emphasize that followers must memorize cooperation-oriented moral concepts presented in their books.

From the Bible, we learn that Deuteronomy teaches that followers were to learn the religious commandments in their hearts and verbally pass them on to their children. The Quran calls on all Muslims to memorize the holy text. The similarity between these religious traditions is that they want their followers to internalize a normative code that promotes cooperation. This cannot be possible without language.

However, we have also known that morality, descriptively speaking can function for the benefit of the in-group at the expense of the out-group. This is because of the prescription of what a group considers moral or prescriptive, what they think they ought to do, what they think is right and wrong. Such in-group moralities can brutally disadvantage or even terminate an out-group, or they can work in a way that benignly protects the in-group from out-group influences, with little or no detriment to the out-group.

Note that even though we might consider such a “moral system” as ethically corrupt, it would still act as a normative and moral system within a group in a functional sense. These in-group moral codes stated in language illuminate inter-group conflict and the differential fitness of human groups in history.

To summarize this argument, we can say that it is hard to assess moral norms without language. For example, language makes it easier to assess the moral behaviour of people considered to be deviants. This can be done through gossiping.

Secondly, language provides a low cost means to enforce social control. For example, since punishment endangers the person who metes it out, it is much less costly to mark a deviant individual with a word than to punish him.

Third, the whole process of assessing, marking, and tracking behaviour becomes more efficient through the shared representation system of abstract and symbolic language. Allow me to give a lengthy example of what a shared representation system means in the world today.

For some time now I have been interested in the language of human rights. We have a political system, such as the United Nations, that have been given the responsibility to pursue and actualize collective moral values on behalf of the countries of the world. Now this supra-political unit has been developing certain moral codes presented as ‘Conventions of human rights’. The phrase ‘human rights’ comes with specific descriptions of what that entails.

Now if you have also been watching You Tube videos – especially those involving Sam Harris or Dawkins, you’ll have noticed that there are certain cultural practices such as FGM and child sacrifice that have featured prominently as examples of why morality is absolute. What we don’t always realize is that before the establishment of the human rights conventions, FGM was never cited generously an absolutely immoral act, but rather as a culturally retrogressive practice. Without direct intervention, it was assumed that as the society progresses, FGM will die a natural death.

Another example is terrorism. Even though we know that the branding of these violent acts as ‘terrorist activities’ helps the United States to pursue a political agenda, we should not forget the Judeo-Christian conservatist agenda that supports that branding. Thus, the US and allies can simply forget the atrocities they are committing in the Arab world and send drones to kill innocent Pakistani children under the guise of ‘anti-terrorism’. Note that if someone says that terrorism is an absolutely immoral act, it follows that ‘anti-terrorism’ is a moral response. This is what we call in international relations studies as a “humanitarian intervention”. But is in actually one? That is a discussion for another day.

While this does not in any way support the heinous acts and crimes, it tells you how meanings are structured when you have an existing moral code to guide interpretation. The human rights conventions are moral codes and adoption by member countries is a way of universalizing these codes past linguistic boundaries. The human rights and all the UN conventions are moral value systems.

The bridging of the gap between legal codes and moral codes is important because law and morality are both means of social control. Their language is descriptive and directive. Descriptive language gives information, directive language guides conduct.

Fourth, language significantly extends social control mechanisms and helps “allow groups to evolve into adaptive units” and this advances cooperation.

Finally, linguistically based social controls also help facilitate group fitness in relation to conflict problems with other groups and environmental pressures.


In closing, it is to be understood that the human person is the basis of realizing moral values. There is none, under and above, that is needed to guide humans to act morally. The human person is the sole guarantee for social stability, harmony, peace and authentic development and progress, and language and communication function as special cultural tools for the attainment of this social objective. Language can therefore, be a positive instrument for the humanization of the social order. In an era of moral choices, we should all be vigilant of not only the description of moral codes but also its effect on our moral conduct, at all times.


Download PDF here: Words and Morals FIKA

Richard Oduor

Prepared for the Freethinkers Initiative Kenya (FIKA) Debate on ‘Morality and Religion’ on August 17th, 2013

Diaries of the Living Dead #3

White tents sat on their shadows. Black ants nibbled crumbs and circled iron restraints that married tents to the earth. Inside were families whose huts were licked clean by the flames. Only huts in the East had escaped the lust of violence. But the ashes were now impregnated and unable to swirl in the wind. The rains had come. There were needles of grass on the ruins and chatters swam atop cries of hungry children. There were no buildings of note. Even in the East a child could count the remaining huts with his fingers and toes. In fact, St. Mary Our Lady Catholic Parish was the only stone monstrosity in the village. If one stood on the steps of the church, his eyes bit a huge chunk of the land of the forest in a single gaze.

Before the war, huts had conquered the East and Central region. The West was where maize stalks swayed. Even now, there were patches of green splendour in farms that had heeded the early rains. The Central where the Chief’s throne had once occupied, together with surrounding homes, was now swathed in white tents with red crosses on their sides. If one was a bird flying a thousand metres above, Sigwembe village was akin to an amoeba – an uneven edged globule in the middle of a green field. It was a drop of humanity thrown in the middle of a jungle.

Shakombo’s drum rested on his back and with each step towards the centre of the village, the number of children calling his name increased. Their plea was one: ‘Please tap so that we can dance.’ With a good-natured smile, he promised them a treat the day after. Still, some jumped and hung on his strong arms. He let them swing to their fill.

He could see Joseph ambling forward. “If he is not careful, he will lose his mind too,” he thought and hastened his pace.

But Joseph knew that the dignity of a man is his loincloth. If a sane King were to walk down the streets naked, the youngest child would pronounce him a madman. Such is the assumption that guides people’s understanding every time their eyes set on a naked dirty man on the streets. His skin was chaffed, his hair matted, and trickles of unswallowed food wet his hairy chest. Children would have been scared stiff, if there weren’t too many madmen in the village.

“A single stool is unsightly, but what is a massive dump to a man’s eye?” Joseph mused silently, watching the madman.

Abundance, even of evil, dampens the nerves. He had known the madman just like the many, who now watched him collecting all the polythene bags jiggling everywhere. He was now a self appointed god of environmentalism. His trail was clean. Those who had hated him in his former self sneered. The great majority saw no difference between the naked men and their own selves.

A queue snaked through the village. It was long and winding, a tired queue. Instead of men chatting and stealing glances at women, they laid their buttocks on the damp earth and waited. At the farthest end, ringed by a pack of soldiers, was a blue container. From its belly came the people’s lifeline. Joseph walked and sat at the hopeless end of the queue. After two or three minutes, the men would stand, make two steps forward and again lower their buttocks to the damp earth. That was all they had to do until they reach the hopeful end of the queue.

Red Cross personnel crisscrossed the village with gusto, their faces painted with pity and big old love tapped beneath their ribcages. Their smiles were considered and their emotions hung on professional meters. They laughed when with their ilk, but wore craggy faces when dealing with victims. Joseph watched them with interest. He was a curious man. Not that there was anything else he could do. The plain painful life of being reduced to beggars of relief food could only be spiced by an observant eye.

A pick-up truck emblazoned with Médecins Sans Frontières logo crawled from St. Mary Our Lady Catholic Parish and set its sight on the food distribution point. Behind the wheels was Father John Ward, now on blue jeans and white Médecins Sans Frontières sweatshirt instead of the priestly garb he had spotted in the morning. He was a doctor by profession; a graduate of both the century-old University of Birmingham Medical School and Université de Franche Comté.

He fixed his eyes on the suffering mass. His heart sunk and boiled in the hydrochloric acid in his stomach. He was ashamed of his actions. Business steals the soul of a man. He had made abnormal profits smuggling guns in his holier-than- thou pick-up truck. His bank account was healthy and would remain so for quite some time, no doubt, but the smell of death had erased all the pleasure. His soul bled each time he manoeuvred his truck between mounds hiding a quarter of Sigwembe’s population. Each time a body was collected from the tall grasses, the village would walk to his doorstep and ask him to intervene on behalf of the dead. Each time he ran to the back garden and disgorged evil on the innocent greens. Not that he believed in absolute good.

Joseph stood, made two steps forward, and lowered his buttocks on the damp earth. He could see Shakombo walking to the hopeless end of the line. He sat down. Joseph watched as faces lit, each earnestly begging Shakombo to tap so that they can dance. Shakombo rubbed the tautness with his palm and hit it gently with his middle finger. A man recalled an old song. Guttural sounds escaped vocal cords that had been silenced for hours. Music cares not whether the bowel is empty. Three men arose to their feet, four men sorry. No, five men …

This is a continuing story, read earlier posts
Diaries of the Living Dead #1
Diaries of the Living Dead #2

Richard Oduor
(Next posting on Wednesday, 26th June 2013)

Diaries of the Living Dead #2

But Joseph’s words stuck on his throat, threatening to choke him. He turned his eyes to the three middle-aged men to his right. He observed their lips. Their lips moved. They trembled and quaked like walls do when the earth farts. They said something that could not be inserted in a normal sharing of words between men. They were words for God’s big ears – ears the size of ten thousand elephant ears stitched together. God’s ears hung above the earth to capture incessant pleas of man.

A hand, gently, as if afraid to arouse, landed softly on a taut drum. Shakombo was the village drummer. Every man knew the language of his drum. It melted their hearts. Not even women could avoid the seducing rumble of his drums. It melted their insides. For his skills Shakombo was, by default, the church drummer. Using only the tip of his fingers, he tapped the tautness and listened as the sound filled the trough between high pitches, and when a new verse began, he opened his palms, smacked the drum and sent waves of heavenly vibrations up the high ceiling.

The fervency of praises shot higher with every drumbeat. Shy at first, the drumbeats recoiled around cracking voices of men. Their cries slammed on walls of pretence, as each on his own way, opened his heart to God. It was a rare show of unity between men, unity created by the fear of knowing what each of them, in their own way, must hide from the society. Their deeds written three weeks ago on their collective memory were not artworks to be paraded before the world. They kept them inside their chests and in collective deceit and requested God, albeit coyly, to delete and save them from the noose of guilt.

If tears could form a waterfall, the men’s voices were an underground waterfall of tears – unseen. But Joseph’s tears did not join the waterfall. His tears had condensed into a cube of ice and settled on his throat. His tears had chained his tongue and held his voice captive. He would wait. He would wait for the day of revenge, and then shed tears of immeasurable joy.

Father John’s roar ended his reveries.

“Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, graciously grant peace in our days, that, sustained by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all  distress, as  we  await  the  blessed  hope,  the coming of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.”

Now a lone tear escaped Joseph’s left eye and walked down the side of his nose. He slid his tongue out and licked the salty tears. Peace wipes memories of war but to some, peace never returns after war. He had a family before the war. A son and a daughter whose beauty reminded him of the first time he had set his eyes on the mother of his children. His wife was Petronilla, a woman like no other.

He recalled. It was a cold rainy morning twelve years ago. The village paths were soft beneath his akala.  Insects hang on the underbelly of leaves and maize stalks danced in the wind whistling between weaverbird chatters.

Shakombo changed tact and the sound became a soft coo that was almost submerged under the shuffles of feet towards the altar.

“When we eat this Bread and drink this Cup, we proclaim your death, O Lord until you come again.”

Joseph’s feet joined the trail to the feast of wheat and wine. His eyes were on Father John but his mind travelled to that footpath twelve years ago. If you want to judge a woman’s beauty meet her in the morning with specks of sleep in her eyes. Better still meet her in not-so-glamorous clothes when she’s from the farm. That was what his grandfather had always advised. That morning the truth about these droplets of advice came floating on Joseph’s eyes. Petronilla, young and supple, walked daintily with a basket of cassava balanced on her head. The white garb of the priest stood before him.

“Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”

Joseph opened his mouth and listened as words escaped from his throat.

“Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

He opened his mouth and felt the soft Body of Christ being placed on his tongue. He bit it, cracking it at the centre and felt the two halves melt on his molars. He took a sip of wine. Good wine always speaks for itself, confidently and without interpreters. Still, Petronilla danced inside his head. He walked back to his seat. How times change! Twelve years were dead and forgotten. A happy marriage it was, a sad end it will be.

War changes allegiances. His wife had betrayed him, sold his confidence to her Father and brothers. Now he had no sons, no daughters and no brothers. Could he kill her? Not yet. She had run away from his house. He would seduce her. He knew her bones well enough. He would bring her home and then …

Petronilla was heavy with a son. The doctors had said so just a month ago before she ran away. Did not his grandfather teach that a child was the greatest gift from gods? A gift of mercy, a gift of forgiveness? He had been blessed with a seed for renewal. He’d wait.  He promised himself he’d wait until … His name will be Emmanuel – his saviour, the bridge to the future. And when the time comes his vengeance would be louder than that of the God of Israel. He will block her spring of life from flowing – forever, he vowed.

“Go in peace, glorifying the name of the Lord by your life,” Father John said to the dispersing faithful.

Joseph walked out into the noon-day sun.


If you never read Chapter 1, Click Read Diaries of the Living Dead #1 to read the previous posting

Richard Oduor

(Next posting on June 19th 2013)

Diaries of the Living Dead #1

His life was a wire. A rusted coil heaped on the outskirts of Sigwembe village market. Rusted and twisted, no different from the humdrum life of muffled voices. The village had stopped talking, stopped farming, stopped dancing. And even though worms wriggled out of decaying sons discarded on the narrow footpaths, mothers had stopped mourning. Fathers sat on the broad Makhamia lutea leaves spread on earth. They had stopped talking about burials. Let the earth drink their blood. Let the brown earth swallow their sons.

Joseph leaned on waist-length thrushes that formed a hedge around his hut. It was early morning. The sun’s smile was that of a genial father, and with every widening of the mouth, blades of grass lost moisture to thirsty air. He lowered his trousers and squatted to give back to the earth what he had borrowed. Ants circled his heels and edged closer to have a bite. One bite, two bites, three bites, four bites – rapacious ants! Done, he pulled up his trousers and whistled, walking towards St. Mary Our Lady Catholic Parish.

The war had swindled the village out of young men. Farms lay in idle wait for strong arms to break the top skin. Cultivated farms are more receptive to raindrops. Cultivated farms hate runoff. Joseph knew it was just two weeks to planting time but he had lost interest in farming. He was not a poor man but certainly not rich by city standards. He would survive with whatever was in store, or he would scavenge.

Joseph remembered the days before the ethnic clashes began. Days when the land of forests was a haven of laughter! He recalled the evening banters around liquor pregnant pots. The mornings when birds stood in line and joined in dawn chorus to wake lazy households. Now birds no longer sing because there is no village to wake. The war had gulped all the schools. It had spit fire to grass thatched huts. He remembered how smoke had conquered the skies and brought darkness to the village at midday. Not even the sun’s rays could kiss the brown earth. And the melee and cries of devastation! Not even the wind dared to carry the secret to Tulo village – an hour’s walk away.

He was happy to be alive. No. He was lucky to be alive. He would have been gone too. The few who remained after the war were ensnared by the military units that were deployed to bring back sanity to the land of forests, a move that went with the sanity of the village. Tears became a common sight in young girls’ cheeks and mothers hid their agony behind a flurry of activity. Every time the sight of Jungle Green-Black Khaki sagging on huge soldier boots flew into their memories – they cried one more time, soundlessly.

But the war had taught Joseph a lesson. The war had taught him that human life is no different from that of an ant. But ants were more intelligent – more brotherly. Life, he surmised, was a cesspit of smaller deaths.

The church bells started ringing. Joseph’s feet flattened the long grass lining the footpaths. He kicked mud off his akala on the stone steps and passed the heavy wooden doors of the church. The church was half-dark. Fibreglass corrugated sheets shot rectangles of light to the fraying floor. An extremely delicate sonorous symphony pierced the silence to welcome the Priest.

Father John Ward opened his eyes and automatically counted the few derelicts in the congregation. He kissed the crucifix out of habit and growled:

“In the Name of the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit” He made the symbol of the cross, “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

“The Lord be with you.” Faint voices emerged from the semi-darkness.

He was the only Servant of God in the expansive ruin. The green land that had once been under the fangs of a rebel outfit now lay bare. Not even the yell of hungry children punctuated weaverbird chatters. Father John knew that most of the men who came to the mid-morning mass were living alone, as hermits, in the middle of the forest. He knew one or two of them at a personal level, or better who they had been before the war. War changes men. Women never came to the church. They sought God within the quiet agony of their leaking roofs.

“Brothers and Sisters, lets us acknowledge our sins, that we may prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries.”

There was a brief pause, deliberate and meditative, and then charged by sips of introspection, the congregation wailed:

“I confess to Almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, and I have greatly sinned in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God”

Father John’s voice screamed in the intervening silence.

“Have mercy on us O Lord.”

“For we have sinned against you. Show us, O Lord your mercy.” They screamed back.

“Kyrie, eleison” … “Kyrie, eleison”

“Christe, eleison” … “Christe, eleison”

Their tongues followed the Father’s tongue.


Richard Oduor

The Story Continues on Wednesday Next week (12th June, 2013)

The Vaginal Trilogue: Critical Conversations

Julz Amare Poeta of the 'Hisia Zangu Family'

The Poet: Julz Amare Poeta of the ‘Hisia Zangu Family’

The poem ‘The Vaginal Trilogue’ is a poem in three parts by Julz Amare Poeta ala The Black Widow (both pen names). Part one, entitled ‘The Vaginal Trilogue: The Ruling’ sets the stage of the defensive that can only come from a person who holds dear the women species. The first stanza goes:

“Herein is the verdict of the case of the Host Female Vs the “Society”.

In the matter of ascertaining ownership of the vagina,
As a tangible and intellectual property,
And award of right of use and proper acknowledgement!

The persona in the poem is of the opinion that ‘Host Female’ has been subjected to constant ridicule, mockery and taunts of the way she uses her God given organ that is the vagina by the ‘Society.’ This is apparent in the second stanza whereby the persona rails in hammers and tongs:  

“It was proven that there were attempts made by the “Society” at
Hostile possession of the vagina by a number of “sex advice” columns,
Which were geared at influencing the choice and number of tenant,”    

The dialogue is between the ‘Host Female’ and the ‘Society’ and there are accusations and counter-accusations of the “misappropriation of the vagina.” Society alleges that the vagina is being used in most inappropriate ways “as a tool of extortion of tenants.” In this case, tenants symbolize those who get the opportunity to interact with the organ in the coitus business. Further, the ‘Society’ cites cases whereby the ‘Host Female’ has used their female power of sexual appeal and image to secure jobs and promotions, climb the social ladder and trap men in marriages (Line 9, 10, 11, stanza 3).

The last stanza is an assurance. For the ‘Host Female’ has been suddenly hoisted on the pedestal of a plaintiff. May be to draw sympathy. To provoke tears of the crocodile. The constant misuse of sexual image that has been exploited by ladies to attain unwarranted advantages in different life spheres are wholesomely lumped as ‘criminal acts’ accusations (Line 20, stanza 6). This suggests that the court has the jurisdiction to punish in terms of eviction those who fail to recognize the sanctity of the vagina. And in dire consequences, a fine, pap!


The second part is called ‘The Vaginal Trilogue: Dear Yoni.’ This part is detached from its predecessor. Call it worlds apart as the East and the West. The persona laments that he knows nothing about this Yoni. However, the persona happily highlights the mysteries surrounding his object.

“Your thoughts are an alien to me,
Your actions all the more beguilling,
I have sought your depth,
In the basest of shallows,
Wanting only your nurturing warmth.”
At the expense of your knowledge.

I feel nothing is of importance to the second part of the trilogy because there is no connection to the first part. The enigma and the heroic concealment of Yoni’s nature and character does not relate to the well prepared defense in the first part. The second part, therefore, is better taken away to give the poem a uniform flow of thought and dialogue.

The third part and the last titled ‘The Vaginal Trilogue: The Vaginal Apocalypse’ finally shakes the foundations of the thesis that was presented in the first part. No words are minced. No lip-synching. The first stanza reads:

“The die has been cast,
And it has come to pass,
An apocalypse is afoot,
Upon friend and foe alike!”

Here the poet’s diction comes alive than ever. Several poetic devices have been interspersed in order to bring the full effect of an apocalypse. The final truth. Expose of the decade somehow. Alliteration dances with delight in the second stanza, line 2 as follows: “Nor in girlish giggling…” The first line of the third stanza has onomatopoeia of “sound like Hoo Hah.”

This last part is symbolically empowering womanhood. It is ranting against abuse of sexuality. Sexual misogyny and the objectification of women that we see especially in popular music videos. The persona does not want the ‘apocalypse’ that is a metaphoric term for womanhood to be ‘reduced to some inanimate object.” Something ‘To be poled, rammed or pounded (by) any and every phallic projection!” In other words, the apocalypse is like the famous poem by Gil Scott Heron ‘Revolution Will Not be Televised.’ The persona rightly cautions that ‘…this apocalypse is faithful and pure in tantric union.’

The complete declaration is wrapped in six-line stanza with short lines revealing the magnificence and literary value of words.  The persona quips, I bet with a promising tone:
“This apocalypse is vaginal,
The reason for which we are termed women,
A symbol of life and of love will come,
As an epiphany to women,
As a revelation to men
And a realization to society.”

The poem is a worthy read because the poet opens your eyes with the experimentation of a word deemed taboo in most African societies. Vagina! Did you just say that?

By Amol Awuor


To read the poems go to click the links below

The Vaginal Trilogue Part 1: The Ruling

The Vaginal Trilogy Part 2: Dear Yoni

The Vaginal Trilogue Part 3: The Vaginal Apocalypse


Olubumni Familioni: On Storytelling and Such Other Matters …

Olubunmi Familioni

Olubunmi Familioni

For me, writing a story means much more than “storytelling”. It transcends the banality of the “artistic activity” of telling the story (and how it is told). It is more than just a literary exercise; a weaving together of plots and narratives to make a tale, or the creation of characters and crafting of colloquies, or even merely entertainment. No. Writing, most of the time, for me, is cathartic; as I believe it is for many writers; hence the solitariness of the exercise—this is why sometimes it seems as if I am writing solely for, or to, myself; almost like rendering a soliloquy on stage, where you, the readers, represent the audience.

In the theatre, the thespian just recites his soliloquy, almost oblivious of the presence of listeners; thus, they (the listeners) have the liberty to interpret these stage-whispered thoughts whichever way they choose—because the actor will not offer an exposition of his soliloquy! Hamlet didn’t.

The actor is not a scholar or a scientist, neither is the Writer; they are artists. Artists are only supposed to create. They are not required to ‘maul’ these creations into academic pieces themselves. Because they are mostly solitary people their primary obsession is their Art (hence the hermitishness that is often perceived and misinterpreted as aloofness.)

Having established that this writing thing is a solitary affair you can now understand why most of the time the writer is only talking to himself, even though he may be addressing a general social issue. Since he is merely talking to himself, if he has “sold millions of books”, that is just as many ‘eavesdroppers’ gathered at his ‘window’ listening in on his private musings, his soliloquies. He will not come out of the ‘room’, mount a podium, pick a chalk and begin to academicize his thoughts—that is for the eavesdroppers to take up; the cynics, the critics, the scholars, the literati, and other sundry souls for whom intellectual exertion and literary scholarship is not beyond their ken. As I have observed, most scholarly expositions of works of literature by the author mar the ethereal beauty of the literary creation, and do more damage than the most acerbic critic would. This is why a writer would hardly ‘explain’ his own stories, or attempt to. I share the belief of the Aesthetic Movement of 1880 in England that literature has value in itself, even without a moral purpose, and definitely without the academic posturing of our ‘pedagogue-critics’.

To put this thing to rest, I must quote my favourite columnist, the highly revered “Snooper”, Tatalo Alamu, of The Nation: “the writer takes up residence in a hyper-real world of creative hallucination” where, I should add, only him has access to (hence the numerous (mis)interpretations by ‘eavesdroppers’), and where ANYTHING can be created, from men to monsters, without apologies, or explanations.


POSTSCRIPT: This is not to say I do not enjoy thoroughly the keen dissection of my stories which my sharp-minded friends take the pain to carry out—when men like these draw their scalpels who am I to restrain their hands.

Olubunmi Familioni

Olubumni was born in Ibadan and raised in the heart of Lagos. Now he lives in Ibadan but his heart still resides in Lagos. His writings boast of an intense injection of dark humour, unconventional characterization, and are best viewed through the mirror of absurdist literature. On the flip side, Olubumni is a Mathematics Lecturer sweating under the curse of Advanced Numerical Analysis

For new works (Pieces of Rags Series) check out

The Clash between Darwinism and Creationism: 1859 to present

In this posting, I’ll talk about the American response to Darwinism and the continuing clash between Darwinism and Creationism in North American schools; 1859-1900 and later developments. Such an examination will show how the same arguments have been adopted by scholars, theologians, and churches the world over.

Fundamentalist religious groups have never accepted the uneasy relationship that exists between religious institutions and the theories of evolution and natural selection in the Western world. In America, those who believe in the Judeo-Christian accounts of the creation of the world as outlined in the book of Genesis have for centuries acted as political pressure groups to eliminate the teaching of Darwinism in schools by imposing their beliefs on public education (Strickberger 2005).

Origin of Species.Because Charles Darwin published “The Origin of the Species” in 1859 when America was on the eve of the civil war, serious opposition to the work began in the 1870s in the post war period. Initial rumblings began to emanate that science was becoming a threat to religion. However, due to the presence of an imminent threat of biblical criticism, the Protestants failed to perceive the details of Charles Darwin’s study hence causing delay in their response. In 1873, during the international meeting of the Evangelical Alliance, the question of evolution was finally voiced. Charles Hodge; a Presbyterian theologian from Princeton took the challenge and allayed fears of the impact of evolution and natural selection by saying that these were not new concepts, the only new concept was Darwin’s own version of the two concepts.

By proposing a design that nature was controlled by chance, he concluded that Darwinism was atheism. After this initial declaration by Hodge, Borden P Browne who was a professor of philosophy in Boston University characteristically interpreted Darwinism as being expressive of; “Life without meaning; death without meaning; and the universe without meaning. A race tortured to no purpose, and no hope but annihilation. The dead only blesses; living standing like beasts at bay, and shrieking half in defiance and half in fright” (Pyne 1996, p.12)

For Americans, the Origin of Species and the Descent of Man only intensified the allegation that science continued to attack faith. By disregarding the underlying belief that humanity was a semi divine creation and that the universe was expressly designed for the benefit of mankind, the evolution theory and the schemes of natural selection posited that just like all the other animals, man too was involved in the struggle of existence. Theologians and religious institutions were expressly against the fact that the natural selection debased man to the level of other animals by denying human beings the unique qualities of the mind, intelligence and the soul.

Darwinism created doubts on three fundamental components that had maintained belief in religion for centuries. It shattered the belief in the presence of any design and purpose, the belief that there existed a Creator or a Designer of the universe, and lastly in the belief on the presence of the human soul. The shaking of the later belief consequently created pertinent questions on the existence of life after death-a belief that had been held belief in religion for centuries.

Not even the educated public could afford to be less attuned to the ramifications of the evolutionary theory and natural selection that had created confusion and controversy among philosophers, theologians and scientists. Some were driven to suicidal thoughts. A case in point is the wife of Historian Henry Adams; Marion Hooper Adams who after the loss of her father was engulfed in depression leading to her committing suicide due to depression and doubts on the existence of immortality after death (Pyne1996. p. 13). Her death was attributed to the controversy of the evolution theory as her husband; Henry Adams had uncannily predicted her religious crisis. Marion could not succeed in reconciling her beliefs in religion and the scientific evidences of natural selection.

The 19th century also saw the rise of American geology but its development was affected by serious controversies that were both theological and scientific. Just towards the end of the 18th century clashes over the origins of the earth had began to be felt in the intellectual circles. Catastrophists perceived Creationism as outlined in the book of Genesis as the only logical explanation to the perfection of nature. The “uniformitarians” were against this explanation as literally presented in the Bible. Instead they postulated that the formation of the earth resulted from uniform and continuous courses working over long periods of time. These debates were transported to the periods after the beginning of Darwinism in the 19th century (Mandelker 1984).

When the ramifications of the Darwinian Theory eventually reached the majority of Americans, their reactions reached dimensions of hysteria. Everybody sensed that with his study, Darwin had deliberately and effectively destroyed the fundamentals of religion. Earlier on through the works of Paley and other historians of his kind, the world had been made to believe that though miraculous and mysterious natural processes, God had directly created new species. From the geological records, these geologists and naturalists had almost completely convinced humanity that the earth as it existed was the product of a grand cosmic design implying that nature was reflective of the Divine Mind and Purpose (Pyne1996).

However, as the years trudged on to the lure of positivist science, new converts were being acquired to be practitioners of this novel empiricism. In essence, a new divide of belief was created. People had to either choose the orthodox view of creationism if it suited their understanding of existence or alternatively chose the novel scientific positivism as expressed in Darwinism. The overlap between these two facets characterized the notable hostility of Darwinism in America.

While creationism was held foundationally on the presence of a purpose of nature that satisfied the belief that the world and humanity moved towards a predetermined end, the theories of evolution and natural selection described the movement of nature to be marked with random and purposeless variations. Even though Darwin himself was persuaded that nature was governed by natural law as opposed to miracle, catastrophe, or the caprice of a Creator, he maintained that through these chance variations and adaptations in nature evolution proceeded along a probable evolutionary chain. In his journey to study the species in South America (1831-1836) on the Beagle, he had observed and recorded several mismatches between species and the environments they inhabited. This led to the postulation that as opposed to the creationist theory, to exist in the changing environments organisms had to espouse a wide range of adaptive mechanisms to ensure their survival.

The liberal Protestants in America were especially more loathsome of Darwinism, as Darwin insisted on delineating the evolutionary process which implied that nature and the existence of humanity was laid waste in the brutal struggle for existence. They could not fathom that the postulations of the superfecundity and plenitude of nature, miscegenation, mutation, ugliness and randomness were the basis upon which natural laws operated. The mere fact that natural selection as Darwin had explained led to the extinctions of some species created a religious and philosophical ferment of great magnitude.

Ten years after the publication of the “Origin of Species,” and the rise of the anti-Darwinism movement which is attributed to Protestantism, Herbert Spencer developed a philosophy of science with the intention of allaying the controversies between religion and science that Darwinism had created. In his publication, the “System of Synthetic Philosophy”, Spencer expounded on the theories of evolution which had specifically been limited to biology, linguistics, fossil life, education, political history, architecture, psychological phenomena, child rearing, and rights of women, manners, morals, fine arts and in any other discipline in which the theory of evolution could be applied. Even though Charles Darwin publicly praised Spencer as “the great expounder of the principle of Evolution”, the two works not only differed in methodology but were also derived from different schools of thought (Pyne 1996; Numbers & Stenhouse 2001).

The “System of Synthetic Philosophy” was especially instrumental in accommodating Darwinism in religion because he attempted to explain that religious coherence as it existed in those ages was buttressed by the authority of truth derived from science. His intention can be said to have been the creation of a new form of science that incorporated both the scientific truths and religious beliefs into a form of natural religion that would replace the orthodox Christianity. If such an intention is understood to be one driven by arrogance, then it best describes the evangelical zeal he set in the interpretation of the evolutionary theory and its subsequent incorporation into the perfectibility of human life in his book, the “System of Synthetic Philosophy”. However, even though his work was instrumental it never vanquished the hostilities between science and religion.

As the ramifications of Darwinism continued to create an upheaval in religious circles, the Old Protestantism order which had its basis on the interrelationship of science, faith, the Bible, civilization and morality began to crumble. In 1869, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. offered a prediction of the catastrophe that was impending. He predicted that the collapse of the interrelationship would not be dramatic. He also intoned that the many vested interests of churches were rooted in evangelical idolatry and bibliolatry. For these reasons churches could not be expected to accept the implications of the novel views and explanations of the existence of man and the universe as the Bible could not challenge the scientific standards (Marsden 2006). The truth of the matter was that the creation evidence as detailed in the Hebrew books could not just be taken at face value as factual evidence of the creation of the world by a Supernatural deity.

By the 1970s so many evangelicals believed in the seriousness of the threat of Darwinism to religion but they did not share the analytic conclusions that Holmes had so aptly predicted. W.A Stearns attributed the current threats to Christianity as being no more than a continuation of the assaults that Christianity has been enduring (Mardsen 2006, 17). Other leaders reiterated that just as the skepticism, deism and atheism had been defeated in the Enlightenment, Christianity will be victorious again. While positing that never since Christianity has been strong as it was then, Stearns added that they will work together under the Evangelical Alliance to lift all people to achieve victory with the afflictions of modern rationalism, skepticism, the Papacy or any other false system.

These were the opinions that characterized fundamentalism. As an organized movement, it had two major forms. One front operated within the denominations where seminarians and ministers purged modernists and liberals with the sole intention of saving the orthodoxy. This form of fundamentalism cantered mainly in North America. The second form of fundamentalism was more of a popular crusade that was directed not only towards modernist and liberal heresies but also against Darwinism and the deteriorating moral trends in the society. While former mainly involved seminarians and conservative ministers, the latter was advanced by less scholarly or less academic preachers. These two forms of fundamentalism were joined into a form of loose coalition as they were working against a common enemy: Darwinism.

At the end of the 19th century it seemed that religious leaders had started becoming in terms with the evolutionary theories, but still approximately half of the population in the United States still denied the scientific truths postulated by the Darwin theories. This proportion which rejects Darwinism in its entirety believes that human beings are a product of a Supernatural creation that happened at some time in the history of the universe.

With regard to the uniqueness of the political and constitutional history of the United States, and the long history of a religious culture the creationism movement became more popular hence characterizing the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. It should be understood that the majority of the European settlers who came to North America during the 17th and the 18th centuries were settlers who were fleeing from religious prosecution from their mother countries (Dixon 2009).

Many of these settlers were non conformist Protestants who had adopted the belief in a personal relationship with God and the study of the Bible. They were Puritans, Quakers, Congregationalists, Baptists and Methodists. Since the settlers constituted a majority of the United States population at that time, these distinct religious groupings became the characteristics of the religious culture in the United States of America. Thus, due to the multiplicity of churches, there arose a need to separate the church from the state so as to prevent any favouritism of the any of the church groupings by the state. This spirit was aptly expressed when the First Amendment explicitly prevented the Congress from ever establishing any form of national religion. Despite this constitutional provision, other states still maintained contact with established churches but these were to soon die off leading to the full separation of the church and the state (Dixon 2009).

To exercise the same spirit of the separation of the church and the state, statutes were enacted to prevent other established religions from imposing their own version of Christianity on others. This led to the abolition of religious instruction in public schools. The passing of religious beliefs onto the younger generation was left to be done at home or in the Sunday school. This provision that completely eliminated religion in schools was what ushered in the clash between Creationism and Darwinism as the 20th century drew to a close.

The first instance of the clash with regard to the education occurred in 1925, when Dayton; a small town in Tennessee banned the teaching of Darwin’s evolution theories in public schools within their locality (Dixon 2009). The end of the sensational debates led to the elimination of the evolution theories from the science curriculum of most schools throughout the United States and for the duration between 1925 to the 1960s, the clash between Darwinism and Creationism subsided as they had both been eliminated from instruction curricula of public schools.

The elimination of such important scientific principles in the education curricula did not present any serious threats to the scientific development of the United States until the surprise success of Sputnik mission; a Russian space program which was launched in 1957. For fear that America was lagging behind in scientific development, a national panic arose that the scientific standards in American schools were low. The abolition of Darwinism in schools could no longer be tolerated. Acting against the wishes of many American parents who viewed Darwinism as the causative agent for the social ills in the society, the courts re-introduced the learning of the evolutionary theories in American public schools.

The 1960s to the 1970s led to the rise of the theories of the Intelligent Design. However, the religious fundamentalists especially those in North America were also determined to establish a way by which they could also be enshrined in the curricula. These developments led to the concepts of Intelligent Design and Scientific Creationism. There were those who advocated for the teaching of both evolution science, the creation science in addition to another alternative such as catastrophism so as to create a balance between the violently conflicting theories of Creationism and Darwinism.

Through the idea of an Intelligent Design, postulated by a biochemist Michael Behe and a lawyer Phillip Johnson, a new way through which the concept of God could be taken back to the classrooms. However, the teaching of the Intelligent Design in American classrooms did not see the day as judges ruled that it had been religiously motivated and therefore a breach of the First Amendment in 2005(Dixon 2009; Numbers 2006).

The clash between Darwinism and Creationism in America was watched with amused detachment or in some instances notions of superiority by the British as they could not understand that there still existed some culturally backward communities in America that prevented children from garnering knowledge on the theories of Darwinism. Given that their era of controversy had long ended, they could not understand that unlike in Britain, the United States had far different historical differences among its population. The presence of interdenominational rivalry that existed in the United States did not exist in England during the time of the evolutionary controversy. The supremacy of the Church of England and the existence of a Parliament with a long tradition helped settle down the controversies that raged after the publication of the “Origin of the Species” and the “Descent of Man”. Moreover the Fundamentalist Christian movement that took off in the United States in the World War I period did not take off in Britain (Dixon 2009).

In his analysis of the developments of the clash between Darwinism and Creationism or rather the Intelligent Design, Yeats observes that just like any other American he does not understand why naturalism should exercise monopoly in North American classrooms. He reiterates that individuals who espouse Darwinism are using the courts to sustain the principles of evolution and natural selection in public schools. He could not understand why an issue about the origin of existence could only be explained by Darwinism when there were a multitude of other options that could be taught in the public schools. However, given the motivations behind the intelligent design, a bad case was presented to the judicial system and from that bad case emanated a bad decision. By trying to use scientific data to prove that the theory of Intelligent Design was at par with Darwinism hence losing the case before a court under modern jurisprudence with judges who underwent secular training.

Therefore, while religious fundamentalists may attempt to negotiate for a dualistic approach in the education system, they have to understand that the attorneys as well as the system of training existing in North America is steeped in Naturalistic philosophy. Thus, unless the religious fundamentalists propagate the understanding that Darwinism is a religious tenet as in secular naturalism and that the education system as well as the public school’s science educators is nothing but the missionaries of the religion, any attempt to introduce any other theoretical understanding of the origin of man and the universe will be viewed as being religiously motivated. However, some argue that much as Darwinism can escape the reference of being classified as a religion, what matters is the element of faith. So long as students are taught to have faith in Darwinism as being the conclusive explanation of the origin of man, then it is religion and it should not be taught in public schools in North America.

In North America, the continuing conflicts between supporters of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection on one hand and the supporters of the creationist theories on the other are just the 21st century’s skirmishes that have characterized the struggles between science and religion. Creationism as a theory and its pseudo-scientific offspring; the theory of Intelligent Design are products of the historical, cultural and religious characteristics of the population in North America.

So long as these underlying characteristics of the population persist, there is limited evidence that a time may come in the near future where the supremacy of Darwinism in the public school system will be challenged with creationist theories like the Intelligent design or any other theory, so long as such a theory is deemed to have originated from religious motivation. Currently, with the observable lack of interest in the theories of Creationism by current President of the United States of America; President Barack Obama coupled to the support of Darwinism in schools by the Supreme Court as well as the overriding interpretation of the First Amendment, it is no surprise that religiously motivated anti-Darwinism in North America will continue to be kept out of American classrooms.

There is very little, when one judges the history of these developments, to suggest that Darwinism will not continue to be part of the science syllabus in countries with secular systems of governance. Creationism, held afloat by nothing but belief, will also be taught in many countries but it will never strangle Darwinism as far as understanding natural biological phenomena is concerned. There are mountains of evidence to that end, mountains that cannot simply be washed away.


Richard M. Oduor/Richie Maccs, Nairobi

Mr. Oduor is a writer, poet and critic. He did Biomedical Science and Technology (Bsc. Hons) and in line to pursue a Masters in Strategic Management. He is a founding Partner of a young company; Expert Research & Management Consultants and Founding Member at the Center for Intervention Against Alcohol (CIAADA). His prose and poetry have appeared in print and online journals and anthologies and the first poetry collection is due for publication. He has freelanced and copywrited for various local and international private research entities.