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Salva Kiir’s health and language struggles, and the enslaved African

Salva Kiir’s health and language struggles, and the enslaved African

Following his election last week as chairman of the East African Community Summit, President Salva Kiir Mayardit of the Republic of South Sudan delivered his inaugural address to his peers and representatives of member states gathered in Arusha, Tanzania. His address was a painfully unbearable display of probable cognitive ravages of premature aging and ill health that many of us must endure as we go through our last years on Earth.  


Salva Kiir, who is 72, was obviously confused, and at times unable to follow the text he was reading.  He gave Tanzania’s Samia Suluhu Hassan the presidency of Rwanda. He reduced Congo Free State’s Felix Tshisekedi to a representative of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. He struggled to read simple English text. 


Mercifully an aide helped him correct the errors of misallocated presidencies, saving the region from unnecessary sovereignty wars, though he could not correct the South Sudanese ruler’s basic reading challenges. A video clip of the episode has garnered predictable response on social media. Some have mocked his disability, the same way they did when he had bladder incontinence while officiating at a public event last year. Others have questioned his insistence on speaking a torturesome foreign language when he could have spoken Dinka, his native tongue, and left the rest to his official interpreter. 


I greatly sympathise with President Kiir’s personal struggles with his health. The incident of urinary incontinence was one that was neither surprising nor a justifiable source of ridicule to which he was unfairly subjected.  Whereas I do not know the frequency of this problem in South Sudanese men, it may be similar to the situation here in North America where as many as 10 percent of adult males involuntarily wet themselves.  It may be caused by an overactive bladder, diabetes, Parkinson’s Disease, an enlarged prostate gland, post-prostate surgery and other medical conditions. 


Fortunately, it is a treatable condition. One hopes that the president’s doctors have already assisted him to achieve full continence. Obviously, I was incensed by the reported arrest of television journalists who recorded the president’s wetting accident.  First, they did not cause his accident. Second, arresting them gave life to the stigma that the uninformed public attaches to human illness to which we are all susceptible. 


By God’s grace, I have never accidentally wet myself, and I pray that I never endure the inconvenience of that failed body function. However, there is absolutely no guarantee that I will not. Indeed, at my age, being only slightly younger than President Salva Kiir, I am already checking out the available apparel for males with urine incontinence. One must be ready for these things as one embarks on the final phase of one’s short life on Mother Earth. May they never be needed in my life! However, should my brakes let go, I shall wear the appropriate undergarments with gratitude to the Lord who showed humanity how to deal with these problems.


So, to me the people that ought to have been embarrassed by President Kiir’s personal difficulty were those who publicised the video of the incident, and those who laughed at him or engaged in childish ridicule of our brother’s illness. No matter how much one disagrees with or dislikes a ruler, one must never discard one’s obuntu (humanness). My people say omuto tasheka burema (the young should never laugh at a person’s handicap.) If you live long enough, you will suffer a handicap.


As educated and civilised people, we must discard prejudice and stigma that dehumanises and humiliates those living with illness and disability. Whether it is mental illness or physical disability, it neither defines the person living with it nor changes their precious quality of being just like you and me. They need empathy, not ridicule or indifference. They need sympathy, not hostility or embarrassment. They need support and restoration, not labelling and humiliation.


I hope President Kiir uses his power and influence to lead East African governments to increase funding for their people’s health care. He should allocate a chunk of South Sudan’s oil revenue to the establishment of state-of-the-art facilities in Juba for health science research, education, and management of diseases. He should invite Diaspora South Sudanese and other African health care professionals to help him realise that easily achievable goal, and train South Sudanese medical students and other disciplines to take over from them within ten years. That would be a transformative legacy for which history would accord him honour.


Whereas Mr. Kiir’s confusion and reading disability may have been a sign of an aging brain, some saw something different. One post that caught my eye was authored by Anastasia Ndabyebingi (not her real name) who wrote on my high school alumni WhatsApp Group: “I don't understand why African presidents insist on speaking English, French, or Portuguese, even when they only have a basic grasp of the language. Why not read the speech in a local dialect and get a good translator to do the European version?” Ndabyebingi added: “The late Anglican Archbishop Livingstone Nkoyoyo always preached in Luganda, even at All Saints Cathedral Nakasero, and would get one of the priests to translate the sermon into English real-time. We learned to accept it as his way of doing things.”


Nkoyoyo was an obviously confident and psychologically secure man, sharing the company of many world leaders who unapologetically address their English-speaking hosts in Ottawa, London, or Washington in their native languages. Many are in fact very fluent English speakers. Their national pride and confidence as equals of their English-speaking hosts enables then to defend their independence and identity.


The African ruler, on the other hand, considers verbal combat with a foreign language to be a mark of education and honour. Mr. Kiir’s abbreviated school career did not prepare him to successfully speak English. After his primary school education, he joined the Anyanya rebellion in the 1960s, a career path that may not have allowed him opportunities to read Achebe, Rubadiri, Shakespeare, or Dickens. Whereas a speech in his native Dinka would have come off better than his effort in English, he probably did not even consider it an option. 


However, Africa’s rulers are not alone in this mental slavery to foreign languages and cultures. Look at the dominant language spoken at weddings, funerals, and other public events in Uganda, even when the majority in attendance understand the hosts’ native language. English is king. It is a badge of “education” and “sophistication.” It is one of the things we blindly consider signals of “civilisation” and having “arrived.” Pity.


In my view, the answer to Ndabyebingi’s question can be distilled into two words: insecurity, and miseducation. This is the silent affliction of the African, not just the rulers. I know I am generalizing. There are many exceptions, of course.


However, the dominant characteristic of the African, especially those with western education, is a constant flight from their cultural identity, with an insatiable urge to don the language, attire, tastes, and ways of their colonial masters.


© Muniini K. Mulera



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