By Innocent Chia
It is exceptionally difficult in today’s world to find anyone without knowledge of the building blocks of story writing and journalism: Who does What, Where, When, Why and How? They are often referred to in the industry as 5Ws + H. I have been pondering for quite a while now about the importance of each and every one of these questions, particularly within the context of critical thinking and human development.
As we usher in the year 2013, it is my submission that the Developing World has, for far too long, been focusing on the wrong question. Africans, particularly those 30 years of age and above, are not rushed with shaking-off a troubling “Who” hangover inherited from their parents and grandparents. The most important question I suggest we should be asking is “Why?” Herewith some thoughts...
Do not take my word for it. Peruse any number of our blogs - by Africans - and pay attention to the comments. Otherwise, experience Africans sharing stories among themselves. Listeners are quick to the punch with the question: “who told you that story?” You may also be familiar with its cousin: “where is that story from?” In its most productive form the question of “who” seeks to establish credibility both of the narrator and their source. Quoting First Lady Chantal Biya of La Republique du Cameroun as the source of a story on President Biya, for instance, gives as much credibility as one can get.
Closeness to the newsmaker or subject creates believability on the part of the audience / readers. It also authenticates and credits the narrator / writer as one to be trusted. But this “trust” has to be renewed with every single story; otherwise the journalist incurs the full wrath of his peers and the audience.
For far too long, however, the question has morphed into an expression of doubt, disagreement and or rejection. Within the African context the question of “who” has generally vilified, and set up for punishment. It is used to discredit the person telling the story on any grounds - age, perception of lack of access to credible sources, and the threat level to the one discrediting. For instance, if an aide or beneficiary of a dictatorship is listening in on story that is not favorable to their master, the question of “who told you that story” surfaces inevitably. Indeed, it is not inaccurate to substitute “story” with “nonsense” - as in “who told you that nonsense.”
In my native Kom, there is the neighboring question of “Whose child are you?” Not only does it cast a shadow of doubt on the narrator, it brings to focus the family, seeks to discredit it, and literally shuts down the conversation without ever getting to the teeth of the matter.
Turning the corner for Africa has to include a shift in emphasis such that the “Who” mostly gets asked with regards to finding the best talent to solve a problem or lead us to a better place. The emphasis has to shift to the adverb “Why” – which allows for conversation about the reason, purpose, or cause of something.
Who are you to ask me why?
The first question that my now three year old daughter asked me was a “what” question. “What is that Daddy?” It was an easy one to answer. Not more than a couple of weeks later she popped the “why” question. “Why Daddy?” I can’t remember the exact context. But I confess it took me by surprise. Why did it take me by surprise?
It is the question that most every African that I know finds challenging to answer. We seem to be generally taken by surprise and anguish whenever we have to explain ourselves or something at the behest of a child or someone younger. We feel threatened and challenged, rather than comforted and empowered by our convictions and knowledge. More often than not there is even a surge of anger towards the child or person asking.
For the bullish kid on the Continent that dared to ask the “why” question, the answer of choice was almost always identical – “Because “Y” has a tail and two branches”. I remember hearing that phrase more times than I cared to count from senior students in school, from some teachers, from family relatives. Shamefully, I have used it on occasion.
Not long ago I had an African boss at work who was thinking of firing the administrative assistant. Because of our relationship I took some liberties and asked him why he felt that way. To my greatest surprise he told me that she was too inquisitive. “Innocent” he said, looking me straight in the eye, “she always wants to know why I am asking her to do something”.
“Oh wow!” I thought to myself.
It dawned on me that there was a cultural communications clash. The administrative assistant, an American, was asking questions in order to clarify and enable her work. Kids in America are taught to ask that question as early as they can open their mouths – by age two or three.
“WHY” unleashes human genius and creativity. It frees the human mind and allows it to achieve goals in innovative ways. It is for this reason that the administrative assistant was asking questions of her boss. But my African brother perceived it as pigheadedness and unnecessary nosing around. I could not dissuade him from his convictions. But I talked to his assistant and explained to him how he interpreted her questions. I made the suggestion that she could come to the same knowledge by rephrasing the question. So, instead of asking “why”, I suggested for instance that she could ask him “how would you want for me to do this or that?”
Africans are as smart as anyone out there. We can be as competitive and creative as they get. The fact of the matter is that we lose a huge competitive edge by emasculating our kids from the get-go because we are not engaging in critical questions. I find it reinvigorating each time I have to answer my probing daughter. I have to stay sharp and to hold myself accountable for my actions because I could be blindsided by my daughter.
Asking “why” has become my favorite question, not because I want to put anyone on the spot. Far from it, it is unlocking things for me and making it a lot easier to understand the world around me. I could never be mistaken for a scientific genius.
The truth of it is that the question allows us to look into the future. Why are Southern Cameroonians fighting hard against annexation by La Republique du Cameroun? Why is La Republique desperately maintaining its colonization of the people of this former UN Trust Territory - Southern Cameroons? Why is freedom the most important right? Why build highways? Why is it important to bring health facilities close to local populations? Why am I here - what is my purpose on earth? Why is it important to hold our leaders accountable? Why should leaders be accountable? Why was slavery so devastating to Africa? Why was there slavery? Why is HIV/AIDS prevalent in Africa?
As we go on and on asking “why” of every conceivable concern, it becomes obvious that the question allows us to understand our world and, more importantly, offer solutions where there are problems. It is the question that we, Africans, have to be most equipped with in order to compete today and the foreseeable future. We must not see the question as some challenge to authority, real or imaginary, but as an opportunity to provide vision, leadership and breakthroughs. Yes, it is a tough question to face. Nonetheless, it probably is THE question that allows us to bequeath a meaningful legacy to our kids and grandkids. We should be asking the question in our conversations at home and in the classroom, from the bar to the office, from the office assistant to the President.
The age is past when it must be so because the boss says it is so. That world is long gone by and we have to be prepared and to take on the new world with solutions to the myraid of problems that plague it. We must come to table with more to offer than consumerism and the natural resources for which the continent is exploited. To spin the wheels of creativity and manufacturing, of industry and technology, it is the human resource that starts by questioning "Why?"