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Covid-19: Pandemic Masks out Ubuntu/Humanity

Africans are highly sociable beings. After each requisite customary greetings between acquaintances, or even strangers, they usually take ti...

Africans are highly sociable beings. After each requisite customary greetings between acquaintances, or even strangers, they usually take time to exchange pleasantries and engage in social greetings.

Asking about someone’s health is always appreciated. Trending political, prevailing weather conditions, and economic situations are sprinkled in, depending on the nature of the relationship, and the ages of the conversing actors.

By @Comic24Derick

In rural settings, everyone you meet must be greeted respectfully, especially when one encounters the elderly of the community, respect is a necessity. A firm handshake to show your health status, accompanied by eye contact and a keen smile is appropriate for most Africans.

Depending on the gender and ages of the parties, and accepted cultural dictates, some may use both hands to greet, and this process might take a while, revealing the significance it is associated with to cement relationships.

But with the advent of the novel coronavirus pandemic in 2019 onwards, Africa has been robbed of its long traditional norms and beliefs, thereby alienating the continent further.

The greeting which is part of Ubuntu, loosely translated as humanity (you are because of others) is now being made destitute by the wearing of masks to protect the spread of the disease, which has claimed many lives worldwide.

COVID-19 Masks Ubuntu

But who can blame the victims for taking such drastic measures? The pandemic killed over 10,000 people in South Africa alone during the first week of August, and over 200,000 in America. Over 500,000 had tested positive in South Africa.

And many still run the risk of catching the disease, after the government relaxed some of the stringent lockdown conditions enforced by the security forces, robbing citizens of their constitutional freedom to movement and association.

During the lockdown, common cultural gatherings, visits, parties were chocked with people embargoed from travelling to congregate with their relatives, confined to their respective homes or provinces.

Prominent people in Zimbabwe are among the more than 200 who have succumbed to the disease. The coronavirus pandemic has robbed the continent of its kindness, and people are now behaving as strangers because they fear fuelling the disease further.

The masks have led to forced isolation of individuals alongside the stringent lockdown conditions to limit the spread of the deadly virus. The confinement of individuals inside the mask is taking away the facial interactions demanded by African traditions, to reveal the emotions of the speaker and the listener.

Africans are highly sociable beings. After each requisite customary greetings between acquaintances, or even strangers, they usually take time to exchange pleasantries and engage in social greetings.

Sadly, communication is now sometimes confined to sign language, while shoulder bumping and social distancing have become the new survival rule. Without a firm handshake, culturally the elderly feel they are being deprived of the respect they are accustomed to through generations.

Fist bumping, as opposed to the customary handshake, is classified as a declaration of confrontation, meaning one is ready to fight. It may also mean people despise or suspect each other as well.

Standing apart from each other entails that the exchanges are always muffled, shortened, and robbing the respective speakers of a detailed interaction that is often demanded.

Expressions and emotions are confined to a mask, with one requested to speak out louder, sometimes betraying secretive exchanges that are not meant for other people. You cannot tell if one is frowning or laughing at you since the mouth is completely submerged inside the mask.

Before coronavirus dispersed gatherings, funerals, weddings, and family gatherings were a chance to mix and mingle among friends. There, one grabbed the chance to discuss the past, the future in a relaxed setting. In Zimbabwe and elsewhere, gatherings are currently limited to 100 individuals. Family meetings have suffered the most.

At prescribed seasons, Africans gather for cultural ceremonies that are meant to communicate with their ancestors, accompanied by a feast. But these have been suspended to respect blanket government bans that attract heavy fines if broken.

Funerals have also felt the effects of restrictions more as numbers are limited, leaving the hosts with a tough choice to select and censor as if it was a secretive procession. Now people at funerals demand an invite to attend, just like a wedding event. Burial rights have been subsequently altered, and somehow violated to accommodate the pandemic and its severe implications.

In some cases, the dead had to be buried in mass graves, without a chance to offer the last respect and possibly offer closure to the bereaved. Hospital visits are limited, only permissible to close relatives, with numbers restricted to one visit per session.

Africans share almost everything, including beer and food. Imbibers often gather in groups to share beers, tales and cigarettes. It is uncultured to censor a drinker during a drinking spree, even if you notice signs of ill-health or other unwanted signs, as a sworn drinker, you just have to endure whatever the consequences.

Traditional brew, often in large containers or calabash can quench the needs of men, gathered in a circle.

One is obliged to take his fill, leave some for the neat drinker, and pass on the beer. And the next person will reciprocate the action, thereby completing the circle. However, nobody knows or cares what the previous person deposited into the beer after partaking in the practice.

This often makes the group vulnerable to a communicable disease, including coronavirus that one of them may have.

When the South African government banned the sale of beer and cigarettes in March, the Ubuntu belief system was severely choked. South Africans worship their beer jaunts, consuming about nine liters of pure alcohol each in 2016, estimated the World Health Organisation (WHO). Often they have drinking partners, who share the beers, not limited to opaque brew, but spans to clear beers, spirits, and smokes.

Cigarette smokers are the most notorious, with three or more sharing a joint, each one puffing a demarcated potion to share the costs equally. Among the sharing group, one has visible spittle congregating on the side of the mouth, but still, they are not deterred.

“There are several people who have taken to organising parties, who have drinking sprees, and some who walk around crowded spaces without wearing masks,” justified South Africa president Cyril Ramphosa, announcing the ban. The boozing ban received backlash from imbibers who felt the embargo was excessive and impeding their socialising rights.

During the ban, six South African police officers were nabbed for drinking at work during the ban. The officers could not contain their beer cravings, resulting in their humiliation, pictured in chains. But homebrewers were in full swing to keep the booze flowing.

And some daring drinkers were reportedly sneaking into neigbhouring countries to purchase beer. Zimbabwe was the main destination since beer outlets’ trading was somehow relaxed.

A report titled: Socio-economic and cultural impacts of Covid-19 on Africa authored by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “Sociocultural norms and values that are at the center of African societies now face a severe risk of disappearing into oblivion,” UNESCO said.

“The ban on public gatherings, for instance, in response to the pandemic has had a consequent impact on family and community life, increased the possibility of fracturing relationships and undermining trust between states and their citizens, with long-term implications for cohesion and social harmony.”

“I had to postpone my wedding to a later day, possibly next year. I have many relatives and I don’t know whom to drop from the guests’ list,” noted Abraham Size. In Africa, masks are not just shields. They are symbols.

Nyau, a dance involving intricate footwork, flinging dust into the air and common in Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Mozambique is synonymous with over 400 face masks. Dancers disguise their identity within the secretive Bantu society.

Masked dancers are believed to be spirits of the dead, and are not supposed to be identified, doing so is detrimental both to the dancer and onlooker.

“We have become like the Nyau dancers,” said Thomas Chihwai, “It seems we now belong to a secret society to survive the coronavirus onslaught. Living a normal life now comes at a price and sacrifice at the cost of our humanity.”

Intended arts and cultural events were banned as the pandemic wreaked havoc. Tourism, a major cultural sharing process has been affected severely by the imposed limited movements. Hotels, beaches have become empty, resulting in employers downsizing in a bid to accommodate the huge losses.

Sports events, which have become regular social gatherings, and money spinning events were also affected. Some of these events are major foreign currency earners.

“Like every other aspect of life in Africa, the pandemic has had an impact on the culture sector as a whole,” UNESCO continued. “The restrictive measures imposed by governments has led to the cancellation of major arts and cultural events, including festivals and expos across the continent.”

Masks have accorded introverts the ideal opportunity to keep away from crowds, metaphorically turning them into lost innocence. Loners who found it difficult to avoid the mobs before can now do it with their masks intact, and conveniently blame it all on the coronavirus. People going to the same destination conveniently pretend to be strangers.

But as WHO has said, wearing a mask alone isn’t enough. Social distancing and personal hygiene remain important. For now, Ubuntu is relegated until a coronavirus remedy is identified.

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