Talking Blues: Malawi, a nation of Bassanios and Unokas

“In my school days, when I had lost one shaft, I shot his fellow of the self-same flight, the self-same way with more advised watch to find the other forth – and by adventuring both, I oft found both.

I urge this childhood proof because what follows is pure innocence.

I owe you much, and, like a wilful youth, that which I owe is lost. But if you please to shoot another arrow that self way which you did shoot the first, I do not doubt, as I will watch the aim, or to find both or bring your latter hazard back again and thankfully rest debtor for the first”

This is one Bassanio in the Merchant of Venice, sweet-talking the wealthy Antonio for a second loan while already owing him money.

In plain English, Bassanio says,
“Back when I was a schoolboy, if I lost an arrow, I would try to find it by shooting another arrow in the same direction, watching the second arrow more carefully than I had the first.

By risking the second arrow, I’d often get both of them back. I’m telling you this story for a reason. I owe you a lot, and like a brat, I’ve lost what I owe you.

But if you’d be willing to shoot another arrow the same direction you shot the first, I’ll watch your arrow more carefully this time and either we’ll get back ALL the money I owe you, or at least recover what you lend me this time so that my debt remains what I already owe you.”

Antonio had a soft spot for Bassanio, but he had no ready cash. His money was tied in merchandise that was at sea. He, therefore, instructed Bassanio to go borrow from Shylock with him as the surety.

Bassanio got the money and despite undertaking to “watch the arrow more carefully”, he lost the money again and put Antonio’s neck, literally, on the chopping block.

Exit William Shakespeare, enter Chinua Achebe.

Okoye was also a musician. He played on the ogene. But he was not a failure like Unoka. He had a large barn full of yams, and three wives. And now he was going to take the Idemili title, the third-highest in the land.

It was an expensive ceremony, and he was gathering all his resources together. That was, in fact, the reason why he had come to see Unoka.

He cleared his throat and began:
“Thank you for the kola. You may have heard of the title I intend to take shortly.”
Having spoken plainly so far, Okoye said the next half a dozen sentences in proverbs. Among the Ibo, the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten.

Okoye was a great talker, and he spoke for a long time, skirting around the subject and then hitting it finally. In short, he was asking Unoka to return the two hundred cowries he had borrowed from him more than two years before.
As soon as Unoka understood what his friend was driving at, he burst out laughing.

He laughed loud and long, and his voice rang out clear as the ogene and tears stood in his eyes.

His visitor was amazed and sat speechless. In the end, Unoka was able to give an answer between fresh outbursts of mirth.

“Look at that wall,” he said, pointing at the far wall of his hut, which was rubbed with red earth so that it shone.
“Look at those lines of chalk;” and Okoye saw groups of short perpendicular lines drawn in chalk.

There were five groups, and the smallest group had ten lines. Unoka had a sense of the dramatic, and so he allowed a pause, in which he took a pinch of snuff and sneezed noisily, and then he continued:

“Each group there represents a debt to someone, and each stroke is one hundred cowries. You see, I owe that man a thousand cowries. But he has not come to wake me up in the morning for it. I shall pay you, but not today. Our elders say that the sun will shine on those who stand before it shines on those who kneel under them. I shall pay my big debts first.”

And he took another pinch of snuff as if that was paying the significant debts first. Okoye rolled his goatskin and departed.

After reading the above, I have no doubt you hold Bassanio in utter disgust and rightly so. How could he so recklessly put his good friend Antonio’s life in mortal danger by squandering – for the second time – another loan?

How dare he?

And after laughing off Unoka’s sick joke, I know you cannot help but feel ashamed on his behalf since he was obviously incapable of shame.

Again, you are right.

Now consider this: in 2006, the World Bank’s International Development Association (IDA) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) gave us Debt relief under the enhanced HIPC Initiative in millions of USD.

By 2009, fuel tanks were dry and foreign exchange was as scarce as a hen’s teeth.
Massive donor injections in 2012/13 alleviated the suffering and got rid of the Malawi Facebook Fuel Watch Groups, which were trending then.

Again, per the latest Budget Statement, the 2019/20 financial year closed with a deficit of K555.6 billion.

Further, domestic borrowing increased almost tenfold, from K52.3 billion to K496.7 billion.

Akin to the irresponsible Bassanio, we quickly squandered the gains made and goodwill gained via the debt relief, and like shameless Unoka, we owe practically everyone in town, and fourteen years on from 2006, we are unashamedly floating a begging plate again and borrowing like drug addicts.

You know what?
We have no moral high ground from which to hold Bassanio in utter disgust and zero basis on which to feel ashamed on Unoka’s behalf.

We should be feeling ashamed on our own behalf and seriously rethinking our roles in Malawi’s good governance. Or else, we will remain as appalling as Bassanio and as pathetic as Unoka.
What a shame!

Advertisement

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.