Fatalism – the African way

I can’t tell you how many times I have put my life in other people’s hands, often people who quite clearly should not be entrusted with that sort of responsibility. Most of the time I have realised this immediately: this person should not be responsible for any form of life. But I have repeatedly defied reason and simply handed over my faith. Usually without worry or fear – which in itself is rather scary, come to think of it.

It has been suicidal taxi drivers in insufficient vehicles on winding mountain roads. It has been hung-over bush pilots flying tiny tin-like aircrafts over desolate African wilderness. It has been speeding bus drivers, busy with everything else but actually driving the bus

At one point, when the pink post bus was about to depart from Gulu in northern Uganda, taking us back to Kampala, our powerlessness was particularly obvious. Everyone had told us that the post bus was the best way to travel because it would usually get there in the end. That may have been correct, but it was not reassuring when the driver – spot on time, it must be said – introduced himself by turning to us passengers in an animated prayer for our safe arrival in Kampala. The same sort of reliance on higher powers was practiced by that taxi driver in Kenya who swayed over on the wrong side of the road, missing my vehicle with millimetres to spare. Across his windscreen he had written: “It’s not me, it’s Allah”.

And I’m thinking: how should one understand and relate to the ever-present fatalism on this continent – a fatalism that you yourself will soon subscribe to. How does it affect all of us living and travelling in Africa to constantly let go of total control, handing our faith over to someone else, usually without hesitation and simply because we have no other alternative? Instinctively I think that fatalism risk turning into apathy, a destructive state of not caring about anything because nothing can’t be done to change things. That was the sort of discussions we had about these things when I studied philosophy many years ago. At the same time, that doesn’t really reflect the actual African context with its enormous entrepreneurship and creativity, all of which is in fact about nothing else than trying to change one’s situation.


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Somehow, I have a feeling that there is a link. Perhaps the simple answer is that one thing will free up energy for the other: don’t waste time on what is beyond your control and use it instead to change things you really can improve. It sounds like one of those wisdom quotes you see in your Facebook feed, shared by that old class mate of yours who was always a bit of a space cadet. Then again, does that make it less true?

Every day millions of people, in Africa and elsewhere, step on various forms of transport to get to work, go shopping, or see relatives. If they think about it, they realise that there is a perfectly realistic risk of them being killed. They have probably seen it happen to others. So they don’t think about it. They get on, hope for the best and save their energy for something else. As do I, when I fall asleep in the backseat during a high-speed journey through the Zambian countryside.

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