I’m currently reading Sefi Atta’s excellent book Everything Good Will Come and there is a conversation between two characters in the book where one of them says nothing will come right in Nigeria because Nigerians lack discipline. On the drive home yesterday from Gaborone, my husband and I were talking about discipline and punishment and an incident we had last month with my daughter at the boarding school where she attends and this idea of discipline came to the fore. What is discipline and how do we instill it in our children? And perhaps more important, is there something wrong in African countries that leads to our children growing to be adults who are unable to discipline themselves?
The incident with my daughter involved her refusing to be punished by the head of the school for a crime she was innocent of. I had to go to the school, as refusing punishment is considered a very serious crime leading to widespread indiscipline. In Botswana, like in most African countries, corporal punishment is allowed in schools. In Botswana in our traditional courts, dikgotla, adults are also often given lashings as punishment for crimes committed.
In the case with my daughter I believed her; not because she cannot do wrong, but because there were many pieces of evidence that showed she didn’t have enough time to commit the offense in question. During our conversations with the head teacher, she also agree that it was likely my daughter was innocent, but since other, likely innocent, girls were punished; she would need to take the punishment too. That seemed ludicrous to me and, in fact, a sure fire way to escalate the school’s discipline problems. In the end, my daughter did not get punished though we both received a stern warning from the head teacher who was not pleased with my line of thinking.
In our conversation yesterday I came to the conclusion that perhaps Sefi Atta’s characters have a point. In African culture children are raised to respect all adults as parents. I can be in a new town and I can call the nearest child and tell him to show me the way to the community hall. He should drop what he’s doing and accompany me the whole distance without complaint. I’m his parent and he must obey me.
This is good in a perfect world which we of course don’t live in. The problems that can ensue given this situation don’t need to be elaborated on. Sad cases abound of the abuse of our children who were just innocently following the rules of Setswana culture.
We set our children up as pawns with no will or thought of their own. Then we use strict, often harsh, sometimes unjust discipline to keep them in line. In the case of my daughter, her friend, who also was not guilty of the crime, accepted the punishment without a word as a well behaved Motswana girl should. My daughter, caught between her Setswana and Western upbringing, could not quite do that.
A well behaved Motswana child has no need to trouble themselves with self discipline; they can rely on the adults around them to rein them in when they go astray. They accept their position without power, as that position also comes without responsibility and in some ways that’s a good thing. Yes, occasionally you might have to accept an unjust punishment, but that’s part of the deal.
Then suddenly they’re adults. Their freedom given to them on a silver platter. In the past, strong community bonds and social pressures would keep their behaviour in check, but Westernisation of the culture has eliminated most of that. Now people watch others do wrong and the common Setswana attitude is- “He’ll see what he’s going to do” and then everyone remains quiet and watches to see what mess the person in question will get himself into. They no longer feel any responsibility for that person’s actions.