It was supposed to be a beauty contest; to prove God’s partiality in endowing some people with his artistry. I have my own views on beauty contests in general, but that is for another day. The recently concluded national beauty contest in Freetown has left a sour taste to many. Back in the day, my earliest notion of a beauty contest was when the Paramount Chief was given first refusal to choose his next bride from the newly initiated girls into the Bondo society. As a kid, we always looked forward to such occasions, because it involved a lot of festivities and gormandising. The ceremonies marked the climax of a month long seclusion of young girls in a secret bush in the village. That is where they learnt the rudimentary ropes womanhood and motherhood, among other attributes of life.
I still recall the flowery beautifications that adorned their supple bodies, the incessant beats from the talking drums, and the smell of gunpowder that accompanied the pronouncement of each girl. That event marked the rights of passage from childhood to womanhood. I still recall the Bondo Debul, which took a pride of place, next to the Soway and other dignitaries of the community. This annual jamboree was a balance of the wealth of the family; which was determined by the number of girls initiated from that household. The girls were paraded in beautifully embroidered regalia that Queen Latifa would have been proud of. That was the nearest I came to witness a beauty pageant; until my colonial masters told me otherwise. Sadly, the attempt to inculcate such an alien past time seems to have proved too demanding for my kindred. But it is time to get off the nostalgia train.
Since Miss Sarah Laura Tucker from Bonthe won last week, the social media has been in meltdown from the widespread reactions. Two issues that seem to have littered the social media highway were the standard of education of the contestants and the tribal slant that was allegedly on display. If President Bio ever needed any agent to publicise his “Agenda to Learn”, he need not look any further. But rather than criticise the contestants for their limited control of the English language, we should look beyond this prism and see this as an indictment of our educational system; which has woefully been in a state of disrepair. Let us try and resist the urge to diagnose the reasons for this, if we can. Difficult though.
The surge in the number of private schools that have mushroom in the country leaves you wondering what criteria were used to do so. It is common knowledge that education has never been given the priority status it deserves by the respective governments. Our teachers have always been the most overworked and underpaid workforce. There was a time when landlords refused to rent out their houses to teachers; because they could never pay their rents on time. Private schools have now become the new cash cows for some of these private enterprises. All it takes is a shack that passes for a building, a high sounding name like “Oxford or Cambridge Academy”, and bang, you are in business. Just to reinforce the point, most of these schools provide “extra lessons” which are insidiously mandatory. My cousin once told me that he would not pass his exams if not enrolled for “extra lessons”
Despite the numerous reasons we can garner as explanations for our poor standard of education, it was really ironic that we chose a national stage to expose this anomaly. It was a good thing that the government’s drive for quality education was plugged in the programme. Perhaps, and may be, the show has given us enough food for thought. Perhaps, this has given all of us a point of departure for the way forward.
If the show was anything to go by, we cannot shy away from the seeming consensus that our standard of education is below per. Ironically, some of those who criticised the contestants on social media were none the wiser. If they were referred to The Hague, some of the comments could qualify for grammatical genocide. We are all guilty; afterwards it’s not my mother tongue. While many complained that the contestants did not appear prepped enough for the questions, others questioned their basic ability to express themselves. Some even questioned the appropriateness of the questions; as if they were purposely asked to expose the inaptitude of the contestants. It has been a marathon trial by social media; notwithstanding the gross grammatical misdemeanour that was committed by the commentators themselves. It all boils down to one thing: Back to school.
But the thorny issue from this whole exercise was how tribalism reared its ugly head again. The social media became the arena for the fall out. What the show exposed was the nasty tribal underbelly of our nation. Many questioned the choice of the winner, Sarah Laura Tucker from Bonthe. Some went as far as saying that she was supported by the First Lady Fatima Bio; and that she won the contest largely because of some presidential preference. As if that was not enough, others concluded that she won because she is a Mende and comes from the South. You sometimes wonder how winning a beauty contest will in anyway foster the image of the government. I cannot fathom the political traction it will generate. That is simply the tragedy that has befallen our country today. The show exposed the underbelly of our seemingly united country.
Of course social media is free and talk can be cheap. Sometimes, we need to take such opinions expressed on social media with a pinch of salt. But when a programme such as a beauty contest is allowed to degenerate into a tribal dichotomy, it is time to sit up and take note. When tribal and regional yardsticks are used to moderate such pastimes like a beauty contest, it becomes a sad state of affairs. But again, much of that kind of thinking was evident from the presenters. One of the presenters made several references to Ernest Koroma and J.S Momoh when Miss Bombali was introduced. When the contestants were introduced and were required to name their areas of origin, I bet the idea was for the contestants to promote their regions on what their respective regions were recognised for. Many “boasted” about the minerals, agricultural and fishing resources associated with their regions. That was all good for our civics and geography lessons. But plugging political associations into that segment was unnecessary. Perhaps, this was an unconscious reflection of the seemingly current North-South divide that is insidiously permeating and devouring our social psyche.
It is worth noting though, that the presenters did their best in the circumstances. Unfortunately, one of the presenters portrayed what many see as the essence of beauty contests: the objectification of women. When the contestants paraded in half clad bikinis, it was one of the most nauseating and cringe inducing moments, when he said that “the men are getting excited. The men are getting busy and reading magazines”. Despite the efforts of the female presenter to minimise the impact, he was still on overdrive with his comments. That was not only irresponsible but reprehensibly downright crass. It summed it all. What made this presenter’s comments more abhorrent was the fact that “women empowerment” was a common theme that ran through most of the questions.
But how did our country descend into this tribal divide? Do I have to choose the colour of my shirt depending on which part of the country I visit? Do I have to wear red in the north and green in the south? There is no doubt that our descent into such tribal abyss has been initiated, propagated and promoted by our politicians. Tribalism and regionalism have become the last refuge of our incompetent politicians; after they have tried everything and discovered that nothing works. During our decade long rebel war, many politicians tried their best to give it a tribal slant. But since the slash and burn atrocities knew neither tribe nor region, the tribal slant failed to materialise. Can you imagine what would have happened if those people had succeeded in fighting the war on tribal lines? We all know what tribalism has done to other African nations. The genocide in Rwanda remains one of the worst that will haunt the conscience of the world forever.
As a nation, we should not allow any lame politician to seek refuge in emotive subjects. At the end of the day, they do so to achieve their own personal interests. We live in a small country where through inter-tribal marriage and other social constructs, we have become one people. We should not allow any politician to engage in any social engineering to put a knife on the things that have held us together. Because if we do, our country will no longer act as one and things will fall apart. Let us choose sides based on right and wrong, and not on where we come from. Those who preach tribalism and other forms of discrimination must have invested heavily in ignorance. As Sierra Leoneans, we should see or identify ourselves as citizens of a nation of one people working toward a common purpose.
It is up to our politicians to promote this common cause. The responsibility lies squarely on their shoulders and as citizens, we should reject it in all its forms; for tribalism has the tendency to fundamentalise. This cankerworm did not materialise last week. It has been simmering for a very long time. President Bio, who has constantly been accused of tribalism, like former president Ernest Koroma, has a job on his hands. There is a lot to be done to heal this seeping rift. For President Bio to succeed as the President Sierra Leone and not the leader of the SLPP, he needs to bring everyone along. For him to bring all of us along as a nation, we should be ready to follow to support and follow. But president Bio, the government and all those stake holders have to take the lead. We need a free, fair and just society, with equal opportunities for all. And that is not too much to ask.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter (M. L. King).