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Sri Lanka: Ground View Apr 2008

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Sri Lanka
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CHA
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POWER, AUTHORITY AND DISSENT

We live in turbulent times. Dissent runs the risk of denunciation. Criticism could provoke cataclysmic repercussions. Yet we must remain engaged in a dialogue of reason that will allow us to distinguish power from authority. Please let me narrate a folk tale from a land as picturesque as ours.- Lesotho. It is a story of power, authority and dissent.

The land was in the high mountains. It was so because Modimo- the supreme power, created their land where it would be within easy reach of his caring hand.

The people had a bountiful harvest. The grain of the maize and sorghum had been safely stored away. The pumpkins, beans were laid out for drying. There would be no empty stomachs for the people during the winter that was approaching.
Yet, the Chief was not happy. He summoned all the men of his tribe whom he consulted on matters important. With all the fury he could summon he told them "There should be more, so much more!
Tell me why the harvest is so small?" Pointing out to a Sorghum field where birds of many kinds pecked at the scraps of grain that were being spilled by the women harvesters he screamed "The birds ! See how fat they are. They are fat because they eat our grain. We must do something about these thieves ," he announced in a tone that implied that there will be no further discussion. After all he was the supreme law giver of his land and its people.
All the men agreed with the Great Chief except for one man. His name was Ingongo.

When the tempers cooled he addressed the Great Chief and the other elders in a quiet authoritative manner as he was considered in the tribe as a thoughtful man whose views were often respected. They are indeed a nuisance" , he said. But it seems to me that they don't take much. After all our storage baskets are full. Are we not making a great fuss out of something that is relatively small?" The Big Chief would have none of it. ''One bird may be small, but many of them together is a very big problem. I say kill them all."
His words were received with near unanimity. Yet the thoughtful dissenter persisted. "I think you are wrong. The birds must be there for a reason." Ingongo was a patient man. He deeply cared for his people. He knew why the birds were there. He could have explained how the birds could be prevented from invading the entire field. A little pond as a bird bath and little bit of grain kept aside would have solved the problem that seems to infuriate the mighty chief. Yet he had no desire to question the authority of the Chief.

"The only reason they are there is to steal our food " screamed the Chief with whom almost everybody else seemed to agree.

"I say we kill them all."

The witch doctor was consulted who prepared a cauldron of deadly poison. Sorghum seeds were soaked in the lethal mixture and the next morning they scattered the deadly seeds in their fields.

Sunlight revealed a pitiful sight. Dead Birds were scattered all over. None survived. The birds who according to the chief were stealing their precious harvest were no more.

The Chief was pleased. He congratulated his men for a job well done. Now they could look forward to more greater harvests.

The seasons turned. Summers were followed by winter. Crops sown and harvests gathered and the land yielded its generous bounty.
It took only a few seasons. People began to notice that Maize plants were not growing as tall as they once did. The Sorghum fields were not as thick as they used to be. The Pumpkins were riddled with inexplicable holes. Bean stalks were bereft of leaves and pods.

Then it dawned on them. They found the land crawling with worms and the plants were infested with beetles, flies and borers. The appetite of the new parasites was far greater than that of the Birds.

The Chief mobilised every man, woman and child to dig the worms from the soil and pick the insects from the plants. They destroyed many but the next day there seemed to be more than before. There was simply no way to rid the land of this pestilence.

The Chief was not one to display contrition. "Let them have the fields, "he said defiantly.

"We will not plant any more crops for those devils to feed on." We will return to the way of our ancestors. The men will once again be hunters. The women will gather fruits and berries. The worms and the insects will die when there is nothing for them to eat.. Then we will reclaim the land."
On and off they inspected the abandoned land. The pests seemed content to live off the natural vegetation. The men continued to hunt and the women gathered fruits and berries. The ways of the mountain tribe who claimed that their land in the high mountain was closer to paradise than any other place on earth was radically changed.

(Adopted from a folk tale from the 'The Quivering Spear'- south African Legends and Fables by Thomas A.Nevin1996 published by QS partners, Johannesburg, S.A.)