What do we do to the walls?

What do we do to the walls?

Sitting on a log of wood, just where Mai masa made and sold her rice and corn cakes, I watched and listened to the sizzling sounds as she emptied the rice and corn batter into the hot oiled frying pan, waiting for my turn to be served.

“Common, will you stop that? Dan iska kawai!” (Son of a bitch)

All eyes turned towards the direction of the very loud voice of Baban Sadik, as we quickly scanned for who he was scolding at that time of the day. It was Nasiru, the neighbourhood bully. In his hand was a  bowl half-filled with sand, a foot-step away from him was a much younger fragile looking girl, crouched on the floor, crying, with her beautifully made cornrows barely noticeable as it was covered with sand, obviously from Nasiru’s bowl.

Nasiru, looking terrified and knowing that what may follow Baban Sadik’s voice was a slap or an evening visit to his home where his offences would be reported to his dad with commensurate punishment to follow said,  “Yi hankuri, yi hankuri. Don Allah yi hankuri. (Sorry, sorry. In God’s name, sorry.) On any day, I would rather be spanked by Baban Sadik than be punished by Nasiru’s father whose beatings were always heard from every corner of our clustered houses. 

 “Shege, Shege!”  (illegitimate child) other masa buyers shouted, joining in berating Nasiru as a woman rushed to clean up and soothe the girl, leaving Nasiru with a resounding slap on his cleanly shaven head. That’s the society I grew up in.

I grew up in a place and time when there were no fences or walls. Every house in our neighbourhood had a front and backyard. Each house its own, but with each front and backyard flowing into the front and back yard of the next house, forming a large field of grass, flowers, trees and sand where we played; and where our parents sat together to chat after a hectic day. We played, talked, and shared, even though we were all from different tribes, spoke different languages, and were of different religions. Every neighbour looking out for the interest of the other, every parent taking part in the discipline and training of the child of his neighbour, at least in the way they commonly understood discipline and child-rearing. 

We were a community, in the real sense of the word; a celebration for one was a celebration for all. For instance, on every Christmas day, Christians cooked what we all called “Christmas rice”. It was always basically rice served with tomato beef or goat stew, what most people cooked and ate on a normal day. However, Christmas rice was a different kind of rice, it had a taste and aroma reserved for only Christmas. On Christmas day, Christian parents sent a tray or hamper of food to the homes of every non-Christian neighbour, most of who were Muslims. Sometimes, we walked as far as 500 meters away from our homes or a little more with large bowls of rice and stew on a tray balanced on our heads, on a mission to give and share. On Sallah day, Muslim families cooked and sent food to their Christian neighbours in return. 

That was long before individualism and modern liberalism penetrated the walls of our homes and families even though we are collectivist by culture as Africans, swathed by the philosophy of Afro-communitarianism. Somehow as years passed, on Christmas days, parents sent no food out, we ate and celebrated alone, and on Sallah days, we received nothing and were only left to feast on the aromas of food and meat that saturated the whole neighbourhood. 

Our parents began to prefer their privacy from our neighbours. One after another, they began building fences and walls, perhaps as a sign of financial growth, modernity or westernisation, but more because they craved their privacy. Not long from that, our parents no longer sat at the front yards to chat about their daily experiences, they even began restricting us to playing alone, within our fenced yards, without our friends and neighbours. What’s more, nobody dared caution or discipline the children of his/her neighbour. Not even Baban Sadik could stomach another parent or grown-up cautioning his kids. Once it began, it spread to all. So did we as children gradually begin to lose our friends and our time to play together.

We grew, changed and stopped sharing and knowing one another. And like a fabric frays, and its threads unravel, one thread at a time, we unravelled and lost all that bound us together. We lost the solidarity of social (interpersonal) bonds, and that sense of “we-ness”.

Researchers studied values unique to different social groups as is evident in their thoughts and actions, and categorised societies based on these commonly shared values and ways of thinking unique to them. One of the most popular dimensions of categorising national cultures is the individualism-collectivism and communitarianism/liberalism dichotomies.

I come from a collectivist society and our philosophy is (African) communitarianism at least growing up, it used to be more of that. Daly in his presentation of the communitarian conception unambiguously describes my experience as a child. He submits that being a member of a community entails belonging to a network of family and social relationships such that each member is defined by this membership. In a community, members seek for and gain personal fulfilment through taking part in the developing/emerging social structures, achieving personal liberty in an expanded self-development acquired through these activities—always for the common good. I must emphasise that I am talking about moderate Afro-communitarianism which “addresses the dual features of the self: as a communal being and as an autonomous, self-determining” (Gyekye 1992: 113).

In Lolly’s blog post, she explains that just as we say hello in English, people from the tribes of northern Natal in South Africa say, “Sawu bona”, that is “I see you.” The following response to that is “Sikhona”, meaning, “I am here”. She presents the literal translation of the exchange as UNTIL YOU SEE ME ~ I do not exist, which she says essentially means: when you see me you bring me into existence.

Connecting it all to collectivism, the Afro-communitarian philosophy — the sense of community that is in no better way encapsulated in the Zulu word Ubuntu — “I am because we are, and we are because I am” (Mbiti, 1969. P. 108-109), I dare say, I am, because we are, and we are, because you see me, and I see you

However, the question is, how can you see me when there are walls around me and walls around you? In “Mending Wall”, a poem about two neighbours who meet to rebuild the wall between their properties Richard Frost’s writes:

 “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

   What I was walling in or walling out,

   And to whom I was like to give offence.”

Have we in building walls become strangers to one another? Have we made our young ones strangers to friends, families and neighbours that may have been helpful to them? 

Daly posits that some communitarians see community as the most normal, congenital and most elevated type of life for human beings. Some contend that community is a fundamental human need and that dissatisfaction/denial of this need leads to alienation, addictions, crime, and ineffectual families. All communitarians accept that an invigorated community or the communitarian way of thinking would furnish us with the opportunity to live more satisfying individual lives than is presently conceivable under the predominance of the individualistic ideal. I find that rather interesting. When I hear or read about suicides, depression, loneliness, knife and gang crimes, and our youths sadly dying earlier than they should, I wonder if things would have been different if we were truly our brother’s keeper. But how can you call me brother when you constantly look the other way?

Using the words of President John F. Kennedy when he spoke at the Berlin Wall on June 26, 1963; inputting a few of mine, I say, “the wall is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of our” societies, of you and I. “It is an offence not only against history but an offence against humanity, separating families, dividing husbands and wives and brothers and sisters, and dividing a people who wish to be joined together,” at least deep in their hearts.

Today, I write about the walls in our minds, in our families, in our relationships with friends, the walls defining our interactions with our neighbours when we should truly be neighbours. I write about those walls that have destroyed the sense of community, making us strangers to one another. I write about the walls between you and me, the walls that prevent me from seeing you even when you are close by. 

Like President John Kennedy, I say to you, “lift your eyes beyond the dangers of today, to the hopes of tomorrow … beyond yourselves and ourselves to all mankind.”

“I am both wall-builder and wall-destroyer,” Frost said at the Bread Loaf School in 1938. 

So I invite you to build the right kind of walls and destroy the walls that have made us unrecognisable to one other.


Chemhuru, M. 2018. African communitarianism and human rights: towards a  compatibilist view, vol. 65, no.4, pp. 37-56 [Online] Available at: Theoria, Issue 157, Vol. 65, No. 4, 37-56, [Online] Available at:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/329823695_African_Communitarianism_and_Human_Rights/link/5c4efbfb458515a4c745e1d4/download [Accessed February 20, 2021].  

Daly, M. 1994. Communitarianism: A new public ethics. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Gyekye, K. 1992. Person and community in Akant, in K. Wiredu and K. Gyekye (eds), Person and Community. Washington DC: The Council for Research in Values and Philosophy, 101–122 [Accessed February 20, 2021].  

Mbiti, J.S. 1969. African Religion and Philosophy. London: Heinemann

McEvoy, D. 2020. On This Day: President Kennedy delivers his iconic Berlin Wall speech in Germany, June 26, 2020 [Online] Available at:

https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/jfk-berlin-wall-speech [Accessed February 20, 2021].  

Menkiti, I. A. 1984. Person and community in African traditional thought, in R. Wright (ed), African Philosophy: An Introduction. New York: University Press of America, 171–181.

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