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The old man and the medal: Kill them and honour them

By Osa Amadi, Arts Editor

 The author of the classic novel, The Old Man and The Medal, Ferdinand Léopold Oyono (1929–2010), wrote in French in the 1950s. His works are anti-colonialist, especially The old man and the medal which fiercely satirizes the false pretenses of European colonial rule in Africa, the deceitful and empty awards like medals which the oppressors awarded gullible Africans after exploiting, brutalising and even killing them.

The chief character and subject of the wicked colonial masters’ oppression is Meka, a village elder who was always loyal to the white man. He felt so proud when he first heard that the white man was going to honour him for his service and loyalty. But the honour was an award of medal, not even a gold medal, just a piece of worthless metal.

While waiting for the ceremony, Meka’s pride gave way to skepticism. Then it dawned on his wife that the medal was being given to her husband as compensation, as reward for the sacrifices they have made.

The old man and the medal mirrors the craftiness of politicians and military dictators in Nigeria who subvert the wishes of the masses by rigging elections and covertly eliminating political opponents and then turn round to honour them by naming streets after them and giving them empty posthumous awards. These dictators and politicians see the masses the same way the dismantled German Nazi sees the masses.

In The arts and education as tools of propaganda published by Robert Brady in 1937, the Nazi sees the mass of the people as dumb. “They are unintelligent, childlike, and inarticulate. The masses will accept without serious question whatever they hear or are told. They believe everything they read. They do not bother to think; they feel. Their lives are not pivoted on logic, but on emotion. The masses have no real initiatives, no true creative powers, and they are incapable of any sort of self-discipline. They desire to be fed, to be entertained with exotic and melodramatic fancies, and they yearn to follow.

“Like the child, the masses are unstable, irresponsible, and capricious, turning easily from one brightly coloured fancy to another. They will be attracted by whatever is simple and naive, whatever is dark, dangerous, and thrilling, whatever is extreme in size, or distance, or accomplishment, whatever is heroic and unheard of, whatever brings the gasp of wonder and the hush of awe.

“The masses are likewise essentially and naively pleasure-loving. But, though lover of ease, they are so thoroughly irrational that they do not count the cost of achieving their pleasures. Like the child who worked assiduously for hours in the garden, or the soldier wallowing in the mud of the front-line trenches, the masses will be satisfied for their labour and sacrifices by a cheap bauble, a bit of praise from some furtively admired hero, A MEDAL, a badge, or a bit of palely reflected but resonantly heralded glory.

“Nor are the rank and the file able to tell the difference between symbols and realities (like the denial of power to MKO, his assassination and offer of a posthumous award). Thus, the masses may be given symbols instead of realities. They can also be made to fight for “God and Fatherland,” (or for unity of Nigeria) for “Blood and Honour.” They can be made to endure poverty and die in rags and filth for “Mother and Home,” the “Leader,” the “People.” They can be brought to sacrifice everything for “the good of the community,” and to escape “Jewish Marxism,” (or Igbo domination). If necessary, the masses can be conditioned to people the forests with demons, be fearful of black cats, and vomit at the sight of a Jew (or an Igbo) .

“The “Leaders,” (the ethno-military hegemonists) in other words, are free to choose, not only the causes for which they wish to rally the support of the people, but also the symbols which sway their emotions. Properly conditioned, these symbols need have no necessary relationship to the real interests of the run of mankind. Indeed, not uncommonly, popular support of the symbol chosen works directly against the individual and group interests of those who follow them, as is typically the case with mystical and patriotic issues.

“This is the point of view of the Junker, the aristocrat, and the military warlord. It is also the point of view of the nouveaux riche, who believe the “able” always “succeed,” citing themselves as examples; of the successful businessman who identified his economic power with possession of cultural qualities of which he may not have the slightest comprehension; and of the upstart political hack who has traded his demagogic powers for an over-stuffed mansion or hand of a daughter of the blue-blood.

“These self-styled elite are always contemptuous of the “man on the street.” They speak of labour, of the “broad masses” with condescension and scorn. They have no use for “democracy,” for “individual freedom,” for “representative government,” except as these may be employed as slogans for the purchase and sale of popular support. If these slogans at any time get in the way of the “main chance,” they will be done away with on the same principle which a knowing debutante employs when she strikes an unlikely prospect off her social list.”

This is therefore the philosophical basis of white man’s treatment and deceit of Meka. After waiting in the hot sun for the whole day to receive his medal of honour, the drum rolls to announce the arrival  of  the white men who confered the honour on Meka.

The white man saluted Meka and then took a small case held by his assistant and pinned it onto Meka’s breast. Meka looked down at his medal. He felt as if his neck was growing longer.  His head was swelling up to heaven and his forehead almost reached the clouds.

After receiving the medal, Meka got drunk and lost conciousness. Later, he managed to wake up. It was night. Heavy rain and storm had started and the drunk Meka found himself in the rain swept along by the flood. Eventually, he lost his medal to the flood!

Staggering along the road, he caught sight of a beam of light and lifted his arms to cover his eyes. “O man with the electric torch. God has sent you to me. Come and help me to find the path leading to the location….”

“Get up, you pig! Where are your papers? Where have you come from? What are you doing fucking around here?” They were police constables. Meka began to choke and cry like a terrified chimpanzee.

“On your way my good friend of the Governor!” The constable made jest of him, laughing. “Just look at this old devil! Go on, move!”

“My son,” Meka pleaded, gasping for breath,  “you are young enough to be my son, why do you want to shed blood as old as your own father’s? Why do you want to bring a curse on you and your…”

“Shut up!” the constable roared.

“Cover up your dirty old arse and show me your papers!” Another officer demanded.

Meka explained to them that he has not been given papers by the chief of whites… It was only a medal.

The constables did not even bother to ask to see the medal. They knew that the medal had no value, although the flood had carried it. They accused him of loitering around European area. They beat Meka mercilessily asking: “Who is this lunatic?”

Even Meka’s medal could not save him, because there is a world of difference between symbols and realities.

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