A Modern Ethic for a Finite World

Photo Source Kevin Dooley | CC BY 2.0

At some point, presumably before leaving the relative comfort of Africa and overrunning the more hostile climes and lesser higher primates of Eurasia, ancient man created powerful taboos some of which survive to the present day. The institution of marriage, for example, which may have evolved alongside totemism – whose prevalence (well into the later part of the modern European adventure) amongst indigenous societies of all continents hints at their antiquity. My traditional African marriage not so long ago included a ritual in which my uncle challenged his counterpart representing the bride to reveal her totem clan name; totem clan names were duly exchanged and the ceremony continued. The significance is lost nowadays on our “chakam” generation as Nigerian duo P-Square put it. I wonder what would have happened a century or so ago if we belonged to the same clan totem: would we have been forbidden from marrying, deemed exogamous?

Mankind is capable of creating powerful taboos that shy groups of us away from things we’d otherwise do (like make the planet unfit for decent human habitation as we know it). Witness the fact that the recent (relatively) religions of the books needed not bother too much with incest and cannibalism. Mankind had already grown out of those unwholesome ills seemingly without the need for prophetic intervention.

Homo sapiens has conquered the physical world and the living world so successfully that we no longer fit in many ecological cycles and would not survive for long if we were cut off from the many links of globalisation. Many of us fear imminent anthropogenic climate disaster or anthropostupid nuclear holocaust. What if mankind were not so successful? We have been seduced by the option of choices that only certain classes in far off places could enjoy once. Something once only consumed by the upper class in the next newly discovered exotic place is now readily available at the market, if you belong to a certain class of course. Thus I can have salmon in the heart of Africa when I can afford it.

To deny this individual choice would probably have fatal repercussions for a third world regime. Members of some classes can even afford a spare human organ should the need arise. Few would question this willing-donor willing-recipient miracle of modern medicine. However, just because we can – ethics nag – doesn’t mean we should.

Whether the practice was for sustenance, ritual or other fanciful purposes, cannibalism disappeared from many societies ages ago even though resurgences such as in King Leopold’s Congo are not unknown in history. Not surprising really: a practice of making a meal of a mate is hardly likely to hang around for long nor catch on. Little group solidarity there if we are eyeing who’d make a great rump steak in the morrow.

Still on the subject of food, powerful food taboos exist today. A billion people don’t eat pork, a billion others wouldn’t eat dog though another billion does regularly. Almost everyone would eat beef when they could if they could afford it, but another billion doesn’t. I am in awe of vegans and their movement. I would if I could but I can’t.

Other totemisms and taboos exist too in this modern world, be they as parochial as supporting a sports team and donning their colours and emblems or as global expressions of indignant boycotts of branders of sweatshop produce. Western monogamy.

It occurs to me that we ought to make do with this planet that we have which may be all we ever have since we cannot even revegetate the Sahara. Heroic as it may be, the quest for alternative habitation is delusional certainly for us browner people. I’m stuck on you, Earth.

I pray that when it comes, I can face death – if there is that time to do so – with a dignified equanimity. Writing now, I doubt that I – with my many shortcomings – would have the courage to live up to a self-imposed ethic and refuse a blood transfusion and/ or organ transplant for the reason that it is not too intellectually distant from cannibalism. But collective consciousness or peer pressure could matter. Maybe that would be a decisive in such a sacrifice.

Aren’t our blood veins more sacred than our mouths?

Our ancestors did it, way before organised religion arose in pharaonic Africa and one or two other places, making certain mountains and forests sacred. We can too. Let us indeed make some things sacred again, beginning with the human body. Maybe it is worth extending the life of our species on this planet. As questionable as this is from our track record.

A blood transfusion seems as natural today as the next medical procedure, say, removing ones tonsils. Flying off to India to replace an organ has been trivialised almost to the equivalence of replacing a vehicle part. Just less frequent, hopefully.

To deny food and to deny health care would be indefensible. However, if that food is human flesh and that health care involves other human fluids and tissues and organs surely there should have been a great sign from heaven to guide our ethics? At the very least, where has been the conversation on whether mankind should allow or taboo this? I have qualms about hurting animals, even rats, in order to buy ourselves a few more doomsday seconds but that may be a different topic.

To what extent will we go to save one individual’s life? The answer seems to be beyond the extent to which we will consider saving a species even what we consider a lowly or harmful one especially; blind to any considerations of where it fits in ecological cycles and what other not so harmful species are impacted as some sort of biochemical collateral damage.

Eradicating a disease is heroic. Accepting disease and eventual death is for losers.

One of the strongest taboos – so strong as to have survived the European enlightenment – is that of incest although this may be facing a post-postmodern challenge already someplace. An age of over-enlightenment? Or an age of regression maybe.

The wise men (and women more probably) of old had ample time when not discovering agriculture and domesticating livestock to observe that incidences of cretinism seem to correlate with inbreeding. Perhaps this is how totemism was born. Regardless, totemism may have spread with mankind across the globe; perhaps because a group of people that don’t inbreed are stronger that the next one that does. Perhaps totemism has been reinvented in its various forms again and again.

Would it save the planet if our species rediscovered totemism yet again? Obviously it would mean constricted individual choices for many, some of the time.

An elderly friend describes his totem clan name as “mbadzo” whose members are forbidden from eating nyimbiri– a type of dove. I am on a casual quest to discover what traditional taboo there is for my offspring (who’re lumbered with inheriting their totem clans) and me.

Suppose for a fleeting fantastical moment that residents of California embraced the (first peoples’) totemisation of the salmon: refusing to eat it and vigorously defending its breeding grounds to the point of death? Of course neoliberalism would defend to death its right to destroy the planet in the name of profit.

Since we are here, can we have a conversation on whether transfusions and transplants are ethical? Do we really want to prey on fellow man? The blood and organs will mostly come from less privileged people, sometimes under dubious circumstances, maybe even as a result of a crime. Can we not begin to accept death again? Are we becoming less human(e) trying to cling to individual lives?

I watched with interest a documentary on Russia Today TV describing the multi-billion dollar international trade in human blood that has led to some of the desperate poor in America donating more than the maximum recommended limits just to make money to stay alive (a little longer). The documentary also showed grateful beneficiaries far away from the circumstances of the desperate donors.

Out in the uncharted backwaters of a shithole country in the African province of empire, pax Americana was interrupted for a few months in 2017 with stories of bloodsuckers. Vampires do not exist in African folklore: the wolf is replaced by the hyena, and witches – both male and female – eat the flesh of disinterred recent burials for whatever reason as opposed to drinking the blood of victims, again for whatever reason. Vampires do exist in the imaginations of the African 1%, therefore the English media described the phenomenon appropriately for westernised consumption. The villagers’ non-English stories were mostly not heard for several weeks which is probably why they resorted to killing a few authorities and outsiders via vigilante groups. Unless, they did so just because they are just ignorant superstitious hysterical villagers.

Such were the descriptions by the BBC and the Malawian premium online news source: Nyasa Times. The overwhelmingly one-sided reports in the local English media conjured up images which become misleading in translation: fangs, gory blood-filled mouths of human vampires. No. The word anamapopaconsistently used in the 2017 saga is from the English “pipe” and could be literally translated as “those who pump blood”. The association with modern medical procedures is always intended in these recurring bouts of mass hysteria. Since our childhoods we have heard of wandering bands of foreigners out there to “suck blood” into various vessels which are used to carry the blood off to their sinister destinations. Some of the recent reports suggested more than one assailant. The reason 4×4 vehicles were targeted should be indicative that the suspicions lay with well-funded outsiders.

Several alleged victims were eventually heard on state TV and the two local newspapers, Times and Nation only after the President had convened a mass fact finding meeting nearby. The narratives follow a pattern: the incidents occur at night, gas is used (presumably to knock them out: I certainly wouldn’t want anything taken from my body in the absence of my wakeful consent) and they suffered lethargy for several hours afterward whether due to the gas or the “bloodsucking” operation it is not known. No English-educated medical professional took them seriously enough to respond in a timely manner.

What if this was preliminary scouting for potential DNA matches?

In a region where albino people are routinely murdered for body parts, it would not be outrageous to imagine the same being done for even those without albinism for their organs once positive DNA match has been confirmed. In my idly wandering mind some UHNWI somewhere is lying in an expensive hospital needing something that his (or her) body does not have or no longer works but some hapless villager somewhere has. First, however, some sort of DNA matching is required in some cases according to my self-awarded TV-informed qualification.

Maybe this is not as loony as it sounds. After all, when capitalists need something under our soil they have no qualms about sending mercenaries to extract it from the pesky peasants who usually mistakenly think they should have a say or stake. If one of them has bone marrow to spare is it not there for the taking too? I don’t see such services being advertised in any glossy brochure though.

Is it time to broaden the ethical health movement and conscientiously object to commodifying our bodies and body parts?

Zanga Chimombo, once an ardent technologist, now a self-described latter-day luddite is a PhD research student at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College, Zomba. Chimombo is the editor of his father’s book Fire on Ntiwa Mountain: an African Creation Story for Children.