When was the Last Time You Were Human? Greenman Mbilo

I’ve often found it difficult to be certain that I have ever been human, or that my humanity has ever been special in any way. Perhaps this is because I’ve never been initiated or told that in fact I was a human and that I differed from other animals on intelligible grounds. Maybe it’s also because there is not much that differentiates the brute animal from a human; not even ‘the reasonableness test’ seems to do the trick. Dogs that rescue children from danger or elephants that defy their circus owners are not news, so we have little reason to sit pretty on any assurances that we are in fact, human. It’s possible that one ceased to be human a long time ago but hasn’t noticed it yet. The natural consequence is a callous treatment of self and others that is beyond any communicative action and reason, to the extent of undermining any ideas of social constructivism. It is this experience that leads me to believe that it’s possible that humans exist under special conditions that are related to a cosmic order that is beyond humanity itself. Such that we are only human when we are conscious of this order and choose to enact it in the course of our daily lives through ritual.

As a child, I discovered that people around could violate me and not even be aware of their actions. If things became unbearable, and I raised my voice, then a narrative of power and adult convenience would be created to correct my version of reality and restore social harmony. It was a kind of social imposition that was arbitrary and unconscious of itself. It was an instinctive reaction to reality that would even work against those advancing it. For example, adults are often correct in their judgements with respect to children as long as the effects are not directly visible to others and are not deemed reprehensible by others. This leaves wide space for violation of children and the emergence of character and behavior that is hardly desired; like rebellion. 

It was only in my late teens that I discovered that children have ‘rights’. But so did I also learn that dogs, chicken and slugs too have rights, even though each of them is likely to end up in some person’s dinner plate. How these rights are derived and apportioned appears to be a matter of ‘chaotic and chancy creation of reality’ rather than any deliberate social construction. In the end, the victim has no source for redress for his or her pains and must be content with any delusions that pacify. After all, it may be an obvious observation that ‘the thing in itself is not accessible’.

Animals and plants have hierarchies and ideas of social order. Ergo, it’s indisputable that they too are persons, just like I am. History is replete with cross-cultural conversations with the sun to the point of inferring that the sun and other stars have their own personalities. Each constellation is a determinant of character according to the ancients. Like a child conceived in the midst of a storm must be born with diplomatic mettle. There’s a kind of experience that leads one to believe that even a swine is a person and some persons are swine.

One day my mom came home with a goat. She had tied a nice tether around its neck – I later learnt the goat was a ‘she’. It was a curious sight because I thought the goat was okay with walking next to my mom without bolting away, but who knows about some of these persons? They are quite unpredictable and we mostly have no clues about the small print of our social contract with them, especially when it was probably our ancestors who did the legal work during the ‘Neolithic settlement’. 

But the goat turned out to be a good friend of mine. We would walk together for a few kilometers to her play and eat joint. And in typical social fashion, she found love, and, while we looked the other way, she gave birth to a son etc. That is, while it appeared as if the goat and I were in agreement on pasture and schedule, she had her own ideas that were only accessible after the fact. All I needed to do was to take her to the agora and get her back home in the evening as part of an ownership ritual that depended more on goodwill than a sense of duty.  

There were times when her business got too engaging perhaps and she’d hide and do a night out. The first time this happened I went back home anxious. She could have been stolen. But when she came back home early in the morning, at the time I was supposed to be taking her to the agora, it occurred to me that we were dealing with a person. She came with a desperate bleat that must have meant something. Naturally, I inferred that it was calling out to me and I ended up giving her a name. 

One day, she got sick; she had a cough, and I had some leftover syrup. After a teaspoon of the syrup thrice a day for three consecutive days, she was okay again. That’s how I had taken my portion, and it translated perfectly well. I was so pleased with my husbandry skills that it must have followed that she was grateful for saving her life. She owed me one for sure.

Like for most relationships, this one was also not well-defined. One day, I saw some policemen riding through our village on horseback and I thought I could copy them. My plan was to ride out on goatback and show the world that I didn’t think so lowly of myself. The best time would be early in the morning as we went to the pastures. The release of her tether would be followed by a quick jump on her back, and all would be okay.

It never struck me that my friend had a view that contrasted with mine. Or maybe all horses share the same attitude till they are broken. Whatever the case, she gave me a few butts on my stomach to drive the point home. I went to my bunker to contemplate the mutiny, cursing the ungrateful and selfish beast, certain that I’d never trust her again. Yet a curious fact is that she never dissented to being milked. Simply, the relationship had all the intrigues that are common among other persons that put a claim to humanity.

We didn’t get enough time to resolve our dispute and/or difference probably because of linguistic limitations. Her name was a word I can’t write down as yet, and was also a statement, question, and the whole package of language. Meaning was a matter of tone, context, conjecture and probably magic. She went along with this cryptic exchange and embraced a goatly world that I could neither access nor understand. Our areas of convergence in the utilitarian Venn appeared to allow for only a limited set of activities and responsibilities that defined a fictitious world.

She fell sick again. And since we had espied her eating polythene bags, and her symptoms included loss of appetite and weight, lethargy, and a cantankerous attitude to other persons, we decided to slaughter her. Again, she didn’t like the idea of being slaughtered. She cried all the way to death while knives driven by set jaws ensured any prayers led to the justice that she deserved. 

Do you think we ought to have tried to find a vet to operate on her, remove the bags, and probably revert to zero grazing? If we could give her cough syrup, why not do an operation to save her life? Was the decision decided purely on cost factors? I have never settled these questions because there’s a voice that has been telling me that all life is utilitarian and that we live for as long as it is convenient for others who can change the facts to let us be. A kind of irrational grace that punctuates our otherwise desolate lives where meaning precedes existence.

Or was the decision to slaughter made on the basis of a demand for meat; a cherished political resource that brings kindred together in harmony? We eat to live and live to eat; this is a tautology that makes most persons busy for all their existences, if not deaths, and justifies most if not all the killing that happens in the wild and world.  

Perhaps the decision was made on a version of common law. Since she (the goat) was almost nearing her prime, and meat is loved tender, and she was sick and opportunistic infections were lurking, then it was prudent to partake of her sooner, rather than later. 

The reasoning sounds perfect to me. It’s even consistent with historical accounts of what people do when under siege and have run out of supplies. I think the children are eaten first. Their meat is tender and they run a risk of not being palatable if they’re to delay for much longer without food, especially with diseases lurking everywhere. 

And besides, since we are what we eat, then eating our children is an act of love and keeps up with our identity. Some persons like the domestic cat will happily eat their kittens and save them the misery of a harsh world. Is the kitty weak and puny? Eat her up! Eat your children and survive to bear others.

To read this story in full, order a copy of the drr issue of Ritual here..

Greenman Muleh Mbillo is an Akamba philosopher, artist and traditional healer according to the ancient practice of ‘Kamuti’ or ‘of the tree’. He inherited this practice from birth and was later trained by Kanukwa, a female Akamba philosopher, who delivered him to be educated by Spirit.  He is also a partaker of contemporary Western education through both established institutions and private education arrangement. His main interests are directed to the archaeology of ancient knowledge systems and especially that of the Akamba people, and more broadly, of the Khemetic people who established the African continent.


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