Human beings abhor uncertainty. We like to walk on solid ground because we are sure of where we stand. Conversely, we hate to be on a wobbly or shifting surface we cannot be certain of our stability and therefore subsequent move.
We want to hold on to something concrete and are not content with vagueness.
In times, like the present, when things take an unusual or unexpected course, we tend to find comfort in what we know or have experienced in the past, where there is some reassurance. We look for precedent, pattern and context in what has gone on before.
And so, some people will fall back on scriptures because they see a pattern in their chronicles of wars, natural disasters and pestilences, and also a guide for getting through them.
Very often, the prescription is repentance and a return to righteousness because we are presumed to have sinned. Today there is no shortage of people saying the covid-19 pandemic is punishment for our iniquities.
In a sense such a narrative finds traction with some people because it is rather familiar and so creates a sort of reassurance.
Others will make reference to similar occurrences in the past (which the scriptures also do) to show that the present experience is not unique, that it has happened before and people passed through them successfully because they did certain things or behaved in particular ways. In history, too, there is a pattern and precedent.
Or they will go to literature to look for accounts of experiences in other societies at different times and places akin to what they may be going through. The discovery that this is so makes the present experience familiar
In the past three months, we have seen all these reactions.
When covid-19 had just been declared a pandemic and began to spread rapidly across the world, the immediate reaction was a rush to history to look for precedent.
Those with a longer view went back to the Bubonic Plague or the Black Death in Europe in the Middle Ages and the Spanish Flu of 1918. Others whose historical span is shorter (the majority) recalled SARS of nearly two decades ago and the more recent Ebola.
Books about other plagues came immediately to mind. The Plague by Albert Camus was the favourite of many.
Images of rats coming out of their holes to die on people’s doorsteps and in the streets in their hundreds of thousands due to an unknown, unseen disease are frightening and unsettling and send everyone into a panic. They are a picture of destruction and suffering, incomprehension and helplessness, all of which are unnecessary and undeserved.
But the novel is about more than that. It is also about resilience and resistance against evil. It celebrates the heroism of unlikely heroes – ordinary people, journalist, health workers – who, together, eventually deal with the plague.
Today’s heroes in the fight against covid-19 are the frontline health workers, some of whom have succumbed to the enemy they are fighting.
Twenty six years ago when the horror of the genocide against the Tutsi could not move many, and a few years later when wars broke out in the D R Congo, everyone remembered Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness set in that vast country to try to understand the depth of evil to which human beings could descend.
Kurtz’ dying words, “the horror, the horror”, and the atrocities against indigenous people to which they refer that are re-enacted from time to time can be traced to the barbaric rule of King Leopold II of Belgium. The legacy lingers.
In difficult times, when people lose all sense of order and social and moral restraints imposed by human civilisation, release the ‘beast’ inside them and commit all manner of monstrous acts, we all recall William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
We do not need reminding that George Orwell foretold in 1984 today’s pervasive surveillance and intrusion into privacy to the extent of rendering it non-existent, and Big Brother keeping an eye on everybody and everything,
One can go on and on about events that were in some way forecast by writers. There is hardly any event that has no historical precedent. That should place literature and history high up on what people should be reading, especially the young. The two should be among the things that should shape the minds and outlook of the young.
Yet, for some inexplicable reasons, literature is almost absent from Rwandan schools. History nearly disappeared from the University of Rwanda (actually did for a while).
If this is allowed to happen, we would be putting an end to our creative potential, stifling our predictive abilities and therefore cutting off the link between the past and the future.
Writers are important. They help us keep things in proper perspective. Of course, they are essentially story tellers who keep us informed and entertained. But sometimes they are like prophets, foretelling the future, even its ugly aspects.
For this they are not always popular because people want to hear only the good news. But the bad is there, too, and cannot be ignored and must be told.
Other times they are seers, peering into the future and narrating what they see, including tragedies and calamities. For this, they are feared or despised, but that does not erase what they see and tell.
Many times, writers are our moral guide and conscience. Often we ignore them and remember them when what they warned us about has come to pass. We do this at our own peril. If we want to avoid that danger, we should give literature and history their rightful place in the education of the young.
The views expressed in this article are of the author.Follow https://twitter.com/jrwagatare