Opinion (21/11/2021): The Death Of The Question Mark! – By Wale Bakare


The story is told of an Army barracks which had four soldiers guarding a concrete slab in front of the barracks at all times. Different commanders came and went but the tradition remained, with the soldiers changing shifts guarding the slab. This went on for almost a century until a new commander was posted to the barracks. One of the first things he did was to ask why soldiers were guarding the slab? He was told “We’ve always done it this way. It’s our tradition. Our former commanders instructed us to do that”. Curious, since it wasn’t part of any standard Military practice he was familiar with, the Commander decided to investigate this strange ritual. He went to the Archives to look for answers and came across a document that had the explanation. 80 years before, the Commander of the base had decided to lay out a new Concrete slab for events and meetings. It would take 3 weeks for the concrete to set which was not a problem. The problem was that at night, wild animals came through and walked on the wet concrete, leaving their footprints all over it. This would force the Commander to order for a new coat of concrete in the morning. After the 3rd time, he came up with the brilliant idea of assigning soldiers to march around the concrete slab in shifts to keep the animals away. This worked brilliantly but the Commander was posted out before the concrete set and he didn’t leave clear instructions for his successor, who without knowing why, just continued the tradition. And so it went on for 80 years until someone was ‘foolish’ enough to ask “Why?”

Of the different punctuation marks, my favourite has always been the ‘question mark’! The Question Mark invites clarity. Why? Where? When? Who? How? The Question Mark demands cogitation and reasoning. It keeps the boundaries of knowledge elastic and constantly expanding. Civilisations rise on the deployment of the Question Mark while those cultures that don’t use it inevitably go into extinction. The Question Mark put a man on the moon at a time when some societies were still worshipping the same moon. Mary Slessor dared to ask ‘why’ new-born twins were being slaughtered in Calabar. It was the tradition but she questioned it while the mothers whose babies were ripped from their bosoms by evil men kept mute. I remember during a class I was running in Port Harcourt sometime ago, one of the delegates told the class that his lineage ‘forbids’ okra. Naturally, I asked him ‘why’? He said he didn’t know. All he knew was that anyone from his extended family who took okra would suffer severe consequences from the gods of his father. I asked him if he had ever tried to eat okra and he looked at me like I was mad. “Why would he do something that foolish? Didn’t I hear what he just said about the gods? I asked him if he had considered a possibility that one of his forefathers had been allergic to okra (we were discussing allergies) and that in tune with the patriarchal nature of our society, he had banned okra in the entire household? He wouldn’t even consider the possibility. It was forbidden and that was the end of the matter.

This is the kind of uninquisitive mindset I am seeing a lot of these days. The irony is that this apathy to enlightenment is being enabled in most cases by the very thing that should be driving knowledge and the quest for it: the internet. The easiest way to induce mass-hypnosis is to put out something titillating on Twitter, take a screenshot and put it on Instagram. Within minutes, you will have millions swearing to the veracity of it, even if they had never heard of the matter until a few minutes before. An investment of about 60 seconds on Google would have been enough to provide clarity but why bother? This is more so when the information confirms some pre-existing bias. The diamond-studded Diezani Bra is just an example in a long list of such easily debunked falsehoods that manage to hold the entire nation captive. And knowledge-apathy is not defined by age. Old and young are equally culpable. The enquiring mind is becoming extinct. The other day I was at a friend’s and he had some young men come to visit him as well. I stumbled onto a discussion they were having and it was about someone that had done ‘money ritual’ and was getting millions in dollars. Out of boredom more than curiosity, I decided to ask a question that had played around the fringes of my mind concerning the popular ‘money ritual’: how is the ritualist payed? For a mini-second, there was total silence. Then the one to whom I had directed the question (since he was the principal story-teller) took the plunge: “its cash nah”! And he looked to his friends with an expression that said “what is wrong with this Egbon”? I smiled and asked the follow-up question: Does the demon bring it in a suitcase or GMG? Or is it by electronic transfer through Flutterwave? My questions were having a very unwanted effect: forcing them to think. They weren’t happy with that. Why couldn’t I just accept it for what it is? Why was I asking if the spirits had a printing press where U.S. Dollars were being minted or was the demon stealing it out of the Bank vaults around the country and depositing it in the fellow’s bedroom in the middle of the night? The inevitable eventually followed: was it that I didn’t believe in the existence of money ritual? This produced a nervous laugh all round at my foolishness. It’s the same way they ask you on Social Media when you ask questions they cant answer: are you saying ……..? This will then be quickly followed by a curse instead of addressing the valid question you have asked. May it happen to you. That is when you will know”!

The truth is that the only way to arrive at the truth is to ask questions. Ask questions until enlightenment is achieved or falsehood is debunked. Ask questions to set history out on stone and not on the sands of the beaches to be washed away by the first wave of truth. Ask questions for the sake of the next generation. Do not just accept anything you hear or read. Even the bible enjoins you to be like the Berean Christians. Seek clarity until it is made clear. Falsehood can never become truth just because it is believed by many.

– Bakare is a public commentator and analyst

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