In response to the Ebola epidemic in Guinée, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the world noticed two distinctly different responses: one from the USA and France, carried out by their defense departments and the other from Cuba which demonstrated the kind of solidarity that is rarely seen nowadays, especially from the most powerful countries. The latter seek ways of maintaining their way of living, their way of looking at humanity as a hierarchical structure. The perspective of the powerful countries is not only a by-product of the way they look at their domination of the world during the last 500 years, and how they should benefit from the maintenance of that domination. An understanding of what is right and just for all of humanity can be found by looking at humanity’s history from as far back as possible. The most powerful countries and their militarized ways of responding to health issues is also related to their ways of ensuring that their view of justice, of science remains the unchallengeable one. Shouldn’t scientific research, medical research be organized to benefit all of humanity? If such a global approach to sharing knowledge were operational today, the response to the Ebola epidemic would most likely have been different. If knowledge about the best way of maintaining humanity’s health had been framed from the perspective of sharing, the response coming from Cuba might have been the rule rather than the exception. The practice of keeping knowledge for a few, by a few, for enhancing their well being, to the exclusion of others, has been accepted as if that is the only way it can be done for the benefit of all. This practice is in complete contradiction to all the utilitarian humanitarianism spread around under various names, including R2P. Put in a different way: the Ebola epidemic is not just about a health issue. It is about how the best knowledge can be mustered, and shared, for the benefit of all of humanity. Put in yet another way, how all of humanity reacts to a crisis like the Ebola epidemic hinges, crucially, on which narrative of its long history it chooses to accept. People of the Pyramids vs. People of the Spheres In his novel, KMT- In the House of Life –An Epistemic Novel (Per Ankh Cooperative Publisher, 2002. Popenguine. Senegal) the Ghanaan writer Ayi Kwei Armah has described this conflict between those he refers to as Sharers (of knowledge) and Keepers (of knowledge) in ways that are pertinent to how members of humanity could/should be looking at the current Ebola crisis. This excerpt from the above book has appeared in Corinne Kumar’s edited volume Asking We Walk: Book Four: In the time of Spring. Streelekha Publications. Bangalore. 2013
Ayi Kwei Armah goes beyond questioning by imagining griots from those times battling for a different vision and, hence, a different narrative. It is a narrative that shows an Ancient Egyptian society breathing live, seeking itself. In the process of that search, one encounters groups that left behind the pyramids and others that left the spheres as symbols of their vision and understanding of the kind of society they would have liked to see emerge.
Confronting challenges through good and bad times, they began to understand differently how to respond to good times and bad times. As recounted, this story that happened centuries ago in the Nile Valley sounds as if it is going on around us today. On how to deal with the knowledge acquired through that process, two groups emerged: “Some were for sharing; they saw sharing as the solution, the way to forestall disaster. And then there were those who did not see the need to share. They were for keeping knowledge among those who planted it” (Armah,2002:264).
And so, it is easy to see from Armah’s KMT that the battle between those who are willing to share and those who are eager to keep all the benefits of the society to themselves is not something which started 500 years ago, but thousands of years ago. And so the battle lines were drawn between those who looked at knowledge as power and, thus, something to keep for themselves and those who saw greater benefits for everyone by spreading knowledge: “If all society grows in wealth, nothing prevents us from enjoying our share of the general knowledge”. (Armah, 2002:266). The Sharers, then and now, were/are speaking the same language.
Needless to say, those who were/are opposed to sharing knowledge, food, power, –the keepers—found/find all kinds of arguments to reject the principles of sharing. There is no need here to recount all of the arguments going back and forth. Here is how the keepers were making the case for knowledge as a source of power: “Imagine if the entire valley obeyed one king, sustained by keepers of knowledge. It is not only the nobles who would gain. The people themselves would live more safely, their livelihood secure. As for us keepers of knowledge, nothing would separate us from kings. We shall have all the land we need, and slaves to work it for us all our lives.” (Armah: 2002, 270)
The geometrical figure that most faithfully represents the thinking and practice of the keepers is the pyramid while the one that is the most perfect figure for the sharers is the sphere. Asked to explain how such “a balanced system would work”, the sharers responded: “It would begin with an open house, the house of life. In that house all children would be our children, all of us. Since the entire inheritance of society would belong to every child, no gate in our house of life would be closed against the entry of any child.” (Armah, 2002:280)
The keepers and the sharers went back and forth explaining how they would implement the kind of society they envisioned. The dialogue is presented to us as taking place between the pyramid and the sphere. Here is a sample:
“Air fills the world. Knowledge is scarce.” “Sharing it creates more.” “Keeping it gives the keeper great power.” “Power unshared is unstable.” “There is sharing and sharing. At the top of the pyramid the keepers have knowledge in pure form. At the bottom the toilers enjoy the dregs. That is stability.” “The deceptive stability of inert forms. If you want stability containing life, strong enough to contain change, look away from the pyramid. See the sphere.” (Armah, 2002:284)
Further down, the dialogue continued:
“So in your pyramid, reason will not be the guide.” “All power belongs to the king. The valley being unified, the king of the Two Lands is the King of Kings.” “And after he dies?” “He shall not die.” “Now here is a new song.” “Listen well to it. We the companions who work with the warriors are not traitors. We have gone with the men of force not because we love force but because we live by results. The rule of the warriors can be beneficial to us if it brings the results we want, but cannot achieve on our own.” (Armah, 2002:285)
Much later the saga between Sharers and Keepers described by Armah was repeated. It happened between those who wanted to share the commons and those who, through enclosure, wanted to keep the commons for themselves. They would love to turn the earth into a pyramid. The earth, because of how it was built cannot become a pyramid, no matter how hard the keepers try. The earth is the house of life. And as the novel KMT ends, so will the Earth: it shall keep reproducing the House of Life.* It shall keep distilling life, sharing its treasures, make sure that all have access to them. Earth calls for unity, sharing always, all the time. From Armah’s novel, it is possible to look at how the Ebola epidemic is being confronted through the prism of the Sharers of Life vs. the Keepers of Death. For the Sharers of Life, healing and health are not about how quickly to accumulate wealth. On the other hand, in spite of its humanitarian disguises, the Keepers of Death are not interested in the sharing of access to knowledge that will enhance the health of all members of humanity without exception. Despite appearances to the contrary, members of the House of Life continue to live and spread the principles of the sharers that could also be called a language. It is much more than a language, it is a way of living life, or to quote from Armah’s definition: a way of “moving into new beginnings in hopes of creating communities walking the paths of balance, living justice.” (2002:293). In other words, the responses to the Ebola epidemic as exemplified by the most powerful nations of the Planet, on the one hand, and, on the other, by Cuba, do go beyond issues of health.