Sunday, 26 May 2013

Baboon Talk

It is widely known that the baboon is capable of speech. Naturally, people of European descent do not accept this as fact, and treat the claim with scorn. That no white person has ever been able to engage a baboon in conversation does not, however, prove that baboons are unable to speak. What it means is that baboons are unwilling to reveal their verbal capacity to non-Africans.  It was decided a long time ago that it would not be in the primates’ interest to learn to communicate with European settlers. But many baboons are fluent in at least one of the Bantu languages, depending on the geographical distribution of their troop.

To explain this selective reticence one must go back to the time when Europeans first set foot in Africa. Baboons were able to observe the interactions between the indigenous people and the new arrivals, and soon it became clear that the newcomers were intent on simultaneously enslaving the people and exterminating the animals of Africa. The baboons were faced with a dilemma. Should they reveal their true cognitive potential and make themselves useful to the settlers, thereby gaining some degree of protection, or should they continue to act dumb in order to avoid the degradation and humiliation being suffered by the blacks, and as a consequence face decimation?

It was a difficult choice to make, but the cruelty of the colonists in the way they subjugated the blacks, drove them off their land, and condemned them to a life of menial labour and poverty, convinced the baboons that the risk of annihilation was preferable to the ignominious fate imposed on the blacks. They vowed to conceal their speech faculty and successfully avoided being put to work by the whites.


The intention behind this fable is ambivalent, especially if read in the context of present day South Africa. Yes, the European is portrayed as an invader whose inhumanity is evident to all, even the animals. But there is a hint of self-deprecation here too. If the baboons were smart enough to dupe the colonists, why were the people of Africa,who are surely smarter than baboons, not able to resist foreign domination in the first instance, and, more disconcertingly, how is it that they have not been able to close the social and economic gap between the black majority and white minority? Even after nineteen years of liberation, democracy and political ascendancy? Maybe this story supports the suggestion that Africans continue to think like victims and remain hamstrung by a misplaced sense of inferiority.

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