OCHIENG: In our situation, food and politics are likely to ‘mix’


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In a social situation already as slippery as a conger eel, the newspapers would greatly help the government to ensure social stability by not adding unnecessary salt to their stories, especially to their headlines, about ethnic and other social clashes.

Take the page one “splash” headline in one of Nairobi’s daily newspapers on Friday. “Explosive food, politics mix”, The Standard howled. 

But the question was: How many of the newspaper’s  readers really understood those words? What did they mean?

I ask because immediate comprehensibility is the paramount issue for all of a newspaper’s copy producers, copy processors and headline writers.

A headline is like the title of a book. The headline is what really sells any news item or feature article.

In an intelligent reader’s mind, the question that The Standard’s headline would have raised was this: Was it really a “food, politics mix”?  What on our earth is a “food, politics mix”? And at what point had that “mix” become “explosive”?

Nay, even in the Third World, is it really news whenever food becomes the day’s main topic of heated politics?

Nay, more. Such a pass often occasions an ugly clash between a conglomeration of human beings and a police squad for whom gun-toting and teargas canisters are what the God Jehovah ordained from his palace “on high”. 

Indeed, in a country where millions live on the verge of starvation, food and politics are bound to “mix” and in such a way as to occasion a nationally debilitating social explosion.

It is what even the most ignorant Third World coup maker – such as a certain Idi Amin Dada in Uganda once upon a time and his many counterparts in West Africa and South America – has usually exploited.

In a word, mass hunger is the chief reason that the Third World is in a never-ending political vortex and social turmoil.

Thus if – like me – headline writing has always been your profession, you readily know what itched the Standard’s sub-editor concerned into adding the words: “Too hot to handle”.

It is like a cook adding condiment to the special dish that he or she is preparing for his or her allegedly “esteemed guests”.

The hostess is under mental “peer  pressure”  to turn the dish into what a German menu specialist might call a leckerlecker, what an American advertising copy writer might enthuse over as “finger-lickin’ good”.

Being much more imaginative with the words that the English colonist once taught his and her grandparents, the same American advertising copy producer might urge you to use your fingers, rather than your knives and forks, because fingers usually make you feel much closer to your food than forks and knives will ever do.

This ease at table was one of the most important practical teachings that I readily imbibed throughout my four years as an undergraduate student in downtown Chicago in the early 1960s.

Most formal meal occasions here in Nairobi make you pay more attention to protocol and “propriety” than to the much more important business of  enjoying your food.

It is the reason that, for meals, I feel much more at home in a company of Americans than in a company of Britons and other Europeans, especially if they are members of the bourgeoisie, a  class which is for ever self-condemned to copying the table manners of a long-dead class called aristocracy.

This is what the French writer Moliere is laughing at in his theatre piece Le bourgeois gentilhomme, a title deliberately mistranslated into English as The would-be gentleman to kill Moliere’s attack on Europe’s class prejudices.

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