‘The Child in the Basement’
During the Scholar Mini Seminar I am attending at the 2013 Aspen Ideas Festival, scholars were given a story to read. ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ , by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is a fascinating and heart breaking story at the same time. It is a story of a city where people are very happy, dancing, music, horse racing, drinking and yes, ‘exciting the pleasure of sex beyond all belief’. Omelas City had no rules of the society. Society without monarchy and slavery, no secret police, neither bombs. They had religion but without clergy. The people were happy and their children the happiest.
The story talks of happiness and this ‘happiness is based on a just discrimination of what is necessary, what is neither necessary nor destructive, and what is destructive. In the middle category – that of unnecessary but non-destructive – that of comfort, luxury, exuberance…’ People from neighbouring towns were flowing to Omelas to enjoy. It was a joyous city. People were pausing to listen to a child of nine or ten who was playing a wooden flute. The festival, summer festival was beginning.
It was however happiness built on injustice.
In a basement under one of the beautiful buildings, there was a room without windows, and doors were locked. There was a child. Locked in one corner of the small room, dirty and dark. The child was been fed once a day with kicks. All the people of Omelas knew her existence and that she had to be there. ‘If the child were brought up into the sunlight out of that vile place, if it were cleaned and fed and comforted, that would be a good thing, indeed; but if it were done, in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed’.
These were the terms. Happiness to many at the expense of injustice to one? The people of Omelas accepted these strict and absolute terms. ‘They know that if the wretched one were not there sniveling in the dark, the other one, the flute player, could make no joyful music as young riders line up in their beauty for the race in the sunlight..’. However some people couldn’t stomach this injustice. Their solution? They decided to get out of Omelas. They left Omelas.
Chinua Achebe in ‘Things Fall Apart’ wrote, running away from problems isn’t a solution.
Our seminar moderator asked: ‘Those who left, are they heroes or cowards?’
In our daily lives, I ask: ‘Who is ‘the child in the basement’?
I have been a parliamentarian for almost eight years now and the constant complaints of people against ‘wabunge’ are the perks. – ‘How much do we get paid in comparison to the real work we do?’ Yes. The State keeps us happy. But contrary to Omelas, injustice was to one against the happiness of many. Parliamentarians, in Kenya cunningly dubbed MPigs, are fewer. A handful kept happy at the injustice of the majority. And when asked to act to end this injustice, they won’t as it ends their happiness.
A teacher transferring knowledge to the next generation is paid TSH 270,000 a month while MPigs of Tanzania pocket TSH 330,000 a day. Yes, we know this injustice and we make a lot of noises in the floors of the house. But it is a terrible paradox – can we be less happier in return for justice of the majority? Should they give up this ‘unnecessary income’ and reduce the beers and nyama choma? And the girls (and boys of course) gathering in the capital, that has never really been the capital? As the people of Omelas the MPigs’ tears for the bitter injustice dry out when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality. Even giving up a ‘sitting perk’ is like robbing their entitlement. Failure to reconcile ‘justice with happiness’.
Who is the ‘Child in the Basement’?