31 May 2014

A country is a toy but that’s alright*

My five year old daughter, like any five-year old I suppose, frequently amazes me with random observations and I am never sure if she understands fully how philosophical she is. A few days ago she made a confession: ‘langak venakal mama hithuwe ratak kiyanne toy ekak kiyala’ (until recently I thought “a country” was a toy).

Floored me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she had been right all along, at least as far as most countries are concerned. She will probably learn that in time and will, I hope, explain to me the relevant political economy.
Countries are toys. The word itself is a toy, come to think of it. Whenever it is used without proper reference and substantiation. A name, after all, is nothing but a particular configuration of syllables when that which it refers to is ignored. The term ‘my country’ for example easily legitimizes all kinds of things that could be detrimental to ‘our country’. ‘My country’ when it is spoken of with pride merely romanticizes because no country is as saintly as is often claimed. Histories are bloody and messy, never unblemished. Toys, one observes, are never perfect; they have life-spans, they break down, they often fail to fulfill their promise. 

Forget the name, even the substance associated with ‘country’ often consists of toys in the way they are engaged with. Puerto Rico is a plaything of the USA, and this is true of many unhappy ‘countries’ in this world. The Soviet Bloc was the plaything of the Russian Communist Party, except perhaps for Albania and Yugoslavia. Afghanistan for a long time was a toy over which both the USA and the USSR fought. There are other examples.

I remember reading about a version of King Lear where the old man took a map of his kingdom and arbitrarily tore it up to divide the land among his daughters. What are maps but pieces of land upon which reside people, families, communities, animals and animals? Resident in them are rivers and hills, valleys and waterfalls, minerals, precious stones, soils with certain fertilities, crops and memories. 

‘King Lear’ is a play. It says a lot about ‘countries’ and the unhappiness that results in the play of power.
Let’s take a more ‘real’ example. Take the continent of Africa. Check it out on a world map. Observe how straight some national boundaries are. Nature is never so clinical as to design river or mountain in the kind of geometry that allows for such perfect demarcation. For someone Africa was a toy. For some it still is.

What was Vietnam and Cambodia, what is Iraq today and what will Iran be tomorrow? Countries? Forget it. Playthings, toys. 

Take globalization, that process which is supposed to turn us all into inhabitants in a global village. It is about erasing boundaries, obliterating difference and diversity. What meaning, then, can we attach to the label ‘country’? None. If the World Bank, IMF, the WTO and ADB (not forgetting of course USAID) design national policy, what then of nation, what then of national reconciliation, national question, national consensus? 

I want my daughter to learn all this and maybe she will. I hope also that she will someday learn that countries are toys for a different reason as well. She will perhaps understand what her grandfather meant when he said ‘the sky doesn’t become less private although it belongs to everyone’.
The air that passes through her fingers, catches her hair and brushes against her face, she will someday learn, has a certain percentage of oxygen but this does not prevent it being described in terms of fragrance and temperature. Countries are like that. They are other people’s toys, true, but they are our toys as well. Toys break, but they can be made again. Toys can be carelessly handled, but they can be taken care of, loved, treated like one treats an old friend, made to interact with one another, caressed. 

Toys are not inanimate. They are not devoid of character. So too countries. Pieces of sky are no different from kites. Ships no different from paper boats. Dolls and dolls houses are people and housing schemes. My daughter knows this for she has endless conversations with her little pink teddy bear about who she says ‘eya pinky bear nemei, eya pinky baba!’ (she’s not “pinky bear,” she’s “pinky baby”). 

Toys can be abused, countries too. Toys can be taken apart and the broken pieces thrown away. The same with coutries. Toys can be the greatest source of joy, the greatest friends. Countries too. Perhaps the little girl will re-learn that a rata is actually a toy and that this fact shouldn’t bother us too much as long as we are careful about how we touch, pick up and otherwise interact with and understand our little paper boats, sand castles, kites, kos kola crowns and the hundreds of other joy-givers we loosely call ‘toys’.

*First published in 'The Nation' in October 2006