Thanks to African values and community spirit, we don't need minister of loneliness

Fred Khumalo Watching You
The British government under Prime Minister Theresa May appointed its first minister of loneliness in January this year, the world's first political appointment of this kind. /AFP PHOTO/PRU
The British government under Prime Minister Theresa May appointed its first minister of loneliness in January this year, the world's first political appointment of this kind. /AFP PHOTO/PRU

In addition to being the eldest of eight children, I grew up in a home that was a transit camp of uncles, aunts and all sorts of relatives who came from different parts of KZN.

They squatted with us until they either found work in Durban, or established their own homes nearby.

This experience was of course not unique to us. At all the houses in the neighbourhood, people were forever moving in and out. The streets were vibrant. Football clubs and singing groups mushroomed all over the place.

Even if you were an intrinsically shy person like myself you simply couldn't avoid people. They were always in your face. Loud, cheerful, rude, kind, naughty, dangerous, all kinds of people paraded the streets, the church halls, the school premises, the football fields.

I suppose it was because I revelled in this vivacity that I decided to study journalism, the better to stay in the thick of things; to observe people and comment on them and their idiosyncrasies.

I guess it is against this background that I laughed my head off when the government of Theresa May in Britain appointed its first minister of loneliness in January. At first blush, the idea invites ribaldry. But it begins to make sense when you consider that in the West some couples meet through an online dating agency, start courting through cyberspace, only to meet for the first time in the flesh on the day of their wedding.

I can never recall being lonely in my life. Except, perhaps, when I lived for a while overseas away from my family, from my friends.

But, even then, the minute I realised I was beginning to talk to myself, I decided to venture out and meet people. That way I began to befriend South Africans who were exiles then. Those interactions, some of which resulted in lifetime friendships which endure to this day, put paid to my loneliness.

According to a 2017 report published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, more than 9-million people in the UK often or always feel lonely. That's shocking.

What I have observed about Westerners, the Europeans more than the Americans, is that they are rather stiff.

To them, it is an onerous task to sidle up to a person inside a bar and strike up a conversation. They'd rather spend the entire night at a bar staring deep into their glass; or tweeting jokes to people they'd probably never meet in person.

In my opinion, the famed British stiff upper lip and individualism which is the underpinning of Western society - especially the middle classes - are two of the factors that give rise to loneliness.

I also want to posit a controversial point: social media has also helped confuse the picture of human interactions.

A person in the West will be content in the knowledge that he has thousands of online friends, none of whom he's really met. To them he's just a collection of pixels on a phone screen - not a flesh and blood being who can laugh and get angry. When the chips are down, that individual with so many "friends" will one day, out of frustration which he can't discuss with anyone, have the muzzle of his gun for a midnight snack.

While we in Africa are grappling with what we consider "real" problems - poverty, disease, wars - the spoilt brats of the West are complaining about what we might consider a laughable indulgence.

We have to treasure our families and communities that give us hope in a hopeless world. Let's strengthen these structures through education and an undying thirst for knowledge. Let's value our elderly, as we've always done.

My erstwhile home Canada is about to appoint its own minister of loneliness. Thank God I never made that country my permanent home although it was tempting. Minister of loneliness, urgh!

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