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Lemming-like Instinct by Evans Simubali

The theory and practice of human rights in the context of some schools in Zambia has been grossly misinterpreted. Perhaps this is due to little enlightenment on the matter. According to the website, “Human rights are
rights and freedoms to which all humans are entitled. Proponents of the concept usually assert that everyone is endowed with certain entitlements, merely by reason of being human. Human rights are thus conceived in a universalist and egalitarian fashion. Such entitlements can exist as shared norms of actual human moralities, as justified moral norms or natural rights supported by strong reasons or as legal rights either at a national level or within international law. However, there is no consensus as to the precise nature of what in particular should or should not be regarded as a human right in any of the preceding senses, and the abstract concept of human rights has been a subject of intense philosophical debate and criticism.”

Clearly, the reasons for human rights are humane, noble, just and worthy for they provide an enabling environment for all people to think and act freely and constructively, an indispensable element in the fulfilment of one’s potential. Unfortunately Human Rights is an abstract and elusive concept, and the fact that it is subjective has brought about a multiplicity of grey areas, thus causing the devil to have a field day.

Zambia is not an island. It is part and parcel of the international community. As a matter of fact, the country is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Over the years the government and other stakeholders have demonstrated an inflexible will to create awareness of human rights among pupils, for instance, by introducing civic education in high schools.

The challenge is how to teach pupils to strike a balance between rights and responsibilities. Zambian pupils, and perhaps African pupils in general, need a mental balanced diet to prevent civic malnutrition. They need mind building tips, muscular thinking strategies that will inculcate a growing awareness of their responsibilities as asserts in the crusade. They also need figurative weapons of mass destruction, the protective urges against tendencies that might encroach on their rights and freedoms. Moreover, they need the strength and determination to strike blows for justice and fair play.

In The Post, Zambia’s leading newspaper( dated October 5, 2010(World Teachers’ Day), a story is told about “a Kitwe’s Muchunga High School pupil who slapped her mathematics teacher..” Whatever the reason for the id-urged act, one thing is clear; if pupils do not grasp the reality of human rights, either the field of education will go to the dogs or the dogs will come to the field of education.

It must be emphasized that human rights are for all people—teachers and pupils alike. In trying to protect the rights of pupils in schools, we may wittingly or unwittingly, multiply the leaders of tomorrow by zero by making them believe that they are more human than their teachers are---highway to hell.

Pupils cannot just slap teachers from nowhere without first of all being allowed to do ‘smaller wrongs’ such as pointing fingers at them. They are, as it were, given a tea spoon of mischief before they have a feast of it. It is possible that Muchunga High School pupils were unpunctual for lessons, were in improper uniforms, among other taboos, without feeling the weight of teachers. It is also possible that the little fellows ended up being lazy in the name of their ‘right to rest’, and eventually began to associate hardwork with slavery, and idleness with happiness. It is possible that, when the teachers---who, by the way, are also human—take disciplinary measures against pupils, the powers that be in the ministry of education misdirect their powers and reinstate these enemies of virtue in the school; yet provision of education is a virtuous act.

The girl who beat her mathematics teacher has set a horrible example for other pupils to follow. It will not be surprising if the whole school jumps on the band wagon of flying in the face of teachers, in which case the floodgates of untold indiscipline will be wide open. How will millennium development goals, such as education for all by the year 2015, be achieved if schools turn into battle fields between teachers and pupils?

Concerning the unpalatable Muchunga High School incident, there are more questions than anybody can answer. For example, what will be the relationship between that girl(a girl for that matter) and the mathematics teacher she slapped? Won’t it be a chain reaction? Won’t the teacher refuse to teach the girl? Won’t the girl fail in mathematics, a subject with an irreplaceable place in the world owing to global technological demands?

Won’t the whole world be robbed of what would otherwise be the girl’s input to complete the maximum sustainable human development jigsaw puzzle? Won’t the embattled teacher’s teaching spirit be dwarfed at the expense of innocent pupils? What will be the reaction of parents, of the government and of non-governmental organizations to the unceremonious incident?

I have been a high school teacher in Zambia for 20 years. From my experience, one of the
reasons why high schools in the country are hard to manage is the abolition of corporal punishment. I do not condone corporal punishment. Given one stroke of the cane, I can go on whimpering for the whole day. I know the general negative effect of corporal punishment from a universal perspective; it is inhuman. Indeed it is contrary to human rights. The problem is that in most countries where it has been abolished, it has not been replaced by anything of equal value.

From a Zambian point of view, and I guess, from an African point of view, maintaining discipline in schools without corporal punishment is like building castles in the air. My passionate appeal to the world is that we should accept what some people call the unacceptable. In my estimation the African interpretation of human rights is different from that of Europeans and Americans. Child abuse in an American or European sense may just be training for adult roles in an African sense, because of different socio-economic environments. I therefore ask all well-meaning human rights activists to approach the teaching with great sensitivity to a tissue of grey areas surrounding the concept, and to approach their work with a great deal of give and take or else it will have a dehumanizing effect. We do not want to hear of two pupils punching each other over conflicting human rights. One can say he has the right to loud music and the other one can say he has the right to a quiet environment at the same time and place. This can result in an exchange of blows, like two boxing heavyweight rivals, each one intending to knock out the other. Most of the high school pupils are adolescents who, upon hearing the ‘Right Turn!’, ‘Left Turn!’ or ‘About Turn!’ of their hormones, behave according to the commands. These are the fellows who can dance to any tune of mob psychology. Some of them are too smart to clean their own toilets but are smart enough to use the smartest toilets in the world. Adolescents are in a make-or-break stage in life. If they are not given a firm hand, they may be destined for a breaking point.

We must not be cartoons in a situation which is real. We must not be cheap players in a paradoxical game, going round in education-provision circles in different directions and injuring each other in the process.

In summary, education for all by the year 2015 will not drop like manna from heaven anywhere in the world. Its fulfilment will necessitate concerted effort of various stakeholders. Misrepresentation of facts about human rights will be one of the drawbacks
in this world endeavour. If we are not careful, we will be talking about it, but tolerating tendencies that will make us stumble and fall by the wayside under the pretext of human rights. Let us not take a dangerous course, possessed by some lemming-like instinct for self –destruction.