De mortuis nil nisi bonum is a useful little Latin phrase which sounds rather like it was pronounced by some African sage of antiquity. It means that nothing but good should be said of the dead. It is fair, and it sits well with the principle of what they call “natural justice,” which requires us to hear the accused person before judgement is passed on him or her.
This goes against the grain of what Shakespeare caused Marcus Antonius to say in Julius Caesar when he declared, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones,” but we should know that Marcus was making an impassioned plea for his friend, the butchered Julius, with the intention of putting a “tongue in every wound of Caesar that should move the stones of Rome to rise and mutiny.”
You may ask me why I have come up with this thought at this juncture, and I will answer that it is apropos of nothing at all, except that we are compelled to think of our passing from time to time, because mortality is so much a part of our being that it may be said to be the primary reason that brought us here.
In other words, we are born to die, the only difference between us being what we do between cradle and shroud.
That the dead should not be badmouthed because they are not around to defend themselves is a fair injunction, but I suspect that makes Africans in particular to venerate the departed is the belief in spirits, which we believe are the immaterial state of those who once lived among us but today occupy a higher ground and possess powers which might harm us if we disrespect them.
LOVE AND RESPECT
Be that as it may, I incline to think that there should be a trade-off between the living and the dead. If your life is characterised by love and respect, fairness and justice; if you do good to fellow human beings and endeavour to make everyone happy regardless of whether they are part of your family or not, then we may have the obligation to treat you with reverence once you turn into a spirit.
But that will not apply if you have been a bully, a brute, a murderer, a cheat, a thief, if you have caused nothing but misery to those around you.
In that case, those you leave behind have the right — nay, the duty — to say that you were a scoundrel.
Honestly, I think this is a fair deal for all of us, and I believe it would help civilise those in power above anyone else.
In our normal lives, it is natural to defer to those who, through means foul or fair, are in charge of our lives. Some of them are lovable, good human beings who strive to work for us, even if from time to time they prove to be all too human.
But others do not deserve an iota of love or respect, and the only way they can hope to receive them from their constituents is through coercion.
Thus, they force their people to express their ‘undying love’ for them the same way they force their countries’ wealth into their pockets.
It is as if a band of brigands in a ‘Western’ movie has stormed into a frontier village and is systematically looting every house, salon and store, while at the same time the villagers have been forced into the square to sing in praise of the bandidos, saying how nice and generous they are.
Now, we should sympathise with the villagers who have been forced to chant for the gang robbing them.
But once the marauders have left after they have looted and raped to their satisfaction, if the villagers continue singing those songs, we will be excused for thinking they are a bunch of crazed idiots.
In a properly ordered community, the robbers should have met an organised group of young men and women to resist them and give them a deserved good hiding.
That this did not happen, maybe because the attack was sudden and unexpected, can be understood.
But should the brigands perish while crossing a raging river on their way back to their homes, totally unconnected to any action by the robbed village, the victims should consider the deaths of the gangsters as a brilliant career move.
Jenerali Ulimwengu is chairman of the board of the Raia Mwema newspaper and an advocate of the High Court in Dar es Salaam. E-mail: [email protected]