Written by Samwel Ndandala
On 17 December 2011, a young street vendor in Tunisia went about selling his wares. He had contracted about USD 200 of a loan the previous day to buy his produce. His name was Mohamed Bouazizi, he had been a victim on police harassment and they were back again that day. Since he had no money to bribe them, they confiscated his wares. According to his family, a 45 year old female police official named Faida Hamdi slapped him, spat at him, confiscated his electronic weighing scale and tossed aside his cart. Mohamed was distraught.
Mohamed ran to the governor’s office to complain and to ask for his scales back. The governor was not interested is seeing him. ‘‘How do you expect me to make a living?’’ he lamented, ‘‘If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself.’’ The governor did not bulge. A few minutes later, the governor found out that Mohamed was not bluffing. He went to a nearby gasoline outlet, when he came back, he stood in the middle of the traffic and set himself alight. When they finally managed to put out the fire, 90% of his body was burned. In a few days, Mohamed was dead.
Mohamed’s act of despair shook Tunisia. Massive protests erupted which led to the end of 23 year rule of President Zine Ben-Ali. Energized by the events in Tunisia, the Egyptians took to the streets. In less than a month, Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year reign had crumbled. The wave swept the entire region, In Libya; 42 years of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule fell. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh was overthrown after 12 years in power. A 19 year old state of emergency was lifted in Algeria. Iraq’s prime minister promised to not run for a third term and Jordan’s prime minister was fired. How do the mighty fall? Did Mohamed Bouazizi know what fire he was about to unleash that morning?
About 56 years before Mohamed’s death, December 1, 1955, an unknown young black woman gets on a bus in Montgomery, a city with racial segregation laws in Alabama. She sits in the middle of the bus, on the first row of the seats allocated to black people. The bus fills up and there is a white passenger standing. The conductor walks up to her row and asks the ‘colored’ people to vacate their seats. A black man on her side gets up, obeying the law. She refuses. She is tired, not just physically; she is tired of the humiliation of segregation. She is threatened of arrest but she is still defiant. The conductor calls the police and she is arrested.
That arrest causes an outrage; it unleashes a boycott which we now know as the ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott’. It propels a young preacher turned civil right leader named Martin Luther King Jr. to stardom and it tilts the whole civil rights movement in the direction of justice. She never thought of her actions as ‘heroic’ but they’ll be talking about her 100 years from now. Her name is Rosa Parks. Did she know what she was about to ignite when she refused to relinquish her seat?
On an April 27, 2014 evening, a beautiful game of football is in progress. Spanish giants, Barcelona football club are playing Villarreal. Barcelona attacks, they win a corner kick. A Brazilian defender named Dani Alves steps to take the corner. He has been a victim of racial abuse before. A racist Villarreal supporter does a denigrating act. He throws a banana at Dani Alves. That is to say he is a monkey. Alves, takes the banana, peels it and takes a bite. He throws it away and takes the corner.
In a few hours, this act of ‘humor’ goes viral. A new movement is started; ‘We are all monkeys’. Other players join in taking pictures with bananas, from Luis Suarez to Mario Balotelli. A symbol of racism is now a symbol of solidarity. Leaders join in. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and Italy’s national football coach take a picture with their peeled banana to show solidarity. FIFA’s president comes out condemning racism. The racist Villarreal supporter is identified and given a life time ban from the stadium.
Was Dani Alves trying to start a movement as he saw that banana? I think the answer is an emphatic no. When asked why he did what he did, here is what he said, ‘‘we have suffered this in Spain for some time. You have to take it with a dose of humour. We aren’t going to change things easily. If you don’t give it importance, they don’t achieve their objective.’’ Dani Alves was trying to trivialise the racist act. That was his was of fighting racism, what followed was anything but trivial.
What do Mohamed Bouazizi, Rosa Parks and Dani Alves have in common? I believe there are three things. 1). They were all victim of some kind of a humiliating injustice. Two of those injustices had a racial form and the other one had a societal form. 2) They all did something unorthodox, but more importantly they did not have a grandiose idea of a new social movement. 3) Their actions became what Malcom Gladwell describes as a ‘tipping point’ in a book by the same title, a point where massive change begins to happen. Segregation had been around for decades in the United States, bananas have been thrown before on players and this was not the first time the people in the Middle-East encountered oppression.
Somebody somewhere is starting a revolution. The beautiful thing is that they do not even know it. It is likely that the next movement will not be started by a politician but a common unknown person. This should be a reason for optimism for all of us. It should also be a wake-up call for those in charge, those leaders clinging to the status quo. The ‘straw that break the camel’s back’ might be the small insignificant act whose true weight might not be comprehended by the time of its happening.
By all manner of definition, Mohamed Bouazizi is a martyr, Rosa Parks is a historical figure and Dani Alves is an activist for racial equality. However, they did not set out to be those things. They are revolutionaries who were oblivious to the disruption that they were about to unleash. I suppose what I am trying to say is that we can all make this world a much better place to inhabit with our small, seemingly insignificant actions.